The Sundance Film Festival, which gets underway Thursday, is divided into lots of different sections. (For instance, there's the U.S. Dramatic Competition, the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, the U.S. and World Cinema documentary sections, and the Midnight films.) But for most outsiders, there are really two categories of Sundance movies: the ones with tons of indie stars (like The Way Way Back and Ain't Them Bodies Saints) and the ones with relative unknowns (buzzed-about critical hits Computer Chess, This Is Martin Bonner, and Blue Caprice). So picking a list of the must-see Sundance titles is always tough: Do you go with movies that have actors you like, or do you veer toward the really intriguing loglines? I'm gonna skip the highly anticipated Boyhood and Life Itself since we covered those already, and focus on 10 other films that could be really great.
The downside to becoming a young star in a cheesy franchise is that, if you're not careful, people will forget that you can actually act. Twilight's Kristen Stewart has been good in everything from Into the Wild to On the Road, and yet because of her Twilight baggage, her appearance in Camp X-Ray might seem like another of those lightweight-actors-trying-to-stretch dramatic vehicles. The subject matter is certainly heavy enough: Stewart plays a military recruit who gets assigned to work as a guard at Guantanamo Bay, where she becomes friends with one of the detainees. Stewart is working with a first-time feature filmmaker, writer-director Peter Sattler, so there's a high degree of uncertainty going into this project. But if Camp X-Ray is great, it's the sort of feel-good indie revelation that Sundance loves championing.
Dear White People
In 2012, rookie writer-director Justin Simien raised awareness for the film he was trying to fund—a satire about a group of African-American students at a largely white Ivy League school—by releasing a video trailer that soon went viral. Now that film, Dear White People, will premiere in Sundance's U.S. Dramatic competition. The comedy, which partly concerns a riot that occurs after a white fraternity throws an offensive African American-themed party, is said to be an ensemble film, and Simien has referenced the early movies of Spike Lee as his influence. The man's riding a wave of hype—now we'll see if he can deliver.
Sundance has been a launching pad for engaging, intelligent documentaries like 20 Feet From Stardom and Blackfish. It's possible that Dinosaur 13 could perform just as well: It tells the story of the battle over the discovery of a complete T-Rex skeleton in South Dakota in 1990. But what makes director Todd Miller's movie intriguing are the purported twists and turns—how everyone from the National Guard to museums to Native American tribes feuded over who had ownership of the bones. There will almost certainly be more searing, devastating, innovative documentaries playing Sundance, but Dinosaur 13 sounds like it'll be really fun.
That's Michael Fassbender in the middle. He plays Frank, a weirdo musician who goes around wearing a fake head. Frank also stars Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan Gleeson's son), Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Scoot McNairy, and it seems to be part musical, part bizarre character piece, and part showbiz satire. But it's primarily going to be known by the shorthand "Oh, that movie where Michael Fassbender walks around with a fake head."
Listen Up Philip
Before writing and directing Listen Up Philip, filmmaker Alex Ross Perry created The Color Wheel, a great low-budget dark comedy about a reunited brother and sister who as adults exhibit an edgy discomfort around each other. (In the film's finale, we find out why.) Listen Up Philip doesn't seem like it's going to be any less misanthropic: It's about an obnoxious but talented author (Jason Schwartzman) who's waiting for his new novel to be released and watching his relationship (to Elisabeth Moss) unravel. Listen Up Philip sounds like it's part of the great-authors-are-terrible-people genre that also includes Deconstructing Harry and Wonder Boys. It'll be interesting to see how Perry's caustic style works with a more high-profile cast that also includes Jonathan Pryce and Krysten Ritter.
Though I supported Obama in the 2012 presidential election, I never considered his challenger, Mitt Romney, to be the monster that some Democrats tried to paint him as. (At worst, the guy's wealth cut him off from the realities of most Americans. He was clueless but not evil.) So I'm curious about this documentary, which purports to show the more personal side of Romney while on the campaign trail. I'm hoping for neither a puff piece nor an easy hit job—just a look at how the modern-day politician balances family, campaign events, and the media.
A Most Wanted Man
Rock photographer-turned-filmmaker Anton Corbijn is two-for-two as a director, responsible for Control (about Joy Division's Ian Curtis) and The American. His third film seems like a slam dunk as well: an adaptation of a John le Carré novel that stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Robin Wright. But Corbijn has always been more about mood than plot, which is why a lot of people hated The American. (They were expecting a George Clooney-like Bond thriller and instead got a chilly character study.) Will Corbijn's latest be yet another of his films that critics love but turns off everyone else?
The Raid 2
No matter what you thought of The Raid, there was no question that the movie's violence was gratuitous. That was one of its great charms—the body count and blood flow were incredibly liberating. Filmmaker Gareth Evans returns with a second installment that, amazingly, is said to be 148 minutes long. That is a lot of cracked skulls and terse subtitled dialogue.
The Trip to Italy
The Trip, which starred comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as exaggerated versions of themselves, has spawned a sequel. The new film finds the two friendly, yet competitive men once again traveling through gorgeous locales—Italy instead of England this time—and riffing on whatever comes to mind. (Apparently, there will be more battles over who can do the better impersonation of certain celebrities.) The first Trip was a very funny but also nicely touching look at aging, career, and male friendship. It felt like a bit of a fluke: Here's hoping Coogan, Brydon, and returning director Michael Winterbottom bring back enough of the old magic.
Miles Teller has been on a bit of a roll after his charming turn in the Footloose remake and The Spectacular Now. (I even enjoyed him in the miserable Project X.) He's the main reason I'm excited about Whiplash, where he plays a dedicated drum student who falls under the tutelage of a demanding music teacher. The other reason I'm excited is that the teacher is played by J.K. Simmons, a fine character actor who doesn't get to play leading roles often enough. Whiplash could be that opportunity. At worst, this could be another inspirational student/teacher drama, but the casting makes me hopeful for far more than just that.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.