Every year, the Sundance Film Festival shows about 200 features, documentaries and shorts. Last year, the festival was the launching pad for Oscar-nominated films Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sessions, and Searching for Sugar Man, not to mention that it premiered modest indie hits like Sleepwalk With Me, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Arbitrage. This year's festival kicks off Thursday night, and while there's no way of knowing exactly what may be the breakout sensations, here are 10 films I'm particularly excited to see:
When last we saw them in Paris, Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) were hanging out at her apartment, Celine dancing seductively and Jesse deciding if he really wanted to catch the flight that would take him home to his wife and child. That was 2004's Before Sunset, and now director Richard Linklater and his stars have reunited for Before Midnight, which finds Celine and Jesse meeting up in Greece. Because Before Sunset was just about perfect—a sequel to Before Sunrise but even more poignant and romantic—it's tempting to wish that they'd leave well enough alone. But for anyone who loved the first two movies and those characters, how can you not want to know how they're doing now?
One of the more contentious U.S. Dramatic Competition winners of recent years was Like Crazy, a romantic drama about passionate young lovers (Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin) who can't decide if they'd be better off without each other. Some appreciated the movie's nonjudgmental tone toward its irrational, moody characters, while others just found the two of them insufferable. Director Drake Doremus is back with his follow-up film, which features Jones, Guy Pearce, and Amy Ryan. It again sounds like a hot-blooded affair, as a foreign-exchange student's arrival into a family causes all kinds of unexpected consequences.
The NEXT section of the festival spotlights challenging, quirky, or odd low-budget fare. (It's a weird section that last year found room for both the very dark Compliance and the very light Sleepwalk With Me.) One of the potential highlights of this year's NEXT is Computer Chess, the latest from don't-call-it-mumblecore filmmaker Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax, Funny Ha Ha). Computer Chess seems to be his most ambitious effort, looking at a group of tech nerds in 1980 who are working on a program that will allow a computer to beat a human at chess. Bujalski's films tend to be smart, dialogue-driven character pieces, but none of them has had much of a commercial hook. Could his new film help him find a wider audience?
Don Jon's Addiction
It's hard to think of an indie darling more beloved at the moment than Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He stars in cool Sundance films like (500) Days of Summer while at the same time appearing in higher-profile flicks by respected auteur filmmakers like Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) and Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises). And now he's made his feature directorial debut. Don Jon's Addiction stars him as a womanizing cad who wants to find more meaning in life. He's assembled a cast that includes Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, and Tony Danza, and even if the film isn't well-liked, he'll still be a major presence at the festival's closing awards ceremony. (He's hosting the event.)
This movie would have been interesting enough because of its topical premise: a behind-the-scenes look at the rise of a young Steve Jobs. But what elevates jOBS into the "Huh, OK ..." category is the casting of Ashton Kutcher as Jobs. Kutcher has tried showing his serious side before—he was at the festival in 2009 with the poorly received Spread, about a gigolo—and the combination of fascinating subject and unconventional casting makes the movie undeniably intriguing. If all goes right, we'll see Kutcher in a new light. (Remember: Before the Sundance hit Precious, no one thought Mo'Nique had such chops.) If it doesn't, jOBS may be remembered as the movie with the wEIRD tITLE.
The Look of Love
Prolific filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has worked with Steve Coogan several times before (24 Hour Party People, the underrated The Trip). Their latest collaboration tells the true-life story of Paul Raymond, a British entrepreneur who, starting in the 1950s, made his fortune through adult magazines and erotic clubs. Raymond's story has the makings of a traditional rags-to-riches biopic with a side order of The People Vs. Larry Flynt-style commentary about sexual freedom, but Winterbottom almost never tells a story in a traditional way. And, interestingly, this isn't the only Sundance entry this year concerning the lives of those in the porn industry ...
At one point, there were going to be dueling biopics about porn star Linda Lovelace. One of them, which initially cast Lindsay Lohan before firing her and switching to Malin Akerman, seems to have lost momentum. The other is arriving at Sundance and stars Amanda Seyfried. Lovelace is directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who previously collaborated on the offbeat Sundance entry Howl, a sorta biopic that starred James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. For years, Seyfried has been poised to become a breakout star, but it's never quite happened. This movie would appear to be her big swing for the fences to be taken seriously as a dramatic, award-worthy actress.
Writer-director Lynn Shelton has been on a hot streak. 2009's Sundance entry Humpday took a provocative premise (two longtime straight male friends dare each other to star in a porno together) and turned into a thoughtful, realistic comedy-drama about friendship and marriage. Then last year's Your Sister's Sister examined sibling bonds and platonic male-female relationships with great performances and clever, improvised dialogue. Shelton is back with Touchy Feely, which features her Your Sister's Sister co-star Rosemarie DeWitt alongside Scoot McNairy, Alison Janney, and Ellen Page. It's again a story about family, but this time the story revolves around a massage therapist who mysteriously develops an aversion to touching other people, which throws her entire life into chaos.
Writer-director Shane Carruth has made only one film, but it was Primer, the twisty, low-budget time-travel film that won the U.S. Dramatic Competition in 2004. Nine years later, he's back in the Dramatic Competition with Upstream Color. Here's the plot line: "A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives." Yes, that doesn't make a lot of sense, but if Primer was any indication, Carruth enjoys confounding the audience with his coldly elegant riddles. (Years later, people are still trying to unlock all of Primer's mysteries.) His fans have long waited for this follow-up film. In less than a week, we'll know if he delivered.
Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington
Journalist Sebastian Junger (right) collaborated with combat photographer Tim Hetherington on the superb 2010 documentary Restrepo, which chronicled the lives of U.S. soldiers stationed in the dangerous Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. Shortly after the film lost at the Academy Awards for Best Documentary, Hetherington was killed while covering the Libyan civil war. Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? is Junger's ode to his fallen friend, who made his name by putting himself into the most deadly places on Earth. Restrepo premiered at Sundance; it seems fitting that Which Way be unveiled in Park City as well.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.