If the Oscar prognosticators are correct, next month Boyhood will become the first film to both premiere at Sundance and win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Last year's festival had plenty of other highlights, too—Whiplash, Life Itself, The Raid 2, The Overnighters, A Most Wanted Man—so as we get ready for this year's edition, which starts Thursday, it's hard to pick just 10 movies I'm excited to see while I'm in Park City. But below are the titles that look the most intriguing—along with a couple of movies that are awfully interesting counterpoints.
One of this year's most starry/prestigious entries tells the story of the unlikely friendship that developed between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). It's directed by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) and written by Donald Margulies (who won the Pulitzer for his play Dinner With Friends). Some Sundance films struggle to get on people's radars; this one, on the other hand, will have to contend with high expectations, not to mention the concerns of Wallace fans who wonder if Segel will do him justice.
Two high-profile films will play Sundance that focus on shocking real-life scientific studies. The Stanford Prison Experiment, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez (the underrated gem C.O.G.), stars Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, and Olivia Thirlby. But I'm also really curious about Experimenter, which chronicles the 1961 study conducted by Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), who would have his subjects administer electric shocks on strangers. (More often than not, the subjects continued to do it—even though the unseen victims would beg them to stop—because they were told by the experimenters to keep going.) Bonus points if Experimenter incorporates the Peter Gabriel song inspired by the study.
Prolific Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney ( The Armstrong Lie, Taxi to the Dark Side) now sets his sights on Scientology. Going Clear, inspired by Lawrence Wright's book of the same name, interviews a series of former Scientologists to learn how the church recruits and retains members. Expect to hear a lot about this one over the next several months, especially if it turns out to be great.
James Franco has two potentially provocative Sundance films, the other being True Story, a real-life drama with Jonah Hill about Michael Finkel and Christian Longo. But I Am Michael could be even better: It's also a true story, about gay-rights activist Michael Glatze, who, back in 2007, became a hardcore Christian preaching about the evils of homosexuality. The film would be a lightning rod simply because of the content, but Franco's involvement will only intensify the scrutiny and anticipation.
Seventeen years ago at Sundance, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield was set to premiere Kurt & Courtney—his film that investigated whether Courtney Love had her husband Kurt Cobain murdered and made it look like suicide—but Love threatened to sue the festival. That film got pulled, but this year, a Love-approved documentary about the Nirvana leader will be hitting Park City. Director Brett Morgen (who made one of the best "30 for 30" docs with June 17th, 1994) unveils Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which will incorporate the musician's personal archives. As always with authorized documentaries, the question is whether the greater access will result in more insight, or simple hagiography.
Has any actor had more bad career luck over the last few years than Ryan Reynolds? When he does dramatic (The Captive), the film sinks without a trace. When he goes for the blockbuster (R.I.P.D., Green Lantern), it's a commercial disappointment. So fingers crossed things go better with Mississippi Grind, in which he costars alongside Ben Mendelsohn as gamblers on their way to a New Orleans poker competition. The film is directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who proved with Sugar that they know how to make a smart sports movie.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach has been on a roll of late thanks to Frances Ha and the forthcoming While We're Young, which is uneven but really, really funny. His latest movie, Mistress America, will be coming out through Fox Searchlight, and it stars co-writer Greta Gerwig as a young woman who takes her stepsister (Lola Kirke) under her wing. Gerwig and Baumbach last collaborated on Frances Ha, and the tone of this one sounds similar: a fun, smart New York comedy.
At Sundance in 2012, one of the bigger question marks was Room 237, a documentary about obsessive fans of The Shining who have spent years honing their weird theories concerning what the film is really about. Turned out the movie was fantastic, and now director Rodney Ascher is back at the festival with what he's calling a horror-documentary about sleep paralysis, a condition in which sufferers are in bed and unable to move—and yet they're not asleep. Ascher, who himself experiences sleep paralysis, is no doubt hoping The Nightmare will benefit from the goodwill accrued by Room 237. I'll be there.
You may remember the story: In November 2012, a black teen named Jordan Russell Davis was shot dead by white 45-year-old Michael David Dunn at a Florida gas station over a dispute about the music Jordan and his friends were playing. This documentary follows the ensuing court case and studies the state's Stand Your Ground laws, which became infamous because of the Trayvon Martin shooting earlier the same year. As Americans still wrestle over the events in Ferguson and elsewhere, this film couldn't be more despairingly timely.
Filmmaker Craig Zobel's last movie, 2012's Compliance, was the most divisive screening I've ever attended at Sundance. (I was there at the premiere when some in the audience yelled at the filmmaker and cast.) I thought it was brilliant, and I cannot wait for Z for Zachariah, which is billed as a post-apocalyptic love triangle starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine, and Margot Robbie as the last three people on Earth (or so they think). After years as an indie provocateur, Zobel seems to be shooting for the mainstream here. There's a precedent.
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