15 Must-Sees At Sundance Film Festival ‘15

For M&C by Greg Ptacek and Carolyn Schroeder

With the 2014 Oscar nominations still ringing in our ears, the question on everyone lips about the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, which begins next week, is which of the 200+ films screening there will be the next “Whiplash” and Boyhood”?

We refer, of course, to the two breakout films from last year’s Sundance that went onto to earn no less than 11 Academy Awards nominations between them, including notable nods for Best Director (Richard Linklater) and Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette) for “Boyhood” and Best Supporting Actor (J K. Simmons) for “Whiplash.”

To be completely transparent, reading the tea leaves for the big winners from this year’s festival is easier than it might seem. “Boyhood” had an envious assets going into last year’s Sundance. Veteran director Richard Linklater + star power players Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette + wholly original story sure reads like a formula for success.

Indeed, the Sundance programmers have even created a whole separate section for films like these that are front-loaded with established talent, which they call “Premieres” (not that all of the other 175-plus films aren’t also premieres). Here’s the twist: Some films already have distributors in place and even have a scheduled release date. Case in point: “True Story” starring Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones and Gretchen Mol, which will be hitting your local theater in April, courtesy of Fox Searchlight. (The question begs, why, then, is this film even at a film festival? But that’s another article.)

But who could have predicted one year ago that “Whiplash” would have garnered Oscar gold this month? A relatively unknown filmmaker makes a film with a newbie lead actor about a subject that most Americans couldn’t possibly fathom: jazz drumming. Of course, the film is much more than that but still, it’s not the stuff that popular movies are made of.

With all that in mind, we scoured this year’s feature film line-up (narrative and documentary) for the following 15 Films To Watch At Sundance ’15 (listed in no particular order). We’ve included some safe bets but also some “Whiplash-esque” wild cards. And if next year ‘round this time you notice that some of these filmmakers are rubbing shoulders on the red carpet with Clint and Angelina (not to mention J.K.), well, then tell ‘em you heard it hear first.


1. The Overnight – Taylor Schilling, still glowing from her new found stardom in TV’s “Orange Is The New Black,” is one half of a married couple who are new in L.A. A chance meeting at the park introduces them to the mysterious Kurt, Charlotte and Max and the ensuing family “playdate” becomes increasingly interesting as the night goes on. Also with Jason Schwartzman, Adam Scott and Judith Godreche, this film has a built-in audience of millions of young parents.

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2. Z For Zachariah – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine and Margot Robbie star in a post-apocalyptic world in which Robbie may be the last female on earth and a love triangle comes into play when all characters meet. Based on the science fiction novel by Robert C. O’Brien, the storyline reads like “World War Z” meets “Swept Away.” Reason enough to see it. And despite their multitudes, sci-fi films show no sign of going the way of the Western. Having a film with two of Hollywood’s hottest actors never hurts the box office, either.


3. The End Of The Tour – Based on the life of groundbreaking author David Foster Wallace, played by Jason Segel, the film chronicles his five-day interview with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), which took place during a nationwide book tour for his latest novel. It’s tricky stuff making a movie about a real-life writer in the first place, and add to it the challenge that the plot revolves around an interview of seemingly boundless proportions. Still, Wallace has a cult-like following that has elevated him to superstar status in literary circles, and his fans should come in droves for the first film about his life. The film is based on David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.


4. The Forbidden Room – Is this the year that Canadian’s outré filmmaker Guy Maddin breaks out and achieves David Lynchian pop culture status in the U.S.? In his latest movie, story after story unfolds, beginning with a crew of a doomed submarine chewing flapjacks in a desperate attempt to breathe the oxygen within, followed by a lost woodsman who wanders on board to tell his tale of escaping from a fearsome clan of cave dwellers. From here, Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson take us high into the air, around the world, and into dreamscapes, spinning tales of amnesia, captivity, deception and murder, skeleton women and vampire bananas. This is Maddin’s grand ode to lost cinema, and it has been selected as the opening night film for the “Forum” section of the upcoming Berlinale.


5. Entertainment – Comedian Gregg Turkington – best known for his “anti-comedian” Neil Hamburger persona – is reuniting with “The Comedy” director Rick Alverson
about a broken and aging comic, known only as “The Comedian,” who travels across the Southwest to meet his estranged daughter while attempting to revive his dwindling career. Along the way, his identity begins to deteriorate amid a series of encounters with the desert populace and a string of dead end shows (in Death Valley, no less). John C. Reilly, Michael Cera and Dean Stockwell co-star. With so much comedic talent, it will be a tragedy if this film doesn’t find its audience.


6. Last Days In The Desert – Ewan McGregor plays Jesus struggling with the Devil in the desert. Never mind this never happened in the Bible. Just the thought of the talented and debonair oh-so-British actor stepping into JC’s sandals brings a smile to our faces. (We half expect his Jesus to encounter Monty Python’s Brian at an oasis bar in the film.) But seriously folks, it is shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer of “Gravity” and “Birdman,” which lends the movie instant gravitas. Win or lose, this film has high-profile written all over it.


7. The Diary Of A Teenage Girl – Kristen Wiig takes the screen in the adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” alongside Alexander Skarsgard and newcomer Bel Powley, who plays Minnie Goetze, an aspiring young artist growing up in the 1970s. Brave and curious about the world around her, she finds herself in a torrid affair – and here comes a spoiler alert! – with her mother’s boyfriend, with nobody to confide in except her diary. This tale of female sexuality and unabashed optimism is just waiting for the legions of “Twilight” and “Divergent” fans to descend on theaters everywhere. The combination of live-action and animation, plus Wiig’s continued turn toward drama, gives it a critical edge that might be reflected in awards.


8. 3 ½ Minutes –As the title indicates, this documentary by Marc Silver reveals what happened during the brief few minutes when two disparate lives intersected and were forever altered in an event ripped from the headlines (and continuing to reverberate on the nation’s streets). On Black Friday 2012 at a Florida gas station, two cars parked next to each other for those passing moments and the interaction between them was devastating. A white middle-aged male and a black teenager exchanged angry words over the volume of the music in the boy’s car. A gun entered the exchange and one of them was left dead. Can a documentary about a current news event find a popular culture audience at local theaters? The 2013 hit indie film “Fruitvale Station,” while a narrative feature, would indicate yes. Even more, the deep racial prejudices and resulting tragedies at the heart of the film are not going away anytime soon, and we think there is a movie-going audience who wants to explore this issue beyond the sound bites of cable TV news.


9. The D Train – Don’t need a crystal ball to predict this hit in the making. Jack Black is the head of his high school reunion committee. Enough said.


10. Glassland – Set in in contemporary Dublin, this is the story of a young taxi driver (Jack Reynor) who gets tangled up in the world of human trafficking while trying to save his mother (Toni Collette) from drug addiction. Yikes! There isn’t a morsel of feel good anywhere to be found in that set-up. Still, Collette has a way of humanizing any role, and the mother-son dynamic in the story might allow her to showcase her considerable talents in a way not unlike how Stephen Frears’ “The Grifters” (1990) threw a different light on Angelica Huston (and provided her first and only Best Actress Oscar nomination).


11. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief – This HBO documentary is the inside story of Scientology and its influence on Hollywood. Who wouldn’t want to see it? Based on the Lawrence Wright’s book, the film is helmed by Alex Gibney, the Academy Award-winning documentarian behind “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and “Taxi to the Dark Side.” The fact that the Church of Scientology is already planning lawsuits just stokes the publicity machine.


12. Brooklyn – 20-year-old Saoirse Ronan is on the cusp of being Hollywood’s latest It Girl, now that the venerable Jennifer Lawrence has moved on to immortality. (You’re instantly “venerable” once you receive a Best Actress Oscar.) Having made a name for herself in many films, including “The Lovely Bones” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Ronan already was nominated for an Academy Award for “Atonement” in 2007. At Sundance, she stars in two films including “Brooklyn,” in which she plays a young Irish immigrant newly arrived in 1950s New York. The film was adapted by Nick Hornby from the acclaimed novel of the same name. Co-stars Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters lend the weight of their considerable careers. Unless something goes terribly wrong, expect to see this film mentioned many times during the awards seasons this fall.


13. Don Verdean Filmmaker – Director Jared Hess of “Napoleon Dynamite” fame returns to Sundance with Sam Rockwell as Don Verdean, a Biblical archaeologist who is hired to with find holy relics in the Holy Land … until all hell breaks loose. Can the world still laugh at religion in the wake of Charlie Hebdo? F**k, yeah! With Danny McBride, Will Forte and Amy Ryan.


14. I Smile Back – Sarah Silverman is smart, funny and pretty. In a different era in Hollywood (and with lots of peroxide), she would have been Carole Lombard. But not satisfied with just being a funny girl, Silverman is bound and determined to find her inner-Streisand and embrace drama. In director Adam Salky’s take on mother’s little helpers, Silverman is a housewife married with kids who seemingly has it all, but depression and drugs threaten her domestic bliss. Can Silverman pull it off? We’re throwing the dice on this but we’re seeing all lucky sevens.


15. 10,000 Saints – We know time has passed when we now find Ethan Hawke type cast as Dad. Yes, fresh off his paternal role in “Boyhood,” Hawke plays a middle-aged man forced to reconnect with his estranged and troubled teen when his son moves from Vermont to live with him in New York’s East Village in the 1980s. Yep, it sounds like a tried-and-true, coming-of-age story, but three messed up teenagers and their equally messed up parents in 1987, the age of CBGBs and yuppies, gives it all a certain delicious New York acidity. (We can’t wait to hear the soundtrack.) At the end of the day, the weight of the film’s success rests squarely on Hawke’s fatherly shoulders, but he’s had plenty of practice now, and co-stars Emily Mortimer and Emile Hirsch should lighten the load.

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