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The 10 films to watch at Sundance 2017

Manifesto
Cate Blanchett in Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt, which premieres at Sundance 2017

Sundance over the last four decades has become the film industry’s annual winter treatment.

It’s a gathering place at the beginning of the new year where artists, investors, managers, producers, executives and everyone in between see the year’s first new crop of cinema, compare notes, and otherwise have a helluva good time attending myriad corporate branded and Hollywood studio parties.

With the Golden Globes just concluded and the Oscars just ahead, Sundance is a time for the industry to pause and refresh.

Founded by activist-actor Robert Redford in 1981 as an alternative, left-leaning indie film fest, this international film event now attracts upwards of 45,000 annually.

That it continues to be held in the small, difficult-to-navigate Park City ski resort, surrounded as it is by the vast Red state of Utah, makes its geographic and political isolation all the more ironic – like a good plot twist.

The 2017 edition will be decidedly different than recent incarnations. The festival coincides with the inauguration of a president doing public battle with the living embodiment of all that is good and right about the film industry, Meryl Streep, which is sure to cast an ominous pall over the normally light and frothy celebratory activities.

At least one anti-Trump demonstration is planned by women’s groups on the resort’s iconic Main Street. And is it our imagination or is there a preponderance of dramatic features this year dealing with the subject of death?

Still, some things never change. This year’s festival will present 120 feature-length films, chosen from more than 4,000 submissions, representing 32 countries and 40 first-time filmmakers.

While the advent of digital download now guarantees that virtually every feature-length movie presented at the festival will get some kind of distribution deal, only about 10 to 12 actually will get a bona fide theatrical release in the U.S.

In other words, the chance of a Sundance film even getting a chance to be a commercial success is about 1 in 10 (and it has been for years).

Recent films that have premiered include Morris From America, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Swiss Army Man, City of Gold, Fruitvale Station, The Diary of A Teenage Girl, Whiplash, Blackfish, Life, Animated, All These Sleepless Nights, Weiner and First Girl I Loved.

Which films from this year’s line-up will be remembered months from now?

We’ll take the bait. Here are 10 feature films at the festival — all world premieres — that we will likely be hearing more about.

The titles are divided between Fiction (narrative) and Nonfiction (documentary) with an addendum of Special Mention picks of “moving pictures” that defy conventional labels.

Fiction

A Ghost Story

Ghost Story
A still from A Ghost Story by David Lowery, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara

Country: U.S.A. Director and screenwriter: David Lowery. Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham, Sonia Acevedo, Rob Zabrecky, Liz Franke.

Nobody knows anything about this film that was shot under the radar, except that Affleck plays a “spectral figure” who returns home to watch over his grief-stricken girlfriend play by Rooney Mara. (Gee, it sounds like that other Ghost movie.)

Director David Lowery, who also penned the script, was last seen at Sundance with his narrative feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

This film might have gone unnoticed except that Casey Affleck is the industry’s current It Boy, and the man to beat for the Best Actor Oscar.

Co-star Rooney Mara is also front and center these days for her role in the Oscar contender Lion.

A24 — the industry’s It Indie Distributor at the moment with Moonlight, American Honey, 20th Century Women and Room among its titles — already bought the film in a preemptive move, so the Sundance screening is strictly for buzz.

The Discovery

The Discovery
Jason Segel in Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery

Country: U.S.A. Director: Charlie McDowell, Screenwriters: Charlie McDowell, Justin Lader. Cast: Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough, Ron Canada.

Another film about the afterlife: In a world where the Great Beyond has just been scientifically proven, millions of people begin taking their own lives to get there.

Amid this elegiac landscape, love blooms between Jason Segel and Rooney Mara (there she is again).

Does it hurt that the film co-stars Sundance founder-leader Robert Redford? It does not.

Director McDowell was last seen at Sundance in 2014 with his The One I Love.

Marjorie Prime

Marjorie Prime
John Hamm in Marjorie Prime by Michael Almereyda

Country: U.S.A. Director and screenwriter: Michael Almereyda. Cast: Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Tim Robbins. World Premiere.

In the near future artificial intelligence can be your best friend and even former lover.

When 86-year-old Marjorie orders a handsome new companion who looks like her deceased husband, it comes programmed to feed the story of her life back to her anyway she would like.

In other words, it’s the ultimate in self-aggrandizement — perfect for these times.

The cast is a who’s who of interesting, award-winning actors who have built careers that quietly ebb between indie and studio pictures (the exception being TV superstar Jon Hamm).

Director Almereyda’s first film, A Hero of Our Time, screened at Sundance in 1992. This marks his first return trip, 25 years later.

Manifesto

Manifesto
Cate Blanchett in one of her many guises in Manifesto by Julia Rosefeldt

Country: Germany — Director and screenwriter: Julian Rosefeldt. Cast: Cate Blanchett.

Can art history repeat itself? That’s the question posed in this film that explores whether art manifestos of the 20th century are still relevant today. And, you didn’t read that wrong.

The cast of this German film consists of one actor — Cate Blanchett, who channels famous, politically-driven artists from Dadaists to Lars von Trier, as she recites their manifestos.

This film screams Arthouse, literally, but if anyone can pull off a one-woman tour de force it’s Blanchett.

Director Rosefeldt is a visual artist himself, known for his elaborate installations. German distributor The Match Factory already picked up the film in December.

Wind River

Wind River
Jeremy Renner in a scene from Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River

Country: U.S.A. Director and screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan. Cast: Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Jon Bernthal.

Writer-actor Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Sons of Anarachy) makes his directorial debut in this murder mystery set on an American Indian reservation.

In a bit of a shocker — unprecedented, really — the film, which was picked up by The Weinstein Company at last year’s Cannes, was unceremoniously dropped earlier this month, meaning it’s back on the market.

Not to worry, too much. The Sheridan-penned Hell or High Water was one of the biggest indie box-office successes of 2016.

Non-fiction

Casting JonBenet

Casting JonBenet
A scene from Casting JonBenet, which was recently acquired by Netflix

Country: U.S.A., Australia. Director: Kitty Green

The unsolved death of six-year-old American beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey remains one of the greatest unsolved murder mystery of modern times.

The young girl’s haunting, and yes, sexualized, imagery is seared in the public consciousness — a cautionary tale of society’s fascination with celebrity.

In this fresh examination of the facts and theories of the case, dramatic re-creations help to establish a new mythology. The release recently had its worldwide rights acquired by Netflix.

Chasing Coral

Chasing Coral
An still of a bleached coral reef in Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral

Country: U.S.A. Director: Jeff Orlowski

Is there anyone who still doesn’t believe in global warming? Right.

Memo To President Trump: Watch this film, which documents how coral reefs around the world are vanishing at an unprecedented rate. The reasons are sure to be surprising even for True Believers.

Icarus

Icarus
A scene from Bryan Fogel’s Icarus, which examines Russian doping in sport

Country: U.S.A. Director: Bryan Fogel

Is there anyone who still doesn’t believe that Russian athletes dope? Right.

Memo To President Trump: As hard as it is to believe, filmmaker Bryan Fogel’s chance meeting with a Russian scientist revealed a geopolitical thriller involving dirty urine, unexplained death and Olympic Gold — exposing the biggest scandal in sports history with ties to, ahem, the highest levels of the Russian government. (See 2016 U.S. Presidential Election for further reference.)

NOBODY SPEAK: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press

NOBODY SPEAK: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press
Hogan in a still from NOBODY SPEAK: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press

Country: U.S.A. Director: Brian Knappenberger

As much as we collectively want to dismiss the trial between Hulk Hogan and Gawker Media as a freak show, in truth it pitted privacy rights against freedom of the press, and raised important questions about the power of big money’s influences on the news media. (Funny how the most prima facie absurd battles can set legal precedence.)

In a coming era when the soon-to-be president of the United States (there he is again) regularly demonizes the news media, this is required watching for anyone who believes in a free and independent press.

Trophy

Trophy
A dead lion after being hunted for sport in Shaul Schwarz’s Trophy

Country: U.S.A. Director: Shaul Schwarz, Co-Director: Christina Clusiau

The slaughter of innocent and endangered animals in the name of sport is examined in-depth in the filmmaker’s unswerving look into the industry of big-game hunting but also ostensibly well-intentioned wildlife conservation.

Turns out, they’re two sides of the same coin that treat non-human sentient species as commodities.

Special mentions…

78/52

78/52
A still from 78/52, which examines in detail the shower scene from Psycho

Country: U.S.A. Director: Alexandre Philippe

As much a masterclass in the art of editing, this documentary focuses singularly on the iconic shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, reviewing in detail the dozens of shots that went into the final cut.

XX

XX
Melanie Lynskey in XX, an all-female horror anthology by four different directors

Country: U.S.A. Directors and screenwriters: Annie Clark, Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, Jovanka Vuckovic

With the exceptions of the occasional Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night) or Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), horror is perceived as an essentially male genre, both in terms of its filmmakers and audience.

Henceforth, perish the thought. This all-female horror anthology features four dark tales from four distaff directors. Cast: Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Breeda Wool, Christina Kirk. World Premiere,

The History of Comedy

The History of Comedy
Sean Hayes recounts a tale to the camera in The History of Comedy

Country: U.S.A. Executive Producers: Sean Hayes, Todd Milliner, Mark Herzog, Christopher G. Cowen, Co-Executive Producer: Stephen J. Morrison

What makes us laugh? From pratfalls to repartee, this film answers the question with a playful romp through the cinematic ages, and includes ample, rarely seen archival footage and interviews with comedy legends.

Along the way we discover how comedy artfully has addressed very serious societal issues.

Abstract: The Art of Design

Abstract: The Art of Design
Illustrator and graphic designer Christoph Niemann in Abstract: The Art of Design

Country: U.S.A. Director: Morgan Neville, Executive Producers: Morgan Neville, Scott Dadich, Dave O’Connor, Justin Wilkes, Jon Kamen

The most successful, forward-thinking new companies of the last 20 years are also those that integrate design into every aspect of their products and services.

Think Apple, Google, Facebook, Airbnb and Tesla. This Netflix original docu-series looks beyond blueprints and computers into the art and science of design, showcasing great designers from every discipline whose work shapes our world.

The festival will debut one episode of the series, followed by an extended Q&A with Director and Executive Producer Morgan Neville.

Gente-fied

Alicia Sixtos in Marvin Lemus’s Gente-fied, about the ant-gentrification movement in Boyle Heights

Country: U.S.A. Creator: Marvin Lemus, Executive Producers: Charles D. King, Aaliyah Williams, America Ferrera. Cast: Edsson Morales, Alicia Sixtos, Victoria Ortiz, Yareli Arizmendi, Salvador Velez Jr, Rafael Sigler

Boyle Heights is a historically immigrant community just east of downtown Los Angeles.

In the last year it also has become a hotbed of the ant-gentrification movement that has seen local activists delivering “eviction notices” to high-profile art galleries that have opened there.

In this original web series, seven characters deal with the effects of change in LA’s Boyle Heights.

Bicultural millennials and old-school business owners hustle to create spaces that celebrate their Latino identities — even while faced with rent hikes, a housing crisis, and a steady stream of outsiders threatening to gentrify their barrio.

The festival will debut three episodes of this short-form episodic series.


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