The 20 Sundance 2015 Films Everyone Will Be Talking About

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Every January, the cinematic year begins in Salt Lake City, Utah as the independent film community gathers for Sundance. From renowned veteran directors to newcomer directors making their debuts, the festival always premieres a wealth of the most interesting and unique films of the year and offers a taste of what we have to look forward to.

Last year, films like Whiplash and Listen Up Philip went on to be some of our favorite films of 2014, and some of the most acclaimed. And as the lineup begins to roll out at the fest starting tomorrow, we’re excited for new movies by everyone from Guy Maddin and Noah Baumbach to Leslye Headland and Andrew Bujalski. So before it all begins, here’s a closer look at what we’re most anticipating at Sundance 2015.

THE FORBIDDEN ROOM, Guy Maddin

As potbellied, satin robe-clad Marv opens The Forbidden Room, he instructs us on the history and significance of bathing. One might never guess what’s in store from Canadian auteur’s Guy Maddin’s ode to the lost movies of the silent era, honoring classic cinema while electrocuting it with energy. Bursting with playful cacophony, Maddin’s opus takes us high into the air, under the sea, around the world, and into dreamscapes, spinning tales of amnesia, captivity, deception, and murder.

A game cast including Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, and Maddin perennial Udo Kier embody a cavalcade of misfits, thieves, and lovers, imbuing passion and humor into Maddin’s new epic (co-directed by Evan Johnson). Visuals, sound, even story are layered upon themselves, color schemes morph into and over one another, as each element heightens the joyful delirium of the kaleidoscopic viewing experience. The film also contains copious amounts of the filmmaker’s trademark twisted whimsy and absurdist eroticism—from a lusty crew of female skeletons to an exceptionally catchy musical celebration of the derriere.

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MISTRESS AMERICAN, Noah Baumbach

Tracy, a lonely college freshman in New York, is having neither the exciting university experience nor the glamorous metropolitan lifestyle she envisioned. But when she is taken in by her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke—a resident of Times Square and adventurous gal about town—she is rescued from her disappointment and seduced by Brooke’s alluringly mad schemes. Mistress America is Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s new comedy about dream-chasing, score-settling, and cat stealing.

Ten years ago, The Squid and the Whale premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and Baumbach won the directing and the screenwriting awards. In 2012, he teamed up with Gerwig to create the enchanting Frances Ha, and their magic continues with Mistress America. Gerwig elevates her craft to new heights and imbues Brooke with fragile confidence and infectious charm. As Tracy, newcomer Lola Kirke is a revelation. Featuring incisive dialogue and boundless wit, Mistress America is a ride through New York that captures the hopes and dreams (some shattered) of those who are drawn there.

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THE NIGHTMARE, Rodney Ascher

You are very tired. The pillow is soft. It’s late at night, and you start to drift off in your bed. Snap—your body locks up, totally frozen. But you are not asleep. You can see and hear everything. That’s when the shadow men come.

Following his exploration on the deep effects of cinema in his feature Room 237, director Rodney Ascher now investigates the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. In this documentary-horror film, we experience the terror that a surprisingly large number of people suffer when they find themselves trapped between the sleeping and waking worlds every night. What should be explained by science gets complicated as sufferers from random backgrounds have very similar visions. The Nightmare enhances the stories with eerie dramatizations of what (and who) the subjects see. Ascher, who has also experienced the condition, treats the subject with respect, combining a primal horror movie with an existential terror in the lines between reality and the imagination.

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I AM MICHAEL, Justin Kelly

In 2007, Michael Glatze, the gay-rights advocate who embodied queer identity, shocked his friends and followers when he publicly renounced his homosexuality. What could have led to such an extreme change of belief?

Justin Kelly’s piercing exploration is as compelling and complex as Michael’s transformation. The film depicts the years when an idealistic Michael, with his long-term partner, empowered a new generation of gay youth through their writing and films. When a nerve-racking brush with death triggers his need to reconcile faith and sexuality, Michael embarks on a zealous search for answers that eventually leads him to Christianity and the absolute conviction that “homosexuality is death.”

Kelly’s intricate non-linear structure engrossingly magnifies each step and draws seemingly incongruent thematic and character thru-lines. It also elicits a maddening sympathy (portrayed with aching effect by Franco). With an acute sense of storytelling, Kelly raises much more complex questions about one man’s startling capacity to create, destroy, and reclaim his truth.

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RESULTS, Andrew Bujalski

Recently divorced, newly rich, and utterly miserable, Danny (Kevin Corrigan) would seem to be the perfect test subject for a definitive look at the relationship between money and happiness. Danny’s well-funded ennui is interrupted by a momentous trip to the local gym, where he meets self-styled guru/owner Trevor (Guy Pearce) and irresistibly acerbic trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders). Soon, their three lives are inextricably knotted, both professionally and personally. 

Writer/director Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess, 2013) returns to the Sundance Film Festival with a fun, intimate fable that’s utterly grounded in real life. As wrinkles turn into complications, then blow up into full-fledged issues, the talented ensemble keeps the pensive tone light and the complex plot breezy. The end result is a charming shaggy-dog tale that’s been hitting the gym: taut, limber, and powerful.

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ENTERTAINMENT, Rick Alverson

An aging comedian tours the California desert, lost in a cycle of third-rate venues, novelty tourist attractions, and vain attempts to reach his estranged daughter. By day, he slogs through the barren landscape, inadvertently alienating every acquaintance. At night, he seeks solace in the animation of his onstage persona. Fueled by the promise of a lucrative Hollywood engagement and the possibility of rekindling a relationship with his daughter, he trudges through a series of increasingly surreal and volatile encounters.

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EXPERIMENTER, Michael Almereyda

In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted the “obedience experiments” at Yale University. The experiments observed the responses of ordinary people asked to send harmful electrical shocks to a stranger. Despite pleadings from the person they were shocking, 65 percent of subjects obeyed commands from a lab-coated authority figure to deliver potentially fatal currents. With Adolf Eichmann’s trial airing in living rooms across America, Milgram’s Kafkaesque results hit a nerve, and he was accused of being a deceptive, manipulative monster. 

Experimenter invites us inside Milgram’s whirring mind, beginning with his obedience research and wending a path to uncover how inner obsessions and the times in which he lived shaped a parade of human behavior inquiries, including the “six degrees of separation” findings. Constantly subverting expectations with surprising structural and stylistic choices, writer/director Michael Almereyda transmutes the crusty period biopic form into something playful, energetic, and deeply satisfying—taking bold risks to yield profound insights, like all great experiments.

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SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE, Leslye Headland 

Years after impulsively losing their virginity to each other in college, Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) meet at a support group in New York (“What’s a nice girl like you doing at a sex addicts meeting?”). A spark resurfaces, but they’ve walked this road before. Abject failures in romance who lead lives of serial infidelity and self-sabotage, they agree to a platonic friendship to mutually support their recovery—and what’s more supportive than teaching your friend proper self-stimulation? Can love bloom while you’re sleeping with other people?

Leslye Headland’s hysterical follow-up to Bachelorette upends the romantic comedy genre by putting love in the hands of self-avowed sluts. She brings intelligence, cinematic flair, and subversive wit to this screwball romp about soul mates in denial of their coupledom—an ironic homage to the “men and women can’t be friends” theorem of When Harry Met Sally. Lainey and Jake appear good-natured, even charming, but their characters are deeper, truthful, with darker, more damaged cores. Headland takes the romantic lacquer off the romantic comedy but leaves the heart intact.

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Z FOR ZACHARIAH, Craig Zobel

In the wake of a disaster that wipes out most of civilization, a young woman who believes she is the last human on Earth meets a dying scientist searching for survivors. Their relationship becomes tenuous when another male survivor appears. As the two men compete for the woman’s affection, their primal urges begin to reveal their true nature.

This is director Craig Zobel’s third feature to play at the Sundance Film Festival but his first in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. With his prior two films, he showed a commanding ability to find tension in the mundane and humanity in the horrific. In Z for Zachariah, he utilizes his full repertoire as a director, unleashing a forceful drama that searingly explores the nature of man . . . and woman. Boasting an exceptional cast whose impressive talents are on display,Z for Zachariah is a gripping tale that subverts expectations and works on many levels.

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STATION TO STATION, Doug Aitken

Sending a burning arrow into the stunting effects that the compartmentalization of culture has on how creativity manifests, visual artist Doug Aitken embarked on an experiment exploring a less materialistic and more nomadic direction of art creation, exhibition, and participation. Station to Station involved a train that crossed North America housing a constantly changing creative community including artists, musicians, and curators, who collaborated in the creation of recordings, artworks, films, and 10 unique happenings, across the country.

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THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, Kyle Patrick Alvarez

It is the summer of 1971. Dr. Philip Zimbardo launches a study on the psychology of imprisonment. Twenty-four male undergraduates are randomly assigned to be either a guard or a prisoner. Set in a simulated jail, the project unfolds. The participants rapidly embody their roles—the guards become power-hungry and sadistic, while the prisoners, subject to degradation, strategize as underdogs. It soon becomes clear that, as Zimbardo and team monitor the escalation of action through surveillance cameras, they are not fully aware of how they, too, have become part of the experiment.

Based on the real-life research of Dr. Zimbardo (who was a consultant on the film), The Stanford Prison Experiment is a dramatic period piece that remains relevant over 40 years later. Along with an impressive cast, including Billy Crudup as Zimbardo, Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G., 2013 Sundance Film Festival) delivers an intense, visceral film about the role of power that plays to both chilling and exhilarating effect.

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THE OVERNIGHT, Patrick Brice

Alex, Emily, and their son, RJ, have recently moved to Los Angeles’s Eastside from Seattle. Feeling lost in a new city, they are desperate to find their first new friends. After a chance meeting with Kurt at the neighborhood park, they gladly agree to join family pizza night at his home. But as it gets later and the kids go to bed, the family “playdate” becomes increasingly more revealing as the couples begin to open up. 

Writer/director Patrick Brice’s second feature is a painfully funny take on thirtysomething sexual frustration and parenthood. Featuring memorable lead performances by Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman, and Judith Godrèche, each actor nimbly balances the script’s sudden emotional turns from surprising honesty to complete embarrassment.

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KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK, Brett Morgen

Experience Kurt Cobain like never before in the first fully authorized portrait of the famed rock music icon. Director Brett Morgen expertly blends Cobain’s personal archive of art, music, and never-before-seen home movies with animation and revelatory interviews with his family and closest confidants. Following Kurt from his earliest years in Aberdeen, Washington, through the height of his fame, a visceral and detailed cinematic insight of an artist at odds with his surroundings emerges.

While Cobain craved the spotlight even as he rejected the trappings of fame, his epic arc depicts a man who stayed true to his earliest punk rock convictions, always identifying with the “outsider” and ensuring the music came first.

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SLOW WEST, John McLean

Jay is a lovelorn 17-year-old Scottish aristocrat who travels to the American West at the close of the nineteenth century to track down his former lover. Confronted with the harsh realities of the frontier, he falls in with a rough and mysterious traveler named Silas (Michael Fassbender), who soon discovers that the focus of Jay’s affection has a price on her head. Together, the two navigate a vast, untamed wilderness while attempting to stay one step ahead of a bloodthirsty posse and colorful bounty hunter. Their search leads to a bloody confrontation where Jay’s romanticism is the first of many casualties.

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THE ROYAL ROAD, Jenni Olson

If you’ve ever found yourself on the outside looking in, then you are probably familiar with the coping strategy of acquiring the identity of a movie character in order to gain legibility within the situation. The central character of Jenni Olson’s mesmerizing essay film is a gender dysphoric, Midwestern tomboy who is drawn to borrowing masculine personas from Hollywood characters as a mode of understanding how to deal with being drawn to unavailable women.

A fascinating and unlikely reinvention story, The Royal Road simultaneously explores cinematic spiritual channeling, the conquest and colonization of Mexico and the American Southwest, fading historical Californian urban landscapes, and the passions found in butch identity to achieve an achingly beautiful and poetic defense of remembering. Probing roads from El Camino Real, to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, to the road right outside the front door, Olson crafts a deeply intelligent and transcending observation of the human condition that reaches for redemption in the embrace of history, nostalgia, mindfulness, and sheer beauty. If you give yourself over to it, it will crack you wide open.

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DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON, Douglas Tirola

Amid the seismic cultural shift of the 1970s, American comedy got a sharper edge when a newly minted magazine named National Lampoon stuck its middle finger up at the establishment. Spawned at an Ivy League school by the wonderfully warped minds of Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard, National Lampoon rose from a counterculture rag to a revered comic institution. Bound by a passion for the absurd and a mistrust of authority, Lampoon’s irreverence spanked nearly every available social taboo from weak-kneed politics to heated racial tensions. This unique cocktail of high satire and gallows humor exploded onto America’s cultural consciousness attracting visionary talents such as Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Chevy Chase, whose comedic force helped expand the magazine’s spirit to stage and film. Director Douglas Tirola unearths never-before-seen archival footage and brilliantly weaves it together with the magazine’s beautiful and often shocking art, reliving National Lampoon’s meteoric rise from go-to magazine of the counterculture to a brand synonymous with Hollywood’s biggest comedies. Energetic, revolutionary, gently perverted, and often hilarious, DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD elevates nostalgia to a roof-raising experience.

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END OF THE TOUR, James Ponsoldt

In 1996, shortly after the publication of his groundbreaking novel Infinite Jest,acclaimed author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) sets off on a five-day interview with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). As the days pass, a tenuous yet significant relationship develops between journalist and subject. Lipsky and Wallace bob and weave around each other, revealing as much in what they don’t say as what the say. They share laughs, expose hidden frailties, yet it’s never clear when or to what extent they are being truthful. The interview is never published. Five days of audio tapes are packed away in Lipsky’s closet, and the two men never meet again.

The End of the Tour is based on Lipsky’s critically acclaimed memoir about this unforgettable encounter that he wrote following Wallace’s suicide in 2008.

Deeply emotional, insightful performances from Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg lay bare a heartbreaking screenplay by Pulitzer-Prize winner Donald Margulies. Directed with humor and tenderness by Sundance Film Festival veteran James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) and befitting the troubled soul of Wallace himself, The End of the Tour is profound, surprising, and compellingly human.

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JAMES WHITE, Josh Mond

James White (Christopher Abbott) is a troubled twentysomething trying to stay afloat in a frenzied New York City. As he retreats further into a hedonistic lifestyle, his mother’s battle with a serious illness faces a series of setbacks that force him to assume more responsibility. With the pressure on him mounting, James must find new reserves of strength or risk imploding completely.

James White is a confident and closely observed directorial debut that explores loss and the deep relationship between a mother and son. It marks Martha Marcy May Marlene producer Josh Mond’s first appearance at the Festival as a writer/director. Abbott’s strong central performance is aided by a stellar supporting cast featuring Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City), Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, and Ron Livingston (Drinking Buddies). Shot on location in New York City with an intimate visual style and a driving contemporary soundtrack,James White follows its lead into deep, affecting places while still maintaining its fragile humanity.

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H., Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia

In Troy, New York, two women, both named Helen, carry on seemingly complacent existences with their respective partners. Middle-aged Helen lives with husband Roy and finds comfort from a “reborn” baby doll. Meanwhile, successful young artist Helen is expecting a child with her noncommittal partner. Foreboding signs begin to appear: a meteor reportedly crashes nearby; people go missing; and inexplicable, life-altering changes spiral the Helens’ inert realities into a terrifying journey through unknown terrain.

Writing/directing partners Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia show remarkable ingenuity in crafting a disturbingly phenomenal world grounded in the fears of reality where subconscious tensions collide with the tempestuous forces of nature. Insanely creative, ambitious, and enigmatic, this spellbinding odyssey also makes an astoundingly perceptive and soulful observation about humans’ irresistible fixation on doom and beauty.

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WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?, Liz Garbus

A classically trained musical genius, chart-topping chanteuse, and Black Power icon, Nina Simone is one of the most influential, beloved, provocative, and least understood artists of our time. On stage, she was known for utterly free, rapturous performances, earning her the epithet “High Priestess of Soul.” But amid the violent, day-to-day fight for civil rights, she struggled to reconcile artistic ambition with her fierce devotion to a movement. Director Liz Garbus sensitively explores the constant state of opposition that trapped and tortured Simone—as a classical pianist pigeonholed in jazz, as a professional boxed in by family life, as a black woman in racist America—and in so doing, reveals a towering figure transcending categorization and her times. The film stays true to Simone’s subjectivity by mining never-before-heard tapes, rare archival footage, and interviews with close friends and family. Charting Simone’s musical inventiveness alongside the arc of her Jim Crow childhood, defining role in the Civil Rights Movement, arrival at Carnegie Hall, self-imposed exile in Liberia, and solitary life in France, this astonishingly intimate yet epic portrait becomes a non-fiction musical—lush tracks and riveting story resonating inextricably.

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