Lost amid the snow, schmoozing and star-gazing of the Sundance Film Festival is the fact that it's really about movies – films made far from Hollywood, projects that no executive would greenlight (but which several will be clamoring to buy now that someone else had the courage to make them). Sure, the chase for the next Beasts of the Southern Wild may lead to a windfall for some and Oscars for others. But for the moviegoer, it's about getting to see something different that, if not for Sundance, might never reach your local theater, DVD player or streaming screen. Here are 19 stories we'll be tracking over the next eleven days.
From 1995 to 2013, director Richard Linklater told the ambitious story of a romance that developed over decades: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight charted the epic, realistic romance of two lovers (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) as they aged on-screen. For the last twelve years, Linklater, longtime collaborator Hawke and Patricia Arquette have been doing something even more difficult – dramatizing one boy's childhood, year-by-year, as he grows up on camera. Once a year for twelve years, they filmed scenes in the life of a young kid who grows up with divorced parents. Hawke and Arquette, as the parents, only appear on-screen together in the first scene, when the boy is just six, and in the last, when he's graduating from high-school.
Deadpan Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza seemed like she was on the verge of a megaplex break-out with The To-Do List. Then there was that odd MTV awards-show appearance in which she appeared to be bombed – and then her film literally bombed, becoming one of the biggest flops of 2013. Now she's back for another spin, starring in the dramatic competition's weirdest film. In Life After Beth, directed by her boyfriend Jeff Baena, Plaza attempts to top the zom-com Warm Bodies by playing an undead (and nasty looking) lover who comes back from the grave and makes her boyfriend (Dane DeHaan) fall in love all over again.
Last May, Philip Seymour Hoffman – one of his generation's undisputed best actors – entered rehab, did his therapy and got back to his life. He hasn't been seen on-screen since, so there will be charge to the buzz surrounding his starring roles in two of the festival's most-anticipated films: God's Pocket, directed by John Slattery, and A Most Wanted Man, directed by music-video icon Anton Corbijn, who also helmed The American and Control.
After dramatic roles in Hateship Loveship and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, many fans are ready for the return of Bridesmaids-era Kristin Wiig. No luck here. Instead, Wiig will play Maggie, the long-lost twin of Milo – played by her former SNL castmate Bill Hader – who has also taken a dramatic turn. Maggie and Milo aren't particularly happy with their lives, but hopefully their reunion will leave audiences feeling otherwise.
Sundance programmers have a soft spot for the bizarrely awesome. (See last year's Escape from Tomorrow). And this year is no exception. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter centers on a young woman who leaves her tiny Tokyo apartment where she lives with her pet rabbit, Bunzo, to search for a briefcase of treasure in the Minnesota winter. In Jamie Marks Is Dead, the title character comes back to haunt Adam and Macie – played by Homeland's Morgan Saylor – who found the body. Trapped between two worlds, the ghost interrupts the pair's budding love affair. And In Life After Beth (starring Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza), after his girlfriend's sudden death, Zach gets Beth back, except now she's a zombie. Metaphors!
In Mitt, a Netflix original documentary streaming nationwide on January 24, Greg Whiteley went behind the scenes with the Massachusetts governor for six years, tracing his quest for the presidency. Whiteley captures intimate campaign moments with family, friends and advisors that includes everything from snowball fights to realizing he needs concede the election. But really, we just want to see Romney iron his suit while wearing it.
Sure, K-Stew can drive headlines. But will that news-making power extend to everyone's favorite black spot on U.S. foreign policy? In Camp X-Ray, named for the real temporary detention center, Stewart plays a new Guantanamo guard who escapes her small-town to see the world and meet the jihadists. Then she befriends one of the detainees, opening up a complicated relationship that's even more confusing than her dealings with Mr. Pattinson.
Sundance may have premiered Super Size Me, but even Morgan Spurlock's gross-out horror doc didn't say fast food was this bad. Cooties begins with disgusting footage of the sickening process by which chicken nuggets are produced. Then Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill and Jack McBrayer fight for their lives when children who eat nuggets turn into brain-craving zombies.
Last year, Dave Grohl's acclaimed Sound City documentary proved you shouldn't count musicians out of the directorial game. Now it's Belle & Sebastian's turn. In God Help the Girl, frontman Stuart Murdoch examines the moment when you figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life, before it's a job and everything still seems fun. Set in Glascow, Murdoch wrote and directed this feature, which stars Game of Thrones' Hannah Murray, Sucker Punch's Emily Browning and Olly Alexander of the band Years & Years.
Debut director Justin Simien has already gone on the record against Tyler Perry, asking for Indiegogo funding with the sly question: "Remember when black movies didn't necessarily star a dude in a fat suit and a wig?" More inspired by Do the Right Thing and Hollywood Shuffle than Big Momma's House, he's determined to bring black arthouse cinema back to the forefront. In Dear White People, an Ivy league campus hosts a black-themed costume party and all hell breaks lose. Will it push buttons? Definitely. The Indiegogo campaign trailer was so provocatively hysterical that it landed Simien on CNN.
Most actors start bands or DJ parties. But Sundance regular Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been experimenting with his labor-of-love website hitrecord.org for years, where a thriving community of artists collaborate on all sorts of artistic projects, from poems and music videos to short films. At the festival, Gordon-Levitt will premiere several half-hour episodes from the new eight-episode season of Hit Record on TV, an audacious experiment of a variety show that integrates and recombines the work of literally hundreds of contributors. The show will premiere during the festival on Pivot TV as well. But will it work? We'll see. For now, you can see the first episode here.
Zach Braff's debut film Garden State became one of the most divisive films of this century: Despite the love from Scrubs fans, the film was pilloried by many critics for defining an era of irritating "twee" – and perpetuating the adorkable fantasy of the "manic pixie dream girl." But Braff didn't back down. He went back to fans with his hat out and raised two million dollars on Kickstarter for Wish I Was Here, despite an enormous backlash from people who didn't understand why fans would give a rich actor more money. (Even James Franco joined in.). Will Braff's brash gambit prove his haters wrong? Or throw fuel on the fire?
Gareth Evans's Indonesian action-flick The Raid: Redemption was a bloodthirsty action purist's dream come true: Skull-cracking, jaw-rattling, jugular-ripping hand-to-hand combat executed in the contained space of a mobster's headquarters with an utter minimum of mercy and almost no CGI. No film since has maintained that manic level of cage-match, fist-to-face bloodlust. Can Evans take it even further? It'll be fun to see him – and breakout action star Iko Uwais – give it a try.
In April, the final season of Mad Men will begin and the cast we've grown to love will have to outgrow the roles that made them stars. Last year, Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) began her transition at Sundance with the premiere of her Jane Campion miniseries Top of the Lake. This year, she hits the big screen twice with starring roles in the marriage drama The One I Love (opposite Mark Duplass) and the New York literary romance Listen Up Phillip (opposite Jason Schwartzman). John Slattery (Roger) earned his first directing credits on Mad Men as a director of several of the show's finest episodes. Now he's making his directorial debut with the blue-collar crime flick God's Pocket and a cast any director would die for: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, John Turturro, and, yes, Roger's favorite redhead, Joanie (Christina Hendricks).
In the twelfth and latest project from prolific mumblecore Godfather Joe Swanberg, Girls writer-director-producer Lena Dunham cedes control and steps fully in front of the camera – for a moment at least. Dunham plays a college pal of Jenny (Anna Kendrick), a woman who just broke up with her boyfriend and moves in with her sister and brother-in-law just before Christmas. Jenny drinks and smokes pot to deal with the situation. And if there's anyone we can count on to capture the verisimilitude of family-induced holiday binging, it's Swanberg.
What is an indie film festival without wild copulation? Wetlands ups the ante with the body fluid obsessed Helen, who lands in the hospital after an intimate shaving accident only to seduce a male nurse with her nasty talk. Meanwhile, The Foxy Merkins follows Margaret, a luckless lesbian hooker in training, who meets Jo, a heterosexual with a knack for picking up ladies. Together they set out to seduce women of all walks. And in Love is Strange, long-time pair Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) finally marry. When George gets fired from the Catholic school where he works, they have to split up between friends apartments – where things get even trickier.
Messy, nutso and inspiring music docs have become a Sundance linchpin and crowdpleasing spectacle over the years – from Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, DiG! and The Black Power Mixtape to Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and this year's Oscar contender 20 Feet From Stardom. This year, curators queued up Alex Gibney's Finding Fela, an in-depth tribute to Fela Kuti; Lambert and Stamp, about aspiring filmmakers who became managers of The Who; and Alive Inside, a look at how music can trigger memories in patients whose minds have been ravaged by Alzheimer's or dementia. But the contest for oddest music doc comes down to two: My Prairie Home is a stylized, theatrical take on the life of transgendered Canadian singer-songwriter Rae Spoon, partly shot amid museum dinosaur dioramas. And 20,000 Days on Earth is just barely a "documentary": a video-essay largely composed of staged, highly stylized scenes from the life of Australia's Nick Cave.
A handful of films this year explore the dark side of the arts, but which one will make you dance? Whiplash, which premiered as a short at last year's festival, follows a 19-year-old drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) who is so driven he practices until his hands bleed. Low Down starring Elle Fanning tells the story of jazz pianist Joe Albany and his struggles with addiction in 1970s Hollywood. And Frank follows a young man so intimidated by his new pop band that he wears a giant plastic head as a shield. Meanwhile, in Rudderless, William H. Macy follows a father who becomes a musician after the death of his son. The less tortured contenders are Song One, a look at the Brooklyn music scene with Anne Hathaway, and Memphis, which centers on musician/poet Willis Earl Beale's path of self-discovery in the old blues city.
Sundance launched An Inconvenient Truth, Super Size Me and the career of Michael Moore. This year, at least five documentaries stand a chance of being the next conversation-changing breakout: In Fed Up, Katie Couric picks up where Morgan Spurlock left off by tracking three obese children raised on processed foods. The Case Against 8 tracks the historic fight over gay rights and California's Proposition 8. Private Violence looks at domestic violence by following one abused woman's long, legal fight for justice. The Internet's Own Boy follows the cause of pioneering online activist – some might say martyr – Aaron Swartz. But the most likely breakout hit is Ivory Tower, from Page One: Inside the New York Times director Andrew Rossi. The film attacks the explosion in college tuition and student debt – and will have a built-in audience in every college town. That is, if students can afford tickets.