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25 Movies We Can’t Wait to See at Sundance 2016

From a gritty drama about mass shootings to a new doc on Michael Jackson, the fest’s can’t-miss titles

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There's a reason that, every January, film producers, film distributors, film critics, film lovers and miscellaneous film folks who'd never be caught dead on a snowboard descend upon Park City, Utah, looking for the next big thing courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival. That term might apply to the young director who shows up with a DCP hard drive and leaves the fest with a deal (or, if you're a dude, a chance to helm whatever franchise the powers that be plan on rebooting over the next few years). It could mean the new bleeding-edge multimedia technology that's on display in the New Frontier section. It may be the semi-unknown actor who goes there a "nobody" and, several buzzed-about screenings later, leaves a star — the Jennifer Lawrence or Bel Powley syndrome. Or it might simply mean your own personal NBT: that little movie that, two hours later, has changed your life.

Hope spring eternal, and there's no such thing as a sure bet when it comes to film festivals — but we're confident, and genuinely excited, about catching these 25 films playing at Sundance 2016. There are rock docs and mock docs, gritty dramas, coming-of-age parables ranging from potentially hilarious to possibly hellish, midnight movies, portraits of artists ranging from Robert Mapplethorpe to JT Leroy, O.G. directorial statements and DIY debuts on this list, any of which could be a boom or a bust. (Talk to us in a few weeks after our 10 Best Things We Saw list goes up and see what makes it on there.) But all of these titles have us stoked for hitting the snowy ground in Utah and seeing what happens once the lights go down.

Holy Hell; Sundance 2016

‘Holy Hell’

For 20 years, Will Allen was part of a L.A. cult led by a spiritual guru who promised enlightenment to his followers, and ended up giving them … well, you know how stories about cults usually end. Fortunately for us, Allen brought along a camera and filmed what life was like under this oddball figure's spell, and the result is a first-hand account of why people join such communities, and why they end up staying for years. This sounds like there will be a little bit of "holy," and a whole lotta "hell." DF

Indignation; Sundance 2016

Indignant Productions Inc.

‘Indignation’

Successful actors often try their hand at directing once they’ve built the cachet, but it's a lot more rare when a former studio head decides to step behind the camera. That's exactly what ex-Focus Features CEO James Schamus has done with this period drama about a Jewish kid (Logan Lerman) who tries to escape the Korean War draft by going to a Christian college in Ohio. Korea, it turns out, may have been the less harrowing choice. Adapted from Philip Roth's 2008 novel of the same name, Schamus' directorial debut has all the makings of the immaculate prestige pictures that Focus used to churn out (i.e. Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm). DE

Kiki; Sundance

Naiti Gamez

‘Kiki’

We've been overdue for a good voguing doc — Paris Is Burning was in 1990, you guys! — so this cinematic collaboration between Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö and NYC "Kiki" scenester Twiggy Pucci Garçon about today's underground dance-offs is welcome indeed. Go inside the battles between houses that are both keeping a tradition alive and helping modern queer/trans youth define their identity. You better work! DF

Little Men; Sundance 2016

Eric McNatt

‘Little Men’

One of the most seriously underrated talents working today (go back and watch Keep the Lights On or Love Is Strange if you don't believe us), Ira Sachs returns to Sundance with a tale of two outer-borough middle schoolers who form a tight bond. Class issues and gentrification hand-wringing, in the form of a who-gets-to-live-in-Brooklyn dispute between their respective parents, threatens to throw a few monkey wrenches into their friendship. Word on the street is that young actors Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri are incredible; Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle and Alfred Molina lend their support. We've got high hopes for this one. DF

Lo and Behold; Sundance 2016

Peter Zeitlinger

‘Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World’

From the icy expanses of Antarctica to the peak of an erupting volcano, Werner Herzog — who by this point in his storied career is practically more myth than man — has taken a camera everywhere on the planet that a camera can go. In the extremely Herzogian-sounding Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, cinema's favorite wild man dives headfirst into the World Wide Web, talking about the future of human consciousness with Internet visionaries, people allergic to Wi-Fi signals, and everyone in between. DE

Love; Friendship; Sundance 2016

Location images of Love & Friendship, a Jane Austen film adaptation starring Kate Bekinsdale and Chloe Sevigny, directed by Whit Stillman. CHURCHILL PRODUCTIONS LIMITED. Producers Katie Holly, Whit Stillman, Lauranne Bourrachot. Co-Producer Raymond Van Der Kaaij. Also Starring: Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell & Morfydd Clark

Ross McDonnell

‘Love & Friendship’

So Whit Stillman dragging Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny to The Last Days of Disco was not far back enough for you? Good news for you: The indie-cinema sophisticate has taken his dynamic duo even further into the past — 18th-century England, to be precise — in this adaptation of an unpublished Jane Austen novella. We do love a good comedy of manners, especially one with frocks, handsome men a-courtin' and an NYC fashion icon! DF

Lovers of Despot; Sundance 2016

‘The Lovers and the Despot’

North Korea gets a lot of bad press from those liberal media types who get all up in arms about nuclear war and widespread human rights violations, so it can be easy to lose sight of all the fun things about the sexily enigmatic hermit nation. Their film industry, for example, is an untapped gold mine of incredible stories. This doc introduces Western audiences to "the Brangelina of Seventies South Korea," director Shin Sang-ok and actress Cho Eun-hee, a dashing power couple that was kidnapped by agents from Pyongyang and forced to make supreme leader Kim Jong-il's dream movie. And really, what's the point of being a ruthless dictator if you can't force your favorite entertainers to do your bidding? DE

Lovesong;

‘Lovesong’

What if Carol had been designed as the Platonic Ideal of a Sundance movie? That isn't a question we've ever asked ourselves, necessarily, but we couldn’t be more excited that Treeless Mountain director So Yong Kim has apparently answered it anyway. Riley Keough stars is a lonely young mother whose husband is too busy traveling for work to help her raise their daughter. When her pal swings by for a friendly visit, the women decide to take an impromptu road trip with unspoken romantic detours. Consider this catnip for fans of frustrated desire. DE

Manchester by the Sea; Sundance 2016

Claire Folger

‘Manchester By the Sea’

Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me set the indie world ablaze all the way back at Sundance 2000; thanks to the hot mess of lawsuits that surrounded his follow-up Margaret, he's been a little AWOL on the movie scene. That all changes with this drama, which finds the writer-director trying to fortify his reputation as the reigning master of films about the scabs that form after family tragedies. Casey Affleck plays Lee, an unfriendly Boston handyman who's forced to return to his hometown on the coast after his brother dies and bequeaths him his teenage son. Banish all thoughts of quirky festival dramedies; this is a film that's sure to go straight for your gut. DE

Robert Mapplethorpe; Sundance 2016

Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

‘Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures’

This look at the life and times of Robert Mapplethorpe traces the transgressive photographer's evolution from youthful Queens misfit to Patti Smith's boho partner in crime to one of the most famous, and infamous, photographers of the 20th century. Directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) offer up plenty of context for the downtown and leather-man scenes that fueled Mapplethorpe's vision, as well as beaucoup examples of his work — including the notorious "X Portfoilo," 13 prints of hardcore S&M that have not lost their ability to shock. DF

Michael Jackson; Sundance 2016

Optimum Productions

‘Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to ‘Off the Wall”

He delved into the making of Michael Jackson's 1987 hit album with his doc Bad 25; now Spike Lee goes back to the King of Pop's early years, from that adorable kid with the Afro singing with his brothers to a budding solo artist who'll change the musical landscape. Expect mouth-watering performance clips, insights into how his partnership with Quincy Jones helped produce a classic record, song-by-song breakdowns, the occasional laser or two (seriously, have you seen that "Rock With You" video lately?), and testimonials courtesy of everybody from Berry Gordy to Kobe Bryant about how groundbreaking M.J. was. DF

OJ; Made in America; Sundance 2016

‘OJ: Made in America’

A whopping, stem-to-stern look at the man they called "Juice," courtesy of award-winning director Ezra Edelman, which traces (over the course of seven-and-a-half hours) Orenthal James Simpson's arc from gridiron superman to celebrity, and alleged murderer to convict. If there was ever anything you wanted to know about O.J. but were afraid to ask, this marathon of an ESPN 30-for-30 documentary will answer it for you. Trust us. DF

Operation Avalanche

Andy Appelle, Jared Raab

‘Operation Avalanche’

"Operation Avalanche" has been the code name for the 1943 Allied invasion of Italy, a sweeping 1999 child porn investigation, and an American-led offensive in Afghanistan in 2003. And, if Matt Johnson's new mockumentary is to be believed (spoiler: it isn't), it was also the alias of a 1967 C.I.A. mission in which agents slipped inside of NASA headquarters to catch a Soviet spy. Instead, they ended up catching their own country faking a trip to the moon. Apparently, Johnson and his crew stole the footage they needed for the movie by actually infiltrating NASA and posing as a documentary crew. This isn’t just a movie about a heist — it's also a heist about a movie. DE

Other People; Sundance 2016

Brian Burgoyne

‘Other People’

Yes, this cathartic comedy may share the same basic story of every other Sundance movie — a struggling writer (Jesse Plemons) heads back home for the first time in ages, in this case because his mother is dying — but we have a hunch this one promises a different take on a painfully familiar premise. Hatched from the mind of Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly, and featuring a cast loaded with actors who have a knack for threading the needle between hackneyed and hilarious (Bradley Whitford! June Squib! Zach Woods!), this could be one of those rare indies that actually earns the laughs it uses to push through the pain. DE

Sing Street; Sundance 2016

‘Sing Street’

A quick recap of how far John Carney has come since making Once: In 2007, the Irish filmmaker showed up to Sundance with a scrappy, lovelorn musical that was shot on a budget of $11 (give or take) and whatever its stars could earn from busking on the streets. In 2016, he’ll be showing up at Sundance with a musical he co-created with Bono. Set in the downbeat Dublin of the Eighties, this rock & roll coming-of-age tale follows a 14-year-old kid who's forced to transfer from a posh school to a public one. His only hope of social survival? Starting a glam band. It's going to be great to hear Bono go back to his Boy-hood. DE

31; Sundance 2016

Gene Page

’31’

When Rob Zombie is off his filmmaking game, you feel like the rock star is just killing time in between his day-job gigs. But when he's on — see The Devil's Rejects — you feel like there's no one who's making better modern horror reassembled from the genre's grungy, gross-out spare parts. Our bloody fingers are crossed that his latest, a tale of stone carnies and homicidal maniacs, falls in the second category.  And, naturally, that 31 refers to the number of giddy, gasp-inducing shocks you'll get watching this retro-gnarly grindhouse gem. DF

We Are X; Sundance 2016

X Japan

‘We Are X’

The group was formed by two childhood friends named Toshi and Yoshiki, who took their version of crunchy glam-pop to international success and sold-out tours. Tragedy befell them time and again, but it didn't stop them from dreaming big and coming back from the brink of disaster. They are X Japan, they look like Sunset Strip hair-metalheads on steroids, and they are here to rock your world. Stephen Kijak's doc on this epic band of the rising sun (the catalog describes their music as "Iron Maiden with a David Bowie spirit animal," which sounds about right) charts the rise and many, many falls of this legendary quintet as they aim to sell out Madison Square Garden in 2014.  DF

Weiner-Dog; Sundance 2016

WD-6-19-15-111.CR2

‘Wiener-Dog’

The only American director who thinks that Charlie Kaufman is just too damn upbeat, filmmaker Todd Solondz has been the reigning king of indie miserablism since winning Sundance with Welcome to the Dollhouse in 1995. With that in mind, it would be the understatement of the decade to say that Solondz's latest — an ensemble comedy about a magical dachshund who brings joy and comfort to the various strangers he meets — sounds like a change of pace. Boasting an ensemble cast that includes the likes of Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito, and Greta Gerwig, this is a warped Indiewood version of Benji that we'll have to see to believe. DE

Wild; Sundance 2016

Reinhold Vorschneider

‘Wild’

No, not that Reese Witherspoon Hike, Pray, Love movie from a few years back — this is the German girl-meets-wolf, girl-resorts-to-feral-state-to-hunt-wolf-and-discovers-the-beast-within movie you've been waiting for. Director Nicolette Krebitz and actress Lilith Stangenberg chart one woman's descent into madness (or is an ascent into liberation? Discuss) as she becomes consumed with trapping this creature and then … taming it? Making it a companion? Becoming it? Therein lies the tension … DF

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