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25 Must-See Movies at Sundance 2015

From hot docs to hilarious cringe-comedies, the festival films to keep an eye out for

Sundance

When January rolls around, moviegoers can expect three things: They'll have to wade through the junk that studios release during this notorious dump month (I, Frankenstein, anybody?); they'll have a chance to catch up on the buzzed-about Oscar titles; and the Sundance Film Festival will turn Park City into ground zero for the year's need-to-see indie comedies, dramas, documentaries and nouveau cult classics. In 2014, festgoers were treated to first looks at BoyhoodThe Babadook and Whiplash; starting on Thursday, January 22nd, we'll get the opportunity to get a glimpse at many of the movies we'll undoubtedly by crowing about in the next 12 months.

After poring through the lineup and staring intently at the tea leaves in the bottom of magic predicta-mug, we've come up with 25 movies that we think will be the creme de la crème of Sundance 2015. From docs on Kurt Cobain and Marlon Brando to an adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel Z for Zachariah, these are the ones we're looking forward to the most.

Being Evel

KK Promotions

‘Being Evel’

Behold…the face of pure Evel! Documentarian Daniel Junge chronicles the life and times of Seventies daredevil Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel, a man who's death-defying stunts and post-Elvis-in-Vegas fashion sense made him a bona fide pop icon during the Me Decade. The footage of the late, great gonzo celebrity attempting motorcycle jumps over everything from 100 snakes to the Grand Canyon should make this profile worth its weight in star-spangled jumpsuits alone.

Best of Enemies

ABC NEWS - ELECTION COVERAGE 1968 - "Convention Coverage" - Airdate in August 1968. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) WILLIAM BUCKLEY;GORE VIDAL

ABC Photo Archives

‘Best of Enemies’

Most of us can barely remember a time when political commentary on TV wasn't a trash-talking, name-calling, my-ideology-is-better-than-yours game of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Filmmakers Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) and Robert Gordon travel back in time to the ground-zero year of 1968, when ABC decided to pit arch-conservative William F. Buckley Jr. and novelist/raconteur/left-wing pundit Gore Vidal against the backdrop of the year's tumultuous Democratic and Republican conventions. One "crypto-Nazi" comment and one threat of a punch "in the goddamned face" later, the concept of verbal abuse as ratings-friendly debate became an official television news game plan.

The Bronze

Scott Henriksen

‘The Bronze’

Finally, fans of Olympic gymnastics get the reverse All About Eve they deserve! Bryan Buckley's spiky comedy focuses on a bitter, washed-up bronze-medal winner (Melissa Rauch) who sees her V.I.P. status threatened when a younger athlete in town — one who worships the older woman — starts generating headlines. Quicker than you can say "Mary Lou Retton on a Wheaties box," the claws and fangs come out.

Chuck Norris vs Communism

Kevin Williams

‘Chuck Norris vs. Communism’

Times were tough in 1980s Romania, as the country's Communist regime repressed its citizens and cut off much contact with the West. But thanks to the enduring efforts of several black marketers and a female dubbing expert, average Romanians got the chance to taste the sweetest fruit of American culture: Chuck Norris movies, courtesy of smuggled second-generation VHS tapes. This doc explores how one man's trashy action flick is another's potent symbol of liberation and freedom.

The D Train

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Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

‘The D Train’

As the man responsible for organizing his 20-year high school reunion, sad-sack Dan Landesman (viva Jack Black!) just wants the respect and admiration of his peers. What better way to win everybody over than convincing the most popular guy in school (James Mardsen) to show up — even if that means lying, cheating, stealing and alienating loved ones? We love it when Black does cringe-comedy, and Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul's warped tale seems like an opportunity for the star to go completely HAM in that direction. We will ride that train, people!

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

National Lampoon

‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon’

Or: How a bunch of eccentric Harvard grads, borderline sociopaths and grade-A assholes completely revolutionized modern comedy. Documentarian Douglas Tirola charts the rise of the National Lampoon, from Ivy-League parody machine to take-no-prisoners magazine to gross-out humor juggernauts. If the mere mention of the names Doug Kenney and Michael O'Donoghue fill you with glee, then you'll flip over the vintage Lampoon vintage; if you don't know these guys, you're about to meet the unsung heroes of American funny business. Either way, see this movie or the dog gets it!

The End of the Tour

Jakob Ihre

‘The End of the Tour’

You've probably seen the photos of Jason Segel in a do-rag dressed as David Foster Wallace, which have met with a fair amount of online derision — but director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) doesn’t usually disappoint. Full disclosure: This movie is about a never-published Rolling Stone interview from 1996 between Wallace and reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), based on the latter's memoir. Everyone involved has our attention, especially Segel. Could this be the first movie that doesn't involve him referencing or exposing the littlest Jason?

Experimenter

Jason Robinette

‘Experimenter’

One of two Sundance movies this year that recreate psychological experiments at American universities (see also The Stanford Prison Experiment), Michael Almereyda's look at how Yale's Stanley Milgram (a creepy-looking Peter Sarsgaard) asked participants to administer electric shocks to a group of people. They didn't want to do it — but because a figure of authority told them to, these perfectly lovely folks felt compelled to cause harm. Clearly, Milgram's little study had no real-world resonance whatsoever [cue rimshot].

Finders Keepers

LISLLC

‘Finders Keepers’

It's just your typical man-buys-used-BBQ-grill, man-finds-severed-human-foot-inside, man-must-battle-previous-owner-of-foot-for-possession tale…you know how those go. This genuinely cracked true story gets the documentary treatment, as the movie maps out how one innocent purchase turns a South Carolinian's life into tabloid fodder. By the end of this movie, you may want avoid auctions altogether — and possibly take off vegetarianism.

Fresh Dressed

A scene from 'Fresh Dressed.'

‘Fresh Dressed’

And lo, the world of old-school hip-hop developed a distinctive look, picking brand names — Adidas, Kangol, Puma — to dress the breakdancers, taggers and rappers that practiced its arts. Thus was born a style known as "fressssh," and the Lord (and many corporate entities that wanted to cash in the hip new look) declared it good. We've been waiting for the great history-of-b-boy-fashion movie to come along, and this may be it. We will be wearing our dookie chain at the premiere.

Going Clear

Sam Painter

‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief’

Based on Lawrence Wright's exposé about Scientology, cine-muckraker Alex Gibney's film promises a stem-to-stern look at the controversial religion — from creator L. Ron Hubbard's early establishment of the belief system to its adoption by A-list Hollywood players. Allegedly, eight former members of the church provide first-hand testimonies of the organization's in and outs, as well as going into the numerous accusations of harassment and abuse. We're assuming there will not be a booth selling Dianetics in the Redstone Cinema's lobby.

I am Michael

Cara Howe

‘I Am Michael’

Gay-rights activist Michael Glatze had long been a posterboy for queer political action; then, in 2007, he suddenly embraced Christianity, disavowed his homosexuality and stunned everyone who knew him. Director Justin Kelly's feature debut attempts to find out why Glatze pulled a 180-degree ideological turn; the fact that James Franco is playing this divisive figure doesn't suggest star vehicle so much as a continuation of his fascination with gay/straight semiotics (see Interior: Leather Bar). Expect some interesting post-screening Q&As.

I Smile Back

Eric Lin

‘I Smile Back’

Attention all you Will Gardner fans still in mourning: This is one of Josh Charles' first big roles since ditching his role on The Good Wife. But the real draw here is Sarah Silverman as a seemingly happy housewife with a destructive habit that threatens to undo her family. Suburban malaise is Sundance catnip, and Silverman surprised us with her darker side in 2011's Take This Waltz, so we’ll be very curious to watch her lead a drama for the first time.

Kurt Cobain

Anton Corbijn

‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’

Fully authorized by the Nirvana frontman's estate, this inside look at Kurt Cobain's life and art seems like a fan's dream come true: archival footage, home movies, interviews with families and friends and a few never-heard-before tracks. Mostly, the portrait promises to offer a peek into what made the singer-guitarist such a complicated man and such a vital artist. We're so excited to see this that we're already humming the melody to "Sliver" in anticipation.

Listen to Me Marlon

Courtesy Sundance Film Festival

‘Listen to Me Marlon’

He played Mafia dons, dockworkers, sensitive brutes and Superman's dad; now, filmmaker Stephen Riley gives audiences the man himself, Marlon Brando, in his own words. With narration provided by tapes of the actor speaking about fame, his craft, and his eventual hatred of both — as well as, you know, his movies — this doc compiles lots of private footage of the Method man at work and at home. You want Brando Confidential? Fine, you've got it.

Mississippi Grind

Courtesy Sundance Film Festival

‘Mississippi Grind’

We've been waiting for filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar) to get back to crafting the sort of movies that made us believe in indie movies again (the less said about 2010's It's Kind of a Funny Story, the better). And we have a good feeling about their tale of two gamblers hitting the road and heading to New Orleans, hoping to hit it big in a high-stakes poker game. Not even the presence of the Green Lantern himself, Ryan Reynolds, can scare us off. We're all in on this one.

Mistress America

Sam Levy

‘Mistress America’

Another Noah Baumbach movie already, you say? His previous film hasn't even hit theaters yet! (That'd be While We're Young, which comes out this spring and features Ben Stiller's funniest performance in years. But we digress.) Baumbach's latest once again features the beguiling, daffy Great Gerwig as a New Yorker who leads her freshman stepsister (Mozart in the Jungle's Lola Kirke) through all sort of Gotham-based misadventures. Count on wittiness, drollery and the sort of sharp dialogue that you've come to expect from the writer-director.

The Nightmare

A scene from 'The Nightmare.'

‘The Nightmare’

After his brilliant, batshit Room 237 deconstructed crazy conspiracies about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (and in the process, crafted a valentine to cine-obsessiveness), we'd pretty much see anything Rodney Ascher does. His follow-up sounds equally as odd and compelling: It delves into the phenomenon of "sleep paralysis," in which people find themselves unable to move a muscle in that netherworld between sleep and consciousness. We just got goosebumps.

Sleeping with Other People

SWOP 6-25-14-542.CR2

Linda Kllrus

‘Sleeping With Other People’

Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (the infinitely charming Alison Brie) bump into each other at a support group for sex addicts — years after losing their virginity to one another — and embark on a platonic friendship in which they swap masturbation tricks and struggle to form healthier attachments. Director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) has never met a boundary she doesn't want to push, and her "ironic homage" to When Harry Met Sally (her words!) suggests lots of dirty, damaged fun.

Slow West

Courtesy

‘Slow West’

An open letter to all young Scottish men traveling to the American West circa the late 1800s, hoping to track down your lady love: make sure she does not have a posse of bounty hunters chasing after her. Also, if you must still go and rescue the object of your affection, be sure you have a frontiersman who's handy with a gun, knows the landscape well and looks like Michael Fassbender with you. That should open some doors.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Jas Shelton

‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’

Billy Crudup plays psychologist Philip Zimbardo who, in 1971, conducted a famous experiment that explored the role of cell-block power. He enrolled undergraduates to act as either guards or prisoners; the study soon took on a very real sense of life-imitating-art, for the subjects as well as the team assigned to observe them. Olivia Thirlby and The Knick’s Michael Angarano costar.

Tig

‘Tig’

Even before the extraordinary set she did regarding her cancer diagnosis, Tig Notaro was one of the smartest, funniest, most inventive stand-up comics around. (Google the bit she did on Conan O'Brien's show that involves her scooting a stool around. Go ahead, we'll wait.) But after that Largo gig found its way on to the Internet, she suddenly found herself catapulted into the spotlight — proving that tragedy plus time does indeed equal comedy, provided you have the chops to turn bad luck into an insightful, eye-opening half hour of confessional joke-telling. Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York's doc looks at what happened after Notoro opened up onstage, from dealing with the disease to the sudden onrush of attention.

Welcome to Leith

Gregory Bruce

‘Welcome to Leith’

The rural town of Leith, North Dakota always seemed like a nice place to settle down — that's what Craig Cobb, a notorious racist, thought when he was looking to establish a separatist, white-supremacist-friendly headquarters for your hatemongering. The community, naturally, were less then thrilled by its new resident and his ideas for changing their city into Hatetown U.S.A., and fought to keep Cobb from taking over Leith acre by acre. Thankfully, Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker captured the whole thing on film. Yes, things get ugly.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

‘What Happened, Miss Simone’

That'd be Nina Simone, the fierce soul singer and civil-rights activist who's been ripe for a docu-portrait for a long while. Thankfully, Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, U.S.A.) stepped up, delivering what we've heard to be a warts-and-all look at how Simone battled racism, sexism and her own demons — and still delivered the sort of heartfelt, eye-watering, gut-punching music that made her legend. What happened, you ask? You're about to find out.

Z for Zachariah

Craig Zobel

‘Z for Zachariah’

Director Craig Zobel scandalized Sundance audiences in 2012 with the controversial Compliance, and now he's back with a post-apocalyptic film that's guaranteed to generate more chatter. The relationship between a young woman (The Wolf of Wall Street's Margot Robbie) and a dying scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is compromised when they come across another survivor (Chris Pine) — and the two men vie for her affection. All we can say is: Uh-oh.