It’s always darkest just before the dawn, and that’s certainly true of the annual movie calendar. Every December, as Oscar talk begins to dominate the discourse and force the conversation towards whatever films are backed by the biggest campaigns, the Sundance Film Festival saves the day, like an indie Gandalf appearing on the horizon just in the nick of time. Beginning last week with the reveal of the competition titles, and ending today by announcing their roster of short films, the pride of Park City has given us our first good look at the next year in movies. The festival doesn’t kick off until January 22, 2015 (we'll be there!), but the lineup already promises that Sundance is back to doing what Sundance does best. We’ll take a closer look at the individual titles before opening night, but here are five reasons to be excited for the 2015 edition:
Urgent documentaries about modern crises
Since the dawn of the digital revolution, Sundance has positioned itself as a fertile launching ground for some of the most timely and important nonfiction of the last decade (for example, this year's The Green Prince). Between the festival’s high profile and their willingness to program hot-button docs from relatively unknown filmmakers, Sundance can be relied upon to offer a slate that’s unafraid to shine a light on subjects many people would rather ignore. Leading the charge this year is Marc Silver’s tragically timely 3½ Minutes, which explores the November 23, 2012, shooting death of Jordan Russell Davis, an unarmed black teenager who was gunned down at a Florida gas station. On a less horrifying note, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief promises to be the definitive exposé on Hollywood’s most mocked religion.
It's just like being in Brooklyn!
The prevalence of Sundance movies set in Brooklyn has become a running joke over the last few years, but that’s all going to change in 2015. Just kidding. This year, there’s a movie that’s actually called Brooklyn. And that’s not all: It’s written by Nick Hornby. And sure, the High Fidelity author may not be from Brooklyn, but Brooklyn might be from him. Okay, in fairness, Brooklyn actually begins in 1950s Ireland, where a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) is torn between two men and two countries. It’s too early to say which of the other NYC-set Sundance titles spend most of their time in Williamsburg, but “all of them” seems like a good guess. Regardless of the borough in which it takes place, Sleeping With Other People, Leslye Headland’s follow-up to Bachelorette, will probably be the funniest thing to come out of this town since Broad City. The comedy stars Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie as two chronic cheaters who bump into each other 12 years after mutually swapping virginities in college.
The return of indie royalty
Sundance may pride itself on welcoming new voices, but the fest really rolls out the red carpet for the ones we’ve heard before. That’s not always a good thing, but—as was the case when Richard Linklater returned with Boyhood last year—it often means that the festival sees the world premieres of new work from now-major filmmakers. The big ticket this year is arguably Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, which finds the Frances Ha director returning to a more readily “indie” mode after premiering the broad generational comedy While We’re Young all the way back in September (the guy’s becoming a regular Swanberg). Reteaming with muse, girlfriend and writing-partner Greta Gerwig, Baumbach’s latest is about a college freshman (Lola Kirke) who’s rescued by her soon-to-be stepsister (Gerwig) for a series of misadventures (such as “dream-chasing”, “score-settling” and “cat-stealing”). Oh, and speaking of Joe Swanberg, Digging for Fire continues his recent streak of small movies with big-time casts (the film stars Rosemarie Dewitt, Orlando Bloom, Anna Kendrick and New Girl star Jake Johnson, who had a hand in the script). If all else fails, there’s also a new Guy Maddin movie. I’d fly just about anywhere for a new Guy Maddin movie. Maybe even Utah.
Movie stars getting adventurous
Sundance has become a haven for proven movie stars who want to switch things up and indulge in a little artistic integrity. While this often comes at the expense of visibility, it does mean that we get to see a movie in which Ryan Reynolds plays a guy whose cat tells him to murder people (The Voices). Lo and behold, Reynolds is back this year, starring in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Mississippi Grind, a road movie about the bond forged between two professional poker players. Finding an unexpected way to fill the void on her calendar where “shooting Battleship 2” was once penciled in, Brooklyn Decker will appear in Results, the latest film from Computer Chess director Andrew Bujalski. Results is being sold as the story of two personal trainers whose lives are turned upside down by a wealthy new client, which is as natural a follow-up to Computer Chess as anything else, I suppose. And in what might be the “biggest” film to be premiering at this year’s fest, Chris Pine is starring in Craig Zobel’s adaptation of Z for Zachariah, a post-apocalyptic saga about the last woman on Earth (noted New York Rangers fan Margot Robbie). Recent roles in Into the Woods and even Horrible Bosses 2 suggest that Pine might have a bright future in edgy roles that knowingly subvert his good looks.
While the hotly anticipated films make for the most immediate buzz, any Sundance worth the schlep is remembered for its discoveries. We're already hearing some very exciting things about two documentaries, each of which explores the ineffable power of filmmaking in wildly different ways. Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack relays a quintessentially hidden New York narrative, looking inside the lives of six teenage brothers who grew up locked inside a Manhattan housing project with nothing to keep them company but their parents’ robust library of movies. Their only method of maintaining their sanity? Obsessively recreating their favorite films. From the other side of the Atlantic comes Ilinca Calugareanu’s Chuck Norris vs. Communism, which looks back at how American cinema seeped into Romania through cracks in the Iron Curtain in the 1980s. The film profiles the one woman who had the skills and the courage to translate the likes of Flashdance and Ghostbusters for an audience cut off from the Western world.