The 2009 Sundance Film Festival Preview

This will be ComingSoon.net’s third year attending the Sundance Film Festival and just like the two years prior, there’s only so much real preparation you can do for a festival like this before getting there. While the film screening schedules are mostly set in stone, everything changes almost on a daily basis as you try to get as much bang for your buck. After all, Sundance is a movielover’s paradise because there are so many really good movies premiering there. The Sundace selection committee are extremely picky, whittling the literally thousands of movies they receive every year down to under 150, screened in a variety of venues within Park City and the surrounding area over the course of ten days.

One thing to know right off the bat is that like every film festival, it’s impossible to see everything; the numbers above average out to roughly ten movies a day, which is not possible for any one person to do. With that in mind, it’s important to prioritize and make a list of the movies you absolutely must see andthen try your best to get to all of them. It’s sometimes tough, since there’s generally only one press and industry screening of each movie (although some movies get “reruns” later in the week), so it’s a matter of balancing those with the public premieres, which are always fun since the filmmakers and cast generally attend, not to mention the Sundance audiences that make even the worst movies seem better for some reason.

There are some interesting choices in this year’s roster, but just like in years past, you never know what’s going to work until you’re sitting in your seat watching the movie unfold. While movies like last year’s Choke and The Wackness delivered on advance buzz, there are always lots of surprises, and they often come from the movies that don’t have any big name stars, which was the case with Once and Son of Rambow a few years back.

It’s good to keep in mind that just because a movie premieres at Sundance and gets picked up for distribution–which is becoming rarer and rarer each year–that doesn’t guarantee commercial success. Not every movie can be a Little Miss Sunshine or a Napoleon Dynamite and as we showed last year in our 2007 Scorecard, very few movies that play on Sundance break out and many downright bomb. Even so, last year, movies like Frozen River and Trouble the Water and Man on Wire received acclaim at Sundance long before they were nominated for awards and made many Top 10 lists last year. (In fact, on Sunday night, Colin Farrell won a Golden Globe for his performance in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, which opened Sundance one year ago.)

Regardless, the festival opens on Thursday night, January 15, with the claymation film Mary and Max, the first feature film from Adam Elliot, the Australian creator of the Oscar winning animated short Harvie Krumpet, as it tells the unusual story of a pen pal friendship between two very different individuals. Opening with an animated movie might not seem too weird for those who remember Brett Morgen’s animated doc Chicago 10 opening the fest two years ago. It’s also not surprising that the festival closes with Robert Stone’s documentary Earth Days, a look at the history of the modern environmental movement, being that Park City is one of the places that has been deeply affected by the effects of global warming.

In between those two, there are roughly 120 films, the most interesting ones tending to be in competition, divided up among four specific categories–U.S. Documentary and Dramatic, and World Documentary and Dramatic. There’s also the “Premieres” section, which usually has a great selection of star-driven films by established filmmakers as well as a few surprises.

If there’s one movie I’m most looking forward to seeing a few months earlier than everyone else, that would be Greg Mottola’s new comedy Adventureland (Miramax – March 27). Some might remember Motolla as the director of Seth Rogen’s Superbad, and the second movie he wrote and directed (after The Daytrippers in 1996) is set in an amusement park in 1987 where a college grad, played by Jesse Eisenberg from Tadpole and The Squid and the Whale, has taken a seemingly dead-end job. With a cast that includes Kristen Stewart from Twilight, Bill Hader (also from Superbad), Kristen Wiig, Ryan Reynolds, and Martin Starr (another Apatow vet), this is looking like one of the festival’s can’t-miss movies. We’ll be seeing it on Tuesday morning, January 20, at Park City’s biggest venue, the Eccles Theater, expecting to wake up with laughs.

Though not a sports fan by any means, I’m really looking forward to seeing Big Fan, the directorial debut by Robert Siegel, writer of Darren Aronofsky’s acclaimed The Wrestler and former editor of “The Onion.” It stars comic Patton Oswalt–you might remember him as the voice of Remy in Ratatouille–as a Staten Island attendant and the “world’s biggest New York Giants fan” who follows their linebacker into a city strip club, where a misunderstanding turns into a confrontation that tests his team loyalty. The buzz Siegel’s script is getting for The Wrestler will get this movie a lot of attention, and if it’s any good, we can expect it to be scooped up quickly.

I’ve already had a chance to see In the Loop, the new political comedy from British filmmaker Armando Iannucci, which features a group of U.S. and U.K. politicians debating the repercussions of going to war. The darkly humorous (and entirely fictitious) film stars Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini and a great ensemble cast doing work on par with the films of Christopher Guest.

John Hindman’s debut, the romantic comedy Arlen Faber, which made the 2007 Black List of favorite unproduced scripts, stars Jeff Daniels as the title character, the author in hiding of a hugely popular spiritual self-help book who 20 years later can’t seem to help himself until a single mother played by Lauren Graham and a young junkie played by Lou Taylor Pucci land on his doorstep. You can check out an exclusive clip and interview with Hindman here.

The first time I heard about Carlos Cuarón’s Rudo y Cursi was when I interviewed Alfonso Cuarón over two years ago for Children of Men. The Spanish language film is worth nothing because it reunites Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal for the first time since Carlos’ more famous brother brought them together for Y Tu Mama Tambien. This time, they play dueling brothers who play for the local soccer team and have aspirations for greater things, and it’s already been picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.

David (Young Adam) McKenzie’s new movie Spread is about a young hotshot played by Ashton Kutcher, who attempts to sleep his way to the top in the Hollywood system. It’s not to be confused with the similarly succinct Shrink starring Kevin Spacey as a Hollywood psychiatrist to the Hollywood stars. That one is written by Thomas Moffett and Jonas Pate, but both of them have the type of audience pull that they’ll be getting back-to-back screenings at the vast Eccles.

James Strouse’s previous film Grace is Gone starring John Cusack won the Audience Award at Sundance two years ago. Now he’s back with his second movie, the basketball film The Winning Season, starring Sam Rockwell as a harried basketball coach put in charge of a girls high school basketball team. The ever-present Rockwell–he’s to Sundance what Aaron Eckhart or Mark Ruffalo are to the Toronto Film Festival–also stars in Duncan Jones’ sci-fi drama Moon about a man alone on a lunar mining base who is slowly going insane.

John Krasinski from “The Office” is making his directorial debut with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, an adaptation of the late David Foster Wallace’s novel about a woman writing a thesis for a doctorate in anthropology who does a series of interviews with various men to try to figure them out. That woman is played by the always-great Julianne Nicholson (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”).

Many of Brett Easton Ellis’ most controversial novels like American Psycho and Less Than Zero have been turned into memorable films and Gregor (Buffalo Soldiers) Jordan is hoping that his take on Ellis’ The Informers will join them. It doesn’t hurt that it was adapted by Ellis himself along with James Toback documentarian Nicholas Jarecki, and that it stars Mickey Rourke, riding high from his comeback, as well as Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger and Winona Ryder. (Do we think that Jordan is a fan of 9 1⁄2 Weeks? I think we do.)

It’s not often that you see a prolific Hollywood filmmaker like Antoine Fuqua “slumming it” at a film festival, but that’s exactly where his latest police drama Brooklyn’s Finest will be debuting. Starring Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke (who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Fuqua’s Training Day) and Wesley Snipes, this one deals with undercover officers on narcotics detail.

On the other hand, Fox Searchlight is set to release 500 Days of Summer, Marc Webb’s eclectic romantic comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel over the summer, but Sundance attendees will have a chance to see it six months early.

British filmmaker Pete Travis had a big hit last year with Sony’s political thriller Vantage Point and his new movie Endgame deals with the African National Congress (ANC) and their fight against apartheid during the late ’80s. It stars William Hurt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mark Strong and Johnny Lee Miller.

Possibly the biggest name star at Sundance will probably be Jim Carrey, who follows up his high concept comedy Yes Man with an artier high concept comedy called I Love You Phillip Morris about a crooked Texas policeman who realizes he’s gay after he falls for a fellow inmate (played by Ewan McGregor, no less) while in prison. It’s the directorial debut from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writers of Bad Santa.

The Polish Brothers, Mark and Michael, are back at Sundance with their latest indie flick, Manure after premiering Northfork there six years earlier. This one revolves around a struggle for control of Rose’s Manure Company by the deceased owner’s daughter (Téa Leoni) and two of the company’s top manure salesmen, played by Billy Bob Thornton (who starred in the Brothers’ The Astronaut Farmer) and Kyle MacLachlan. (The Polish Brothers also have a second movie called Stay Cool starring Winona Ryder and Hilary Duff in the works.)

Derick Martini’s Lymelife flew completely under our radar at the Toronto Film Festival, though it received quite a bit of acclaim, as well as being picked up for distribution by Screen Media Films. The coming-of-age tale starring Rory Culkin is part of the festival’s “Spectrum” program, a “tribute to the abundance of the compelling new voices and creative spirit in independent filmmaking,” which I generally thought was the entire point behind the entire festival.

Peter Callahan’s Against the Current, starring Joseph Fiennes as a financial writer who deals with the after-effects of 9/11 by swimming 150 miles down the Hudson River, is another premiere in the “Spectrum” program. So is The Vicious Kind, a drama from Lee Toland Krieger starring Adam Scott, Brittany Snow and J.K. Simmons.

Playwright Oren Moverman co-wrote Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There and he makes his directorial debut with The Messenger, starring Ben Foster as an Iraq soldier healing from wounds inflicted during his tour of duty who takes a job at the Casualty Notification Office letting families know about soldiers who didn’t make it. Woody Harrelson plays his superior officer, Jenna Malone plays his girlfriend and Samantha Morton plays a widow that he’s drawn to. Should be a powerful dramatic film.

Katherine Dieckmann, director of Diggers, is back with Motherhood, a movie that spends an entire day with a harried mother played by Uma Thurman. On the other side of that equation, comic Bobcat Godthwait returns to Sundance with his new dark comedy World’s Greatest Dad, starring Robin Williams as a single father trying to connect with his smartass son.

Another movie that I remember hearing about seemingly years ago was Noah Buschel’s modern-day noir tale The Missing Person, starring Michael Shannon (Bug) a private detective sent to follow a middle-aged man before the game takes a major change. Co-starring Oscar nominee Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) and Frank Wood, it’s premiering on Friday night as part of the “Spectrum” program.

Charlyne Yi, the Asian stoner Jodi from Knocked Up, co-wrote and stars in the semi-autobiographical Paper Hearts, about one young woman’s quest for love, and it co-stars real-life boyfriend Michael Cera as the man who helps her find it. It’s premiering in competition at the festival.

This year, there are a couple intriguing foreign films in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, but particularly Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, his first film since finishing The Pusher Trilogy a few years back. This is a pseudo-biopic of British criminal Charlie Bronson whose violence in prison leads to time in a mental institution as he fights against the system. If it’s as graphically violent as Pusher 3, you might want to bring a strong stomach when it premieres on Monday, January 9 at the Egyptian Theater. (A very cool Main Street venue where a lot of the midnight movies play well.)

German filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel might have slipped up with his studio remake The Invasion, but he’s teamed with Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt for the Irish political thriller Five Minutes of Heaven, which looks like it could be a more interesting follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Downfall. An Education teams one of Denmark’s finest directors, Lone Scherfig, with British novelist Nick Hornby, and the results should certainly be interesting. It’s a coming-of-age tale of a 16-year-old named Jenny (played by Carey Mulligan) set in 1961 London, who becomes involved with a much older man played by Peter Sarsgaard. It has what possibly what could be deemed as one of the most impressive who’s who of British actors including everyone from Alfred Molina and Emma Thompson to Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike.

I’ve already seen Alexis Dos Santos’ Unmade Beds, an interesting London-based coming-of-age film that’s reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien and Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, and I’m vaguely curious about the Japanese sci-fi thriller The Clone Returns Home.

The foreign film that seems to be on everyone’s must see list, especially after the popularity of the Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In, is the Nazi zombie movie Død Snø (Dead Snow) from Norway, one of the highlights of Sundance’s infamous Park City at Midnight. There isn’t a lot of horror in the midnight track this year, although The Killing Room from director Jonathan Liebesman (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) could be interesting, involving four volunteers who sign up for a research study and are put through the worst night of their lives thanks to the inimitable Peter Stormare. I may be a little too freaked out to see Paul Solet’s Grace which deals with a mother and a stillborn baby, although it does star the world’s cutest scream queen Jordan Ladd (Cabin Fever).

There are some interesting potential cult classics in Scott Sander’s blaxploitation “spoof” Black Dynamite starring Michael Jai White and Dan Eckman’s Mystery Team from the Derrick Comedy group about a group of teen detectives who may be too old to remain in the game. Dominic Murphy’s White Lightnin’ about a tap dancing criminal could be… unique. Ryan Shiraki’s Spring Breakdown was supposed to get a theatrical release by Warner Bros., but it looks like it will be getting a DVD release instead which is surprising, considering that it has a great cast of Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Parker Posey and other funny ladies. Who knows how many of these we’ll be able to catch, since most of them play well past our bed time.

As much as we love docs, we don’t generally cover them at film festivals, just because there are way too many and there doesn’t seem to be much interest in them on the site. It’s too bad since some of last year’s best documentaries debuted at Sundance earlier in the year, including James Marsh’s Man on Wire and Christopher Bell’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster.

With that in mind, there’ll certainly be a good amount of interest in Tyson, James Toback’s documentary about his good friend, boxer Mike Tyson, which was already picked up by Sony Pictures Classics before the festival even began. We’re also interested in catching Ondi (Dig!) Timoner’s We Live in Public, which looks at internet pioneer Josh Harris, who experimented with chat and streaming back in the ’90s, long before everyone else, but then burnt out after losing the wealth gained from his pioneering ways.

We saw Davis Guggenheim’s amazing It Might Get Loud at the Toronto Film Festival, and any music enthusiast will want to see this meeting of guitar greats The Edge from U2, Jimmy Page and Jack White a second time. Also on the music front, we’re looking forward to talking to Tom DiCillo about his tribute to the Doors, When You’re Strange, which should not be confused with Spike Lee’s film version of the Broadway musical Passing Strange, which will premiere at the festival before its television debut. One of Lee’s peers, filmmaker Robert Townsend returns with the documentary Why We Laugh, which looks at the history of black comedy, something with which Townsend is infinitely familiar, and he got a lot of greats to talk on film including Bill Cosby, Christ Rock and Keenan Ivory Wayans.

Fans of The Devil Wears Prada might be interested in R.J. Cutler’s documentary The September Issue, which follows the inspiration for Meryl Streep’s character, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, over the nine months of planning for the magazine’s popular September issue. It’s the festival’s Salt Lake City Gala premiere this year.

Other documentaries that interest me include The Yes Men Fix the World, the follow-up to the ahead-of-its-time 2003 doc about the guys who fight the system with elaborate and intricate scams, as well as William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, which should be a very different look at the controversial attorney, being that it’s a film made by Kunstler’s daughters Emily and Sarah.

So that’s the line-up of movies on our radar so far. If we get to see between 20 and 25 of the above movies over our eight days in Park City, we’ll be very happy, although we’ll also try to talk to some of the filmmakers and stars down on Main Street, which could take away from our movie viewing time.

Sundance Film Festival kicks off on January 15. You can read a lot more about the movies above and try to get tickets for some of them at the official site. Look for reviews and interviews of some of the movies above in the next few weeks.

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