ComingSoon.net’s 2012 Sundance Film Festival Preview

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It’s that time of year again, when the cold weather starts hitting much of the country and everyone in Hollywood feels the need to get their taste of snow by traveling to Park City in Utah for the annual Sundance Film Festival. ComingSoon.net will be there again this year, attending lots of screenings, doing interviews and maybe getting to a couple of parties, all of which offer a much-needed break from the annual awards season ruts some of us have been writing about since September.

This year’s Sundance can claim two Oscar-nominated filmmakers with new movies and dozens of big name stars, although in year’s past, it’s often been the smaller movies by unknowns that sneak up on us and impress. In roughly two weeks’ time, we expect to have a list of favorites, hopefully all of which will get picked up for distribution and be swinging your way sometime later this year.

That’s actually one of the important things to remember about Sundance is that it’s one of the first market festivals of the year, so when studios have finished balancing their budgets for the previous year, they’re ready to start spending money on movies to pick up for distribution they feel they can market to be commercial and/or critical hits, as well as for potential awards. That was the case with films like Little Miss Sunshine, Precious, Hustle & Flow, Winter’s Bone and many other films which premiered at Sundance, often in competition.

Obviously, we can’t logically write something about every movie playing at this year’s festival, but we’ve handpicked a couple dozen movies we haven’t seen yet that either we’ve heard good things about or are interested in them due to their pedigree, stars, subject matter etc. (Chances are we won’t have a chance to see all of them either.)

Things kick off on Thursday, January 19 with a couple of opening night premieres taken from various categories of programming including Wish You Were Here, the debut by Kieran Darcy-Smith. This is the latest film from Australia’s Blue Tongue Films who came to Sundance in 2010 with Animal Kingdom and The Square (two of our favorite movies that year). As in both of those, this one stars Joel Edgerton (Warrior, The Thing) as Dave, who along with his pregnant wife Alice (Felicity Price) and her younger sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) travel to Cambodia where the latter’s new boyfriend Jeremy vanishes, leaving the other three trying to return to their normal lives in Sydney.

Also playing opening night is Hello I Must Be Going, the new comedy from director Todd Louiso (The Marc Pease Experience), best known for his character actor roles like the lovable Dick from Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity. It stars Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creature, Win Win) as Amy Minsky, a woman who has to move back in with her parents at the age of 35, whose self-esteem and confidence is bolstered by meeting a 19-year-old (Christopher Abbott) who is into her. These two are premiering at Sundance in competition, the former in the World Dramatic Competition, the latter in the US Dramatic Competition.

Premieres

Speaking of Frears, he’s returning to Sundance for the first time in 20 years with Lay the Favorite, starring Rebecca Hall as a Florida stripper who moves to Las Vegas and gets involved in the world of sports betting. It returns Frears to the world of crime he explored so well in The Grifters (his last movie at Sundance) with a movie that stars Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson and Laura Prepon.

Spike Lee also makes his return to Sundance, having premiered his performance film Passing Strange there a few years back, this time with Red Hook Summer, his return to the Brooklyn ‘hood of movies like Do the Right Thing (and apparently, the return of his popular character Mookie!) telling the story of a rich kid from Atlanta sent to live with his strict preacher grandfather (Clarke Peters from “The Wire”) in a Red Hook housing project. As was the case with many of Jones’ earliest works, it introduces a lot of new talent.

Actress Julie Delpy follows her directorial debut 2 Days in Paris with the similarly-themed 2 Days in New York (Samuel Goldwyn Films), this time teaming with Chris Rock as a happy couple living in New York whose lives are disrupted when her racist father (played by Delpy’s actual father Albert) and family visit from Paris.

J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call got a lot of attention at last year’s festival for its look at the world of Wall Street. This year, doc filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki (The Outsider) makes his dramatic feature debut with Arbitrage, a star-studded film led by Richard Gere as Robert Miller, a hedge fund magnate trying to sell off his company before it’s discovered by the potential buyer that they’ve been guilty of fraud. It co-stars Susan Sarandon, Eva Green, Tim Roth, Brit Marling and Nate Parker.

Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, James Marsden and Adam Scott star in Leslye Headland’s directorial debut Bachelorette, an adaptation of her own play about four high school friends with issues that come to the fore when one of them becomes engaged to a wealthy New York bachelor and asks the others to be bridesmaids. Yes, we think it sounds a lot like Bridesmaids too.

Rodrigo (Buried) Cortés’ Red Lights stars Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Margaret Matheson and Cillian Murphy as her assistant Tom, two paranormal investigators trying to disprove various metaphysical phenomena but when a blind psychic named Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) returns after 30 years being absent, Tom becomes obsessed trying to solve the mystery.

Parker Posey is a long-time Sundance darling, which may be why she’s hosting this year’s closing night awards ceremony on Saturday, January 28th, but she’s also back with a movie, Michael Walker’s Price Check opposite Eric Mabius as a former music biz guy now working at a supermarket chain to provide for his family when his new boss Susan (Posey) shakes things up by trying to groom him to become an executive for the chain.

Josh Radnor is another Sundance vet–his previous movie happythankyoumoreplease won the Audience Award at Sundance–and he returns with Liberal Arts, playing a down-on-his-luck 35-year-old who accepts an invite to speak at the retirement dinner for an old professor (Richard Jenkins) where he becomes involved with a significantly younger sophomore, played by Elizabeth Olsen.

Lee Toland Krieger is yet another returning filmmaker, having been at Sundance with The Vicious Kind. This year, he has the romantic comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever, staring Rashida Jones (who co-wrote it) and Andy Samberg as high school sweethearts who got married young and are thought of as the perfect couple… until they get divorced.

Oscar-winning doc filmmaker James Marsh brought his latest Oscar contender Project Nim to Sundance last year and his latest dramatic film Shadow Dancer stars Andrea Riseborough as Colletete McVeigh, a Northern Irish single mother who becomes involved with the IRA in setting up bombs until she gets caught by an MI5 agent (played by Clive Owen), who turns her against her own.

Christopher Neill makes his directorial debut with Goats starring Graham Phillips as 15-year-old Ellis Whitman, who has grown up in a New Age way of life with odd parents (Vera Farmiga, Ty Burrell) and an odd sage known as Goat Man (played by David Duchovny), but when he leaves his desert environment for a prep school, he’s in for a major change.

Sundance will also premiere a couple of showcases for established actors, including Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s thriller The Words, which stars Bradley Cooper as a struggling writer who discovers a lost manuscript which he tries to pass off as his own work in order to achieve the fame he’s always wanted. Actor Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) stars in Marshall Lewy’s California Solo as musician Lachlan MacAldonich, the guitarist of a once-popular ‘90s rock band living a drunken slacker lifestyle on an organic farm outside Los Angeles, who faces deportation after a DWI. >Robot and Frank, directed by first-timer Jake Schreier, stars Frank Langella as the Frank in the title, acting opposite a robot in the buddy comedy about a cranky former criminal who gets into exploits with his new caretaker robot

Spotlight

The Spotlight section of the festival includes many new films from terrific foreign filmmakers as well as a number of foreign films that have been submitted for the Academy’s consideration in the Foreign Language Film category. With the recently announced shortlist, we know that Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, Canada’s submission, may only be a few days away from an Oscar nomination, but it gets its US Premiere on Friday. (We should point out that Canada’s 2011 offering was nominated and that was the Weekend Warrior’s #1 movie of 2011!) Lazhar stars Mohamed Fellag as the title character, an Algerian immigrant who steps in as substitute teacher for an elementary school class after the suicide death of their previous teacher.

We were big fans of Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s debut Reprise, so we’re going to try our best to see Oslo August 31, based on a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle about an alcoholic who gets a single day out of rehab to go to Oslo for a job interview and see a family. Can he do this without relapsing?

We’ve similarly heard great things about Gareth Huw Evans’ Indonesian martial arts flick The Raid (Sony Pictures Classics – March 23) which premiered at Toronto last September, which deals with an elite police squad invading a safe house full of gangsters and killers in the slums of Jakarta. It stars Indonesian arts sensation Iko Uwais and we’re shocked this isn’t in the Park City at Midnight section.

Andrea Arnold’s first two films, Red Road and Fish Tank, were terrific, so we’re hoping to finally getting around to seeing her take on the literary classic Wuthering Heights. Another Toronto vet–in fact, the winner of its Audience Award–is Nadine Labaki Where Do We Go Now? (Sony Pictures Classics – April 12) , Lebanon’s Oscar entry about a town experiencing civil unrest between the Muslim and Christian males, a problem that’s solved by the local women who bring in a group of Ukrainian strippers. France’s Foreign Language Oscar entry film Declaration of War and New Zealand’s first entry into the foreign language race with their first film in Samoan The Orator, will also premiere in this year’s “Spotlight” track.

NEXT

The NEXT category showcases lower budget films of different genres that take a less than mainstream approach to material to epitomize true indie filmmaking.

Craig Zobel’s The Great World of Sound was one of our favorite films when it debuted at Sundance in 2007, so we’re super-excited to see him return with Compliance, which premieres in the “NEXT” section. The thriller stars Ann Dowd as Sandra the middle-aged manager of a fast food restaurant and Dreama Walker as Becky, her teen employee who is accused of stealing from a customer, putting Sandra into a difficult position whether to protect the girl even though she denies the charges.

Comedian/playwright Mike Birbiglia writes, directs and acts in the adaptation of his own off-Broadway one-man play Sleepwalk with Me, the story of a stand-up comedian whose stress over career and a relationship send him off on bouts of sleepwalking.

There are plenty of others, though we often find it harder to find movies we truly love in this category.

In Competition

Next up, we have some of the movies in dramatic competition, which always offers a lot of nice surprises as the names involved both in front and behind the camera aren’t always that well known.

The one most will be eyeing is Nobody Walks, a collaboration between Ry Russo-Young (You Won’t Miss Me) and Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), two popular 20-something New York filmmakers whose early films have been very popular on the festival circuit. This one stars Olivia Thirlby as Martine, a 23-year-old New York artist (of course) who goes Silver Lake in Los Angeles where she moves in with Peter (John Krasinski), his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their two kids to work on her film, only to have complicated feelings arise.

Afterschool director Antonia Campos makes his return to Sundance along with his Borderline Productions partners who brought Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene to last year’s festival. His new movie Simon Killer stars frequent collaborator Brady Corbett as a college graduate trying to forget an ex-girlfriend by going to Paris.

Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate, based on the writings of Mark O’Brien, stars John Hawkes as a 38-year-old man trying to lose his virginity with a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. William H. Macy plays a priest that gives his blessing for this encounter.

Actor Mark Webber’s second movie as a director The End of Love has him playing a struggling actor… named Mark… (Hey, wait a minute!) who ends up having to take care of his two-year-old son on his own when the mother dies. It co-stars Shannyn Sossamon, Michael Cera, Jason Ritter and Amanda Seyfried.

Webber also appears in Save the Date, Michael (One Too Many Mornings) Mohan’s return to Sundance, starring Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie as sisters whose romantic lives are on different paths – one trying to get over a break-up, the other preparing for her wedding. Martin Starr and Geoffrey Arend play two of the other men in their lives.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul star in James Ponsoldt’s Smashed, playing a couple whose fun-loving alcohol-induced marriage which starts a downwards spiral when it’s obvious her alcoholic behavior is making it harder to ignore their problem.

We’re also looking forward to Wrong, the new movie from Quentin Dupieux, director of last year’s Rubber, but better known for his musical alter-ego Mr. Ouizo. It involves a guy named Dolph Springer desperately looking for his dog Paul, but if it’s anything like Rubber, there’s a lot more to this simple idea than might be apparent. It’s one of the many intriguing films in the World Dramatic Competition this year.

Honestly there’s a lot of potentially hidden gems in the competition categories, but we’ll be lucky if we’re able to catch half of them. We also don’t normally cover documentaries at Sundance, as much as we love them, just because there’s so many other movies to see and write about (as you can tell if you’ve read down this far).

One we definitely can’t miss is West of Memphis from director Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) and producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh–you may have heard of them–which looks at the trial and jailing of the West Memphis Three, three young men accused of killing three boys whose stories were previously covered in the “Paradise Lost” movies. Berg’s film tells the story through the words of their relatives.

In fact, Joe Berlinger, co-director of the “Paradise Lost” series of docs which first brought to light the situation of the West Memphis Three, will himself be on-hand at Sundance with his own new movie Under African Skies, which documents the 25th Anniversary return to South Africa for Paul Simon to revisit his award-winning “Graceland” album.

Also, Rapper Ice-T directs a movie about something he truly loves with Something From Nothing: the Art of Rap, a performance documentary about hip-hop, co-directed with Andy Baybutt, that features Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Nas, Mos Def, Eminem, Chuck D, KRS-One, Run-DMC, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg.

Park City at Midnight

Easily the most fun that can be had at Sundance is with the Park City at Midnight programming, but normally we’d prefer to get our beauty sleep so we’re fresh when we wake up bright and early for the 8:30 and 9AM screenings, so we may end up missing a lot of really cool movies being screened in front of a rapturous and rowdy audience.

Katie Aselton, wife of frequent Sundance attendee Mark Duplass and star of his first film The Puffy Chair, returns with her second movie as director following The Freebie two years back. This one is Black Rock, a thriller based on a script by Duplass, which involves three friends (Kate Bosworth, Lake Bell and Aselton) reuniting for a trip to a remote island in Maine. Then bad stuff happens.

Horror fans will also likely be out in droves for V/H/S, the new found footage anthology featuring contributors like Ti West, Adam Wingard, Glenn McQuaid, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg and Radio Silence, the premise involving a group of criminals trying to find a VHS tape with some found footage and having to go through stacks of tapes (featuring movies by the aforementioned) to find the right one.

We love monster movies and in the Irish film Grabbers its a bunch of drunken Irish folk against something that is killing off the fishermen. We have some idea what they’re facing and we’re psyched to see what could be the funniest midnight movie at Sundance.

And we’re saving the best for last as Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace’s Shut Up and Play the Hits documents the final 48 hours in the life of James Murphy’s hipster electronica band LCD Soundsystem as they play their last concert ever at Madison Square Garden.

You can keep track of all things Sundance right here on ComingSoon.net, but make sure to follow the Weekend Warrior Twitter for quicker updates and reactions directly following the screenings.