Part of the joy of Sundance is discovering new talent, but some of the most exciting guests at this year’s Sundance are the ones who have been there in years past, many of whom have actually made a mark for themselves at Sundance in the past and bringing their latest offerings to the enthusiastic Sundance crowds. These filmmakers bring a varied mix of crowd-pleasing and quirkier fare with movies that range from infinitesimal budgets to ones that already have studio backing.
It all starts on opening night when James Marsh, director of the Oscar-winning doc Man on Wire, returns with Project Nim, one of three movies opening the festival. This doc deals with a famous chimpanzee in the ’70s who was raised like a child to learn to communicate through sign language, using similar techniques of telling the story. (It was reported before the festival even began that HBO has picked up all the rights to the film.) Another of the three opening night films is John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, and while the writer/director is new to Sundance, the movie stars Brendan Gleeson and is executive produced by his brother Martin McDonagh, whose own debut In Bruges opened Sundance a few years ago. In this one, Gleeson plays an Irish police officer named Gerry Boyle, whose routine is disrupted by an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) chasing an international drug-smuggling ring.
One of the big gets for this year’s festival is Kevin Smith’s first foray into horror with Red State, which also marks his return to Sundance for the first time since he debuted his very first movie Clerks. there all the way back in 1994. There’s a lot of anticipation to see what Smith does when returning to his indie roots following his major studio action-comedy Cop Out, a movie that was so reviled that Smith has created a manifesto against film critics.
Performance artist Miranda July made an impact at Sundance five years ago with her feature debut Me and You and Everyone We Know, which won a jury prize for “Originality of Vision.” This year, she’s back with her second movie The Future, which is looking to be just as innovative with her playing one half of an L.A. couple whose lives change after they pick up a terminally ill cat. Believe me, it gets weirder from there.
Director Miguel Arteta is a Sundance regular, having made his debut there in 2000 with his first collaboration with Mike White, Chuck & Buck, following that up two years later with their second movie The Good Girl, starring Jennifer Aniston. Arteta was on the Sundance jury in 2006, but sadly, his last movie Youth in Revolt didn’t get there. Now he’s back, teamed with Ed Helms from “The Office” and The Hangover for the comedy Cedar Rapids (Fox Searchlight – Feb. 11) , which also reunites Arteta with John C. Reilly, who appeared in The Good Girl and has also been a Sundance regular. (Last year, he starred in the Duplass brothers’ Cyrus.) The movie’s about a group of insurance salesmen at a convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa trying to overcome their humdrum lives.
Actor-turned-filmmaker Thomas McCarthy also made a mark at Sundance with his directorial debut The Station Agent in 2003, which won the Audience Award, as well as nods for McCarthy’s screenplay and the performance by Patricia Clarkson, who also appeared that year in Pieces of April, for which she received an Oscar nomination. McCarthy brought his second feature The Visitor to Sundance leading to Richard Jenkins’ Oscar nomination nearly a year later. His latest Win Win (Fox Searchlight – March 18) stars Paul Giamatti as a struggling attorney and high school wrestling coach who suddenly finds himself thrown together with a make-shift family when he becomes the guardian of an elderly client and ends up with his grandson as well. It co-stars Amy Ryan.
George Ratliffe came to Sundance with his dramatic feature debut, the dark thriller Joshua, and he’s back this year with Salvation Boulevard, starring Pierce Brosnan as Reverend Dan, the charismatic preacher of a small town whose primary detractors die in a bizarre accident casting his church in a shadow. It also stars Ed Harris, Greg Kinnear, Marisa Tomei, Jennifer Connelly and Yul Vazquez.
12 years ago, actor Joshua Leonard made his screen debut at Sundance with the surprise horror blockbuster The Blair Witch Project, and since then, he’s been back a number of times, most notably with Lynn Shelton’s Humpday in 2008. He’s directing his debut feature The Lie, based on the New Yorker short story by T.C. Boyle about a married guy who tells a lie to get out of work that steamrolls wildly out of control. It co-stars Jess Weixler, who made her Sundance debut in Teeth and Mark Webber who has been in a couple of Sundance movies including Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory.
Vera Farmiga has also made a significant mark with her career due to her many appearances at Sundance including her breakout role in Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone for which she won a jury prize. Since then, she’s been back a few times including in Joshua, but this year, Ms. Farmiga is coming to Sundance with her directorial debut Higher Ground. Besides directing, she also stars in this story of one woman’s spiritual journey. (And Joshua Leonard also appears in it, tying all of it together.)
Mark Pellington was at Sundance in 2007 with his previous movie Henry Poole is Here starring Luke Wilson as well as having directed U2 3D and he’s back with I Melt With You about a group of college friends who gather for a crazy weekend of sex and drugs that forces them to come to terms with choices they’ve made. The film stars Thomas Jane, Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, Christian McKay, Carla Gugino and Sasha Grey, the latter who was last at Sundance when Steven Soderbergh’s sneak previewed her mainstream film debut The Girlfriend Experience.
British filmmaker David McKenzie was last at Sundance with the Ashton Kutcher drama Spread and he’s back this year with Perfect Sense, starring Eva Green and Ewan McGregor, in an unconventional romance between an epidemiologist, someone who studies illnesses dealing with the population level, and a man who has uncontrollable crying fits. McGregor was at Sundance two years ago with I Love You, Phillip Morris, which is just now playing in theaters.
Since bringing his debut A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints to Sundance in 2006, Dito Montiel went off to direct the studio film Fighting, but he’s back at Sundance with The Son of No One, his third film with actor Channing Tatum, this one being a thriller involving a police cover-up surrounding the unsolved murder of two boys in the Queens neighborhood where a recently-assigned cop grew up.
Jacob Aaron Estes, the filmmaker behind the 2004 coming-of-age thriller Mean Creek is back at the festival with The Details, starring Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks as a married couple who are trying to lead the perfect life, but his attempts to create the perfect lawn are hampered by racoons… and things just go downhill from there. It co-stars Laura Linney, Ray Liotta and Kerry Washington.
Two years ago, Sebastian Silva came to Sundance with his Chile-based comedy The Maid, which introduced the world to the marvelous Catalina Saavedra (who won a number of awards for her performance.) They’re both back with Old Cats (Elephant Eye Films – March 4), a dark comedy about an elderly woman suffering from dementia whose daughter keeps showing up in order to borrow money with Saavedra playing her daughter’s lesbian lover.
How fortuitous is it for Denmark’s Susanne Bier to be bringing her 12th movie In a Better World to Sundance just a week after it won a Golden Globe in the Foreign Language category? Bier has already had her films showcased at Sundance, including Brothers (2005) and Open Hearts (2003). Once again collaborating with her regular screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, Bier’s latest looks at the relationship between two kids from different walks of life who bond over their mutual troubles at the hands of a bully, but the more dominant one then decides to take things further.
She may have some competition from Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (Sony Pictures Classics April 1), which is Canada’s entry for the Oscars in the Foreign Language category. Villeneuve was last at Sundance with his 2000 film Maelström, and his new movie is an adaptation of the award-winning play by Wajdi Mouawad about a twin brother and sister who are sent back to their mother’s homeland in the Middle East to find a brother they never knew about and the father they thought dead.
Lucky McKee is also a Sundance regular, having brought his debut, the popular cult horror film May to Sundance in 2002. A few years back, he co-directed a movie based on Jack Ketchum’s Red that also played Sundance, and this year he tackles his second Ketchum adaptation, The Woman, about a man who finds a wild woman roaming in the woods, captures her and then locks her in the shed, with his entire family taking part in her torture. (Sounds like a similar theme as Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, which was adapted a few years back.) This one McKee co-wrote with the popular horror author, and it plays as part of this year’s “Park City at Midnight” track.
Drake Doremus brought his debut Douchebag to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and less than a year later, he’s back with Like Crazy about an American guy and British girl (played by Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones) who meet at college and fall in love, which is put to a test when she returns to London. It also stars Jennifer Lawrence who made such huge waves at last year’s Sundance with Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone.
At this point, it wouldn’t really be a Sundance Film Festival if Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney didn’t have at least one movie there, so this year he’ll be debuting Magic Trip, his first film co-directed by regular editor Allison Ellwood, a film about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who made a LSD-fueled road trip across American in 1964.
Likewise, Morgan Spurlock brought his first movie Super Size Me to the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, then returned in 2008 with Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?. This year he has The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a documentary that examines marketing and product placement and how it’s used to finance movies. It seems like it could be just as funny as Spurlock’s other work. Why We Fight director Eugene Jarecki brings his documentary Reagan about our 40th President to this year’s Sundance as well.
The above is just a tiny cross-section of the films playing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Look for lots more coverage of the festival in the coming two weeks on our Sundance Blog, and make sure to follow our ComingSoon.net Festival Twitter feed for quick reactions and updates once the festival begins on Thursday, January 20.