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Sun. Dance. [10 to look forward to from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival]

/ See what we did there? It's a stock image of girl DANCING in front of the SUN. Yeah? /

Every year around this time I take a cheeky look at flights to Salt Lake City, Utah.

One of these years I’m actually going to the Sundance Film Festival and try pack in ten days of snow, drinking and independent cinema. But sadly work, money and life commitments mean it won’t be in 2012.

But until that day comes (if Robert Redford is reading this, maybe you’d be a dear and put me up in your lodge?) it’s a case of following proceedings online with some big newspaper previews and blogger reactions. Because most of the films screening here don’t have distributors they’re not really being promoted in the same way they do before screenings at Cannes, Venice or Toronto. This means no one really has any idea what’s going to be worthwhile, and it’s just a case of checking stuff out based on reputation or subject-matter.

This idea of “going in dark” is a film fan’s dream, as no matter how hard you try not to be influenced by Roger Ebert’s two thumbs down, a five star review in The Irish Times or a “certified rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, it really does play into your expectations. This is probably why I love festivals so much and Sundance really takes that mentality to a whole different level, with no one having a clue what’s going to come out of the festival with all the buzz and momentum.

Last year Senna, Tyrannosaur, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Like Crazy, Hell and Back Again and Project Nim all ended up being end of year favourites. In 2010 Blue Valentine, Winter’s Bone, Animal Kingdom, Restrepo and Waste Land made a splash. In very simple terms, some of the films that screen over the next ten days will go on that much-travelled path to “indie-success” which means making a few million dollars, getting distributed in Europe, showing up on end of year lists and garnering awards talk in twelve months time.

Having taken a look at a few festival previews, here’s ten films that look like they’ll be worth checking out over the next 12 months… The festival kicked off last night and runs until a week on Sunday. Still plenty of time to hop on a plane to Salt Lake City.

Photos and official summary all coming courtesy of the lovely Sundance filmguide.

DIRECTOR: James Marsh // SCREENWRITER: Tom Bradby // CAST: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, Gillian Anderson // United Kingdom, 2012, 96 min, colour

Shadow Dancer

Why I want to see it… Aidan Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson are two of Ireland’s best actors, both at different stages in their career but both deserving of a nice big bump from Hollywood. James Marsh’s documentary work – Man on Wire and Project Nim – is well-known but he’s yet to have a dramatic hit. Maybe this film about the RA will do the job.

Growing up in a Republican family in 1970s Belfast, Collette McVeigh’s childhood is shattered, and her family radicalized, when her brother is killed. Twenty years later—a single mother with her own young son—Collette is active in the IRA, along with her two surviving brothers.

During an aborted bomb attempt in London, Collette falls into the hands of an MI5 officer, Mac, who offers her a deal: turn informant or go to prison. Fearing for her son’s welfare, she returns to Belfast where—betraying family and beliefs—she becomes a reluctant mole for British intelligence. As suspicion of Collette mounts and Mac takes increasing risks to protect her, both feel the net closing in.

A thriller with an ever-thickening plot, Shadow Dancer is a riveting portrait of shifting convictions and entangled loyalties. Director James Marsh—working at the top of his craft with actors Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough—deftly maintains their intense and fascinating connection while exploring the complex relationship between politics and personal motivations during troubled times in Northern Ireland.

 

DIRECTOR: Lee Toland Krieger // SCREENWRITER: Rashida Jones, Will McCormack //  CAST: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Chris Messina, Ari Graynor, Emma Roberts, Elijah Wood  //  U.S.A., 2011, 89 min, colour

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Why I want to see it… Rashida Jones can write? Damn these women can do anything! Supporting cast with Elijah Wood and Any Samberg gets me excited too.

Celeste and Jesse met in high school and got married young. They laugh at the same jokes and finish each other’s sentences. They are forever linked in their friends’ minds as the perfect couple—she, a high-powered businesswoman and budding novelist; he, a free spirit who keeps things from getting boring. Their only problem is that they have decided to get divorced. Can their perfect relationship withstand this minor setback?

Lee Toland Krieger finds the perfect tone to tell a story that is at first familiar but then transitions into something quite unique and authentic. Rashida Jones and Will McCormack have crafted a witty script filled with the insight needed to make Celeste and Jesse fulfill the definition of complicated souls seeking same. Jones also stars opposite Andy Samberg; together they create palpable chemistry and share eccentric dialogue and infectious humor. Celeste and Jesse Forever is a delightful romp that examines the inner workings of marriage and its evolving place in modern life.

 

DIRECTOR Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce // DOCUMENTARY Based on the book by Kelly McMasters // U.S.A., 2011, 92 min, colour

The Atomic States of America

Why I want to see it… Real-life Springfield.

Based on Kelly McMasters’s memoir about growing up in a nuclear-reactor community, this stirring film illustrates the dire health consequences for many residents in Shirley, her Long Island hometown. Yet despite the known risks of utilizing nuclear power, America’s rapidly increasing energy needs are fueling a nuclear renaissance.

Acutely topical—given the recent Fukushima disaster in Japan—The Atomic States of America convincingly encapsulates both the history of this allegedly clean source of energy and our collective denial of a potentially looming disaster at our aging sites. Firsthand narratives from people connected to the nuclear industry blend with the behind-the-scenes debacle of maintaining legitimate regulation.

Potent, emotionally powerful, and highly revealing, Don Argott and Sheena Joyce’s film does an outstanding job of opening our eyes to the reality of nuclear power. “We all live downstream from something,” McMasters reminds us in this cautionary call to action.

 

DIRECTOR: Ben Lewin // SCREENWRITER: Ben Lewin // CAST: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy // U.S.A., 2011, 98 min, colour

The Surrogate

Why I want to see it… John Hawkes was one of independent cinema’s best kept secrets. Until a year ago when he was oscar-nominated for his supporting role in Winter’s Bone, and everyone realised “hot damn this man can act.” And now he is the man with the iron lung.

The quest for love appears insurmountable when a man confined to an iron lung determines, at age 38, to lose his virginity. Based on the autobiographical writings of Berkeley, California–based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, The Surrogate chronicles his attempt to transcend the limbo between childhood and adulthood, in which he is literally trapped. With the blessing of an unusual priest and support from enlightened caregivers, the poignantly optimistic and always droll O’Brien swallows his fear and hires a sex surrogate. What transpires over a handful of sessions transforms them both. Rivetingly, sensitively, and humorously portrayed by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, the couple’s clinical exercise becomes a tender, awkward, and gracious journey from isolation to connection—corporal and spiritual.

This poet’s extraordinary story resonates with the elegance and precision of a poem. No line in The Surrogate is extraneous, no frame accidental. Filmmaker Ben Lewin’s masterful brushstrokes endow every character with fullness and authenticity, fashioning rich metaphors and emotional nuance and fusing them into an exquisite, unforgettable awakening.

 

DIRECTOR: Leslye Headland // SCREENWRITER: Leslye Headland // CAST: Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Adam Scott, Kyle Bornheimer // U.S.A., 2011, 91 min, colour

Bachelorette

Why I want to see it… Shannon from Home & Away, post-Melancholia Kirsten Dunst, funny people Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott all teaming up for the anti-Bridesmaids?? Sign me up for this wedding register. *groan*

Regan is used to being first at everything. Imagine her horror and chagrin when she finds out the girl everyone called Pig Face in high school is going to tie the knot before she does! But Regan sucks it up and takes on bridesmaid duties along with her childhood pals: substance-abusing, promiscuous Gena and ditzy Katie. The single ladies are determined to put their bitterness aside and have an awesomely hedonistic bachelorette party. Armed with acerbic wit and seemingly endless supplies of coke and booze, the foul-mouthed femmes embark on one very long and emotional night filled with major wedding-dress panic, various bodily fluids, and cute ex-boyfriends.

Kirsten Dunst is consistently funny leading the talented cast, which includes the delightful scene stealer, Rebel Wilson, who plays Becky, a.k.a. Pig Face. Adding to the tradition of successful bridal comedies, this debut feature by writer/director Leslye Headland is a sassy and sometimes romantic ride that never forgets to celebrate the complexities of female friendship.

 

DIRECTOR: Antonio Campos // SCREENWRITER: Antonio Campos // CAST: Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Michael Abiteboul, Constance Rousseau, Lila Salet, Solo // France/U.S.A., 2011, 105 min, colour

Simon Killer

Why I want to see it… Brady Corbet was the best thing about Michael Haneka’s Funny Games rejig, he then showed up in supporting roles in Martha, Marcy May Marlene and Melancholia. Curious to see what he can do when he leads the line…

A recent college graduate goes to Paris after breaking up with his girlfriend of five years. His life should be open-ended and full of promise, but he can’t shake his feelings of loss. Being a stranger in a strange land only aggravates his situation. When he falls in love with a young mysterious prostitute, a fateful journey begins, though we soon learn that Simon is the one with deeper secrets.

Director/screenwriter Antonio Campos is a powerful, visceral storyteller. He and his team have created the perfect cinematic language to bring this hauntingly dark odyssey to life. The camerawork is exquisite and the sound design rich, engineered to permeate your psyche and make you feel you are walking in Simon’s shadow. Brady Corbet, a gifted Festival alumnus, inhabits the dark soul of Simon in one of his most complicated and fully realized performances. In fact, every role is perfectly cast to keep the film taut and tense. Simon Killer is a neonoir thriller that creates an unsafe world where the line between truth and dishonesty blurs.

 

DIRECTOR: James Ponsoldt // SCREENWRITER: Susan Burke, James Ponsoldt // CAST: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Mary Kay Place // U.S.A., 2012, 85 min, colour

Smashed

Why I want to see it… Nick Offerman plays Ron in NBC’s sitcom Parks and Recreation. I love him. Aaron Paul from TV’s Breaking Bad teaming up to get loaded with Scott Pilgrim‘s Ramona? Shots! Oh wait, it’s about not addiction recovery… oh.

Kate and Charlie like to have a good time. Their marriage thrives on a shared fondness for music, laughter . . .  and getting smashed. When Kate’s partying spirals into hard-core asocial behavior, compromising her job as an elementary schoolteacher, something’s got to give. But change isn’t exactly a cakewalk. Sobriety means she will have to confront the lies she’s been spinning at work, her troubling relationship with her mother, and the nature of her bond with Charlie.

Many films indulge the dramatic highs and lows of addiction. Refreshingly, Smashed is interested in the unglamorous middle path—what stumbling through recovery looks like. As Kate tests new boundaries and shoulders the consequences of her choices, this subtle story of imperfect transformation taps into truths about the challenges and losses intrinsic to living life honestly. Genuine performances and a grounded sense of place create an authentic, textured world where three-dimensional characters—neither all bad nor all good—occupy the uncomfortable grey zone of being human.

 

DIRECTOR: Julie Delpy // SCREENWRITER: Julie Delpy // CAST: Julie Delpy, Chris Rock, Albert Delpy, Alexia Landeau, Alex Nahon // France, 2011, 91 min, colour

2 Days in New York

Why I want to see it… Julie Delpy is synonymous with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. In 2007 she proved she’s more than the poor man’s Juliette Binoche with her first major directorial 2 Days in Paris, this is the follow-up. And it’s got Chris Rock?!

Marion and Mingus live cozily—perhaps too cozily—with their cat and two young children from previous relationships. However, when Marion’s jolly father (played by director Delpy’s real-life dad), her oversexed sister, and her sister’s outrageous boyfriend unceremoniously descend upon them for a visit, it initiates two unforgettable days that will test Marion and Mingus’s relationship. With their unwitting racism and sexual frankness, the French triumvirate hilariously has no boundaries or filters . . . and no person is left unscathed in its wake.

Directed and cowritten by Delpy, 2 Days in New York is a deliciously witty romp. One of the pleasures of this follow-up film to 2 Days in Paris is the addition of Chris Rock, who—amid the Gallic mayhem—convincingly plays the straight man as Marion’s hipster American boyfriend. With great skill and energy, Delpy heightens cultural differences to comedic extremes but also manages to show that sometimes change is the best solution to a relationship that’s been pushed to its limit.

 

DIRECTOR: Josh Radnor // SCREENWRITER: Josh Radnor // CAST Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser // U.S.A., 2011, 97 min, colour

Liberal Arts

Why I want to see it… Ted from How I Met Your Mother (Josh Radnor) and the darling Olsen sister. Two former break-out stars from Sundance (Olsen with last years Martha Marcy… and Josh Radnor with 2010’s happythankyoumoreplease) coming back for more. This is Radnor’s second foray into writing/directing as he continues to prove he’s better than Mr. “Garden State is my only decent film but Scrubs was soooo good” Zach Braff.

Newly single, 35, and uninspired by his job, Jesse Fisher worries that his best days are behind him. But no matter how much he buries his head in a book, life keeps pulling Jesse back. When his favorite college professor invites him to campus to speak at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance. He is prepared for the nostalgia of the dining halls and dorm rooms, the parties and poetry seminars; what he doesn’t see coming is Zibby—a beautiful, precocious, classical-music-loving sophomore. Zibby awakens scary, exciting, long-dormant feelings of possibility and connection that Jesse thought he had buried forever.

The multitalented Josh Radnor once again returns to the Sundance Film Festival (happythankyoumoreplease won the 2010 dramatic Audience Award), wearing three hats. As writer, director, and star of Liberal Arts, Radnor could teach a master class in filmmaking. Given that his engaging costar is Elizabeth Olsen, the master class here is one in chemistry between two exceptional actors.

 

DIRECTOR: Nicholas Jarecki // SCREENWRITER: Nicholas Jarecki // CAST: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Nate Parker, Laetitia Casta // U.S.A., 2012, 100 min, colour

Arbitrage

Why I want to see it… Brit Marling’s performance was the main redeeming quality of Mike Cahill’s muddled but well-intentioned Another Earth. Here, in one of Sundance’s biggest “buzz” pictures, she forms part of a cast dealing with some more post-crash economic drama fronted by Richard Gere.

Nicholas Jarecki makes an auspicious directorial debut with this taut and alluring suspense thriller about love, loyalty, and high finance. Arbitrage—buying low and selling high—depends on a person’s ability to determine the true value of any given market. It’s a talent that has made billionaire hedge fund magnate Robert Miller the very portrait of success in American business. But on the eve of his sixtieth birthday, Miller finds himself desperately trying to sell his trading empire to a major bank before the extent of his fraud is discovered. When an unexpected bloody error challenges his perception of what things are worth, Miller finds that his business is not the only thing hanging in the balance.

Building on the chemistry and charisma of an outstanding cast, including Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Tim Roth, and Nate Parker, Jarecki leads us through the slick and duplicitous limits of impunity and composes an anatomy of the way asset bubbles can burst.

 

DIRECTOR: Colin Trevorrow // SCREENWRITER: Derek Connolly // CAST Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Kristen Bell Jake Johnson, Karan Soni // U.S.A., 2011, 85 min, color,

Safety Not Guaranteed

Why I want to see it… Aubrey Plaza plays April in NBC’s sitcom Parks and Recreation. I love her. And Sundance favourite Mark Duplass also co-stars alongside Kristen Bell. And the story looks like a right old caper/romp/laugh.

Three magazine employees are sent to investigate a personal advertisement placed in the newspaper: guy seeking partner for time travel. They venture to the coast and set up a haphazard surveillance. Darius is recruited as the shill; her dry wit and cynical nature are perfectly suited to trap this enigmatic oddball, Kenneth, and get a good story. But it is she who first sees past the paranoid loner façade to the compelling person inside. The drawback? This still doesn’t rule out the possibility that he just might be crazy.

Colin Trevorrow has woven an ingenious tale: a modern version of the classic madcap romantic comedy. Clever dialogue and outlandish antics, peppered with misfit characters—each one charming yet flawed—are wrapped in a love story tingling with the tantalizing possibility of time travel. In a world where moments are fleeting and soul mates are scarce, it seems that even the simple act of falling in love is never safe.

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Nigel

Nigel loves stupid films almost as much as he likes clever films. He'll watch anything but is usually drawn to documentaries, North American independent films, Irish cinema and gung-ho, balls-to-the-walls Hollywood blockbusters. Here's what he's been watching.

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