Sundance Film Festival unwraps a fierce 2014 competition slate
Independent film is getting better all the time, according to the programmers of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and the movies they've chosen to screen in Park City in January prove it.
"Every year, the quality and originality get better," said John Cooper, director of the festival, which announced the first block of its slate Wednesday .
Once upon a time, fans of independent film had to put up with a lot of glitches: an occasional boom mic in the shot, a weak acting performance, lapses in editing and so on.
Now, Cooper said, independent films are drawing the same level of behind-the-camera talent editors, production designers, cinematographers and the like as Hollywood films.
"If you look back historically, there was a lot of forgiving of certain elements of craft," Trevor Groth, the festival's programming director, said in a joint phone interview ahead of the announcement. Now, "you don't have to have that same level of forgiveness of craft."
The 67 films announced Wednesday represent Sundance's four competition categories, for Dramatic and Documentary films both from U.S. filmmakers and in World Cinema, as well as the micro-budgeted Next program.
They are among 117 feature films selected for the festival out of 4,057 feature-length movies submitted. The films come from 37 countries, and 54 films come from first-time directors.
The competition and Next films boast some big names, including Oscar winners Anne Hathaway, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mary Steenburgen.
Other stars on the slate include (alphabetically) Glenn Close, Lena Dunham, Elle Fanning, Bill Hader, Michael C. Hall, John Hawkes, Christina Hendricks, Anna Kendrick, Aaron Paul, Aubrey Plaza, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Amy Sedaris, Sam Shepard, John Slattery, Kristen Stewart, John Turturro, Kristen Wiig and Luke Wilson.
The documentaries cover a range of topics: Alzheimer's, obesity, college costs, domestic violence, genocide, gay marriage, dinosaurs, Internet addiction and the Major League Baseball pitcher who threw a no-hitter while on LSD.
With films so wide-ranging, Cooper and Groth did find a couple of trends emerging in this year's festival films.
One is the presence of high-quality genre films, such as the zombie romance "Life After Beth" or the teen ghost drama "Jamie Marks Is Dead." Another is the casting of funny female performers, including Wiig, Sedaris and Plaza.
A trend that's satisfying to Cooper and Groth, who cut their teeth at Sundance programming short films, is that two of the U.S. Dramatic competition films are expanded versions of award-winning shorts. Cutter Hodierne's "Fishing Without Nets" looks at Somali pirates from the view of a poor fisherman, while Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" tells the story of a young drummer (Miles Teller) and a ruthless jazz-band instructor (J.K. Simmons).
"Whiplash" is one of the four films chosen for "Day One," the festival's opening night on Jan. 16. The others are the British/Chinese cross-cultural story "Lilting" and two documentaries: "Dinosaur 13," which tells of the discovery of "Sue," the largest T-rex specimen ever; and "The Green Prince," a profile of a member of Hamas who became an informant for Israel's spy agency Shin Bet.
The rest of the festival slate will be revealed in stages. Spotlight, Park City at Midnight and New Frontier programs will be announced on Thursday afternoon, while the star-studded Premieres and Documentary Premieres programs will be unveiled Monday afternoon.
The 2014 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 16-26 in Park City and at venues in Salt Lake City, Ogden and the Sundance resort.
"Camp X-Ray" (Director/screenwriter: Peter Sattler) • "Twilight's" Kristen Stewart stars as a young guard at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, where she befriends a Muslim ("A Separation's" Payman Maadi) detained there.
"Cold in July" (Director: Jim Mickle; screenwriters: Jim Mickle, Nick Damici) • Jim Mickle ("We Are What We Are," SFF '13) adapts Joe R. Lansdale's pulp novel about a man (Michael C. Hall) who shoots a burglar in his home and is then confronted by the burglar's father (Sam Shepard), a career criminal seeking revenge. Don Johnson and Vinessa Shaw also star.
"Dear White People" (Director/screenwriter: Justin Simien) • A satirical look at race in "postracial" America, with four black students at an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out when white students throw an "African American"-themed party.
"Fishing Without Nets" (Director: Cutter Hodiene; Screenwriters: Cutter Hodierne, John Hibey, David Burkman; U.S./Somalia/Kenya) • An expansion of director Cutter Hodiene's Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning 2012 short film, this drama looks at Somali pirates from the view of a struggling young Somali fisherman.
"God's Pocket" (Director: John Slattery; Screenwriters: John Slattery, Alex Metcalf) • "Mad Men" star John Slattery makes his feature directing debut, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a man trying to hide the news of his stepson's death in a construction "accident." Also starring Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks and John Turturro.
"Happy Christmas" (Director/screenwriter Joe Swanberg) • The latest by indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg ("Uncle Kent," SFF '11) stars Anna Kendrick as a young woman who, after a breakup, moves in with her brother (played by Swanberg), his wife (Melanie Lynskey) and their 2-year-old son.
"Hellion" (Director/screenwriter: Kat Candler) • Filmmaker Kat Candler expands her short (SFF '12) into a story about an absentee father (Aaron Paul) and his metal-obsessed son (Josh Wiggins) who must finally deal with their actions in an attempt to be reunited with the son's little brother. Juliette Lewis also stars.
"Infinitely Polar Bear" (Director/ screenwriter: Maya Forbes) • Mark Ruffalo ("The Avengers") stars as a manic-depressive father trying to win back his wife (Zoe Saldana) by taking full charge of their two young daughters.
"Jamie Marks Is Dead" (Director/ screenwriter: Carter Smith) • This adaptation of Christopher Barzak's novel "One for Sorrow" traces the relationship between two high-school classmates (Cameron Monaghan, Noah Silver), one of whom is a ghost.
"Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" (Director: David Zellner; Screenwriters: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner) • Director David Zellner ("Kid-Thing," SFF '12; "Goliath," SFF '08) returns with the story of a lonely Japanese woman ("Pacific Rim's" Rinko Kikuchi) who ventures to the frozen wilds of Minnesota, convinced that a fictional treasure she saw buried in a movie is real.
"Life After Beth" (Director/screenwriter: Jeff Baena) • The directorial debut of "I Heart Huckabees" writer Jeff Baena, this comedy stars Dane DeHaan as a guy who is devastated by his girlfriend's death and surprised when she (Aubrey Plaza) returns as a zombie. Also starring John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser.
"Low Down" (Director: Jeff Preiss, Screenwriters: Amy Albany, Topper Lilien) • An adaptation of Amy Jo Albany's memoir of how Amy (Elle Fanning) was raised by her father, bebop pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes), as he dealt with jail time and addiction in '70s Hollywood. The cast includes Glenn Close, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage and rocker Flea.
"The Skeleton Twins" (Director: Craig Johnson; Screenwriters: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman) • "Saturday Night Live" alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as estranged twins who, coincidentally, cheat death on the same day which prompts them to reunite and consider where their lives have gone wrong. Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell also star.
"The Sleepwalker" (Director: Mona Fastvold; Screenwriters: Mona Fastvold, Brady Corbet; U.S./Norway) • A couple (Gitte Witt, Christopher Abbott) on a secluded estate are confronted with the sudden arrival of the woman's sister (Stephanie Ellis) and her fiancÃ© (Brady Corbet).
"Song One" (Director/screenwriter: Kate Barker-Froyland) • Anne Hathaway stars as an archaeologist who returns home when her brother (Ben Rosenfield) is injured in an accident, and she goes in search of his favorite musician (Johnny Flynn).
"Whiplash" (Director/screenwriter: Damien Chazelle) • A young drummer (Miles Teller) sacrifices much for perfection in his school's prestigious jazz orchestra, at the hands of a ruthless band leader (played by J.K. Simmons, reprising his role from filmmaker Damien Chazelle's Sundance prize-winning 2013 short). This is one of the four "Day One" movies premiering on Jan. 16.
"Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory" (Director: Michael Rossato-Bennett) • Social worker Dan Cohen teams up with renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks to use music to unlock minds of nursing-home residents suffering from Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
"All the Beautiful Things" (Director: John Harkrider) • Former friends John, a corporate lawyer, and Barron, an acclaimed photographer, meet in a bar years after a false rape allegation made against Barron by a woman who showed up at John's apartment the morning after it supposedly happened.
"Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart" (Director: Jeremiah Zagar; U.S./U.K.) • A look back at the infamous small-town murder, and how the media's fascination with it endures.
"The Case Against 8" (Directors: Ben Cotner, Ryan White) • Five years in the making, this documentary follows the team that argued the legal case to overturn California's anti-gay-marriage ballot measure Proposition 8.
"Cesar's Last Fast" (Directors: Richard Ray Perez, Lorena Parlee) • A look at the pioneering labor leader Cesar Chavez, focusing on his personal sacrifice and spiritual conviction drawing on never-before-seen footage of his 1988 "Fast for Life," a 36-day act of penance for not doing enough to stop growers from spraying pesticides on farm workers.
"Dinosaur 13" (Director: Todd Miller) • This documentary details the 1990 discovery of "Sue," one of the largest Tyrannosaurus rex specimens ever found, and the tangled legal battle over the fossils' ownership that followed. This is one of the four "Day One" movies premiering on Jan. 16.
"E-TEAM" (Directors: Katy Chevigny, Ross Kauffman) • A look at the work done by Human Rights Watch's Emergency Team, exposing and stopping human-rights abuses around the world. Directed by Sundance veterans Katy Chevigny ("Deadline," SFF '04) and Ross Kauffman ("Born Into Brothels," SFF '04).
"Fed Up" (Director: Stephanie Soechtig) • America's obesity epidemic is explored in this documentary, which reveals a 30-year campaign by the food industry aided by the U.S. government to mislead and confuse the American public.
"The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz" (Director: Brian Knappenberger) • The life and untimely death of Aaron Swartz, a programming whiz and information activist whose passion for open access got him caught in a legal nightmare that ended when he committed suicide at age 26. Director Brian Knappenberger made "We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists" (Slamdance '12).
"Ivory Tower" (Director: Andrew Rossi) • Documentarian Andrew Rossi ("Page One: A Year at The New York Times," SFF '11) looks at the cost of going to college, examining rising tuition rates and student debt from schools in crisis to educational startups in Silicon Valley.
"Marmato" (Director: Mark Grieco) • Shot over six years, this documentary chronicles a battle between a Canadian mining company and a Colombian mining town's residents with $20 billion in buried gold at stake.
"No No: A Dockumentary" (Director: Jeffrey Radice) • The life and times of Dock Ellis, a stylish and intimidating pitcher who in 1972 threw a no-hitter while on LSD and who spent his post-baseball career counseling drug abusers.
"The Overnighters" (Director: Jesse Moss) • The description by filmmaker Jesse Moss ("William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," SFF '09) can't be topped: "Desperate, broken men chase their dreams and run from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields. A local pastor's decision to help them has extraordinary and unexpected consequences."
"Private Violence" (Director: Cynthia Hill) • Debunking the myths of domestic violence, which one in four women have experienced in their homes, this documentary follows two women and reveals why the question "Why doesn't she just leave?" never has a simple answer.
"Rich Hill" (Directors: Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos) • A look at economic struggles in a small Missouri town, through the lives of three boys who make tough choices, find comfort in fragile family bonds and dream of a brighter future.
"Watchers of the Sky" (Director: Edet Belzberg) • Five stories of courage in the face of genocide, from Nuremberg to Rwanda, from Darfur to Syria. Directed by Edet Belzberg ("The Recruiter," SFF '08).
World Cinema Dramatic
"Blind" (Director/screenwriter: Eskil Vogt; Norway/Netherlands) • A woman who recently lost her sight returns home, but her hopes of safety give way to deep fears and repressed fantasies.
"Difret" (Director/screenwriter: Zeresenay Berhane Mehari; Ethiopia) • A young woman works under the government's radar as a lawyer, helping women and children, until one young girl's murder case exposes the lawyer and puts her career in danger.
"The Disobedient" (Director/screenwriter: Mina Djukic; Serbia) • Leni waits for Lazar, her childhood friend, to return to their hometown after years studying abroad. They take a random bicycle trip around their old haunts, which will either exhaust or reinvent their relationship.
"52 Tuesdays" (Director: Sophie Hyde; Screenplay and story: Matthew Cormack; Story: Sophie Hyde; Australia) • A 16-year-old girl and her mother are limited to meeting every Tuesday for a year as the girl is pushed toward independence while her mother tells of her plans for gender transition.
"God Help the Girl" (Director/screenwriter: Stuart Murdoch) • Stuart Murdoch, of the Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian, created this musical (the music for which he released on a 2009 album) about young girls becoming adults and making music. Emily Browning ("Sucker Punch") leads the cast.
"Liar's Dice" (Director/screenwriter: Geetu Mohandas; India) • Young Kamala and her daughter leave their village to find Kamala's missing husband, and on the road meet Nawazudin, an army deserter with his own selfish motives.
"Lilting" (Director and screenwriter: Hong Khaou; U.K.) • In London, a Chinese mother (Cheng Pei-Pei) mourns her son's untimely death, but her life is disrupted when a stranger ("Skyfall's" Ben Whishaw) who doesn't speak her language arrives on the scene. This is one of the four "Day One" movies premiering on Jan. 16.
"Lock Charmer (El cerrajero)" (Director/screenwriter: Natalia Smirnoff; Argentina) • Sebastian, 33, a locksmith and father-to-be, starts having strange visions about his clients. With the aid of an unlikely assistant, he tries to use this new talent for his own good.
"To Kill a Man" (Director/screenwriter: Alejandro Fernandez Almendras; Chile/France) • Kalule, a neighborhood delinquent, mugs Jorge, a family man barely making ends meet. Then Jorge's son confronts Kalule, who shoots and severely injures him. When Kalule gets a minimal sentence, things get even more tense.
"Viktoria" (Director/screenwriter: Maya Vitkova; Bulgaria/Romania) • The title character is a baby born without an umbilical cord, detached from Boryana, the mother who didn't want to give birth in Communist Bulgaria. A decade later, Viktoria proclaimed the baby of the decade by the government and Boryana are forced back together as the Iron Curtain unravels.
"Wetlands" (Director: David Wnendt; Screenwriters: Claus Falkenberg, David Wnendt, based on the novel by Charlotte Roche; Germany) • IndieWire said this film, which debuted at the Locarno Film Festival in August, may be "the most disgusting coming-of-age movie of all time." It centers on a teen (Carla Juri) whose conversational topics and sexual self-experimentation know few bounds.
"White Shadow" (Director: Noaz Deshe; Screenwriters: Noaz Deshe, James Masson; Italy, Germany, Tanzania) • Alias is a young albino boy in the Tanzanian wilds, where albinos are often killed because their body parts are believed to have life-saving properties. Alias seeks refuge in the city, where he learns the same rules of survival apply.
World Cinema Documentary
"20,000 Days on Earth" (Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard; U.K.) • A fictional day in the life of musician and international icon Nick Cave is depicted in this mix of drama and reality that looks at the artistic process and "what makes us who we are."
"Concerning Violence" (Director: GÃ¶ran Hugo Olsson; Sweden/U.S.A./Denmark/Finland) • The liberation of Africa from colonization in the 1960s is reconsidered through newly discovered archival material accompanied by Frantz Fanon's landmark book "The Wretched of the Earth."
"The Green Prince" (Director: Nadav Schirman; Germany/Israel/U.K.) • The memoir of Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of one the founders of Hamas and an informant on Hamas for the Israeli secret-service agency Shin Bet, is turned into a real-life thriller that concentrates on Yousef's complex relationship with his handler. This is one of the four "Day One" movies premiering on Jan. 16.
"Happiness" (Director: Thomas BalmÃ¨s; France/Finland) • In the last village in Bhutan to get electricity, an 8-year-old monk will soon get his first look at television.
"Love Child" (Director: Valerie Veatch; South Korea/U.S.) • Following the 2010 trial of a young Seoul couple accused of neglect when their infant daughter died of malnutrition, blamed on the couple's "Internet addiction" to an online fantasy game.
"Mr leos caraX" (Director: Tessa Louise-SalomÃ©; France) • Who is Leos Carax and who is Mr. X? They may be one and the same in this documentary about the poetic and visionary filmmaker behind the bewildering and brilliant "Holy Motors."
"My Prairie Home" (Director: Chelsea McMullan) • The life and times of Rae Spoon, a transgender singer-songwriter who grew up in the Canadian prairies which provide the stunning backdrop for visual interpretations of Spoon's songs.
"The Notorious Mr. Bout" (Directors: Tony Gerber, Maxim Pozdorovkin; U.S./Russia) • Documentary filmmaker Viktor Bout captures his own rags-to-riches-to-prison story of his life as a war profiteer, entrepreneur, aviation tycoon and arms dealer.
"Return to Homs" (Director: Talal Derki; Syria/Germany) • A profile of two friends in the embattled Syrian city of Homs: Basset Sarout, 19, goalkeeper for Syria's national soccer team, who becomes a demonstration leader, singer and fighter; and Ossama, 24, a citizen cameraman and ironic pacifist who is detained by the Assad regime's security forces.
"Sepideh Reaching for the Stars" (Director: Berit Madsen; Denmark) • Sepideh has a dream to be the first Iranian woman in space. Her battle against tradition is difficult, but she seeks help from an unexpected source.
"We Come as Friends" (Director: Hubert Sauper; France/Austria) • In a follow-up to his Oscar-nominated "Darwin's Nightmare," filmmaker Hubert Sauper looks at colonization and the slave trade as human phenomena, and not ones in the dim past but the all-too-real present.
"Web Junkie" (Directors: Shosh Shlam, Hilla Medalia; Israel) • A trip inside a Beijing rehab center where Chinese teens are treated for Internet addiction, which is a recognized clinical disorder in China.
"Appropriate Behavior" (Director/screenwriter: Desiree Akhavan; U.S./U.K.) • Filmmaker Desiree Akhavan also stars as Shirin, bouncing between her identities as an ideal Persian daughter, a politically correct bisexual and a hip Brooklynite and discovering it's tough living without a clichÃ©. Adapted from the web series "The Slope."
"Drunktown's Finest" (Director/screenwriter: Sydney Freeland; U.S.) • A coming-of-age story on an Indian reservation, centering on a rebellious father-to-be, a devout Christian woman and a promiscuous transsexual.
"The Foxy Merkins" (Director: Madeleine Olnek; Screenwriters: Lisa Haas, Jackie Monahan, Madeleine Olnek; U.S.) • This Independent Spirit Award-nominated "prostitute buddy comedy" focuses on two lesbian hookers, one a newbie in hard times, the other a beautiful straight grifter who's great at picking up women. Director/co-writer Madeleine Olnek and several of her cast were in Park City with "Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same" (SFF '11).
"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" (Director/screenwriter: Ana Lily Amirpour; U.S.) • A lonesome vampire seeks out the most depraved prey in Bad City, an Iranian ghost town.
"Imperial Dreams" (Director: Malik Vitthal; Screenwriters: Malik Vitthal, Ismet Prcic; U.S.) • A reformed gangster (John Boyega), age 21, returns from prison to his home in Watts, Los Angeles, and finds his devotion to his family and his future severely tested.
"Land Ho!" (Directors/screenwriters: Martha Stephens, Aaron Katz; U.S./Iceland) • Two former brothers-in-law take a road trip through Iceland, hitting Reykjavik nightclubs, trendy spas and rugged campsites in an effort to recapture their lost youth.
"Listen Up Philip" (Director/screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry; U.S.) • A newly accomplished writer (Jason Schwartzman) makes a series of bad decisions that affect those around him, particularly his girlfriend ("Mad Men's" Elisabeth Moss). Also starring Jonathan Pryce and Krysten Ritter.
"Memphis" (Director and screenwriter: Tim Sutton; U.S.) • A singer (Willis Earl Beal) wanders Memphis, "surrounded by beautiful women, legendary musicians, a stone-cold hustler, a righteous preacher and a wolf pack of kids" as he searches for some soul possibly his own.
"Obvious Child" (Director/screenwriter: Gillian Robespierre; U.S.) • It's Valentine's Day, and Brooklyn comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is fired, dumped and learns she's pregnant. This comedy also stars Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Gabe Liedman and Richard Kind.
"Ping Pong Summer" (Director and screenwriter: Michael Tully; U.S.) • It's coming-of-age time in 1985, on a family vacation to Ocean City, Md., with a teen (Marcello Conte) obsessed with hip-hop and ping pong. The adult cast includes Susan Sarandon, John Hannah, Lea Thompson and Amy Sedaris.
"War Story" (Director: Mark Jackson; Screenwriters: Kristin Gore, Mark Jackson; U.S.) • Catherine Keener stars as a war photographer recently back from Libya, where she was held captive, finding refuge in a small town in Sicily. Ben Kingsley also stars.
Coming soon to a theater near you
To read Salt Lake Tribune movie critic Sean P. Means' rundown of the 67 titles announced Wednesday in the competition and Next categories for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, go to http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment.