Sean P. Means: What’s looking good at Sundance? Here are 10 educated guesses

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: December 19, 2013 09:26AM
Updated: December 19, 2013 09:26AM
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Rocker and icon Nick Cave is the subject of "20,000 Days on Earth," one of the World Cinema Documentary competition entries in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy Sundance Institute

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, goes the adage — and anyone looking over the slate of 118 feature films selected for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival should heed that message.

We can speculate about the watchability of a particular film, debate whether a certain star will score an Oscar nomination for a daring indie role or try to read the tea leaves of the festival’s occasionally cryptic synopses. But until we see the films — a process that won’t start until the festival’s first night, Jan. 16 — we’re all guessing.

Some of the guesses are educated ones, based on the subject matter or the track record of the people involved. Because of those factors, I already know some of the titles for which I’m most excited. Here are 10 of them, in alphabetical order:

“God’s Pocket” • You can expect plenty of pre-premiere “buzz” about this drama, because it’s the directorial debut of “Mad Men” star John Slattery — and because its cast includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, John Turturro and Slattery’s “Mad Men” co-star Christina Hendricks. Let’s hope it lives up to the hype. (U.S. Dramatic competition.)

“Happy Valley” • Somebody was going to make a film about Jerry Sandusky and the child sexual abuse scandal that engulfed Penn State. It’s a good thing that someone is Amir Bar-Lev, who showed journalistic tenacity and human decency with his earlier Sundance entry, “The Tillman Story.” (Documentary Premieres.)

“Hits” • David Cross is a funny human being, as any viewer of “Mr. Show” or “Arrested Development” can attest. So his directorial debut, about a community obsessed with fame, has a chance to be hilarious. (Premieres.)

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” • Swartz, an information activist who was hounded by a federal prosecution, took his own life at age 26. This documentary has the potential of being quite important, opening up a debate about open access in the NSA age. (U.S. Documentary competition.)

“Life Itself” • Roger Ebert was my idol, then a colleague and later a friend. And a lot of critics, and other people, feel they can say the same thing of this much-loved journalist and cinephile. Steve James’ documentary, based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir, is shaping up to be a worthy tribute. (Documentary Premieres.)

“The Raid 2” • Sequels at Sundance? It’s OK if the sequel is as eye-popping and action-packed as the original, which this Indonesian martial-arts crime thriller just might be. (Premieres.)

“The Source (evolving)” • Artist Doug Aitken’s installation piece — for which a custom-built pavilion is set to be erected in the Swede Alley parking lot behind Park City’s Main Street — features conversations with thinkers and doers (including actress Tilda Swinton, chef Alice Waters and rockers Jack White and Beck) and should light up the night. Literally. (New Frontier.)

“The Trip to Italy” • Another sequel, but again a case where the first time was so good I want more. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return as exaggerated versions of themselves, eating good food and comically one-upping each other. (Premieres.)

“20,000 Days on Earth” • Nick Cave is cool. What more do you need to know? (World Cinema Documentary competition.)

“Whiplash” • Damien Chazelle’s short film of the same name was intense, a diamond-hard scene between a hopeful drummer and a ruthless instructor in a high-school jazz band. I’m curious to see how Chazelle has expanded the short into feature length, and I’m thrilled that he retained the great character actor J.K. Simmons to play the bandleader. (U.S. Dramatic competition.)

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.