With January being the traditional low point of the movie season, cinephiles from around the world look to the Sundance Film Festival for some glimmer of hope. America’s preeminent independent film festival has graduated some heavy-hitters over the years, including Whiplash, Ida, and Boyhood from last year’s class. 2015’s program boasts an unprecedented balance between drama and comedy premieres, ensuring that everyone from general audiences to discerning film students will leave happy. Like any good buffet table, however, Sundance simply has too much good stuff to consume, unless you don’t mind unbuckling your belt in a crowded movie theater. With that in mind, here are a few of the more hotly-anticipated titles from this year’s festival.
The Psychology Triumvirate
Psychology buffs rejoice! This year’s Sundance is presenting three movies that might someday be found in a Psych 101 course syllabus. From the U.S. Dramatic Competition, we have The Stanford Prison Experiment and Stockholm, Pennsylvania, while Experimenter is exhibited in the Premieres program.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Alvarez dissects the infamous 1971 social psychology experiment conducted by Stanford professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup). After assigning 12 subjects to be inmates and 12 subjects to be guards in a mock prison, Zimbardo’s experiment escalates out of control as each test group adopts their new roles with frightening efficiency. It remains to be seen how faithful Alvarez’ account will remain to the actual experiment, which has been distorted and embellished in past movies, such as 2001’s Das Experiment. Regardless, the dramatic and satirical possibilities, as well as Crudup’s performance, make this a coveted ticket.
Directed by Michael Almereyda
Nearly 10 years before Zimbardo was pushing the boundaries of scientific ethics at Stanford, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram was delving into the terrifying implications of social obedience. Milgram’s test design was devilishly simple: Subjects were to administer electrical shocks to other test subjects when they answered questions incorrectly. That some subjects were willing to literally shock a person to death at Milgram’s behest came as a complete… well… shock. Spurred on, no doubt, by the Showtime hit, Masters of Sex, Almereyda focuses on the life of Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) both before and after his formative experiments. Finding out what makes the researcher tick can be just as interesting as the research itself.
Directed by Nikole Beckwith
Sometimes real-life events explode into Hollywood’s consciousness. When three women in Cleveland were rescued in 2013 from their brutal 10 year imprisonments, Nikole Beckwith’s script about a girl rescued after a 17 year imprisonment was suddenly a hot property. Beckwith’s script was already on the 2012 Black List and a finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship, but this solidified its place as an indie curiosity. More fascinating, still, is that Beckwith’s story deals with not only the heroine’s conflicted feelings toward her captor, but her reluctance to embrace the family she never knew. We’ve seen movies about Stockholm Syndrome before, but few offer the same level of character depth as Stockholm, Pennsylvania.
The Franco Effect
Heeeee’s baaaaack! Perennial Park City favorite, James Franco, returns to Sundance with two new entries. I Am Michael and True Story are both featured in the Premieres program.
I Am Michael
Directed by Justin Kelly
Based on a New York Times Magazine article about Michael Glatze, a gay activist who renounces his homosexuality and becomes a minister, I Am Michael could easily be bunched with the above Psychology Triumvirate. After all, what demons, doubts, and dreams must possess a man to reject such a fundamental component of his personality? Franco is an inspired choice to play the lead character, who promises to be both charming and conflicted. It will be interesting to see how such charged subject matter is received, as well as how far Justin Kelly goes in depicting Glatze’s sexuality on the screen.
Directed by Rupert Goold
Already slated for an April release in the U.S., True Story is undoubtedly the hottest property on the Sundance docket. Franco plays Christian Longo, an inmate accused of brutally murdering his family. While on the lam from the FBI, Longo assumes the identity of embattled New York Times reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill). In a bizarre twist, Longo turns to Finkel in a last ditch effort to prove his innocence. It’s a meaty role for Franco, who has already proven his ability to play charismatic creepers, like Alien from Spring Breakers, but for Hill, it represents the heaviest material he’s tackled to date. If Goold and co-writer David Kajganich’s script is anywhere near as tense as the trailer suggests, True Story might emerge from Sundance with legitimate box office aspirations.
While many of the films at Sundance are based on true stories, a good documentary proves that very few dramatizations can beat the real thing. Luckily, this year’s lineup is crammed full of provocative and fascinating documentary features.
3 ½ Minutes
Directed by Marc Silver
Much like the powerful 2013 drama Fruitvale Station, 3 ½ Minutes tells the story of a senseless tragedy that no amount of anger can undo. We’re simply presented the final outcome and then forced to witness the inevitable events that preceded it. In this case, the tragedy is the 2012 shooting death of an unarmed Florida teen outside a gas station. Exhibited in the U.S. Documentary Competition, 3 ½ Minutes is another instance where cinema and current events, namely the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, can augment and inform one another. What Silver’s film has to say about racial and judicial inequality reaches far beyond the confines of a movie screen.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
Directed by Douglas Tirola
If societal ills have got you down, you can lighten things up by watching the story of one of America’s seminal comedy institutions, National Lampoon magazine. Based on the 2010 book by Rick Meyerowitz, Tirola’s film chronicles the humble beginnings of a few irreverent smart-asses who left their sticky fingerprints all over the 70’s and 80’s. Just the chance to see archival footage of a young Belushi and Radner is worth getting excited about Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. Before there was SNL, there was National Lampoon. Fans of comedy need to see this Documentary Premiere.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Directed by Alex Gibney
No stranger to ruffling feathers, Alex Gibney is a rabble-rouser of the noblest blood. Previously, with Documentary Premieres like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Who Killed the Electric Car? (which debuted at Sundance in 2005 and 2006 respectively), Gibney aimed his meticulous analytical eye at the eco-political “establishment.” Now, he takes aim at one of the most litigious and mysterious institutions in the world, The Church of Scientology. It seems unlikely that Gibney will pull any punches while adapting Lawrence Wright’s controversial book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, but a cursory examination of the film’s modified title might raise the eyebrows of a few cynics.
Directed by Rodney Ascher
Though officially grouped with the Park City at Midnight program, The Nightmare is actually a documentary-horror film about sleep paralysis. Coming off his endlessly fascinating Kubrick rumination, Room 237, Ascher turns his attentions to this very real and very horrifying phenomenon. Victims are caught in a dreamlike state between sleep and wakefulness, aware of their terrifying surroundings but unable to move or vocalize. Ascher, who struggles with the condition himself, promises “a disturbing investigation into the demonic visions experienced by victims of sleep paralysis.” Sounds like perfect midnight fare!
The Dirty (Half) Dozen
Well, not dirty, really, but pinging all over the map. The great thing about a huge festival like Sundance is the sheer breadth of styles and viewpoints. You’ll find a little bit of everything in these selections, from the surreal to the sardonic; the epic to the seriocomic.
Z for Zachariah
Directed by Craig Zobel
This post-apocalyptic love triangle is rife with both promise and danger. The high concept, which tracks the last remaining woman on earth and her two male suitors, is set to deliver plenty of drama and suspense. That this is an adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s Young Adult novel, coupled with its pinup-beautiful cast (Margot Robbie and Chris Pine, in particular), however, might be warning signs of something light and fluffy. Still, Nissar Modi’s script placed highly on the 2009 Black List and Zobel’s filmography suggests a director with more than money on his mind. Z for Zachariah is definitely the most intriguing entry in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
Directed by Jennifer Phang
It’s impossible to watch Jennifer Phang’s short film for Futurestates (embedded above) and not get excited about her feature-length adaptation of Advantageous. There is the terrific sci-fi premise of desperate people transplanting their “minds” into other bodies, as well as the dystopian satire of an overpopulated planet where jobs and resources are scarce. Add the soulful performance of Jacqueline Kim as a mother who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for her daughter and you have the makings of a devastating film. This worthy entry into the U.S. Dramatic Competition looks like a brainy sci-fi meditation on societal roles that stays focused on the human elements at its core
I Smile Back
Directed by Adam Salky
Rounding out the stellar U.S. Dramatic Competition is Sarah Silverman’s first foray into heavier drama. Though her stand-up comedy material has never been afraid to venture into darker territory, I Smile Back represents a radical career shift. Here, she stars as the wayward suburban housewife from Amy Koppelman’s popular novel; a woman who seemingly finds the American dream but is powerless to resist her own self-destructive tendencies with drugs and anonymous sex. The combination of a relative newcomer like Salky and an actress who is willing to challenge herself promises a new and interesting take on the typical redemption story.
The Forbidden Room
Directed by Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson
The jewel of the New Frontier Film program is the latest offering from Canadian auteur, Guy Maddin. As with everything Maddin does (he presented The Saddest Music in the World at Sundance back in 2004) there is a good deal of mystery surrounding The Forbidden Room. Billed as “Maddin’s ode to the lost movies of the silent era,” the remaining description borders on insanity, promising to take viewers “into dreamscapes, spinning tales of amnesia, captivity, deception, and murder.” With actors like Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric and Charlotte Rampling at the disposal of a mad genius like Maddin, you know the results will be captivating.
Directed by Tali Shalom-Ezer
Tali Shalom-Ezer’s first feature length film promises to be bold, disturbing, and visually striking. A young girl, first enchanted and then terrorized by her aggressive stepfather, escapes into a fantasy world whose sole inhabitant is a boy who looks eerily like her. It’s a challenging subject that begs for a delicate touch, yet demands a strict adherence to its narrative integrity. In other words, it’s a rough ride that needs to be taken. That the trailer for Princess asks the question, “How much imagination does it take to look reality in the eye?” shows us that Shalom-Ezer isn’t afraid to take the journey.
Directed by Celine Sciamma
Childhood is hell, especially when you don’t fit in. For Marieme (Karidja Touré), a poor girl living in a rough neighborhood, allies are in short supply. When she finds an energetic, independent-minded group of girls to take her in, Marieme is more than happy to assimilate into their gang, for better or worse. After spending 2014 on the festival circuit (including an appearance at Cannes), Girlhood finds its way to the Spotlight program at Sundance. Rich with themes of teen insecurity, loss of innocence, and exploring self-identity, Sciamma has created a coming-of-age story with some real juice, as well as a provocative leading performance by Touré.