Dramas with unlikely performers and documentaries about unexpected subjects dot the 2015 Sundance lineup -- including a Sarah Silverman film about an addict mother and nonfiction looks at subjects as diverse as Mexican drug cartels and the amateur porn industry.
The 2015 festival, which runs from Jan. 22 to Feb. 1, has a high bar to meet this year. After generating just one Oscar best picture nominee in the three festivals between 2011 and 2013, the 2014 edition saw the premieres of “Boyhood” and “Whiplash,” two films currently in the thick of the awards race.
Six documentaries that premiered at the fest earlier this year also made the Oscar shortlist earlier this week, including the Roger Ebert pic “Life Itself” and Proposition 8 film “The Case Against 8.”
Festival director John Cooper said he was “optimistic there’s going to be quite a few breakouts” this year.
Programming director Trevor Groth added, “I don’t think necessarily anything will follow in the footsteps of ‘Boyhood’ or ‘Whiplash,’ because those were singular films, but I do think there are films that you can envision what their life is going to be and it’s an exciting one.” Organizers unveiled the lineup on Wednesday in the first of a round of announcements scheduled over the coming days.
The U.S. dramatic competition, one of the festival’s most high-profile sections, will see the debuts of Adam Salky’s “I Smile Back,” in which the comic performer Silverman plays a suburban mother dealing with a host of psychological and pharmacological issues. It will also bring the premiere of Jemaine Clement’s turn as a single dad and graphic novelist who finds himself in something of a romantic crisis in James Strouse’s “People, Places, Things.”
Meanwhile, Jack Black stars in Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel’s “The D Train,” a look at a thirtysomething man who tries to atone for high school ills, and Melissa Rauch co-wrote and stars in the former-gymnast tale “The Bronze,” directed by Bryan Buckley
It’s not uncommon to see performers seek to reinvent themselves at Sundance, but the abundance of comic actors in dramatic roles is a particular trend this year, organizers said.
Indie-darling directors Andrew Bujalski and Kyle Patrick Alvarez will also unveil films in dramatic competition -- the gym-set dramedy “Results” and fact-based period drama “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” respectively. The former stars Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce and the latter features Ezra Miller and Olivia Thirlby.
Craig Zobel, whose harassment-drama “Compliance” created a stir at the 2012 festival, is also back with a new film-- a post-apocalyptic love triangle titled “Z for Zachariah” that stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine. The film is Zobel’s first in competition.
“Honestly, when I found out I was shocked,” said Zobel via email. “I had just sorta figured being in competition in Sundance wasn’t in the cards for me and had been at peace with it. So to find out we were not only accepted but invited to competition was a humbling surprise.”
The world dramatic competition, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, features a dose of star power as well, including Michael Fassbender in “Slow West,” a frontier romance set in 19th century America, and Nicole Kidman in “Strangerland,” a missing-child drama set in Australia. (For the full list please see the Sundance site.)
Some 118 feature films – with 103 world premieres – have been selected from 29 countries out of more than 4,100 feature submissions, organizers said.
On the documentary side, the U.S documentary competition will showcase Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land,” a story about powerful drug cartels set on both sides of the U.S-Mexican border, and “Hot Girls Wanted," Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’ examination of the large number of young women who are joining the amateur porn industry.
Other U.S. doc competition titles include Daniel Junge’s “Being Evel,” on daredevil Evel Knievel; Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s “Best Of Enemies,” on the televised 1968 debates between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal; Louis Psihoyos’ endangered species investigation “Racing Extinction"; and Laura Gabbert’s “City of Gold,” on L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold.
The world documentary competition includes Hao Zhou’s study of local politics, “The Chinese Mayor,” Ilinca Calugareanu’s look at the black market for VHS tapes in 1980s Romania, “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” and Kim Longinotto’s examination of teenage prostitution, “Dreamcatcher.”
Also in this first wave of announcements is the program for the section known as Next, which has been home to many of buzziest films at the fest since the section’s inauguration in 2010. Among the selections playing Next this year looking to steal some thunder from the competition films will be Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment,” Josh Mond’s “James White” and Sebastian Silva’s “Nasty Baby.”
“It’s been really uplifting for us and made us really hungry to get into the programming process this year and see what the next wave was going to look like,” said Groth. “Every year the festival takes on a different identity, depending on what the filmmakers are doing out in the world.”
“I just like the intensity of some of the films,” said Cooper of this year’s crop. “The comedies being more comedic, the romances being really sweet and beautiful, docs that really enrage you,” adding, “I get the sense of independent filmmakers trying to make sense of the world.”
Sundance has also seen an increase in the number of formally adventurous films at recent editions.
The advent of smaller cameras and a trend toward constant documentation has enabled filmmakers to capture footage in new and unexpected ways.
Two years ago, a first-time director named Randy Moore sent shock waves through Park City, Utah, with “Escape from Tomorrow,” a scripted movie he shot on the sly at Disney theme parks with camera phones and other below-the-radar devices.
This year sees the pattern continue. In "(T)error,” Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe chronicle a government counter-terrorism operation in real time. Nonfiction filmmaker Crystal Moselle documents a half-dozen teenagers who’ve spent their lives locked in a New York housing project, connecting to the outside world only via film re-enactments. And Steven Riley’s “Listen To Me Marlon” is a film culled from the private audio archives of Marlon Brando.
Other forms of experimentation will also be on display in Park City. With “The Witch,” writer-director Robert Eggers takes the unusual Sundance step of setting a genre movie in the 1630s, and Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel tell a true story about an amputee locked in a battle with a man who inadvertently bought his mummified leg at an auction.