Though 2017’s movies are still mired in the long process of honoring and snubbing and all that, it is technically 2018, which means that a whole new crop of films loom on the horizon. Where better to get a sampling of what the year has to offer than high in the mountains of Utah, where the Sundance Film Festival kicks off on January 18? It’s a big festival, with too many titles to look at one by one. But in the interest of clarifying things for you—and for us—here’s a breakdown of some of the films that could break big in Park City.
As Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, and perhaps Mudbound are likely going to prove soon—and as Manchester by the Sea did last year—Sundance can be a good long-lead staging ground for an Oscar campaign. It doesn’t always pan out, but Sundance is still a sturdier launching pad than, say, Cannes. To that end, we’ve got some Sundance 2018 films on our awards radar—as ludicrous as that may be, given that Oscars for last year’s movies haven’t been handed out yet. (There aren’t even nominees, for heaven’s sake.)
Amazon just released a trailer for Gus Van Sant’s new film, the based-on-a-true-story sobriety-and-disability dramedy Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot. Starring past Oscar nominees Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, and Rooney Mara (along with Carrie Brownstein and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon), the film appears to have a funny-sad vibe that often plays well with Academy voters. The based-on-a-true-story angle doesn’t hurt either. Van Sant has been a bit spotty of late (Logan Paul wasn’t the first white American to do something disastrous in Japan’s “suicide forest”), but he has directed two actors to Oscars before. So, this is one to watch.
Everyone loves Laura Dern right now, so it will be interesting to see how The Tale, from debut feature director Jennifer Fox, plays in Park City. Its grimly topical plot—a woman revisits her youth to re-assess a fraught early sexual experience—combined with the Dern factor have this one high on our list. There’s also lots of positive pre-festival chatter about Tamara Jenkins’s first film in over 10 years, Private Life. Perhaps that could mean big things for stars Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, and for Jenkins. Her last film, 2007’s The Savages,scored Oscar nominations for best actress (Laura Linney) and screenplay—though the new film’s status as a Netflix property could trouble its chances.
Sundance doesn’t really feel like the right venue for period biopics, but a couple are screening there this year. In one of them, Colette, Keira Knightley stars as the titular famed French novelist. The film is directed by Wash Westmoreland, who led Julianne Moore to an Oscar for Still Alice (a movie that didn’t play at Sundance, but totally feels like it did). Knightley arguably hasn’t had a big prestige-y lead role like this since 2012’s Anna Karenina (sure, The Imitation Game, but that was supporting), so it will be interesting to see how this one goes for her.
Given the national discourse at the moment, a film like Monster—adapted from a lauded young-adult novel about a black Harlem teenager navigating a biased justice system—seems like something that could demand serious attention. Adding to its allure is that Kelvin Harrison Jr., so striking in last year’s It Comes at Night, is the lead. He’s joined by Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Ehle, and Tim Blake Nelson.
Approaching the race from, uh, the other side, Burden chronicles a young Ku Klux Klan member (Garrett Hedlund) as he learns the error of his ways with the help of a preacher played by Forest Whitaker. We’re a little troubled that Hedlund’s character’s last name is actually Burden, but oh well. Hedlund has been on an upswing lately—thanks to last year’s Sundance breakout Mudbound and HBO’s Mosaic early this year—so we’ll be curious to see if he capitalizes on that here.
Beyond those titles, Come Sunday offers star Chiwetel Ejiofor a lot of opportunity to deliver plenty of clip-worthy oratory as a reformed evangelical preacher. (The Sundance website calls his performance a “tour de force.”) Paul Dano adapts a Richard Ford novel for his directorial debut, Wildlife, giving Carey Mulligan a juicy role in the process. Maybe Rupert Everett will find favor again as a dying Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince. And maybe Paul Rudd will finally get Serious Actor recognition with his W.W. II thriller The Catcher Was a Spy. Five years ago, the film’s director, Ben Lewin, guided Helen Hunt on her way to a supporting-actress Oscar nomination for his film The Sessions.
But we have no greater Oscar hope in the Sundance 2018 lineup than Lizzie,director Craig William Macneill’s sapphic take on the Lizzie Borden story, starring Chloë Sevigny as the famed maybe-murderess and Kristen Stewart as the family’s live-in maid—and Borden’s lover. In the old days, we may have said this was too outré for the Oscars. But times have changed. Let’s dare to dream that come this time next year, we’ll be enjoying awards campaigns for both Sevigny and Stewart.
Now let’s forget all that awards-y business and focus on what Sundance is really known for: showcasing odd, inventive independent films. This year has a plethora of intriguing curios on offer. Eight years ago, director Debra Granik and star Jennifer Lawrence took Sundance by storm with the grim Ozarks thriller Winter’s Bone (which, well, was a big Oscar movie, so maybe we’re not quite done talking about awards-y stuff). This year, Granik returns to the festival with Leave No Trace, a drama about a father (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) that sounds a bit like a darker, lower-to-the-ground Captain Fantastic.
In the Midnight section—which has debuted celebrated fare like It Follows in years past—a film by Sam Levinson called Assassination Nation is getting some early buzz. About a small town that goes to hell when someone starts publicly posting private social-media exchanges and search histories, Assassination Nationlooks like an arch, bloody high-school horror-comedy that, sure, could be a Heathersfor our age. Or it could just be silly-fun. In a slightly similar vein, there’s Never Goin’ Back, also in the Midnight category. It tells the Spring Breakers-esque tale of two suburban Dallas girls scrambling to get together the money to go on a trip to Galveston. We’ve heard from colleagues that it’s one to keep an eye on.
Toward the very top of our most-anticipated list is Sorry to Bother You, from first-time writer-director Boots Riley. The cast is great, with Lakeith Stanfieldand Tessa Thompson in the lead roles and Armie Hammer playing Stanfield’s “cocaine-snorting, orgy-hosting, obnoxious, and relentlessly optimistic” boss. Mannered Sundance comedies can be annoying—think Swiss Army Man—but sometimes they can really land and dominate the whole show. (Think Little Miss Sunshine.) We’ve heard early buzz that this might be a festival highlight.
Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska are starring in Damsel, the new film from David and Nathan Zellner, the brothers who directed the quirky, kooky Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. This one’s a comedy set in the Old West. Or at least we think it’s a comedy. Who really knows with the Zellner brothers, who also co-star in the film. Whatever this thing is, it will be fun seeing Pattinson’s lighter, looser side. His ever-evolving and interesting career had to get there eventually.
Hot off directing three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale—including the tone-setting pilot—cinematographer-turned-director Reed Morano is taking her second feature film to Sundance. In I Think We’re Alone Now, there’s been some kind of apocalypse, and a lonely man played by Peter Dinklage is all that’s left of humanity. Or so he thinks, until he meets a young woman played by Elle Fanning(who plays approximately 75 percent of young-woman roles in independent films these days). This may all sound a bit like the (under-appreciated) Fox sitcom The Last Man on Earth, but we’re guessing Morano has something moodier in store.
A year after Get Out premiered to raves at Sundance in a surprise screening, another film about a lone black man traveling to a rural house full of white people is set to debut in Park City. Sebastián Silva’s new film Tyrel stars Jason Mitchell as a guy going to a bachelor party in the Catskills whose weekend quickly devolves into . . . something bad. We’re not quite sure what, but after that jolting twist in Silva’s 2015 Sundance entry Nasty Baby, we’re expecting the unexpected.
Also on our radar: Opening-night pic Blindspotting, co-starring and co-written by Hamilton breakout Daveed Diggs. We’re hearing good things about We the Animals, a family drama based on an acclaimed novel (featuring hottie boombalottie Raúl Castillo, from Looking! Though we think he plays a bad dad in this one). And 306 Hollywood seems like an intriguing, oddball documentary about two siblings sifting through their late grandmother’s possessions and trying to craft some portrait of a life in the process.