Eleven of the Biggest Surprises from the Sundance Lineup Announcement

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On Wednesday, the Sundance Film Festival announced its full lineup for the 2008 fest, skirting the annoying tradition of releasing the list of titles sporadically over the course of a few days via category/section in which they premiere.

The list offered the usual amount of returning directors and big-name stars, but Sundance has also always showcased some of the best new talent out there with films like Precious and Beasts of a Southern Wild being two of many films that snuck into the festival with relatively low expectations. In that sense, there are still many movies that might surprise people once they’re seen.

Instead of sharing the movies I am personally most looking forward to –  it would be a very long list with Juliet, Naked at the top, since I’m such a huge fan of Nick Hornby’s book — I picked eleven movies that immediately caught my attention for other reasons when I first ran through the list.

They’re shared below in alphabetical order:

American Animals – Documentary filmmaker Bart Layton (The Imposter) transitions to narratives with a fun premise that brings together young talent like Evan Peters (X-Men: Apocalypse), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Blake Jenner and Jared Abramson as four young men who plan an art heist as if they were in a movie. This sounds like one of those fun Sundance “surprises.”

Assassination Nation  – I was a big fan of 2nd gen. filmmaker Sam Levinson’s 2011 Sundance debut Another Happy Day (starring Ellen Barkin and Ezra Miller), which was a dysfunctional family dramedy, something that’s fairly typical of Sundance. This year, he’s in the “Midnight” section (which is surprising in itself) with a movie about “how the quiet, all-American town of Salem, Massachusetts, absolutely lost its mind.” Sounds like a great tagline for a movie that stars Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Bella Thorne and Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgard.

Beirut  – Filmmaker Brad Anderson (Session 9) has been at Sundance quite a few times, but this is based on a screenplay by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne movies), and it’s more like the type of political thrillers we’ve seen from him over the years. In it, Jon Hamm plays a diplomat who flees Lebanon in 1972 but has to return to save the life of a friend he left there. This doesn’t seem like “Sundance fare” (if there is such a thing) but it could be a nice transition and step-up for Anderson from his normal genre fare. 

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot – Although Gus Van Sant produced I Am Michael, which premiered at Sundance in 2015, this is technically his return to the fest with a movie he directed for the first time since 2015’s Gerry. This one stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man who has been paralyzed from a car crash since the age of 21, who turns to art for therapy. The fact the movie co-stars Jonah Hill (that’s him on the right in the picture at the top of this article) and Jack Black makes me wonder whether this movie is going to be more comedic than might be expected from the tagline. This also stars Phoenix’s real-life girlfriend Rooney Mara, who we’ll see acting together in this before their previous appearance together in  Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene.

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The Happy Prince – Every year, there are new movies at Sundance from actors-turned-first-time-directors, but Rupert Everett’s directorial debut about Oscar Wilde, whom he plays from a script he also wrote (!), seems like the type of Oscar fodder we often don’t see until the Sept. film festivals. The fact this co-stars previous Oscar winner Colin Firth means this one might be worth keeping an eye upon.. if it’s any good, of course.

Hearts Beat Loud – It’s also not that surprising for a filmmaker to be at Sundance with a movie in consecutive years, but I was such a big fan of Bret Haley’s The Hero, starring Sam Elliot, as well as his previous film I’ll See You in My Dreams (which premiered at Sundance in 2015). This premise about a father/daughter songwriting duo sounds like it might make Haley go three for three.  It stars Nick Offerman (who appeared in The Hero), Kiersey Clemons (Dope), Sasha Lane (American Honey) and Blythe Danner (who was amazing in Dreams).

Lizzie – As Jeff Sneider pointed out previously, the new thriller from Craig William Macneill (The Boy) about notorious 19th Century killer Lizzie Borden, as played by Chloë Sevigny, should be one of the more intriguing films in dramatic competition. Possibly it’s because Kristen Stewart might have the juicier role playing Lizzie Borden’s housemaid, and people tend to forget that both before and after Twilight, Stewart was a Sundance regular with movies like Adventureland and Camp X-Ray.

Mandy – If you’ve had a chance to see Belgian filmmaker Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow, your brain probably hasn’t been the same since. You’ve also probably been looking forward to Cosmatos’ second feature which will premiere in the Midnight section, which isn’t a surprise in itself. His new movie stars Nicolas Cage as a sadistic cult lead, and man, if you’ve been watching any of the crazy roles Cage has been playing in the past years, this could be the craziest movie Sundance has ever premiered. (It also stars one of my favorite actors and a true chameleon in Andrea Riseborough.)

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Puzzle – It’s not uncommon for to direct films of their own, and this isn’t the first one from Little Miss Sunshine Marc Turteltaub. It stars Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting) as a suburban mother who gets caught up in a world of jigsaw puzzle solving, which makes this one intriguing just because it’s something we haven’t seen before. (Kind of like that movie about butter-sculpting from a few years back.) I’m also surprised this was written by Oren Moverman (I’m Not There, The Messenger, Love & Mercy), because it seems very different for him, but also because he produced two other Sundance premieres, Paul Dano’s Wildlife and Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, both in dramatic competition.

Seeing Allred – There are always great docs at Sundance, and it’s no surprise that a doc about women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred from directors Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman would premiere at Sundance, because there couldn’t be a timelier subject. It’s only surprising the movie will focus mainly on Allred’s trials against Bill Cosby and Donald Trump, when she’s probably going to be even busier in January, and who knows if she’ll even be able to clear her court schedule to attend the festival. This will be one of the fest’s hottest tickets for sure if Allred is able to attend.

Untitled Debra Granik Project – It isn’t too big a surprise that filmmaker Debra Granik would return to Sundance with her follow-up to Winter’s Bone, since both that and her earlier film Down to the Bone were Sundance breakouts. (She also directed the doc Stray Dog since making Winter’s Bone, which introduced us to Jennifer Lawrence.) What’s surprising is that it was announced as being untitled when it’s listed on IMDB as “My Abandonment” which is a pretty awesome title if you ask me.

There’s probably many more movies that will surprise when they premiere at Sundance come January. The Tracking Board will be there in force with editor-in-chief Jeff Sneider, Chief Critic Drew McWeeny and myself all in attendance.

You can read the full Sundance lineup here, and feel free to share in the comments your own thoughts on which films you’re anticipating, which  ones might break out or what “Sundance surprises” I may have missed.

  | East Coast Editor
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