Searching the Sundance Lineup

Posted by julian On 6:00 AM
Michael C from Serious Film here.


This Tuesday the Sundance Film Festival announced its 2011 Dramatic Competition lineup. It's ironic that a festival devoted to independence and originality has me looking over the list of films like the crassest studio boss ever to chomp down on a cigar behind a giant desk. You can't help but gravitate towards big stars and familiar concepts. "You've got fifty words, kid. Wow me!"

One can't help but run over the list trying to spot the future of filmmaking somewhere in there. Last Winter's festival had Blue Valentine, which is still a big part of the conversation, and Winter's Bone, which gains momentum by the day. In fact, the roots of the current awards season goes all the way back to the 1998 festival where Darren Aronofsky was awarded for directing Pi and Lisa Cholodenko won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Prize for High Art.

History has shown that festival hits come out of nowhere and can't be predicted. The flick that was supposed to be the hot ticket ends up barely limping into release, while the film no one had their eye on ends up with lines that resemble the run on the bank scene from It's a Wonderful Life.

That said, if I were filling out my dance card now here are three films that I would make a point of catching based on nothing but their capsule summary and my gut instinct. We can check back in a few months to see how sharp my intuition is.

Terri: (Director Azazel Jacobs; Written by Jacobs and Patrick Dewitt) Described as a story about an orphan "mercilessly teased by his peers and roundly ignored by his teachers" Terri has echoes of previous festival winner Welcome to the Dollhouse. The fact that it goes on to describe an unlikely friendship between Terri and a vice-principal played by John C. Reilly suggests it doesn't follow too closely in that films emotionally bruising footsteps. Still, films that can accurately capture the hell of high school life are few and far between, and for all his familiarity I am still not immune to Reilly's goofy charms. Mark me down as curious.

Higher Ground: (Director Vera Farmiga; Written by Carolyn S Briggs and Tim Metcalfe) Vera Farmiga has been one of the most welcome presences in movies in the past few years. I was one of those who thought she deserved a nomination for The Departed for the way she made a somewhat thin role three-dimensional and plausible. The fact that she is transferring that powerful perception to the director's chair is reason enough to pique my interest. That the story of a mother trying to break free from a religious fundamentalist community sounds topical and rich with potential seals the deal. The presence of current Oscar dark horse John Hawkes (go John Hawkes!) doesn't hurt either.

On the Ice: (Directed and Written by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean) The film with the briefest description of any in competition: "On the snow-covered Arctic tundra, two teenagers try to get away with murder." It features unknowns in front of and behind the camera, but then the first Sundance Film Festival was won by two unknown brothers from Minnesota and their efficient little murder story Blood Simple. I'm always a sucker for lean and mean thrillers that strip suspense down to its essential elements and this one looks like it has a unique setting to boot. On the Ice has my attention.

Here's the complete lineup from Sundance.org
Which film grabs your attention?

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