Every year, the independent filmmakers' gathering at the Sundance Film Festival launches several scrappy, talented and hungry creatives into the stratosphere.
This year, the lineup of movies included a comedy in which Harry Potter’s corpse has gas, a reflective drama about the 1831 slave rebellion, a thriller involving the moon landing conspiracy, a Werner Herzog doc about the internet's profound mark on our lives, a real-life horror surrounding the news anchor who killed herself on live TV, and dozens of other offbeat films.
Here are 20 films we're most excited about coming out of this year’s Sundance.
Director: Andrew Neel
Becoming a man - frat style - is what Neel’s drama is all about, taking college movie tropes and making them nastier, more brutal, and much more interesting. Nick Jonas plays a boy who begins to question clubbing and college hazing when his younger brother joins his fraternity in a bid to fit in. As real-life controversies surrounding sexual assault on college campuses escalate, Goat delves into the young male psyche and the desire for acceptance. Look out for a cameo by James Franco as a former frat bro who returns for a night of partying.
Swiss Army Man
Directors: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
This comedic drama sounds totally nuts. It's the feature film debut of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert - the duo behind DJ Snake and Lil Jon's music vid "Turn Down for What" - and focuses on a stranded man (Paul Dano) who survives by using a corpse to do things like open bottles and light fires. This, ladies and gents, is the Sundance movie where Harry Potter's corpse has gas...Daniel Radcliffe plays the dead guy.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Based on Maile Meloy's short story collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Certain Women follows three women (Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern) as they navigate their flawed lives in small-town America. At a time when films directed by women seem in short supply, Reichardt, whose Meek's Cutoff won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival, just keeps churning out profoundly intriguing films. Will this one be an even bigger breakthrough?
Director: Matt Johnson
Johnson's innovative and potentially influential Operation Avalanche gives new gusto to the found-footage genre – in this case, the moon landing. The movie revolves around CIA agents pretending to be documentarians as they infiltrate NASA in the late '60s and uncover a conspiracy. Considering the way his film The Dirties played with tonal sophistication - and the fact that we've heard about this weird new effort skewing toward the comedic-absurdist end of things - Operation Avalanche is certainly worthy of anticipation.
How to Let Go of the World: and Love All the Things That Climate Can't Change
Director: Josh Fox
As 2015 went down as the world's hottest year on record, this is a movie odyssey that goes to 12 countries on six continents to investigate the effects of climate change – the "greatest threat our world has ever known." Armed with a Kubrickian title and serious subject matter, the movie finds Oscar-nominated Fox (Gasland) visiting parts of the globe where communities are contending with the phenomenon. I wonder if Fox flew into Salt Lake City for this year's festival…
The Birth of a Nation
Director: Nate Parker
The true story of Nat Turner, the slave who became a preacher and then, in 1831, the leader of a revolt, is said to have triggered a chain of events that included the civil war and the abolition of slavery less than 35 years later. For Parker - writer, director and star of this Sundance entry - it's been a seven-year journey to get his film made, and with a title provocatively taken from D.W. Griffith's famously racist 1915 film about the foundations of America and the current furore around diversity in Hollywood, the timing of its premiere couldn't have been any better. Think of it as America’s Braveheart.
Director: Will Allen
Imagine spending over 20 years of your life following a seemingly benevolent spiritual leader and then discovering that almost everything you knew about him was a lie. Holy Hell is intriguing not because of what its synopsis tells us (in short, it’s about a cult that went massively off the rails), but because of who directed it. After graduating, filmmaker Allen joined the cult in West Hollywood, and documented his life there as a kind of offering to the central leader (who spent most of his time in Speedos and Ray-Bans). After escaping, Allen turned the footage into this Sundance contender.
Director: Antonio Campos
Rebecca Hall gives the performance of her career in Campos' eerie study of a news anchor who achieved notoriety in the '70s for killing herself on live TV. It's one of those strange coincidences that two people became impassioned at the haunting true story of Christine Chubbuck at the same time and both made a film about her death; Christine is one of two films on the subject at Sundance this year – the other is the documentary Kate Plays Christine. As producer of Martha Marcy May Marlene and director of the artfully shot Afterschool, our money's on Campos' version.
Director: Kevin Smith
Sounds like Smith is continuing his quest to push himself into increasingly strange directions: The second in Smith's True North trilogy of Canada-set horror movies and, as such, the follow-up to his film Tusk, Yoga Hosers is about two teenagers in Winnipeg who "love yoga and live on their smartphones" and must do battle with an "ancient evil" using, you guessed it, yoga. It stars Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, the daughters of Smith and Johnny Depp, respectively, as well as Depp himself.
Director: Tim Sutton
Making a movie inspired by a mass shooting at a movie theater? That takes guts. Sutton's Dark Night is a flick that features a patchwork of unrelated characters — any one of whom could snap at a moment's notice. Despite its real-world Aurora inspiration, the flick focuses on the horrific events and not the people impacted by them. Keep your ears open for Maica Armata's experimental score.
Director: Sara Jordenӧ
Two and a half decades ago, Paris is Burning won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize and, along with Madonna's hit song about the dance style, put voguing and the queer community's ball culture on the mainstream map. Kiki - a cinematic collaboration between Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö and NYC "Kiki" scenester Twiggy Pucci Garçon - revisits that world, this time zeroing in on youth whose resilience is fostered through this eclectic art scene. It's also a film that stands on its own, with subjects who are incredibly smart, open and eloquent.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Director: Werner Herzog
I can't think of a director I’d rather have look at the human mind under the influence of the internet. For Herzog - who’s previously examined everything from the death penalty to his own hubris - the dark heart of the online world is everything that lies in that gap between our physical selves and the way we manifest ourselves digitally. It's a film that looks at the web’s potential for good and evil and says "wait, guys, what are we doing here, exactly?"
Director: Anna Rose Holmer
Anna Rose Holmer's directorial debut stars Royalty Hightower as an 11-year-old tomboy and boxer who becomes captivated by the glamorous dance squad that trains in the same Cincinnati gym. She learns the group's drills and absorbs its female confidence from a distance. The Fits is an amalgam of visual turns, some of them strikingly graceful, that might be expected more from an art video than from a story that's set mostly in a gym.
Love & Friendship
Director: Whit Stillman
It's been almost 30 years since Whit Stillman's incredible Metropolitan premiered at Sundance. Though we haven't seen much of Stillman's expert chronicling of privileged youth in the decades since, Love & Friendship still focuses on the manners of high culture. In this period piece based on Jane Austen's unpublished Lady Susan, Kate Beckinsale, a widow, lays low at her in-laws' estate while gossip about a personal indiscretion blows over. To keep herself busy, she tries to find a suitor for her daughter, enlisting the help of old friend Alicia (Chloe Sevigny).
Director: Jason Bejnamin
Bindle & Keep, a Brooklyn tailoring company, makes custom suits for a growing legion of gender-nonconforming clients. Visionaries Rae and Daniel push past gender norms to create outfits for who their clients truly want to be, not who the fashion industry would have them be. The Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner-produced HBO documentary explores gender-fluidity in fashion – always a fascinating topic and one gaining more acceptance in the mainstream.
Manchester By the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Kenneth Lonergan is making another film! There's still hope in this world. Casey Affleck plays a working-class Boston handyman loner who is named guardian of his 16-year-old nephew when his older brother dies. This flick has prestige written all over it; Michelle Williams also stars, Matt Damon produces, and Lonergan - who won a Sundance grand jury prize back in 2000 with You Can Count on Me and bagged himself an Oscar for screenwriting - is an arthouse success.
Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall
Director: Spike Lee
If you saw Spike Lee's documentary for Bad's 25th anniversary in 2012, you'll know it was poignant, candid and all around pretty incredible. Imagine, then, what he could spin from Off the Wall! Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall promises to cover exactly what's right there in the title. Jackson fans: let out an MJ-style "ooooooh!" right about now. The brazen celebration of Jackson is told by talking heads including David Byrne, Rosie Perez, Lee himself, Kobe Bryant and John Legend among others.
Director: Chris Kelly
Other People, the debut feature from SNL and Broad City writer Kelly, is a moving and realistically rendered semi-autobiographical family drama that nabbed the prime opening night slot this time. It follows a struggling New York comic, played by Breaking Bad's Jesse Plemons, who returns home to Sacramento to care for his dying mother Joanne (Molly Shannon). Kelly succeeds in juggling tragedy with gut-busting laughs, the acting is infallible, and Train's "Drops of Jupiter" on the soundtrack.
Southside With You
Director: Richard Tanne
Barack and Michelle Obama have to be in the running for one of the most celebrated marriages in American history, right? And yet this dramatization of their first date is one of the most curious feature film projects ever made about a sitting president and first lady. Tanne's romantic dramedy retells the first time the Obamas had some ice cream together and saw Do the Right Thing one evening in 1989. There’s definitely something weird about Southside’s very existence. Films glorifying sitting leaders is a little more North Korea’s bag…But, because we want these two to get together so badly, we don’t care.
Director: Steven Caple Jr.
The title of this drama is a reference to Cleveland, the city in which it's based. It's a coming-of-age tale about a group of young men who try to make it out of the city by becoming skateboard pros but are sidetracked by their dealings with a local drug dealer. Nas is executive producing the film and producing the soundtrack, Erykah Badu stars, and the flick also features Michael K. Williams (The Wire) and Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly.