Twenty years ago, one of my favorite films and filmmakers got their big break, so to speak, at Sundance: Clerks and its mastermind Kevin Smith. This year, keeping up with the buzz surrounding the festival has been particularly exciting for me, with acquisitions being made for some films that seem just as odd and out-there in spirit and charm as Smith’s black and white low budget comedy about nothing had been before ever even being picked up by Miramax and the Weinsteins.
Compiling this buzz I’ve been hearing (and doing a little bit of further research into the final distribution rights bought by whom and for what films), I’ve managed to pick five standout selections from Sundance 2014 that I, personally, cannot wait for, and which seem to reflect the festival’s lasting reputation, at least in my mind, as one importantly concerned with cinema’s more offbeat and interesting productions.
Lionsgate, though guilty of mis-marketing last year’s equally atypical horror film You’re Next as a formulaic home invasion thriller instead of accentuating its dark and smart form of cynically twisty meta-humor, will hopefully learn from its mistakes with this purchase. Cooties, starring Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Leigh Whannell and Jack McBrayer, revolves around an elementary school whose young pupils are turned into zombies (of sorts) by some kind of virus. It was written by Whannell and Ian Brennan, who also wrote the Lionsgate-distributed Saw which also premiered originally at Sundance, 10 years ago. This horror-comedy will hopefully be marketed in such a way as to honor both genres at play within it, because the premise and cast would indicate to me a very successful merger of genres that would not only deserve but also require that kind of careful marketing to support it.
This Australian horror film is another genre work to be met with success at Sundance this year, albeit by being picked up by IFC Midnight, a much smaller distributor but whose recent contributions to horror cinema have been some of the most refreshing of late. A widowed single mother reads her young son a story book, which is the catalyst for both demonic, supernatural horror and very real horror—that of a mother whose driven by her negative emotions— to ensue. Reminding me of the very human element present in IFC Midnight’s late 2013 release, Eric England’s Contracted, what I’ve read about The Babadook seems to suggest the presence of a similar duality of horror that, though tricky to pull off, can make the film so much more affecting when actually achieved. I can’t speak to how subtle or overt the two sources of scares will be here, but I’m certainly intrigued to find out for myself and to see just how, and to what end, they escalate.
Life After Beth
I have been excited for this, another zombie comedy in the lineup, for quite some time now, but don’t know how to feel about A24 and DirecTV acquiring its US distribution rights. Apparently, the purchase included DirecTV’s right to a 30-day window to offer the film prior to theatrical release, so if anything, hopefully I’ll get to see it sooner this way. The film stars the always hilarious Aubrey Plaza as girlfriend-turned-zombie Beth to Dane DeHaan as her boyfriend, Zach. After unexpectedly dying, Plaza’s Beth character is given the hopefully-gorier-than-Warm-Bodies undead treatment, a very specific kind of second chance at life and a second chance at love for DeHaan’s Zach. Speaking of Warm Bodies (which I can’t say I didn’t love), I’m hoping that this is a worthy but even funnier predecessor in what seems to be emerging as a zom-rom-com sub-subgenre.
The Skeleton Twins
Bought for distribution by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, this will hopefully be the dark dramatic turn that will garner a different kind and level of respect for its stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. They star as estranged and depressed siblings forced back into each other’s less-than-perfect lives after suicide attempts. As a fan of these two comedic actors, I’m really looking forward to seeing how they tackle this kind of material and have all the faith in the world in their doing so successfully. I do think that marketing the film might be another challenge altogether, given their comedic reputations in the industry already and how that kind of star text could be misleading when trying to get a film with this kind of tone and subject matter out there to the right audience.
They Came Together
Saving my last two films for those outside the horror genre, I wanted to end on a particularly peppy note with David Wain’s newest genre-spoof comedy, starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, co-written with Michael Showalter, and being distributed by Lionsgate this summer. This film looks at the conventions and tropes of the romantic comedy genre and will no doubt flip the formula on its head, which is something I’d expect of Wain and I expect him to do it with the same strange, zany sense of timing and humor as he’s exhibited in the past. Plus, with Amy Poehler playing a candy shop owner who falls for Rudd, the corporate worker threatening her business, I have no doubt that this film will parody swiftly and with no regard for if we get all of the jokes implicated in that or not. As a fairly avid Wain fan, I’m eagerly anticipating the chance to at least try.
This list doesn’t merely serve as a guide to my favorite five of Sundance’s most promising features, but also serves to remind us that its programming is always varied and therefore exhilarating, making it a truly singular and significant film festival presence in a cinematic landscape with more and more film festivals cropping up every year. With three unconventional horror movies and one dark dramedy starring traditionally comedic talents and one romantic comedy spoof from one of today’s most unusual but brilliant comedy directors (I’d argue, at least), my five picks for Sundance’s most interesting and anticipated movies are proof that, like Clerks proved 20 years ago, anything goes— and you never know what might end up going the distance.
Sara majors in Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College. Her favorite genre is horror but she loves learning, writing and talking about all kinds of movies and all forms of entertainment. She has interned with Film Forum and Tribeca Film, both in her native NYC where she hopes to find work in criticism, marketing, distribution, or festival programming post-grad. Her blog and associated Twitter were created with the intention of being more involved and aware of happenings in the film and television industries, as well as to practice writing about pop culture in an academic but friendly and funny way.