For independent filmmakers, a trip to Park City, Utah, at the end of January marks the culmination of years of hard work and the anticipation of making a deal that could potentially change their lives.
The Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off Friday and runs through January 30, is where dreams come true. It launched the careers of now-marquee directors Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith (who returns this year with 'Red State') and Morgan Spurlock (returning with 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold'), while actors such as Ashley Judd, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson and Ryan Gosling have raised their status after starring in films that made the trek to Robert Redford's little 10-day fest.
But with notoriety comes criticism. Sundance continues to try to shed its reputation of being a party stop for swag-addicted celebs. They've been doing this the last few years by putting the focus fully on the films. Its NEXT section, for example, highlights low-budget/no-budget films, and its Direct from the Sundance Film Festival gives five films from the fest the opportunity to be seen nationwide via VOD.
This year Sundance is even scrapping its glitzy opening night premiere gala for what they call "Day One," at which they will screen one narrative and one documentary from both the U.S. and World Cinema competition categories, as well as one shorts program.
Either way, it's sure to be an exciting ten days. Here, we highlight 20 films that, because of the names attached and/or the buzz around them, we believe will be on your must-see list in 2011.
'Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest'
With their inventive, jazzy beats and deep-thinking lyrics, A Tribe Called Quest is one of the most innovative groups in the history of hip-hop and has influenced everyone from the Roots to Kanye West. But with the group's sudden split after 1998's 'The Love Movement,' Tribe fans have been left with a void that still hasn't been filled 13 years later. Here, actor Michael Rapaport looks at what the members of the group are doing now and the friction that still divides them.
Ed Helms plays a lowly, small town insurance salesman whose life is shot with a dose of adrenaline when he attends a convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There he meets fellow insurance agents, played by John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr., who take him along for a wild ride filled with partying, boozing and prostitutes. Film is directed by Sundance vet Miguel Arteta.
'Elite Squad 2'
The all-time box office champ in Brazil now comes Stateside. José Padilha's sequel once again follows Captain Nascimento as he continues to try to bring some kind of order to the ruthless streets of Rio de Janerio. But this time around, Nascimento has been relegated to a desk job, which leads to new challenges and new enemies.
Coming off her breakout directorial debut, 2005's 'Me and You and Everyone We Know,' filmmaker/author Miranda July's sophomore effort is another imaginative look at love and the human condition. Sophia (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are a month away from adopting a cat and, with this realization that their lives will radically change, they decide to quit their jobs, disconnect from the Internet and embark on new endeavors that test their relationship. Narrated by the cat that's causing all this change, July mixes humor and her creative talents that has made her a star in the world of multimedia to craft a film that is certain to be a hot ticket at the fest.
'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold'
Spotlighting some of the harsh realities of the world with a tongue-in-cheek style, Morgan Spurlock turns his lens on the powerful world of marketing and advertising. In doing so, he hopes to make the "'Iron Man' of documentaries." It's no secret that we all are surrounded every day by product placement and other selling methods; here. Spurlock literally sells out by making a film that is brought to you by the highest bidder.
For actress Vera Farmiga's directorial debut she plays Corinne, a woman who after a lifetime of searching for meaning finally believes she's found it after joining a small fundamentalist community with Ethan (Joshua Leonard). However, once there, she begins to question her faith, leading Corinne to have more questions than answers. Farmiga not only had to battle the jitters of being a first time director on this film but also the challenges of being pregnant while making it.
'Hobo with a Shotgun'
Doesn't the title say it all? If you need more... Rutger Hauer plays a vagrant who shows up in a new city only to find it's filled with crooked cops and a puppetmaster at the helm who has created an urban cesspool where the underprivileged are brutalized. But Hauer's hobo doesn't take any guff and plans to settle the score with his trusty 12-gauge. 'Hobo' has already been nabbed by Magnet Releasing, so expect it in theaters later this year.
Sundance is no stranger to films focused on teen angst, and this year one of the most-anticipated is the debut feature by Gavin Wiesen. The film follows teenage loner George (Freddie Highmore), a senior who has never completed an assignment in his entire high school career. He changes his introverted ways (and hits the books) after befriending Sally (Emma Roberts), the popular girl, after the two connect through their troubled relationships with their parents.
You've probably heard the story. A woman buys a scalding hot cup of coffee at a McDonald's, spills it on herself, and sues the fast food giant for millions of dollars. Here, doc filmmaker (and former lawyer) Susan Saladoff reveals how corporations have used this case to distort the facts, stall the justice system and manipulate the public for years.
A long distance relationship is dissected in the second feature by Drake Doremus ('Douchebag'). Jacob (Anton Yelchin) is an American who falls in love with Anna (Felicity Jones), a Brit, while attending college. Once Anna's visa runs out the two decide to have a long-distance relationship. Doremus highlights the struggles the two have to reveal a warts-and-all look at young love. The film also stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Messina.
The last time Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney was at Sundance, he took us inside the corrupt work of Jack Abramoff with 'Casino Jack and the United States of Money.' Now, he takes us on a ride with the Merry Pranksters. More than 45 years after Ken Kesey packed a bus with his LSD-using friends and drove from California to the World's Fair in New York, Gibney and co-director Alison Ellwood have acquired from the Kesey estate hours of footage, audio recordings and photographs from the trip to piece together a definitive moment in American culture.
Led by an impressive cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore and Zachary Quinto, this thriller examines the financial and moral decisions made in a single day by employees of a brokerage firm during the 2008 financial crisis.
'Martha Marcy May Marlene'
This is a project that many in the indie film world have been tracking since director Sean Durkin opened people's eyes to his talents with his Cannes-winning short film 'Mary Last Seen' (which acts as a sort of a prequel to this film). Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) plays Martha, who tries to assimilate back into life with her family after escaping from a violent cult. Durkin explores Martha's journey back to normalcy via flashbacks inside the cult, where she was known as Marcy May and lived in a state of haunting paranoia. The film also starts Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy and John Hawkes.
'My Idiot Brother'
Paul Rudd tosses aside the straight man persona he's portrayed recently in Hollywood comedies 'I Love You, Man' and 'Dinner for Schmucks' to play Ned, a free spirit who, after losing custody of his dog Willie Nelson, turns to his sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer) for comfort -- although it's hard to tell if they are really up for helping him get over it.
Another title that is an extension of a short that made waves on the festival circuit, Dee Rees's debut feature is a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old girl who, in searching for sexual expression, is at risk of losing his friends and family. Think 'Boys Don't Cry' set in Brooklyn.
Coming off his first Hollywood comedy, 'Cop Out,' Kevin Smith returns to indies (and back to Sundance for the first time since 1997's 'Chasing Amy'), only not with the kind of F-bomb comedy that made him famous. Instead, Smith turns to horror, as he focuses on three high school boys, who, after answering an ad to be a part of a gang bang with an older woman, get entangled with a fundamentalist group. Smith has put together a solid cast that includes John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Kevin Pollak and Stephen Root.
From Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, the team behind the '04 Sundance sensation 'Open Water,' this haunting psychological thriller, all done in one continuous camera shot, follows Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen, certain to be this year's Sundance breakout with two films in the fest) and her father and uncle as they clean up their summer home. But they quickly realize the place is haunted. The film is a remake of the Uruguayan horror 'La Casa Muda' (also made in one shot).
'The Son of No One'
Selected as the fest's closing night film, Channing Tatum reteams with director Dito Montiel ('A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints') for this cop drama. In it, Tatum plays a young cop who, while working in the neighborhood he grew up in, tries to conceal a secret that could ruin his career and family. Al Pacino, Ray Liotta, Katie Holmes, Tracy Morgan and Juliette Binoche also star.
Gaining attention at Sundance 2008 for his breakout film 'Momma's Man,' Azazel Jacobs brings a vastly different tale to this year's fest. Alienated by almost anyone he comes into contact with, Terri is achingly trying to get through his teenage years. But when the vice principal (played by John C. Reilly) takes him under his wing, Terri learns life isn't so bad. Look out for the film in theaters in the spring.
With indie hits 'The Station Agent' and 'The Visitor' already under his belt, character actor Tom McCarthy returns to Park City with his latest directing effort. Here, Paul Giamatti plays a struggling attorney forced to moonlight as a high school wrestling coach and the guardian of an elderly client to keep his practice afloat. But when his client's runaway grandson shows up, things get more complicated. Fox Searchlight will release the film in March.
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