Would you look at that, it’s nearly the middle of January, which means that a fateful, foreboding and potentially life-altering day draws near: the opening of the Sundance Film Festival! Running from January 19th to 29th, the slate for this year’s festival is as crammed as ever. From high-profile, starry ensemble dramas to under-the-radar debuts to documentary, experimental and avant-garde titles, there’s bound to be something that tickles your fancy (especially if it tends toward “bittersweet indie rite-of-passage dramedies” because, this being Sundance, there’ll definitely be a few of those.)
As soon as Sundance ends, we’ll be into Berlin, followed by SXSW and then ramping up to Cannes, which is followed by Karlovy Vary then Venice, Telluride, Toronto, NYFF (assuming these cities are all still standing), the fall 2017 awards season, the 2018 Oscars, marriage, kids, retirement, golf, death. Better get a move on, so. Here are our 30 most anticipated films of Sundance 2017.
Synopsis: An aimless young Brooklyn man with a dying father tries to escape by hooking up with men at a cruising beach.
What You Need To Know: Eliza Hittman’s first feature “It Felt Like Love,” a powerful and deeply felt coming-of-age story about a young woman’s first sexual experiences with an older man, was one of the most striking directorial debuts in recent years. Four years after that premiered at Sundance, Hittman returns with her follow-up, which looks to be a sort of companion piece focusing on masculinity and male sexuality. Again, she’s deploying a mostly unknown cast (there’s some buzz around lead Harris Dickinson already) for a dark coming-of-age story, and if it’s anything close to the quality of her debut (and given that she developed the screenplay with Sundance Labs, it’s very possible it could even be better), it’s likely to be one of the festival’s very best films.
“Beatriz At Dinner”
Synopsis: Holistic therapist Beatriz is invited to stay for dinner at a client’s house after her car breaks down, but she and a fellow dinner guest, a wealthy one-percenter, have a disagreement that ends up involving the entire party, to everyone’s social discomfort.
What You Need To Know: After 2011’s disappointing “Cedar Rapids,” director Miguel Arteta spent a long time working in TV prior to 2014’s “Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” But this scabrous-sounding, blackly satirical drama sounds like it could be a return to form, particularly as it reunites Arteta with his “Enlightened” collaborator Mike White, who also wrote “The Good Girl,” probably Arteta’s best film. It sounds like the kind of contained situation, in which social awkwardness can point to arch social comment, that White does so well, and the cast, which includes Salma Hayek as Beatriz and John Lithgow, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass and Connie Britton, is both formidable and fun.
Synopsis: A young Australian backpacker has an affair with a man while visiting Berlin, but when she tries to break it off, he holds her captive in his apartment.
What You Need To Know: She’s not that prolific, unfortunately — debut “Somersault” came in 2004, follow-up “Lore” eight years later — but any new film from Australian director Cate Shortland is welcome, and her latest is certainly intriguing. Based on a best-selling novel by Melanie Joosten (adapted by “Snowtown Murders” writer Shaun Grant), it marks the first approach into thriller territory for the helmer, but the themes of her work and the focus on the stories of women look to be present and correct. With some more high-profile casting than “Lore” — Teresa Palmer, coming off the lead in surprise hit “Lights Out,” and “Sense8” actor Max Riemelt — this could give Shortland the crossover movie she’s long deserved.
“The Big Sick”
Synopsis: Pakistani-born comedian Kumail falls in love with an American girl, against the wishes of his family.
What You Need To Know: Given his track record in both hit comedy movies and TV, when Judd Apatow takes a rare foray into the independent world (only his second, after “Begin Again”), you figure you should pay attention, and “The Big Sick” feels like it could be one of the biggest hits out of the festival this year. It’s written by comedians Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and podcast fave Emily Gordon, telling the story of their real-life romance, taking in cultural differences and a potentially fatal disease. Nanjiani also stars, while Zoe Kazan stands in for Gordon, with Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as her parents, and Indian star Anupam Kher and great British actor Adeel Akhtar as his family, while Michael Showalter, fresh off surprise smash “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” directs, making this a pretty fierce collection of comic talent.
Synopsis: A depressed housewife is finally pushed too far by her four children and cheating husband and takes on the persona of a dog.
What You Need To Know: As anyone who saw her excellent 2008 debut “Good Dick” knows, Marianna Palka is a severely underrated talent as a writer, director and performer (to say nothing of her extraordinary gut-punch documentary short “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” made with Lucy Walker a few years back). Her last film, “Always Worthy,” went mostly unseen, but her latest, “Bitch,” should get much more attention with a Midnight bow at Sundance. Reuniting her with “Good Dick” star Jason Ritter, who stars alongside Jaime King and Palka herself, it promises to be even more provocative than their previous collaboration, (we’re assuming from its slot) tipping somewhat into horror territory, but seemingly with the same kind of incisive look at relationships, too.
Synopsis: Zurich has just been accepted into a prestigious black fraternity at his college, but finds his life unravelling during the hellish pledge week.
What You Need To Know: Perhaps because we’re shortly going to have a bloated orange fratboy in the White House, something about frat culture and hazing seems to be striking a chord with filmmakers at the minute. Last year brought the very good “Goat,” and this year, first-time filmmaker Gerard McMurray gives an African-American spin on the premise with “Burning Sands.” The New Orleans native is a former classmate and colleague of Ryan Coogler (McMurray was an associate producer on “Fruitvale Station”), and this could be an equally head-turning debut, with Reginald Hudlin (“Django Unchained”) and Stephanie Allain (“Hustle & Flow”) producing, and a fine cast including “American Crime” actor Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodard, Steve Harris and “Moonlight” breakout Trevante Rhodes.
Synopsis: A young woman must team with a war veteran after a Texas militia attempt to invade New York.
What You Need To Know: When you think Sundance, you probably don’t think “action movie starring Dave Bautista.” So it’s pleasing that a film with such a Sundance hipster-y title as “Bushwick” could turn out to be exactly that, an action movie starring Dave Bautista, and it’s doubly intriguing as a result. It hails from directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott, who made the enjoyable horror-comedy “Cooties,” and has a none-more-timely premise in depicting a modern-day civil war targeting NYC. It’s a welcome vehicle for Bautista, who, unusually for a wrestler, gave arguably the best performance in both “Guardians Of The Galaxy” and “Spectre,” and “Pitch Perfect” actress Brittany Snow stars along side him. It could turn out to be another riff on “The Purge,” but Murnion and Milott could turn it into something more akin to early Walter Hill or John Carpenter.
“Call Me By Your Name”
Synopsis: In the summer of 1983 on the Italian Riviera, 17-year-old Elio finds himself attracted to the 24-year-old Oliver, his scholar father’s charming American intern.
What You Need To Know: Fans of handsome bronzed people exploring hidden desires drenched in sensual Italian sunshine (and aren’t we all) have a treat in store: After handsome bronzed people explored hidden desires drenched in sensual Italian sunshine in his “A Bigger Splash,” Luca Guadagnino is back with novel adaptation “Call Me By Your Name,” in which handsome bronzed people… you get the idea. Co-written by Guadagnino and James Ivory, the film will star Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet and the great Michael Stuhlbarg, and while we can be sure it will look gorgeous, this time out we can also be pretty much guaranteed it will sound great too — Sufjan Stevens is doing the music.
“City Of Ghosts”
Synopsis: The story of “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” a group of anonymous citizen journalists who banded together after their Syrian city was taken over by ISIS.
What You Need To Know: Matthew Heineman’s last film, “Cartel Land,” was one of the most extraordinary documentaries of the last few years, tackling the war on drugs with both a clear-headedness and the visceral power of a gripping thriller. Two years after that bowed at Sundance, he’s back with equally vital subject matter: the rise of ISIS in Syria, and the ordinary people who defied them. We’re promised impressive, eye-opening access to the film’s subjects, and given how hugely important the subject matter is, and how it’s mostly been ignored by filmmakers so far, this feels like an absolute must-watch.
Synopsis: After repeated appeals through traditional legal channels fail, the best friend of a wrongfully imprisoned man starts his own crusade to secure his release.
What You Need To Know: A true-life story that first made waves as part of a 2005 “This American Life” episode, Matt Ruskin‘s sophomore feature stars Lakeith Stanfield, who’s been on our radar ever since “Short Term 12” and who turned in one of the most cherishable TV performances of 2016 in “Atlanta.” Stanfield will play the incarcerated man Colin, and actor and producer Nnamdi Asomugha will play his dogged best friend Carl, in this long-gestating project from Ruskin whose narrative debut “Booster” won the Jury Prize at SXSW. The topicality of this true story, as issues around America’s mass incarceration crisis come ever more to the forefront, and what is sure to be another scorching performance from Stanfield, put this one very high on the sight-unseen awards-friendly list.