Sundance 2018: Festival preview

Films we're looking forward to at this year's festival

by Amber Wilkinson

This year, I notch up 13 years of attendance at Sundance Film Festival - and I still haven't got the hang of writing preview pieces. This is mainly because the programme of the independent film festival in Park City, Utah, arrives on the scene every January bringing with it a blizzard of new names. While stars can be found across the line-up, most of the best known names are confined to the festival's Premieres section, leaving plenty of breathing space for up-and-coming filmmakers to make their mark.

This year, of the 122 feature-length films showing, 53 are from first-time feature filmmakers. It's also encouraging that the number of films directed by women continues to increase, up to 37 per cent this year from 34 last - considerably better representation than in the mainstream world where, last year, just 11 per cent of the top 250 grossing films were directed by women, according to Women and Hollywood (falling to eight per cent in the top 100).

Picking recommendations is, therefore, incredibly tricky and highly subjective, but here are a few films I'm looking forward to over the next 10 days.

US Dramatic Competition

Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry To Bother You - In a speculative and dystopian not-too-distant future, black telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success – which propels him into a macabre universe.
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry To Bother You - In a speculative and dystopian not-too-distant future, black telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success – which propels him into a macabre universe. Photo: Doug Emmett

A line-up that has been gaining strength in recent years, it's always tough to single something out. The premise of Boots Riley's directorial debut, Sorry To Bother You, has me hooked. Best known for being the lead vocalist of The Coup, the rapper is also a political activist, and his debut relates the story of "a 30-something black telemarketer with self-esteem issues, discovers a magical selling power living inside of him". With a strong cast including Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta), Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name), I'm already sold. I'm also looking out for Nancy in this section, which stars the always terrific Andrea Riseborough as a woman who begins to blur fact with fiction as she becomes increasingly convinced she was kidnapped as a child.

Next

John Cho in Search
John Cho in Search Photo: Sebastian Baron

Increasingly an overspill section for the dramatic competition, this section has harboured some real gems in recent years, including The Fits and A Ghost Story. After his finely worked performance in last year's Columbus - sadly still without a UK release date - I'm particularly looking forward to catching John Cho in Search. This debut by Aneesh Chaganty - whose two-minute short Seeds went viral - sees Cho play a father who tries to hunt his missing daughter by following traces of her online life on her laptop. I'll also be trying to catch coming-of-age film Skate Kitchen directed by Crystal Moselle (The Wolfpack) and Josephine Decker's Madeline's Madeline - about a teenager whose struggle or authenticity with her theatre troupe threatens to blur fiction and reality. It'll be interesting to see if Decker can retain the intensity of her first two films Butter On The Latch and Thou Wast Mild And Lovely, while shedding some of the pretentiousness that dogged those earlier works.

World Cinema Competition

Rodrigo Santoro in Un Traductor
Rodrigo Santoro in Un Traductor Photo: Gabriel Guerra Bianchini

Given the emphasis on US filmmaking in Sundance this section often gets less coverage than it deserves but it the quality level has risen noticeably in the past couple of years, with films including God's Own Country, Sand Storm and (the now Foreign Language Oscar-nominated) The Wound all premiering there. I'm intrigued by Un Traductor, a dramatic retelling of the true story of how 20,000 victims of the Chernobyl disaster were ultimately treated in Cuba. It marks the directorial debut of Rodrigo and Sebastián Barriuso follows a Russian literature professor who is co-opted to help translate at the hospital between doctors and the young Chernobyl patients. I'm also going to be looking out for Yardie, as the multi-talented Idris Elba adds film directing to his not inconsiderable list of jobs, including musician and DJ. He previously had a bash with teleplay The Pavement Psychologist and here he directs Brock Norman Brock and Martin Stellman's adaptation of Victor Headley's cult gangster/coming-of-age novel.

US Documentary Competition/Documentary Premieres

Three Identical Strangers - New York,1980: three complete strangers accidentally discover that they're identical triplets, separated at birth.
Three Identical Strangers - New York,1980: three complete strangers accidentally discover that they're identical triplets, separated at birth. Photo: Newsday LLC

Tim Wardle steps up to feature directing after helming successful Channel 4 documentary One Killer Punch, with a tale of reunited triplets - Three Identical Strangers - which, apparently, becomes a conspiracy thriller. Over in the premieres section are two portraits - Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (directed by Marina Zenovic) and Susan Lacy's Jane Fonda In Five Acts - which offer plenty to go at in terms of subject matter.

World Documentary Competition

Of Fathers And Sons
Of Fathers And Sons Photo: Talal Derki

Finally a section in which I can categorically recommend Talal Derki's Of Fathers And Sons. The director, showing very little risk for life or limb, embeds himself with an Islamist family in Syria and observes the impact of the fundamentalist jihad teachings of the dad on his children. Heartbreaking but not without hope, it's a snapshot of a side of Syria we rarely get to see. I'm also hoping to catch Maxim Pozdorovkin's timely Our New President, which tells the story of Trump's election campaign told entirely through Russian propaganda.

Midnight

Nic Cage in Mandy
Nic Cage in Mandy Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

It's been a long wait but Panos Cosmatos finally follows up on his visually stunning and atmospheric 2010 debut Beyond The Black Rainbow with Mandy. The presence of Andrea Riseborough and Nic Cage are also selling points for this 1983-set tale of a haven that descends first into violence and then vengeance. Cosmatos showed a great grip of mood in his debut, even with visual elements that would have led other directors to pastiche, so I can't wait to see what he does when he is able to marry that to a cast of this calibre. Plus, back in 2010, when I asked him about his next project he told me: "If this movie is a Pink Floyd album, the next one will probably be a Slayer record." Who doesn't want to see that?

Premieres

Rupert Everett in The Happy Prince
Rupert Everett in The Happy Prince Photo: Wilhelm Moser

Naturally generating the most media heat at the festival, this is where the big names lie - although they're usually a mixed bag in terms of quality, for every Marjorie Prime and Call Me By Your Name, there's a Rememory and Fun Mom Dinner. Surely, if anyone was born to play Oscar Wilde it was Rupert Everett and he gets the chance with The Happy Prince, which also marks his directorial debut. Based on the last days of the playwright, if Everett proves even half as good at directing as he is at acting this sort of role, then it should be a treat. Also on the radar are previous Sundance winner Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, about a father and daughter who have lived off the grid for years, and the Zellner brothers Damsel, which stars Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska in a tale of a man searching for his true love in the Old West.

Spotlight

Jonathan Feldmann (Yonaton Shiray) in Foxtrot
Jonathan Feldmann (Yonaton Shiray) in Foxtrot

These are films that have done the rounds at other festivals, but I have no hesitation the Foreign Language Oscar-nominated Foxtrot, which takes us on a dance that wrong-foots the viewer's expectations every step of the way and Rungano Nyoni's cracking debut I Am Not A Witch.

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