Every January, awards season kicks off early in Park City, Utah, the home of the Sundance Film Festival, founded by Robert Redford in 1978. There is often an uncertainty in the air among festival goers this time of year. Sundance exhibits some of the greatest talents in the world every year, so it can be overwhelming to decide which movies to see.
Although one year short of its 40th anniversary, 2017 marks a significant year for Sundance nonetheless. It will be the last time its founder premieres a film as an actor. Redford will be starring in “The Discovery,” alongside fellow Sundance alumni Rooney Mara and Jesse Plemons. In fact, according to his grandson Dylan in an interview published by Walker Films last year, after this film, Redford only has two more acting roles in 2017 before he retires from the craft completely and focuses on directing. He will be starring in “Our Souls at Night” alongside Oscar winner Jane Fonda, and “The Old Man and the Gun” opposite Sundance Alumnus Casey Affleck and Oscar winner Sissy Spacek.
From personal experience, along with the program, it is always nice to get an outside (or in this case, an insider’s) opinion on the films that will optimize one’s festival experience. In short, recommendations can give festival attendees the biggest bang for their buck. Alas, here is a palatable list, in layman’s terms, of the top 10 films to watch at Sundance 2017 for the casual filmgoer:
10. “Brigsby Bear”
Sundance is no stranger to welcoming Saturday Night Live writers to its vast filmmaking community. Last year, SNL writer alumnus Chris Kelly made his writing and directorial debut with the almost unanimously well-received film, “Other People.” This year, Emmy nominee and SNL writer Dave McCary makes his directorial debut with “Brigsby Bear,” a film starring University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts graduate and current SNL cast member Kyle Mooney (who also co-wrote the script). This fish-out-of-water dramedy sees Mooney as a fervid, sheltered young adult with a fascination for the titular television show, who uses his obsession with the show to navigate his way through society. “Brigsby Bear” is a delightful ode to filmmaking itself, something that will highlight the difficulty of growing up in an increasingly emotionally isolating society.
It appears that the Sundance Institute saw so much success within its 2014 program, they are trying to bring back as much talent from that year as possible. “Landline” is Gillian Robespierre’s highly anticipated follow-up to her critically well-received directorial debut, “Obvious Child.” Also co-screenwriting this film, Robespierre appears to have made another candid, comedic portrayal of family dysfunction. This nostalgic ’90s family dramedy sees Jenny Slate returning as its main character, along with an all-star supporting cast including John Turturro, Edie Falco, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass and Finn Wittrock.
8. “To the Bone”
Lily Collins, daughter of former drummer and lead singer of rock band Genesis, has been an actor to watch ever since she turned heads in “Stuck in Love” in 2012. Her ability to convey emotion and react in a naturalistic way with her expressive face is a rarity in film. She seems to have found her stride in “To the Bone,” written and directed by the multifaceted television creator and producer, Marti Noxon. Prodigy Public Relations calls Collins’ performance of a young woman struggling with anorexia “career-making.” Co-starring veterans Keanu Reeves and Lili Taylor, this film is bound to make waves among critics and audiences alike.
7. “Walking Out”
Writers and directors Alex and Andrew Smith are returning to Sundance after debuting “The Slaughter Rule” in 2002. It is always nice to see filmmakers return to Sundance after a debut, especially after a long hiatus. Known for excavating superb performances from their actors, the Smith brothers’ reputations continue to precede them, this time providing Golden Globe winner Matt Bomer a perfect vehicle to flex his dramatic chops. Furthermore, rising young star Josh Wiggins is undoubtedly an actor to watch out for.
6. “The Yellow Birds”
It is very rare for a director’s debut to be a masterpiece, but, in Alexandre Moors’ case, his Sundance debut in 2013, Blue Caprice, was an incendiary and unforgettable work of art. The French filmmaker, who, uniquely, began developing his talents as a singular voice in the Parisian graffiti scene in the 1990s, looks to build upon his first film, both thematically and artistically, with “The Yellow Birds.” The film is a gripping war mystery starring two faces of the next generation of acting royalty, Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan.
5. “Wind River”
With two exceptional writing credits under his belt, Taylor Sheridan makes his directorial debut and Sundance premiere with “Wind River.” This film tells a potent tale about humankind’s battle with nature, acceptance, love and the lingering effects of self-inflicted atrocities in the past. With Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon”) as a producer behind this project, esteemed actors Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen and Jon Bernthal supported by a predominantly Native American supporting cast, Sheridan may have likely found all of the elements, pun intended, necessary to make his mark as a directorial voice heard at Sundance and, ultimately, in the world of cinema.
With another Sundance premiere, Craig Johnson adds to his short, albeit impressive filmography with “Wilson,” an adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ titular graphic novel. Clowes’ work was previously adapted for the silver screen with “Ghost World” in 2001, a film that hurled Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch into superstardom. Johnson won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance in 2014 for “Skeleton Twins.” Here, he has found another quirky, dysfunctional character study in Woody Harrelson’s Wilson, who is in outstanding company with Laura Dern and Judy Greer as his acting counterparts.
3. “Polka King”
Along with her husband and co-writer Wally Wolodarsky, Maya Forbes has returned to premiere “Polka King,” an eccentric, poignant, funny and unpredictably true story about Polish immigrant Jan Lewan (played by Jack Black). The film is their first follow-up since Sundance’s “Infinitely Polar Bear” in 2014. “Polar Bear” was a resounding critical and financial success. Spanning two decades, this comedy follows Lewan, his wife, Marla (Jenny Slate), and partner-in-crime Mickey (Jason Schwartzman), as they fuel Lewan’s passion for polka dancing and his obsession to succeed, unwittingly creating a Ponzi Scheme. With a story too absurd to be fiction, the husband and wife duo have cooked up what is sure to be a wildly funny and entertaining ride.
2. “The Discovery”
This film begins the aforementioned first of Sundance founder Robert Redford’s last three films before he retires from acting. In continuing with its aim at preserving the talent exuded in its 2014 lineup, Sundance is welcoming back writer and director Charlie McDowell, son of famed actors Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, after his fantastic sci-fi romance film “The One I Love.” In premiering “The Discovery,” the writer and director aims to expand upon his existential themes of complex love, belonging and grappling with the concept of death in the midst of an exponentially technologically changing world landscape. Redford plays physicist Doctor Thomas Harber, who scientifically proves the existence of an afterlife. Jason Segel and Rooney Mara also co-star in the film.
1. “Sidney Hall”
Even at the early stage of his career, Logan Lerman is already one of the most talented, if not the most talented, actors of his generation. His performances in “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Stuck in Love,” “Noah,” “Fury,” and, most recently, “Indignation,” are unforgettable examples of unadulterated, unabashed realism channeled through an actor, transposed onto screen. In “Sidney Hall,” he finds what might be his most fitting role in the titular character, playing to his strengths of portraying troubled but brilliant characters, figuratively living in the outskirts of their own worlds. Lerman has a chance to work with Oscar-winning (2013, Best Short Film, Live Action for “Curfew”) director, Shawn Christensen in his follow-up to the SXSW Audience Award-winning feature length film, “Before I Disappear.” “Sidney Hall” tells the emotionally resonant story of a prodigal but unstable writer, whose leap into fame comes with great consequences. Told through nonlinear vignettes of Hall’s life, the film will linger with the audience long after viewing.
Wherever festival goers are on the cinephile spectrum, there is always something at Sundance for everyone. Each year, new exhibitions of technology, film innovation, social and political activism, and music are added to the festival to accompany the filmgoing experience. As pleasing as it would be to recommend every film at Sundance to its audience members, it is nearly impossible to see them all in one, or even two, weekends. However, if attendees have time, check out the “Next” section of the program. Oftentimes there are gems hiding in plain sight within this portion of the film festival, displaying future talent in all forms within the film industry.
Also, don’t forget to wear warm clothes and an abundance of layers. Weather.com predicts this weekend’s Park City weather to be within the low 10-degree to mid-30-degree range with snow showers all weekend. With that said, stay safe, and, equally as important, have a blast and enjoy the unique experience that Sundance provides.