Comprising a considerable amount of our top 50 films of last year, Sundance Film Festival has proven to yield the first genuine look at what the year in cinema will bring. Now in its 38th iteration, we’ll be heading back to Park City this week, but before we do, it’s time to highlight the films we’re most looking forward to, including documentaries and narrative features from all around the world.
While much of the joy found in the festival comes from surprises throughout the event, below one will find our 25 most-anticipated titles off the bat, which doesn’t include some of the ones we’ve already seen and admired, notably Cemetery of Splendour, The Lobster and Rams. Check out everything below and for updates straight from the festival, make sure to follow us on Twitter (@TheFilmStage, @jpraup, @djmecca and @DanSchindel), and stay tuned to all of our coverage here.
25. Sing Street (John Carney)
After breaking out with the lovely, Oscar-winning Once, director John Carney found his Hollywood feature with Begin Again. Hopefully returning to his roots at this year’s Sundance he’ll be premiering his new musical Sing Street. Following a group of kids in 1980s Dublin that attempt to be part of the music scene, a new trailer hints at a more tender drama from Carney, and one that The Weinstein Company will release hopefully soon after the festival.
24. The Fundamentals of Caring (Rob Burnett)
Closing out the Sundance Film Festival this year is The Fundamentals of Caring, a new drama which teams Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, and Selena Gomez. Following the road trip between a caregiver and a teenager with muscular dystrophy, we’re looking forward to see the comedic chemistry between Rudd and Roberts, two actors who have impressed at the festival before. Direction comes from Rob Burnett, a longtime producer of the Late Show with David Letterman.
23. Frank & Lola (Matthew M. Ross)
While we’ll cover another Michael Shannon film later on in this feature, he’ll also be stopping by Sundance with Frank & Lola, a new drama which pairs him with Imogen Poots. The noir love story follows Shannon as Frank, a chef in Las Vegas who begins a volatile relationship with Lola (Poots) and questions of trust soon arise. Coming from journalist-turned-director Matthew Ross, hopefully it’s one of the many impressive debuts at the festival.
22. Swiss Army Man (Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert)
Considering genre-tinged films don’t often show up in the U.S. Dramatic competition slate at Sundance, it always piques our interest when one makes it through. Such is the case with Swiss Army Man, coming from music video directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. Starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the film follows a man on a deserted island who takes a newly discovered dead body on an adventure. Based on the curious premise alone, we’re mightily intrigued.
21. The Free World (Jason Lew)
Considering her recent track record, Elisabeth Moss‘ credit in a film is reason enough to seek it out. She’ll return to Sundance this year with the drama The Free World opposite Boyd Holbrook. Directed by Jason Lew and described as a neo-Southern Gothic tale, it follows a man recently released from prison attempting to return to a normal life. He soon meets a woman that might make this change difficult. The directorial debut from Lew, who wrote Gus Van Sant’s Restless, hopefully it’ll be a stand-out in the U.S. Dramatic competition slate.
20. Ali & Nino (Asif Kapadia)
Coming off one of the most successful documentaries of all-time, Amy, director Asif Kapadia returns to the narrative side this year with Ali & Nino. Premiering at Sundance next week, it follows the relationship between a Muslim man and Christian woman on the cusp of World War I. Considering how effective his documentary work is, we hope Kapadia’s latest packs the same emotional wallop with this sweeping love story.
19. Dark Night (Tim Sutton)
After helming one of our favorite films of Sundance a few years back with Memphis, director Tim Sutton returns with Dark Night, depicting the moments before a mass shooting in a suburban theater. While not much more is known about the feature, with Sutton’s touch, we are hoping it’s something as artistically impressive and emotionally devastating as Elephant.
18. Becoming Mike Nichols (Douglas McGrath)
Leaving behind a wealth of iconic work and a brand of filmmaking that is already missed, Mike Nichols was simply one of Hollywood’s finest storytellers. It’s only right that we get a hopefully definitive documentary on The Graduate director, who passed away in 2014. Set to air on HBO on February 22nd, one won’t have to wait long to see Becoming Mike Nichols following its Sundance premiere.
17. Operation Avalanche (Matt Johnson)
After premiering The Dirties at Slamdance a few years ago, director Matt Johnson is back in Park City, but this time he’ll be headed to Sundance. His new film Operation Avalanche depicts an undercover mission during the Cold War in which young CIA agents pose as documentary filmmakers to uncover a potential Russian mole inside NASA. Already picked up by Lionsgate, hopefully audiences not at the festival will be able to see it soon after.
16. Joshy (Jeff Baena)
There’s no shortage of compelling ensembles in the Sundance Film Festival line-up, but few pack the sight-unseen intrigue of Joshy. With Thomas Middleditch, Adam Pally, Nick Kroll, Brett Gelman, Jenny Slate, and Listen Up Phillip and Queen of Earth director Alex Ross Perry leading the cast, the Devendra Banhart-scored feature tells the story of male bonding in a California. While I found Jeff Baena‘s debut Life After Beth lacking some personality, hopefully he greatly improves on his follow-up.
15. Belgica (Felix van Groeningen)
Over the past few years, there have been a number of films focusing on the personal toll of music making. This year saw Eden, the lightly fictionalized story of a failed DJ, which dominated the festival circuit, and the EDM story, We Are Your Friends, which attracted a small but vocal fanbase. And though they took markedly different approaches in tone and presentation, they both provided a snapshot into the coexisting destructive and wondrous effects of music. Belgica, the next from from the Oscar-nominated Broken Circle Breakdown helmer Felix van Groeningen, looks to mine similar emotional terrain with its story of two brothers, Jo (Stef Aerts) and Frank (Tom Vermeir), who start a bar and become subsequently immersed in the Belgium club scene. The first trailer looks both exhausting and thrilling, shifting back and forth between the strained home life and frenzied work life of the two characters, and we’ll see it soon as it opens the festival. – Michael S.
14. Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)
Following the acclaimed Actress, director Robert Greene‘s follow-up looks to be his most-ambitious yet and one of the more fascinating “fictiononfiction” films of recent years. Starring Kate Lyn Sheil, recently seen in Queen of Earth and Listen Up Philip (on both of which Greene served as editor) — as well as something of a current indie darling — Kate Plays Christine promises to be a boundary-blurring depiction of fame, mental illness, and people driven to their own end. – Nick N.
13. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
The last time he stopped by Sundance, Taika Waititi delivered one of the funniest films of the year with his vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, co-directed by Jemaine Clement. Before he shoots Marvel’s Thor 3 this summer, he completed work on another feature, the coming-of-age dramedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Featuring newcomer Julian Dennison and Sam Neill, it follows a trip into the unknown with two unlikely paired individuals that, if like Waititi’s past work, will be both heartwarming and side-splittingly hilarious.
12. Holy Hell (Will Allen)
When the initial Sundance Film Festival slate was announced, one of the most intriguing titles was Holy Hell, a new documentary in which its director was undisclosed. Since revealed to be Will Allen, he kept it concealed in order to finish the highly secretive documentary, which depicts his 20-year journey within a spiritual community in West Hollywood. Having recorded much of his time there, the film features interviews with the cult members and much more, hopefully making for quite a controversial document.
11. The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker)
Having impressed in films such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Arbitrage, Red Hook Summer, Non-Stop, and certainly Beyond the Lights, we’ve been awaiting a true break-out for the talented Nate Parker. This Sundance, it may come, but not solely in the form of a performance, as he not only leads The Birth of a Nation (as Nat Turner), but he also directed, wrote, and produced the drama. Telling the story of Turner’s slave rebellion, we hope this will be one of the festival’s boldest and most essential premieres.
10. Indignation (James Schamus)
Having left the top position at Focus Features, James Schamus had time to embark on his directorial debut and it’s a promising one. An adaptation of Philip Roth‘s Indignation, Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman lead the film set in 1951. It’ll follow Lerman’s character who grapples with anti-Semitism, sexual repression and the escalating Korean War as he comes of age at a Midwestern Lutheran college. He meets Gadon’s character at college and the two begin dating, revealing some dark secrets. With Schamus’ track record in producing some of the finest films from Todd Haynes, Ang Lee, Paul Schrader, Todd Solondz, and more, it’ll be wonderful to see him behind the camera himself.
9. Morris From America (Chad Hartigan)
After coming on my radar with his lovely, well-directed Sundance character story This Is Martin Bonner, Chad Hartigan returns this year with this follow-up Morris From America. Starring Craig Robinson and Wetlands star Carla Juri, the coming-of-age story follows a 13-year-old hip-hop-loving American boy Morris (Markees Christmas) who moves to Heidelberg with his father (Robinson) and is forced to navigate the trials and tribulations of adolescence in a foreign place. If Hartigan is able to infuse the same warm style with authentic performances, this will surely be one of the highlights of the festival.
8. Little Men (Ira Sachs)
One of the premier independent directors making films about relationships, LGBT or otherwise, Ira Sachs has proven himself to be a keen observer of the fluidity of relationships. 2014’s Love Is Strange honed in on the naturalistic realities of a decades long relationship threatened by financial issues whether it’s the need to live apart, or abandon art for a living. His latest film, Little Men, which premieres at Sundance later this month, again deals with the repercussions of money issues on a relationship. In this case, it’s the budding friendship of Jake and Tony, two teenagers who are pushed to a shared vow of silence by a disagreement between their parents. After the death of his grandfather, Jake’s family is in disrepair, and moves back to their old family home in Brooklyn. Jake’s dad is a flailing actor (Greg Kinnear), and his mom is a psychotherapist (Jennifer Ehle), an already volatile combination, but their home is located directly above Tony’s single mother’s (Gloria‘s Paulina Garcia) dress-shop. Soon, they decide to raise her rent, and an all out battle begins. – Michael S.
7. Complete Unknown (Joshua Marston)
Following the Criterion-approved drama The Forgiveness of Blood, Joshua Marston tried his hand at a few major TV shows, but he’s now back with his next feature, set to debut this week at the Sundance Film Festival. Starring Michael Shannon, Rachel Weisz, Michael Chernus, Danny Glover, and Kathy Bates, Complete Unknown follows a man who becomes intrigued by his dinner guest, leading to an all-night odyssey. With a major cast and a compelling premise, we hope this proves to be another hit for Marston. – Jordan R.
6. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Whit Stillman’s films have always maintained a sense of Austen-ian idealism, highlighting the importance of writing as a way to best express one’s feelings, not to mention also as the most polite. So it was about time Stillman took on Jane Austen directly, and his adaptation of the deceivingly simple Lady Susan sees him reunite with his The Last Days of Disco stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny. Beckinsale will play Lady Susan Vernon, a widow rumored to make men fall for her with little effort. Trying to stay away from rumors, Lady Susan decides to find a suitable husband to make her respectable again, Sevigny plays her confidante, Alicia. Lady Susan was never submitted for publication by Austen, and as such remains the most “controversial” of her works. Expect Stillman to be especially poignant, and to honor Austen’s witty social dissections with equal doses melancholy and reverence. – Jose S.
5. Christine (Antonio Campos)
With some of the best independent dramas each year, from Martha Marcy May Marlene to Simon Killer to 2015’s James White, if you aren’t paying attention to Borderline Films, you should be. Their latest feature, Christine, comes from Simon Killer‘s Antonio Campos and is based on a true story of a news reporter who committed suicide on live television. Led by Rebecca Hall and Michael C. Hall, it’ll premiere in competition at Sundance, where they note, “bathed in dread and peppered with sharp humor, Christine is a hypnotic and arresting portrayal of a woman at a crossroads.” – Jordan R.
4. Lo and Behold Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog)
Easily one of the most-anticipated films of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival line-up is a new documentary from a solidified master in the field: Werner Herzog. Marking his first feature-length non-fiction film in a half-decade — since the the profound, intimate death row documentary Into the Abyss — his new feature explores the effects of the Internet on our culture and connection. According to the Sundance synopsis, the director “documents a treasure trove of interviews of strange and beguiling individuals—ranging from Internet pioneers to victims of wireless radiation, whose anecdotes and reflections weave together a complex portrait of our brave new world.”
3. Weiner-Dog (Todd Solondz)
Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures has swooped in and saved the day for many contemporary filmmakers whose brilliant work does not always attain mainstream box office success. Ellison has produced films for the prestigious likes of P.T. Anderson, David O. Russell, Andrew Dominick, Spike Jonze and Bennett Miller. You can also add the one and only Todd Solondz to that list, as his newest film landed a green-light after Ellison and company jumped on board in mid-2015. So far, all we know is that the plot follows a lovable Dachshund whose life intersects with several different people, spreading comfort and joy. The title, Wiener-Dog, is also a playful reference to the character of Dawn Wiener from Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, who also appears in the new film, played this time by Greta Gerwig. For those keeping track at home, yes, we learned that Dawn committed suicide in Solondz’s Palindromes, which suggests a possible direction that her path could take after meeting said Dachshund. Solondz’s film’s often tackle decidedly taboo subjects, exquisitely relishing in making his audience laugh when perhaps they should weep. From the outside, perhaps the addition of a cute dog to the cast indicates a warming change of trajectory for the filmmaker. On the other hand, it could be a mischievously misleading touch, akin to Gaspar Noé making a film titled Adorable Kitten. – Tony H.
2. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and, of course, Michelle Williams: could there be a better cast for a new Kelly Reichardt film? Certain Women, adapted from a short story collection by Maile Meloy, will see Reichardt keep focus on small-towns in the Pacific Northwest, this time with a tale of intersecting lives ranging from married couples to lawyers and hostage situations. Reichardt’s career has been one of revising genre and locating similarities across different genres, and Certain Women looks to continue that tradition in a bolder, further-ranging manner. – Forrest C.
1. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
After a painful five-year battle to bring his previous work, Margaret, to the big screen, Kenneth Lonergan‘s newest project will finally be screened soon at the Sundance Film Festival. Titled Manchester by the Sea, the film indeed takes place in the sleepy Massachusetts town of the title, a setting not dissimilar from that of Lonergan’s first masterpiece, You Can Count on Me. Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a shiftless plumber who must return to his hometown in the wake of his older brother’s death. Back for the first time in years, Lee is forced to take care of his brother’s teenage son while also reconnecting with his own separated wife, played by Michelle Williams. Lonergan is a master of character, able to effortlessly imbue his protagonists with a deep sense of authenticity and nuance. His characters are imperfect humans, stumbling around in search of love — or anything closely resembling that all-powerful, redemptive feeling. It’s refreshing to know that we won’t have to wait another five years to see it. – Tony H.
What are you most looking forward to in the line-up?