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The Most Highly Anticipated Films At The 2015 Sundance Film Festival

There are all kinds of movies for all kinds of people at this year's premier Park City-set independent film fest. Here they are, grouped by recurring themes.

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It’s Hard Being a Teenager

Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Sundance Institute; Aaron Epstein; Sam Emerson; Daniel Katz; Chung Hoon Chung

1. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, and Molly Shannon

Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Thomas Mann plays Greg, an antisocial high-schooler who also makes movies as a hobby. He and his one friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), are forced by Greg's mother to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has been diagnosed with leukemia. I have prepared myself to be moved by this film, since I teared up while watching the Sundance video of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon merely describing it. Jesse Andrews, whose 2013 debut novel of the same name inspired the movie, also wrote the screenplay.

2. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni, and Kristen Wiig

Directed by: Marielle Heller

This movie, which has animated elements as well as live action, was adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel from 2002. Written and directed by Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl takes place in '70s San Francisco and centers on teenaged Minnie (Bel Powley), who has sex with her mother's (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård).

3. Seoul Searching (Premieres)

Starring: Justin Chon, Jessika Van, In-pyo Cha, Teo Yoo, Esteban Ahn, and Byul Kang

Directed by: Benson Lee

Another period movie, Seoul Searching is set in the John Hughesian era of 1986 and follows a group of Korean teens from all over the world who have come to Seoul for a summer program. According to the Sundance program, Benson Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, based the movie on his own experiences.

4. Slow West (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, and Rory McCann

Directed by: John Maclean

Set even further back in time than either of the previous two movies, Slow West sends the audience to the late 19th century where Kodi Smit-McPhee (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) plays Jay, a Scottish 17-year-old who heads to the American West and starts traveling with Silas (Michael Fassbender, an executive producer here). This is John Maclean's first feature (and he wrote it as well), but he and Fassbender have previously collaborated on two shorts.

5. Dope (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Blake Anderson, Zoë Kravitz, and A$AP Rocky

Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa

Dope centers on three nerdy friends who live in a rough neighborhood in Inglewood, California, and are trying to avoid its pitfalls. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa is an alumnus of Sundance's Director's Lab, where he finished 1999's The Wood, which was also set in Inglewood and is also about a group of friends (played by Omar Epps and Taye Diggs, among others). The festival write-up of Dope describes it, in part, as being "a delightful mash-up of DIY punk, Yo! MTV Raps, YouTube, and Neil deGrasse Tyson."

6. Grandma (Premieres)

Starring: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Sam Elliott

Directed by: Paul Weitz

As a director, Paul Weitz has gone from the broadest comedies there are (American Pie, Little Fockers) to more nuanced movies like About a Boy. In Grandma, which Weitz also wrote, Lily Tomlin plays Elle, a lesbian poet whose granddaughter (Julia Garner) needs her help, causing Elle to revisit her past. Marcia Gay Harden plays Elle's daughter.

7. Songs My Brothers Taught Me (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: John Reddy, Jashaun St. John, Irene Bedard, Taysha Fuller, Travis Lone Hill, and Eléonore Hendricks

Directed by: Chloé Zhao

In writer/director Chloé Zhao's feature film debut, Johnny, a high school senior, wants to leave the reservation where he grew up, but after his father dies, he finds he can't leave his younger sister. —Kate Aurthur

Sci-Fi Gets Artistic

Richard Wong


Courtesy Sundance Institute

Z for Zachariah

8. Advantageous (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Jacqueline Kim, James Urbaniak, Freya Adams, Ken Jeong, Jennifer Ehle, and Samantha Kim

Directed by: Jennifer Phang

There is a small but vibrant corner of Sundance that has historically supported brainy, arty science fiction, including Pi, Donnie Darko, Primer, Moon, and Safety Not Guaranteed. This year, Advantageous — set in a dystopian near future in which a mother (Jacqueline Kim, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Jennifer Phang) and her daughter fight to succeed as society crumbles around them — hopes to join that list. "I wanted to explore what a parent would be willing to do to keep their kids' futures secure," Phang says in her Sundance video about the film. "I wanted to set that in a world that is a little bit different from ours, and imagine a situation where a parent would be tested to the extreme, and possibly make a very big sacrifice."

9. H. (Next)

Starring: Robin Bartlett, Rebecca Dayan, Will Janowitz, Julian Gamble, and Roger Robinson

Directed by: Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia

A meteor lands near the town of Troy, New York, and two women, both named Helen — one pregnant, one with an eerily lifelike "reborn" baby doll — discover that their lives are becoming really, really weird. The film's trailer suggests an eerie, unnerving mood piece, which could make for a captivating experience... or just a really, really weird one.

10. Z for Zachariah (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine

Directed by: Craig Zobel

Like I suspect of many children of the '80s, I can remember reading Robert C. O'Brien's novel Z for Zachariah when I was a kid, and imagining its spare, harrowing story as a movie. Anyone familiar with the novel, however, will already recognize that this film adaptation has made some significant changes to O'Brien's story. It still tracks Ann Burden (Margot Robbie), who believes she's the only survivor of a devastating nuclear war thanks to the secluded valley she lives in that prevented any radiation from reaching her, because sci-fi. But with The Wolf of Wall Street's Robbie in the role, Ann is no longer a teenager (or, at least, no longer looks like a teenager), and her life is upended when two men enter the valley — first Chiwetel Ejiofor's Loomis, and then Chris Pine's Caleb — instead of just one like in the book. I suspect these changes will shift the story from a grim coming-of-age tale to something more overtly sexual and thematically complex, both of which I think are good things. (Fun fact: Director Craig Zobel is one of the co-creators of Homestar Runner, which is just too random for me not to share.) —Adam B. Vary

Am I Gay or Am I Not Gay?

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

The D Train

Cara Howe

I Am Michael

11. The D Train (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike White, and Kyle Bornheimer

Directed by: Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel

The Sundance film guide's synopsis for this dark comedy — a sad-sack family man (Jack Black) convinces his high school's most popular alum (James Marsden) to return for their class reunion, until "a wild night takes an unexpected turn" — suggests that things get perhaps a little gay. I'm hearing that is indeed the case, though how things get gay remains tantalizingly unclear.

12. I Am Michael (Premieres)

Starring: James Franco, Zachary Quinto, and Emma Roberts

Directed by: Justin Kelly

The sexuality issues in this film, by contrast, are anything but ambiguous. It's based on the true story of LGBT rights activist and co-founder of queer youth magazine XY Michael Glatze (James Franco), who, in 2007, declared he wasn't actually gay and abandoned his ex-boyfriend (Zachary Quinto) for his new wife (Emma Roberts). Casting Franco, who has made speculation about his sexuality into performance art, as Glatze was a savvy move by co-writer/director Justin Kelly, making his feature directorial debut here. But telling this confounding story well would be a high-wire act for even a seasoned director; it will be exciting to see if Kelly pulls it off. —A.B.V.

Documentary Portraits

Clockwise from top left: Jean Carlomusto; Anne Fishbein; Peter Rodis; Courtesy Sundance Institute

13. Being Evel (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Daniel Junge

If you were a little kid in the 1970s, which I was, you might have been obsessed with Evel Knievel (which I was). I even had the Evel Knievel stunt cycle toy. Back then, it seemed a normal part of life that there was a man who would set up death-defying stunts and enact them on TV. We've seen a revival of this phenomenon in recent years with the antics of Nik Wallenda, and yet, it was definitely not normal. So yes, please, to Junge's close look at Evel Knievel, if only because he really was the most '70s dude.

14. Best of Enemies (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

During the 1968 presidential conventions, ABC News had the idea to have Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley — who had nothing in common but their patrician airs and strongly held beliefs — square off in a series of debates. They're fascinating, if you haven't seen them, with the two men — one on the left (Vidal) and one on the right (Buckley) — discussing the seismic issues of the day and insulting each other simultaneously. We're now used to this right vs. left format, of course, but at the time, it was explosive and new. Oh, and Morgan Neville, one of this documentary's directors, won the Oscar for Twenty Feet From Stardom, which made its debut at Sundance two years ago!

15. Call Me Lucky (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait

Bobcat Goldthwait, the stand-up comedian and director, has turned his eye here to the unsung comedy of Barry Crimmins. It's both a portrait of Crimmins' work as a political satirist and activist, and a personal look at his upbringing and life.

16. City of Gold (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Laura Gabbert

Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold is a cult figure here in Los Angeles, and both from reading him devotedly and observing him a time or two in restaurants, I know that he is a character. Gold's approach to food is literary and democratic. And now he is the subject of this documentary!

17. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (Documentary Premieres)

Directed by: Brett Morgen

Brett Morgen, the inventive documentarian behind The Kid Stays in the Picture (and others), has directed the first authorized look at the life, work, and death of Kurt Cobain. And while many Sundance movies await distribution, HBO will air Montage of Heck sometime in the spring.

18. Larry Kramer in Love and Anger (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Jean Carlomusto

"We have to appreciate Larry," says Jean Carlomusto in her Sundance video, "because he's not going to be here that much longer." Carlomusto also says in the video that Kramer has almost died several times in the past year — which she captured on film, with the blessing of his husband. Carlomusto, an AIDS activist herself, has known Kramer for years, and has now documented his revolutionary place in American civil rights history. HBO will be airing this one in 2015 too.

19. Tig (Documentary Premieres)

Directed by: Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York

Tig Notaro, the winning stand-up comedian whose comedy, life, and career changed after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, gets a full biography in Tig.

20. Listen to Me Marlon (World Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Stevan Riley

According to Sundance's description of Listen to Me Marlon, this documentary about Marlon Brando has "no talking heads, no interviewees," and is told through Brando's own archive of his fascinating personal life and career, which includes recordings he made of himself talking. (You can see this one on Showtime later this year.)

21. What Happened, Miss Simone? (Documentary Premieres)

Directed by: Liz Garbus

The work of Liz Garbus has had an eclectic, political thread, from 1998's The Farm: Angola, USA through 2011's Bobby Fischer Against the World. In this Netflix documentary, she looks at Nina Simone, the singer/pianist/civil rights activist. —K.A.

Female Comedians Get Serious

Eric Lin

I Smile Back

Dagmar Weaver Madsen


22. I Smile Back (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski, Mia Barron, Terry Kinney, and Chris Sarandon

Directed by: Adam Salky

We always seem to make a big fuss whenever a comedian goes dramatic, but there has always been a chord of real darkness playing under Sarah Silverman's comedy. Now that subtext becomes text in Silverman's first fully dramatic lead role as a suburban mother whose depression, drug use, and sexual promiscuity slowly ruin her seemingly happy marriage and family life. I mostly liked director Adam Salky's last film at Sundance (the 2009 coming-of-age film Dare) and I'm eager to see if Silverman can maintain her savvy live-wire spark without punchlines to leaven the gloom in I Smile Back, adapted by Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan from Koppelman's novel.

23. Unexpected (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Cobie Smulders, Anders Holm, Gail Bean, and Elizabeth McGovern

Directed by: Kris Swanberg

How I Met Your Mother's Cobie Smulders has popped up in a couple Marvel Studios movies, earned supporting roles in a few other comedies, and had a spoiler-y role in Nicolas Sparks' Safe Haven. But her film profile significantly increases at this year's Sundance with two major lead roles. The first skews dramatic, with Smulders playing a high school science teacher who becomes unexpectedly pregnant at the same time as one of her best students. Fun fact: Co-writer/director Kris Swanberg is married to filmmaker Joe Swanberg, who also has a film at the festival, Digging for Fire. —A.B.V.

Female Comedians Get Funny

Scott Henriksen

The Bronze

Ryan Green


24. The Bronze (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Melissa Rauch, Gary Cole, Thomas Middleditch, Sebastian Stan, Haley Lu Richardson, and Cecily Strong

Directed by: Bryan Buckley

Last year's Sundance opening film was current Best Picture nominee Whiplash, a bracing and dead serious look at the perils of striving for excellence. This year's opening film also looks at what can happen when you strive to be the best, but this time, it's a raunchy comedy about a former Olympic gymnast (The Big Bang Theory's Melissa Rauch) whose fragile hometown fame is threatened by an up-and-coming gymnast who idolizes her. In other words, it's about as far from Whiplash as you can get. Rauch co-wrote the film with her husband, Winston Rauch, and Sundance godfathers Jay and Mark Duplass executive produced.

25. Results (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Michael Hall, and Brooklyn Decker

Directed by: Andrew Bujalski

The second film in Cobie Smulders' Sundance double feature is this dramedy about a gym owner (Guy Pearce), his employee (Smulders), and the wealthy divorcé (Kevin Corrigan) who becomes their new client. "There are some things about yourself that you can't 'improve' your way out of," says director Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess) on the Sundance video about his film. Truer words have rarely been spoken. —A.B.V.

The Parents of Eastside Los Angeles

The Overnight

Ben Richardson

Digging for Fire

26. The Overnight (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman, and Judith Godrèche

Directed by: Patrick Brice

If you have children and live in L.A. east of La Brea — or wherever you think the Eastside begins (a question no one agrees upon) — then you may already be aware that indie pop culture seems to want to reflect your days. There's Jill Soloway's Transparent (and, before that, her Sundance movie Afternoon Delight) and there's the Duplass brothers' Togetherness on HBO, which is set in Eagle Rock. And now there are two Sundance offerings! In The Overnight, Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling play a couple, newly transplanted to Los Angeles from Seattle, who meet another couple (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche) with a small kid. They go over to their house, and then… raunchy comedy ensues? In his introductory video on the Sundance site, the movie's writer/director, Patrick Brice, compared its humor to Wet Hot American Summer and Booty Call.

27. Digging for Fire (Premieres)

Starring: Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, and Anna Kendrick

Directed by: Joe Swanberg

In the latest from Joe Swanberg — whose Happy Christmas was one of the delights of last year's festival — Rosemarie DeWitt and Jake Johnson (who gets co-screenwriting credit with Swanberg) play Eastside parents of a 3-year-old who decide to housesit for one of her (wealthy, presumably) Westside yoga clients. I imagine that the couple will come to the sort of talky, humane, funny reckoning that characters usually do in Swanberg movies. And it's a reassembling of past Swanberg collaborators, as usual: Johnson was in 2013's Drinking Buddies, Kendrick starred in Happy Christmas, and so on. —K.A.

The Kids Are Dangerous

Jarin Blaschke

The Witch

Ben King


28. The Witch (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Anya Taylor Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson

Directed by: Robert Eggers

This movie sounds terrifying, and that's just from the program description. Set in colonial New England, The Witch tells the story of a family trying to make it as farmers, but they are soon consumed by… something else in screenwriter/director Robert Eggers' feature film debut.

29. Partisan (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, and Florence Mezzara

Directed by: Ariel Kleiman

Vincent Cassel (Irreversible, Ocean's Twelve) plays a cult leader of sorts who has created a community of women and children to surround him. Until, that is, one of the kids (Jeremy Chabriel) begins to turn against him. —K.A.

The Specter of Sexual Assault and Abuse

Clockwise from top left: Lasse Barkfors; Radek Laczuk; Samantha Castellano; Aaron Epstein

30. The Hunting Ground (Documentary Premiere)

Directed by: Kirby Dick

In the wake of the UVA/Rolling Stone/campus rape disaster comes this documentary about, yes, campus rape, by the same filmmakers who made the must-see U.S. military rape exposé The Invisible War, which premiered at Sundance in 2012. This is one of several films at Sundance to explore the various uncomfortable dimensions of sexual assault and abuse — one of the stronger thematic through-lines at this year's festival.

31. Pervert Park (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Frida Barkfors and Lasse Barkfors

It's no big shock that life is really, really bad for anyone designated as a "sex offender" in America, but rarely do we get to see how bad that life really can be. This documentary enters one of the only facilities in Florida where sex offenders are allowed to live — its official name is the unnervingly sunny "Florida Justice Transitions," though it is unclear how someone living there could (or should) transition to living anywhere else. This is exactly the kind of film one wouldn't likely seek out in life, but one that feels like essential viewing at Sundance.

32. Princess (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Keren Mor, Shira Haas, Ori Pfeffer, and Adar Zohar Hanetz

Directed by: Tali Shalom Ezer

Akin to Sundance films like 2001's L.I.E. and 2005's Mysterious Skin, this Israeli film tracks the disturbing coming of age of 12-year-old Adar (Shira Haas), who finds herself trapped at home with her stepfather in what the Sundance website calls "gender-bending role-playing games that turn fantasy into violation."

33. Prophet's Prey (Documentary Premieres)

Directed by: Amy Berg

Documentarian Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) turns her cameras to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, famous for its leader Warren Jeffs and its draconian restrictions on the lives of its followers — especially its women. If this story sounds familiar, it's because Berg spoke with best-selling authors Jon Krakauer (whose 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven chronicled Jeffs' church) and Sam Brower (whose 2011 book shares its title with this film) for the documentary. Prophet's Prey will air later this year on Showtime.

34. Stockholm, Pennsylvania (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Cynthia Nixon, Jason Isaacs, and David Warshofsky

Directed by: Nikole Beckwith

Seventeen years after she was abducted as a young child, a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) is rescued and returned to her parents. Adjusting to her new life, however, proves elusive, given how psychologically dependent she'd become on her captor. For one, she learns her name is Leann, not Leia. For another, she'd been raised by her captor to believe that the world had ended. What happens when the life you thought was real is ripped away and turns out to be a lie?

35. Reversal (Park City at Midnight)

Starring: Tina Ivlev, Richard Tyson, and Bianca Malinowski

Directed by: J.M. Cravioto

If the other films in this group appear to approach their sensitive subject matter with well-modulated tact, this horror film races in the other direction. It opens where most horror films end: A young woman escapes the basement dungeon of a sexual predator who has trapped her there long enough that her loved ones have given up hope. Once the woman learns her captor has other women in other locations, however, things, as the title suggests, take a turn. —A.B.V.

Documentaries That Aim to Raise Our Ecological Consciousness

Oceanic Preservation Society

Racing Extinction

Courtesy Sundance Institute

How To Change The World

Artem Ryzhykov

The Russian Woodpecker

36. Racing Extinction (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Louie Psihoyos

Sundance has always made room for films about saving the planet, a cause dear to the festival's founder Robert Redford. Director Louis Psihoyos' previous ecological documentary The Cove — about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan — debuted at the 2009 festival and went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. His newest film widens the scope, focusing on the causes and conditions that could lead to a possible mass extinction of half the world's species.

37. How to Change the World (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Jerry Rothwell

If you know anything about the environmental movement, you have likely heard of the activist organization Greenpeace, known for its headline-grabbing, government-enraging protests. This documentary promises to track how the group was formed, and how it grew into the organization it is today.

38. The Russian Woodpecker (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Chad Gracia

Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich turns his childhood obsession with the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster into an investigation of how a Soviet-era radio antenna nearby may have been involved. —A.B.V.

Portraits of the Writer

Courtesy Sundance Institute

True Story

Jakob Ihre

The End of the Tour

39. The End of the Tour (Premieres)

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer, and Mickey Sumner

Directed by: James Ponsoldt

After publishing Infinite Jest, author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) spent five days with Rolling Stone's David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) for a series of interviews that Lipsky published in a memoir only after Wallace's suicide in 2008, which serves as the basis for this film. Wallace remains a towering literary figure of lasting interest, but this film was publicly disavowed last year by Wallace's estate, family, and publisher, claiming they had no knowledge of the film before it had been announced, and that Wallace wouldn't have consented to the use of the interviews for a film. Eisenberg, meanwhile, later told TheWrap that the film's script "is almost verbatim" from Lipsky's recorded interviews with Wallace. Suffice it to say, this will be a must-see for fans of Wallace, American literature, and potential Sundance controversy.

40. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (Documentary Premieres)

Directed by: Douglas Tirola

This documentary traces the rise of the Lampoon from being a Harvard publication to a national magazine, as well as how it came to symbolize an influential thread of dirty, political, white-man comedy in the 1970s. A lot of very famous people were involved in the Lampoon — you'll see archival footage of Bill Murray, John Belushi, Harold Ramis, and Gilda Radner in sections about its performance arm — but if the movie has a focus, it's on Douglas Kenney, one of the magazine's founding voices.

41. People, Places, Things (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Stephanie Allynne, Jessica Williams, Gia Gadsby, and Aundrea Gadsby

Directed by: James Strouse

A graphic novelist (Jemaine Clement) spirals into misery after his marriage crashes into divorce and he's only allowed to see his daughter on weekends, until one of his most promising students (The Daily Show's Jessica Williams) pushes him to engage with new experiences.

42. True Story (Premieres)

Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, and Felicity Jones

Directed by: Rupert Goold

In 2002, New York Times Magazine reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) was fired in disgrace after he confessed to creating a composite character for a story. Soon after, he learned that a man named Christian Longo (James Franco) who was wanted for the murder of his family had been using Finkel's identity to escape capture. Finkel smelled a good story, and met with Longo to sort out the truth behind his crime, ultimately turning it into a 2005 memoir, which is now a movie starring two Oscar nominees and premiering at Sundance. Sometimes, things just have a way of working out, I guess. —A.B.V.

Sundance Darlings Return to the Festival

Clockwise from top left: Rodrigo Garcia; Mattais Troelstrup; Linda Kllrus; Courtesy Sundance Institute; Jo Jo Whilden; Sam Levy

43. Mississippi Grind (Premieres)

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard, and Robin Weigert

Directed by: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden are the writing/directing team behind Half Nelson and Sugar. In Mississippi Grind, they tell the story of Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn, of Animal Kingdom, and soon to be seen in Netflix's Bloodline), a gambling addict who brings Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) along for the ride.

44. Mistress America (Premieres)

Starring: Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke

Directed by: Noah Baumbach

Noah Baumbach, who won a directing and writing award at Sundance in 2005 for The Squid and the Whale, returns to the festival with Mistress America. Lola Kirke (the grifter from Gone Girl) plays a college freshman whose life in New York City is not what she expected. And then she falls into the life of her soon-to-be-stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Gerwig co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach (as they did with Frances Ha).

45. Sleeping With Other People (Premieres)

Starring: Alison Brie, Adam Scott, Amanda Peet, Jason Mantzoukas, Natasha Lyonne, and Jason Sudeikis

Directed by: Leslye Headland

Leslye Headland, who wrote and directed Bachelorette (Sundance circa 2012), returns with Sleeping With Other People: Alison Brie's Lainey and Jason Sudeikis' Jake reunite at a sex addicts' meeting in New York City years after they lost their virginities together in college.

46. Ten Thousand Saints (Premieres)

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Asa Butterfield, Emily Mortimer, Julianne Nicholson, Hailee Steinfeld, and Emile Hirsch

Directed by: Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini won the festival's Grand Jury Prize in 2003 for American Splendor. In Ten Thousand Saints , Asa Butterfield plays a disconnected Vermont teenager whose frustrated, worried mother sends him to New York City to live with his dad, whom he barely knows.

47. Last Days in the Desert (Premieres)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Tye Sheridan, Ciarán Hinds, and Ayelet Zurer

Directed by: Rodrigo Garcia

In Last Days in the Desert, Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus Christ and the Devil. Rodrigo Garcia was at Sundance in 2000 for Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her.

48. Nasty Baby (Next)

Starring: Sebastián Silva, Kristen Wiig, Tunde Adebimpe, Alia Shawkat, Mark Margolis, and Reg E. Cathey

Directed by: Sebastián Silva

Writer/director Sebastián Silva (Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus) co-stars as one half of a same-sex couple who ask their friend Polly (Kristen Wiig) to help them conceive a baby — which probably isn't going to unfold as they planned.

49. Hellions (Park City at Midnight)

Starring: Chloe Rose, Robert Patrick, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson, Peter DaCunha, and Luke Bilyk

Directed by: Bruce McDonald

A teenage girl at home on Halloween night has to fight off hellions! Whatever those are! (Bruce McDonald was at the festival 23 years ago for Highway 61.)

50. James White (Next)

Starring: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Makenzie Leigh, David Call, and Ron Livingston

Directed by: Josh Mond

Josh Mond, one of the producers of Martha Marcy May Marlene, makes his Sundance debut as a writer/director. In James White, Christopher Abbott (late of Girls) plays a New York twentysomething who has to get it together when his mother (Cynthia Nixon) gets sick.

51. Don Verdean (Premieres)

Starring: Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Amy Ryan, Danny McBride, Leslie Bibb, and Will Forte

Directed by: Jared Hess

Jared Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite) and co-screenwriter Jerusha Hess (who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite, and wrote and directed Austenland at the 2013 festival) return with Don Verdean, in which Sam Rockwell plays Don, an itinerant seller of religious artifacts. —K.A.

Unlikely Buddy Movies

Frank Masi

A Walk in the Woods

Bob Mahoney

Lila & Eve

52. A Walk in the Woods (Premieres)

Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman, and Kristen Schaal

Directed by: Ken Kwapis

Before there was Wild, there was Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, in which he recounted his hike along the Appalachian Trail. Now Robert Redford, the founder of the Sundance Film Festival, stars in the film adaptation, and Nick Nolte plays his friend from high school who tags along. Old man Wild!

53. Lila & Eve (Premieres)

Starring: Viola Davis, Jennifer Lopez, Shea Whigham, Julius Tennon, Chris Chalk, and Andre Royo

Directed by: Charles Stone III

Lila (Viola Davis) and Eve (Jennifer Lopez) meet in a grief support group for mothers whose children have been killed. The two become friends — and then they become hell-bent on vigilantism? It doesn't sound like a Sundance movie, but that's not a bad thing. —K.A.

Real-Life Psychological Experiments Gone Really, Really Wrong

Jason Robinette


Jas Shelton

The Stanford Prison Experiment

54. Experimenter (Premieres)

Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Kellan Lutz, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo

Directed by: Michael Almereyda

I have no idea how this happened, but this year at Sundance there are two films based on two different notorious real-life scientific experiments from the 20th century. The first stars Peter Sarsgaard as Yale University social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who created an experiment in 1961 in which volunteers were told to send what they were told were harmful electrical shocks to someone they did not know — and 65% of the subjects complied because they saw the scientist as an authority figure. Films about man's inhumanity to man are just about the last thing I enjoy watching, and yet I find myself weirdly compelled to see this film, almost as if I view Sundance as a kind of authority figure.

55. The Stanford Prison Experiment (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, and Olivia Thirlby

Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez

If the Milgram experiment seems too tame for you, perhaps you'll be more interested in this film about the infamous Stanford University experiment in 1971 in which Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) assigned a group of undergraduates to pretend to be either prison inmates, or prison guards. Things… got dark. I am dreading this movie, and yet also cannot wait to see it. What is wrong with me?! —A.B.V.

WTF Documentaries

Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Sundance Institute; Sam Painter; Courtesy of Vernon Films LTD; Heikki Frm; Crystal Moselle

56. The Nightmare (Park City at Midnight)

Directed by: Rodney Ascher

Sundance has always been a haven for powerful, thoughtful, and compelling documentaries, but this year there seems to be a cluster of docs that focus on particularly bizarre territory — or seem to push the boundary of how we even define a "documentary." Case in point, this film from Room 237 director Rodney Ascher, who has suffered from the terrifying condition of sleep paralysis, when a person feels awake and yet their consciousness has not yet snapped into reality — and their body cannot move. Ascher interviews other people who have experienced this condition, and then recreates the terrifying imagery they all report seeing, so we can all share in their nightmares. This doc is fittingly playing in the Park City at Midnight section.

57. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Documentary Premieres)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

For anyone who is obsessive about Hollywood, and pretty much anyone who lives in Los Angeles, the Church of Scientology is an endlessly fascinating organization that commands a kind of fevered attention that is likely well out of proportion of its actual reach. Which is why this documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (The Armstrong Lie, Taxi to the Dark Side) about Scientology and its practices — based on Lawrence Wright's book of the same name and drawing from interviews with eight ex-members — is likely to be one of the hottest tickets in Park City.

58. Chuck Norris vs. Communism (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Ilinca Calugareanu

The title alone is maybe the best in the history of Sundance, and that's before learning it's referring to how the communist regime in Romania may have been toppled in part by smuggled VHS tapes of '80s Hollywood action movies — most of them dubbed into Romanian by a single woman. It's pretty much why we have the cliché "You couldn't make this shit up."

59. Beaver Trilogy Part IV (Documentary Premieres)

Directed by: Brad Besser

The Beaver Trilogy premiered at Sundance in 2001 and threatened to disappear into obscurity until the public radio show This American Life did an entire segment on the film. Its bizarre triptych hops from a serendipitous short documentary about Groovin' Gary, a Salt Lake City kid who comes to the attention of local TV news producer Trent Harris after they bump into each other outside the station house, to two separate attempts at a fictionalized recreation of their encounter, the first starring a young Sean Penn, the second starring a young Crispin Glover. This documentary explores how that film came together, and possibly reveals more about Groovin' Gary. Likely tens of people care about all of this, but I am among those tens!

60. The Wolfpack (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Crystal Moselle

This story sounds like it's a narrative film, but it is apparently real: A group of six brothers have spent practically their entire lives within the confines of their parents' Manhattan apartment, learning about the world only through the movies they watch on TV — and then re-create in their home. Given the family's evident isolation, I'm not quite sure how director Crystal Moselle learned of them, let alone gained access to their lives, but I've heard this is one of the most compelling docs at the festival, and I can't wait to see it.

61. The Amina Profile (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Sophie Deraspe

It's your typical 21st-century love story that also sounds like a narrative film and not a documentary: Canadian woman meets Syrian-American woman on the internet. Syrian-American woman starts a blog called "A Gay Girl in Damascus" and becomes a media darling. Syrian-American woman is reportedly kidnapped during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Canadian woman goes searching for her. And then it seems things get even more complicated.

62. The Visit (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

Directed by: Michael Madsen

Is a movie a documentary if the events it depicts haven't actually happened? That is one of the questions hovering over this curiosity, which presents itself as a film about humanity's first contact with intelligent alien life, including interviews with experts from NASA, SETI (i.e., the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, an organization that actually exists. Oh, also, in case you were wondering, no, the director isn't the actor Michael Madsen; he's a Danish filmmaker with the same name. —A.B.V.

We Have No Categories for These Movies, and That's OK!

Ross McDonnell
Eduardo Moreno

63. Strangerland (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, Hugo Weaving, Lisa Flanagan, Meyne Wyatt, and Maddison Brown

Directed by: Kim Farrant

In a desert town in Australia, Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) realize their two teenage kids have disappeared just as a dust storm approaches.

64. Knock Knock (Park City at Midnight)

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana De Armas, Aaron Burns, Ignacia Allamand, and Colleen Camp

Directed by: Eli Roth

Keanu Reeves plays Evan, a happy man with a wife and two kids. When his family goes away for the weekend, leaving him alone, he receives two visitors (one of whom is played by Lorenza Izzo, Eli Roth's wife). From there, shit gets weird. Since this is Roth, whose work is known for its explicit violence, the program notes are careful to say, "This is no splatter film."

65. Tangerine (Next)

Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O'Hagan, Alla Tumanian, and James Ransone

Directed by: Sean Baker

We've been told not only that is there no other movie at the festival like Tangerine, but that there's never been any movie ever like it before. It was filmed almost exclusively using iPhones, and tells the story of two prostitutes in Hollywood — specifically quite near the BuzzFeed office, actually! — who go on an unlikely Christmas Eve adventure. The Duplass brothers produced this movie. —K.A.

Melissa Rauch's husband is named Winston Rauch. An earlier version of this story misidentified him as the director of The Bronze, Bryan Buckley.

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