It’s hard to believe, but another year of the Sundance Film Festival is nearly upon us. Kicking off this Thursday, Sundance will be running until January 28th in Park City, Utah, and Daily Dead will be on-hand to check out an assortment of genre-related offerings. That being said, there’s a handful of films that immediately caught this writer’s attention as soon as they were announced for Sundance 2018, and here’s a look at what has me excited from this year’s festival lineup:
You Were Never Really Here: When I heard that We Need to Talk About Kevin writer/director Lynne Ramsay was teaming up with Joaquin Phoenix for her follow-up feature, that’s all I needed to hear for me to be 100 percent on board for You Were Never Really Here. I’m so ready for Ramsay to screw with my sensibilities once again, and Phoenix has never looked creepier than he does in the promo materials they’ve released for YWNRH thus far.
Festival Synopsis: Stoic and hardened vigilante Joe (Phoenix) needs only one tool to carry out his dubious line of work: a hammer. Hired by a senator desperately seeking answers about the disappearance of his daughter, Joe sets out with his habitual confidence, only to find that this time he may be in over his head.
Summer of ’84: The directorial trio behind Turbo Kid—François Simar, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell—are back with another collaboration, and this time they’re taking on the slasher subgenre for Summer of ’84, which looks to be another coming-of-age tale, but this one tackles a decade that is near and dear to so many of us old fogeys: the 1980s. Turbo Kid is an absolute gem of a film and I’m hoping Summer of ’84 makes for another wildly innovative and memorable time at the movies.
Festival Synopsis: Every serial killer is somebody’s neighbor. For 15-year-old Davey, the thought of having a serial killer in his suburban town is a scary yet exciting prospect at the start of a lazy summer. In hormonal overdrive, Davey and his friends dream of sexual conquests until the news reports of the Cape May killer. Davey convinces his friends that they must investigate, and they uncover that his next-door neighbor, an unassuming, single police officer, could be the prime suspect. Could Davey possibly be right, or is it his overactive imagination?
Lizzie: When doing some research, I was surprised that over the last 100 years, we have only gotten something like five movies (maybe) about Lizzie Borden, who was one of the most infamous murderers in American history, so I’m hoping Lizzie from Craig William Macneill can scratch that cinematic itch and then some. I’m a big fan of his previous feature, The Boy (no, not the one with the doll), and I’ve heard great things about the first season of Channel Zero, so I’m pretty confident that with his ability to tap into the emotional side of horrific characters, he’s going to do something very interesting here. Plus, Chloë Sevigny in the title role is absolutely perfect casting for Lizzie, too (and K-Stew is an added bonus to an all-around strong ensemble).
Festival Synopsis: 1892: Headstrong Lizzie Borden lives with her wealthy father, stepmother, and sister in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie lovingly tends to her pet pigeons and is occasionally allowed out of her dimly lit, foreboding house, but otherwise lives under strict rules set by her domineering father. When her family hires live-in maid Bridget, an uneducated Irish immigrant, the two find kindred spirits in one another. Their friendship begins with covert communication and companionship that blossoms into an intimate relationship. Meanwhile, tension builds in the Borden household, and Lizzie’s claustrophobic existence becomes increasingly more oppressive and abusive, leading to its inevitable breaking point.
Mandy: I mean, anything with Nicolas Cage always gets my attention, but when I read that he was working with the visionary behind Beyond the Black Rainbow, I knew there was no way I was missing Mandy at Sundance this year. It’s unbelievable to me that Black Rainbow filmmaker Panos Cosmatos hasn’t worked on another feature between that aforementioned project and Mandy, but as the saying goes, the longer you wait for something, the more you appreciate it, which means I’m so very ready to watch Nic Cage take on a religious sect who took away everyone he loves. Let’s hope Cage is at his very Cage-iest.
Festival Synopsis: Bubbling up from somewhere in the realm of madness and chaos comes the eagerly awaited latest from grandiose filmmaker Panos Cosmatos. Somewhere in the primal wilderness near the Shadow Mountains in the year 1983, Red Miller (Nicolas Cage, in an adrenaline-inducing performance) has fallen deeply for the beguiling Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). But the life he has made for himself comes suddenly and horrifyingly crashing down when a vile band of ravaging idolaters and supernatural creatures penetrate his idyllic paradise with vicious fury. A broken man, Red now lives for one thing only—to hunt down these maniacal villains and exact swift vengeance.
Bad Reputation: While it's not related to genre films at all, Bad Reputation is high up there on my must-see list at Sundance simply because Joan Jett always has been, and always will be, a total and complete badass, and who doesn’t want to celebrate that? I know I sure do. Helmed by documentarian Kevin Kerslake (who has also explored the lives of other musicians over the years), Bad Reputation digs into Jett’s life and her long-lasting influence, even before she was embraced by mainstream music lovers and rabid MTV audiences who couldn’t get enough of “I Love Rock ’n Roll” during the 1980s.
Festival Synopsis: Joan Jett is so much more than “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.” It’s true, she became mega-famous from the number-one hit, and that fame intensified with the music video’s endless play on MTV. But that staple of popularity can’t properly define a musician. Jett put her hard work in long before the fame, ripping it up onstage as the backbone of the hard-rock legends The Runaways, influencing many musicians—both her cohort of punk rockers and generations of younger bands—with her no-bullshit style.
Bad Reputation gives you a wild ride as Jett and her close friends tell you how it really was in the burgeoning ’70s punk scene, and their interviews are laced with amazing archival footage. The theme is clear: even though people tried to define Jett and keep her stuck to one hit, she never compromised. She will kick your ass, and you’ll love her all the more for it.
Hereditary: A story about a family’s descent into madness that might also have a bit of a supernatural twist to it, featuring performances from Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne? Um, yes please. Hereditary is the debut feature from writer/director Ari Aster, whose short film work I’m not familiar with, but considering how many first-time directors have been killing it as of late, I hope Hereditary can keep the impressive streak alive during Sundance 2018.
Festival Synopsis: The Graham family starts to unravel following the death of their reclusive grandmother. Even after she’s gone, the matriarch still casts a dark shadow over the family, especially her loner teenage granddaughter, Charlie, whom she always had an unusual fascination with. As an overwhelming terror takes over their household, their peaceful existence is ripped apart, forcing their mother to explore a darker realm in order to escape the unfortunate fate they've inherited.
Arizona: I’m someone who prefers her comedies to err on the side of dark and demented, so I think Jonathan Watson’s Arizona is going to be one big delicious cup of cinematic tea that I cannot wait to partake of. Featuring performances from Danny McBride, Luke Wilson, David Alan Grier, and Rosemarie Dewitt, Arizona is poised to be one helluva dark comedy/thriller that sets its sights on the housing crisis of 2009, and I’m hoping the film is as great as the talent Watson has assembled for it.
Festival Synopsis: Cassie, a single mom and realtor, hustles to sell increasingly worthless subdivision houses in the midst of the 2009 housing slump, even as she dodges collection calls on her own multiple past-due mortgage payments. When the unstable Sonny, a disgruntled buyer in danger of losing his home, turns up at Cassie’s office, things quickly spiral out of control. Despite Sonny’s assertion that he’s “a really good person,” he knocks Cassie out, kidnaps her, and drags her along on his impulsive spree of violence. An extensive game of cat-and-mouse between the two ensues, set within a sparsely inhabited housing development.
Piercing: With his work on The Eyes of My Mother, filmmaker Nicolas Pesce made a life-long fan out of this writer, which means I’m very excited for his most recent project, Piercing, making its debut at Sundance as part of their Midnighters slate. In the film, it seems like we have a bit of a gender-fueled stand-off between a hitman played by Christopher Abbott (It Comes At Night) and his intended victim, portrayed by Mia Wasikowska (Stoker). Piercing is poised to push some boundaries at Sundance, and I personally cannot wait.
Festival Synopsis: Reed (Christopher Abbott) is going on a business trip. He kisses his wife and infant son goodbye, but in lieu of a suitcase filled with clothes, he's packed a toothbrush and a murder kit. Everything is meticulously planned: check into a hotel and kill an unsuspecting victim. Only then will he rid himself of his devious impulses and continue to be a good husband and father. But Reed gets more than he bargained for with Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), an alluring call girl who arrives at his room. First, they relax and get in the mood, but when there’s an unexpected disruption, the balance of control begins to sway back and forth between the two. Is he seeing things? Who's playing whom? Before the night is over, a feverish nightmare will unfold, and Reed and Jackie will seal their bond in blood.
I Am Not A Witch: I had heard about writer/director Rungano Nyongi’s I Am Not A Witch a little bit after I caught up on all the Cannes 2017 hubbub, but admittedly, my knowledge of the film doesn’t go much deeper than the fact that Nyongi’s tale of witchery seems wholly relevant to today’s socio-political landscape, and it seemed to do very well over in France, too. Here’s hoping Park City’s audiences also find themselves under the spell of I Am Not A Witch (see what I did there?), and I look forward to seeing what first-time feature filmmaker Nyongi has to say with her new movie.
Festival Synopsis: After nine-year-old Shula is accused of being a witch by her fellow villagers, she is ushered to the state authorities for judgment, whereupon she is immediately declared guilty and unceremoniously sentenced to exile in a camp for witches of all ages. Upon arrival, she is tied to a long, white ribbon connected to a large coil whose removal, she is told, will transform her into a goat. Just like Shula, the camp denizens have been scapegoated and gathered together, occasionally expected to perform miracles.
Lords of Chaos: Hearing that legendary music video director Jonas Åkerlund was collaborating with Rory Culkin on a project about the Norwegian Black Metal movement was enough to pique my interest in Lords of Chaos. The film is apparently based on the true story of how two members of the same infamous metal band ended up at odds with each other, a rivalry fueled by fame and the dark arts, and based on Åkerlund’s track record in the realm of music videos, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that Lords of Chaos will likely be one of the wildest visual experiences many festival-goers will have during this year’s Sundance. Here’s hoping the film lives up to its badass name.
Festival Synopsis: Based on an astonishingly true story, Lords of Chaos recounts the exploits of the Norwegian black metal movement’s most notorious band: Mayhem. Its founder, Øystein Aarseth, better known as Euronymous, was one of the originators of the annihilating metal guitar sound that burst onto the scene in the early ’90s. After the gruesome suicide of vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin, who performed under the pseudonym “Dead,” Euronymous used the opportunity to inject a mix of satanism, havoc, and murder into the music to sell more records. Bassist Varg Vikernes began to take Euronymous’s headline-grabbing talk too seriously and went on a spree of church burnings, forming a deadly rivalry between the two bandmates that culminated in an infamous and bloody end.
Assassination Nation: High school hijinks take a tragic turn in Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation, as we see how an invasion of privacy can end up taking a deadly turn when a group of teens get angry enough. I love the fact that Assassination Nation takes place in Salem of all places (seems so apropos), and here’s hoping this one ends up being something of a cinematic cousin to last year’s Tragedy Girls.
Festival Synopsis: High school senior Lily and her crew of besties live in a haze of texts, posts, selfies, and chats—just like the rest of us. So when a provocateur starts posting details from the private digital lives of everyone in their small town of Salem, the result is a Category 5 shitstorm. We’re talking browser histories, direct messages, illegal downloads, secret text chains, and way, way, way worse. People get angry. Like, “rampaging murder posse” angry. And Lily finds herself right in the middle.
Never Goin’ Back: Another youth-oriented tale, first-time feature director Augustine Frizzell’s Never Goin’ Back is centered on two high school dropouts who find themselves on the wrong side of the law, and do whatever they can to still take their dream vacation (to Galveston, of all places) and finally score a “win” in their otherwise miserable lives for once. It may not necessarily be a genre film, but Never Goin’ Back could just be this year’s anthem out of Sundance for all the scrappy dreamers out there.
Festival Synopsis: BFFs Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Cami Morrone) are high school dropouts working dead-end waitressing jobs in the same shitty diner. Their dream vacation to sunny Galveston, Texas, is only a few shifts away. But after a drug deal goes bad and their home is invaded—and they have to serve a short stint in juvenile detention—their beach trip is in serious jeopardy. They’ll have to use every bit of guile their perpetually buzzed teenage brains can muster as they try to get (relatively) rich quick while wandering suburban Dallas.
Clara’s Ghost: Apparently, Chris Elliott’s quirky sensibilities have been passed on to his daughter Bridey Elliott, who wrote and directed the oddball comedy Clara’s Ghost, and also co-stars in the film alongside her hilarious dad, as well as her sister Abby Elliott and mom, Paula, who is making her acting debut in Clara’s Ghost. In the film, Bridey explores the complexities of family dynamics, all while an apparition continues to egg her on.
Festival Synopsis: Actor Ted Reynolds and Clara, his scattered, homemaker wife, welcome their twenty-something daughters—a pair of former child stars—back to their Connecticut home so Ted and the girls can be in a family-themed photo shoot for an airplane magazine. While celebrating their dog’s birthday with amiable drug dealer Poo Poo, the vodka-loving clan’s banter becomes increasingly bitter and petty, and they devolve into a drunken mess. Meanwhile, a specter only Clara can see urges her to confront her self-centered family.
Search: While I’ll be the first to admit that Search’s story isn’t something I’m dying to see on the big screen, the big draw here is without a doubt John Cho, who I have always enjoyed, even going back to his Kitchen Confidential days, and he did some brilliant work recently on The Exorcist, too. He’s one of the more underrated actors out there working today, with an innate talent for handling both comedic and dramatic material with relative ease. Here’s hoping Search is another giant stepping stone towards getting Cho in more leading roles in the future, because he certainly deserves it.
Festival Synopsis: After a five-minute sequence of the Kim family’s online activity that beautifully relays a decade of their shared lives, Search drops us into the current online existence of family patriarch David and daughter Margot, a high school freshman. Parenting mainly through iMessages and quick FaceTime chats, David is initially more annoyed than concerned when a series of his texts go unreturned, but he soon realizes Margot has gone missing. While a helpful detective searches for Margot out in the real world, David grasps at rediscovering his daughter in an unfamiliar online landscape as he searches through the traces she left behind on her laptop.
Revenge: Even though I already covered Revenge out of Fantastic Fest 2017 back in September, I felt like it still needed to be featured in this list, because it’s such an essential piece of filmmaking right now. If you’re headed to Park City yourself (or happen to be a festivalgoer in another city), be sure to keep Revenge on your radar. It’s brutal, it’s bold, and it’s one of the most confidently crafted debuts in some time.
Festival Synopsis: Jen joins her married lover, Richard, for a romp at his secluded desert villa before his annual hunting vacation. However, when his leering pals arrive, they’re a far cry from Richard’s millionaire-Adonis charms, and they feel entitled to make their own advances on Jen and ignore her rejections. After being violently assaulted and left for dead in the middle of the desert, Jen comes back to life, and the men’s hunting game is transformed into a ruthless manhunt.