It probably has something to do with the fact that some of us HTN staffers are sitting on our own scrappy little movies that don’t feature stars or have any bigger cache and have therefore been ignored in much of the pre-Sundance wish listing that’s bouncing around the web lately—cue the violins, we know, life is soooooo unfair and tragic and cruel—but the more objective truth is that even removing that annoying reality from the equation, it’s a tad disappointing to see so many sites resorting to the same knee-jerk indieplex swooning that made us launch this site in the first place. Rather than getting bitter about that, we figured the best way to take a stand was to offer our own list of under-the-radar films that we hope will be making a splash at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and beyond (Rotterdam, Berlin, SXSW, etc.).
Beasts Of The Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin) — Call this one a Sundance Pipe Dream, as I know firsthand that Zeitlin and Court 13’s follow-up to the epic short film Glory at Sea won’t be ready for this year’s fest. Which is a shame in the most obvious of regards, but it’s nice to know that they will ultimately—hopefully—be finishing the film on their terms, without having to scramble to present a rushed cut that they might not be happy with. But since this project was included in multiple Sundance Labs and also received the NHK International Filmmakers Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, it seems like a no-brainer that this thing should make its bow at Park City. Whether they really take their time with it and hold out for next year’s fest or if they aim for a shoot for a summer/fall premiere somewhere else, that doesn’t change the fact that, aside from Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, this might very well be the movie we are most eager to see!
The Catechism Cataclysm (Todd Rohal) — Though Rohal recently attended the Sundance Lab with another project (Scoutmasters), I’d say that still makes him a surefire bet to premiere his latest project at this year’s fest. Starring Steve Little and Robert Longstreet, The Catechism Cataclysm is described over at the film’s IMDB page as such: “Father William Smoortser drops his bible into a toilet at a rest stop just before embarking on a day-long canoe trip, breaking loose all glorious hell.” For those familiar with Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake (winner of a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Slamdance Film Festival), The Catechism Cataclysm promises to be one insanely wacky boat ride. (Full disclosure: Mr. Rohal is a very good friend of ours, but taste transcends friendship. Even if we didn’t know him, we’d be amped to see this thing.)
The Dish & The Spoon (Alison Bagnall) — Bagnall, who co-wrote Jesus’ Son and directed Piggy in 2003, makes a return with this low-budget film starring soon-to-be multiplex sensation Greta Gerwig and Olly Alexander. To be honest, that’s all we know about The Dish & The Spoon, but that’s good enough for us to want to check it out.
Five Time Champion (Berndt Mader) — In addition to working as a cinematographer on Ben Steinbauer’s Winnebego Man, Mader has worked in many different capacities on films of all shapes and sizes, which is what makes his graduation to feature-length writer/director so very welcome. Five Time Champion concerns a talented young man with a knack for science whose mother is about to marry the principal that he hates. Count us there.
For Ellen (So Yong Kim) — Kim made a splash at Sundance in 2006 with the quietly affecting In Between Days. Her follow-up, Treeless Mountain, was even more assured than her tender debut, which makes pretty much any film she makes from this point forth an absolute must-see in our eyes. While Treeless Mountain played the fall festival game before being picked up by Oscilloscope, it seems that as long as this film is ready—did we mention that it stars Sundance staples Paul Dano, Jon Heder, and Jena Malone?—there’s no doubt that the Sundance programmers will find a slot for it here.
The Inkeepers (Ti West) — For anyone who saw, and was wowed by, The House of The Devil, the prospect of a new Ti West movie is a big, screaming pile of yes please! From what we’ve read, The Inkeepers takes place at a Northeast haunted hotel that’s about to shut its doors, but not before the feces will most likely splatter the faces of the last two employees who are holed up there (Pat Healy and Sara Paxton). We’ve heard it through the grapevine that West isn’t confident that he’ll have his film all the way ready by Sundance o’clock, so all one can hope for is that if he does get the call, he will be able to whip it into shape.
The Lie (Joshua Leonard) — After appearing in breakout hits of Sundance yesteryear—The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and Humpday in 2008—Leonard takes his own turn in the director’s chair. Based on a T. Coraghessan Boyle short story and starring Leonard, Mark Webber, Jess Weixler, and more, The Lie concerns a man whose life takes a turn when he tells a lie to get out of work. It remains to be seen if Leonard adopts the style most often employed in Mumblecore-esque productions by his DP Ben Kasulke (who also shot The Catechism Cataclysm), or if he will try something stylistically different.
Lord Byron (Zack Godshall) — Godshall’s debut feature, Low And Behold, world premiered at Sundance in 2007, and it remains one of the more achingly honest depictions of post-Katrina life in New Orleans. While that film was a fitting fiction/non-fiction hybrid of sorts, Lord Byron finds Godshall on more firmly narrative terrain; though by casting non-actors, there remains an overriding feeling of uncalculated naturalism that greatly benefits the proceedings. We have seen Lord Byron and are quite smitten with it. While its digital, micro-budget technique reflects a modern sensibility, its content and spirit is more in keeping with the strange zaniness of the best Southern fiction.
The Oregonian (Calvin Reeder) — If you’re familiar with the short films of Calvin Reeder (Little Farm, The Rambler), you can join us in praying that his feature debut will be included in the Park City at Midnight Section. Though we haven’t seen it, we’re tempted to suggest chewing ‘shrooms or tabbing acid before diving headfirst into this story of a young woman (Lindsay Pulsipher) who embarks on a journey filled with a string of presumably gonzo-freakazoidal encounters. Come to think of it, though, doing drugs while watching a Calvin Reeder film is the type of redundancy that might land your brain in the hospital. Either way, The Oregonian sounds like a gleefully awesome assault of cinematic mind-f**kery.
Shelter (Jeff Nichols) — Yes, it’s true. Jeff Nichols’s startlingly assured debut feature, Shotgun Stories, was rejected from Sundance. This is one of those rejections that can single-handedly make you question the entire validity of the Sundance Film Festival. You can bet your ass that Sundance won’t drop the ball this time around, especially since Shelter—that’s the film’s working title, at least—features another lead performance from Michael Shannon, as well as Tree of Life’s Jessica Chastain, Eastbound and Down’s Katy Mixon, Sundance regular Shea Wigham, and more. Alongside Tree of Life and Beasts of the Southern Wild, this is at the tippy-top of our list of movies we really need to see as soon as humanly possible. (Another full disclosure: I am good friends with Nichols but all I have to say in my defense is have you seen Shotgun Stories? End of discussion.)
Surrogate Valentine (Dave Boyle) — Our eyes have seen the follow-up to Boyle’s genuinely funny White On Rice (treat yourself by watching it for free on Hulu) and we’re pleased to say that Surrogate Valentine has the same affable charm as that film, although it nonetheless grooves to a different rhythm. On the immediate surface, it’s hard not to compare Surrogate Valentine to Barry Jenkins’s Medicine For Melancholy, what with both films’ black-and-white imagery, San Francisco locale, and refreshing depiction of non-white Americans who are simply being who they are. Boyle’s work often lands in a difficult spot. He makes low-budget “movies” as opposed to “Films,” which can make them harder to program. But by this point it’s quite clear that not only does Dave Boyle have a strong and distinct filmmaking; he also isn’t going anywhere anytime soon—except into production on his next movie. Wake up, people!
Terri (Azazel Jacobs) — Watching Momma’s Man at the P&I screening at Sundance in 2008 pierced me to the core like few films I’ve ever seen. While the many fans of that film might not have cried all day long like this sappy ass did, Jacobs’s follow-up to the equally delightful The GoodTimesKid was one of the more universally lauded films of the fest. More importantly, it’s appearance among all those films produced in the indieplex machine kept the old flame of a gritty, grainy, personal, artistic American independent cinema alive. Now that Jacobs has stepped up to the land of John C. Reilly, his inclusion in this year’s fest is pretty much a guarantee. But John C. Reilly isn’t the reason we’re excited to see Terri. Azazel Jacobs is.
The Woods (Matthew Lessner) — If you don’t know the name Matthew Lessner, you should. His short film By Modern Measure screened at Sundance in 2008, and it’s a great one (don’t take our word for it, watch it right here and see for yourself). It actually got one of the few—dare we say only?—rounds of applause that we’ve ever seen for a short film at a Sundance P&I screening. Lessner’s feature debut concerns a group of confused young adults who escape into the woods to turn their back on society—only they bring all their gadgets with them. However it lands, The Woods is guaranteed to be overflowing with ideas.
What films have we forgotten, or what are YOU most excited to see early next year? Let us know in the comments section below!