In 1996, just as the Sundance Film Festival was cementing its reputation as the go-to destination for indie moviedom, writer-director Todd Solondz premiered his Welcome to the Dollhouse to capture the fest’s Grand Jury Prize. The coming-of-age drama marked him as One to Watch in the eyes of the industry but, moreover, came to rank as one of the most Sundance-y feature selections of all time: a low-budget triumph of dark humor, quirky performances and bizarrely original storytelling that manages to be funny, pathetic and joyous at the same time.
This year, slotted into Sundance’s anticipated Premieres section, Solondz is back with Wiener-Dog, a sequel of sorts to Dollhouse, that presents the interlocking stories featuring people who “find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund” according to a festival write-up. It also features the triumphant return of Heather Matarazzo’s indelibly put-upon nerd character Dawn Wiener. “She’s all grown up now,” explains Sundance’s programming director Trevor Groth. “It’s vintage Solondz doing what he does best: peeling back the underbelly of suburbia and looking at this dark subject matter. He creates these messed up characters that, you’re not laughing at them, you’re connecting with them. And what they’re going through. I love his style. This is him at his best.”
The fest runs in Park City, Utah, from Jan. 21-31. And the Premieres and Documentary Premieres sections are chock-a-block with Sundance familiar filmmaking faces — Diego Luna, Liz Garbus, Whit Stillman, John Carney, Spike Lee, Kenneth Lonergan, John Krasinski, and Kelly Reichardt among them — as well as many of the fest’s buzziest entries and highest concentration of star power.
In the narrative feature Captain Fantastic, Viggo Mortensen plays a father of six raising his family away from the trappings and perils of modernity in the mountainous Pacific Northwest. He must confront the limitations of his ideals, however, when forced to reluctantly leave his self-imposed exile and return to society. “The film wrestles with the idea of how idealism gets warped when put into practice in the world we live in,” Groth says.
Writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) temporarily sets aside the kind of urban haute bourgeoisie explorations for which he is primarily known to tackle an adaptation of Jane Austen’s early writings in Love & Friendship. The period-set comedy — a real rarity considering indie film’s prevailing low-budg cost consciousness — follows the beautiful and cunning Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) as she attempts to find suitable husbands for herself and her daughter (Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel and Stephen Fry round out the cast). “It’s this lush period piece with a very sassy sort of take on Jane Austen,” says Sundance’s director John Cooper.
On the documentary side, Sundance will premiere the first of Spike Lee’s planned docu trilogy about the King of Pop: Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. “Michael Jackson is one of the most iconic stars of the last 50 years. And yet, he has such a tricky reputation now,” says Groth. “The film focuses on his drive and commitment. What a hard worker he was, not just on how talented he was. It looks at when he transitioned from the Jackson Five into a solo career. For fans, I think it’s going to play through the roof. And for not fans, they’re going to be fascinated.”
As a kind of through line in the doc section this year, an abundance of titles showcase individual subjects — including director Richard Linklater, poet Maya Angelou, photographer Rober Mapplethorpe and rocker Frank Zappa — as opposed to focusing upon simmering controversies, bizarro phenomena or historical footnotes as so many Sundance non-fiction entries have chronicled in years past.
Exhibit A: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, which examines the life and work of the pioneering TV producer responsible for such epochal ‘70s sitcoms as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and Maude. “Everyone talks now about how we’re in a golden age of TV nowadays,” says Groth. “I think Norman Lear single-handedly created an era where that was the case too. You sort of take for granted some of the content of his shows because you grew up with them. But what he did to get those shows on the air, it’s quite inspiring.”
Emmy-winning documentarian Liz Garbus (2011’s Bobby Fischer Against the World, Killing in the Name, What Happened, Miss Simone?) returns to the festival with Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper. It’s a film structured around a conversation about love, loss and family between the author-actress-heiress-turned-blue-jean designer Gloria Vanderbilt and her CNN anchorman son, Anderson Cooper. “It’s one not to be ignored,” says Cooper. “She was the richest girl in America for years. She inherited millions of dollars when she was just 8 years old. But she had a lot of tragedy too. And him talking to her brings out a side that she’s pretty much put away until this film.”
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For the complete listings of Sundance’s Premiere, Documentary Premiere, and Spotlight selections (movies that have already premiered at other festivals around the world), scroll below:
Agnus Dei / France, Poland (Director: Anne Fontaine, Screenwriters: Sabrina N. Karine, Alice Vial, Pascal Bonitzer) — 1945 Poland: Mathilde, a young French doctor, is on a mission to help World War II survivors. When a nun seeks her assistance in helping several pregnant nuns in hiding, who are unable to reconcile their faith with their pregnancies, Mathilde becomes their only hope. Cast: Lou de Laâge, Agata Kulesza, Agata Buzek, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig, Katarzyna Dabrowska. World Premiere
Ali & Nino / United Kingdom (Director: Asif Kapadia, Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton) — Muslim prince Ali and Georgian aristocrat Nino have grown up in the Russian province of Azerbaijan. Their tragic love story sees the outbreak of the First World War and the world’s struggle for Baku’s oil. Ultimately they must choose to fight for their country’s independence or for each other. Cast: Adam Bakri, Maria Valverde, Mandy Patinkin, Connie Nielsen, Riccardo Scamarcio, Homayoun Ershadi. World Premiere
Captain Fantastic / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Matt Ross) — Deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, a father devoted to raising his six kids with a rigorous physical and intellectual education is forced to leave his paradise and re-enter society, beginning a journey that challenges his idea of what it means to be a parent. Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Ann Dowd. World Premiere
Certain Women / U.S.A. (Director: Kelly Reichardt, Screenwriter: Kelly Reichardt based on stories by Maile Meloy) — The lives of three woman intersect in small-town America, where each is imperfectly blazing a trail. Cast: Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, James Le Gros, Jared Harris, Lily Gladstone. World Premiere
Complete Unknown / U.S.A. (Director: Joshua Marston, Screenwriters: Joshua Marston, Julian Sheppard) — When Tom and his wife host a dinner party to celebrate his birthday, one of their friends brings a date named Alice. Tom is convinced he knows her, but she’s going by a different name and a different biography—and she’s not acknowledging that she knows him. Cast: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover. World Premiere
Frank & Lola / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Matthew Ross) — A psychosexual noir love story—set in Las Vegas and Paris—about love, obsession, sex, betrayal, revenge and, ultimately, the search for redemption. Cast: Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Michael Nyqvist, Justin Long, Emmanuelle Devos, Rosanna Arquette. World Premiere
The Fundamentals of Caring / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Rob Burnett) — Having suffered a tragedy, Ben becomes a caregiver to earn money. His first client, Trevor, is a hilarious 18-year-old with muscular dystrophy. One paralyzed emotionally, one paralyzed physically, Ben and Trevor hit the road, finding hope, friendship, and Dot in this funny and touching inspirational tale. Cast: Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Jennifer Ehle, Megan Ferguson, Frederick Weller. World Premiere. CLOSING NIGHT FILM
The Hollars / U.S.A. (Director: John Krasinski, Screenwriter: Jim Strouse) — Aspiring New York City artist John Hollar returns to his Middle America hometown on the eve of his mother’s brain surgery. Joined by his girlfriend, eight months pregnant with their first child, John is forced to navigate the crazy world he left behind. Cast: John Krasinski, Anna Kendrick, Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley, Charlie Day. World Premiere
Hunt for the Wilderpeople / New Zealand (Director and screenwriter: Taika Waititi) — Ricky is a defiant young city kid who finds himself on the run with his cantankerous foster uncle in the wild New Zealand bush. A national manhunt ensues, and the two are forced to put aside their differences and work together to survive in this heartwarming adventure comedy. Cast: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley. World Premiere
Indignation / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: James Schamus) — It’s 1951, and among the new arrivals at Winesburg College in Ohio are the son of a kosher butcher from New Jersey and the beautiful, brilliant daughter of a prominent alum. For a brief moment, their lives converge in this emotionally soaring film based on the novel by Philip Roth. Cast: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield. World Premiere
Little Men / U.S.A. (Director: Ira Sachs, Screenwriters: Mauricio Zacharias and Ira Sachs) — When 13-year-old Jake’s grandfather dies, his family moves back into their old Brooklyn home. There, Jake befriends Tony, whose single Chilean mother runs the shop downstairs. As their friendship deepens, however, their families are driven apart by a battle over rent, and the boys respond with a vow of silence. Cast: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri. World Premiere
Love & Friendship / Ireland, France, Netherlands (Director and screenwriter: Whit Stillman) — From Jane Austen’s novella, the beautiful and cunning Lady Susan Vernon visits the estate of her in-laws to wait out colorful rumors of her dalliances and to find husbands for herself and her daughter. Two young men, handsome Reginald DeCourcy and wealthy Sir James Martin, severely complicate her plans. Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett, Stephen Fry. World Premiere
Manchester by the Sea / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Kenneth Lonergan) — After his older brother passes away, Lee Chandler is forced to return home to care for his 16-year-old nephew. There he is compelled to deal with a tragic past that separated him from his family and the community where he was born and raised. Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler. World Premiere
Mr. Pig / Mexico (Director: Diego Luna, Screenwriters: Augusto Mendoza, Diego Luna) — On a mission to sell his last remaining prize hog and reunite with old friends, an aging farmer abandons his foreclosed farm and journeys to Mexico. After smuggling in the hog, his estranged daughter shows up, forcing them to face their past and embark on an adventurous road trip together. Cast: Danny Glover, Maya Rudolph, José María Yazpik, Joel Murray, Angélica Aragón, Gabriela Araujo. World Premiere
Sing Street / Ireland (Director and screenwriter: John Carney) — A boy growing up in Dublin during the ’80s escapes his strained family life and tough new school by starting a band to win the heart of a beautiful and mysterious girl. Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Aidan Gillen, Mark McKenna. World Premiere
Sophie and the Rising Sun / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Maggie Greenwald) — In a small Southern town in the autumn of 1941, Sophie’s lonely life is transformed when an Asian man arrives under mysterious circumstances. Their love affair becomes the lightning rod for long-buried conflicts that erupt in bigotry and violence with the outbreak of World War ll. Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Lorraine Toussaint, Takashi Yamaguchi, Diane Ladd, Joel Murray. World Premiere. SALT LAKE CITY GALA FILM
Wiener-Dog / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Todd Solondz) — This film tells several stories featuring people who find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund, who seems to be spreading comfort and joy. Cast: Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, Zosia Mamet. World Premiere
Eat That Question—Frank Zappa in His Own Words / France, Germany (Director: Thorsten Schütte) — This entertaining encounter with the premier of sonic avant-garde is acidic, fun-poking, and full of rich and rare archival footage. This documentary bashes favorite Zappa targets and dashes a few myths about the man himself. World Premiere
Film Hawk / U.S.A. (Directors: JJ Garvine, Tai Parquet) — Trace Bob Hawk’s early years as the young gay child of a Methodist minister to his current career as a consultant on some of the most influential independent films of our time. World Premiere
LO AND BEHOLD, Reveries of the Connected World / U.S.A. (Director: Werner Herzog) — Does the Internet dream of itself? Explore the horizons of the connected world. World Premiere
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures / U.S.A. (Directors: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato) — This examination of Robert Mapplethorpe’s outrageous life is led by the artist himself, speaking with brutal honesty in a series of rediscovered interviews about his passions. Intimate revelations from friends, family, and lovers shed new light on this scandalous artist who ignited a culture war that still rages on. World Premiere
Maya Angelou And Still I Rise / U.S.A. (Directors: Bob Hercules, Rita Coburn Whack) — The remarkable story of Maya Angelou — iconic writer, poet, actress and activist whose life has intersected some of the most profound moments in recent American history. World Premiere
Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall / U.S.A. (Director: Spike Lee) — Catapulted by the success of his first major solo project, Off the Wall, Michael Jackson went from child star to King of Pop. This film explores the seminal album, with rare archival footage and interviews from those who were there and those whose lives its success and legacy impacted. World Premiere
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You / U.S.A. (Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady) — How did a poor Jewish kid from Connecticut bring us Archie Bunker and become one of the most successful television producers ever? Norman Lear brought provocative subjects like war, poverty, and prejudice into 120 million homes every week. He proved that social change was possible through an unlikely prism: laughter. World Premiere. DAY ONE FILM
Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper / U.S.A. (Director: Liz Garbus) — Gloria Vanderbilt and her son Anderson Cooper each tell the story of their past and present, their loves and losses, and reveal how some family stories have the tendency to repeat themselves in the most unexpected ways. World Premiere
Resilience / U.S.A. (Director: James Redford) — This film chronicles the birth of a new movement among pediatricians, therapists, educators, and communities using cutting-edge brain science to disrupt cycles of violence, addiction, and disease. These professionals help break the cycles of adversity by daring to talk about the effects of divorce, abuse, and neglect. World Premiere
Richard Linklater—dream is destiny / U.S.A. (Directors: Louis Black, Karen Bernstein) — This is an unconventional look at a fiercely independent style of filmmaking that arose in the 1990s from Austin, Texas, outside the studio system. The film blends rare archival footage with journals, exclusive interviews with Linklater on and off set, and clips from Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and more. World Premiere
Under the Gun / U.S.A. (Director: Stephanie Soechtig) — The Sandy Hook massacre was considered a watershed moment in the national debate on gun control, but the body count at the hands of gun violence has only increased. Through the lens of the victims’ families, as well as pro-gun advocates, we examine why our politicians have failed to act. World Premiere
Unlocking the Cage / U.S.A. (Directors: Chris Hegedus, Donn Alan Pennebaker) — Follow animal rights lawyer Steven Wise in his unprecedented challenge to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans. By filing the first lawsuit of its kind, Wise seeks to transform a chimpanzee from a “thing” with no rights to a “person” with basic legal protection. World Premiere
Cemetery of Splendor / Thailand (Director and screenwriter: Apichatpong Weerasethakull) — A lonesome middle-aged housewife tends to a soldier with sleeping sickness and falls into a hallucination that triggers strange dreams, phantoms, and romance. Cast: Jenjira Pongpas, Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram.
Embrace of the Serpent / Colombia (Director: Ciro Guerra, Screenwriters: Ciro Guerra, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal) — This blistering, poetic story is inspired by the original journals of scientists Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes, who meet lone survivor Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman. Over 40 years, they develop a friendship while traveling through the Colombian Amazon in search of the sacred, psychedelic yakruna plant. Cast: Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, Antonio Bolivar, Nilbio Torres, Miguel Dionisio Ramos.
Green Room / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Jeremy Saulnier) — This wickedly fun horror-thriller tells a story about the owner of a neo-Nazi club who squares off against an unsuspecting but resilient young punk band after they witness a horrific act of violence. Cast: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Patrick Stewart.
Land of Mine / Denmark (Director and screenwriter: Martin Zandvliet) — At the end of World War II, a group of young German POWs captured by the Danish army are forced to defuse and clear landmines from the Danish coastline with no training. Inspired by real events, the film exposes the untold story of one tragic moment in Denmark’s history. Cast: Roland Møller, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Emil Belton, Oskar Belton. U.S. Premiere
The Lobster / Ireland, United Kingdom, Greece, France (Director: Yorgos Lanthimos, Screenwriters: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou) — In a dystopian near future, single people are obliged to find a mate in 45 days or else be transformed into an animal of their choice and be released into the woods. Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, Léa Seydoux, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman.
Maggie’s Plan / U.S.A. (Director: Rebecca Miller, Screenwriters: Rebecca Miller, based on a story by Karen Rinaldi) — A young woman’s determination to have a child catapults her into a nervy love triangle with a heart-throb academic and his eccentric critical-theorist wife. Cast: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Travis Fimmel.
Miles Ahead / U.S.A. (Director: Don Cheadle, Screenwriters: Don Cheadle, Steven Baigelman) — Inspired by events in Miles Davis’s life, this is a wildly entertaining, impressionistic, no-holds-barred portrait of one of twentieth-century music’s creative geniuses. Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Rams / Iceland (Director and screenwriter: Grímur Hákonarson) — In a remote Icelandic farming valley, two brothers who haven’t spoken in 40 years have to come together to save what’s dearest to them—their sheep. Cast: Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Theodór Júlíusson.
Viva / Ireland (Director: Paddy Breathnach, Screenwriter: Mark O’Halloran) — In contemporary Cuba, a father and son struggle to escape from each other’s expectations, duty, and the burden of past sins. Cast: Héctor Medina, Jorge Perugorría, Luis Alberto García.