EW's Sundance preview: 12 must-see movies for 2012
As Sundance kicks off today, first impressions of some of the movies might suggest it’s more of a depression fest than a film fest.
Take a closer look, and you’ll see that gloomy, cold, and painful are more apt descriptions of the festival’s mountainous winter weather this time around.
The annual indie showcase, which runs in Park City, Utah, from Jan. 19 to 29, is actually fairly warm and cozy, dominated by a heavy lineup of comedies, and featuring a selection of dramas that tend to be more touching than harrowing (although there’s some of that, too).
Granted, the documentaries tend to be unrelentingly bleak, and there are definitely films that steer deeply into tragedy, but by and large, if you’re looking for patterns, Sundance 2012 is about overcoming hard times, not wallowing in them.
Here’s a look at 12 movies hoping to strike a nerve:
Robot and Frank (clip)
‘SLEEPWALK WITH ME’
If there’s one movie that epitomizes Sundance’s mood this year, it’s Sleepwalk With Me.
In this semi-autobiographical tale — written, directed by, and starring stand-up storyteller Mike Birbiglia — a struggling comedian discovers that the many ways life is kicking his ass actually makes for hilarious material. The movie is about “the concept you can talk about these things your ashamed of, and more often than not, you find a deeper connection with people,” Birbiglia tells EW. “The one thing you’re most reluctant to tell, that’s where the comedy is.”
After several sweat-inducing scenes of his character dying at the microphone, the moment he finally starts to get laughs from a paying audience may strike some moviegoers with the same wave of relief as Tim Robbins opening his arms to the rain in The Shawshank Redemption. “Only a comedy lover would compare those two things,” Birbiglia laughs. “That’s an absurd compliment, thank you.”
Birbiglia has told his stories several times on WBEZ Chicago’s This American Life, and host Ira Glass helped produce this movie from the comedian’s one-man show, which gets its name from a sleepwalking affliction that hit him when he was at his most desperate. (Glass is also credited as a co-writer, along with Birbiglia’s brother Joe, and Seth Barrish, who directed the stage version.) “We decided, why not try to make this as a film?” Birbiglia says. “It has an interesting, compelling narrative about relationships, with this character being in denial about his college sweetheart and failing career, and then he also has this dangerous sleep disorder.”
And it’s funny, especially when the main character is not.
‘ROBOT AND FRANK’
Frank Langella plays an old man in failing health whose kids (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) fear he can no longer take care of himself. Sound grim?
How about if the caretaker they find to look after him is a robot? And as the old man and ‘bot bond, they decide to commit a grand larceny together.
Robot and Frank is a sci-fi take on the grumpy old-man genre, which includes the likes of Harry and Tonto, or maybe Finding Forrester, or, well, Grumpy Old Men. You know the format: a sour, aging cuss shambles toward the end up his life, until …!
The “until” variable that intrudes here happens to be mechanical. “It’s sweet, and light, and an endearing story,” says festival director John Cooper. “It’s in the future and the robot almost looks like the one Honda has, Asimo, this little guy who is very sweet and becomes a friend and protector of this old guy.”
Susan Sarandon costars as a librarian who holds more than one interest for the thieving old timer.
Robot and Frank is directed by Jake Schreier, with screenplay by Christopher Ford.
Mark Duplass (Humpday, TV’s The League) is a regret-filled man who desperately longs to change his heartbreaking past. Okay, that’s the downer part. But the way he hopes to accomplish that is by building a time machine and recruiting strangers to travel back with him.
Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza, who is skepticism distilled into human form, plays a magazine intern assisting reporter Jake Johnson (New Girl) in his investigation of a mysterious classified ad that reads: “WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. … You’ll get paid when we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” (Over the years, the ad that inspired screenwriter Derek Connolly has become an online phenomenon.)
“He may start off seeming a little dangerous or odd but Mark plays it in a very grounded and human way,” says director Colin Trevorrow. “We thought, what if he really does think he’s going back in time, but people just make fun of him?”
“This particular character is pretty self-serious,” he adds. “He really believes you have to bring your own weapons. The surprises of the film are how much of a real person he turns out to be and his true reasons for wanting to go back in time. All of us want to go back and change something or repair a mistake.”
‘HELLO I MUST BE GOING’
Now consider Hello I Must Be Going, the story of a depressed 35-year-old woman (played by Up in the Air‘s Melanie Lynskey) who gets divorced and moves back into her parent’s home, only to find herself falling in love with a 19-year-old boy.
There’s obviously a harrowing personal crisis going on, but Lynskey says that’s just the setup. “It’s really romantic,” the actress tells EW. “And he’s very, very cute.”
“He” is relative newcomer Christopher Abbott (who turned up in Martha Marcy May Marlene at last year’s festival). “He’s older than his years and she’s stuck in this place a lot of 19-years-old are in: What am I going to do for the rest of my life?” Lynskey says. “The age difference comes into it, but they have a real connection with each other. It does get a little dramatic in parts, but it’s really a romantic comedy.”
Directed by Todd Louiso, with screenplay by Sarah Koskoff.
In Bachelorette, Kirsten Dunst stars as a woman seething over the happiness of a newly engaged friend — a friend she and the other mean girls used to call “Pig Face” in high school. “What we usually see in films is the over-glorification of female friendships,” says writer-director Leslye Headland. “There’s a very thin line between jealousy and loyalty.”
Okay, so maybe these gal-pals (Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher, and Rebel Wilson) aren’t really friends. Frenemies is more like it. “At the beginning, she just doesn’t know how to be a good friend to someone,” Headland says of Dunst. “There’s this idea that if you get the guy and career and get thin enough and pretty enough you will be happy. It’s math. And at the end of this you will have contentment, but you don’t always. The crux of Kirsten’s character is she doesn’t have that. And somebody she perceives to be, essentially, ‘less than her’ does have those things.”
Drugs and booze are bad enough, but mix them with raging jealousy on a girls’ night out and … “It makes them make some very bad choices that they then have to fix,” Headland says.
Here’s one Sundance movie that does veer into the dark side, but you can see from the clip there’s also tenderness in this tale of an ex-con who hopes to go legit, but finds himself pulled back into his drug-trafficking past on the day he’s watching the nephew who adores him.
Common stars as Uncle Vincent, who originally sets out to bring the 11-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) with him to the bank, where he hopes to get a loan to open a seafood restaurant in their Baltimore neighborhood. When that doesn’t work out, an opportunity arises to move some money for a drug kingpin, and the temptation proves too strong to resist.
“For Vincent, he doesn’t want trouble,” Common tells EW. “He wants to straighten his life out and be great example for his nephew, but then he has to go into survival mode and hustle in many ways.”
Along their long-day’s journey, he teaches the boy not just how to drive a car, but how to wield a gun — and things turn even more dangerous very quickly. “It begins with love, but love coming from someone who has been through a lot of pain and struggle,” Common says. “He doesn’t automatically see that putting somebody in a situation like that is as detrimental as it could be.”
Directed by Sheldon Candis, who co-wrote with Justin Wilson.
Director-star Katie Aselton returns to Sundance after 2009’s The Freebie with a movie that begins like a chick-flick but turns into a psychological thriller, with a group of girlfriends (Aselton, Lake Bell, and Kate Bosworth) discovering a deadly secret on a remote Maine island. “There’s nothing paranormal or bizarre,” she says. “It’s not that there are crazy hillbillies there. But things go terribly wrong, and it’s the worst-case scenario.”
The script was written by Aselton’s husband, Mark Duplass (who’s at the festival with roles in Safety Not Guaranteed and Your Sister’s Sister) and the two have become like the king and queen of the Sundance prom in recent years. “When I had The Freebie, he had Cyrus there and we would pass each other on our press day: ‘ Hi, babe, how’s it going?’ ‘Going good!’ ‘Great!'” she says. “It is a whirlwind. It’s helpful to have someone who gets it.”
‘RED HOOK SUMMER’
Spike Lee is making a homecoming.
He first came to Sundance three years ago with a filmed version of the Broadway show Passing Strange, and he returns this year with a trip to Brooklyn, and the familiar neighborhood he has explored in many of his past movies, most notably 1989’s Do the Right Thing. In the coming of age tale Red Hook Summer, Lee tells the story of a young boy named Flik (newcomer Jules Brown) and the thorny relationship he has with his preacher grandfather (The Wire’s Clarke Peters.)
“Flik wants nothing to do with the church, but the grandfather, the preacher, he breathes religion and talks Jesus and Christianity 24/7,” Lee says. “So they don’t get along.” Flik does get along with a girl from the church named Chazz (fellow newcomer Toni Lysaith), who likes to stir up trouble as much as he does.
Lee, who co-wrote with James McBride, makes a cameo in the movie, reprising the role of Mookie from Do the Right Thing, and we get to see the pizza shop again too, though the filmmaker says he just likes weaving threads together from his past movies, and Red Hook Summer is not a sequel.
Movies are full of stories about painters, musicians, and filmmakers striving to create. The documentary Indie Game chronicles a few real-life programmers and the labor of love they pour into homemade interactive storytelling.
The shelves of Best Buy and Target are full of titles from massive videogame studios, churning out Calls of Duty and Grand Theft Autos and Uncharted adventures, but digital distribution has made it easier than ever for one lone guy to create a game on his own computer and, with a little luck, have it be discovered by the world.
“All you need to make the game you want is an idea, a computer, talent and determination,” says James Swirsky, who codirected the doc with Lisanne Pajot. “So when you are a developer whose main goal is to express yourself and communicate through your game, the process is a little less than satisfying when you can’t get your game out there. An un-played game isn’t much of a game.”
That potential adds as much stress to the situation as it does promise. “The advent of large scale online distribution like Steam and Xbox Live took away the last big barrier in independent gaming,” says Pajot. “From an artistic-communication standpoint, they can reach more people with their games, which obviously helps validate the process. [But] this potential definitely raises the stakes and increases the pressures.”
As you can see from the trailer, these designers strive not just for fame and fortune, but to create something that expresses a little of who they are — just like artists working in any medium.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the spectrum-haired crush object in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) stars in this dramedy as a party girl who decides her boozy good times need to slow down, and Aaron Paul (twitchy Jesse from Breaking Bad) is her husband, who sees no reason he should have to cut back.
Mournful tale of addiction? Partly. But producer Jonathan Schwartz (Like Crazy) says it’s just the framework for a story about two people trying to stay together as their personalities evolve and pull them apart. “Every young couple has their commonalities,” he says. “You have the reason you married your wife. For some people it’s sex, for some people it’s reality TV, for some people it’s smoking pot, for some people it’s business or having kids. This is about what happens to a relationship when the commonality disappears, and the commonality in this case is alcohol.”
Before it starts sounding too heavy, the film costars real-life husband and wife Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally (Parks and Recreation‘s Ron Swanson and his ex-wife, Tammy 2, respectively) as colleagues at the school where Winstead teaches, and The Help‘s Octavia Spencer turns up in a colorful supporting role as her sobriety sponsor. “Funny things happen, we have moments of tenderness, crazy s— happens,” Schwartz says. “It’s not devastatingly dark and depressing. You watch someone grow and hopefully it’s someone you’re interested in.”
Directed by James Ponsoldt, who co-wrote with Susan Burke.
‘CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER’
In Celeste and Jesse Forever, Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg star as a couple who have been together since high school, and everything about their marriage is a storybook. They get along great, except… they’re not in love anymore. As they begin to pull apart, they remain each other’s best friend and support system. She’s deeply focused on her career as a novelist and businesswoman, while he’s deeply unfocused and is just trying to ride the wave of life.
Ari Graynor, Chris Messina, Elijah Wood, and Emma Roberts costar, with Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind) directing. Jones co-wrote the script with Will McCormack, and festival director John Cooper says fans who love her on The Office and Parks and Recreation will see more of her befuddled sweetness here. “It’s a romantic comedy with a quirky element to it,” Cooper says. “If you know Rashida Jones’ work, it’s very her.”
A young couple are on their honeymoon when the wife (Zoe Saldana) buys her new husband (Bradley Cooper) a shabby old valise in an antique shop. Inside, they happen to find a long-lost manuscript, an epic, romantic written about Paris as it rebuilt after World War II. It’s partly autobiographical, akin to Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, but the writer is unknown. In any case, he penned this long, long ago.
Cooper’s character chooses to publish it as his own — one of those it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time decisions that has broader repercussions than he ever expected. Jeremy Irons plays the writer in old age, and Olivia Wilde costars as someone trying to discover the truth of the book.
The story weaves together multiple narratives — cutting between what’s happening in the real world and scenes from the novel (featuring Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder, pictured below). Brian Klugman, who wrote and codirects with Lee Sternthal says, “because this book is about writers, books, and storytelling, we have the freedom to really move between fiction and reality, and get lost between which one is which.”