A funny thing happened on the way to Park City: The general upsurge of comedians in the independent film world wound up playing a major role in shaping the 2015 Sundance Film Festival program, per fest director John Cooper and director of programming Trevor Groth.
The effect can be felt across all aspects of the feature lineup, which boasts a total of 118 films (103 of them world premieres), but especially among the 16 titles set to screen in the always buzzy U.S. dramatic competition. That’s one of the four juried slates (including U.S. documentary, World Cinema dramatic and World Cinema documentary) unveiled today along with the festival’s noncompetitive Next section.
“There are probably more comedies in the dramatic competition than ever before,” Groth said, citing such titles as “Results,” a romantic laffer from mumblecore auteur Andrew Bujalski, with Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders as a pair of personal trainers; Patrick Brice’s “The Overnight,” a playdate-from-hell comedy with Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche; and Bryan Buckley’s “The Bronze,” starring Melissa Rauch (“The Big Bang Theory”) as a washed-up Olympic gymnast.
The dramatic lineup will also feature a surfeit of comedians and comedy actors, some of them in change-of-pace dramatic roles. These include Sarah Silverman as a self-destructive wife and mother in Adam Salky’s “I Smile Back”; Jack Black as a guy attending his 20th high-school reunion in “The D Train,” written and directed by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogul; Jemaine Clement as a newly divorced graphic novelist in James C. Strouse’s “People, Places, Things”; and Kristen Wiig as a woman whose boyfriend is sleeping with her daughter in Marielle Heller’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” (Wiig will also be seen in the Next entry “Nasty Baby,” directed by Sundance perennial Sebastian Silva of “The Maid,” “Crystal Fairy” and “Magic Magic” fame.)
Cooper, now in his fifth year at the helm of Sundance, is unsurprised by the increasingly porous boundaries between comedy and drama, or by the presence of so many actors and filmmakers willing to straddle the two. “Their ability to observe human nature is where they draw comedy from, so it kind of makes sense that they are adding such a great thread to the American indie scene,” he said.
Funny fare aside, the narrative competition will also showcase a mix of serious-minded storytelling and adventurous genre fare, including Nikole Beckwith’s psychological drama “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” starring Saoirse Ronan as a kidnap victim resurfacing 17 years after her abduction; “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s re-creation of the titular 1971 case study, featuring Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller and Michael Angarano; and “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” Chloe Zhao’s portrait of two Lakota siblings on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Among the more mind-bending dramatic entries are Jennifer Phang’s “Advantageous,” a dystopian mother-daughter story set against the backdrop of a biotech firm; Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” a supernatural horror film set in 17th-century New England; and Craig Zobel’s “Z for Zachariah,” a post-apocalyptic love triangle starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine.
Rounding out the dramatic competition are Rick Famuyiwa’s “Dope,” a dramedy about a geek living in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Inglewood; Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected,” a tale of two pregnancies; and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” starring Thomas Mann as an awkward teen whose mom forces him to befriend a classmate with leukemia.
Cooper said he suspected that, more so than in previous years, Sundance attendees would find themselves on a sort of continual emotional roller-coaster as they went from film to film.
“There’s a new kind of intensity in the films we saw, whether it’s sheer entertainment, like the comedies and the romances, or the documentaries, in terms of their engagement with the viewer,” Cooper said. “There’s a real attention to empathy — and I think that’s a role for independent film now, to be more human than what what you get from the news and what you get from Hollywood stories.”
Continuing the comedy trend in the neighboring U.S. documentary competition, Sundance veteran Bobcat Goldthwait (“World’s Greatest Dad,” “God Bless America”) will unspool his first nonfiction feature, “Call Me Lucky,” a portrait of the former bar comic and political satirist Barry Crimmins. Other profile-driven docs in the section include “Being Evel,” Daniel Junge’s portrait of Evel Knievel; “City of Gold,” Laura Gabbert’s tribute to Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold; and “Larry Kramer in Love and Anger,” Jean Carlomusto’s film about the playwright and LGBT rights activist.
Among the more ripped-from-the-headlines docs, few sound more timely than “3½ Minutes,” Marc Silver’s examination of the 2012 killing of unarmed African-American teenager Jordan Russell Davis. Louie Psihoyos, whose Oscar-winning “The Cove” premiered at Sundance in 2009, will return with “Racing Extinction,” a look at endangered and extinct species that previously screened as a work-in-progress at Tribeca (under the title “6”).
In the World Cinema dramatic competition, Groth noted a number of titles pairing emerging filmmakers with established-name actors, including Australian director Kim Farrant’s “Strangerland,” a marital drama starring Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes and Hugo Weaving; Scottish helmer John Maclean’s “Slow West,” a Kiwi-produced Western with Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn; and Irish filmmaker Gerard Barrett’s “Glassland,” a Dublin-set crime movie with Jack Reynor and Toni Collette. Elsewhere, the wide-ranging international lineup will also feature titles from Italy (Lamberto Sanfelice’s “Chlorine”), Turkey (Tolga Karacelik’s “Ivy”), Israel (Tali Shalom Ezer’s “Princess”), Brazil (Anna Muylaert’s “The Second Mother”) and India (Prashant Nair’s “Umrika”).
The World Cinema documentary competition will present the world premieres of “Dreamcatcher,” Kim Longinotto’s latest portrait of abused and marginalized women, this one focused on a former teenage prostitute; “Sembene!,” a portrait of the great Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene; Louise Osmond’s equestrian rags-to-riches story “Dark Horse”; and Jerry Rothwell’s “How to Change the World,” a chronicle of the origins of the Greenpeace movement. (Osmond and Rothwell earlier co-directed the 2006 documentary “Deep Water.”)
Arriving a bit later on the calendar than usual (it runs Jan. 22-Feb. 1), Sundance will kick off its first day with screenings of four features: “The Bronze” (U.S. dramatic), Alante Kavaite’s “The Summer of Sangaile” (World Cinema dramatic), “How to Change the World” (World Cinema documentary) and a title from the Documentary Premieres section, which will be announced on Monday.
Last year, the festival opened with one of its most acclaimed titles, Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” which went on to claim the audience and grand jury prizes, and nearly a year later is a major awards contender. It’s not the only Sundance 2014 title still in the conversation: Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” which bowed in the Premieres section, is widely considered the Oscar frontrunner, while Jennifer Kent’s horror-thriller “The Babadook,” a Park City at Midnight entry, recently won the prize for best first film from the New York Film Critics’ Circle.
This year, industry eyes will be directed across the entire Sundance program, which includes Next, the section devoted to low-budget works marked by “an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling.” Last year’s lineup yielded such critical favorites as “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” “Land Ho!” and “Listen Up Philip”; this year brings 10 titles, including “James White,” the feature-directing debut of Borderline Films’ Josh Mond; “Tangerine,” a Duplass Brothers-produced outing from “Starlet” director Sean Baker; and, continuing the funnyman trend, Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment,” about an aging comedian trying to revive his career and reconnect with his estranged daughter. (Alverson was previously in the Sundance dramatic competition with his 2012 feature, titled — what else? — “The Comedy.”)
The Sundance Film Festival will announce its Spotlight, Park City at Midnight and New Frontier titles on Thursday, and its Premieres and Documentary Premieres titles on Monday.
2015 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL LINEUP
The 16 films in this section are world premieres and, unless otherwise noted, are from the U.S.
“Advantageous” (Director: Jennifer Phang, Screenwriters: Jacqueline Kim, Jennifer Phang) — In a near-future city where soaring opulence overshadows economic hardship, Gwen and her daughter, Jules, do all they can to hold on to their joy, despite the instability surfacing in their world. Cast: Jacqueline Kim, James Urbaniak, Freya Adams, Ken Jeong, Jennifer Ehle, Samantha Kim.
“The Bronze” (Director: Bryan Buckley, Screenwriters: Melissa Rauch, Winston Rauch) — In 2004, Hope Ann Greggory became an American hero after winning the bronze medal for the women’s gymnastics team. Today, she’s still living in her small hometown, washed-up and embittered. Stuck in the past, Hope must reassess her life when a promising young gymnast threatens her local celebrity status. Cast: Melissa Rauch, Gary Cole, Thomas Middleditch, Sebastian Stan, Haley Lu Richardson, Cecily Strong. (Day One)
“The D Train” (Directors and screenwriters: Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel) — With his 20th reunion looming, Dan can’t shake his high-school insecurities. In a misguided mission to prove he’s changed, Dan rekindles a friendship with the popular guy from his class and is left scrambling to protect more than just his reputation when a wild night takes an unexpected turn. Cast: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike White, Kyle Bornheimer.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (Director and screenwriter: Marielle Heller) — Minnie Goetze is a 15-year-old aspiring comicbook artist, coming of age in the haze of the 1970s in San Francisco. Insatiably curious about the world around her, Minnie is a pretty typical teenage girl. Oh, except that she’s sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend. Cast: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Christopher Meloni, Kristen Wiig.
“Dope” (Director and screenwriter: Rick Famuyiwa) — Malcolm is carefully surviving life in a tough neighborhood in Los Angeles while juggling college applications, academic interviews and the SAT. A chance invitation to an underground party leads him into an adventure that could allow him to go from being a geek to being dope to ultimately being himself. Cast: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Blake Anderson, Zoe Kravitz, ASAP Rocky.
“I Smile Back” (Director: Adam Salky, Screenwriters: Amy Koppelman, Paige Dylan) — All is not right in suburbia. Laney Brooks, a wife and mother on the edge, has stopped taking her meds, substituting recreational drugs and the wrong men. With the destruction of her family looming, Laney makes a last, desperate attempt at redemption. Cast: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski, Mia Barron, Terry Kinney, Chris Sarandon.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Screenwriter: Jesse Andrews) — Greg is coasting through senior year of high school as anonymously as possible, avoiding social interactions like the plague while secretly making spirited, bizarre films with Earl, his only friend. But both his anonymity and friendship threaten to unravel when his mother forces him to befriend a classmate with leukemia. Cast: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon.
“The Overnight” (Director and screenwriter: Patrick Brice) — Alex, Emily, and their son, RJ, are new to Los Angeles. A chance meeting at the park introduces them to the mysterious Kurt, Charlotte and Max. A family “playdate” becomes increasingly interesting as the night goes on. Cast: Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman, Judith Godreche.
“People, Places, Things” (Director and screenwriter: James C. Strouse) — Will Henry is a newly single graphic novelist balancing being a parent to his young twin daughters and teaching a classroom full of college students, all the while trying to navigate the rich complexities of new love and letting go of the woman who left him. Cast: Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Stephanie Allynne, Jessica Williams, Gia Gadsby, Aundrea Gadsby.
“Results” (Director and screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski) — Two mismatched personal trainers’ lives are upended by the actions of a new, wealthy client. Cast: Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Michael Hall, Brooklyn Decker.
“Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (Director and screenwriter: Chloe Zhao) — This complex portrait of modern-day life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation explores the bond between a brother and his younger sister, who find themselves on separate paths to rediscovering the meaning of home. Cast: John Reddy, Jashaun St. John, Irene Bedard, Taysha Fuller, Travis Lone Hill, Eleonore Hendricks.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” (Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Screenwriter: Tim Talbott) — This film is based on the actual events that took place in 1971 when Stanford professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo created what became one of the most shocking and famous social experiments of all time. Cast: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, Olivia Thirlby.
“Stockholm, Pennsylvania” (Director and screenwriter: Nikole Beckwith — A young woman is returned home to her biological parents after living with her abductor for 17 years. Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Cynthia Nixon, Jason Isaacs, David Warshofsky.
“Unexpected” (Director: Kris Swanberg, Screenwriters: Kris Swanberg, Megan Mercier) — When Samantha Abbott begins her final semester teaching science at a Chicago high school, she faces some unexpected news: She’s pregnant. Soon after, Samantha learns that one of her favorite students, Jasmine, has landed in a similar situation. “Unexpected” follows the two women as they embark on an unlikely friendship. Cast: Cobie Smulders, Anders Holm, Gail Bean, Elizabeth McGovern.
“The Witch” (U.S.-Canada) (Director and screenwriter: Robert Eggers) — New England in the 1630s: William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life with five children, homesteading on the edge of an impassable wilderness. When their newborn son vanishes and crops fail, the family turns on one another. Beyond their worst fears, a supernatural evil lurks in the nearby wood. Cast: Anya Taylor Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Lucas Dawson, Ellie Grainger.
“Z for Zachariah” (Director: Craig Zobel, Screenwriter: Nissar Modi) — In a post-apocalyptic world, a young woman who believes she is the last human on Earth meets a dying scientist searching for survivors. Their relationship becomes tenuous when another survivor appears. As the two men compete for the woman’s affection, their primal urges begin to reveal their true nature. Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie, Chris Pine.
The 16 films in this section are world premieres and, unless otherwise noted, are from the U.S.
“3½ Minutes” (Director: Marc Silver) — On Nov. 23, 2012, unarmed 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis was shot at a Jacksonville gas station by Michael David Dunn. “3½ Minutes” explores the aftermath of Jordan’s tragic death, the latent and often unseen effects of racism, and the contradictions of the American criminal justice system.
“Being Evel” (Director: Daniel Junge) — An unprecedented, candid portrait of American icon Robert “Evel” Knievel and his legacy.
“Best of Enemies” (Directors: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon) — A behind-the-scenes account of the explosive 1968 televised debates between the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr., and their rancorous disagreements about politics, God, and sex.
“Call Me Lucky” (Director: Bobcat Goldthwait) — Barry Crimmins was a volatile but brilliant bar comic who became an honored peace activist and influential political satirist. Famous comedians and others build a picture of a man who underwent an incredible transformation.
“Cartel Land” (Director: Matthew Heineman) — In this classic Western set in the 21st century, vigilantes on both sides of the border fight the vicious Mexican drug cartels. With unprecedented access, this character-driven film provokes deep questions about lawlessness, the breakdown of order, and whether citizens should fight violence with violence.
“City of Gold” (Director: Laura Gabbert) — Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Gold casts his light upon a vibrant and growing cultural movement in which he plays the dual roles of high-low priest and culinary geographer of his beloved Los Angeles.
“Finders Keepers” (Directors: Bryan Carberry, Clay Tweel) — Recovering addict and amputee John Wood finds himself in a stranger-than-fiction battle to reclaim his mummified leg from Southern entrepreneur Shannon Whisnant, who found it in a grill he bought at an auction and believes it to therefore be his rightful property.
“Hot Girls Wanted” (Directors: Jill Bauer, Ronna Gradus) — A first-ever look at the realities inside the world of the amateur porn industry and the steady stream of 18- and 19-year-old girls entering into it.
“How to Dance in Ohio” (Director: Alexandra Shiva) — In Columbus, Ohio, a group of teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum prepare for an iconic American rite of passage — a spring formal. They spend 12 weeks practicing their social skills at a local nightclub in preparation for the dance.
“Larry Kramer in Love and Anger” (Director: Jean Carlomusto) — Author, activist, and playwright Larry Kramer is one of the most important and controversial figures in contemporary gay America, a political firebrand who gave voice to the outrage and grief that inspired gay men and lesbians to fight for their lives. At 78, this complicated man still commands our attention.
“Meru” (Directors: Jimmy Chin, E. Chai Vasarhelyi) — Three elite mountain climbers sacrifice everything but their friendship as they struggle through heartbreaking loss and nature’s harshest elements to attempt the never-before-completed Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru, the most coveted first ascent in the dangerous game of Himalayan big wall climbing.
“Racing Extinction” (Director: Louie Psihoyos) — Academy Award winner Louie Psihoyos (“The Cove”) assembles a unique team to show the world never-before-seen images that expose issues surrounding endangered species and mass extinction.
“(T)error” (Directors: Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe) — The first film to document on camera a covert counterterrorism sting as it unfolds. Through the perspective of *******, a 63-year-old Black revolutionary turned FBI informant, viewers are given an unprecedented glimpse of the government’s counterterrorism tactics, and the murky justifications behind them.
“Welcome to Leith” (Directors: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker) — A white supremacist attempts to take over a small town in North Dakota.
“Western” (U.S.-Mexico) (Directors: Bill Ross, Turner Ross) — For generations, all that distinguished Eagle Pass, Texas, from Piedras Negras, Mexico, was the Rio Grande. But when darkness descends upon these harmonious border towns, a cowboy and lawman face a new reality that threatens their way of life. Western portrays timeless American figures in the grip of unforgiving change.
“The Wolfpack” (Director: Crystal Moselle) — Six bright teenage brothers have spent their entire lives locked away from society in a Manhattan housing project. All they know of the outside is gleaned from the movies they watch obsessively (and re-create meticulously). Yet as adolescence looms, they dream of escape, ever more urgently, into the beckoning world.
The 12 films in this section are world premieres unless otherwise specified.
“Chlorine” (Italy) (Director: Lamberto Sanfelice, Screenwriters: Lamberto Sanfelice, Elisa Amoruso) — Jenny, 17, dreams of becoming a synchronized swimmer. Family events turn her life upside down and she is forced move to a remote area to look after her ill father and younger brother. It won’t be long before Jenny starts pursuing her dreams again. Cast: Sara Serraiocco, Ivan Franek, Giorgio Colangeli, Anatol Sassi, Piera Degli Esposti, Andrea Vergoni.
“Chorus” (Canada) (Director and screenwriter: Francois Delisle) — A separated couple meet again after 10 years when the body of their missing son is found. Amid the guilt of losing a loved one, they hesitantly move toward affirmation of life, acceptance of death, and even the possibility of reconciliation. Cast: Sebastien Ricard, Fanny Mallette, Pierre Curzi, Genevieve Bujold.
“Glassland” (Ireland) (Director and screenwriter: Gerard Barrett) — In a desperate attempt to reunite his broken family, a young taxi driver becomes entangled in the criminal underworld. Cast: Jack Reynor, Toni Collette, Will Poulter, Michael Smiley. (International premiere)
“Homesick” (Norway) (Director: Anne Sewitsky, Screenwriters: Ragnhild Tronvoll, Anne Sewitsky) — When Charlotte, 27, meets her brother Henrik, 35, for the first time, two people who don’t know what a normal family is begin an encounter without boundaries. How does sibling love manifest itself if you have never experienced it before? Cast: Ine Marie Wilmann, Simon J. Berger, Anneke von der Lippe, Silje Storstein, Oddgeir Thune, Kari Onstad.
“Ivy” (Turkey) (Director and screenwriter: Tolga Karacelik) — Sarmasik is sailing to Egypt when the ship’s owner goes bankrupt. The crew learns there is a lien on the ship, and key crew members must stay on board. Ivy is the story of these six men trapped on the ship for days. Cast: Nadir Sarıbacak, Ozgur Emre Yıldırım, Hakan Karsak, Kadir Cermik, Osman Alkaş, Seyithan Ozdemiroglu.
“Partisan” (Australia) (Director: Ariel Kleiman, Screenwriters: Ariel Kleiman, Sarah Cyngler) — Alexander is like any other kid: playful, curious and naive. He is also a trained assassin. Raised in a hidden paradise, Alexander has grown up seeing the world filtered through his father, Gregori. As Alexander begins to think for himself, creeping fears take shape, and Gregori’s idyllic world unravels. Cast: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, Florence Mezzara.
“Princess” (Israel) (Director and screenwriter: Tali Shalom Ezer) — While her mother is away from home, 12-year-old Adar’s role-playing games with her stepfather move into dangerous territory. Seeking an escape, Adar finds Alan, an ethereal boy who accompanies her on a dark journey between reality and fantasy. Cast: Keren Mor, Shira Haas, Ori Pfeffer, Adar Zohar Hanetz. (International premiere)
“The Second Mother” (Brazil) (Director and screenwriter: Anna Muylaert) — Having left her daughter, Jessica, to be raised by relatives in the north of Brazil, Val works as a loving nanny in São Paulo. When Jessica arrives for a visit 13 years later, she confronts her mother’s slave-like attitude and everyone in the house is affected by her unexpected behavior. Cast: Regina Case, Michel Joelsas, Camila Mardila, Karine Teles, Lourenço Mutarelli.
“Slow West” (New Zealand) (Director: John Maclean, Screenwriters: John Maclean, Michael Lesslie) — At the end of the 19th century, 16-year-old Jay Cavendish journeys across the American frontier in search of the woman he loves. He is joined by Silas, a mysterious traveler, and hotly pursued by an outlaw along the way. Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Rory McCann, Ben Mendelsohn, Brooke Williams, Caren Pistorius.
“Strangerland” (Australia-Ireland) (Director: Kim Farrant, Screenwriters: Fiona Seres, Michael Kinirons) — When Catherine and Matthew Parker’s two teenage kids disappear into the remote Australian desert, the couple’s relationship is pushed to the brink as they confront the mystery of their children’s fate. Cast: Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, Hugo Weaving, Lisa Flanagan, Meyne Wyatt, Maddison Brown.
“The Summer of Sangaile” (Lithuania-France-Holland) (Director and screenwriter: Alante Kavaite) — Seventeen-year-old Sangaile is fascinated by stunt planes. She meets a girl her age at the summer aeronautical show, nearby her parents’ lakeside villa. Sangaile allows Auste to discover her most intimate secret and in the process finds in her teenage love, the only person that truly encourages her to fly. Cast: Julija Steponaityte, Aiste Dirziute. (Day One film)
“Umrika” (India) (Director and screenwriter: Prashant Nair) — When a young village boy discovers that his brother, long believed to be in America, has actually gone missing, he begins to invent letters on his behalf to save their mother from heartbreak, all the while searching for him. Cast: Suraj Sharma, Tony Revolori, Smita Tambe, Adil Hussain, Rajesh Tailang, Prateik Babbar.
The 12 films in this section are world premieres unless otherwise specified.
“The Amina Profile” (Canada) (Director: Sophie Deraspe) — During the Arab revolution, a love story between two women — a Canadian and a Syrian American — turns into an international sociopolitical thriller spotlighting media excesses and the thin line between truth and falsehood on the Internet.
“Censored Voices” (Israel-Germany) (Director: Mor Loushy) — One week after the 1967 Six-Day War, renowned author Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira recorded intimate conversations with soldiers returning from the battlefield. The Israeli army censored the recordings, allowing only a fragment of the conversations to be published. “Censored Voices” reveals these recordings for the first time.
“The Chinese Mayor” (China) (Director: Hao Zhou) — Mayor Geng Yanbo is determined to transform the coal-mining center of Datong, in China’s Shanxi province, into a tourism haven showcasing clean energy. In order to achieve that, however, he has to relocate 500,000 residences to make way for the restoration of the ancient city.
“Chuck Norris vs. Communism” (U.K.-Romania-Germany) (Director: Ilinca Calugareanu) — In 1980s Romania, thousands of Western films smashed through the Iron Curtain, opening a window to the free world for those who dared to look. A black-market VHS racketeer and courageous female translator brought the magic of film to the masses and sowed the seeds of a revolution.
“Dark Horse” (U.K.) (Director: Louise Osmond) — Dark Horse is the inspirational true story of a group of friends from a workingman’s club who decide to take on the elite “sport of kings” and breed themselves a racehorse.
“Dreamcatcher” (U.K.) (Director: Kim Longinotto) — “Dreamcatcher” takes us into a hidden world seen through the eyes of one of its survivors, Brenda Myers-Powell. A former teenage prostitute, Brenda defied the odds to become a powerful advocate for change in her community. With warmth and humor, Brenda gives hope to those who have none.
“How to Change the World” (U.K.-Canada) (Director: Jerry Rothwell) — In 1971, a group of friends sails into a nuclear test zone, and their protest captures the world’s imagination. Using rare, archival footage that brings their extraordinary world to life, “How to Change the World” is the story of the pioneers who founded Greenpeace and defined the modern green movement. (Day One film)
“Listen to Me Marlon” (U.K.) (Director and screenwriter: Stevan Riley, Co-writer: Peter Ettedgui) — With exclusive access to previously unheard audio archives, this documentary charts Marlon Brando’s exceptional career and extraordinary life away from the stage and screen, fully exploring the complexities of the man by telling the story uniquely in his own voice.
“Pervert Park” (Sweden-Denmark) (Directors: Frida Barkfors, Lasse Barkfors) — “Pervert Park” follows the everyday lives of sex offenders in a Florida trailer park as they struggle to reintegrate into society, and try to understand who they are and how to break the cycle of sex crimes being committed. (International premiere)
“The Russian Woodpecker” (U.K.) (Director: Chad Gracia) — A Ukrainian victim of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster discovers a dark secret and must decide whether to risk his life by revealing it, amid growing clouds of revolution and war.
“Sembene!” (U.S.-Senegal) (Directors: Samba Gadjigo, Jason Silverman) — In 1952, Ousmane Sembene, a Senegalese dockworker and fifth-grade dropout, began dreaming an impossible dream: to become the storyteller for a new Africa. This true story celebrates how the “father of African cinema,” against enormous odds, fought a monumental, 50-year-long battle to give Africans a voice.
“The Visit” (Denmark-Austria-Ireland-Finland-Norway) (Director: Michael Madsen) — “This film documents an event that has never taken place … ” With unprecedented access to the United Nations’ Office for Outer Space Affairs, leading space scientists and space agencies, “The Visit” explores humans’ first encounter with alien intelligent life and thereby humanity itself. “Our scenario begins with the arrival. Your arrival.”
The 10 films in this section are world premieres and from the U.S., unless otherwise noted.
“Bob and the Trees” (U.S.-France) (Director: Diego Ongaro, Screenwriters: Diego Ongaro, Courtney Maum, Sasha Statman-Weil) — Bob, a 50-year-old logger in rural Massachusetts with a soft spot for golf and gangsta rap, is struggling to make ends meet in a changed economy. When his beloved cow is wounded and a job goes awry, Bob begins to heed the instincts of his ever-darkening self. Cast: Bob Tarasuk, Matt Gallagher, Polly MacIntyre, Winthrop Barrett, Nathaniel Gregory. World Premiere
“Christmas, Again” (Director and screenwriter: Charles Poekel) — A heartbroken Christmas tree salesman returns to New York, hoping to put the past year behind him. He spends the season living in a trailer and working the night shift, until a mysterious woman and some colorful customers rescue him from self-destruction. Cast: Kentucker Audley, Hannah Gross, Jason Shelton, Oona Roche. (North American premiere)
“Cronies” (Director and screenwriter: Michael Larnell) — Twenty-two-year-old Louis doesn’t know whether his childhood friendship with Jack will last beyond today. Cast: George Sample III, Zurich Buckner, Brian Kowalski.
“Entertainment” (Director: Rick Alverson, Screenwriters: Rick Alverson, Gregg Turkington, Tim Heidecker) — En route to meeting with his estranged daughter, in an attempt to revive his dwindling career, a broken, aging comedian plays a string of dead-end shows in the Mojave Desert. Cast: Gregg Turkington, John C. Reilly, Tye Sheridan, Michael Cera, Amy Seimetz, Lotte Verbeek.
“H.” (U.S.-Argentina) (Directors and screenwriters: Rania Attieh, Daniel Garcia) — Two women, each named Helen, find their lives spinning out of control after a meteor allegedly explodes over their city of Troy, New York. Cast: Robin Bartlett, Rebecca Dayan, Will Janowitz, Julian Gamble, Roger Robinson.
“James White” (Director and screenwriter: Josh Mond) — A young New Yorker struggles to take control of his reckless, self-destructive behavior in the face of momentous family challenges. Cast: Chris Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Makenzie Leigh, David Call.
“Nasty Baby” (Director and screenwriter: Sebastian Silva) — A gay couple try to have a baby with the help of their best friend, Polly. The trio navigates the idea of creating life while confronted by unexpected harassment from a neighborhood man called the Bishop. As their clashes grow increasingly aggressive, odds are someone is getting hurt. Cast: Sebastian Silva, Tunde Adebimpe, Kristin Wiig, Reg E. Cathey, Mark Margolis, Denis O’Hare.
“The Strongest Man” (Director and screenwriter: Kenny Riches) — An anxiety-ridden Cuban man who fancies himself the strongest man in the world attempts to recover his most prized possession, a stolen bicycle. On his quest, he finds and loses much more. Cast: Robert Lorie, Paul Chamberlain, Ashly Burch, Patrick Fugit, Lisa Banes.
“Take Me to the River” (Director and screenwriter: Matt Sobel) — A naive California teen plans to remain above the fray at his Nebraskan family reunion, but a strange encounter places him at the center of a long-buried family secret. Cast: Logan Miller, Robin Weigert, Josh Hamilton, Richard Schiff, Ursula Parker, Azura Skye.
“Tangerine” (Director: Sean Baker, Screenwriters: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch) — A working girl tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart. Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, Alla Tumanyan, James Ransone.