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Sundance: 13 Must-See Films That Have the Indie World Talking

The Sundance Film Festival has been the launching pad for some of the greatest indie films ever made. The likes of “Reservoir Dogs,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and last year’s “Manchester by the Sea” all got their starts at the mountainside festival. That track record of finding new talent and fresh stories is what keeps studio executives and fan lovers flocking to Park City. So as Sundance gets ready to kick off on Thursday, hope springs anew.

There are a number of films that are already generating massive buzz, sight unseen. They range from Oscar contenders to crowd pleasing comedies to ripped-from-the-headlines documentaries. If they live up to the hype, all of them should score big paydays. Here’s a look at the films that are most likely to spark all-night bidding frenzies.

MUDBOUND
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige
Director: Dee Rees
Sales agent: WME

Why Buyers Are Circling: Studio executives are already buzzing about “Mudbound’s” awards season prospects. The adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel focuses on a black and white family living and working together in the segregated South. Some agents and studio executives believe it will launch writer-director Dee Rees (“Bessie”) onto the A-list and could score her a trip to the Oscars.

THE BIG SICK
Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Zoe Kazan.
Director: Michael Showalter
Sales Agents: UTA/FilmNation

Why Buyers Are Circling: Word on the street is “The Big Sick” is the most commercial film at this year’s festival. One sage executive quipped that it out-Apatow’s Apatow, which makes sense considering that Judd Apatow is executive producing this romantic comedy. The film was written by “Silicon Valley’s” Nanjiani, who also stars, and is loosely based on his relationship with his wife and co-writer Emily V. Gordon. Think heartfelt with big laughs.

THE YELLOW BIRDS
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Tye Sheridan, Jack Huston, Jennifer Aniston
Director: Alexandre Moors
Sales Agents: WME/CAA/UTA

Why Buyers Are Circling: The boatload of rising actors headlining this film has caught studios’ attention — Sheridan is on the cusp of big screen stardom in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” and Ehrenreich was just tapped to play a young Han Solo in the next Star Wars spinoff. Plus it’s got serious literary pedigree. Kevin Powers’ novel about army life in Iraq was a critical favorite, won lots of writing prizes, and was a best-seller. Not every great book makes a good film, but with this cast, attention must be paid.

WIND RIVER
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Sales Agent: CAA

Why Buyers Are Circling: Sheridan is coming of “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water,” two back-to-back hits that he wrote. “Wind River” marks his directorial debut. The Weinstein Company nearly landed the film out of Cannes, but a deal collapsed. Since that time Sheridan’s star continues to rise along with “Wind River’s” price.

THE HERO
Cast: Sam Elliott, Nick Offerman, Laura Prepon
Director: Brett Haley
Sales Agents: WME/Gersh

Why Buyers Are Circling: Following lauded turns on “Justified” and in “Grandma,” Elliott has never been hotter. His distinctive baritone and signature handlebar mustache are front-and-center in this drama about a fading movie star grappling with the emotional wreckage of his life. Bonus: It reunites Elliott with Haley, the director of the 2015 art house hit, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” This one could be another hit with the AARP set.

CITY OF GHOSTS
Director: Matthew Heineman
Sales Agent: Cinetic

Why Buyers Are Circling: Heineman is an Emmy winner and Oscar nominee, who turned heads with “Cartel Land,” his daring look at the Mexican drug wars. This time he dives into an even thornier global issue — the rise of ISIS. “City of Ghosts” is ultimately a story of heroism, documenting the courage of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” a group of citizen journalists who risk their lives to bring footage of ISIS’s atrocities in Syria to the wider world. It’s powerful stuff and should factor into the best documentary Oscar race. It could even win the golden guy.

THE POLKA KING
Directors: Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky
Cast: Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, Jacki Weaver
Sales Agents: ICM/WME

Why Buyers Are Circling: It’s a bizarro black comedy that could have been cooked up by the Coen brothers, with Black playing the Bernie Madoff of the polka scene. “The Polka King” tells the true story of Jan Lewan, a Polish immigrant who became a musical star only to rip off his adoring fans with an elaborate Ponzi scheme involving communist tchotchkes. You can’t make this stuff up.

78/52
Director: Alexandre Philippe
Sales Agent: Preferred Content

Why Buyers Are Circling: Catnip for film buffs. This documentary breaks down the infamous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” polling the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, and Peter Bogdanovich for their thoughts on how the Master of the Macabre was able to make bathing such a terrifying experience.

REBEL IN THE RYE
Director: Danny Strong
Cast: Nicolas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson
Sales Agent: CAA

Why Buyers Are Circling: “The Catcher in the Rye” remains the most famous story of teenage rebellion, so this look at J.D. Salinger’s early years, before he became famous and then famously reclusive, is sure to generate interest. It’s not just for bookworms. “Rebel in the Rye” also provides a meaty role for Hoult, a talented actor who always seems on the verge of hitting the next level of stardom. Plus, the film marks the directorial debut of Strong, the co-creator of the television phenomenon that is “Empire.” Will the golden touch follow him to the big screen?

ICARUS
Director: Bryan Fogel
Sales Agent: UTA

Why Buyers Are Circling: The pitch here is that Fogel started out making a Morgan Spurlock film and ended up with a Laura Poitras movie. Whatever the case may be, he certainly stumbled into one hell of a story. An experimentation with performance enhancing drugs connected Fogel with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov,  a Russian scientist who has the goods on the country’s doping program. Putin will steer clear, but look for a Netflix, Amazon, or some deep-pocketed streaming service to make a splash and pick up the most topical film of the festival.

LANDLINE
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Cast: Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, John Turturro, Jay Duplass, Finn Wittrock
Sales Agent: UTA

Why Buyers Are Circling: The “Obvious Child” team reunites for a comedy set smack in the middle of the ’90s. This one’s a multi-generational story that indie players hope will have that same emotionally honest moments and caustic humor that made of Robespierre and Slate’s previous effort a hit with Sundance crowds.

STEP
Director: Amanda Lipitz
Sales Agent: WME

Why Buyers Are Circling: The uplifting story about Baltimore high-schoolers who are tied together by their love of step and their desire to be the first in their families to go to college, could be this festival’s answer to “Waiting for Superman” or “Hoop Dreams.”

BITCH
Director: Marianna Palka
Cast: Jason Ritter, Marianna Palka, Jaime King
Sales Agent: ICM

Why Buyers Are Circling: It’s definitely one of the odder Sundance entries. “Bitch” follows a woman whose cheating husband pushes her to the emotional breaking point, forcing her to assume the psyche of a vicious dog. At the very least it gets points for originality.

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