There’s a good reason that much of Hollywood braves the thin mountain air each year to make the trek to the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s not to check out the nearby ski slopes. The annual launch of the indie film gathering brings with it the possibility of discovering the next big thing in moviemaking. Sundance has played a critical role in the careers of such A-list talent as Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, David O. Russell, and Quentin Tarantino, and has hosted the premieres of such classics as “Reservoir Dogs,” “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” and “Manchester by the Sea.”
The prospect of finding the rare indie movie that can break out of the arthouse has inspired a lot of all-night bidding wars over the years. Sometimes those frenzied negotiations and massive deals pay off, as was the case with “Brooklyn” or “Fruitvale Station.” In other instances, studios end up saddled with movies like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” that play like gangbusters in Sundance only to wither on the vine when the general public gets a look.
But like the winter weather that keeps Park City blanketed in snow, you can rely on studios to show up every January, checkbooks in hand, hoping to beat the odds and find some winners. Here are 13 films that seem likely to draw the most attention from buyers at this year’s Sundance.
Popular on Variety
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe
Director: Alma Har’el
Sales Agent: CAA, Endeavor Content
Why Buyers Are Circling: LaBeouf reexamines his troubled childhood in a heavily autobiographical drama that finds him essentially playing his own father. With all the tabloid craziness that’s surrounded LaBeouf in recent years (who can forget his drunken visit to Broadway’s “Cabaret”?) it can be easy to forget that he’s a supremely talented performer. By grappling with his demons on film, he may be able to remind folks why they first fell in love with him in the first place.
Cast: Mindy Kaling, Emma Thompson
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Sales Agent: CAA, 30WEST
Why Buyers Are Circling: Talk about timely. “Late Night,” a comedy about a diversity hire in a writer’s room, premieres at a time when Hollywood is on the hot seat for failing to provide more opportunities for women and people of color. If that makes the movie sound overly polemical, fret not. It also happens to be very funny. Think “Devil Wears Prada” with Thompson putting her own, no-nonsense spin on the Miranda Priestly archetype.
I AM MOTHER
Director: Grant Sputore
Cast: Clara Rugaard, Rose Byrne, Hilary Swank
Sales: Endeavor Content
Why Buyers Are Circling: This sci-fi thriller is set in a dystopian future in which a girl is raised by a robot. The arrival of a blood-drenched woman leaves her questioning her own reality. Trippy and fun with the kind of twisty concept that could resonate with broader audiences.
COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD
Director: Mads Brügger
Why Buyers Are Circling: From “Making a Murderer” to “Serial,” true crime stories are all the rage, and boy has Brügger uncovered a doozy. His years-in-the-making investigation into the mysterious 1961 death of United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld resulted in a series of monumental discoveries that are guaranteed to generate headlines. One of the rare films that lives up to the adjective “explosive.”
Director: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Jim Liu
Sales Agent: UTA, Endeavor Content
Why Buyers Are Circling: Fresh off her scene-stealing roles in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Oceans 8,” Awkwafina takes center stage in this film about a Chinese family who cook up a fake wedding while keeping their grandmother in the dark about her terminal illness. Buying this film is a chance to get into business with one of the brightest up-and-coming stars in movies.
KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE
Director: Rachel Lears
Sales Agent: Cinetic
Why Buyers Are Circling: It’s all about these three letters: AOC. They stand for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most controversial and compelling new House member. It was Lear’s good fortune to have a front row seat and to be on hand to document Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary win over Democratic powerhouse Joe Crowley. The film documents three other progressive candidates who try to take on the establishment, but it’s Ocasio-Cortez who’s the main attraction.
EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE
Director: Joe Berlinger
Cast: Zac Efron, Lily Collins
Sales Agent: CAA, UTA
Why Buyers Are Circling: Efron, a Disney Channel recoveree, goes way against type as Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer who murdered at least 30 women. If critics hail the change-of-pace role, the filmmakers will be fielding offers from all sides. The only question is will Efron’s fans show up to see him take on such a dark challenge?
JUDY AND PUNCH
Director: Mirrah Foulkes
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman
Sales Agents: Endeavor Content, Cornerstone Films
Why Buyers Are Circling: Festival programmers are high on this revenge story. A puppeteering couple’s efforts to revive their marionette show in a lawless town lead to tragedy, one that sends Wasikowska’s Judy on the warpath against those who did her wrong. At the bare minimum, it certainly sounds original.
Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans
Sales Agents: UTA, CAA
Why Buyers Are Circling: Hood scored a breakout hit with “Eye in the Sky.” “Official Secrets” is another ripped-from-the-headlines tale, this one about a whistleblower working to expose an illegal U.S./U.K. spying operation in the lead-up to the Iraq War. It doesn’t hurt that the film employs just about every notable British actor working today.
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
Cast: Viveik Karla, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Sales Agents: Endeavor Content, ICM
Why Agents Are Circling: Writer-director-producer Chadha delighted international audiences with the sweet and empowering 2002 comedy “Bend it Like Beckham.” Her storytelling instincts combine here with the song catalogue of the Boss. This musical hybrid film based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s youth as a British Muslim in the 1980s — and how Bruce Springsteen influenced him — has built-in global appeal and a soundtrack you already know and love.
BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON
Cast: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, Alice Lee
Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo
Sales Agent: Endeavor Content
Why Buyers Are Circling: This has the makings of a comedy crowd-pleaser. It centers on a hard-partying 28-year-old whose life is moving rapidly out of her grasp. She attempts to right the ship with an organized run, jumping emotional hurdles a mile at a time. Bell is a heat-seeker with an ability to score big laughs.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tim Roth
Director: Julius Onah
Sales Agents: CAA, Endeavor Content
Why Buyers Are Circling: Onah adapted this script from a play by JC Lee about a North African child soldier adopted by a suburban white family. After ten years in their care, he is an all-star student and beloved in the community. A term paper assigned by a teacher, however, suggests he has lingering radical views on political violence. The conversations about race, identity and morals that play out in the film remain all too relevant, making this film feel vital and important.
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pine, John Cho, Kristen Stewart
Director: Garret Price
Sales Agent: UTA
Why Buyers Are Circling: It’s been nearly three years since the tragic death of actor Anton Yelchin at the age of 27. A rare talent, he was beloved for his work in “Like Crazy” and “Star Trek.” Here, filmmaker Price reveals a dedicated young performer whose parents went to great lengths to help him achieve his dreams. Co-stars such as Jennifer Lawrence open up about their experiences on set, and audiences will inevitably be moved to tears by this tribute to a great performer gone too soon.