by Tim Gordon
Jon Hamm, Daisy Ridley and Chiwetel Ejiofor headline a notable list of films that will compete in the Premiere category this year in the Sundance Film Festival.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture
(Director: David Wain; screenwriters: John Aboud & Michael Colton) – The National Lampoon name became globally recognized after the monumental success of Animal House—but before the glory days, it was a scrappy yet divinely subversive magazine and radio show that introduced the world to comedic geniuses like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner. The driving force behind National Lampoon was Doug Kenney (Will Forte), and his truly wild and crazy story unfolds in A Futile and Stupid Gesture from Harvard to Hollywood to Caddyshack and beyond.
A Kid Like Jake
(Director: Silas Howard; screenwriter: Daniel Pearle) – Loving parents Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons) are faced with the daunting task of applying to private kindergartens in NYC for their 4-year-old, Jake. Competing in this cutthroat environment means focusing on what is most unique about a child, forcing Alex and Greg to consider Jake’s love of dresses, fairy tales, and princesses. These qualities never seemed unusual before, but when Jake begins to act out in preschool, Alex and Greg—suddenly at odds—must find a way to support Jake’s identity without losing each other in the process.
(Director: Brad Anderson; screenwriter: Tony Gilroy) – Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a top U.S. diplomat, left Lebanon in the 1970s after a tragic incident. Ten years later, the CIA calls him back to a war-torn Beirut with a mission only he can accomplish. Meanwhile, a CIA field agent who is working undercover at the American embassy is tasked with keeping Skiles alive and ensuring that the mission is a success. Without knowing who is on his side and with lives on the line, Skiles must outmaneuver everyone to expose the truth.
(Director: Wash Westmoreland; screenwriter: Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer & Rebecca Lenkiewicz) – Colette is arguably one of France’s most important and groundbreaking twentieth-century writers, and her dozens of volumes of provocative fiction, memoirs, journalism, and drama jubilantly bucked the societal constraints that were placed on women. Writer/director Wash Westmoreland’s mesmerizing film tells the story of this iridescent artist’s creative awakening in turn-of-the-century Paris—a place as dynamic and modern as she was.
(Director: Joshua Marston; screenwriter: Marcus Hinchey) – Every Sunday, Bishop Carlton Pearson—evangelical megastar, brilliant orator, and television host with millions of followers—preaches the fundamentalist gospel to six thousand supplicants at his Higher Dimensions Church. He’s the pride and joy of his spiritual father, Oral Roberts, and the toast of Tulsa. One day, rattled by an uncle’s suicide and distraught by reports of the Rwandan Genocide, Pearson receives an epiphany. Suddenly it’s crystal clear—God loves all humankind; everyone is already saved, whether Christian or not; and there is no hell. But these ideas are heretical, violating sacrosanct doctrines.
(Director and screenwriter: David Zellner & Nathan Zellner) – It’s a classic tale of the Old West: Samuel Alabaster is a man searching for his true love. Parson Henry is another, much drunker man, searching for a new start. Penelope is a woman who has found her own path. And Rufus Cornell is just a mean bastard with a taste for buckskin. There’s rotgut, rawhide, rootin’, tootin’, and hootin’. Plus, a little tiny horse.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot
(Director and screenwriter: Gus Van Sant) – John Callahan has a lust for life, a knack for off-color jokes, and a drinking problem. When an all-night bender ends in a catastrophic car accident, John wakes up to the reality of being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. In his journey back from rock bottom, his honesty and wicked sense of humor turn out to be his saving grace, as he makes friends with an oddball AA group, finds that love is not beyond his reach, and develops a talent for drawing irreverent and sometimes shocking cartoons.
Hearts Beat Loud
(Director: Brett Haley; screenwriter: Brett Haley & Marc Basch) – As single dad Frank (Nick Offerman) prepares to send hardworking daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) off to UCLA pre-med, he also reluctantly realizes he has to accept that his own record-store business is failing. Hoping to stay connected with his daughter through their shared love of music, he urges her to turn their weekly “jam sesh” into an actual band. Channeling Sam’s resistance into a band name, they unexpectedly find We’re Not a Band’s first song turning into a minor Spotify hit, and they use their songwriting efforts to work through their feelings about the life changes each of them faces.
(Director Jesse Peretz; screenwriters: Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Phil Alden Robinson & Evgenia Peretz) – Annie is stuck in a long-term relationship with Duncan—an obsessive fan of obscure rocker Tucker Crowe. Duncan is far more devoted to his music idol than to Annie. When the acoustic demo of Tucker’s hit record from 25 years ago surfaces, it leads to a life-changing encounter between Annie and the elusive rocker himself.
Leave No Trace
(Director: Debra Granik; screenwriters: Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini) – For years Will and his teenage daughter, Tom, have lived off the grid, blissfully undetected by authorities in a vast nature reserve on the edge of Portland, Oregon. When a chance encounter blows their cover, they’re removed from their camp and put into the charge of social services. Struggling to adapt to their new surroundings, Will and Tom set off on a perilous journey back to the wilderness, where they are finally forced to confront conflicting desires—a longing for community versus a fierce need to live apart.
(Director: Claire McCarthy; screenwriter: Semi Chellas) – Something is rotten in medieval-era Denmark, where political intrigue swirls around the imperial court like dark magic. Amid it all, the queen’s brightest lady-in-waiting, Ophelia, finds herself drawn to Hamlet, the charismatic and elusive crown prince. As their secretive love affair takes flight, betrayal strikes the court, threatening to derail their union and devastate the royal family for good. Caught between her desires and her loyalty, Ophelia has to decide where her devotion will ultimately lie.
(Director and screenwriter: Tamara Jenkins) – Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti) have been repeatedly trying to get pregnant, undergoing multiple fertility treatments while also exploring adoption and other options. As they hit obstacles and face up to the reality of their chances, their strained marriage seems to be further than ever from completing the elusive path to parenthood. An unexpected Hail Mary arrives in the form of their step-niece Sadie (Kayli Carter), a recent college dropout who crashes on their couch and might just prove to be the last, unconventional piece of their fertility puzzle.
(Director: Marc Turtletaub; screenwriter: Oren Moverman) – Agnes has been a devoted housewife for decades, living a quietly sheltered life in suburban Connecticut. When she’s gifted a thousand-piece puzzle for her birthday, Agnes finally discovers something she’s passionate about and unusually skilled at. Her hobby gradually evolves into a quest for self-awareness and leads her to team up with Robert, a fellow maverick who introduces her to an unexpected world of puzzle competitions. Agnes is soon swapping household chores for secretive train rides to New York City, where Robert helps her unlock a desire to finally march to the beat of her own drum for the first time in her life.
The Catcher Was a Spy
(Director: Ben Lewin; screenwriter: Robert Rodat) – In the midst of World War II, major league catcher Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) is drafted to join a new team: the Office of Security Services (the precursor to the CIA). No ordinary ballplayer, the erudite, Jewish Ivy League graduate speaks nine languages and is a regular guest on a popular TV quiz show. Despite his celebrity, Berg is an enigmatic man with a knack for keeping secrets. The novice spy is quickly trained and sent into the field to stop German scientist Werner Heisenberg before he can build an atomic bomb for the Nazis.
The Happy Prince
(Director and screenwriter: Rupert Everett) – Rupert Everett writes, directs, and stars in his moving debut feature, detailing the final three years (1897–1900) in the life of Oscar Wilde. Rich in period detail and eschewing the familiar narrative of the writer’s notorious trial and imprisonment on charges of indecency, this seldom-told story recounts Wilde’s life following his release from incarceration—a period encompassing some of his most profound writing and most intimate experiences.
The Long Dumb Road
(Director: Hannah Fidell; screenwriters: Hannah Fidell & Carson Mell) – Not far down the highway from his childhood home in Texas, Nathan’s car breaks down on the drive to his freshman year of art school in Los Angeles. Richard, a local mechanic, agrees to fix the car as long as Nathan helps Richard escape his bastard of a boss. On the way out of town, Richard pounds a road beer or three, sparks a joint, and begins to question why young Nathan is lacking a clear philosophy about the rest of his life. As they venture on, these two strangers will battle through bar fights, heartache, and many more unfortunate detours to make it to their next destinations in life.
What They Had
(Director and screenwriter: Elizabeth Chomko) – During a bout of dementia, Ruth (Blythe Danner) gets out of bed at night and wanders off into a blizzard. Ruth’s brief disappearance triggers the homecoming of her daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) and teenage granddaughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga). The episode also renews lifelong tensions between stubborn patriarch Burt (Robert Forster) and estranged son Nicky (Michael Shannon). As they all debate placing Ruth into a memory-care facility, family ties begin to fray, rekindling a rivalry between the adult siblings.