The films that debuted at Sundance last year were a particularly strong group, including Manchester by the Sea, Little Men, Christine, Certain Women and O.J.: Made in America, to say nothing of the festival’s hottest—and ultimately most divisive attraction—Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. At first glance, the 2017 lineup doesn’t look quite as buzzy, but that may mean the real gems will be the movies we aren’t even anticipating yet. With that in mind, here are ten of the festival’s most intriguing films. With any luck, this list will only scratch the surface of the treasures yet to be unearthed.
The Big Sick
If you’re looking for a feel-good breakout hit, a good bet may be this star-studded comedy, starring Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley), who wrote the script with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, based on their own experience. The Big Sick observes what happens when a Pakistani-American (Nanjiani) and his American girlfriend (Zoe Kazan) try to negotiate cultural differences in their relationship. Produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Michael Showalter (who’s on a hot streak with Hello, My Name Is Doris and the TBS series Search Party), the film will also focus on the world of stand-up comedy, and the supporting cast includes Holly Hunter, Ray Romano and Anupam Kher.
Call Me By Your Name
Fresh off last year’s lusty romantic drama A Bigger Splash, Italian director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) has once again made a movie about affairs of the heart. Call Me by Your Name stars Armie Hammer as an American scholar who travels to Italy in the early 1980s and falls in love with a local teen (Timothée Chalamet). Sony Pictures Classics has signed on to release this adaptation of the André Aciman novel, and the expectation is that Guadagnino has concocted another intelligent, passionate art-house hit. The Sony acquisition might not seem like that big of a deal, but in the festival world, this announcement signals to attendees Call Me By Your Name is a must-see movie. In 2014, Sony revealed that they had picked up the festival’s opening-night movie Whiplash, which ultimately led to three Oscar wins a little more than a year after its Sundance premiere.
Short Term 12 was a launch pad for future Oscar-winner Brie Larson, but it was also the debut of Lakeith Stanfield as a talented but troubled resident under Larson’s care. Stanfield has since been great in everything from Dope to Straight Outta Compton to FX’s Atlanta, but Crown Heights looks to be the biggest starring vehicle of his young career. Based on a true story, Stanfield plays Colin Warner, a Brooklyn native who in 1980 was sent to prison for a murder he didn’t commit. A gripping real-life tale combined with a hot star on the rise could make Crown Heights one of the big discoveries of this year’s festival.
Charlie McDowell is one of several Sundance alums returning to the festival this year. His trippy 2014 marital drama The One I Love, which starred Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a flailing couple on an unusual romantic getaway, played with “what-if” questions about encountering a different version of our long-term partner. His new film also focuses on an intriguing scenario: How would people behave if they knew definitively that the afterlife existed? The Discovery stars Jason Segel as a prodigal son who reunites with his physicist father (Sundance founder Robert Redford), who has found proof of a world beyond this existence. With Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons and Riley Keough rounding out the cast, The Discovery possesses one of the festival’s most captivating plotlines, now let’s see how McDowell executes it.
A Ghost Story
Four years ago, Texas filmmaker David Lowery came to the world’s attention with his second feature, the moody crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which starred a murderers’ row of respected actors: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Rami Malek and The Birth of a Nation’s Nate Parker. The film and the director were breakout hits at the festival—Lowery was also an editor on another buzzy movie that year, Upstream Color—and he parlayed this attention into a deal at Disney to direct last year’s deliberately old-fashioned remake of Pete’s Dragon. Now he returns to Sundance with A Ghost Story, which is headed up by Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ romantic leads, Mara and Affleck. This time, Affleck plays a ghost trapped on Earth observing his lover (Mara) as she silently mourns his recent passing. This unconventional love story has already been scooped up by A24, which was responsible for some of last year’s best art-house offerings (The Lobster, American Honey, Moonlight), so anticipation is high.
In a few short years, Alex Ross Perry has become one of our best young chroniclers of everyday angst. In The Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, Perry has probed the uncomfortable relationships between siblings, mentors and protégés, and once-close friends. Perry’s prickly observational powers are on full display in his new film, his first to compete in the U.S. Dramatic section. Golden Exits stars Emily Browning as an Australian recently moved to New York, whose presence wreaks havoc on the two dysfunctional families. There’s always an emotional rawness to Perry’s films that can be shocking or funny, and the setup for his latest promises more of the bracing candor about life’s inherent unhappiness that we’ve come to expect from him.
It’s always fun to spotlight a festival film that could either be amazing or a total train wreck. This year, that movie could be Novitiate, about a young woman in the 1950s who decides she wants to devote her life to God. The feature debut of writer-director Maggie Betts stars up-and-comer Margaret Qualley, (The Leftovers, The Nice Guys) and promises to be a serious investigation into faith and sexism in the Catholic Church. After the commercial disappointment of Silence, studios may not be clamoring for more religious dramas, but this tale of a nun’s arduous journey to find transcendence could be a breakout at the festival—a possibility helped by the presence of Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson and Morgan Saylor (White Girl) in the supporting cast.
The directorial debut of Yance Ford is a documentary that examines the repercussions of the murder of his brother, William: In 1992, this young black man was killed during an argument with a white mechanic, who claimed his act was in self-defense. The mechanic wasn’t convicted, and Strong Island is the chronicle of how Yance and his mother have coped with their sorrow ever since. The festival’s press guide boasts that “Strong Island invents a startling cinematic language to penetrate this devastating collision of paralysis, grief, fear, racism, and injustice,” and while it’s always important to take such proclamations with a grain of salt, it does at least suggest that Ford has attempted to craft an unpredictable, ambitious documentary about some heavy themes. Sundance’s U.S. Documentary slate often deals with issues ripped from today’s headlines, and Strong Island could resonate in the age of Black Lives Matter.
Woody Harrelson is a perpetually underrated actor. He remains a big star, thanks to the Now You See Me and Hunger Games franchises, but tends to stay away from the spotlight so that when he’s in something, we’re reminded of how much we like him. (He’ll also star in this summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes.) Harrelson did great work in Triple 9 and The Edge of Seventeen last year, and he stays in low-budget mode for Wilson, his biggest starring vehicle since 2012’s Rampart. The film is a big-screen adaptation of the graphic novel from Daniel Clowes, who was also responsible for Ghost World and Art School Confidential, and Harrelson plays a real S.O.B. who discovers he has a teenage daughter. Wilson’s trailer promises lots of misanthropic humor, and Fox Searchlight is set to release the film on March 24. With a sterling supporting cast that includes Laura Dern, Margo Martindale, and Judy Grier, this comedy looks to be several cuts above the typical Bad Santa fare, and it’s directed by Craig Johnson, who last made the Sundance hit The Skeleton Twins.
The Yellow Birds
Sundance is a place that often catches rising filmmakers and actors, just as they’re about to have a major moment. The Yellow Birds might sound somewhat conventional—it’s about an Iraq War veteran returning home who’s trying to absorb what he saw on the battlefield—but what raises its profile are the people responsible for it. Director Alexandre Moors last made the dark, D.C. sniper drama Blue Caprice, that received a lot of attention out of Sundance’s NEXT section, which features under-the-radar talents, and his new movie’s placement in the prestigious U.S. Dramatic competition suggests the festival’s faith in his creative maturation. The soldier is played by young Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich, so great in last year’s Hail, Caesar!, but with The Yellow Birds, he’ll be looking to remind audiences that he’s also a first-rate dramatic actor. (And, to prove what a small world Sundance can be, The Yellow Birds is co-written by A Ghost Story’s David Lowery.)
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site