Sundance Film Festival 2013 preview: Minnesota filmmakers join the star-studded throng

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Starting on Thursday, January 17 and running through Sunday, January 27, the 2013 Sundance Film Festival will take place in Park City, Utah (and in a few surrounding cities, including Salt Lake City). Streets are closed, theater doors are unlocked, grocery stores and restaurants are packed—this is all the craziness that occurs when somewhere between 40,000-50,000 people attend the opening weekend of the biggest film festival in the United States.

Once again, I’ll be out in Park City for a week (barely eating and sleeping), covering the festival for Twin Cities Daily Planet. It is hard to believe this will be my fifth year writing on the festival; each year, I learn something new while out there, whether it be standing in line all bundled up or sitting in my chair either next to a local person, another journalist, or even, in one case, a star of one of the films I’m about to sit down and watch. You never know what surprises will be discovered but when they are, it is a thrilling feeling. This time last year, Beasts of the Southern Wild was barely on my radar; before its premiere, nobody was talking about it. A year later, the film has been nominated for four Oscars.

Sundance has 19 categories into which most of its programming falls: U.S. Dramatic Competition, U.S. Documentary Competition, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, World Cinema Documentary Competition, Premieres, Documentary Premieres, Spotlight (films that premiered at other 2012 film festivals, including two Oscar-nominated films in this year’s program: the Chilean Best Foreign language film No, opening in the Twin Cities on March 8; and Oscar-nominated Documentary The Gatekeepers, opening in the Twin Cities on March 1), NEXT (low-budget and innovative storytelling), and Park City at Midnight. This also includes the eight shorts programs (documentary, animation, and live action), the New Frontier program (multimedia, live art installations, panel discussions, and new media technologies presentations), and the New Frontier films (more experimental and avant garde fare)—which has grown significantly over the past few years.

There are also a few Minnesotans who have projects out at Sundance this year, including producer Steve Holmgren’s latest film I Used to Be Darker. Again working with director Matthew Porterfield (Putty Hill), Holmgren is featured in the NEXT category. Minnesotan screenwriter Michael Starrbury’s feature The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, directed by George Tillman Jr. (Men of Honor, Notorious), will screen in the Premieres section and stars Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie, and Jeffrey Wright. Three Minnesotans also have short films screening, including Hisham Bizri’s, Sirocco; Chris Mars’s In Hanford (yes, that Chris Mars); and Tom Schroeder’s Marcel, King of Tervurn.

Assembling a daily schedule for Sundance can take weeks, and usually changes within the first few hours of finally settling in. Word from publicists on interview and ticket requests can come at a moment’s notice and when it happens, you start out on a completely different path, but for the most part it works out for the best. If nothing were to change in my schedule as I write this preview article, I will consume close to 40 films in one week—but something always changes.

There are plenty of returning and (first-time) American and International filmmakers showing their latest work at Sundance; many of the hot tickets for returning filmmakers include Richard Linklater (Before Midnight), Drake Doremus (Breathe In), Zal Batmanglij (The East), Michael Winterbottom (The Look of Love), David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche), Park Chan-wook (Stoker), Lynn Shelton (Touchy Feely), Cherien Dabis (May in the Summer), Alex Gibney (We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks), Shane Carruth (Upstream Color), Jeff Nichols (Mud) and James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now). On the list of new directors premiering feature-length films are Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon’s Addiction), David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G.), Ben Wheatley (Sightseers), Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell) and Dave Grohl (Sound City).

While there are close to 50 films that I have highlighted to see and so many with unexpected potential or expected promise, here are five films I’m really looking forward to checking out at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (all synopses provided by Sundance Institute).

The film with the most intrigue and uncertainty: Don Jon’s Addiction, directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “In Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s charming directorial and screenwriting debut, a selfish modern day Don Juan attempts to change his ways. The film co-stars Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, and Tony Danza.”

The film with a hopeful promise return to form: Prince Avalanche, directed by David Gordon Green. “Two highway road workers spend the summer of 1988 away from their city lives.  The isolated landscape becomes a place of misadventure as the men find themselves at odds with each other and the women they left behind.  The film co-stars Paul Rudd and Emilie Hirsch.”

The film with the biggest breakout potential: C.O.G., directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez.  “In the first-ever adaptation of David Sedaris’s work, a cocky young man travels to Oregon to work on an apple farm. Out of his element, he finds his lifestyle and notions being picked apart by everyone who crosses his path. The film co-stars Jonathan Groff, Denis O’Hare, Dean Stockwell, and Casey Wilson.”

The film you cannot miss: Touchy Feely, directed by Lynn Shelton. “A massage therapist is unable to do her job when stricken with a mysterious and sudden aversion to bodily contact. Meanwhile, her uptight brother’s foundering dental practice receives new life when clients seek out his ‘healing touch.’ The film co-stars Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page, Allison Janney and Ron Livingston.”

The film that could be the sleeper hit: I Used to Be Darker, directed by Matthew Porterfield.  “A runaway seeks refuge with her aunt in Baltimore, only to find their marriage ending and her cousin in crisis.  In the days that follow, the family struggles to let go while searching for things to sustain them. The film co-stars Deragh Campbell, Hannah Gross, and Kim Taylor.”