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Sundance 2012 Recap: 10 Films to Watch For

The Sundance Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday, and while there were dozens and dozens of movies making their debut, we've managed to pare down a fantastic crop of films to the 10 we're most looking forward to seeing in theaters this year. The 2012 festival included a internet meme-turned big screen comedy, a tribute to one of the biggets bands of the last decade and the most acclaimed action movie in years.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

This year's Grand Jury Prize winner wasn't typical Sundance fare. Benh Zeitlin's 
Beasts of the Southern Wild follows a little girl named Hushpuppy who lives near the edge of the world and must fight illness, melting polar ice caps, and vicious creatures called aurochs if she's to ever find her mother. It also sounds like a coming-of-age story, which will undoubtedly bring an emotional hook to the bizarre story. Regardless, something with such an original premise could perform well, especially with the indie kings at Fox Searchlight behind it. ~John


Kirsten Dunst might have shu up many of her naysayers with her revelatory performance in Melancholia, but can she win over audiences in a comedy? She’ll be in good company when audiences find out, as she stars alongside Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan in Bachelorette. The marital comedy finds the ladies playing a clique of surly party girls who get a reality check when the girl they used to pick on in high school asks the unhitched trio to be her bridesmaids.

With a familiar premise and a willingness to let its leading ladies get into the crasser sides of comedy, it’ll be next to impossible for Bachelorette to avoid comparisons to Bridesmaids. That could well be to the film’s benefit, as the good will (and cash) generated by last year’s break-out comedy may be all it takes to get people interested in another female-led raunch fest.

Leslye Headland writes and directs, and she proved sharp as a tack when scripting for the criminally unwatched Terriers. Combine that with a setup that has shades of The Hangover sprinkled in and this could be one of the biggest money-makers to premiere at the festival. ~Sam

Safety Not Guaranteed

Here's a bizarre one, with a plot that's ripped from the headlines (Internet headlines, to be specific). Remember that meme about the guy who took out a personal ad looking for someone to travel through time with? Colin Tervorrow's film follows a young journalist (the hilariously deadpan Aubrey Plaza) as she tracks down this guy, Kenneth Calloway (indie hero Mark Duplass), for an interview—or more. The film was picked up by FilmDistrct and promises to be very funny. Consider us sold. ~John


Sundance is always the place for directors with smaller, more personal dramas to show their work and pick up some steam, but it never hurts to have a stellar cast on hand to spark the conversation. James Ponsoldt’s Smashed asks viewers to come for the cast of rising stars and award winners, but stay for a wrenching tale of addiction and relationships.

The film stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul playing a married couple as in love with each other as they are the bottle. When one tries to put an end to their hard-drinking ways, the relationship comes to a crossroad as the dulled ease of intoxication gives way to the struggle of staying sober when the ones you love won’t.

Winstead and Paul are both on the cusp of big-screen stardom, and Academy Award nominee Octavia Spencer is on board to add some dramatic heft. And with a substance as potentially comical as alcohol, it won’t hurt to have the very funny Megan Mullally in tow with husband Nick “Ron Swanson” Offerman. It might sound a touch sombre, but such material was well explored by the 2010 short Successful Alcoholics (it’s online if you have 25 minutes well worth spending) that was also a Sundance favorite. ~Sam   

Here's another ripped from the headlines film, though this one is very serious. Based on a series of crimes during the mid-2000s, the film takes place at a fictional fast-food restaurant and focuses on a boss who has been told one of her young, attractive employees has stolen money from a customer. The boss follows the instructions of the "police" on the phone, who tell her to search the employee thoroughly. The film appears to be as scandalous as the events upon which it is based. Reviews are strong, but it's been called disturbing, and it generated multiple walkouts during screenings at the festival. Compliance is a Magnolia Pictures acquisition. ~John

Shut Up and Play the Hits

People have called James Murphy one of the smartest men in the music, and it’s hard to disagree when he made sure to follow industry rule #1: live fast and die young. Well, he’s not dead, but his band, LCD Soundsystem, sure is. The electronic/dance band released three acclaimed albums over the '00s, only for Murphy to up and end the band out of nowhere early last year.

But rather than end on a whimper, Murphy and his band mates made their last live performance as LCD Soundsystem a show for the ages, and Pulse films was there to capture the whole thing. Shut Up and Play the Hits mixes high-quality recordings of the Madison Square Garden farewell concert with footage of Murphy before and after the show to give a better understanding of why the band’s mastermind pulled the ripcord as soon as he did.

The engagement had many of the 20,000 goers dressed in funeral attire but dancing like they’d never get the chance again, and the show quickly became the “you had to be there” music event of 2011. Fans will surely flock to the film and those late to the party might be looking at a corpse, but there’s no doubt it’ll be a beautiful one. ~Sam

Liberal Arts

The two stars of this film, Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Olsen, are follow up their critically-acclaimed breakouts, happythankyoumoreplease and Martha Marcy May Marlene respectively, with this crowd-pleaser about a man who goes back to college in his 30s and falls for a young undergrad. It's certainly a test of Olsen's versatility, as she transitions away from the title character of 2011's Sundance darling. Radnor, meanwhile, is looking to prove himself behind the camera once again, and general consensus out of the festival is quite positive. Liberal Arts was picked up by IFC Films. ~John

The Raid
This one is a bit of a cheat, as The Raid has been making the film festival circuits well sooner than Sundance. It sticks out among the more traditional crop of personal dramas, indie comedies and niche documentaries, but another batch of rave reviews for the Indonesian action-extravaganza have got our already high hopes reaching critical levels.

Set in the slums of Jakarta, the film finds a police squad infiltrating an apartment complex that houses some of the world’s deadliest criminals and lowlifes. The stealth mission goes haywire, as they so often do, and what was to be a simple extraction becomes an all-out battle for survival.

Critics have been praising director Gareth Evan’s masterful fight scenes that combine full automatic shoot-outs with fast-paced fisticuffs. Even better, there’s said to be a level of emotional depth that’s uncharacteristic for such a visceral thrill ride. Expectations are indeed high, as it’s been a long time since there was an action movie almost everyone could get behind. ~Sam


Robot and Frank

High-concept science-fiction films typically sound promising, but they don't always end up working (see 
In Time). Robot and Frank, by most accounts, is a charmer through and through. Frank Langella (of Frost/Nixon fame) stars as a retired cat burglar in the future whose main company is a robot caretaker (voiced by Peter Saarsgard). Unhappy with the situation at first, Frank's attitude changes when he realizes Robot is the perfect partner for his next and possibly final heist. The film was picked up by Sony, which means it could see a fairly wide release sometime this year. ~John

The Surrogate

The awards at Sundance are often a crapshoot when it comes to predicting what films will make it big once they’re outside the festival scene. Winning the Audience Award can make for a great launch pad (as it did for Precious and Hustle and Flow) or become the only limelight a film gets its entire existence (The Wackness, Circumstance). But this year’s winner, The Surrogate, has a secret weapon at its disposal: John Hawkes.

The 52-year-old Hawkes turned heads with his chilling Oscar-nominated supporting performance in Winter’s Bone, a feat that proved no fluke, as evidenced by a similarly sinister turn in last year’s Sundance darling Martha Marcy May Marlene. Now, Hawkes is headlining The Surrogate, which has him playing a polio-stricken poet looking to end his virginity at the ripe age of 38.  

Being on an iron lung doesn’t make a relationship easy, so Hawke’s character hires a therapeutic sex-worker (played by Helen Hunt), who proves more of an introduction to intimacy than a means to an end. Playing a character afflicted with a disease is among the juiciest of Oscar-bait, but that hasn’t stopped early reviews from embracing Hawkes’ captivating performance and the film’s sweet but grounded examination of sex. ~Sam



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