When the 40th edition of the Sundance Film Festival opens on Jan. 18, filmmakers ranging from veterans like Steven Soderbergh to newcomers like the acclaimed painter Titus Kaphar and the rising director Sean Wang will debut new work. Their movies are among 82 features representing 24 countries, a lineup that serves as a snapshot of the current state of independent cinema, which has long been challenged by distribution difficulties and financing struggles.
The films, chosen from 4,410 submissions, include some intriguing starry entries. Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun play, in ways that aren’t clear, a buoy and a satellite that fall in love in “Love Me,” while the Zellner brothers’ darkly comedic family drama “Sasquatch Sunset” features Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough personifying sasquatches, which Eisenberg said in a recent interview come replete with extra body hair and lots of grunts.
Eugene Hernandez, officially the festival director for the first time this year, said, “I’m super excited that international independent storytelling feels so vital and risky and bold and adventurous.” He added, “There are really big swings and bold choices, and that’s coming from established directors who have a history with the festival but also from this new class of discoveries.”
Soderbergh and Sundance have been intertwined since his “Sex, Lies and Videotape” debuted there in 1989, a transformative moment for independent film, when a new aesthetic of simple sets and provocative subject matter became cornerstones.
This year, he will premiere “Presence,” starring Lucy Liu and Julia Fox, about a family that moves into a suburban home and discovers they are not alone. Hernandez called it “as fresh and inventive as anything he’s made in his career.”
Another Sundance veteran, Richard Linklater, will show “God Save Texas,” an anthology documentary series that highlights his perspective on his home state as well as that of his fellow filmmakers Alex Stapleton and Iliana Sosa.
Other high-profile documentaries include “Girls State,” a companion piece to “Boys State” from Apple, and fresh takes on the musical acts Devo and Luther Vandross. “Will & Harper,” from the “Strays” director, Josh Greenbaum, chronicles Will Ferrell’s road trip across America with Harper Steele, a “Saturday Night Live” veteran and his close friend of 30 years who is coming out as a trans woman.
First-time filmmakers make up 40 percent of this year’s program, with anticipation building for Wang, a Sundance Institute alumnus, whose “Didi” centers on an impressionable 13-year-old Taiwanese American boy. Kaphar, 47, a MacArthur Fellowship winner, who is known for provocative paintings of historical figures, will debut his first film, “Exhibiting Forgiveness” starring André Holland and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. Both movies are appearing in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
Since the pandemic began, Sundance has offered a digital version of the festival. This year, some titles will become available on Jan. 25, including all the films in competition. “This will allow people from everywhere in the U.S. to participate and engage with the festival,” said Joana Vicente, the Sundance Institute chief executive.
Eighty percent of the films don’t have distribution yet, including “Between the Temples,” from Nathan Silver (“The Great Pretender”). It tracks a cantor, played by Jason Schwartzman, who is having a crisis of faith when his grade-school music teacher (Carol Kane) re-enters his life as an adult bat mitzvah student. And “My Old Ass,” Megan Park’s second feature, stars Maisy Stella (“Nashville) as a young woman who meets her older self during a mushroom trip the summer before college. Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap Entertainment, one of the companies behind “Barbie” and “Saltburn,” produced it.
To Kim Yutani, the director of programming, the number of unsold films is a positive sign. “It’s really encouraging just to know that we can convene the industry in Park City and know that there’s a lot to be discovered and hopefully be bought and go on to meet other audiences beyond Sundance,” she said.
But filmmakers who overcame long odds to enter the festival may find it daunting to know they can still walk away without distribution. Last week, the two filmmakers behind “Fancy Dance,” a 2023 Sundance debut starring Lily Gladstone, who is having a moment with “Killers of the Flower Moon,” wrote a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter. It noted that their film, which received strong reviews, has still not sold. “We are left mystified by the disconnect between our apparent success and an industry-supported distribution push,” they wrote.
The same will probably be true for many of this year’s contenders. Yet, Yutani said, there should be more than one definition of success.
“A lot of filmmakers come in with very realistic expectations,” she said. “Some of them want representation, and we make very deliberate efforts to introduce our filmmakers to industry, whether they be acquisitions people or managers and agents. A lot of them see success at other festivals. There are so many different paths of success. Of course, the biggest ones are around those huge deals but there’s so much other activity that happens on the ground during the festival.”
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