Five or six years ago, the Sundance Film Festival was more famous for showing dozens of worthy, politically correct movies that instantly disappeared than the odd breakout hits that it spawned, which previously included the likes of The Blair Witch Project, Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi. Recently, however, the festival has become an excellent launching ground for low-budget movies from across the world, with the 2009 event showcasing the likes of British indie hits Moon and In The Loop and starting the awards momentum for two very different rites of passage movies: An Education and Precious, both tipped for Academy Award/BAFTA success. This year, under the stewardship of new artistic director John Cooper, Sundance shows no sign of slowing down, as its 2010 choices seem to suggest. RT picks 10 we’re keen to see, in strictly alphabetical order.
Buried – Sundance wouldn’t be Sundance without a low-budget shocker featuring a very twisted, claustrophobic conceit, and following the likes of Saw and Cube comes Buried, an Iraq-set thrill-chiller in which a civilian contractor is kidnapped by insurgents and wakes up to find himself buried alive in a coffin, with just a cellphone, a candle and a knife to hand. Co-starring absolutely nobody else, Buried promises to be both a gruelling study of terror and tension and a much-deserved vehicle for the underrated Ryan Reynolds, who has yet to find his proper place in Hollywood after a series of ill-advised romcoms.
The Extra Man – Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini made a big splash with their Sundance hit American Splendor — and then promptly blotted it with the poorly-received The Nanny Diaries. This adaptation of an upscale novel by Jonathan Ames should undo the damage, starring Paul Dano as a struggling writer who leaves his teacing job and moves to New York, where he falls for a co-worker (Katie Holmes) and moves in with a crazy playwright (Kevin Kline) who makes ends meet by working as an escort for rich women in the Upper East Side. A mentor-pupil relationship blossoms, but whatever chemistry exists between Kline and Dano will doubtless be overlooked in the media if Holmes’ superstar spouse turns up.
Four Lions – After In The Loop‘s warm reception in 2009, Armando Iannucci‘s old friend Christopher Morris tries his hand there with this uncomfortable black comedy about a team of British suicide bombers. Self-billed as a “comedy of terror”, Morris’s big-screen debut is unlikely to make many easy friends with the tabloids by looking for laughs in a still very painful subject. Still, it seems the film is the result of surprisingly in-depth research by Morris, who concluded that religious fanatics have their bad days like the rest of us. “As Spinal Tap understood heavy metal and Dr Strangelove the Cold War,” says the film’s production company, Warp Films, “Four Lions understands modern British jihadis.”
Hesher – A Sundance veteran at the ripe young age of 28, Joseph Gordon-Levitt follows last year’s surprise hit  Days Of Summer with yet another change of style. After proving he can do standard leading man stuff, Gordon-Levitt here disappears under a beard, wig and some pretty terrible tattoos to play Hesher (pictured, in his pants), a 20-something metalhead stoner who befriends a young boy who’s coming to terms with his mother’s death. Natalie Portman, who also produced, co-stars as a supermarket worker who befriends the boy in the feature debut from Spencer Susser, director of the 2001 Star Wars-themed short R2-D2: Beneath The Dome.
Howl – James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in this ambitious docudrama about the legal wrangles that faced the gay Beat writer when his landmark poem Howl was tried for obscenity in San Francisco in 1957. Details are still sketchy — Franco’s performance may be part of a reconstruction within a traditional documentary frame — and there is even talk of animation being used, but it’s clear that Howl will focus on the younger Ginsberg and the ramifications of the trial, which raised serious questions about censorship, rather than his life story: Beat historians will note that the cast list includes a Jack Kerouac and a Neal Cassady but no William S Burroughs (who left the US at the start of the decade after shooting his wife), suggesting the film will focus on a very slim period of time.
The Killer Inside Me – The hardboiled crime novels of Jim Thompson have had a tough time translating to film, with only Stephen Frears‘ The Grifters coming close to his dark and sleazy stylings. Filmed once before with Stacy Keach, The Killer Inside Me is perhaps Thompson’s best known book, telling the story of a seemingly innocuous smalltown sheriff who hides a psychopathic secret. For Michael Winterbottom‘s adaptation, set in a shimmering 50s-style West Texas, The Assassination Of Jesse James star Casey Affleck plays the sadistic, two-faced sheriff and Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba play the broads. Meanwhile, for support, you can’t ask for better character players than Ned Beatty, Bill Pullman and Elias Koteas.
Lucky – After the spelling-bee documentary Spellbound and the debating society comedy Rocket Science, in which he discovered Up in the Air‘s breakout star Anna Kendrick, Jeffrey Blitz returns to non-fiction with this study of the effects of massive wins on people who enter lotteries. “In some ways I think Lucky is a kind of anti-Spellbound,” Blitz tells RT. “That’s not to say that it’s all doom and gloom, because it certainly isn’t. But if Spellbound was about people working hard toward a seemingly impossible goal, this movie is about the opposite — people whose lives transform utterly and wholly without the slightest effort. For me, they kind of lock together like that.”
Splice – The ingenious, high-tech corporate conspiracy thriller Cypher didn’t quite break director Vincenzo Natali into the mainstream, but the more explicitly horror-themed Splice — showing in Sundance’s genre-friendly Midnight strand — might find him a welcoming cult audience. A cautionary tale set in the world of modern genetics, it stars Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as a pair of scientists who play dangerous games with human and animal DNA. But though it features state of the art effects, the film has been hailed as a return to the bizarre, intelligent psychological sci-fi style pioneered by David Cronenberg in the 80s, most notably in his classic remake of The Fly.
Sympathy for Delicious – It’s a well known fact that everybody in the world likes Mark Ruffalo, and after a few years away in mainstream Hollywood (his last Sundance appearance was with 2004’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore), he returns with his directing debut. Christopher Thornton stars as ‘Delicious’ Dean O’Dwyer, an LA DJ who is confined to a wheelchair after an accident that leaves him paralysed. Delicious finds that he has the healing touch, a gift that only benefits others, but the DJ sees a way to fulfill his rock’n’roll fantasies in a dark comedy that also marks the return of Orlando Bloom as the tattooed, buff rocker who helps him.
Welcome to the Rileys – Kristen Stewart was a festival newbie in 2009 with the achingly Sundance indie Adventureland, and she clearly liked it so much she’s going back with two more. The Runaways, in which she plays femme rocker Joan Jett, tells the story of America’s most famous all-girl rock’n’roll band. Welcome to the Rileys, however, might be the one to scandalise the Twilight fans, since KStew is rumoured to be doing her first nude scene, playing a teenage lapdancer who befriends a lonely businessman (James Gandolfini). Melissa Leo, who received an Oscar nomination for her role in 2008 Sundance winner Frozen River, plays his wife, who is struggling to come to terms with the death of their daughter.
Sundance Film Festival runs January 21st to 31st in Park City, Utah.