The Sundance Film Festival is held every January in Park City, Utah. It is a place for indie and international filmmakers to show off their latest creations while giving studios a chance to bid for the rights to distribute. Lately it has also become the hotspot for filmmakers get an early start on Oscar buzz for their films, like Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash in 2014 and this year’s Manchester by the Sea. Both films gained steam at the festival and rode it all the way to awards season.
Sundance gives films a chance that otherwise might not have had one in Hollywood. These are the smaller pictures with more diverse casts and crews that tell the story of people whose voices aren’t usually heard. This year brought another strong batch of films that is sure to have people talking once they reach wider releases. Since there are so many films that come out, we’ve narrowed it down to a list of the 15 Most Anticipated Indie Movies Of 2017.
15. The Discovery
What if a scientist discovered the afterlife was real? How would that change the way you lived your life on earth? Or would you bother with life on earth at all? Those are the questions surrounding Netflix’s The Discovery. The film is one of six pictures Netflix bought before the festival began to showcase at Sundance.
With a cast featuring veteran actor and Sundance founder Robert Redford, Jason Segel in a more serious role than we’ve previously seen him in, festival queen Rooney Mara, as well Jesse Plemons and Riley Keough, the film definitely has some star power. The trailer sets the film’s eerie, almost supernatural tone.
It’s a twisty, thrilling sci-fi film from director Charlie McDowell. His previous film, The One I Love, premiered at Sundance in 2014 and featured Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a couple who meet their doppelgangers while on a retreat to fix their marriage. It looks like McDowell’s take on the idea of the afterlife will be equally topsy-turvy.
If you have nostalgia for the ’90s and a love a lady-led comedy, Landline is the film for you. It stars two sisters, played by newcomer Abby Quinn and indie comedian Jenny Slate, who discover their father is having an affair while dealing with their own issues. The film is a look at a dysfunctional family dynamic, discovering who you are, and relationship complexities of all kinds, set in a 1995 backdrop. The setting serves to make the film more intimate, a look at a simpler time with fewer external distractions.
Landline is the second film written and directed by Gillian Robespierre. She also wrote and directed Obvious Child, which which also starred Slate, as a stand-up comedian who plans to abort an unwanted pregnancy. With both of her films Robespierre wanted to tell stories about women who are “unapologetically themselves”.
13. Rebel in the Rye
It is a well-known fact that author J.D. Salinger did not want a Hollywood adaptation of his beloved Catcher in the Rye. So instead, Hollywood made a movie about his life and experience writing the classic novel called Rebel in the Rye. It follows Salinger, played by Nicholas Hoult, through his early years and experiences in World War II, as well of the writing of his famous novel. The film is written and directed by first-time film director and co-creator of Empire, Danny Strong.
Rebel in the Rye is gaining the most attention for the performance of Hoult as the cocky young Salinger, who later in life becomes a recluse due to PTSD. The film also stars Kevin Spacey as Salinger’s teacher and mentor, Whit Burnett, as well as Zoey Deutch as Oona O’Neill, who had a fling with the writer.
12. Casting JonBenet
Netflix captivated the internet with Making a Murderer and the studio returns to the true crime genre with the thought-provoking, genre-bending Casting JonBenet. The documentary does not focus on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, but rather the people auditioning to play the child beauty queen and her family members in a film version of the horrific event that might not actually exist. The doc is directed by Kitty Green, who previously made Ukraine is Not a Brothel.
Casting JonBenet wowed Sundance audiences with its unique look at our culture’s obsession with true crime and other people’s pain. Everyone has their own theory about how JonBenet died. Many of the actors have sad backstories themselves which help them connect to the tragedy of the Ramsey family. The film is darkly funny, juxtaposing the auditioning of children and adults with speculation about what really happened.
Columbus is the story of a young man named Jin, played by John Cho, who has come to Columbus, Indiana after his father fell into a coma. While there he meets Casey, played by Haley Lu Richardson, a 19 year old girl stuck in town out of obligation to her mother. The two bond over their love of the city’s architecture and find refuge from the problems of their everyday lives in conversation.
First-time director Kogonada impressed Sundance critics with his eye for capturing architecture. Columbus was praised for its stunning visuals and slow pace that creates an intimacy between the two strangers played by Cho and Richardson. This is the kind of film Sundance is made for: a brand new director, a comedic actor trying his hand at a more dramatic role, a young actress looking to break out. They all have a chance to shine in this film.
10. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore is another Netflix film by another first time director. (Sensing a pattern yet?) It stars Melanie Lynskey as Ruth, a woman who comes home one day to find her house has been broken into and her possessions stolen. When the police don’t take her case seriously she decides to take matters into her own hands with help from her neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood).
The trailer shows the film’s offbeat nature. It’s not quite a thriller and not really a comedy. Director and writer Macon Blair has created a unique story that captures a woman at her breaking point. I’m Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore seems to have come at a perfect moment with the message of ordinary people rolling up their sleeves to take back what belongs to them. Lynskey has been praised for her performance in the film with Variety calling it her “best work yet.”
9. The Incredible Jessica James
The Daily Show writer Jessica Williams is dope. She has a podcast, “Two Dope Queens“– which she co-hosts with Phoebe Robinson– that says so. Now it’s time for the rest of the world to know it too. Williams stars in The Incredible Jessica James, the story of a struggling New York City playwright trying to make it big while also looking for romance. She finds a love interest in Chris O’Dowd as Boone, who plays the part with his usual everyman Irish charm.
The Incredible Jessica James is directed and written by Jim Strouse, but Williams is most definitely the star. Her charming, bubbly personality is what drives the film. Hopefully this role will lead to more chances for Williams to show off her incredible talent.
8. Wind River
Taylor Sheridan has made a name for himself as the screenwriter behind Sicario and this year’s Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated Hell or High Water. Now he steps behind the camera with Wind River, a film he also wrote.
The story revolves around the death of a young Native American girl named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) and the investigation into her murder. Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, the wildlife officer who finds her body, and Elizabeth Olsen is the FBI investigator, Jane Banner, who is called in on the case.
Wind River has been praise for both its direction and Renner’s performance. Not every writer can successfully direct their own work, but it seems Sheridan has successfully made the jump. He is able to capture the mystery and moral ambiguity with his camera as well as his pen. Wind River is a thrilling film that also weaves in themes of grief and survival, with Renner playing a tough but vulnerable man dealing with a loss of his own.
7. Ingrid Goes West
Called “the Single White Female for the Facebook generation”, Ingrid Goes West is a dark comedy that takes a look Instagram culture and the nature of internet friendships. Aubrey Plaza plays the titular Ingrid, an unstable girl who forms friendships based on people she stalks via online apps. She finds Venice Beach-living Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) and decides to move across the country to befriend her.
Ingrid Goes West is the first feature film directed by Matt Spicer, who also co-wrote the film alongside David Branson Smith. Plaza played an integral part in the making of the film as well, getting Olsen and co-star O’Shea Jackson Jr. (of Straight Outta Compton fame) to join the project. The role allows her to break out of her droll persona and play a more vulnerable and unhinged character.
Indie studio Neon purchased the rights to Ingrid Goes West. There is no set release date yet, but fans are sure to like this film that puts an eerie twist on something that has become such an ingrained part of our everyday lives.
6. A Ghost Story
A Ghost Story is one of Sundance’s stranger films; a meditation about life and death and the people we love who never really leave us. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play a couple known only as M and C. Early into the film (and also in the title, so not really a spoiler), C dies and becomes the titular ghost. He returns with a sheet covering his body (yes really) and the house, not only watching over his wife, but everyone else who inhabits the building and the lives they lead. (There’s also a scene where Mara eats an entire pie that people can’t stop talking about.)
David Lowery wrote and directed the beautifully haunting film, which reunites him with Affleck and Mara, who starred in his earlier film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Here he has created a slow-moving, dreamlike film that plays with both time and space. Before the film even premiered at Sundance A24 bought the rights, proving their faith in the film’s pedigree.
5. Get Out
A black man goes to visit his white girlfriend’s rich family in the suburbs. It may not quite sound like the premiere of a horror movie, but in Get Out it becomes just that. Get Out is a dark, comedic horror film based around the ideas of race and tolerance. It is directed and written by comedian Jordan Peele of Key and Peele.
Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams star as the couple at the center of the film. She believes his race won’t matter to her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), but he knows better. What follows is a film that is chilling equally because of the horrific events that take place and the very real issues of race relations it brings up.
Sundance audiences saw the film as part of a surprise midnight screening and took to social media to praise the film calling it “brilliant” and “the realest, scariest horror movie 2017 is likely to see.” Peele’s directorial debut is a must watch in 2017.
4. Patti Cake$
You know you have a hit on your hands when your film starts a Sundance bidding war. Studios trying to get their hands on the popular films have become as much a part of the festival as the films themselves these days. Only hours after Patti Cake$ premiered at Sundance, the rights for distribution of the film were purchased by Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million.
Patti Cake$ tells the story of Patricia Dombrowski, aka Patty Cake$ (breakout star Danielle MacDonald), a New Jersey girl with big dreams of rap stardom. The feel good film follows her on her journey through rap battles in gas station parking lots and fights with her mother (Bridget Everett), who doesn’t believe rap is a real form of music. The film is full of mostly unknown actors, but they won’t stay that way for long. It’s helmed by a first time director, Geremy Jasper, who also wrote the film.
Mudbound is the adaption of Hilary Jordan’s novel by the same name about two soldiers, one white and the other black, returning home after World War II. Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) form a friendship based on their shared experiences, but their families and 1940s Mississippi have something to say about that. Ronel’s experiences as a soldier abroad have changed him, but the south hasn’t. Ronsel’s family works on the Jackson’s farm, which includes the racist patriarch Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks).
Mudbound is already being called this year’s Manchester By the Sea (which means that even though Oscar nominations just came out, critics are already talking about 2018). The film is directed by Dee Rees, previously known for Pariah and the HBO movie Bessie. She also co-wrote the screenplay for Mudbound with Virgil Williams.
The film takes a look at racism, family, and fighting to survive a war both home and abroad. There is no release date yet, but keep this film on your radar– you’ll be sure to be hearing about it for awhile.
2. Call Me By Your Name
Call Me By Your Name is a coming of age story of first love. Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is a 17 year old American spending the summer with his parents in an Italian Villa. Enter his father’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) research assistant, the cocky and intelligent Oliver (Armie Hammer). Over time Elio and Oliver develop a relationship with all of the tenderness and slow-burning passion you can imagine. The film is a slow-moving journey of heartbreak and self-discovery.
Luca Guadagnino directed and co-wrote Call Me By Your Name with James Ivory and Walter Fasano, based on the novel by Andre Aciman. The film has been praised for the performances of Chalamet and Hammer as well as for how it handles the subject matter.
After the film received a standing ovation at Sundance, critics took to twitter to praise the film for its sensuality and compelling gay love story. Earlier this month, Sony Picture Classic bought the rights to the film for over $6 million.
1. The Big Sick
The big story to come out of Sundance was Amazon’s $12 million acquisition of The Big Sick. It was one of the biggest deals in the festival’s history and the streaming site beat out its biggest competitor, Netflix, as well as Sony and Focus Features for the film’s rights.
The Big Sick is a retelling of the real life love story of Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani and writer and producer Emily V. Gordon. They also co-wrote the script, which details everything from the story of their first meeting at Nanjiani’s stand-up show to Gordon’s illness and hospitalization. The couple is met with opposition from their parents– he’s a Muslim Pakistani-American, she’s a Christian– but it’s not a spoiler to say things all work out in the end.
The film connected with audiences at Sundance because of the way it balances humor and heart. Directed by Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer) and produced by Judd Apatow (Trainwreck), The Big Sick is both a familiar comedy and a story that uniquely belongs to Nanjiani and Gordon (who is played in the film by Zoe Kazan).
There is no release date for The Big Sick, but if Sundance is any indication, audiences are going to love it.
Which indie movies from Sundance are you most excited for? Let us know in the comments!