Sundance programming director offers a few insider tips |

Sundance programming director offers a few insider tips

As box office opens here are some hot tickets

Amanda Seyfried, Shirley MacLaine and Ann Jewel Lee Dixon appear in The Last Word by Mark Pellington, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Just a few more Funniest: THE BIG SICK with the comedian Kumail Nanjiani, from the popular TV series Silicon Valley. Groth says Nanjiani offers “a new exciting voice that shows what it is like to be a Pakastni American in today’s day and age.” Who took biggest risk: Director Kitty Green for her film CASTING JONBENET. Green tries to help unravel the mystery of one of the county’s most infamous murders by The film likely to generate the most heated debate: THE NEW RADICAL about people who believe the internet should be completely unregulated, regardless of negative consequences. The tension surrounding that debate also drew heated reactions from the programmers, Groth said. What film is the hardest to watch: Groth says the festival’s three films about Syria are “intense and challenging and difficult to watch, but it so important to see and hear those stories. They are: LAST MEN IN ALEPPO, CRIES FROM SYRIA and CITY OF GHOSTS.

He has already seen the films and met the filmmakers, but Trevor Groth, Director of Programming for the Sundance Film Festival, says he still gets a rush on opening night.

“That Thursday night, when we unleash the films on the festival audience, is such an exhilarating moment. You have the actors, the directors and the script — but the audience is the final ingredient. It comes to life at that point,” he said in the midst preparations for this year’s event.

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival will screen 113 narrative and documentary feature-length films along with 68 short films and a dozen projects that use newly emerging virtual- and augmented-reality technology. The event will run from Jan. 19-29 at theaters in Park City, Salt Lake and at Sundance Resort.

Groth, along with Festival Director John Cooper and a team of veteran programmers, plays a vital role in selecting each year’s slate of films and few days before the box office was due to begin selling individual tickets (Jan. 11 for Utah residents and for the public on Jan. 14) Groth underscored some of the highlights.

U.S. Dramatic Competition
I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE: Programmers liked this one so much it was picked for a Day One screening slot. Groth describes it as “a great fun crazy film for us to kick off the fest with. Macon Blair wrote and directed it. “It’s a smart thriller, about a woman pushed to the edge.” Groth added, the woman is played masterfully by Melanie Lynskey.

PATTI CAKE$: Groth predicts that Geremy Jasper’s story about a young white girl who wants to become a rapper will generate a lot of buzz. “She’s really such a singular character that you haven’t seen on film before, you just fall in love with her and root for her,” he said.

WALKING OUT: Groth also has high praise for this film that revolves around a hunting expedition in the Montana wilderness. “It has incredible cinematography and is a very emotional film about a father and son going through this extreme situation. I think it is pretty special,” he said.

THE HERO features Sam Elliott in a rare lead role that Groth believes may put him in contention for a future Oscar. Elliott plays an aging Western character actor who learns he has cancer and wants to re-establish his reputation, and some family ties, before he dies. Comedians Nick Offerman and Laura Prepon play Elliott’s sidekicks.

BRIGSBY BEAR: Filmed in Utah, Groth thinks local audiences will especially enjoy this romp written by and starring several cast members from Saturday Night Live. The plot involving an overprotected boy is described as a “sweet, offbeat comedy.”

U.S. Documentary Competition
WHOSE STREETS? Directed by Sabaah Folayan, this documentary exemplifies a recurring theme among this year’s Sundance submissions. According to Groth, “It takes a hard look at police brutality, violence and corruption, specifically at Ferguson, the shooting of Mike Brown, and the fallout from that as told by the people who live there. It is really raw and intense.”

STEP offers a break from some of the festival’s heavier documentary fare. The filmmaker, Amanda Lipitz examines a Baltimore high school’s step team dancers and how they use the program as a force for positivity in their lives, Groth said he thinks it has the potential to win an audience award.

QUEST, also on Groth’s recommended list, covers a decade in the lives of an inner city family in North Philadelphia. “It definitely deals with heavy issues but is a really beautiful moving tribute to family and love,” he said.

World Dramatic Competition
Overall, Groth strongly encourages audiences to explore the Festival’s World Cinema categories. “I always try to push our foreign language films. They are not always people’s first choice but often they are very rewarding,” he said.

WOODPECKERS (Dominican Republic) — Groth met director José María Cabral at Sundance’s filmmaker orientation in New York last month and was impressed with the film’s backstory. “He actually filmed it in a working prison. He was in there for nine months and ended up casting almost all of the film from the prisoners and guards and created this incredible fiction film in that setting.”

FREE AND EASY (Hong Kong) — According to Groth, the Sundance Institute’s global outreach efforts, including hosting festivals in London and Hong Kong, are attracting exciting films from new parts of the world. In September, Groth traveled to Hong Kong where he met director Jun Geng who has won numerous international awards. As a result, Geng submitted an off-beat crime story that takes place in a remote part of mainland China. “I don’t know if we would have had that film submitted to us if I hadn’t been there,” Groth said.

POP AYE, directed by Kirsten Tan takes place in Thailand and tells the story of an older man who has an unlikely friend, an elephant. Groth says it is a “sweet, moving film with great images.”

I DREAM IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE: Groth “loved” this film from Mexico for its “rich ideas and setting.” It is about a linguist’s challenge in trying to preserve a disappearing indigenous language. The challenge, however, is that the only two remaining elders who speak the language refuse to talk to each other due to a longstanding feud.

World Competition Documentary Films:
IT’S NOT YET DARK has a unique Sundance connection. It is about a man who had a film in the festival a few years ago and during that trip to Park City, experienced the onset of ALS, a neurological disease that has since immobilized him. Director Frankie Fenton chronicles his struggle to return to filmmaking. “It’s a real tribute to the power of movies and storytelling and it is a love story, too. He couldn’t have done it without the support of his family and his wife. ”

THE WORKERS CUP by Adam Sobel has both political and sports-related threads. It focuses on a group of workers hired to build a World Cup stadium in Qatar. “While they are doing it they have their own sort of tournament, but it is really about the tragedy of these people being forced into these extremely difficult working conditions “ said Groth.

Dramatic Premieres:
Perhaps the Sundance Film Festival’s highest profile category, Groth says this year’s collection of theater–bound dramas is especially strong. “There are a lot of great big actors and big directors that people are going to be really excited about. I need to call out some huge names that aren’t always in the independent films we show. “

Among them are:
WHERE IS KYRA? Is directed by Andrew Dosunmu and features Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland. About Pfeiffer, Groth says: “it’s a smart provocative drama, in a kind of part I have never seen her in before.”

BEATRIZ AT DINNER directed by Miguel Arteta and starring Salma Hayek and John Lithgow, Groth says, is “a really smart political satire.” Hayek portrays a holistic therapist confronted with a businessman who, she suspects, made his fortune “at the expense of other people’s suffering.”

THE LAST WORD, directed by Mark Pellington with cast members Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried and Anne Heche, is about an older woman who hires a young writer to pen her biography. According to Groth, MacLaine delivers a great performance that will be “a real hit with audiences.”

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES directed by three-time Sundance veteran Jim Strouse showcases Jessica Williams, an actor on the Daily Show, in her first big feature film leading role. The plot is described in the Sundance program as a romantic comedy with teeth and according to Groth, “I think people are going to fall in love with her for that film.”

MUDBOUND, Groth believes, will also get a lot of notice during and beyond the festival. The film, is directed by Dee Rees, and stars Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund. The story takes place as soldiers are coming home to the deep south after World War II and portrays the roots of racism in our country..

WIND RIVER not only has an all-star cast but a renowned director/screen writer, as well. Taylor Sheridan has won previous accolades for his work on Sicario and Hell or High Water. Principal cast members include: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Jon Bernthal. Groth calls it a “really smart thriller” about a crime that is committed on an Indian reservation in Wyoming.

THE DISCOVERY: Groth added that he would be remiss if he did not mention festival founder Robert Redford’s film with a cast including Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough and Ron Canada. Groth calls it a “metaphysical thriller” about a scientist who proves there is an afterlife. The plot goes on to wrestle with the issues that would raise.

Documentary Premieres:
UNTITLED BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB comes from Sundance returnee Lucy Walker who also made Crash Reel. The film revisits the original Buena Vista Social Club to examine the history of Cuban music and how the political climate affected each generation of musicians.

AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL is a follow up to the 2006 groundbreaking documentary An Inconvenient Truth, once again featuring former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. One of the festival’s Opening Night films, the environmental theme will resonate among Park City’s many like-minded audience members. According to Groth, they will not be disappointed. “The sequel is going to make a huge splash at the festival. It really examines where we are right now and provides some real ideas for what we can do.”

The Spotlight Category is defined by Groth as favorite films that have played at other festivals but Sundance programmers could not resist. He noted a few edgy favorites and highlighted one in particular.

LADY MACBETH is William Oldroyd first feature-length film after receiving acclaim for two previous shorts. Lady Macbeth won high praise at the Toronto International Film Festival and Groth believes the lead, Florence Pugh, is on a star trajectory.

Groth has a special place n his heart for the quirky Midnight category. “It allows us to show the craziest storytelling out there on the edge — the horror and over-the-top comedy.” He said this year’s batch, interestingly, includes several women directors. “We don’t always get that. It is usually a pretty male-dominated genre.”

BITCH directed by Marianna Palka is one of he singled out for its a notable cast: Jason Ritter, Jaime King, Marianna Palka, Brighton Sharbino, Rio Mangini and Kingston Foster. The festival program describes the plot as “a deeply unsettling take on the horrors of a crumbling nuclear family.” Like many in this category: view at your own risk.

XX: Groth also dares adventurous filmgoers to try this one, listed as “four murderous tales of supernatural frights, predatory thrills, profound anxiety” from directors Annie Clark, Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin and Jovanka Vuckovic.

Shorts and Special events:
Groth also points ticket-seekers to the Shorts and Special Events categories. The shorts, he says, “are the purest form of filmmaking.” The 68 titles are divided into eight packages: Animation, Documentaries, Midnight and five surprise programs of about seven individual pieces each, depending on length. It is interesting to note, some festival winners, like the 2014 Sundance hit “Whiplash,” screen first as shorts and then return as full-fledged features to steal the show.

The new Special Events category is where the festival has begun debuting episodic work, those long-form series that have become popular on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and HBO.

RISE fits that bill. Produced by the Viceland network, the screening incudes three episodes of a docuseries about current Native American political battles. According to Groth, “They have hired indigenous and Native American filmmakers to tell their stories from their perspective. One of the pieces is about Standing Rock, so it is really timely and great to hear their voices in such a prominent way.”


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