Hard to believe that we’re a little over a month away from Sundance, a film festival so sprawling that the announcement of its lineup is staggered over several days. Along with the rest of Team HitFix, I’ll once more be braving the cold to give you the first word on eagerly awaited heavyweights and undiscovered gems alike. But not everything at the Sundance Film Festival is shiny and new — some premieres from other fests are too exciting not to be cherry-picked, which brings us to the Spotlight section.
This year’s selection of eight Spotlight titles includes films initially premiered at Cannes, Venice and Toronto, among others — some of which perhaps didn’t get the attention they deserved in the initial festival rush, and some of which certainly did.
By this point, “Stranger by the Lake” is not hugely in need of a profile boost: French director Alain Guiraudie’s sexually explicit gay serial-killer thriller got people hot and bothered at Cannes, where it won Best Director in the Un Certain Regard section, and the critical superlatives have flowed from there. France’s leading film magazine Cahiers du Cinema voted it the best film of 2013; Sight & Sound among the year’s Top 10. Strand is releasing it Stateside on January 24, so this is something of a festival victory lap.
Also high on the radar is Indian romance “The Lunchbox,” a film that oddly benefited from not being selected as its country’s foreign-language Oscar entry; so noisy was the controversy when this proven crowdpleaser was passed over for a lesser-known title that it got more headlines than it would have done otherwise. Already popular at Cannes, Toronto and AFI, the Sony Pictures Classics acquisition should find further goodwill in Park City.
Another Cannes title is Jim Jarmusch’s offbeat vampire comedy “Only Lovers Left Alive,” starring Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as literally ageless hipsters, which delighted many when it premiered in Competition on the Croisette. I was less tickled, finding it a somewhat overextended joke, but it seems a natural fit for Sundance — a festival that boarded the Jarmusch train early with “Stranger Than Paradise” in 1984.
“Only Lovers” also features a pithy supporting role for Mia Wasikowska, and with British director Richard Ayoade’s Kafka-inspired black comedy “The Double” also in the Spotlight mix, that gives fans of Australian actress two opportunities to appreciate her quirky side. She recently received in BIFA nomination for the latter, in which she stars alongside Jesse Eisenberg.
The second British film in the selection is one I can imagine taking a few people by surprise in London. “Locke,” the second directorial effort from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steven Knight, has been playing it cool on the festival circuit so far, premiering out of competition at Venice, but skipping Telluride and Toronto. Tom Hardy’s performance in it was the talk of the Lido, and rightly so: the film is, quite literally, a one-man show, starring Hardy as a building contractor whose professional and personal lives crumble over the course of one long car journey. He never leaves the driver’s seat, with his increasingly fraught phone calls providing all the drama; it may sound an inert exercise, but Hardy’s uncharacteristically vulnerable performance makes it compelling. A24 have already picked it up for the US.
Of the films I’ve seen in the lineup, the best is Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski’s return-to-form drama “Ida”: an exquisitely composed, dryly comic black-and-white study of a young Catholic nun discovering her Jewish family history, it deservedly won the top prize at the London Film Festival. The section is rounded out by reputedly brutal US indie thriller “Blue Ruin,” which made quite a splash in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes last year, and Japanese sex comedy “R100” — an unfamiliar title to me.
In the New Frontiers section, dedicated to experimental and multimedia works, the big name that stands out is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The actor premiered his directorial debut, “Don Jon” at Sundance last year; he’s coming back with another behind-the-camera effort, “HIT RECORD ON TV” (his capitals, not mine). This one, however, is something different: described as a “new kind of variety show,” it finds Gordon-Levitt curating a selection of contributions from online artists and performers. Sounds decidedly James Franco-ish — can Sundance handle another?
More conventional-sounding is “The Better Angels,” an Abraham Lincoln biopic that focuses on the president’s younger days in rural Indiana. It’ll be interesting to see why this has been placed in the more esoteric strand, especially given its reasonably high-profile cast: Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”) stars as Young Mr. Lincoln, with Brit Marling, Diane Kruger and Wes Bentley in support. This much we know: it’s in black and white, and Terrence Malick produced.
Other New Frontier films include “Living Stars,” “The Girl from Nagasaki” and “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.”