Sundance 2015 US Documentary Competition welcomes back ‘Stardom,’ ‘Cove’ Oscar winners

The Sundance Film Festival announced its four main 2015 narrative and competition slates on Wednesday (December 3) and the US Documentary Competition field is packed with Oscar winners and returning Park City favorites.

Leading the way, at least to some degree, is last year's Documentary Oscar winner Morgan Neville, whose “Twenty Feet From Stardom” was one of the openers at the 2013 Festival. Neville and Robert Gordon co-directed “Best of Enemies,” which looks at the 1968 televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. 

“The Cove” Oscar winner Louie Psihoyos is back with “Racing Extinction,” which focuses on endangered species and, yes, mass extinction from a variety of viewpoints.

Also sporting an Oscar, for the short “Saving Face,” is Daniel Junge, who chronicles the life of Evel Knievel in “Being Evel.”

Both “The Cove” and “Twenty Feet From Stardom” played at Sundance, which has been a fairly reliable feeder for Oscar winners in recent years, also helping to launch “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Man on Wire” among other winners. Last year's Sundancers on the newly announced Oscar Shortlist include “Last Days in Vietnam,” “Life Itself,” “The Overnighters,” “The Internet's Own Boy” and “The Case Against 8.”

In addition to the Oscar winners, the US Documentary Competition slate includes a number of Park City favorites.

Marc Silver, whose “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” played on 2013 Opening Night along with “Stardom,” directed “3 1/2 Minutes,” about the shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis at a Jacksonville gas station in 2012. And if that doesn't sound like a subject that's going to generate a fair amount of buzz amidst ongoing unrest in Ferguson, you don't know Sundance.

“Escape Fire” director Matthew Heidemann is back with “Cartel Land,” described as a “classic Western set in the 21st century” and looking at border vigilantes fighting Mexican drug cartels.

And Bobcat Goldthwait, who competed at Sundance with “Sleeping Dogs Lie” and brought “World's Greatest Dad” in an out-of-competition screening, is making his documentary feature debut with “Call Me Lucky,” focusing on bar comic and peace activist Barry Crimmins.

If it sounds like there are a fair number of high (and medium) profile biopics in the US Documentary Competition, you're correct. Food critic Jonathan Gold is the focus of Laura Gabbert's “City of Gold,” while Larry Kramer gets the spotlight in “Larry Kramer in Love and Anger.” 

Fortunately, there are plenty of non-famous people who will also get exposure at Sundance. Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus' “Hot Girls Wanted” looks at amateur porn stars, Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe's “(T)error” looks at an unnamed black revolutionary turned FBI informant, autistic kids go to spring formal in Alexandra Shiva's “How To Dance In Ohio” and Crystal Moselle's “The Wolfpack” looks at six teens growing up in a Manhattan housing project.

From the This Sounds Like a Film I Already Saw At Sundance file, Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker's “Welcome to Leith” sounds a bit like a follow-up to last year's “The Overnighters,” looking at a white supremacist's attempts to take over a small North Dakota town, while Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi's “Meru” is another entry in the Deadly Mountain Climbing genre.

And then there's “Finders Keepers,” from directors Byran Carberry and Clay Tweel, while is the story of a recovering drug addict and amputee trying to recover custody of his mummified leg from the man who found it in a grill he purchased at auction.

The 16 films competing in the US Documentary Competition will be unveiled at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which opens on January 22, 2015. [You may note that there's no Day One film from the US Documentary Competition. I'm told that an out-of-competition American doc premiere will take that Opening Night slot.]

Here's a handy listing of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival US Documentary Competition Slate:

3½ MINUTES / U.S.A. (Director: Marc Silver) – On November 23, 2012, unarmed 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis was shot at a Jacksonville gas station by Michael David Dunn. 3½ MINUTES explores the aftermath of Jordan's tragic death, the latent and often unseen effects of racism, and the contradictions of the American criminal justice system.


Being Evel / U.S.A. (Director: Daniel Junge) – An unprecedented, candid portrait of American icon Robert “Evel” Knievel and his legacy.


Best of Enemies / U.S.A. (Directors: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon) – Best of Enemies is a behind-the-scenes account of the explosive 1968 televised debates between the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr., and their rancorous disagreements about politics, God, and sex.


Call Me Lucky / U.S.A. (Director: Bobcat Goldthwait) – Barry Crimmins was a volatile but brilliant bar comic who became an honored peace activist and influential political satirist. Famous comedians and others build a picture of a man who underwent an incredible transformation. 


Cartel Land / U.S.A., Mexico (Director: Matthew Heineman) – In this classic Western set in the 21st century, vigilantes on both sides of the border fight the vicious Mexican drug cartels. With unprecedented access, this character-driven film provokes deep questions about lawlessness, the breakdown of order, and whether citizens should fight violence with violence. 


City of Gold / U.S.A. (Director: Laura Gabbert) – Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Gold casts his light upon a vibrant and growing cultural movement in which he plays the dual roles of high-low priest and culinary geographer of his beloved Los Angeles. 


Finders Keepers / U.S.A. (Directors: Bryan Carberry, Clay Tweel) – Recovering addict and amputee John Wood finds himself in a stranger-than-fiction battle to reclaim his mummified leg from Southern entrepreneur Shannon Whisnant, who found it in a grill he bought at an auction and believes it to therefore be his rightful property.


Hot Girls Wanted / U.S.A. (Directors: Jill Bauer, Ronna Gradus) – Hot Girls Wanted is a first-ever look at the realities inside the world of the amateur porn industry and the steady stream of 18- and 19-year-old girls entering into it.


How to Dance in Ohio / U.S.A. (Director: Alexandra Shiva) – In Columbus, Ohio, a group of teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum prepare for an iconic American rite of passage – a spring formal. They spend 12 weeks practicing their social skills at a local nightclub in preparation for the dance. 

Larry Kramer in Love and Anger / U.S.A. (Director: Jean Carlomusto) – Author, activist, and playwright Larry Kramer is one of the most important and controversial figures in contemporary gay America, a political firebrand who gave voice to the outrage and grief that inspired gay men and lesbians to fight for their lives. At 78, this complicated man still commands our attention.


Meru / U.S.A. (Directors: Jimmy Chin, E. Chai Vasarhelyi) – Three elite mountain climbers sacrifice everything but their friendship as they struggle through heartbreaking loss and nature”s harshest elements to attempt the never-before-completed Shark”s Fin on Mount Meru, the most coveted first ascent in the dangerous game of Himalayan big wall climbing.

Racing Extinction / U.S.A. (Director: Louie Psihoyos) – Academy Award-winner Louie Psihoyos (The Cove) assembles a unique team to show the world never-before-seen images that expose issues surrounding endangered species and mass extinction. Whether infiltrating notorious black markets or exploring humans' effect on the environment, Racing Extinction will change the way you see the world.


(T)ERROR / U.S.A. (Directors: Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe) – (T)ERROR is the first film to document on camera a covert counterterrorism sting as it unfolds. Through the perspective of *******, a 63-year-old Black revolutionary turned FBI informant, viewers are given an unprecedented glimpse of the government”s counterterrorism tactics, and the murky justifications behind them.


Welcome to Leith / U.S.A. (Directors: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker) – A white supremacist attempts to take over a small town in North Dakota.

Western / U.S.A., Mexico (Directors: Bill Ross, Turner Ross) – For generations, all that distinguished Eagle Pass, Texas, from Piedras Negras, Mexico, was the Rio Grande. But when darkness descends upon these harmonious border towns, a cowboy and lawman face a new reality that threatens their way of life. Western portrays timeless American figures in the grip of unforgiving change.


The Wolfpack / U.S.A. (Director: Crystal Moselle) – Six bright teenage brothers have spent their entire lives locked away from society in a Manhattan housing project. All they know of the outside is gleaned from the movies they watch obsessively (and recreate meticulously). Yet as adolescence looms, they dream of escape, ever more urgently, into the beckoning world.