14 films to keep tabs on at this year’s Sundance Film Festival

tk plays a kid filmed over 12 years in Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," which will play this year's Sundance Film Festival. Credit: IFC Films
Ellar Salmon plays a kid filmed over 12 years in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” which will play this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Credit: IFC Films

Back when it was called the Utah/US Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival had a simple mission: to wrangle attention toward genuine independent filmmaking. Nowadays it’s just another high profile attention-suck, where hotly anticipated “independent” (read: usually not) projects sit with tiny films you’ll never hear from again. But there’s always the occasional shock, as with last year’s “Fruitvale Station.” But here’s a handful of this year’s titles you (possibly) already know you want to see after they leave the coldest film festival in the country.

‘The Better Angels’
This year has the potential to contain three — seriously, three! — films by once reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick. For now, he’s put his name on the debut of one of his collaborators, A.J. Edwards. (He was one of five credited editors on “To the Wonder.”) We can safely predict this will prove a haunting, immersive look at the childhood of Abraham Lincoln, the last president born in a cabin, with Diane Kruger, Jason Clarke and Brit Marling as members of his family.

Richard Linklater’s epic “Before” series is impressive and all, but what’s truly jaw-dropping is another long-term project with Ethan Hawke: this look at the youth and adolescence of a kid (Ellar Salmon), which the filmmaker has been shooting over 12 years. Hawke and Patricia Arquette play his divorced parents, and we see how he copes from first grade through high school graduation. And Sundance gets it first.

‘Dear White People’
White co-opting of black culture gets skewered in this Tribeca Film Institute-shepherded satire, which watches as four black students at an Ivy League school react in horror to an “African American”-themed party thrown by white students.

‘Finding Fela’
Alex Gibney is the Robert Pollard of documentaries, minus only the talent. Films are harder to crank out than songs, but hopefully tackling Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti will get him working harder and not just quickly. And if it’s a bust, there’s always the in-the-works Fela biopic by “Mother of George” filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu.

Michael Fassbender doesn’t get many chances to be funny, or wear goofy cardboard heads. He does both in this comedy, which tells a story inspired by the late Chris Sivey, involving a man who fronts a band under his big-fake-headed alter ego. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domhnall Gleeson co-star.

‘Happy Christmas’
Once the prolific maker of experimental, intentionally visually slapdash micro-indies like “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and “Silver Bullets,” Joe Swanberg has of late shifted to films with “real” actors and “cameras on tripods.” Here he reunites with “Drinking Buddies” star Anna Kendrick and adds Lena Dunham and Melanie Lynskey, plus “Beasts of the Southern Wild” cinematographer Ben Richardson.

Ever since “Humpday,” writer-director Lynn Shelton has been unstoppable, cranking out intimate, character- and actor-driven films with high (or high-ish) concepts. Her latest stars no less than Keira Knightley as an immature woman who lies to her fiancé about going on a getaway, when she really wants to hang with her friends. Chloe Grace Moretz, Gretchen Mol, Ellie Kemper and Sam Rockwell co-star.

‘Life Itself’
Named after his memoir, this documentary on Roger Ebert, who died after a long and heroic bout with cancer last April, is obvious key viewing. That’s no less because it’s been handled by Steve James, who usually handles fly-on-the-wall docs like “Hoop Dreams,” one of the film critic’s favorites.

‘Listen Up Philip’
Filmmaker Alex Ross Perry follows up his beautifully uncomfortable “The Color Wheel” with another wry look at horrible people, this one starring Jason Schwartzman as a writer whose struggle over a second novel chips away at his mind and his relationship (with photographer Elisabeth Moss).

‘Love Is Strange’
Filmmaker Ira Sachs was last seen with “Keep the Lights On,” a trenchant and deeply lived-in look at a dysfunctional couple, based on his own younger life. This time he looks at those his own age, with Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as long-time partners who take advantage of New York’s marriage laws to wed — just in time for them to fall into some financial and vocational dire straits.

‘The Raid: Berandal’
The first Indonesian ass-kicker was the rare action film with no flab on it. It was all fighting — and, as a result, it was a bit on the exhausting side. (It’s incredible if watched in chunks, though.) So how about not just more, but 2 ½ hours more? From the teaser, it looks like this one opens up the world a bit more, which could either create much-needed respites or utterly ruin the charming simplicity of the first.

‘The Trip to Italy’
The title vaguely recalls Roberto Rossellini’s bickering-marrieds classic “Voyage to Italy,” but hopefully this sequel to the dining-and-impersonations romp “The Trip” is even more pugilistic. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite to hit even more picturesque digs, all while one-upping eachother on improv. What famous person impression will go viral? And perhaps more important, has Coogan gotten over his melancholic funk?

‘White Bird in a Blizzard’
After a stint doing comedies (“Smiley Face,” “Kaboom”), New Queer Cinema legend Gregg Araki returns to the arch drama stylings of “Mysterious Skin.” Shailene Woodley plays a teen whose life is thrown into disarray when her mother (Eva Green) goes missing. Christopher Meloni and Angela Bassett co-star.

‘Wish I Was Here’
Remember when Zach Braff — Zach Braff! — went on Kickstarter, asking for funds to make his own indie? Here it is! Braff plays an out-of-work actor homeschooling his kids, and seeing as he directed it, it will probably feature cutesy gags and Braff the actor aggravatingly ending each sentence with a question mark.


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