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What’s going to pop big at Sundance? We have thoughts

Glenn Whipp
Los Angeles Times
(TNS)

Jordan Peele had trudged through the waist-deep snow to the Park City Library for a “secret” midnight screening of his directorial debut, “Get Out,” a secret in name only, as everyone sitting in the theater — including Malia Obama, then an intern at the Weinstein Co. — knew what they were about to see.

Though, of course, as the lights dimmed, no one had any idea just how sharp and powerful Peele’s 2017 horror satire about American racism was or that it would go on to become a cultural phenomenon.

“This was my first movie, and I just wanted it to land with the audience,” Peele told me. “So I was thinking about the people in the theater, how — and if — they’d react to what they were seeing on screen.”

One thing Peele wasn’t thinking about: the Oscars. Such thoughts wouldn’t cross his mind until five months later when Universal Pictures threw a huge bash on the studio’s backlot, ostensibly for the film’s home video release, though, really, it was aimed to start awards buzz percolating. And even then, Peele tried to brush such talk aside.

“I’m not quite there yet,” Peele said, expressing appreciation for the Oscar consideration. “I’m such a fan of cinema. When I think of my favorite movies that have gotten that kind of prestige, I think of the best movies of all time.”

“Get Out” now has taken its place among them, standing as one of the landmark debuts from the Sundance Film Festival.

With Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and New York, you have an idea what to expect when you look at the festival lineups, particularly when it comes to zeroing in on movies that might pop at the Oscars. You have your brand-name auteurs, your big-budget historical epics and maybe a biopic or three. Throw in a musical, as long as it’s not “Dear Evan Hansen,” and you have your road map.

At Sundance, though, you really have no idea. None. Three years ago at the virtual Sundance, an English-language remake of a 2014 French coming-of-age drama about the teen daughter of Deaf adults premiered without a distributor. It was titled “CODA.” Two days after its opening day screening, Apple bought it for a record $25 million. Nearly 14 months later, it took the Oscar for best picture, one of the most unlikely winners in the history of the Academy Awards.

“I was just hoping the movie would find a buyer,” Siân Heder, the film’s director, told me months after Sundance. Then she hoped it would find an audience when it landed in theaters and on Apple TV+. By the time it won the Oscar — and Heder had collected the trophy for adapted screenplay — “CODA” had moved from being what its star, Marlee Matlin, called a “tidal wave of awareness” for the Deaf community to a “tsunami” on just about every front.

“CODA” is the only Sundance movie to win the best picture Oscar, an accomplishment so brazen it was perhaps inevitable that last year’s Oscars were rather light on films from the 2022 festival. But, as has been the case so many times over the years, that Sundance showcased a brilliant performance, Bill Nighy’s moving turn in “Living” as a dying man embarking on a journey to leave behind a lasting impact, that went on to earn an Oscar nomination.

Celine Song’s bittersweet romance “Past Lives” wrecked audiences at the 2023 Sundance, an example of a movie that was actually highly anticipated, thanks to its release under the banner of the celebrated A24, a studio with a rabid following and a store selling a $400 designer silver heart locket tied in to “Priscilla.” A year later, “Past Lives” is in the Oscar conversation for best picture, director, screenplay and lead actress Greta Lee. It would be shocking if it didn’t land in at least one of those categories.

A24 has another movie that should have people talking this year: “A Different Man,” starring Sebastian Stan as an actor with neurofibromatosis who undergoes an operation to radically transform his features. When he wakes up, he looks like … Sebastian Stan. This improves his dating life, but he can’t score any jobs, because his looks are now too generic. Meanwhile, the woman who loved him pre-surgery (played by Norwegian actress Renate Reinsve, so great in “The Worst Person in the World”), dumps him and writes a play based on their relationship. Think “Being John Malkovich” starring the guy known for playing Bucky Barnes, and you’ll understand why this will break social media platforms when it premieres.

What else? Again, this is Sundance, so movies that sound promising can go sideways in a second. But ’90s nostalgists will have deep feelings about Jane Schoenbrun’s “I Saw the TV Glow,” which focuses on a fictional “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”-type TV show (“The Pink Opaque”) that becomes a cult obsession. People in their late 30s, early 40s — the ones who get sloppy remembering their childhoods watching Brendan Fraser in “George of the Jungle” — are going to love it.

There’s also “Freaky Tales,” a multipart drama from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the filmmaking duo behind “Sugar,” “Half Nelson” and, sure, “Captain Marvel.” Set in 1987 Oakland and encompassing four interconnected stories featuring skinheads and punks, rappers and an NBA all-star. It boasts a cast that includes Pedro Pascal, Ben Mendelsohn and the late, great Angus Cloud.

And it wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — be Sundance without Kristen Stewart, who stars in a couple of titles this year and will receive the festival’s Visionary Award at an opening night gala. Stewart co-stars with Steven Yeun in “Love Me,” billed as a sci-fi love story between a satellite and a buoy. (“It’s hard to explain,” Stewart told Entertainment Weekly. I’m not going to argue.) And she’ll be in the A24 romantic thriller “Love Lies Bleeding,” playing a gym manager who falls for a female bodybuilder.

Finally, how about “Will & Harper,” a documentary about Will Ferrell learning that a close friend of 30 years is coming out as a trans woman. How to process this and move on to the next stage of their friendship? Road trip! Sounds like it might be the perfect movie to show your transphobic family members — you know, the ones who have watched “Elf” 83 times and forced you to sit through it again this Christmas.

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(Glenn Whipp covers film and television for the Los Angeles Times and serves as columnist for The Envelope, The Times’ awards season publication.)

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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