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Sundance list shows variety of film styles

By PIERS MARCHANT Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published January 19, 2018 at 1:45 a.m.

A couple of years ago, arriving in Salt Lake City en route to Sundance, I took a shuttle to drive up to Park City, where the festival is held each year in the last two weeks of January. On this particular ride, there was a family of four, mom, dad, and two teen kids, clearly heading up the mountain to embark on a skiing expedition. This makes perfect sense, Park City is known for its fine powder and steep slopes, but what seemed peculiar to me at the time was that listening to them talk with the driver, it was clear to me they had no idea they had planned their ski trip during one of the biggest and most expansive film festivals in the U.S., one that would surely clog up streets with traffic and make dining out particularly difficult unless you had thought to book your reservations far in advance.

In fact, listening to us tell them about what they were about to head into, it was pretty clear they weren't even entirely sure what a film festival was. The father asked me with the innocent hubris of the uninitiated whether or not they could just walk into town (it's about a two mile hike from the ski lodges) and "check out some flicks." I told him I rather doubted it, but he was welcome to give it a shot.

Their guilelessness was amusing to me, I have to say, but outside of the high-altitude fishbowl of the festival, absolutely nothing they were asking was particularly wrong-headed. It is peculiar for people to spend a week or more doing nothing but standing endlessly in line, only to then sit in a darkened theater, watching film after film, straggling home and staying up until 3 a.m. writing about them. In short, they weren't the oddballs, we were.

In any event, this year's festival rolls merrily along, with another huge batch of American indies, docs, and international films, many of which making their world premieres in the frigid, thin air of Park City. Here are a few in particular we'll be looking out for:

American Animals: Somehow based upon a (mostly) true story, Bart Layton's peculiar sounding drama involves four young men (Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner) who see themselves as some kind of movie characters, and plan a particularly audacious heist of a rare book collection from their local university, you know, as one does. This could either be funny and weird in a kind of Bottle Rocket sort of way; or sad and confusing, in a Heavenly Creatures sort of way. Hoping for the former.

Beirut: Brad Anderson's work tends toward the macabre and forlorn (The Machinist, Transsiberian) but we don't mean that in a bad way. This film stars Jon Hamm as a U.S. diplomat, forced to evacuate out of Lebanon in '72, then a decade later, asked to return by a CIA agent, played by Rosamund Pike, in order to save the life of a friend he had to leave behind years before. Written by wunderkind Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), with a sneaky-strong cast, this could be one of the bigger films of the festival.

Bisbee '17: Back in the '90s, I got to spend an inordinate amount of time in this bizarre, former copper-mining border town in the mountains of southern Arizona, as I had a good friend who lived there who was a strong proponent of the place. Turns out it has a pretty tortured history, including a notorious incident 100 years ago in which some 1,200 immigrant miners were suddenly deported out of town and deposited out in the Sonoran desert where they were left to die. Docu-dramatist Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine) returns to the festival with another disturbing slice of history for us to ponder.

Damsel: As my editor, the estimable Philip Martin, absolutely adored the previous film from the Zellner Brothers (Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter), I'm going on a hunch that he will want me to check out their newest effort, an honest-to-Gawd Western, starring Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska, as a pair of star-crossed lovers finding each other on the prairie (one presumes).

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot: Writer/director Gus Van Sant can either bring the noise or leave without a trace, so full caveats for this one, but a sparking cast, including Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara, and the premise -- a sort of bio-pic about the late, wheelchair-bound cartoonist John Callahan, whose salty work graced the pages of Portland's Willamette Week for almost three decades -- sounds right up Van Sant's alley (and not just because he lived in Portland). Whether this will be Good Gus or Bad Gus is all part of the mystery that will unfold in the mountains.

Leave No Trace: Debra Granik made the harshly uncompromising Winter's Bone (otherwise known as the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence's career) back in 2010. Her new film follows what sounds like a similar level of severity. Starring Ben Foster as a father living alone with his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) on the fringes of society outside Portland, the film follows the pair after they are discovered by authorities, and are forced to venture ever deeper into the wilderness of Oregon's old-growth forests. Foster is always a marvel, and the early buzz on McKenzie is strong.

Lizzie: The story of Lizzie Borden, the murder of her parents in 1892 New England, and the firestorm of fear, disgust and outrage that erupted out of her conviction for the crime that made the event one of the more infamous homicides in the ensuing 100 years, is the subject of Craig William Macneill's psychological study of Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) and her infatuation with the family's young housemaid (Kristen Stewart). Stewart has pretty much become the de facto grand dame of the festival over the last few years, so this should be a hot ticket (and long line).

Nancy: Andrea Riseborough -- still waiting for stardom -- plays a woman convinced she was kidnapped as a small child, a belief only more deeply reinforced when she meets a couple whose child -- roughly her own age -- actually was snatched away from them. Sounds deliciously twisty, and awkwardly uncomfortable: Sign us up.

The Catcher Was a Spy: Moe Berg was a very accomplished man, an Ivy League graduate, a major leaguer for 15 seasons, and a lawyer who spoke no fewer than nine languages. But his greatest feat was being a crazily effective spy for the OSS during WWII, helping the Americans develop the A-bomb before the Nazis could. Paul Rudd stars as the multi-talented Berg, and the fine cast is rounded out by Mark Strong, Jeff Daniels, Sienna Miller and Paul Giamatti, is a further enticement, but let's face it: With a story this good, we can only hope the film does Moe real justice.

Tyrel: Fans of Get Out, which one surmises, would encompass the entirely of the audience and press corps at Sundance, will flock to Sebastian Silva's twisty farce, which stars Jason Mitchell as the only black guy on a weekend retreat of lily-white bros out in the country. Expect a further examination of racial politics amid the rabble of a group of dudes confined to a small space and drinking like marlins.

MovieStyle on 01/19/2018

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