As the Sundance Film Festival kicks off (20 - 30 January), Trevor Groth, director of programming, picks 10 of the most promising filmmakers to watch, selecting one film by each director from the last five years. 'Knowing how difficult it is to get a film made anywhere,' explains Groth, 'it is a testament to the passion and creativity of filmmakers everywhere that they are able to preserve and stay true to their vision.'
Directors: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
Film: Sugar (2008)
Synopsis: Miguel Santos, aka Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto), a Dominican pitcher, struggles to make it to the big leagues and pull himself and his family out of poverty. Miguel finally gets his break when he advances to the United States’ minor league system. As Miguel struggles with the new language and culture, he’s faced with an isolation he has never before experienced. When his play falters, he begins examining the world around him and ultimately questions the single-mindedness of his life’s ambition.
Trevor Groth says: "Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden are a soft-spoken couple who carry a big moviemaking stick. Their insights into the human condition, and their facility in transferring them to the screen intact, pack a mighty punch that enlightens as much as it entertains. The duo is out in front of the pack and sure to be standing in the winner’s circle for years to come."
Director: Sophie Barthes
Film: Cold Souls (2009)
Synopsis: Balancing on a tightrope between deadpan humor and pathos, reality and fantasy, the film presents Paul Giamatti as himself, agonizing over his interpretation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Giamatti enlists the services of a company that promises to alleviate suffering by extracting one's soul, only to discover that his bears a close resemblance to a chickpea. Complications ensue when a talentless Russian soap-opera actress borrows Giamatti’s soul, sending him on a wild goose chase to reclaim it.
Trevor Groth says: "Sophie Barthes is here to stay, and inevitably here to shine. The filmmaker not only knows how to capture an audience’s attention but its imagination and philosophical prowess as well. And whether or not she sticks to the genre of science fiction or ventures to another one altogether, her future work remains some of the most anticipated in the independent film community."
Directors: Jay and Mark Duplass
Film: Baghead (2008)
Synopsis: Matt (Ross Partridge), Catherine (Elise Muller), Chad (Steve Zissis), and Michelle (Greta Gerwig) are four friends and out of work actors who retreat to the country for a weekend to write a screenplay for them to star in the main roles. One night, when Michelle thinks she sees someone in the woods, the group decides it’s the perfect inspiration. As the film ensues, they become increasingly spooked that they’re not alone out there.
Trevor Groth says: "The Duplass brothers are self-aware filmmakers who are serious about their craft yet don’t take themselves too seriously. Roving camera angles and sublime reaction shots detail the sometimes awkward byplay between the characters as their true feelings and foibles rise to the surface. Baghead is a slight movie by design, but it goes further than expected in pushing the boundaries of no-budget independent filmmaking."
Director: Jody Hill
Film: The Foot Fist Way (2006)
Synopsis: Jody Hill’s first film is the story of Mr. Simmons (Danny McBride), a small town taekwondo instructor, who relishes the power that comes from being the master of a small kingdom. The man in control is hit hard when he discovers that his wife, Suzie (Mary Jane Bostic), has cheated on him with her new boss, sending Mr. Simmons into a downward spiral.
Trevor Groth says: "The Foot Fist Way is a film that demands repeat viewing so that the hilarious one-liners have a chance to sink in. Hill looks at martial arts as it exists in the real world, and, more pointedly, in the southern U.S. The film creates hilarity through real-life emotions and reactions rather than mockery. McBride and Hill understand that the funniest moments are ones the audiences can relate to. Small in scope but big in laughs, The Foot Fist Way marked the emergence of Hill as a filmmaker with a black belt in funny."
Director: Nash Edgerton
Film: The Square (2008)
Synopsis: Escaping the monotony of a loveless marriage, Ray (David Roberts) becomes entangled with the beautiful and troubled Carla (Claire van der Boom). His moral limits are tested when she presents him with the proceeds of her controlling husband’s latest crime. This is their chance: take the money and run. If only it were that simple. Alarm bells sound and suspicions are raised, yet miraculously the dust looks to settle. Then the first blackmail note arrives . . .
Trevor Groth says: "Nash’s direction focuses on storytelling, and his command of the material is total. He builds tension and intrigue almost flawlessly, making audiences pay attention by not spelling everything out. The Square is as stylish as it is unsettling, and its ever-building momentum will grip you and leave you breathless—as much from the film as from knowing that you’re witnessing the swift emergence of directorial force coming up from Down Under."
Director: Jean-Stephane Sauvaire
Film: Johnny Mad Dog (2008)
Synopsis: In an unspecified African country, commander Johnny Mad Dog (Christopher Minie) and his Small Boy Unit advance on a decrepit capital city armed with AK-47s, wired on coke, and spurred on by grown-up General Never Die (Joseph Duo), they kill and rape everything in their path. Trapped inside the kill zone is Johnny's opposite: an ambitious student named Laokolé (Daisy Victoria Vandy). As they finally enter the city, what will be the outcome of the unavoidable meeting between Johnny and Laokolé?
Trevor Groth says: "Sauvaire grasps the gravity of his film’s issues, yet serves them in a hyper-stylish, almost surreal package that exhibits a true visionary at work. Beautifully conceived, the film’s fluid camera movements and engaging stylistics bring color, depth, and immediacy to almost every scene. Presenting true-to-life experience in place of classic narrative structure, Johnny Mad Dog is a gripping, poetic, disturbing, provocative, thrilling, and terrifyingly primitive experience that screams “this is what filmmaking is all about!” with every frame."
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Film: Sin Nombre (2009)
Synopsis: Seeking the promise of America, a beautiful young Honduran woman, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), joins her father and uncle across the Latin American countryside en route to the United States. Along the way she crosses paths with a teenage Mexican gang member, El Casper (Edgar Flores), who is maneuvering to outrun his violent past. Together they must rely on faith, trust, and street smarts if they are to survive their increasingly perilous journey toward the hope of new lives.
Trevor Groth says: "Sin Nombre employs a kind of documentary style, but it never comes from a place of ego or irrelevance. And through traditional storytelling, and strong emphases on all aspects of cinema, including cinematography, sound, and editing, the camera almost seems to function as an integral character in the film. Universal Studios is already on board for Fukunaga next film, and it’ll be fascinating to see where he goes with it in terms of content and scope."
Director: Rian Johnson
Film: Brick (2005)
Synopsis: A high-school loner, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), navigates the surreal underworld of his California hometown in search of the truth about the death of his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin). His pursuit leads Brendan to intrude upon the dark lives of classmates who belong to tightly knit social circles.
Trevor Groth says: "Brick has a unique voice that is by no means a fluke, and it is a sincere and stimulating first film that just screams of promise. For his follow-up, Johnson secured a bigger budget and made The Brothers Bloom (2008), a globe-trotting caper movie starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel Weisz. Judging from Johnson’s ability to make big things from limited resources, I can only imagine what type of ride this will allow him to take audiences on—undoubtedly an exhilarating one."
Director: Sarah Polley
Film: Away from Her (2006)
Synopsis: In Sarah Polley’s mesmerizing adaption of an Alice Munro short story, we get to know the aging couple Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent), struggling to come to terms with the newfound realization that Fiona is developing Alzheimer’s disease. The decision to move Fiona into a nursing home tests the couple’s bond. Grant must come to terms with the gradual but widening distance between the two of them.
Trevor Groth says: "The stamp of maturity in Polley's direction comes at the end of the film. While it would have been easy to fade out on a down note, she instead shows Fiona and Grant dancing, followed by a shot of a young Fiona when she still had the "spark of life". The spark is something that Polley has to the extreme, and she uses it to enlighten anyone lucky enough to see her graceful work."
Director: Taika Waititi
Film: Eagle vs Shark ( 2007)
Synopsis: Lily (Loren Horsley) is an awkward, lonely waitress. Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) is a self-obsessed candlemaker. When Jarrod returns to his hometown on a mission of revenge, a love-struck Lily follows him. Jarrod needs someone to have a bit of faith in him; Lily needs someone to love. It’s not the perfect match, but it may be one worth fighting for.
Trevor Groth says: "Instead of making us laugh at the antics of Lily and Jarrod, we laugh with them. Pulling off this kind of balance would be a real challenge for any filmmaker, and first-timer Waititi lives up to it with great skill. Even for all its outrageous moments, the film maintains a captivating level of depth that is missing from most others produced under the same limiting genre classifications."