20 Sundance 2016 movies that should be on your radar

How many of these films will be breakout hits?
"GOAT"

There has been a ton of Oscar controversy to talk about over the past few days, but travel and other writing commitments have made it harder to dive into than usual. Sadly, these issues aren’t going away soon and we’ll have more than enough time to talk about The Academy’s plans for diversity after – spoiler alert – Sundance.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. America’s premier film festival is about to unleash a slew of new movies that will eventually find homes either in your local multiplex or potentially straight to your favorite streaming service. You’ll see them becoming surprise summer hits and making waves next Oscar season. If you love film there’s nothing quite like the surprise discovery of a “Whiplash,” “Brooklyn,” “Precious” or “The Kids Are All Right” (among many others).

While there isn’t any “hotter than hot” must see this festival, the 2016 has a number of pictures this pundit is quite curious about. I’ll be primarily conducting interviews for Vox, but I’ll attempt to put up as many quick reviews of the following that I can. With that in mind, here’s a list of films that should be on your radar as you scour social media for reactions over the next eight days or so.  You can also get the latest by following me at @TheGregoryE on Twitter.

“Other People”
*Opening night film
Lowdown: “SNL” writer Chris Kelly’s semi-autobiographical dramedy about a gay comedian (Jesse Plemmons) who returns home to take care of his cancer stricken mother (Molly Shannon).
Big Question: How commercial can it be?

“The Free World”
Lowdown: An ex-convict (Boyd Holbrook) tries to start over working in an animal shelter. Things get complicated when he meets Doris (Elizabeth Moss) and his newfound freedom may be at risk.
Big Question: The press and industry screening (Friday morning) takes place four days before its public premiere so it’s got to be good, right? Right?

“Author: The J.T. LeRoy Story”
Lowdown: J.T. LeRoy was one of the greatest literary scams of the past fifty years. Idolized by rock stars, LeRoy (or so we thought) walked down the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival at the world premiere of his supposed memoir “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” The problem was J.T. wasn’t real at all. LeRoy was just a figment of Laura Albert’s imagination and an in person performance by her sister. 10 years later after the truth was revealed the participants revisit their creation.
Big Question: What will it tell us that we don’t already know? And can we really feel sympathetic for them?

“Swiss Army Man”
Lowdown: Hank finds himself alone trying to survive. How will Manny’s dead body help or hinder him? Correction: Hank is played by Paul Dano, Manny is played by Daniel Radcliffe.
Big Question: Is it “Castaway” meets “Weekend at Bernies” with an indie aesthetic?

“GOAT”
Lowdown: Two brothers pledge the same college fraternity and loyalty is tested.
Big Question: Will Nick Jonas turn heads with his first real feature film role?

“The Hollars”
Lowdown: Krasinski directs and stars in this drama about a man who returns home to care for his sick mother (geez, that sounds familiar). He’s surrounded by an impressive cast including Anna Kendrick, Margo Martindale, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Charlie Day, Richard Jenkins and Josh Groban.
Big Question: Can John Krasinski make a directorial comeback after bringing the disappointing “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” to the festival seven years ago?

“Manchester By the Sea”
Lowdown: Kenneth Lonergan’s first film since the long delayed “Margaret” features an prestige worthy cast including Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol and Kyle Chandler. Oh, and Matt Damon is a producer.
Big Question: Is Affleck a potential awards player for his performance?

“Captain Fantastic”
Lowdown: After raising his six kids in a wilderness “paradise,” a single father (Viggo Mortensen) is forced to integrate them into the modern world.
Big Question: Buzz is it’s good. Question is how much festival hype does it need for distributor Bleecker Street to turn it into a sleeper hit?

“Christine”
Lowdown: A drama based on the real life events of Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall), a reporter for a small TV station in Sarasota, FL in the early 1970’s.
Big Question: Did Antonio Campos stay with his “Simon Killer” aesthetic for this one?

“Love and Friendship”
Lowdown: Whit Stillman takes on Jane Austin in this period piece starring Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel and Stephen Fry.
Big Question: Is this prime acquisition fodder or a movie that would have been a hit at the festival…10 years ago?

“Southside With You”
Lowdown: A fictional depiction of the first date between eventual President of the United States Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Big Question: Is this simply breakout material for stars Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers or something more?

“Certain Women”
Lowdown: Kelly Reichardt’s latest centers on three different women living in small town America and stars Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern.
Big Questions: Can Reichardt craft a semi-commercial film? (Do we want her to?) And can any of these ladies be players for next year’s Best Supporting Actress race?

“Joshy”
Lowdown: The director of “Life After Beth” returns with a Bachelor Party comedy that really isn’t (maybe).
Big Question: With Tom Middleditch, Nick Kroll, Adam Pally, Jenny Slate and Aubrey Plaza this has to be good, right?

“Weiner”
Lowdown: A documentary focusing on Anthony Weiner’s campaign for New York City Mayor that collapsed disastrously after new sexting allegations surfaced.
Big Question: It’s supposed to be very funny, but is it too soon?

“Holy Hell”
Lowdown: The director moved to West Hollywood after film school in the 1980s where he ended up joining a cult that no one seemed to know about.
Big Question: How scandalous was this cult and how come no one knew about it?

“The Birth of a Nation”
Lowdown: Nate Parker’s directs and stars in this true story about a former slave that sparks a rebellion against white slave owners in Virginia in 1831.
Big Question: Is it an awards player?

“Under my Shadow”
Lowdown: This Iranian post-revolution-set thriller centers on a mother and son that believe an evil force is haunting their home.
Big Question: Netflix already picked up this hyped Midnight player, but will someone pay even more to release it theatrically?

“Kiki”
Lowdown: A documentary that initially focuses on the ballroom voguing scene in modern day New York City. It eventually turns into a powerful document of the prejudice and battles LGBTQ people of color still face every day.
Big Question: Will a significant enough distributor pick this up to give it the showcase it deserves?

“The Intervention”
Lowdown: Clea DuVall writes and directs this comedy about a weekend trip that turns into an intervention over their marriages.
Big Question: It seems like a prime acquisition target, but as one of the last premieres in the U.S. dramatic competition maybe it’s not?

“The Fundamentals of Caring”
Lowdown: Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez star in the closing night flick. ‘Nuff said.
Big Question: Last year was arguably the only time in Sundance’s history that a closing night film (in this case “Grandma”) turned into a well-reviewed box office hit. Can “Caring” make that a trend after being acquired by Netflix before the festival?

What Sundance title are you most excited about? Share your thoughts below.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.
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Awards Campaign provides commentary and insight on the movie industry. It's also the current online home of Gregory Ellwood, an industry veteran who has covered the movie business and Oscar campaigns for over a decade. For more information including partnerships and advertising opportunities please E-mail info@awardscampaign.com.