Sundance Film Festival 2013: 8 movies for fans of the fantastic

Jan. 17, 2013 | 2:00 p.m.

Thursday evening sees the kickoff to the 2013 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, the annual indie confab that is the site of plenty of industry dealmaking and celeb-spotting as half of Hollywood seems to descend on Park City, Utah, for 10 days of hard-core movie-watching and celebrating.

The 2013 lineup features 119 feature-length films culled from more than 4,000 submissions, and a handful of those have a decidedly Hero Complex bent. With that in mind, here are eight films to look out for. Some might be hard to find — Sundance movies don’t always land national theatrical distribution — but with VOD and online viewing options multiplying at a rapid clip, chances are good you’ll have the opportunity to see these titles in some fashion in the months ahead.

SUNDANCE: Full coverage

“Computer Chess”: It isn’t a comic-book superhero origin story or a spooky horror tale. “Computer Chess” is, in fact, about a  computer chess tournament, so why, you may ask, is it included here? Because it is about nothing less than the agony and the ecstasy of truly being passionate about an interest others might not share, about what it means to be really, really into something with a deep, abiding conviction and maybe sometimes feeling a little like an outsider for it. What could be more thematically resonant than that?

Screening in the festival’s NEXT section, “Computer Chess” is the first film in a few years from Andrew Bujalski, one of the leading lights of the American micro-budget scene that came to be known as mumblecore. Shot on vintage video equipment to give it an off-kilter look, the movie covers the weekend-long goings-on at a 1980s computer chess tournament, where teams pit their machines against one another and a human chess master. Funny and poignant, it’s also a witty satire on technology and how today’s cutting-edge will be tomorrow’s quaint kitsch.

A scene from "The East." (Sundance Film Festival)

A scene from “The East.” (Sundance Film Festival)

“The East”: Director Zal Batmanglij made a much heralded debut at Sundance two years ago with “Sound of My Voice,” a head-spinning story of cults and time travel. He returns this year to premiere his techno-thriller “The East,” about a young woman (co-screenwriter Brit Marling) who works for a private security firm infiltrating a mysterious anarchist eco-collective that has been carrying out daring plots against CEOs. As she spends time with the group she finds herself beginning to see things their way, not least because of her feelings for their handsome, charismatic leader (“True Blood’s” Alexander Skarsgard). “The East” has a more commercial sheen than many Sundance films —  Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony are among the film’s producers — but it still has plenty of cool cred. The cast also includes Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell and Patricia Clarkson.

“In Fear”: It might be the straight-up scariest film at the festival. “In Fear,” playing as part of the Midnight section, centers on a young couple (Alice Englert, daughter of filmmaker Jane Campion, and Iain De Caestecker) who become lost in a remote wooded area while trying to make their way to a romantic hotel. Weird things happen, but they’re not sure whether someone is taunting them or they’ve simply become spooked by dark trees and deserted roads and are imagining a threat.

First-time feature director Jeremy Lovering (second unit director on Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz”) keeps the film moving by finding a seemingly infinite number of ways to shoot a couple in a car, and he kept the actors on their toes by never telling them what was going to happen to them next. It was a smart move. Their genuine fear makes the experience of watching the film all the more terrifying.

“Sightseers”: With his previous films “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” British director Ben Wheatley remade the gangster film as suburban family drama and transformed a mercenary tale into a dark cult paranoia fantasy, respectively. So it should come as no surprise that with “Sightseers,” which screens in the festival’s Spotlight section, he turns a lovers’ holiday into an uproarious murdering crime-spree comedy. With fantastic performances by leads Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who co-wrote the screenplay, the film follows Tina and Chris as they take in the bucolic sights of rural England, historic viaducts and a pencil museum. As Chris reveals a murderous rage boiling inside him, Tina not only accepts this side of her sweetie, she decides to take an interest in his hobby and finds skills she never realized she possessed — proving that maybe sometimes it’s for the best if couples don’t share everything with each other.

“Stoker”: The first English-language film by lauded Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “Lady Vengeance”) is a must-see by nearly any standard; that Park is working with actors of the caliber of Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode makes it even more promising. “Stoker” tells the story of a mother and daughter grieving over a sudden death in the family who are soon joined by a mysterious relative. Terms like “macabre,” “haunting,” “weird” and “Hitchcockian” already have been tossed around to describe the film, which Fox Searchlight will release in early March.

“S-VHS”: It seems like nearly every year there’s one horror film that sparks reports of audiences fainting or vomiting in the aisles. Last year, that movie was “V/H/S,” though whether you’d be apt to attribute that reaction to shaky-cam disorientation or altitude-induced alcohol issues depends on how mythic you like your festival folklore. Still, the film is not for the faint of heart. A compilation of six horror shorts inspired by the recent popularity of the “found footage” conceit, the movie begins with a framing story that follows a small gang of hoodlums who come across a cache of videotapes after they break into a house; each of the shorts portrays what the burglars supposedly see on the tapes and each has a unique style, while offering the requisite twists and gore.

This year brings “S-VHS,” a second installment of the indie horror anthology debuting in the Midnight section that will again feature a series of found footage shorts. Returning to the anthology are Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard; new to the roster are Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans and Jason Eisner. It remains to be seen if the follow-up will live up to its predecessor’s outsized reputation. Consider yourself warned.

“Upstream Color”: Shane Carruth’s 2004 debut, “Primer,” not only won the grand jury competition at Sundance — it also won over hard-core sci-fi fans with its disturbingly plausible story of a few guys who build an actual working time machine. The film brought an unexpected moral gravity to what could have been a more straightforward genre tale. “Upstream Color” is his long-awaited follow-up and it premieres as part of the festival’s U.S. dramatic competition. It exists in a realm that might well be thought of as science fiction: In the movie, a young woman (Amy Seimetz) is abducted and seemingly brainwashed via an organic material harvested from a specific flower. She later meets a man (Carruth) and after the two fall for each other, they come to realize he may also have been subjected to the same process. They set out to find and stop the people responsible. But Carruth’s new film injects a level of emotion that also makes it something more than a genre movie, something surprising but entirely worthwhile.

“We Are What We Are”: A remake of the 2010 Mexican film of the same name, “We Are What We Are” is a domestic drama twisted into a horror story, as a family of cannibals struggle to maintain tradition amid the complicated logistics of their unusual lifestyle. Director Jim Mickle, who also made the recent post-apocalyptic vampire thriller “Stake Land,” adapted the film, also screening in Sundance’s Midnight section, with his frequent collaborator Nick Damici. Ambyr Childers, who played the daughter of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd in “The Master,” and Julia Garner, whose ghostly presence and corkscrew curls have made her a standout in films such as “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” star. “Stake Land” vet Kelly McGillis, also appears.

— Mark Olsen

Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus


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4 Responses to Sundance Film Festival 2013: 8 movies for fans of the fantastic

  1. Regina says:

    Do see a riveting movie at the Sundance Festival called " Stranded in Existence" . Watch the Trailer on Youtube.

  2. david says:

    I am looking for a synopsis of the movies for the 2013 festival. We have several choices at a local movie theater in San Jose Ca.

  3. david says:

    I am looking for a synopsis of the movies for the 2013 festival. We have several choices at a local movie theater in San Jose Ca. The names of the movies about to play here do not match those mentioned in the L.A. Times titled "Hero Complex.

  4. david says:

    What other source of information exists which I may see a more thorough synopsis of the movies?

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