Sundance 2011: Signature's Pre-festival Primer

Long before anyone had the incentive or inclination (technologically or otherwise) to create a publication like this one, which caters to the ardent and expansive community of culture buffs fascinated by literary storytelling in all formats --  words and images; pages and screens; pods and pads. Back in its early '90s heyday, the Sundance Film Festival espoused a similar sensibility in its approach to creating a gathering place for the kind of serious film fans and filmmakers alike. It was a crowd not unlike the book-loving cineastes who are Signature's raison d'etre.

At its best, Sundance was a haven for discovering cutting-edge artists. For ten days each January, a snowy mountain town in Utah, of all places, became the the nucleus of the biggest counterculture creative movement since the Beats in the '60s or the '7's filmmaking renaissance in Hollywood (think: Scorsese, Coppola, DePalma, Malick, Woody Allen, and the amazing Hal Ashby). The Sundance creative revolutionaries include such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Robert Rodriguez, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, and Steven Soderbergh. Put another way, Park City, Utah, was the 1990's equivalent of Paris in the 1920s: a magnet for cutting-edge artists who wanted share their work with a community of like-minds.

To a large extent, The Sundance Film Festival still plays a similar role in the film world, if not the world at large. Sure, there were a few years near the turn of the millennium, when Paris Hilton dominated Sundance headlines and the festival seemed to have lost its way. It had morphed into a media circus and commercial showcase for mediocre quirky star vehicles and the latest Ugg boot styles. But over the past few years, Sundance has corrected back into the dynamic showcase of groundbreaking and/or virtuoso storytelling it was always meant to be.

As it happens, the Old School Sundance sensibility could not be more creatively aligned with Signature's  approach to showcasing literary cinema in all its rich complexity. So, with that in mind, we've decided to take a novel approach to covering Sundance, mining the festival for films with origins in books or simply a literary approach to storytelling.

What follows is a carefully culled selection of the ten Sundance films we're most dying to dig into once we get to Park City. Though we're making no guarantees that these will be the breakout hits of the festival, we've developed a pretty strong instinct for the most interesting stories, both on screen and off -- for any doubters among you. Take note of the list and check back to see how our picks held up once the festival is over.

The Future director Miranda July. Photo: Todd Cole

"The Future" This wry comedy was written and directed by Miranda July -- a fiction writer whose stories often appear in The New Yorker (here is a particularly dazzling example of her hilariously well-observed narratives). Though the story sounds deceptively simple -- a couple who decides to adopt a stray cat; radical upheaval ensues -- July brings a finely-observed complexity to everything she does. Need proof? Check out her acclaimed first feature, the impressionistic slice-of-life comedy, "Me and You and Everyone We Know."

Project Nim directed by James Marsh. Photo: Harry Benson

"Project Nim" Director James Marsh, who first dazzled Sundance audiences in 2008 with "Man on Wire," returns to Park City with this tale of Nim, a chimpanzee who was taught to communicate with sign language as he was raised and nurtured like a human child by scientists in a landmark 1970's experiment. Nim's journey was previously captured in print in Elizabeth Hess' Nim Chimpsky. Here Marsh provides an expanded view of the intersection between the human and animal world by combining archival footage of Nim with original interviews with those involved in the study. Prepare for some moving and disturbing revelations about human nature along the lines of those famous Harry Harlow experiments, in which baby monkeys were given the choice between a wire "mama" with a food source and a plush sans milk. Guess which one the primates chose.

Scence from The Music Never Stopped directed by Jim Kohlberg based on story by Dr. Oliver Sacks.

"The Music Never Stopped" Based on the story “The Last Hippie” by Dr. Oliver Sacks, this film (which was just picked up for distribution by Roadside Attractions) centers around the relationship between an aging father (J.K. Simmons) and his estranged son (Lou Taylor Pucci), who suffers from a brain tumor that prevents him from forming new memories. A breakthrough in the son's therapy, using music to tether him to reality, helps the pair connect and accept the limits of their relationship and each other.

A still from Being Elmo starring Keving Clash and directed by Constance Marks.

"BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer’s Journey" Elmo, Jim Henson's squeaky-voiced crimson-furred puppet, is one of the most beloved characters among children across the globe. This documentary gets up close and personal with the surprising man behind Elmo – Kevin Clash, the puppet-master who began the unveiling in his touching and fascinating 2006 memoir: My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love, and Laughing Out Loud.

A still from the movie Submarine directed by Richard Ayoade.

"Submarine" Writer-director Richard Ayoade's adaptation of Joe Dunthorne's coming-of-age-novel follows fifteen-year-old Oliver Tate's simultaneous and conflicting quests to save his parents' marriage and to lose his virginity. This charming bildungsroman has been filling audiences with bittersweet pleasure since its debut at the Toronto Film Festival last September.

A scene from Perfect Sense starring Ewan McGregor and directed by David Mackenzie.

"Perfect Sense" Hollywood producers have been keeping a close eye on the talented English director David Mackenzie ever since his 2003 moody drama, "Young Adam," starring Richard Ayoade mysterious drifter, cleaned up at the BAFTA's -- the British version of the Oscars. Now MacKenzie reunites with Ewan McGregor in this elegiac love story about two people falling in love as the world ends.

The Lie directed by Joshua Leonard. Photo: Dan Monick.

"The Lie" Based on T.C. Boyle's hilarious and horrifying short story (which originally appeared in The New Yorker) about a lazy guy who tells a whopper of an untruth to get out of going to work and ultimately causes his entire life to unravel.  Among the many fascinating elements of this project is its writer-director Joshua Leonard, who first made a name for himself at Sundance in 1999 as one of the actors in "The Blair Witch Project." Now,  he's reemerged as a director of an acclaimed piece of fiction and with a role in another of the festival's most promising entries, "Higher Ground," actress Vera Farmiga's directorial debut about a woman's struggle with life in a cult.

Salvation Boulevard featuring Piece Brosnan and Greg Kinnear and directed by George Ratliff.

"Salvation Boulevard" This unlikely follow-up to director George Ratliff's last film -- the "Omen"-like psychological thriller, "Joshua" (starring Vera Farmiga and Sam Rockwell) takes place in the world of mega-church fundamentalism). Adapted from a novel by Larry Beinhart, this black comedy centers around an evangelical preacher (Pierce Brosnan) who frames an ex-hippie (Greg Kinnear) for a crime he did not commit.

Magic Trip directed by Allison Eastwood and Alex Gibney.

"Magic Trip" Directors Allison Eastwood (daughter of Clint) and veteran doc director Alex Gibney  ("Taxi to the Dark Side") team up for this excavation of  Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' 1964 cross-country road trip to the New York World's Fair. The "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" author and his posse knew no moderation when it came to psychedelic drugs and debauchery in all formats. Eastwood and Gibney have assembled footage, audio recordings and photographs taken during the trip to re-create the magic.

Paul Rudd in a scene from My Idiot Brother directed by Jesse Peretz.

"My Idiot Brother" Director, Jesse Peretz, son of The New Republic publisher, Marty Peretz, is best known for his 1997 adaptation of the Ian McEwan short story, First Love, Last Rites, starring Natasha Gregson Wagner and Giovanni Ribisi as a couple of sex-addled misfits. Here Paul Rudd plays a titular long-haired pothead who ping-pongs between his three sisters' houses as he tries to get his life back together. Paul Rudd playing a stoner is an inspired comic idea whose time has clearly come. Can't wait for this one.

Heading to Sundance this year? Plan your trip with Fodor’s Park City Travel Guide.