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Road to Sundance: When 'Frozen River' broke the ice for Melissa Leo -- VIDEO

Every Monday until the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, EW is celebrating a great success story from independent film’s most prestigious showcase. Last week, we revisited Lee Daniel’s Precious. Today, we look back at Frozen River, the 2008 movie that made Hollywood take notice of Melissa Leo.

Leo had been acting for more than 20 years when Frozen River came to Sundance, and most people knew her best for her five seasons as Detective Kay Howard on TV’s Homicide: Life on the Street. In 21 Grams, she’d proven she could act with anyone, but she wasn’t considered for many leading movie roles until Frozen River. In Courtney Hunt’s upstate–New York drama, Leo played a desperate but fierce mother whose lofty ambition of making the down-payment for a double-wide trailer-home leads her to pair up with Native American (Misty Upham) from the local reservation to smuggle people into the country from Canada. READ FULL STORY

Sundance 2014: Short films slate features sitcom stars

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Short films can go a long way. Especially when they’re showcased at the Sundance Film Festival. The festival’s Shorts program, which was announced today, has a tradition of identifying remarkable filmmakers as well as introducing stories that ultimately make it to the big-screen as features. For example, David O. Russell brought his first film, a short titled Bingo Inferno to Sundance in 1987, while Half Nelson, which earned Ryan Gosling his first Oscar nomination, grew out of Ryan Fleck’s 2004 Sundance short titled, Gowanus, Brooklyn. “If you look back at the directors who got their start by having a short at Sundance, the list is really impressive,” says Sundance’s director of programming Trevor Groth, who points out that last year’s short, Whiplash, is back this year as a full-length feature. “So for us it’s always nice to see that trajectory.”

This year, there were 66 shorts selected in the U.S. Narrative, International Narrative, Documentary, and Animated categories. On paper, the slate is full of quirky tales: in I’m a Mitvah, Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) spends a night with his dead friend after his plan to bring the body home from Mexico for a proper burial is delayed by a cancelled flight. And it’s difficult to top this quick synopsis for the Canadian short, Life’s a Bitch: “Love. Grief. Choc. Denial. Sleeplessness. Bubble bath. Mucus. Masturbation. Pop tart. Pigeons. Toothpaste. Hospital. F__k. Bye. Hair. Sports. Chicken. Bootie. Kids. Rejection. Squirrels. Cries. Awkward — 95 scenes, five minutes: life’s a bitch.”

Two notable documentaries are Remembering the Artist, Robert De Niro, Sr. (above), which explores the work of the actor’s father, an abstract expressionist who passed away 20 years ago. In Untucked, Community‘s Danny Pudi laces up with the 1977 Marquette University basketball team, the colorful NCAA champions who set the fashion with their “untucked” jerseys.

Click below for the entire Shorts list: READ FULL STORY

Sundance 2014: Michael Fassbender, Nick Offerman, and Roger Ebert headline Premieres

The Sundance Film Festival announced the titles selected to screen in its out-of-competition Premieres and Documentary Premieres sections. Last year, the movies that were launched in these categories — which typically highlight filmmakers who’ve appeared at Sundance before — included Before Midnight, Don Jon, and The Way Way Back; this year appears to be just as promising. In Lynn Shelton’s Laggies, a young woman stuck in arrested-development (Keira Knightley) has her life upended by an unexpected marriage proposal. In David Wain’s They Came Together — surely, a naughty pun, yes? — Wet Hot American Summer alums Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd reunite for Wain’s satire of what seems to be a Woody Allen romantic-comedy. Poehler’s Parks and Recreation co-star Nick Offerman takes center stage for his own concert film, Nick Offerman: American Ham. “He’s very much a storyteller and humorist,” says Sundance’s director of programming Trevor Groth. “It actually has not just laughter, but some emotion, in terms of his views on life and love.”

But the slate isn’t just comedies. (This is Sundance after all.) Michael Shannon and Nicholas Hoult star in Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones, a genre-bender “that’s really a Western in its form and function,” says Sundance’s director John Cooper.

For those of you hoping to see Michael Fassbender in a Sundance movie, you’re in luck… aaand you’re out of luck. Fassbender plays a musical genius in Lenny Abrahamson’s movie, Frank. “His character wears a giant ceramic head the entire film, so you’ve got this [actor] who can basically take any film role out there and he takes one where he hides his face,” says Cooper. “A brave choice from someone who’s known for his brave choices.”

At least Ryan Reynolds has the good taste to be in a Sundance movie that doesn’t hide his face (or trap him in a coffin). That’s not to say his character in Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices doesn’t have some baggage. Reynolds plays a mentally unbalanced factory drone whose attempts at office romance don’t work out. When things turn unexpectedly violent, he begins to hear the voices of his pets as they advise him what to do next. “It’s a jolt,” says Groth. “[Ryan] does something really inventive. Believe me, the talking cats and dogs are the least of your problems in this movie.”

As always, some of the festivals most promising movies are documentaries. Rory Kennedy (Ethel) returns to Park City with the Last Days of Vietnam, which investigates the U.S. orders to evacuate only American personnel, leaving behind loyal South Vietnamese as Saigon fell to the Communists. Amir Bar-Lev digs deep into Happy Valley to investigate the culture that enabled Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky to abuse countless youths. Steve James, who directed Hoop Dreams, chronicles the career of the late Roger Ebert in Life Itself.

Mitt Romney will also make an appearance of sorts. The former Salt Lake City Olympics CEO and presidential candidate is the subject of a documentary from Greg Whitely, simply titled Mitt. “It gave me a whole new sort of perspective on politicians and what they have to go through,” says Cooper. “Just the rigor if it, and how the family has to be part of this process.”

One potential breakout documentary is The Battered Bastards of Baseball, the true story of the Portland Mavericks, an independent minor-league baseball team founded by actor Bing Russell in the 1970s. “He put together this team that ended up being this great David versus Goliath, Bad News Bears story of these rag-tag group of players that became winners,” says Groth. “Kurt Russell was there as a young guy following the team around and [Little Children director] Todd Field was the bat-boy. It’s just an amazing story and I think it’s going to be a real crowd-pleaser.”

Click below for Sundance’s complete listing of Premieres. READ FULL STORY

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy headline Sundance sections

When Sundance announced the films in competition for the 2014 festival yesterday, its organizers noted that they were impressed by the caliber of cinematic artistry — mostly due to technology — that freed up filmmakers to experiment with different genres. No category of the festival is more rooted in genre than Park City at Midnight, the late-night section that specializes in horror and the supernatural, and this year’s slate has several potential breakouts. “The Midnight lineup came together in a way that is about the strongest group we’ve ever had, top to bottom,” says Trevor Groth, Sundance’s director of programming. “I think a lot of those films are going to be real hot acquisitions — titles like Dead Snow 2, The Guest, Cooties. I think all of those are going to be big business, because they work on such great, fun genre levels.”

In addition to the Midnight movies, Sundance also announced lineups for its Spotlight, New Frontier, and the inaugural Sundance Kids sections on Thursday. One highlight in the eclectic Spotlight category, which features extraordinary films that may have previously played a festival or two elsewhere, is Locke, the real-time thriller starring Tom Hardy from Eastern Promises writer Steven Knight. “This is Tom Hardy in a car the entire time, speaking on a phone…as his world crumbles around him,” says Groth. “The dimensions of story that they weave into it, both through his performance and the dialog, is truly remarkable. It was one of the more unique watches we had this entire process.”

The New Frontier section welcomes back Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his hitRECord franchise. He launched the collaborative art project at Sundance in 2010, has returned for live shows since, and now has hitRECord on TV, a new kind of variety show that invites anyone with an Internet hook-up to join the fun.

Another interesting entry in that section is The Better Angels, the Abraham Lincoln movie about the women who steered him as a child toward his destiny, starring Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, and Wes Bentley. If it seems like an odd fit with New Frontier on paper, Groth explains that isn’t the case. “It’s a very artful approach to telling the story,” he says, pointing out that writer/director A.J. Edwards edited Terrence Malick’s last film, To the Wonder. “New Frontier is a section for ‘art’ and innovative storytelling, and A.J. tells this story in a very lyrical, poetic way. The audience’s expectation for having it in New Frontier will be, I think, the best way of having that film seen. When you read it on paper, it feels very straightforward: It’s Lincoln as a boy. But it ends up being much more meditative and experiential than that.”

Click below for a complete lineup of recently announced films. More categories, including Sundance Premieres, will be unveiled on Monday. The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 16-26.
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Sundance 2014: Kristen Stewart, Anne Hathaway, and Lena Dunham lead the ladies to Park City

If the Sundance Film Festival has always been the place to discover tomorrow’s biggest stars in front of and behind the camera during the past 30 years, it seems to have become even more fruitful in recent years. From young filmmakers like Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), and Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) to ready-to-launch superstars like Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Dane DeHaan (Kill Your Darlings), Hollywood has quickly found its future in the snowy peaks of Park City. “One of the biggest changes in the last 30 years is how independent film has become such a vital part of the cultural landscape now,” says Sundance director John Cooper. “It’s no longer an outside-Hollywood thing. It’s its own art form, and we’re feeling the power of that and the surge of that as we move forward.”

Put another way, though, independent film is no longer just for aspiring filmmakers and undiscovered actors. Yes, it’s still the place where unknowns arrive with hopes of becoming the next Felicity Jones or Lee Daniels. But it also represents opportunities for established superstars to play, to flex dormant muscles, and to reinvent themselves. Among today’s announcement of Sundance’s 2014 Dramatic and Documentary competitions, as well as its NEXT section — which highlights digital filmmaking with an eye on tomorrow’s storytelling techniques — were films starring Kristen Stewart, who plays a conflicted Guantanamo Bay prison guard in Camp X-Ray; Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway, who plays the sister of a comatose musician in Song One; and Saturday Night Live alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reuniting to play distant twins in The Skeleton Twins a drama!

Sundance wouldn’t be Sundance, though, if it were just its rich and famous alums coming back to play. “I was particularly proud watching Catching Fire and sort of remembering Winter’s Bone and remembering Jennifer Lawrence at the festival as a young actress, seeing what she was going to become,” says Cooper. “There’s some great discoveries that I think are going to come out of this festival, too.”

In fact, Cooper and Sundance’s director of programming Trevor Groth think this year’s crop of films — culled from more than 12,000 submissions and including 96 world premieres — is the deepest and most polished slate in history. READ FULL STORY

'We Are What We Are' filmmakers talk about their cannibal thriller...over home-cooked dinner!

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Actor and screenwriter Nick Damici’s new film We Are What We Are concerns a close-knit clan of cannibals. So when he welcomes EW into his New York apartment for a home-cooked dinner one obvious question springs to mind: You’re not going to eat me, right? “No, but you’ll notice my girlfriend’s not here,” Damici chuckles, before handing out plates of spicy peppers and what one hopes are pork sausages to EW and We Are What We Are director and cowriter Jim Mickle.
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'You're Next': How a group of indie filmmakers produced one of 2013's most terrifying movies

Director Adam Wingard has received rave reviews for his R-rated, home invasion horror-comedy You’re Next, which screened at several film festivals over the past couple of years and will be released August 23. But his often gore-drenched creative sensibility — and twisted sense of humor — is not everyone’s cup of Darjeeling. In the spring of 2007, for instance, the then just the 24-year-old Wingard appeared on the premiere episode of Fox TV’s On The Lot, a much-hyped but now little-remembered, Steven Spielberg-produced filmmakers’ competition with the first prize of a million-dollar development deal at Dreamworks. As Wingard recalls, he was immediately put off by the reality show vibe of the televised contest and decided to self-sabotage. So in an unaired segment, he pitched a movie about a giant, skinless, suburbia-terrorizing dog named Roger to the show’s three judges: Brett Ratner, Carrie Fisher, and Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall. “I kept emphasizing how violent the film needed to be, and I was doing a dance as I was pitching,” says Wingard, who, it is probably worth noting, stands 6 feet 4 inches tall. “The whole thing was like a performance art piece. I was shocked they didn’t use it because I went out of my way to make an ass out of myself on national television. It was gold!” Needless to say, the Alabama-raised Wingard did not progress to the next round. “I don’t remember what the judges said,” he chuckles, “but I think they were really disappointed in me.” READ FULL STORY

From Sundance to the multiplex: Women directors are taking the spotlight

Long before she directed the summer comedy The To Do List, Maggie Carey was a Division I soccer player at the University of Montana. That was back in the 1990s, when for the first time in her life, she had a female coach.

“It was really refreshing to see a woman in a leadership role and that kind of clicked with me – maybe there was something missing that I wasn’t aware of. And I think seven of the girls [I played with] went on to coach,” Carey says.

Now, as a film director, Carey finds herself at the helm in a profession also historically dominated by men. But like the sea change she witnessed playing soccer earlier in her life, Carey sees things opening up for women who want to get behind the camera.

“The next generation of [soccer] players,” she says, “they’re not going to even think twice about having a female coach. With access and filmmaking, girls who are in high school now aren’t going to think twice about [becoming directors] because they’re going to see women in those positions. It won’t be a barrier because they won’t know there was a barrier.”

Maggie Carey is one of a small group of up and coming female filmmakers in Hollywood who are starting to gain recognition for their work. But it is still a very small group.
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'Arcadia': Oscar-nominee John Hawkes on the lyrical, mysterious family road trip indie

When you’re a young teenager and your dad tells you that you’re moving across the country to California, you kind of have to listen. Even if your mother is mysteriously not joining.

In Arcadia, director Olivia Silver takes viewers on an atmospheric, sun-soaked road trip with Greta (Ryan Simpkins), Caroline (Kendall Toole), and Nat (Ty Simpkins) and their father Tom, played by Oscar-nominee John Hawkes. The reason for the move is cloaked in secrecy. There’s a job in California, and they have to go, but it’s not entirely clear why their mother isn’t there. As the middle child, 12-year-old Greta is the most shielded, and the most aware that something is off. Her older sister knows something she didn’t, and Nat is young enough to blindly accept what he’s told. The quiet film shows a generally happy, but broken family in transition. Eventually we discover along with Greta why their mother isn’t coming.

Arcadia is out on DVD on Tuesday, July 23, with a bonus inclusion of Silver’s 2008 Sundance Film Festival-accepted short Little Canyon. Check out EW’s interview with John Hawkes after the jump about his low-budget passion project.

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Sundance fires up NEXT WEEKEND summertime film festival

Sundance = cold. Usually.

The January indie movie festival held in the snowy mountains of Utah is synonymous with winter, but organizers have decided to heat things up a bit.

The film festival has announce plans for a summertime spin-off, with a program of 10 feature films, 10 short films, and special events to be held in Los Angeles on the weekend of Aug. 8-11.

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