PARK CITY, UTAH — While the rest of the country prepared for President Barack Obama to be inaugurated for his second term, there was a very different type of inauguration going on in Park City, Utah: The inaugural season for cinema in 2013. Since it began in 1978, the Sundance Film Festival has grown into one of the largest and most important independent film festivals in the country. Every January, Sundance marks the premiere of some of the most talked-about movies for the upcoming year, including recent hits like Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and Winter's Bone. Last year, the biggest premiere was Beasts of the Southern Wild; almost completely unknown when it premiered, it's now nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. What breakout films could emerge from this year's festival? A guide to six of the most buzz-about films from the first half of Sundance:
1. Crystal Fairy
The film: Better known as "the movie in which Michael Cera does a bunch of drugs in Chile," Crystal Fairy is the first of two Cera-starring films from director Sebastian Silva at Sundance this year. It's no secret that Cera's career has recently stalled, with roles in Youth in Revolt, Superbad, and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World pigeonholing him as the gawky, awkward, deadpan kind of teen he played in Arrested Development. But in Crystal Fairy, which was shot over a couple weeks on a shoestring budget, Cera breaks out of his mold by playing an obsessive pseudo-intellectual hell-bent on gobbling up every drug Chile has to offer, along with his three Chilean buddies (played by Silva's real-life brothers). Things go awry when Cera accidentally invites a girl a free-spirited hippie named Crystal Fairy (Abby Hoffman). Egos clash as Cera and Hoffman embody different parodies of the young-American-abroad cliche, and the result is as hilarious as it is bizarre.
The buzz: Pretty high. Nothing has been announced regarding distribution, but if Silva and Cera's other collaboration is as warmly received, someone may pick up both films for a limited release.
The film: Last year, Matthew McConaughey enjoyed a career resurgence as acclaimed performances in Magic Mike, Bernie, and Killer Joe reminded critics that he has loads of talent beyond his washboard abs. And Mud, a southern-fried crime thriller wrapped in a poignant coming-of-age story, finds McConaughey at his absolute best. Mud centers on two young friends, Ellis and Neckbone (newcomers Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who discover the outlaw Mud (McConaughey) hiding out on a small, vacant river island. Eventually, the two befriend him and agree to help Mud reunite with his longtime girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) before the dangerous bounty hunters hot on his trail can track him down. With beautiful cinematography from Adam Stone and a haunting score from David Wingo and Ben Nichols, Mud is perhaps director Jeff Nichols' most ambitious — and best — film to date.
The buzz: Mostly positive. Distribution is already set for a late April release.
3. After Tiller
The film: After Tiller is sure to be one of the most controversial documentaries of 2013. Indeed, its world premiere required ticket holders to go through metal detectors upon entry. Following the aftermath of the murder of Dr. George Tiller — famous for performing late-term abortions — the film tells the story of Tiller's remaining colleagues: The only four doctors in the world who still perform third-trimester abortions. Compelling and often heart-wrenching, After Tiller carefully examines what the details of the choice in "pro-choice" really are.
The buzz: Nearly unanimous praise among the liberal Sundance crowd. No distribution deal yet, but After Tiller will surely be one of the most talked-about documentaries of 2013.
4. Don Jon's Addiction
The film: After a breakout year in 2012, the always-impressive Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes both in front and behind the camera in his dirty, funny, and surprisingly charming directorial debut. In this treatise on sex addiction, Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a Don Juan for the Jersey Shore generation. Fit, clean-cut, and oozing with self confidence, Jon's has-it-all persona is colored by a dark secret: He's addicted to internet porn. In a matter-of-fact voiceover that anchors the narrative, Jon admits that he enjoys porn even more than the real thing. But through relationships with two very different women (Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore), Jon learns lessons on love and sex, all while keeping his "GTL" (that's gym, tanning, and laundry, for those who have successfully ignored Jersey Shore) persona intact. Anchored by its stellar cast and sharp script, Don Jon's Addiction is hilarious and filthy — and a genuinely fascinating discourse on gender politics.
The buzz: Though it has divided critics, the chatter around Park City over Don Jon's Addiction has been nonstop. It hasn't been picked up yet, but there's no question that a film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's name all over it is a hot commodity. Expect a wide release sometime in the spring or summer.
The film: Premiering exactly a year after this sequel's predecessor, V/H/S, took Sundance midnight audiences by storm, S-VHS takes everything that worked in the first film and cranks the volume up to 11. Like V/H/S, S-VHS is a collaborative exercise in horror, with seven prominent directors delivering an anthology of shorts in the "found footage" style. Though the sequel was rushed into production after the success of the first film, it doesn't feel rushed. Each segment is delicately crafted and perfectly executed to deliver visceral scares, twisted laughs, and gore. It's nastier, bloodier, and much more accomplished than the first film.
The buzz: After a standing ovation at the world premiere, critics are hailing S-VHS as a superior successor. Though it hasn't yet been picked up for distribution, someone will likely end up paying a lot for it. Expect a wide release in October, a year after the original hit theaters.
6. Escape From Tomorrow
The film: Family vacations can be a nightmare, but director Randy Moore takes it to a new extreme in Escape From Tomorrow, which depicts a family vacation straight out of a David Lynch fever dream. Shot guerilla-style and without permission in Disney World, the film is a surreal and bizarrely original story of a doomed family of four during the last day of their vacation. As the film kicks off, the family patriarch Jim receives a phone call that he's lost his job. But he doesn't want it to spoil the last day of vacation, so he keeps the bad news from his wife and two small kids and goes on with the day, which slowly takes a turn for the worse, the weird, and eventually the downright surreal, as he becomes infatuated with following around two uncomfortably young French girls. With nightmarish imagery and a narrative that slowly transcends rational description, Escape From Tomorrow is destined to be a cult classic.
The buzz: Easily the most talked-about film of the fest, Escape From Tomorrow has been receiving rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Rumors have even surfaced that Disney is already preparing a lawsuit against the filmmakers, making the film even more alluring, but potentially un-sellable.