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The must-see movies premiering at Sundance Film Festival

The Utah festival will see the world premier of 118 films this year

'Luxor' stars British actress Andrea Riseborough, right and French-Lebanese actor Karim Saleh. 
'Luxor' stars British actress Andrea Riseborough, right and French-Lebanese actor Karim Saleh. 

The Sundance Film Festival kicks off in Salt Lake City on Thursday, January 23, with a promise of big names, new discoveries and a diverse selection of American and international independent cinema. With 118 films receiving world ­premieres, there’s a large number of features and documentaries to choose from in an event that has, in the past, launched such luminaries as Steven ­Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Darren Aronofsky.

Spotting future careers in the making is what Sundance is all about, and in terms of filmmakers from the Mena region, the spotlight will be on Saudi Arabian actor, writer and director Meshal Aljaser, who has already made several short films (including the provocative Is Sumiyati Going To Hell? in 2016). He arrives at the festival with his latest, the romantic sci-fi Arabian Alien, the story of a depressed man who befriends an extraterrestrial.

Also to be unveiled at the festival is The Dissident, the new documentary from Bryan Fogel (who won an Oscar for 2017’s Icarus). This looks deeply into the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, when he entered the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul and never came out.

Meanwhile, as part of the World Dramatic Competition strand, writer-director Zeina Durra’s Luxor, an Egyptian-UK co-­production, will be unveiled – the filmmaker’s second feature after 2010’s The Imperialists Are Still Alive!. The film is also produced by Egyptian director and president of the Cairo International Film Festival Mohamed Hefzy. In the movie, acclaimed British actress Andrea Riseborough (Birdman, Mandy) plays a British aid worker who travels to the eponymous Egyptian city where an encounter with her former lover, an archaeologist, leads to emotional turbulence.

Riseborough also features in another film in the same strand, Possessor, the new work from Brandon Cronenberg, son of acclaimed director David Cronenberg, about eight years after his 2012 debut Antiviral. This science fiction tale sounds like a mix of Being John Malkovich and one of Cronenberg senior’s body horror classics, with the story of a corporate agent who uses brain implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies and lure them into committing assassinations. Jennifer Jason Leigh co-stars.

At least in American terms, the section to watch will be the US Dramatic Competition, which has carefully ­selected a fascinating line-up of emerging filmmakers.

Among the more intriguing star vehicles this year is Downhill, the new film from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash who previously won an Oscar for co-scripting Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. This latest effort, featuring in the premiere strand, is a remake of Ruben Ostlund’s breakout movie Force Majeure, in which one man’s reactions when faced with an avalanche during a ski trip impacts his family. Given it stars comedians Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it may be wildly different from the original.

Ethan Hawke in Tesla (2020). 
Ethan Hawke stars in 'Tesla' (2020). IMDB

Like any festival, Sundance has its favourite sons and daughters. Director Michael ­Almereyda is back with regular collaborator Ethan Hawke (they’ve previously made two ­Shakespeare adaptations, Hamlet and Cymbeline). This time, in Tesla, Hawke is playing the pioneering inventor and electric engineer Nikola Tesla – a project that brings Almereyda full circle, given he won his Hollywood agent years ago with a spec script about his subject.

Novelist, artist and filmmaker Miranda July also returns with just her third film, Kajillionaire. It’s been 15 years since she made her debut with Me, You and Everyone We Know, but this new comedy looks tantalising. Evan Rachel Wood (Frozen 2, Across the Universe) plays the daughter of two con artists who taught their offspring everything she knows. Until, that is, a chance encounter with an outsider, played by Gina Rodriguez, leads to a bid for freedom.

Further afield, British film Dream Horse looks worth taking a punt on. Based on a true story about a syndicate made up of everyday folk from a small Welsh town that bred a champion racehorse, it stars Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine) as Jan Vokes, the brains behind the operation. It’s the second time this story will be told to Sundance audiences, after the 2015 documentary Dark Horse played at the festival and won the Audience Award.

One of the highest profile ­entries is Netflix title Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, directed by Lana Wilson, which promises to be an intimate portrait of the global singing sensation. The documentary follows the American singer-songwriter over the course of several years of her life. However, it arguably won’t be the biggest talking point. That’s likely to go to the “Untitled Kirby Dick / Amy Ziering Film”, which deals with the story of Drew Dixon, a female music producer behind the likes of 2Pac, Method Man and Mary J Blige, who reveals the abuse she’s suffered from male colleagues. Whatever its final title, it’s destined to be explosive.

The Sundance Film Festival takes place in Salt Lake City, Utah, from Thursday, January 23, to Sunday, February 2

Updated: January 15, 2020 04:56 PM

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