Sundance's 2014 NEXT Lineup Promises the Freshest Films at The Festival

The Sundance Film Festival has released its 2014 lineup of U.S. and foreign dramas and documentaries, and its 30th-anniversary offerings do not disappoint. Already, various news outlets are announcing the veteran stars in U.S. films, and the documentaries that pack the most punch. But in all of this familiar buzz, I would like to devote some time to the NEXT <=> section of the festival, which, with its heavily typographical name, is sometimes eclipsed by glitzier premieres. The NEXT <=> competition, though, shows new filmmakers and new ideas, and it looks particularly promising this year.

The NEXT <=> competition got its start at the 2010 festival, and it has been growing ever since. Trevor Groth, Sundance's Director of Programming has said that NEXT <=> was created for a specific purpose: "Storytellers are constantly going to be pushing themselves, and there needs to be a place to showcase that." This year there are 11 films in the running, up from last year's ten. Also, last year's NEXT <=> was so popular that Sundance launched a NEXT WEEKEND competition to keep the momentum going in the off-season. And that momentum continues with this year's quirky contenders.

This year's NEXT <=> section also fits into a larger trend of first-time filmmakers conquering Sundance. Of the offerings announced today, 54 of the filmmakers are Sundance virgins, with 10 newbies in the U.S. competition alone. I do want to point out that NEXT <=> does not just accept first-timers, though, and it will be showing films from indie veterans, and one that features Susan Sarandon. Even with some vets in the mix, NEXT promises the freshest film strips at Sundance 2014. Let's meet the films, in neatly organized groups.

The First Group: The Not-So-New

It is no secret that NEXT <=> has included more veteran directors and actors this year, but their work does not seem stale or played-out. Ping Pong Summer is already creating a buzz, since it has Susan Sarandon in a lead role, but its description of "that awkward, momentous time in your life when you’re treated like an alien by everyone around you, even though you know deep down you’re as funky fresh as it gets" seems intriguing. Susan Sarandon getting "funky fresh" with the "hip hop" is definitely a must-see.

Other members of this group include veteran directors like Land Ho!'s Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz. Land Ho! itself treds the familiar territory of a campy 80's road trip movie, but in Iceland, with "a candid exploration of aging, loneliness, and friendship" thrown in. Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Phillip even stars Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss in a drama about a newly accomplished writer. Once again, these directors and actors seem to prove that old filmmakers can learn new tricks.

Sexuality in The City

Three films at NEXT <=> deal with sexuality this year, in completely different ways. There has already been some buzz around Appropriate Behavior, which is by the newbie director Desiree Akhavan. The film centers on the struggles of young Persian woman who struggles to maintain her multi-faceted bisexual, Persian, and hipster identity. It has the best tagline of the whole bunch, as well: "Being without a cliché to hold on to can be a lonely experience."

The other two films build are based more on relationships than the solitary Appropriate Behavior. The Foxy Merkins is billed as a "buddy prostitute comedy" which centers on the relationship between two women who work as lesbian prostitutes (one of whom identifies as straight). Even more out-there than the Merkins, though is Drunktown's Finest, which apparently focuses on the lives of three Native Americans--"a rebellious father-to-be, a devout Christian woman, and a promiscuous transsexual." I am personally excited to see how these coming-of-age stories pan out.

Too (Un)Real

Last but not least are the very serious, possibly tear-inducing films for this year. War Story and Imperial Dreams promise interesting looks at men who have lived through war (or gang war) conditions, and can never look back. Memphis and Obvious Child promise to show inner-city folk who have been beaten by their urban surroundings (Memphis and Brooklyn, respectively), in an almost Dickensian fashion.

The film I am most excited about in this category, though, does not attempt reality. Instead, it aims at the fantastic, or possibly the macabre. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night promises to scare the panties off anyone who frequents deserted villages at night, follows "depraved denizens [who] are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire." It is set in a ghost town in Iran, which will be a new location for vampires on the American screen. I'm not sure what to expect (except loneliness), but I have a feeling it will be exhilarating.

If these awesome contenders for the 2014 NEXT <=> haven't convinced that it's the best part of Sundance, I think we are at an impasse. You can always just go watch that movie with Kristen Stewart in it instead.

Image: Gotham Group