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10 most anticipated films at 2017 Sundance Film Festival

Jack Black, left, and Jason Schwartzman in a scene from "The Polka King." (Courtesy photo)

Editor’s Note: This story is provided by the Salem News’ sister paper in Provo, Utah, the Daily Herald.

Utah’s most prestigious arts event, the Sundance Film Festival, kicks off Thursday in Park City. This year’s festival includes 120 feature-length films — 103 of which will be world premieres– from 32 different countries.

Those figures sound astounding until you zoom out a little bit: There were 13,782 total submissions, including 4,068 feature-length films and 8,985 short films.

We scoured the festival website and a bevy of press releases to find the films that, at least on the surface, look most intriguing. Here are 10 that really caught our attention. (We’ll be at the festival covering some of these picks, as well as others, so stay tuned.)

–‘Brigsby Bear’

First off, “Brigsby Bear” takes place in Cedar Hills, Utah. It also stars “Saturday Night Live’s” Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett. But wait, there’s more! The cast ALSO includes Andy Samberg, Mark Hamill, Claire Danes and Greg Kinnear, among others. Mooney stars as James, a peculiar 25-year-old who leaves his parents’ isolated, off-the-grid home for the first time, fending for himself in Cedar Hills. He seeks solace and meaning in a favorite TV show from his childhood, and sets out to film a proper ending that the show never got. Mooney is one of the more memorable recent “SNL” hires, and he also co-wrote “Brigsby Bear.” A potentially memorable addition to the pantheon of Utah-based films.

–‘The Little Hours’

“The Little Hours” was selected to open the festival on Thursday night — always a good sign. Seeing who’s involved with the film, and reading the plot synopsis, it’s impossible not to get curious. “The Little Hours” stars Alison Brie (“Community”), Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and Kate Micucci (“Don’t Think Twice”) as repressed medieval nuns in a convent on the brink of its own destruction. Father Tommasso, played by the ever-goofy John C. Reilly, hires a — and this is the online synopsis’ wording — “virile young servant,” played by Dave Franco. The servant pretends to be a deaf mute to discourage the swooning nuns, but the convent bursts in a volcano of repressed desire and debauchery. Writer/director Jeff Baena has had his hand in similarly manic films before, including “I Heart Huckabees” and “Life After Beth.” “The Little Hours” is going to be bonkers.

–‘Raw’

No Sundance preview would be complete without an art-house horror flick. Here’s where “Raw” comes into play. This French film from new director Julia Ducournau is set in a veterinary college, and follows the frightening path of Justine, a 16-year-old first-year student forced to eat a raw rabbit liver as part of a harrowing series of initiations. Though she was a vegetarian, Justine develops an insatiable lust for flesh. It makes us squirm just thinking about it. We can’t wait.

–‘Dina’

Hard hitting, big-picture, issue-driven documentaries dominate this year’s selection of docs. But some of the best ones we’ve seen at Sundance have a smaller, slice-of-life focus that point toward broader issues. “Dina” looks to be a similar kind of gem. Dina and Scott, an engaged middle-aged couple who are both on the autism spectrum, confront the challenges of intimacy and cohabitation after Dina invites Scott to move in with her. When it comes to romance and physical intimacy, Dina is uninhibited and Scott is the opposite. How will they reconcile it all? “Dina” looks to be equal parts awkward and sweet — just like true love itself.

–‘Manifesto’

Cate Blanchett never met a character she couldn’t embody. In “Manifesto,” her brilliant bravery will be on full display. The two-time Oscar-winner (and seven-time nominee) plays 13 — yes, 13 — different roles in “Manifesto.” Each of these roles embodies a different artist manifesto — pulling from manifestos of renowned architects, artists and filmmakers. It’s a bold, off-kilter undertaking, but there’s no doubt Blanchett is up for the challenge. She’s never not been.

–‘Take Every Wave’

Has there ever been a cooler surfer than Laird Hamilton? It’s about time this guy got his own documentary. The pioneering big wave surfer is profiled in “Take Every Wave,” from his surfing beginnings in 1960s Hawaii to the present day. Filmmaker Rory Kennedy, an Academy Award nominee for the documentary “Street Fight,” weaves unseen archival footage from Hamilton’s career into a narrative that’s still changing with every new wave — real and metaphorical — that Hamilton encounters.

–‘Kuso’

This might end up being the strangest film at Sundance this year. Steven Ellison, known by his performing name of Flying Lotus, is one of the most forward-thinking musicians in psychedelic electronic music. (Though those signifiers really don’t do justice to his creations.) “Kuso” is Ellison’s first full-length feature, and it looks to be as mind-bending as his music: Set in the aftermath of Los Angeles’ worst earthquake to date, the film is described as a “magical mix of filth-covered fables and hypnotic animations” that reveal “a film rotting from the inside out.” Whoa.

–‘Marjorie Prime’

Director Michael Almereyda (“Hamlet” (2000), “Experimenter”) returns to the festival with another film that examines the nature of our memories. In the not-so-distant future, 86-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith) summons a computerized version of her deceased husband (Jon Hamm) during her final days. This simulation’s sense of self, its understanding of the person it’s simulating, is pulled from what other people tell it. And everyone seems to remember Marjorie’s husband differently. Same goes for their painful pasts. How much do we knowingly alter our own memories? “Marjorie Prime” has some things to say about that. Geena Davis and Tim Robbins round out a stellar cast.

–‘Tokyo Idols’

The Japanese obsession with all-girl pop bands is a thing of wonder. “Tokyo Idols” examines this strange cultural fascination from the inside looking out, and vice versa. The documentary follows Ri Ri, a budding Tokyo Idol, and her male adult superfans who devote their lives to following her. In so doing, audiences learn the strange dynamics of Japan’s female idol culture — one that is changing as its idols become younger and younger, yet moving away from the fringe and closer to Japan’s cultural center. But idol culture is not self-contained — its strange dynamics play out in other pockets of modern society, too.

–‘The Polka King’

Jack Black is at his best when playing lovably goofy characters with a hidden dark side (see: “Bernie,” “Nacho Libre”). He channels those vibes again in “The Polka King.” Based on the true story of Polish émigré Jan Lewen, “The Polka King” tells Lewen’s bizarre, tragically comedic rise and fall. Lewen, surely played with gusto by Black, became the “King of Pennsylvania Polka” in the early 1990s, building an empire of sorts by fooling investors and bribing officials — the world’s first and last polka Ponzi scheme, to our knowledge. The American Dream could never handle this many accordions.

For info on the festival, visit sundance.org/festival.

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