How does anyone navigate a film festival like Sundance and come out with sanity and eyeballs intact? How do you pick the baker’s dozen or so movies you’re able to see out of about 120 available? (If you think that’s rough, consider that the festival programmers chose this year’s 118 from over 4,000 submissions.) The effort is certainly worth it, since Park City, Utah, in January has become the traditional venue to preview movies we’ll be talking about later in the year and possibly at awards time: “Boyhood” and “Whiplash” in 2014, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in 2012, all the way back to “sex lies and videotape” in 1990.
Sundance 2015 begins Thursday and runs through January 27; and even for a critic attending only half the festival, the dance card looks full. (There aren’t as many New England-centric films this year, but maybe 2014 — with its documentaries about Whitey Bulger, Aaron Swartz, and Pamela Smart — was an aberration.) One trick is to examine the Sundance schedule for directors rather than actors, particularly directors who’ve made one or two interesting movies and may be ready to pop loose (or completely collapse). It also helps to be wary of the Premieres section, longer on studio films and glitzy stars — the better to guarantee their attendance and get the festival in the news — than on quality. A third tip: the documentaries. They’re almost always excellent. And a fourth suggestion: It pays to keep one’s ears open for the three or four unknown movies that everyone’s suddenly talking about and can’t get a ticket to.
Here are 18 films I’m most looking forward to at this year’s festival.
Advantageous In the year 2041, mind transplantation is a reality and a single mother (Jacqueline Kim) takes desperate measures to provide for her child. Writer-director Jennifer Phang (“Half-Life”) expands her 30-minute short — originally made for the ITVS series “Futurestates” — into what could be provocative sci-fi with a social conscience.
Bob and the Trees The official synopsis: “It is deep winter in rural Massachusetts. Bob (Bob Tarasuk), a fifty-something-year-old logger with a soft spot for golf and gangsta rap, struggles to make ends meet in a changed economy. When a beloved cow of his gets wounded and a job goes awry, Bob begins to heed the instincts of his ever darkening self.” I’m in.
Call Me Lucky The only Boston-themed film in the festival (that I know of), but it sounds like a winner: a documentary about the legendary comedian and social activist Barry Crimmins. Comedian and “Shakes the Clown” auteur Bobcat Goldthwait directs; expect loving remembrances of Crimmins’s 1980s comedy clubs The Ding Ho and Stitches.
Chuck Norris vs Communism A documentary about how US films on Eastern-bloc black-market video — particularly the straight-to-VHS action movies that never got any respect — helped lead Romania to freedom in the 1980s. May provide an actual answer to the question How tough is Chuck Norris?
Digging for Fire Sundance semi-regular Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies,” “Happy Christmas”) shows up with another slice-o-life comedy, but look at that cast: Jake Johnson (“The New Girl”), Rosemarie DeWitt, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, and — Orlando Bloom?
DRUNK, STONED, BRILLIANT, DEAD: The Story of the National Lampoon
Before “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” there was National Lampoon the magazine, and a hilarious, smutty, hugely influential magazine it was. Documentarian Douglas Tirola surveys the history, from Harvard Lampoon beginnings to the death of John Belushi and beyond.
End of the Tour David Foster Wallace fans, prepare to jump for joy or cringe in horror: “Tour” adapts journalist David Lipsky’s 2010 memoir about a five-day road trip with the late, legendary author of “Infinite Jest.” Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky and — ambition alert — Jason Segel plays Foster Wallace. James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) directs.
Experimenter Psych Movie 1 (out of three) at this year’s Sundance: A dramatic re-creation of researcher Stanley Milgram’s notorious 1961 experiments in which subjects proved their willingness to shock an unseen person. Starring Peter Sarsgaard as Milgram.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief Who other than documentarian Alex Gibney (“The Armstrong Lie,” “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) would probe behind the façade of the secretive religion? One of the festival’s absolute must-sees.
I Smile Back Think “Diary of a Mad Housewife” starring Sarah Silverman, who by tackling a dramatic role as a depressed, drug-addicted, serially cheating suburbanite does the one thing that might actually shock us at this point. With Josh Charles (“The Good Wife”).
The Nightmare The last time we heard from filmmaker Rodney Ascher (“Room 237”), he was introducing us to a lot of people with crazy conspiracy theories about Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Here he turns his documentary lens on the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, from which he himself suffers.
Results The gifted Boston-born filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, who has been fleeing from the Mumblecore label since “Funny Ha Ha” in 2002, makes a movie with an actual budget and stars. Guy Pearce (“The Rover”) and Cobie Smulders (TV’s “How I Met Your Mother”) play mismatched personal trainers coping with a wealthy client.
Sleeping With Other People Jason Sudeikis (“SNL,” “Horrible Bosses”) and Alison Brie (“Mad Men,” “Community”) play philandering souls who form a platonic support group of two. Brie could have a big-screen breakthrough here, but the reason some of us want to see this is for writer-director Leslye Headland, whose “Bachelorette” (2012) was a bilious delight.
Slow West At last year’s Sundance, Michael Fassbender played a reclusive rocker with a fake head (“Frank”). This year he’s a mysterious 19th-century sojourner crossing America with a young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who’s seeking his lost love. At least we’ll be able to see Fassbender’s face this time.
Stockholm, Pennsylvania Sundance Psych Movie 2: A young woman (Saoirse Ronan), abducted and held prisoner for 17 years, struggles with coming home to a family she doesn’t know. We’re assuming the “Stockholm” of the title refers to the syndrome.
The Stanford Prison Experiment Sundance Psych Movie 3: a dramatic re-creation of the famous 1971 social experiment that divided subjects into prisoners and jailers, to dire results. Starring Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, and Olivia Thirlby.
3½ Minutes Marc Silver’s documentary examines the murder of Jordan Davis, the unarmed black teenager shot to death at a Jacksonville gas station in 2012 for playing his music too loudly. Sadly, the timing couldn’t be better.
True Story This one sounds too weird to pass up: A drama based on the, um, true story of disgraced New York Times reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), who had his identity stolen by a murderer on the lam (James Franco). This is Hill’s most serious role to date, but it’s not Franco’s most bizarre even at this festival. That would be “I Am Michael,” in which the actor plays a gay activist who becomes a Christian pastor.