Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother forty whacks; when she saw what she had done . . .
She went to Sundance.
Running Jan. 18-28, the 39th installment of the venerable Sundance Film Festival — with 46,000 attendees in Park City last year, it’s the biggest independent film fest in the country — has plenty of intriguing films in the line-up. But none might whet a New Englander’s appetite like “Lizzie,” a period drama from director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass that speculates on what really happened in the house at 92 Second St. in Fall River that hot August in 1892.
The casting is strong: Chloe Sevigny plays Lizzie, and Kristen Stewart plays the family maid, Bridget, whose relationship with her employer’s daughter contributes to a tense family dynamic and a notorious double murder. Is it the real story? Your guess is as good as the filmmakers’. Will the movie be any good? That’s the suspense of Sundance: trying to take the temperature of 110 movies from 29 countries (this year’s tally), pick the ones that might work, and seeing as many of them as possible.
Certain themes recur in this year's roster — there are at least nine dramas and documentaries dealing with the perils of modern digital life. So do certain actors: Holyoke’s Ann Dowd (“The Leftovers,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) is in four movies playing the festival, and British changeling Andrea Riseborough (“Battle of the Sexes”) is in at least three.
There are the usual cluster of biopics and nonfiction profiles: Subjects include the late Austin cult musician Blaze Foley (the “Drunken Angel” of the Lucinda Williams song), director Hal Ashby (“Harold and Maude,” “Being There”), Oscar Wilde, Mr. Rogers, Robin Williams, Gloria Allred, Colette, and Jane Fonda. There are rising stars (Lakeith Stanfield of “Get Out” and “Atlanta” is in two films, and Daisy Ridley of “The Last Jedi” is starring as Ophelia in “Ophelia”) and directors back from the wilderness (Gus Van Sant, Lynne Ramsay).
Hot-button subjects include police shootings and social media (“Monsters and Men”), the lure of the alt-right (“Burden”), the refugee crisis (“This Is Home”), rising sea levels (“Anote’s Ark”), domestic slavery (“A Woman Captured”), sexual abuse (“The Tale,” with Laura Dern), and Standing Rock (“Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock”).
About the only topic that appears relatively untouched is our fearless leader, President Donald Trump. But that may be because it takes so blessed long to get a movie made. Just wait until next year. Until then, here, unranked, are my Top 12 screening priorities for Sundance 2018. (“Lizzie” makes it lucky 13.)
“Sorry to Bother You”: The great, gonzo Lakeith Stanfield stars (finally!) as a telemarketer whose career takes an upturn when he starts “talking white.” Armie Hammer plays his coke-snorting boss, Tessa Thompson his undercover art guerrilla girlfriend. Directed by rapper Boots Riley, it could be a hot mess. But it could be terrific.
“Tyrel”: From Chilean provocateur Sebastian Silva, a story of a man (Jason Mitchell) who joins a friend’s Boy’s Weekend in the country only to realize he’s the only black guy there. And among the group is Caleb Landry Jones, a.k.a. the palest (and skeeviest) man in the movies. Think “Get Out” with the paranoia tweaked by testosterone.
“Crime + Punishment”: A documentary by Stephen Maing about the NYPD12, a group of minority New York police officers who act as whistleblowers against racially discriminatory police practices. I can’t imagine they’re very popular.
“Un Traductor”: Did you know that Russia sent youthful victims of the 1989 Chernobyl nuclear accident to Cuba to recuperate? Neither did I. That fact serves as the basis for a drama set during the island nation’s “Special Period,” when the USSR dissolved almost overnight.
“Yardie”: Actors taking a shot at directing are a staple of Sundance, but this sounds special: Idris Elba helming an adaptation of Victor Headley’s cult crime novel set in the Jamaica and London of the 1970s and ’80s.
“A Futile and Stupid Gesture”: “Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte (“Nebraska”) plays Doug Kenney, the oddball mastermind who came out of Harvard to create the humor magazine The National Lampoon in the 1970s before falling off the face of the earth. Literally. David Wain (“Wet Hot American Summer”) directs.
Hot-button subjects include police shootings and social media, lure of the alt-right, refugees, rising sea levels, domestic slavery, sexual abuse, and Standing Rock.
“Come Sunday”: Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) stars as a holy-rolling Oklahoma preacher who has an epiphany: We’re already all saved. This does not go down well with his flock — or anyone else. Danny Glover, Condola Rashad, and Lakeith Stanfield costar; Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) directs.
“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”: The story of John Callahan, a quadriplegic cartoonist whose sense of humor — check the title — was defiantly and hilariously incorrect. Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”) directs, Joaquin Phoenix plays Callahan, and the cast includes Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara. That’s it, I’m in.
“Hearts Beat Loud”: Brett Haley previously made “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “The Hero” which offered late-career bouquets to, respectively, Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott. His new film is graced with a rare lead role for Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”), as a record-store owner who starts a rock band with his daughter (Kiersey Clemons).
“The Catcher Was a Spy”: Moe Berg was a journeyman Major Leaguer (his last five seasons were with the Red Sox) who served as an OSS spy during World War II, trying to keep atomic secrets from the Nazis. True story, and now Paul Rudd, the thinking person’s movie star, plays the man who was reputed to be the smartest man in baseball. Ben Lewin (“The Sessions”) adapts the 1994 Berg biography.
“Jane Fonda in Five Acts”: Susan Lacy, executive producer of three decades of “American Masters,” dips behind the camera for a documentary portrait of one hell of a life. Love her or hate her, Fonda may be the quintessential baby boom star, acting out all our contradictions in one glorious, messy persona.
“Assassination Nation”: The “Midnight” section is where Sundance programmers slot the horror movies and the freak-outs, and this one — about a small town that comes apart at the seams when an unknown prankster starts publishing everybody’s digital secrets — sounds funny, frightening, and fearsomely topical.
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the source of the script for “Heart Beats Loud.” It is original.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.