The 5 Films Likeliest to Ignite a Sundance 2011 Bidding War

And so it begins: The 2011 Sundance Film Festival launches tonight with all the hype, hysteria and hosannas you've come to know and expect, an avalanche of movie-love from the racing heart of the Wasatch Mountains. Movieline will have troops on the ground as per custom, but before the first frame unspools, let's take a step back and see what's stimulating Park City's real winter sports: The Sundance bidding wars.

From Sundance to Toronto, no major market festival is ever truly complete without some painstaking industry speculation. And while narrowing the bounty of acquisition titles down to five amounts to a fool's errand that will inevitably omit hot prospects like Kevin Smith's back-to-basics indie thriller Red State, Eugene Jarecki's Oscar-ready doc Reagan, the darkly comic Irish crime story The Guard (co-starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle), or the mayyyyybe too-quirky raccoons-meet-Tobey Maguire flick The Details, it must be done. So! Let's examine...

[Plot descriptions reprinted from the Sundance 2011 Festival Guide]

sundancebidding_brother.jpg· Another Happy Day

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: "A wedding at her parents' Annapolis estate hurls high-strung Lynn into the fire of primal, Byzantine family dynamics. It's the wedding of Lynn's son, whom she was deprived of raising because of her acrimonious divorce, and a feud still rages between Lynn and her ex-husband's hot-tempered wife. Meanwhile, the three children Lynn did raise display a panoply of disturbing behaviors like cutting and drug addiction, which Lynn's mother and sisters alternately ridicule and blame her for. As Lynn attempts catharsis, her mother sweeps issues under the rug, but painful truths bubble and spurt. Clan members deploy ricocheting arrows to protect themselves-- and wound others--as the fine lines between victims and perpetrators blur."

UPSIDE: 25-year-old Sam "Son of Barry" Levinson is rumored to have nailed his feature-directing debut, which features Ellen Barkin in what's perceived as a meaty comeback role. (If, that is, you think she went anywhere in the first place; I dug her in Brooklyn's Finest.) Could it work at Oscar bait? The terrific Ezra Miller and regal Ellen Burstyn also have showcases, and Demi Moore and Thomas Haden Church co-star.

DOWNSIDE: Does the world really need another wow-what-a-dysfunctional-family drama from Sundance? It's going to have to be pretty damn revelatory -- like Squid and the Whale revelatory -- to catch on with audiences.

POTENTIAL BUYERS: The Weinstein Company, Focus Features, FilmDistrict, Summit

HOW MUCH? Under $4 million

sundancebidding_brother.jpg· Higher Ground

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: "As a child growing up in the 1960s, Corrine's defining feature is her sense of inadequacy. When she reaches high school, her home life begins to unravel, driving her into the arms of Ethan, a guitarist in a local band. An event propels them to join a small fundamentalist community where they find meaning and stability. But some of its more conservative tenets leave Corinne unsettled, driving her into a profound crisis of faith that turns her world upside down.

UPSIDE: Vera Farmiga stars and makes her feature-directing debut with an ambitious story stretching over decades. Strong supporting cast includes John Hawkes and Joshua Leonard. It has prestige written all over it.

DOWNSIDE: Can first-timer Farmiga pull off something this narratively and conceptually complex? And is America really ready for her crisis of faith?

POTENTIAL BUYERS: Sony Pictures Classics, The Weinstein Company, Focus Features

HOW MUCH? Under $3 million

sundancebidding_brother.jpg· Margin Call

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: "Set in the high-stakes world of the financial industry, Margin Call is a thriller entangling the key players at an investment firm during one perilous 24-hour period in the early stages of the 2008 financial crisis. When entry-level analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) unlocks information that could prove to be the downfall of the firm, a roller-coaster ride ensues as decisions both financial and moral catapult the lives of all involved to the brink of disaster."

UPSIDE: Topical, tense and talent-packed, with a cast including Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore and Paul Bettany.

DOWNSIDE: Can a film be too topical? This doesn't exactly sound escapist fare for the unemployed masses.

POTENTIAL BUYERS: FilmDistrict, Summit, Relativity Media, The Weinstein Company

HOW MUCH? Under $7 million

sundancebidding_brother.jpg· Martha Marcy May Marlene

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: "Haunted by painful memories and suffering from increasing anxiety, Martha escapes an abusive cult and returns home to live with her older sister, Lucy, and Lucy's husband, Ted. With no other family to lean on, Martha tries desperately to assimilate into Ted and Lucy's upper-middle-class lifestyle. But nightmares of the cult that brainwashed her into living as Marcy May prevent her from connecting with the only people who may be able to save her. As Martha's isolation grows, her severe paranoia escalates. Ultimately, she descends into a dizzying state of panic as the growing fear that she is being hunted grips her every move."

UPSIDE: As the title character, Elizabeth Olsen may be a breakout festival star in the mold of Farmiga, Carey Mulligan and Jennifer Lawrence before her.

DOWNSIDE: What is the market for paranoiac cult-rehabilitation dramas, anyway? At least the tangentially themed Black Swan had lesbians.

POTENTIAL BUYERS: Sony Pictures Classics, Samuel Goldwyn, Roadside Attractions, Oscilloscope

HOW MUCH? Under $1.5 million

sundancebidding_brother.jpg· My Idiot Brother

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: "Despite looking for the good in every situation and the best in every person, Ned always seems to find himself holding the short end of the stick--being conned into selling pot to a uniformed cop, being dumped by his girlfriend, and worse yet, losing custody of his beloved dog, Willie Nelson. When he turns to family, he is passed from sister to sister while he gets back on his feet. Ned's best intentions produce hilariously disastrous results, bringing the family to the cusp of chaos and ultimately the brink of clarity."

UPSIDE: Comes front-loaded with talent, including leading man Paul Rudd, co-stars Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Rashida Jones, Emily Mortimer, Adam Scott and Steve Coogan, director Jesse Peretz and his own family screenwriting squad Evgenia Peretz (also a Vanity Fair contributing editor) and her husband, documentarian David Schisgall. Anything else?

DOWNSIDE: We've seen these kinds of glitzy, can't-miss festival prospects overhyped and left unclaimed plenty of times before. What Just Happened?, anyone?

POTENTIAL BUYERS: Fox Searchlight, Summit, Relativity Media

HOW MUCH? Under $8 million

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