The 2016 Sundance Film Festival is over after 10 days, offering some of the newest and freshest independent films that will slowly roll out to the general movie going public as the year progresses.
It was also a surprisingly decent year at Sundance, which gave the sensation that there was more good than bad—Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers filled that latter category quite ably on its own, while the crazy Swiss Army Man, featuring Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse, received mixed reactions.
Morris from America
One of my absolute favorites of this year’s festival was this new film written and directed by Chad Hartigan (This is Martin Bonner), which epitomized what’s so great about the best Sundance offerings: movies that show original points of view while playing with traditional film tropes. At its core, Morris from America is a coming-of-age film with the title character being a 13-year-old African-American kid (newcomer Markees Christmas) living in Heidelberg, Germany with his father (Craig Robinson), and trying to fit in despite the language and cultural barrier with his classmates.
With the help of his German teacher (Carla Juri from Wetlands), he tries to make friends and takes a particular interest in a fine-looking older classmate named Katrin (Lina Keller). Anyone who has ever been a teenage boy will know that teenage girls will eventually break your heart, and Morris from America finds a new way at exploring this idea with Christmas offering a riveting onscreen presence and Robinson giving a satisfying (and less comedic) performance in the film’s great father-son moments. Morris was picked up by A24 for theatrical release.
Southside With You
One of the films that really jumped out when the Sundance selections were announced was this film by Ricahrd Tanne, which purported to show the first date between Barack Obama and his future wife Michelle Robinson in 1989. The future President and First Lady were colleagues at a prestigious Chicago law firm where they’re the only non-whites, making Michelle nervous about labelling her time spent with the firm’s new associate as a “date” since it would send the wrong message. The time they spend together has its ups and downs, but it’s when Michelle watches Obama speak in front of a community meeting at a church that she gets to see the man who would one day be the president with which we’re so familiar. It’s a great dialogue-centric two-hander, similar to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise movies, and it’s driven by the chemistry between Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) as the two leads.
The Fundamentals of Caring
Paul Rudd goes on a road trip with a teenager suffering from muscular dystrophy in this new film from Rob Burnett (David Letterman’s long-time producing partner). But it’s the way this story is told that sets it apart from other Sundance films pairing adults with kids. Based on the novel by Jonathan Evison, Rudd plays Ben, an unemployed guy going through a bitter divorce. While taking a class in caregiving, he is paired with a feisty homebound teen named Trevor (Craig Roberts from Submarine). When Ben convinces Trevor’s mother to take the boy out to see the world, they encounter a couple people who will change their lives including Selena Gomez as a hitchhiker. The film was selected as the Closing Night film and picked up before the festival by Netflix for $7 million.
The Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi, who was recently hired to direct Thor: Ragnarok, returned to Sundance with his fourth feature film, this one based on Barry Crump’s book Wild Pork and Watercress, which apparently is a popular read down in New Zealand. The film is about Ricky (Julian Dennison), a troubled teen orphan sent to live with a kindly couple in the New Zealand outback. After a tragic event, he goes on the run with his cranky foster father (Sam Neill) from local authorities who think that the older man has kidnapped the boy. Waititi instills the film with his own distinct humor seen in films like last year’s What We Do in the Shadows, as well as many fun ‘80s references. The film’s pace builds to some impressive car chases and stunts in the last act that might take those used to Waititi’s smaller character-driven films by surprise.
Simon Killer director Antonio Campos creates another intimate character portrait, this time of a real person: Florida newswoman Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself on live television in 1974. Rebecca Hall plays Christine, and the film explores the weeks leading up to her death through her relationships with her co-workers and mother. It’s an amazing showcase for the talented Ms. Hall, whose performance runs the range of emotions as Campos’ camera remains on her for two straight hours. The film made for interesting bookends with Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, a documentary about another attempt to make a movie about Chubbuck starring indie darling Kate Lyn Sheil.
There was just as much interest and excitement for John Carney’s return to Sundance, considering that his earlier film Once went on to become a global sensation both as a film and with the musical based on it. Sing Street has a lot in common with Once, being about a singer/songwriter in Dublin, but this story is set in 1985 and the protagonist (played by first-timer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a teenager trying to impress a hot older girl (Lucy Boynton, who is going to be a huge star) by forming a band of misfits at his local school. It’s one of the few films that came to “The Dance” with distribution in place, specifically The Weinstein Company, who also released Carney’s last film Begin Again.
Birth of a Nation
Probably one of the most talked about films out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Nate Parker’s directorial debut, an ambitious film about Nat Turner, a Virginia slave who led a rebellion of his fellow slaves against their white masters in 1831. The film’s an impressive achievement for the fact that Parker not only directed and starred in the film, but also wrote and produced it. The result is a film that took seven years to develop, and one that feels more like a Steven Spielberg or Ed Zwick movie than 12 Years a Slave.
It’s brutal to watch at times but features a moving love story between Turner and his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) that makes it something that can appeal to larger audiences, as proven by the film winning both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. The movie couldn’t come at a better time with all the talk of #OscarsSoWhite, and the $17.5 million paid for the movie by Fox Searchlight (a new record for a Sundance sale) will only seem like a lot until they figure out when and how they are going to release it.
Based on its premise, John Krasinski’s second film as a director may seem like a typical Sundance movie (and maybe it is) as he plays a New York artist who returns home to care for his terminally ill mother, played by Margo Martindale. The amazing ensemble Krasinki assembled to tell this story includes Anna Kendrick as his pregnant girlfriend, Sharlto Copley as his screw-up brother, Richard Jenkins as his father, and Charlie Day as his mother’s nurse, now married to Krasinski’s ex.
Mixing humor and emotional drama is a tough thing, but Krasinski seems to have nailed the formula, and it was especially interesting to see after watching Chris Kelly’s opening night film Other People, which has a similar plot but doesn’t work as well. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film’s distribution rights.
Clea Duvall joined the other actors who went behind the camera for their first feature with this ensemble dramedy that brings together three couples who decide things aren’t working out with their married friends (Cobie Smulders, Vincent Piazza) so… you guessed it, they stage an intervention. It’s a film that could have easily been a stageplay but Duvall has a great cast around her, including Alia Shawkat, Jason Ritter, Ben Schwartz and Natasha Lyonne, but the real standout was Melanie Lynskey as a woman with a drinking problem trying her best to break her friends up. (A beloved Sundance regular, Lynskey even received a special jury prize for her performance.)
Manchester By the Sea
Kenneth Lonnergan, the filmmaker behind You Can Count on Me and Margaret was back at Sundance with his third movie in 16 years, a slow character piece starring Casey Affleck as Lee, a Massachusetts handyman who has to return to his seaside hometown after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler) and care for his troublesome teenaged nephew. Film critics were drooling all over this character drama, mainly due to the performance by Affleck, who really is quite impressive in the main role, but the film’s also over two hours with a lot of unnecessary scenes that add little to the limited story. Lonnergan’s non-linear way of exploring Lee’s past does make the film something special.
Two Impressive Docs – Newtown and Weiner
While I don’t get to see a lot of docs at film festivals, two that really stood out were Kim A. Snyder’s Newtown, which told the story of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut with incredible access to the parents of some of the kids that were killed in the horrible event. As one might expect, it’s not easy to watch the movie without tearing up, because what these parents were put through by a disturbed man who got his hands on assault rifles is tragic, but what they decided to do to try to change gun laws in this country is absolutely amazing.
In the Weiner doc, which was frequently confused with Todd Solontz’s Wiener-Dog, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg followed Anthony Weiner during his 2013 New York City mayoral race as it got derailed by another sexting scandal. It ended up winning the festival’s grand jury prize for documentary, and it will be released in May theatrically and on Showtime in October.
There were a couple of movies I missed that I wish had a chance to see due to buzz among fellow critics, including Goat, Dark Knight, Joshy, Certain Women, and Indignation. The last of these Is the only one that has been picked up for distribution at the time of this writing, but one assumes the others will get picked up eventually.