The most rewarding experience of Sundance is seeing what the next year of movies will look like. Of the 120 feature films that were selected to screen at Sundance, I was able to catch 18 in a five day frenzy. Almost all of them were really good, and several I would consider fantastic. Here are some of the most exciting future releases of 2016:
FAVORITES OF THE FESTIVAL
Other People is the quintessential Sundance drama-comedy. It checks many expected boxes: it’s a family drama in which Jesse Plemons must deal with the grief of his mother dying from cancer, while also dealing with being stuck in his hometown (away from his New York life) and trying to gain his father’s acceptance of his homosexuality. This is obviously a deeply personal film to first-time writer/director Chris Kelly, and it’s immediately apparent that the script is oozing with heart. My audience was laughing and crying throughout. I don’t know if there was a dry eye walking out of the theater. I really hope this movie is picked up; it will easily find an audience when released.
This is one of the darkest black comedies you’ll find, and it is hilarious. Wiener-Dog is an anthology film of several stories loosely connected by the titular dog as it is passed from owner to owner. It explores themes of mortality, failure, dysfunction, and loneliness. That description makes it sound like a laugh a minute, but truly, it is. Many people I talked to said they were put off by some of the animal abuse in the film, but really, it didn’t detract from the film for me. This is meant to be a humorous but honest depiction of the dark side of humanity, and that includes showing how some people treat their pets. You can read more about my thoughts on Wiener-Dog here.
This is one of the most complete films I saw at the festival. Captain Fantastic is about a six-child family (fathered by Viggo Mortensen) who live in the woods of the Pacific Northwest in shelters built in the forest far from society. Their home is a modern utopia, and all children possess genius-level intelligence. The family is forced into a road trip though modern society when their mother passes away. The story has a ton of heart, and really gives a nuanced perspective on what rights and responsibilities come with raising children. Its portrayal of Americans (and Christian Americans in particular) may be offensive to some, which might limit how well it plays in the United States. I hope not though; this movie has so much to offer, and opens an interesting conversation.
This is exactly the movie I was hoping to stumble upon at Sundance. It follows a young mother who struggles with exhaustion and depression as she raises her child without her absentee husband. The story begins when her best friend comes to visit. This movie is smooth, quiet, confident, and beautiful. It is able to say so much while speaking so little, largely due to spectacular performances from the lead actresses (and a stunning performance from a 3-year-old). This movie will draw favorable comparisons to Carol, which is a huge compliment. The Ferris Wheel sequence is easily my favorite from the entire festival.
Where to even begin with The Lure? This Polish mermaid horror musical set in the 80’s has everything you’d expect from the genre. The movie is every bit as insane as it sounds, and is simply a delight to watch. This is literally the 3rd musical to ever come out of Poland (according to the Q&A), and while it sometimes shows in the pacing, the erratic storytelling only adds to the surreal nature of the film. Due to the undefined hypnotic nature of the mermaids’ voices, it is never clear whether the choreographed dances of every background character are simply a device of musicals, or whether they are simply under some spell for the amusement of the singers. I like to think the latter.
BEST “SUNDANCE EXPERIENCE”
Swiss Army Man
Swiss Army Man follows Paul Dano, stuck alone on an island, ready to end his life, when he finds the dead corpse of Daniel Radcliffe. Somehow, the dead body inspires Dano to fight for survival. I’ve heard people call this a 90-minute fart joke, and while they’re not wrong about the adolescent humor, it is so much more than that. Really, this is a stoner comedy without any drugs. The frenetic pacing and insane sense of humor really propel this film forward, and it certainly has a lot going on beneath the surface. When this is eventually released, the trailers will ruin much of the surprise, which is a real shame; the best way to see it is to go in completely blind.
It’s tough to say whether I would enjoy this movie outside of the festival, but seeing it at Sundance was an experience unlike any other. I’ve heard that people walked out during the first screening, but that wasn’t the case for mine. The entire audience was laughing hysterically at every twist and turn, and cheering at all appropriate moments. After the film, directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert brought out Dano and Radcliffe, who fielded questions ranging from difficulties of performing a dead man to the thematic resonance of fart jokes in the movie. All of this garnered a standing ovation from the crowd, and was by far my favorite moment of the festival.
MOVIES TO BE EXCITED FOR (PURCHASED FOR RELEASE)
Love & Friendship – Roadside and Amazon (March 2016)
This is an adaptation of a Jane Austin novella that is infused with a good deal of modern comedic sensibilities and timing. I don’t usually go for these kinds of period films, but found this one enjoyable and hilarious.
Under the Shadow – Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films (global theatrical), Netflix (global streaming)
One of the scariest movies I’ve seen in a long time, a must-see for horror fans. Under the Shadow is set in 1980s Iran, during the war with Iraq. As city-wide bombings spread terror, a mother must protect her child not only from the destruction, but also from a mysterious horror that has begun haunting them from the shadows. The obvious comparison is to 2014’s The Babadook. Rather than dealing with grief and exhaustion, Under the Shadow is all about parental dread of failure to protect a child in a world where horrible things can happen at any moment. Did I mention it’s scary? It’s really scary.
Maggie’s Plan – Sony (May 2016)
Maggie’s Plan is a relationship comedy in which Maggie (Greta Gerwig) falls in love with married man John (Ethan Hawke) while trying to impregnate herself and become a single mother. What sets Maggie’s Plan apart is that the entire arc of a typical rom-com is fulfilled within the first act of this movie – the question is, what happens next? This movie has twists and turns to keep the audience on their toes, and it really doesn’t let any of its characters off the hook for their actions.
The Intervention – Paramount/MTV
Eight friends (four couples) get together one weekend at a lake house. Six of them decide to try to convince the other two to get a divorce. What makes The Intervention really interesting is the very real sense of hypocrisy of each character, quick to jump to other peoples’ flaws while overlooking their own. It’s very cute, very funny, and a very real look at relationship problems (it reminded me a lot of last year’s The Overnight, but without the sex).
Goat – Paramount/MTV
Goat explores the extremes of fraternity hazing, and it is an intense, difficult watch. The entire movie focuses on what it means to be a man, and what it means to be both brothers and “brothers.” It is very much a portrait of toxic masculinity, and is particularly prescient given that it’s based on true events.
Gleason – Amazon and Open Road Films
This documentary tells the story of Steve Gleason, ex-NFL star who discovered he had ALS back in 2011. It follows the Gleason family through all of the hardships (and occasional celebrations) of four years of their lives, as things become more and more difficult. The most impressive part of this movie is how intimate it is; everything about the family’s home life is portrayed without pulling punches. It’s a really important movie for general audiences to sympathize with just how devastating ALS is. According to the Q&A, the director was working with 1300 hours of footage, and this is an extremely well-executed, tightly-edited presentation of that raw material.
MOVIE THAT I HOPE GETS A DISTRIBUTOR AND RELEASE
As You Are
Like Other People, As You Are is clearly an extremely personal coming-of-age film. It is told mostly in flashback, as a police investigation uncovers the events leading up to the murder of one of the lead teenage characters. Really though, at its heart, this is a movie about sexual discovery, and the joy and pain that comes along with that. This is a very impressive first effort from writer/director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and co-writer Madison Harrison, and I really hope that they have the opportunity to make a sophomore film.
RANKING THE BEST FILMS OF SUNDANCE 2016
- Other People
- Captain Fantastic
- The Lure
- Swiss Army Man
- Maggie’s Plan
- Under the Shadow
- Love and Friendship
- As You Are
- The Intervention
- Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
- Outlaws and Angels
- Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper
There are only so many hours in a day, and there are a number of films that had huge buzz at Sundance that I did not have a chance to see. Manchester by the Sea (purchased by Amazon) is the highest profile of these, having Kenneth Lonergan at the helm and Matt Damon on board as producer. The Birth of a Nation (based on Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831) was also picked up for a record $17.5 million, and promises to be a major hit in the coming year. I’m extremely excited to catch up with these and other Sundance films when they are released.
Overall the crop of films was truly incredible, and I can’t wait to discuss them further upon release. To hear more about my general Sundance experience (outside of the movies themselves), check out my other Sundance post here.