2016 was a solid year for idiosyncratic and quirky narrative and documentary features at America’s “coolest” film festival. It was a year in which racism of the Academy was countered by elevating a conventional black film, “Birth of a Nation” to best of festival from both the audience and the Grand Jury. To complete the trifecta we had Fox Searchlight pay the most ever for the aforementioned Sundance film some 17.5 million dollars. Sundance programmers had to sort through over 4,000 submissions to select 123 feature-length titles. Robert Redford, at the traditional kick-off press conference, alluded to expanding Sundance more thoroughly into Salt Lake City in the near future as Park City seems to have reached its limits. Sundance is clearly America’s pre-eminent film festival and its international reach included 29 countries. Over 20 films achieved some sort of distribution deal be it theatrical or VOD. The following are the films which made it to our top 10:
(1) Birth of a Nation – **1/2
Director-writer Nate Parker’s film was the darling at Sundance 2016. The film won it all! It took the Grand Jury Prize in dramatic competition and even won the Audience Award for best dramatic feature. Fox Searchlight paid the most ever for a Sundance film- a reported $17, 5 million dollars. But, after the purchase Fox Searchlight acquired a case of buyer’s remorse. It seems that Mr.Parker and his writing partner Jean McGianni Celestin were both tried for rape while students at Penn State University in 1999. Mr. Parker was acquitted of sexual assault but his fellow Birth of a Nation screenwriter was imprisoned for a short time until his conviction was overturned. Their accuser killed herself in 2012. The movie just can’t get out from the bad PR associated with the accusations of rape by its principal creators.
“Birth of a Nation” shares a title with D.W, Griffith’s 1915 silent masterpiece but nothing else. Whereas the original praised the KKK and was a flawed racist undertaking, the new version celebrates a bloody 1831 slave rebellion led by Nate Turner (played pitch perfect by Nate Parker) a Virginia born slave who learned to read and became a Baptist preacher. It is a story rarely told in high school American history classes,
While not as powerful as “12 Years a Slave”, this iteration of Birth of a Nation is very conventional in form with directing, camera movements and framing rather pedestrian. It is not one of the best pictures of the year. The exuberance for this film at Sundance must be attributed to the 2016 Oscars not nominating any people of color for any Awards. (Hash -tag: Oscars So White) and the general weakness in the dramatic competition films.
The film is closely based on Thomas R Gray’s 1831 “Conventions of Nate Turner”and presents a time when slavery was a daily routine in America. It is a film which brings many complex performances to the screen, and, although flawed, merits your attention.
(2) Manchester by the Sea – ****
Among the many premieres at Sundance 2016, director Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”, 2000 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Award for Screenwriting) is searingly exquisite. It takes place in the Boston suburbs, telling the tale of Leo Chandler performed pitch perfect by Casey Afleck in a career defining performance. The Chandler character is played with a great deal of verisimilitude, as a closed down loner who has suffered terrible loss and may or may not find his way back to embracing life. We learn there are no quick fixes in the working class New England town of Manchester-by-the Sea, just the imperfect struggle to meet loss with integrity and dignity, one day at a time.
Amazon paid $10 million for the film, which was the second best deal at Sundance 2016.
(3) The Eagle Huntress – ***
Director Otto Bell‘s thrilling film follows a 13- year old girl from Mongolia who is learning to hunt with a golden eagle. She becomes the first female to compete in this rigorous and challenging sport, With beautiful vistas and a fly-on –the-wall perspective this film is a fascinating glimpse at a simple and disciplined life style in an exotic land.
(4) Certain Women – ***1/2
Director Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy”, “Meek’s Cutoff”) is an artist-in-residence at Bard College and one of the most prolific and celebrated woman filmmakers of our time. Reichardt has always been a master of understatement while never forgetting the conventions of storytelling. Her films are all about the internal journey with the emotional drama reaching a level of poignancy. We watch a handful of Montana women and how their lives intersect. The flaws are evident in all three situations but the solutions tell us a lot about human nature.
(5) Christine – ***
(6) Kate Plays Christine – ***
It’s not very often that Sundance has two films in competition on the same subject. One is a dramatic film and the other a documentary about the haunting true story of Sarasota newscaster, Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself on a live broadcast in 1974.
Director Antonio Campos’ rather pedestrian, narrative film titled simply “Christine “follows her in the weeks leading up to her suicide, focusing dramatically on her unusual and depressive behavior and her struggles in the workplace and her romantic life.
Director Robert Greene’s documentary titled “Kate Plays Christine” is a hybrid piece that follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play Chubbuck in a film that actually doesn’t exist and travels to Sarasota to learn as much as possible about who Christine was and what happened
Both films, but particularly the documentary, raise difficult questions about truth, tragedy and representation, unintentionally offering a critique of the former’s disparate methodology. The juxtaposition of thee two films was extraordinary as an exercise in discourse both on and off the screen.
(7) Green Room – ****
Director-Screenwriter Jeremy Saulnier is an NYU film school graduate whose sophomore feature, “Blue Ruin” premiered at Cannes in the 2013 Directors’ Fortnight and won the FIPRESCI Prize. His latest offering explores the esoteric music subculture called punk rock and a band that defines existentialism.
A punk band named “The Ain’t Rights” are booked into a club deep in the Pacific Northwest woods owned by a right wing skinhead played coolly by Patrick Stewart. Anton Yelchin plays the binary opposite of the skinhead and acts as the soul of the punk band. What sets the story on fire happens as the band finishes its set. The band’s bass player, Pat, played by Yelchin, returns to the Green Room for his forgotten phone and discovers a dead woman with a knife in her brain. Management observes the situation and decides to lock up “The Ain’t Rights”in their green room until they can sort out the mess.
What ensues reveals no easy way out and sets up an ultra- violent siege thriller. We have a group of neo-Nazis do battle with DIY Punks. It turns into compelling and engaging cinema.
With his third feature film under his belt, Jeremy Saulnier has established himself as
“the bad ass of American Independent Film” This film will open wide for A-24 and was among the ten best I saw at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. It has a superb cast (Anton Yelchin, Imogeen Potts, Mark Webber and Patrick Stuart) who revel in that most of them are playing against type.
(8) The Lure – ***1/2
First time feature director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s high energy film was one of the few radical, experimental films of art house cinema at Sundance 2016.
It mixes and matches the following genres: musical, romance, and 80’s style horror. The film is replete with two cannibalistic mermaid sisters named Silver and Golden (Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszanska) in the lead roles.
At the beginning of the story the enchantresses convinces a trio of musicians—a husband, wife and teenage son—-rehearsing waterside to invite them to shore. Once on land, they are taken to the sleazy nightclub where they regularly perform and render the most outrageous show since Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures”. The Lure won The World Cinema Special Jury Award for Unique Vision and Design
(9) Swiss Army Man -***
Director-screenwriters Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are an award winning duo. Stranded on a deserted island leaves young Hank (Paul Dano) bored, lonely and without hope. As a rope hangs around his neck, Hank prepares to end it all, until he suddenly spots a man (Daniel Radcliffe) laying by the shore. Unfortunately, he is dead and quite flatulent. Using the gassy body to his advantage, Hank miraculously makes it back to the mainland. However, he now finds himself lost in the wilderness, and dragging the talking corpse named Manny along for the adventure. Winner of the Directing Award for U.S.Drama
(10) Weiner – ****
Josh Kriegman directed shot and produced this film with help from his friend Elyse Steinberg. It was his first documentary feature length production and he hit a home run. Prior to this project, he worked for PBS and MTV and served as a political consultant for local and national candidates including Mr. Weiner. This is a fascinating piece of work as Weiner’s sexting scandal gets out of hand! It turns into a delightful dramatic comedy about the political theater we see on broadcast and cable TV and a reflection on life itself in the cyber-age. It won the U.S.Grand Jury Prize: Documentary