The birth of a major contender
The 2016 Sundance Film Festival concluded this weekend in strikingly similar fashion to the past three festivals: with a single film sweeping the top two prizes. This year's successor to 2013's Fruitvale Station, 2014's Whiplash, and 2015's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the 19th century slave-revolt drama The Birth of a Nation, which collected both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize as the best U.S. dramatic film in competition. The latter film—the debut from director Nate Parker, also serving as writer, producer, and star—also made history when Fox Searchlight acquired its rights for a record-setting $17.5 million.
While Parker’s labor of love continued the discussion on diversity in Hollywood, multiple films (Newtown, Dark Night, Under the Gun) addressed another issue plaguing America—gun violence and mass shootings. This year’s festival also saw new films from previous Grand Jury Prize winners Todd Solondz (Wiener-Dog) and Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea), both of which were purchased by Amazon, who, along with Netflix, shook up the Sundance market with their deep pockets. In fact, Netflix bought the streaming right to three films before the festival even started.
January was a rough month for moviegoers seeking quality films that weren’t holdovers from December. But, as Sundance proved once again, there are plenty of films to get excited about for the next 11 months of 2016. Below, we recap the wide range of critical responses to the films attracting the most attention at this year's festival.
This year's major award winners
U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) and U.S. Audience Award (Dramatic)
The Birth of a Nation
USA | Directed by Nate Parker | Acquired by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million
For the record-setting price of $17.5 million, Fox Searchlight bought producer-writer-director-star Nate Parker’s biography of Nat Turner, a slave and preacher who led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. Seven years in the making, Parker's directorial debut earned a standing ovation after its premiere screening as its rousing ending earned comparisons to Braveheart (whose director and star, Mel Gibson, was thanked in the credits). Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri calls it “a beautiful, reflective film even as it is also a brutal, visceral one.”
U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary)
USA | Directed by Elyse Steinberg & Josh Kriegman | Acquired by Sundance Selects
In 2011, Congressman Anthony Weiner got caught up in a sexting scandal and was forced to resign from office. In 2013, he decided to re-enter politics. It did not go well. With unfettered access, directors Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman (Weiner’s chief of staff from 2005 to 2006) focus on Weiner’s bid to become Mayor of New York. The film has earned additional interest from pundits because of its portrayal of Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife and Hillary Clinton’s top aide. In his “A” review, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn claims Weiner “maintains the charisma and drive to provide the movie with one of the most compelling anti-heroes in recent memory.”
U.S. Audience Award (Documentary)
Jim: The James Foley Story
USA | Directed by Brian Oakes | Acquired by HBO
This look at the life and work of American journalist James Foley opened in one theater in Los Angeles last Friday and premieres on HBO this Saturday, February 6. Directed by Foley’s friend, Brian Oakes, the film states up front that it will not show Foley’s gruesome end at the hand of ISIS in 2014. While Oakes’ personal approach worked for some critics, it left others unsatisfied, with too may unanswered questions.
Other key films
Note that dollar amounts in distribution deals listed below are unconfirmed estimates as reported by various trade publications.
Drama | Belg./Fr./Neth. | Directed by Felix Van Groeningen
Inspired by his father’s memories of running a nightclub in Ghent, Belgian writer-director Felix van Groeningen’s follow-up to 2013’s Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown follows the rise and fall of the eponymous club and the two brothers who run it. Groeningen won the Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, and critics praised the films ability to evoke the spirit and energy of club life (with the help of a soundtrack by Soulwax), but they also wished that Groeningen’s skills had been applied to a less familiar narrative.
Drama | USA | Directed by Matt Ross
In writer-director Matt Ross’ follow-up to 28 Hotel Rooms, Viggo Mortensen stars as Ben, a father raising six children off the grid until his bipolar wife commits suicide while in the hospital. Determined to give her the burial she wants, he packs the kids into the family bus to confront his wife’s parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd), stopping to see his sister (Kathryn Hahn), brother-in-law (Steve Zahn) and their two kids, who are living a plugged-in life. The film split critics, with some embracing the quirky family and others finding them a bit too implausible.
Drama | USA | Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s adaptation of three short stories by Maile Meloy focuses on the lives of four women played by Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams and Lily Gladstone. After directing the eco-thriller Night Moves, Reichardt’s return to the small, observational drama of her earlier films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy was met with praise from critics (Variety’s Guy Lodge calls it “marvelous”), even though some warn that the slow pace (even by the director’s past standards) would not be for everyone.
Drama | USA | Directed by Antonio Campos
The latest from director Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer) was one of two films about Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor who committed suicide on air in 1974, that premiered at this year’s festival. Campos, directing for the first time from a screenplay by another writer (Craig Shilowich), follows Chubbuck, played by Rebecca Hall, as she fails to connect with others (including a co-anchor played by Michael C. Hall) and struggles to meet the changing demands of her job. While the film earned good reviews from most critics, it’s Rebecca Hall’s performance, described as “magnificent” by Screen Daily, that really stood out.
Drama | USA | Directed by Joshua Marston
Acquired by Amazon for $2 million
In Joshua Marston’s (Maria Full of Grace, The Forgiveness of Blood) third film, Rachel Weisz plays a woman who’s constantly reinventing herself, a way of life that intrigues her former boyfriend, played by Michael Shannon. Running into each other for the first time in 15 years, they share a night together exploring the different paths their lives have taken. Weisz’s performance as the enigmatic center of the story pleased critics, but the film’s structure puzzled them.
Drama | USA | Directed by Tim Sutton
Inspired by the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, writer-director Tim Sutton (Pavilion, Memphis) applied his elliptical, observant style to capture the lives of a collection of characters as they prepare for a night at the cinema. Sure to inspire discussion, the film divided reviewers. The Guardian decides, “Its statement is more juvenile than profound,” while The Playlist believes the film is “masterfully made with first-rate precision.”
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Meera Menon
Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics
Billed as the “first female-focused Wall Street drama,” Meera Menon’s second feature stars Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn as Naomi Bishop, a senior investment banker struggling to balance business and ethics as she guides the IPO for a new tech company. Critics were impressed by this smart thriller written by Amy Fox and also starring producers Sarah Megan Thomas as a junior executive under Naomi and Alysia Reiner a powerful prosecutor.
Frank & Lola
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Matthew M. Ross
Acquired by Universal for $2 million
Matthew Ross’s feature directorial debut stars Michael Shannon as Frank, a Las Vegas chef who falls for Imogen Poots’ Lola. Their intense relationship explodes when Lola confesses to Frank that she cheated on him, leading Frank down a dark path of revenge. This erotic thriller “casts a troubling spell,” according to THR, with the help of two leads at their performing best and a supporting cast that includes Justin Long, Michael Nyqvist, Emmanuelle Devos, and Rosanna Arquette.
The Free World
Drama | USA | Directed by Jason Lew
Restless screenwriter Jason Lew makes his directorial debut with this story of an ex-con (Boyd Holbrook) who becomes involved with a married woman (Elisabeth Moss) who has an abusive husband. While some critics found the story full of clichés, one bright light is Holbrook’s performance, deemed “embodied and magnetic” by The Playlist.
The Fundamentals of Caring
Drama | USA | Directed by Rob Burnett
Acquired by Netflix for $7 million
Writer-director Rob Burnett’s adaptation of Jonathan Evison’s The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving didn’t win over critics despite two likable lead performances. Paul Rudd stars as a former writer turned caregiver whose first client is Trevor (Craig Roberts of Submarine and Red Oaks), an 18-year-old suffering from muscular dystrophy. An impromptu road trip leads them to cross paths with a hitchhiking student (Selena Gomez) and a pregnant woman (Megan Ferguson).
Drama | USA | Directed by Andrew Neel
Acquired by Paramount for $2.5 million
King Kelly director Andrew Neel’s adaptation of Brad Land’s memoir stars Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas as Brad and Brett Land. After surviving a brutal assault, Brad pledges his brother’s fraternity, only to find himself suffering through vicious hazing rituals. The cast earned praise from critics, but some found the movie’s message muddled.
Dramedy | USA | Directed by John Krasinski
Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics
John Krasinski returned to Sundance seven years after the premiere of his debut feature, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, with his sophomore directorial effort based on a script by James C. Strouse (People Places Things). Krasinski stars as John Hollar, a frustrated graphic novelist with an expecting girlfriend (Anna Kendrick), who is called back to his hometown when his mother (Margo Martindale) is diagnosed with a brain tumor. While critics found the film too familiar, they did agree that Martindale was the cast MVP.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Comedy | New Zealand | Directed by Taika Waititi
Acquired by The Orchard for $1.5-2 million
Writer-director Taika Waititi’s follow-up to What We Do in the Shadows is an adaptation of Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork And Watercress. The film follows Ricky (Julian Dennison), a city kid who warms to his new foster family, Aunt Bella and Uncle Hec (Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neill), even though they live in the New Zealand countryside. Unfortunately for Ricky, foster care threatens to move him to a new home, so he and Uncle Hec flee into the bush. If you’re looking for a crowd-pleaser from this year’s festival, this is probably it.
Drama | USA | Directed by James Schamus
Acquired by Summit for $2.5 million
Critics agreed that James Schamus made a smooth transition from writer/producer/executive to director with this adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel about Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a Jewish college student from Newark, New Jersey who clashes with the dean of the Lutheran college he attends. While he is there, he also falls for a fellow student, the mysterious Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). Lerman was roundly praised for what THR called a “breakout performance.”
Dramedy | USA | Directed by Clea DuVall
Acquired by Paramount for $2 million
Clea DuVall’s debut feature as writer-director was inspired by The Big Chill, but it earned a split decision from critics. The ensemble comedy follows four couples on a weekend getaway in Savannah, Georgia. The gathering is a ruse for three of the couples—Jason Ritter and Melanie Lynskey (who earned a Special Jury Prize for her performance), Ben Schwartz and Alia Shawkat, and Duvall and Natasha Lyonne—to intervene in the troubled marriage of Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza). THR believes a “few chuckles and some mild same-sex updating don’t begin to compensate for the hackneyed plot development and lack of fresh comic inspiration,” but The Playlist calls it “a sharp-tongued and smart observational comedy.”
Comedy | USA | Directed by Jeff Baena
A great cast (Thomas Middleditch, Alison Brie, Adam Pally, Nick Kroll, Alex Ross Perry, Brett Gelman, Jenny Slate and many more) is the strength of writer-director Jeff Baena’s follow-up to Life After Beth. The titular Joshy (Middleditch) lost his fiancée four months ago, but his buddies are determined to get together for the previously planned bachelor party anyway. What commences is a hang-out movie with plenty of laughs and unexpected cameos, but also surprising moments of darkness.
Kate Plays Christine
Documentary | USA | Directed by Robert Greene
In Actress director Robert Greene’s performance-based non-fiction film, the “Kate” of the title is actress Kate Lyn Sheil, while the “Christine” is Christine Chubbuck, the subject of Antonio Campos’ previously mentioned Christine. As he did in his previous film, Greene, who won a Special Jury Award for writing, explores the meaning and impact of reality, performance, artifice, and perspective as Kate researches Christine’s life in order to portray her in a film. The Film Stage calls it “masterful,” and The Playlist believes it’s a “remarkable documentary that gives a devastatingly complex subject the kind of multifaceted, investigative respect it deserves.”
Drama | USA | Directed by Ira Sachs
After the critical success of 2012’s Keep the Lights On and 2014’s Love Is Strange, writer-director Ira Sachs returned to Sundance with another film co-written by Mauricio Zacharias. Focusing on how the friendship between Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) is impacted by their parents' dispute over a rental property, Sachs once again impressed critics with his humane approach to common modern problems. Nigel M. Smith of The Guardian writes, “The humanity Sachs and his actors depict is profound and leaves a mark.”
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Documentary | USA | Directed by Werner Herzog
Acquired by Magnolia
In his latest documentary, director Werner Herzog applies his unique methods and point of view to explore the internet. Starting with its birth and continuing to a speculative future, Herzog examines the internet’s impact on our lives in 10 chapters. Like much of his recent work, Herzog’s quizzical consideration proved a winner with critics. Variety’s Justin Chang writes, “It drifts lucidly from one subject to the next, from celebratory anecdote to cautionary tale, with an intellectual verve that is never less than engrossing.”
Love & Friendship
Dramedy | Ireland/France/Netherlands | Directed by Whit Stillman
Acquired by Roadside Attractions/Amazon
A fine pairing of material with director, this adaptation of Jane Austen’s early novella, Lady Susan, by Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Damsels in Distress), reunites his The Last Days of Disco stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. Beckinsale plays the titular character, a widow scheming to find suitors for herself and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Sevigny plays Beckinsale’s American best (and maybe only) friend, but, according to critics, it is Beckinsale’s show all the way despite strong supporting performances by Stephen Fry as Sevigny’s husband and Tom Bennet as a rich but dim-witted potential husband. The film will open in theaters on May 13th, followed by an exclusive streaming run on Amazon Prime.
The Lovers and the Despot
Documentary | UK | Directed by Robert Cannan & Ross Adam
Acquired by Magnolia
A tale that sounds more far-fetched than The Interview, this documentary by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam tells the true story of film director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, major stars in South Korea before divorcing and being kidnapped in 1978 by the North Korean regime. After years of imprisonment, Kim Jong-il put them to work making films, and they did—17 in a little over 2 years—with the dictator as their producer. Disappointingly, many critics felt the film didn’t live up to its bizarre story.
Thriller | Poland | Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska
In the World Cinema Drama competition, director Agnieszka Smoczynska won a Special Jury Award for Unique Vision and Design for this tale of mermaid sisters Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska), who take human form when they meet a family of musicians. Soon, they’re working at a dance club where their titular act is a hit, and Silver falls for their bassist while Golden tries (and fails) to repress her thirst for human flesh. Critics agreed with the jury on the design of this Polish 1980s-set musical-horror film, but were also disappointed with its increasingly discombobulated narrative.
Manchester by the Sea
Drama | USA | Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Acquired by Amazon for $10 million
Sixteen years after he won the Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his debut feature You Can Count On Me, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan returned to Sundance with this widely praised tale of a man (Casey Affleck) called back to his hometown to become the guardian of his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges). Bought by Amazon Studios for a reported $10 million, the film, also starring Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams and Gretchen Mol, was called a “tremendous achievement” by the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd.
Morris from America
Drama | USA/Germany | Directed by Chad Hartigan
Acquired by A24 for $1 million+
Leaving the festival with two awards—the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and a Special Jury Award for Individual Performance for its star Markees Christmas— Chad Hartigan’s follow-up to This Is Martin Bonner tells the story of a father (Craig Robinson) and his 13-year-old son (Christmas), who move to Heidelberg, Germany. As the only African-Americans in the town, the pair struggle to get a handle on their new lives. This coming-of-age story received a generally warm reception due to its ability to anchor the story in well-observed moments despite the occasional familiarity of the narrative.
Documentary | USA | Directed by Kim A. Snyder
Kim A. Snyder’s documentary looks at how the community of Newton, Connecticut is coping with the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, which resulted in the deaths of 20 children and 6 adults. The film focuses on how three families live with their memories of that day and those they lost. Critics were impressed with Snyder’s restraint and empathy in dealing with a difficult subject. Among them are THR’s Sheri Linden, who calls it a “sensitive and clear-eyed portrait of a community shaken to its core and persevering.”
Thriller | USA/Canada | Directed by Matt Johnson
Written by and starring Matt Johnson and Josh Boles and directed by Johnson (The Dirties), this faux-documentary puts the tired found-footage format to good use, according to most critics. Johnson and Owen Williams play members of the CIA’s A/V department who convince their superiors to let them root out a Russian spy at NASA, only to find themselves become the filmmakers behind the fake Apollo 11 moon landing. Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri believes “its subject matter, humor, and Johnson’s clever blending of styles,” give this sophomore effort “an impressive, playful sense of authenticity.”
Drama | USA | Directed by Chris Kelly
In SNL writer Chris Kelly’s debut feature, Jesse Plemons stars as David, a comedy writer who moves back home to take care of his cancer-stricken mother (Molly Shannon). Bradley Whitford plays David’s father and Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty are his sisters in a strong cast that also includes June Squibb, Paul Dooley, Matt Walsh, Kerri Kenney, JJ Totah, Retta, John Early, Zach Woods, and Lennon Parham. For many critics, the cast can’t quite save an uneven film which the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd admits “starts offputtingly broad,” but “also steadily improves as it progresses.”
Musical | Ireland | Directed by John Carney
Writer-director John Carney returned to Sundance where he won the World Cinema Audience Award in 2007 for Once. His latest, like that hit and 2014’s Begin Again, is driven by song. Set in 1980s Dublin, Sing Street follows 14-year-old Conor, whose bickering parents move him from a private school to an inner-city public school where he’s bullied. But when he meets the stunning Raphina, he’s inspired to start a band, and, luckily for Conor, his older brother (Jack Reynor) is ready to mentor him. According to critics, Carney has produced another crowd-pleaser with great songs and a joyous ending.
Southside with You
Drama | USA | Directed by Richard Tanne
Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter star as Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson in writer-director Richard Tanne’s take on what might have happened on the future President and First Lady’s first date. This bit of historical fiction was warmly received by critics, with the leads earning praise for their portrayals. The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd compares Tanne’s debut feature to “a sweetly speculative Richard Linklater imitation.”
Swiss Army Man
Dramedy | USA | Directed by Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Acquired by A24 for $1 million+
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert won the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition for what became known in the press as the "Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie." Paul Dano stars as Hank, a hopeless man lost in the woods who discovers a dead body (Radcliffe) and proceeds to make that (not entirely) dead body into both his best friend and a multi-purpose tool to help him find his way home. The film split critics, with some embracing the continuous farting and others, like early audiences who walked out, finding the whole crazy enterprise puerile. However, most reviewers agreed on one point: Dano and Radcliffe deliver good performances, committing to whatever is required.
Drama | USA | Directed by Sian Heder
Acquired by Netflix for $5 million
Orange Is the New Black writer Sian Heder’s debut feature stars Ellen Page as the titular Lu, a drifter living in a van. After being mistakenly hired to babysit for a negligent mother (Tammy Blanchard), she impulsively kidnaps her charge. The story takes another twist when Lu visits her boyfriend's mother, Margo (Allison Janney), claiming the child is her own. All three actresses impressed critics, but Heder’s screenplay was found to be uneven by some.
Under the Shadow
Horror/Thriller | UK/Jordan/Qatar | Directed by Babak Anvari
Acquired by Netflix
In 1988 Tehran, when her husband goes off to war, a mother (Narges Rashdi) struggles to cope with the consequences of her political past and with being left alone with her increasingly disturbed young daughter (Avin Manshadi). That is the setup for an effective and highly praised horror film written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Babak Anvari. Consequence of Sound believes “everything clicks” and lead actress Rashdi is “captivating.” THR concurs, claiming the film “doubles as a potent allegory for the insidious and very real anxieties of war, political turmoil and a society that oppresses women.”
Comedy | USA | Directed by Todd Solondz
Acquired by Amazon for $1 million+
Todd Solondz’s first film to premiere at Sundance since his 1996 Grand Jury Prize winner Welcome to the Dollhouse is a semi-sequel to that film, structured as a four-part anthology (with intermission) tied together by the titular female Dachshund’s travels. In the first section, parents Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts purchase the dog for their son, a nine-year-old cancer survivor (Keaton Nigel Cooke). Next, Wiener-Dog lands with veterinary nurse Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig, taking on the role from the original film's Heather Matarazzo), now grown up from her days in Dollhouse. The dog’s last two stops find her in the lap of a bitter film professor played by Danny DeVito, and, finally, with a grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and her ungrateful granddaughter (Zosia Mamet). While critics agreed it’s not Solondz’s best (THR described it as a “suburban American version of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar on under-prescribed anti-depressants”), Indiewire’s Eric Kohn writes, “Somehow hilarious and gloomy at the same time, it represents a big middle finger to anyone who wishes Solondz would lighten up.”
Comedy/Horror | USA | Directed by Kevin Smith
The second part of Kevin Smith’s “True North Trilogy” (following Tusk) catches up with convenience store clerks Colleen C (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen M (Harley Quinn Smith) as they find an ancient evil buried beneath their store: tiny Nazis made of sausage (or "Brat-zis"). Also reappearing from the first film is Johnny Depp as Montreal-based detective Guy Lapointe, while other cast members take on new guises (Justin Long plays a yoga instructor, Haley Joel Osment is Canada’s Hitler). Critics were not kind to Smith’s latest offering, with Variety’s Justin Chang comparing it to “an on-screen underwear stain,” but Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri admits, “It will probably be widely hated. But sue me; I found it is a surprisingly fun, bizarre hybrid.”