2017 Sundance Film Festival Recap

  • Publish Date: January 29, 2017
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A divided Sundance for a divided nation

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Breaking a four-year trend, audiences and the jury disagreed on the best film at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. (Neither group agreed with film critics' favorites, though that is nothing new.) The U.S. Dramatic jury, which included actors Gael García Bernal and Peter Dinklage among its members, opted for Macon Blair’s debut feature, I don’t feel at home in this world anymore., perhaps a fitting title for what many are feeling right now. The audience winner was Crown Heights, and while not a hit with critics, the based-on-a-true-story drama captured the hearts of festivalgoers with its dramatization of the personal toll taken on those falsely imprisoned.

While no film sold for a record-setting sum like last year (when the controversial The Birth of Nation was picked up for $17.5 million), the proliferation of buyers resulted in eight films selling for at least $5 million. Netflix and Amazon continued to exert their influence alongside newcomers like Neon and stalwarts like Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics (who bought the best-reviewed film of the festival, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name). Rom-com The Big Sick, a favorite of critics and audiences co-written by and starring Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani, had this year's biggest payday with $12 million.

With the Women’s March on Washington and the ban on Muslims both occurring during the festival, politics and the current state of American democracy were on the minds of everyone, and topical films that looked at ISIS (City of Ghosts), climate change (An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power), Russia’s state-sponsored doping program (Icarus), race (Mudbound) and the criminal justice system (Whose Streets?) had a strong showing. Expect even more next year.

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)
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Thriller | USA | Directed by Macon Blair
Previously acquired by Netflix (streams February 24th)

Previous Grand Jury Prize winners:
2016: The Birth of a Nation 69
2015: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 74
2014: Whiplash 88
2013: Fruitvale Station 85
2012: Beasts of the Southern Wild 86

Blue Ruin and Green Room actor Macon Blair’s feature directing debut stars Melanie Lynskey as a nursing assistant determined to get her belongings back after she is robbed. She is joined on her quest by her martial-arts-enthusiast neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood), but the two find more trouble than they ever expected. Variety claims it is Lynskey’s “best work yet, delivered by an exciting new director to watch.” The Netflix film took home Sundance's top award on Saturday, but it was the first time since 2012 that audiences and the Sundance jury did not agree on the festival's best American film in competition.

U.S. Audience Award (Dramatic)
Crown Heights
Drama | USA | Directed by Matt Ruskin
Acquired by Amazon for $2 million+ (will be released theatrically)

Previous Audience Award winners:
2016: The Birth of a Nation 69
2015: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 74
2014: Whiplash 88
2013: Fruitvale Station 85
2012: The Sessions 80 (fka The Surrogate)

Based on a true story first detailed on “This American Life,” writer-director Matt Ruskin’s latest feature stars Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield as Colin Warner, a man who spent decades in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Producer and former NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha plays Warner’s best friend and advocate, Carl King, who devotes his life to freeing Warner. Despite strong performances from the cast, The Playlist’s Rodrigo Perez claims “we never connect much emotionally with the characters,” in what David Ehrlich of Indiewire describes as a “thin, restless film that’s also a thrilling testament to the power of public radio.”

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary)
Dina
USA | Directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles

Previous Grand Jury doc winners:
2016: Weiner 84
2015: The Wolfpack 75
2014: Rich Hill 75
2013: Blood Brother 71
2012: The House I Live In 77

For their sophomore effort, Mala Mala directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles turn their cameras on Dina, a 48-year-old independent woman soon to be married to Scott, a Walmart door greeter. The two met at a Philadelphia social group for neurologically diverse adults, and now Scott, who has always lived with his parents, is about to move in with Dina. Challenges await the couple, and a major one for Dina is Scott’s hesitancy with physical intimacy. Alonso Duralde of TheWrap calls it “a fascinating love story,” and THR’s David Rooney finds it to be “a sensitive snapshot of two ordinary people on the autism spectrum who are determined to carve out a meaningful future together.”

U.S. Audience Award (Documentary)
Chasing Coral
USA | Directed by Jeff Orlowski
Acquired by Netflix (will be released theatrically in addition to streaming)

Previous Audience Award doc winners:
2016: Jim: The James Foley Story 73
2015: Meru 77
2014: Alive Inside 67
2013: Blood Brother 71
2012: The Invisible War 75

Chasing Ice director Jeff Orlowski takes his cameras under much warmer seas for his latest documentary, an investigation of coral bleaching—a sign of mass coral death—that is occurring more frequently with each passing year. From Bermuda to the Bahamas, Hawaii and eventually the Great Barrier Reef, Orlowski and his team race to document indisputable evidence of this underwater catastrophe, and David Rooney of THR believes they succeed, “The irrefutable visual evidence presented here would be hard for even the most stubborn climate change skeptics to ignore, detailing devastating losses to one of nature's most stunning creations that also threaten the foundations of a vital food and oxygen source.” Also impressed, Steve Greene of Indiewire writes, “Obstacles add drama without detracting from the larger issues at hand because the film does such a good job of showing how they’re intertwined.”

Other key films

Note that dollar amounts in distribution deals listed below are unconfirmed estimates as reported by various trade publications.

Axolotl Overkill
Drama | Germany | Directed by Helene Hegemann

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Twenty-four-year-old playwright, author, screenwriter, and director Helene Hegemann adapts her controversial novel, Axolotl Roadkill, for her debut feature. Jasna Fritzi Bauer stars as Mifti, a 16-year-old wild child who takes full advantage of the Berlin nightlife and falls for a mysterious older woman. The Playlist’s Rodrigo Perez thinks the stylish coming-of-age drama is a “captivating experience,” but Jessica Kiang, writing for Variety, believes it is a “formally impressive but thematically slippery directorial debut.”

Beach Rats
Drama | USA | Directed by Eliza Hittman

PictureWriter-director Eliza Hittman’s follow-up to her 2013 Sundance debut It Felt Like Love is another story of teenage sexuality, but this time Hittman looks at a boy named Frankie (newcomer Harris Dickinson, in a widely praised lead performance), who is struggling to come to terms with his attraction to men while spending time with his girlfriend and troublesome friends. Justin Chang of the L.A. Times finds the film’s final passages “particularly suspenseful and provocative,” but the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd cautions that an “impeccable sense of place and admirably stripped-bare shooting style can’t quite make up for how dourly predictable the film turns out to be.”

Beatriz at Dinner
Comedy | USA | Directed by Miguel Arteta

PictureHaving worked together on Sundance films in 2000 (Chuck & Buck) and 2002 (The Good Girl), director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White returned to the festival with this story of a holistic healer (Salma Hayek) who is invited to dinner at a rich client’s house where she clashes with a Trump-like businessman played by John Lithgow. THR’s Leslie Felperin finds Beatriz to be a “laudably well-intentioned but way too on-the-nose comedy-drama,” but Owen Gleiberman of Variety likes this “small-scale but elegantly deft squirmfest that features a luminous performance by Salma Hayek.”

Before I Fall
Drama | USA | Directed by Ry Russo-Young
In theaters March 3rd

PictureIn Ry Russo-Young’s (Nobody Walks) adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s best-selling young-adult novel, Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some!!, Why Him?) stars as a high schooler who finds herself repeatedly living the same day. Yes, it’s Groundhog Day (or a less violent Edge of Tomorrow), but Justin Chang of the L.A. Times finds Russo-Young’s “elegant play with time,” while not as distinguished as those previous titles, still effective in achieving its “strange, paradoxical goal," adding, "The tedious repetition of a single day becomes a stirring reminder of just how little time we really have to spend with each other.”

Berlin Syndrome
Thriller | Australia | Directed by Cate Shortland
Acquired by Netflix (streaming rights) and Vertical (theatrical rights)

PictureDirector Cate Shortland's (Somersault, Lore) and screenwriter Shaun Grant’s (The Snowtown Murders) adaptation of Melanie Joosten’s novel stars Teresa Palmer as an Australian woman who falls for a schoolteacher (Max Riemelt) while traveling in Berlin, only to end up held captive by this seemingly nice man. Screen Daily’s Wendy Ide praises Palmer’s performance as “daringly low-key,” and Bryan Bishop of The Verge believes “Shortland deftly switches between locked-door thriller mode and more nuanced character work.”

The Big Sick
Rom-com | USA | Directed by Michael Showalter
Acquired by Amazon for $12 million (will be released theatrically sometime in 2017)

PictureBased on the real-life romance between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon (who penned the script) and starring Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan, this comedy directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris) follows a new couple as they struggle with cultural differences and a major illness. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play the parents of Kazan’s character, adding to what Matt Singer of ScreenCrush calls a “terrific cast” in a film Variety’s Geoff Berkshire describes as “romantic, rueful, and hilarious.” It was the biggest acquisition of this year's festival (and one of the biggest Sundance payouts ever), with Amazon shelling out $12 million to secure theatrical and streaming rights.

Brigsby Bear
Drama | USA | Directed by Dave McCary
Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for $5 million (theatrical release in summer 2017)

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Produced by The Lonely Island and co-written by and starring SNL’s Kyle Mooney, this divisive comedy follows 25-year-old James as he discovers he was abducted as a child and reunites with his birth parents, only to find out that no one has heard of or seen his favorite TV show—Brigsby Bear Adventures. Geoff Berkshire of Variety finds a “genuine sweetness” in Mooney’s performance, and The Film Stage’s Jordan Raup agrees that “Mooney proves to be skilled leading man,” but warns that the film’s promising set-up “gets swallowed up by warm and fuzzy sentimentality.”

Call Me By Your Name
Drama | Italy/France | Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics

PictureAfter the success of last year’s A Bigger Splash, director Luca Guadagnino returned to Sundance, where his 2010 release I Am Love made its American debut. His latest, the best-reviewed film at this year's festival, is an adaptation of André Aciman’s novel about the romance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), the 24-year-old assistant to Elio’s professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg). The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman calls it a “masterful work,” and Gregory Ellwood of The Playlist believes the film is “almost revolutionary,” with “incredible performances” by Chalamet and Hammer.

Casting JonBenet
Documentary | USA | Directed by Kitty Green
Previously acquired by Netflix (theatrical and streaming release in spring 2017)

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Kitty Green’s latest documentary uses a local casting call to collect opinions, theories, and performances from professional and non-professional actors auditioning to play members of JonBenét Ramsey's family. The audacious technique, similar to what Greene used in her 2014 award-winning short, The Face Of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, results in a “riveting and unexpectedly moving documentary,” according to Tim Grierson of Screen Daily. THR’s Leslie Felperin similarly finds the blending of nonfiction and fiction filmmaking “playful [and] prismatic but ultimately richly moving.”

City of Ghosts
Documentary | USA | Directed by Matthew Heineman
Acquired by Amazon for $2 million+

PictureDocumentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) follows members of RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently), activists who banded together when ISIS took over their hometown in 2014, in this effective documentary that “serves the dual purpose of exhibiting the rape of a city in a way not seen before and conveying the feeling of helplessness experienced by those who have managed to flee to the West,” according to THR’s Todd McCarthy. Giving the film an “A," Katie Walsh of The Playlist writes, “The film is as much about the power of the media as it is about war and revolution.”

Dayveon
Drama | USA | Directed by Amman Abbasi

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Amman Abbasi’s debut feature (which he also co-wrote with with Steven Reneau) looks at the life of 13-year-old Dayveon (Devin Blackmon) after the violent death of his big brother. Set in rural Arkansas, where the local gang holds sway, this “striking debut” is a “simple film, but one with a notable depth of emotion,” according to Dominick Suzanne-Mayer of Consequence of Sound. That opinion is echoed by Indiewire’s David Ehrlich, who writes, “Amman Abbasi’s debut feature revitalizes a familiar coming-of-age story by telling it with a rare sense of truth.”

The Discovery
Drama/Sci-fi | USA | Directed by Charlie McDowell
Previously acquired by Netflix (streams March 31st)

PictureWriter-director Charlie McDowell and co-writer Justin Lader’s follow-up to the 2014 two-hander The One I Love has an intriguing premise which ponders the question: What would people do if there were scientific proof of the afterlife? Their answer: an epidemic of suicides as people hurry to get there. But for Will (Jason Segel), whose father (Robert Redford) discovered scientific evidence of the afterlife, and Isla (Rooney Mara), a suicidal girl he meets on the way to his father’s secluded mansion, their tragic pasts complicate matters. Unfortunately, “A killer premise leads to only so-so execution,” according to Screen Daily’s Tim Grierson, an opinion Variety’s Dennis Harvey echoes: “The result is watchable enough, but never half as suspenseful or emotionally involving as it hopes to be.”

Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!
Foreign/Drama | Brazil/Netherlands/France/Paraguay | Directed by Felipe Bragança

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Set along the border between Brazil and Paraguay, Felipe Bragança’s first solo-directed feature is about the forbidden love between 13-year-old Joca, a Brazilian, and Basano, an indigenous Paraguayan girl. Screen Daily’s Allan Hunter calls it “wildly ambitious,” but “the film has the feel of a vast, sprawling novel that has been squashed into the modest running time of a feature.” THR and Variety both wish Bragança spent as much time on his script as he did his images, which are often beautiful.

A Ghost Story
Drama | USA | Directed by David Lowery
Acquired by A24

PictureAfter wrapping the big budget Pete’s Dragon, director David Lowery returned to his indie roots to shoot this story of a man (Casey Affleck) who watches over his grieving wife (Rooney Mara) and, as time passes, haunts his former home. Tim Grierson of Screen Daily believes it is a “small, simple story told with exquisite precision and control,” and Indiewire’s Eric Kohn praises Lowery’s ability to deliver a film “both formally ambitious and emotionally accessible.”

God’s Own Country
Drama | UK | Directed by Francis Lee

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Earning comparisons to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, writer-director Francis Lee’s gay love story follows a 25-year-old sheep farmer (Josh O’Connor) and a Romanian migrant worker (Alec Secareanu) in the farmlands of Yorkshire, England. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw praises the lead performances as “sharp, intelligent and emotionally generous,” and Fionnuala Halligan of Screen Daily writes, “Rooted in reality though it may be, God’s Own Country turns out to be a romance which soars, and it’s an irresistibly hopeful flight.”

Golden Exits
Drama | USA | Directed by Alex Ross Perry

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The latest from writer-director Alex Ross Perry (Queen of Earth, Listen Up Philip) stars Adam Horowitz and Chloë Sevigny as husband and wife and Jason Schwartzman and Analeigh Tipton as another Brooklyn couple whose lives are upset by the arrival of a young Australian played by Emily Browning. Critics are split on this relationship drama that A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club gives a C–, calling it a “bizarre, clumsy misstep” by the director and “a bad imitation of ’70s European talkfests.” On the other hand, THR’s Todd McCarthy believes it’s “something close to superb” with a great score by Keegan DeWitt.

The Hero
Drama | USA | Directed by Brett Haley
Acquired by The Orchard (theatrical release in fall 2017)

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The team (writer Marc Basch and writer-director Brett Haley) who brought I’ll See You in My Dreams to Sundance in 2015 returned this year with this story of an aging Western actor (Sam Elliot) forced to confront his mortality. Nick Offerman plays his pot-dealing friend; Katharine Ross his ex-wife; Krysten Ritter his estranged daughter; and Laura Prepon a romantic interest. While critics agree that Elliot is excellent in the lead role, they disagree on the effectiveness of the film as a whole. Dan Mecca of The Filmstage believes The Hero is “a bittersweet celebration of life, with laughs and tears in equal measure,” but TheWrap’s Robert Abele claims the director’s adoration for his leading man “didn’t translate into a noteworthy script.”

Icarus
Documentary | USA | Directed by Bryan Fogel
Acquired by Netflix for $5 million

PictureJewtopia writer-director Bryan Fogel’s first foray into documentary filmmaking is an investigation of illegal doping that takes on added significance when he connects with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian anti-doping specialist who turns out to be at the center of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. While most critics agree that Rodchenkov and his story are extraordinary, some feel Fogel’s uneven storytelling lessens the impact.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Documentary | USA | Directed by Bonni Cohen & Jon Shenk
Acquired by Paramount (to be released theatrically on July 28)

PictureWith fewer PowerPoint slides but just as much passion, Al Gore attempts to further educate the masses about climate change in this sequel to An Inconvenient Truth. With 10 more years of data, Gore and Audrie & Daisy directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (taking over for Davis Guggenheim), present their case as Gore prepares for the COP 21 climate conference held in Paris in late 2015. Critics are divided on the film’s effectiveness but not on the value of its message.

The Incredible Jessica James
Rom-com | USA | Directed by James C. Strouse
Acquired by Netflix

PictureIn this romantic comedy, Jessica Williams reunites with her People Places Things writer-director James C. Strouse to play the starring role of a struggling playwright dealing with a recent break-up with her boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield) and the possibility of new love with a divorcé (Chris O’Dowd). Critics fell for the film and Williams, with TheWrap claiming the “film is above all a showcase for Williams’s many talents, and a testament to her ability as a vibrant leading lady.”

Ingrid Goes West
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Matt Spicer
Acquired by Neon

PictureIn director Matt Spicer’s debut feature, Aubrey Plaza plays the title character, a mentally disturbed young woman who becomes obsessed with a social media star played by Elizabeth Olsen. The key to this “Single White Female for the Facebook generation,” as Variety Peter Debruge describes it, is Plaza’s “tortured performance” in which she “allows herself to seem vulnerable.”

L.A. Times
Comedy | USA | Directed by Michelle Morgan

PictureWriter-director-actor Michelle Morgan’s debut feature follows three single friends in Los Angeles. Morgan plays Annette, who upon breaking up with her boyfriend Elliot (Jorma Taccone), discovers that dating in L.A. is as bad as her best friend Baker (Dree Hemingway) already knows. The Playlist’s Noel Murray admits that the film is “nothing groundbreaking" but nevertheless finds it "funny and charming, and up-to-the-minute." And Jordan Raup at The Film Stage agrees that the comedy “blazes its own distinct, disenchanted trail of romance in the modern age.”

Landline
Comedy/Drama | USA | Directed by Gillian Robespierre
Acquired by Amazon for $3 million

PictureDirector Gillian Robespierre re-teams with her Obvious Child star, Jenny Slate, for this 1995-set story of sisters Dana (Slate) and Ali (Abby Quinn) who discover love letters written by their father (John Turturro), leading them to attempt to expose his supposed infidelity. “It’s that most elusive of indie dramedies: An honestly told story about the messiness of human relationships,” according to Indiewire’s David Ehrlich. But A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club disagrees, writing, “Landline feels truthful but a little sitcom-easy.”

The Little Hours
Comedy | USA | Directed by Jeff Baena
Acquired by Gunpowder and Sky for $1 million+

PictureA great cast (Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Adam Pally, and Paul Reiser) is the main strength of writer-director Jeff Baena’s third Sundance film, following Joshy and Life After Beth. The story centers on three nuns (played by Brie, Plaza, and Micucci) who try to sleep with a newly arrived servant (Franco) staying at their convent. “Overall, it’s a perfectly satisfying snapshot of subversive comedy that delivers where it counts,” according to Indiewire’s Eric Kohn.

Manifesto
Drama/Experimental | Germany | Directed by Julian Rosefeldt

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Cate Blanchett plays 13 different characters in this film version of Julian Rosefeldt’s art installation. The dialogue for these characters has been culled form various artist manifestos—Dadaists, Pop Artists, filmmakers (Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 and Jim Jarmusch), Futurists, Minimalists and more. As Screen Daily’s Tim Grierson notes, “The impish, experimental Manifesto gives the two-time Oscar-winner plenty of room to flaunt her technique, and part of the film’s fun comes from watching her indulge shamelessly.”

Marjorie Prime
Sci-fi/Drama | USA | Directed by Michael Almereyda

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Based on Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer Prize finalist play, the latest from writer-director Michael Almereyda (Experimenter) stars Lois Smith as Marjorie, an 86-year-old woman who spends her days communicating with a hologram of her dead husband, Walter (Jon Hamm), given to her by her daughter and son-in-law (Geena Davis and Tim Robbins). THR’s David Rooney believes the “performances are impeccable” in this “intimate exploration of lives in the present, past and future. Anthony Kaufman of Screen Daily finds the film “Intelligent, precise, and always operating just one step ahead of its audience,” but Variety’s Guy Lodge calls it a “sporadically fascinating but airless adaptation.”

Menashe
Foreign/Drama | USA/Israel | Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein

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Directing his first narrative film after a number of documentaries, Joshua Z. Weinstein takes audiences into New York's ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community to tell the story of Menashe, a widower prevented from raising his son alone due to the rules of his community. Shot guerrilla style over nearly two years, the all-Yiddish-language film is “thoroughly absorbing and offers a fresh and probing look at a cloistered community living in plain sight on busy New York streets,” writes Claudia Puig for TheWrap.

Mudbound
Drama | USA | Directed by Dee Rees

PictureReturning to Sundance after finding success in 2011 with her first feature, Pariah, director Dee Rees once again impressed festival audiences with her adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, a sprawling story about the impact of World War II and racism on a black family (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige are a married couple and Jason Mitchell plays their oldest son) and a white family (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan play husband and wife, Garrett Hedlund is Clarke’s younger brother) in 1940s Mississippi. Using all six characters as narrators at times during the film allows Rees to provide a “richly nuanced understanding of the sheer pervasiveness and variety of racist attitudes in the Jim Crow era,” according to the L.A. Times’s Justin Chang, as well as “lending a sprawling, prestige literary adaptation an interiority, a poetic touch,” writes A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club in his B+ review. Multiple distributors are reportedly engaged in a bidding war to secure rights to the film, which is already being pegged as a potential Oscar contender.

My Happy Family
Foreign/Drama | Germany/Georgia/France | Directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gro

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This sophomore effort by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross (In Bloom) follows 52-year-old Manana as she moves from the crowded three-bedroom flat she shares with her husband, her parents, her two grown children, and a son-in-law to her own apartment. She provides no explanation. The Playlist’s Andrew Crump finds it “touching and hilarious in nearly equal measure,” and Bilge Ebiri of The Village Voice believes it’s “likely to be one of the best films of the year.”

Newness
Drama | USA | Directed by Drake Doremus

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Six years ago, writer-director Drake Doremus won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for Like Crazy. His latest film is another love story starring his Equals lead Nicolas Hoult, joined here by Laia Costa (Victoria). Working from a script by Ben York Jones, the film, set in contemporary Los Angeles and shot on the fly, follows two millennials as they struggle with monogamy in a world where a hookup is a swipe away. The Playlist’s Noel Murray thinks “Hoult and Costa are terrific,” and Jordan Ruimy of The Film Stage concurs, but he believes the film “ends up recycling the same old tired clichés that invade most sappy cinematic love stories.”

Patti Cake$
Drama | USA | Directed by Geremy Jasper
Acquired by Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million

PictureMusic video director Geremy Jasper’s debut feature stars Danielle Macdonald as Patricia “Killa P” Dombrowski, a bartender in New Jersey who hopes her rap skills can lead her to fame and fortune. Critics don't agree on the film, which is either “an energetic checklist of every cliché in the underdog-story playbook,” as the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd describes, or “a winning musical ride that hits some familiar beats while using them in service of a satisfying tale of big dreams and funky talent,” as Eric Kohn of Indiewire claims. But reviewers agree on one thing: Macdonald is a star.

The Polka King
Comedy | USA | Directed by Maya Forbes

PictureCo-writers and directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky’s follow-up to their 2014 debut Sundance feature, Infinitely Polar Bear, is an adaptation of John Mikulak and Joshua Von Brown's documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King. According to ScreenCrush and Variety, this story of the rise and fall of Jan Lewan (Jack Black), who bilked investors to build a musical empire, proves what an excellent cast (Jenny Slate, Jackie Weaver, Jason Schwartzman) can do when reality is stranger than fiction.

Pop Aye
Foreign/Drama | Singapore/Thailand | Directed by Kirsten Tan
Acquired by Kino Lorber (theatrical release in summer 2017)

PictureKristen Tan’s debut feature follows Thana, a once-famous Bangkok architect who leaves the city and his unfulfilling life behind to take a road trip back to his home village with an elephant he names Popeye. Kevin Jagernauth of The Playlist claims the film has an “engaging, humble charm,” and in her glowing review, THR’s Sheri Linden praises how Tan gives every character and relationship a “fascinating complexity.”

Thoroughbred
Dramedy/Thriller | USA | Directed by Cory Finley
Acquired by Focus Features for $5 million

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Writer-director Corey Finley's debut features stars Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy as two girls who try to convince Anton Yelchin (in his final role) to kill someone for them. In his A– review, A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club praises this “razor-witted black comedy” as “superbly unpredictable, moving fluidly into thriller territory and back again,” and Indiewire’s David Ehrlich calls it a “delightfully vicious and mind-bogglingly confident first feature.”

Trophy
Documentary | USA | Directed by Christina Clusiau & Shaul Schwarz
Acquired by The Orchard (theatrical rights) and CNN (television rights)

PictureThis examination of big game hunting, breeding, and wildlife conservation is a “multidimensional look at an issue with sometimes competing and contradictory stances,” according to Screen Daily’s Anthony Kaufman. Coming to theaters later this year before appearing on CNN, Trophy tells a story "as captivating as its images are beautiful,” writes Jude Dry, who gives the film an “A” at Indiewire.

Whose Streets?
Documentary | USA | Directed by Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan

PictureDamon Davis and Sabaah Folayan’s documentary about the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri uprising is an “outstanding and incendiary documentary,” according to Jordan Hoffman of The Guardian, and The Film Stage’s John Fink praises the film’s “first-rate storytelling and citizen journalism, providing a harrowing, ground-up look at those that are often denied agency or dismissed as troublemakers to be tear-gassed.”

Wilson
Comedy | USA | Directed by Craig Johnson
In theaters March 24th

PictureBased on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel, Wilson stars Woody Harrelson as a neurotic and (maybe too) honest middle-aged misanthrope who reunites with his estranged wife (Laura Dern) and learns he has a teenage daughter (Isabella Amara) he has never met. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman found director Craig Johnson’s previous Sundance film, 2014’s The Skeleton Twins, “both funnier and more realistic,” but Eric Kohn of Indiewire believes Johnson “pulls off some endearing qualities” despite the tricky source material.

Wind River
Thriller | USA | Directed by Taylor Sheridan

PictureThe directorial debut for Hell or High Water and Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan is set on an Indian reservation where a U.S. Fish & Wildlife agent (Jeremy Renner) and a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) team up to solve the murder of a teenage girl. While Matt Singer of ScreenCrush believes “Sheridan clearly has a future as a director,” he’s let down this time by a script that doesn’t quite live up to his previous work.

The Yellow Birds
Drama | USA | Directed by Alexandre Moors

PictureAdapted by David Lowery and R.F.I. Porto from Kevin Powers’s 2012 novel, director Alexandre Moors’s follow-up to his 2013 Sundance debut, Blue Caprice, tells the story of the disappearance of an American soldier (Tye Sheridan) during the Iraq War and the impact it has on his mom (Jennifer Aniston) and a fellow soldier and friend played by Alden Ehrenreich. Though he finds it strikingly shot, A.A. Dowd gives the film a “C” because it “can’t quite disguise its hollow familiarity.” Similarly, Justin Chang finds the central mystery “drearily protracted” in this “ultimately unpersuasive” film.

Top photo by Kelly Ann Taub. All photos courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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  • Beanstalk086  

    Sounds like a nice mix of enticing and polarizing films. I am thrilled for all of the gay-themed films, for one, which seem to be the strongest crop of LGBT films I've seen in a single year in quite some time. Excited for Call Me by Your Name most of all, but also Beach Rats and God's Own Country. I'm terribly excited for Mudbound and hope the film can overcome the Netflix stigma that plagued the wonderful Beasts of No Nation and potentially cost Idris Elba both a nomination and perhaps a win (though the talented Mark Rylance might've won regardless). Patti Cake$ intrigues me, and not just because it's about NJ, my home state. Thoroughbred sounds very intriguing, with a great cast. It'll be nice to see Anton Yelchin one final time. The Big Sick looks excellent, and I love Melanie Lynskey so I'm very excited for I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore.--Glad that one's released soon, although it might affect any awards chances. We shall see. Finally, Marjorie Prime sounds interesting, especially for any fan of Michel Gondry's work. I love Lois Smith and it'll be great to see her in a significant role. The Incredible Jessica James and Ingrid Goes West sound great. And several of the foreign-language films intrigue me. Can't wait for this year to really begin!

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