As February dawns, it’s safe to say that 2016 no longer has that new car smell. The Academy Award nominations have come and gone, there’s been the first fully-fledged industry controversy vai #OscarsSoWhite, and Sundance, the first major film festival of the year, just wrapped. Last week, we brought you the Playlist picks for the major talents that seem likely to break through from this year’s lineup.
But now that all the films have been screened at the festival and the awards have been handed out, we’re ready to make a more sober assessment. Here, in no particular order, are our picks for the 12 best features and the 6 best documentaries we saw at Sundance 2016. Click on the title to go to the full write-up, or scroll to the end where there’s a complete list of all the other reviews from the festival.
"The Birth of a Nation"
Surely you’ve heard about "The Birth of a Nation" by now. Nate Parker‘s film, which tells the story of preacher turned revolt leader Nat Turner, made headlines before scooping up both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the festival: after a bidding war, it was bought by Fox Searchlight for $17.5m (a record for Sundance) and it was the only film we can think of in memory to receive a standing ovation before it screened. So it might be easy to imagine that timing, buzz and politics (especially in the wake of #OscarSoWhite) might have oversold the film itself. But it’s not so, according to our reviewer, who found it "somewhat ragged but wildly forceful," building to an "overwhelming" conclusion. Which is good news, because there’ll be no escaping this title on the awards trail or Parker himself, who’s been instantly minted as the hottest director around. [B+]
Director Tim Sutton had already impressed us as an uncompromising, highly individual filmmaker with his last feature, the languid, lyrical "Memphis." So we were primed for his follow-up, which played in the edgier NEXT Sundance sidebar, but we were not expecting to be quite this blown away. Described by our reviewer as "a prelude to violence," it could ostensibly be considered part of the gun control debate, an issue that made itself felt in several films at this year’s festival. But Sutton’s film is less polemical than poetic, albeit with a much darker effect this time. Featuring a plethora of finely observed, austere, often dialogue-free portraits of a vastly disparate group of individuals, the film is also a masterclass in slow-dread pacing, one that ultimately has much to say about a violence-obsessed American society as an ailing, decaying organism. [A]
There were many reasons to root for "The Intervention" in advance: it’s the directorial debut of actress Clea DuVall, a stalwart and singular presence on the indie scene for two decades, starring the terminally undervalued Melanie Lynskey, alongside an assortment of current young independent talent in Natasha Lyonne, Alia Shawkat, Cobie Smulders, Jason Ritter and Ben Schwartz. So it was great news that our reviewer found the film transcendeding its "Sundance bingo" logline (three couples go away for a weekend as part of a surprise intervention for a fourth), calling it "a sharp-tongued and smart observational comedy… [that] escalates into a deftly staged indie farce." Lynskey went on to pick up the U.S. Dramatic Competition performance award at the fest, which will hopefully help getting the adjective "undervalued" detached from her name. [B+]
Hearing a Kelly Reichardt movie described as "divisive" is a little like hearing water described as "wet": she’s a filmmaker whose slow, studied style and dispassionate, cool-to-the-touch approach gains her advocates and detractors in roughly equal measure: our Sundance reviewer found the film "utterly enthralling" and a display of "Reichardt in full command of the material." The film is structured as a triptych in which each segment stars a different actress (Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Reichardt regular Michelle Williams), and investigates class division, sexism and unrequited attraction all through her trademark wide-angle prism, via conversations in which the participants talk "past each other." "Certain Women" may not win over her harsher critics, but her fans are in for a typically clear-eyed, thought-provoking treat. [A-]
"The Eyes of My Mother"
The "Sundance horror hit" has become a bit of a tradition over the last few years following the buzz surrounding "The Babadook" and "The Witch," and if perhaps there wasn’t quite the same deafening consensus around a horror title this year out, our money goes on writer/director Nicholas Pesce‘s "The Eyes of My Mother." From its starkly arresting beginning, in which an act of violence is perpetrated against a housewife while her young daughter looks on, only for the daughter to become an active participant in the revenge taken on the assailant once Dad comes home, the film plots a highly original, beautifully shot course through a genre that often feels overgrown with familiarity. And so we follow the girl, now an isolated, alienated young woman (standout Kika Magalhaes) as her attempts to connect back to the world become progressively more horrific. It’s the origin story of a monster of the highest order, the kind that "devours other monsters." [B+]
Coming from "Orange is the New Black" writer Sian Heder, "Tallulah" proves a strong showcase for its performers. But when those performers are Ellen Page and Allison Janney (reunited from their "Juno" days), and the script gives both women ample opportunity to flex their talents, the result is bound to be pretty superlative. Our reviewer pointed out that the film’s flaws —namely, some credulity-stretching contrivances— are almost wholly redeemed by how they lead to scenes of interplay between these two actresses. In fact, "Tallulah" is "at its best when the plot [which involves Page’s young drifter stealing a baby and moving in which her ex’s mother] recedes and we get to see Page and Janney’s characters testing their tolerance and eventual affection for one another." [B+]
Not all Sundance movies are soft, fluffy and have the proper socio-political message —even when those movies concern interracial romances. That much is proven by Elizabeth Wood‘s excoriating, semi-autobiographical trawl through the mean streets of New York as a thrill-seeking college sophomore falls for her good hearted Puerto Rican drug dealer and will stop at nothing to save him from jail time. This means there’s a lot of exploitative sexual encounters, about which Wood and actress Morgan Saylor (who played Dana in "Homeland") are fearless and often brutal in their portrayal. Riding out these degradations is hard going at times, but this heady thematic mix of "issues about the justice system, gentrification, power dynamics, and racial profiling" also boasts an energetic "music video aesthetic… to give a sense we’re playing in Leah’s New York fantasies." [B+]
As if to ensure that this sprawling family epic from Kenneth Lonergan does not suffer the same ignominious fate as as his meddled-with, wrangled over and eventually more or less buried masterpiece "Margaret," Sundance critics greeted the premiere of "Manchester-By-The-Sea" with a veritable stampede of superlatives. And the Playlist is no different, with our reviewer calling it "magnificently messy, painfully real" and remarking on its "overwhelming emotional swells." Singled out for praise is Casey Affleck, who appears to be almost as central to this film as Anna Paquin was to "Margaret," with Lonergan’s background as a playwright apparently again seeing him coax incredible performances from an already excellent cast (a trick he’s pulled off in each of his three feature films). Amazon, anxious to prove their mettle with potential awards winners, went after this one hard, and are promising a "robust theatrical run" which, for those of us who weren’t in Park City, can’t come soon enough. [A-]
Irish director John Carney‘s much-loved breakout "Once" was followed up by the sweet-natured but slightly more ordinary "Begin Again," so it’s good to hear that "Sing Street" brings him back into more personal territory in its story of a teenager in 1980s Dublin and the band he forms. Starring newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo with Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle-Kennedy as his parents, the film won over our reviewer: "Sing Street" "thinks the best of its characters and… presents them the way they’d like to think of themselves." If that sometimes strains the strictest credibility, the chief symptom is a suite of great songs (written by Carney and folk-pop musician Gary Clark) that have "an unusually complex structure for something that a bunch of working-class Irish teens would have worked up in an afternoon in 1985," so it’s hard to complain. [B+]
It appears that the story of Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota TV news reporter who shot herself live on air, is having its moment at a film festival forty years after the fact. Even more surprising: both films concerning Chubbuck happen to be very good. Alongside Robert Greene‘s "Kate Plays Christine" (which you can find below in "Best Docs"), "Christine" is the fictionalized retelling, starring a career-best Rebecca Hall and directed by Antonio Campos. Building an atmosphere of dread against a cleverly-achieved backdrop of the "I’m Ok You’re Ok" ’70s, the film had our reviewer wondering "Is “Christine” voyeuristic, or even exploitative? Very possibly. But it’s also vivid, intense, and artful." [B+]
A "quiet, evocative" look at female friendship, So Yong Kim‘s follow-up to the inescapably bleak "For Ellen" finds a gentler, more insightful register to occupy. While perhaps not the most dynamic film (our reviewer even notes that the pace can drag at times), the great compensation of this approach is the focus on the two young actors —Riley Keough, who for the first time is offered a role "she can really inhabit and own," and Jena Malone, whose character "has all the outer signifiers of a bad girl… but Malone brings a sweetness." Throughout its staggered structure, in which we meet the characters as they get together on infrequent occasions, the film builds gently to an intricate portrait of the "messy intimacy" that can exist between friends. [B+]
The observational, humanist territory that director Ira Sachs began to mine in 2011 with "Keep the Lights On" and made good on with the wonderful "Love is Strange" evidently continues to prove fertile for his latest,,"Little Men." It’s a modest film "about a small personal crisis that represents something much larger," as two junior-high-aged new friends roam New York City and bond, even as their parents get further entrenched in an eviction dispute. Like he did with "Love is Strange," Sachs makes this character sketch into a portrait of the city. It works because he "sees the way New York City’s gears grind. He’s awed at how it can be both glorious and cruel." And so, through observations regarding New York, gentrification and the generation gap, "Little Men" "displays a rare understanding of how the world works." [B+]
The recently deceased Jacques Rivette famously said that all films are documentaries of their own making, but Kirsten Johnson, a long standing filmmaker and non-fiction cinematographer, has taken that concept to its logical extreme and has made a documentary that is both about her own life and about the very nature of documentary filmmaking. It’s a dizzyingly reflexive concept that could be too self-involved to really connect, but as our reviewer discovered, the fragmentary, impressionistic "Cameraperson" (often employing off-cuts of films she worked on) actually builds to "a surprisingly emotional and heartfelt film… Humanity permeates [the film], so as experimental as it is, it’s also stirring and poignant, with a tangible sense of empathy intact in every frame…" [A]
"Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World"
If we worried that the eternally great Werner Herzog had gone off the boil entirely with the hugely disappointing "Queen of the Desert," we were mightily reassured that at least his capacity as a documentarian remain undimmed. A startlingly incisive and intelligent look at technological evolution, especially as it pertains to the internet, this film may be devoid of Herzog’s frequent themes of the majesty and brutality of nature, but he transfers that passion to a new arena, delivering a "curious, awe-struck, and terrified look at the origins and future of the web and the interconnected reality it’s begat." With an uncompromising but well-informed sense of rising urgency, ‘Lo and Behold’ "devolves into an outright horror film about civilization, and what we’re allowing it to become." [A-]
This year’s Sundance featured more than one film in which the gun control debate played a major role, and most incendiary as such is undoubtedly Kim A. Snyder‘s "Newtown." It’s a film our critic describes as "emotionally devastating," and it’s hard to see how any documentary that takes such an unflinching and deeply-felt look at the aftermath of such an epochal tragedy as the school shootings in Newtown Connecticut could not be —especially as the film focuses not on the killer or on the politics of the event, but simply on the children, in particular on three of the victims, and their families trying to cope in the wake of an incomprehensible loss. The film’s resonance extends far beyond the gun control debate (though the parents featured are now all activists on that front) and summons "the exquisite beauty and inherent terror of parenthood —the unconditional love and complete lack of control." [A]
"Kate Plays Christine"
In the other Sundance film dealing with the Christine Chubbuck tragedy, "Actress" director Robert Greene takes an elliptical run at the story, telling it through the novel medium of following an actress, Kate Lyn Sheil, as she is preparing for the role of Chubbuck, which she will play in the film-within-the-film. As much a testing of the boundaries of the fiction/nonfiction realms as it is simply telling a story (similar to his approach to "Actress"), here Greene creates a hybrid that is "emotionally gripping and infinitely thought-provoking." Operating on several levels at once —as fiction, as documentary, as investigation into the documentary form, as historical excavation and as exploration of the process of a talented and committed actor—"Kate Plays Christine" which won Greene the Documentary Writing award, even finds time to be beautiful, with Sean Price Williams‘ cinematography giving the film an aesthetic that is as unique as its premise. [A-]
"Jim: The James Foley Story"
If there is a single image that heralded the arrival of the age of ISIS, it may well be that of American journalist James Foley wearing an orange jumpsuit, and about to be murdered by a figure in a black hood. But while inescapably political, the strength of Brian Oakes‘ documentary on Foley (which picked up the Audience Award for Documentary) is that it is about "a wide scope of global issues through the intimate remembrance of one life." Highlighting "the dangers of freelance conflict journalism —the limited resources, low pay, competitiveness, and adrenaline addiction" but also expressing the absolute necessity of this work"— ‘Jim’ becomes a portrait of a real person "who struggled with the realities and logistics of everyday “normal” life —saving money, being organized— but who demonstrated an incredible amount of love and grace underneath torture, beatings, and captivity" and thereby a fittingly defiant testament to a man who was much more than one final, horrific image. [A-]
“All These Sleepless Nights”
The restless ecstasy of youth and the nostalgic longing for euphoric good times is gorgeously captured in Michal Marczak’s third feature-length effort. Hedonistic Polish adolescents and best friends Krzysztof and Michal navigate adulthood while attempting to extend the halcyon existence of everlasting parties and endless raves young adulthood (just about) still allows. It could be a soulful coming-of-age movie from Sofia Coppola shot with the magic hour light of Terrence Malick and the abandon of Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers.” But for all its dreamy narrative qualities, Marczak’s film is actually a lyrical, fluid-motion documentary that, in a very different way from "Kate Plays Christine" (see above) but no less profoundly, blurs the distinction between narrative and nonfiction filmmaking. [A-]
So those are our top picks from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, but you can look through a summary of all the other titles we covered and their grades below— just click to go to any individual review. And if you’d like to further browse all our Sundance 2016 coverage, including news, awards reports and features like the 25 Biggest Filmmakers to emerge from the festival over the years, just click here to find it all.
Other Narrative Features
"Southside With You" B
"Frank and Lola" B
"Love and Friendship"
"Hunt for the Wilderpeople" B
"Complete Unknown" B-
"The Fits" B-
"The Lovers and the Despot" B-
"Wiener Dog" B-
"The Free World" B-
"Jacqueline (Argentine)" C+
"Other People" C+
"Agnus Dei" C
"Captain Fantastic" C
"Morris from America" C-
"Swiss Army Man" C-
"Yoga Hosers" D+