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‘Birth Of A Nation’ And Beyond: 25 Filmmakers & Actors That Broke Through At The 2016 Sundance Film Festival

'Birth Of A Nation' And Beyond: 25 Filmmakers & Actors That Broke Through At The 2016 Sundance Film Festival

Tahir Jetter – “How To Tell You’re A Douchebag”

The dating scene has changed almost unrecognizably in the last few years, thanks to the popularity of Tinder and similar apps, but the movies haven’t really embraced it yet on-screen. “How To Tell You’re A Douchebag” might be one of the first, and it’s a smart, low-budget romantic comedy that provides a strong showcase for writer-director Tahir Jetter. The filmmaker, whose NYU thesis film played the festival five years ago, and who had a web series last year in collaboration with “The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl” creator Issa Rae, has made something provocative in both title and subject, about a misogynistic blogger who falls in love with an up-and-coming author. Starring a cast of mostly newcomers (DeWanda Wise being a particular standout), it’s a film that our sister site Shadow & Act compared to movies like “Love & Basketball,” and say “has the potential to help reinvigorate the genre for the 21st century.”

Kristen Johnson – “Cameraperson”

For over a decade now, Kristen Johnson has been one of the top cinematographers in the documentary sphere, with credits including modern classics like “This Film Is Not Rated,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “The Invisible War,” and “Citizenfour” (the latter of which she was also a co-producer on). But her second feature as director (after 2004’s “Deadline,” also a Sundance premiere) is one of the more striking non-fiction films we’ve seen in a long time, a ‘visual memoir’ that Katie Walsh calls “a rumination, a treatise, a theory of documentary filmmaking  a manifesto of sorts that asserts the importance of the camera as a person.” Made up of outtakes from the films she’s worked on, in a collage form focusing on people interracting with the camera or Johnson herself, it turns out to be “an emotional and heartfelt film that tells us who Johnson is as a person and as an artist,” and proves to be a “stunning achievement in documentary form.”

Matt Johnson – “Operation Avalanche”

Unlike many of the filmmakers here, Matt Johnson isn’t a first-timer: his last movie, school-shooting pic “The Dirties,” is one of the more notable Slamdance breakouts of recent years, getting a theatrical release thanks to the patronage of Kevin Smith. His follow-up, “Operation Avalanche,” is, in some respects, a spiritual sequel, with Johnson again taking an on-screen role, and using a mock-documentary format. But it looks to be a big step up, one that should put the young filmmaker on a lot more radars. Tracking two Ivy League kids recruited by the CIA to fake the moon landings in 1967, it’s “wildly impressive technically,” according to Filmmaker Magazine (among other tricks, the film shot guerilla-style without permission at NASA itself), and with a clever mix of tones jumping from comedy to Kubrick that, by most accounts, proves successful. The rare Sundance movie to have gotten distribution before the festival (Lionsgate picked it up a while back), this could well be one of the bigger crossover hits this year.

Sara Jordenö – “Kiki”

It takes some moxie to make a documentary on the same subject as one of the best-known and most influential films ever in the form — Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 hit “Paris Is Burning” — but that Sara Jordenö pulls off another movie set in the voguing world is testament to her talent. Co-written with one of the film’s subjects, Twiggy Pucci Garçon, it shows, per Katie Walsh’s review, “how crucial access is for a filmmaker,” with more of an insider than outsider view on the world, but also “stands on its own, with subjects who are incredibly smart, open, and eloquent in expressing their personal histories and current situations.” Utilising some smart stylistic motifs, it never loses focuses on “groups of LGBT people of color who have had to create their own families, clubs and societies when they weren’t accepted in others,” and shows the first-time Swedish director to be a compassionate and assured filmmaker first time at bat.

Tracy Letts – “Indignation”/“Wiener-Dog”/“Christine”

Though he’s always straddled both disciplines, until recently Tracy Letts was better known as a playwright than as an actor — his “Killer Joe,” “Bug,” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” were all hits, and all turned into movies. But a Tony win for a 2012 production of “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf” led to a memorable regular role on “Homeland” as CIA director Andrew Lockhart, and that, in turn, has suddenly made him a hot big-screen property, with no fewer than three movies at Sundance alone, making him the festival’s most omnipresent figure. He first cropped up as Julie Delpy’s husband in the first segment of Todd Solondz’s “Wiener Dog,” then plays a Christian dean in an intellectual duel with Logan Lerman’s lead in James Schamus’ “Indignation” (the young actor’s likely to get a big boost from that too), and then plays Rebecca Hall’s sexist boss in Antonio Campos’ “Christine.” Three very different, equally well-executed roles, and between them (plus a regular role in upcoming HBO series “Divorce,” it should make him as well known as a character actor as he is as a writer.

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