The Sundance Film Festival sets the tone for what to expect over the next 12 months of cinema, not just in terms of the great films on the horizon, but also the trends and themes that keep popping up. What happens over the course of 11 cold January days in Park City, Utah often has a long-term impact. So for those who weren’t able to attend Sundance, here’s what you might see in your neck of the woods in 2016:
Given the still-raging debate about this year’s all-white Oscar nominations, Sundance attendees were more sensitive than ever to how well the festival represents diverse cultural perspectives — especially since American independent cinema has a reputation for favoring quirky dramedies about well-to-do white folks. But while the programmers booked plenty of what’s often derogatorily referred to as “Sundance movies,” this year also saw the biggest sale in the festival’s history go to a fiery slavery narrative from writer-director-producer-actor Nate Parker. The Nat Turner biopic “The Birth of a Nation” impressed audiences and buyers alike with the directness of its storytelling and the complexity of its themes, which might make the film both a mainstream commercial hit and a year-end awards-winner. And that wasn’t the only film at this Sundance to contend with the African-American experience. J.D. Dillard’s off-beat thriller “Sleight” is about a black street magician (played by Jacob Latimore). Richard Tanne’s “Southside with You” turns Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date into a low-key, charming “Before Sunset”-style romance, filled with thoughtful conversation about the future POTUS and FLOTUS’s very different pasts. Chad Hartigan’s “Morris from America” concerns the misadventures of a black teenager (Markees Christmas) in Germany, where he lives with his widowed father (beautifully played by Craig Robinson). And Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits” is a one-of-a-kind coming-of-age story about a boyish 11-year-old girl (Royalty Hightower) yearning to be accepted by older teens at a Cincinnati community center. The variety of characters and stories in that group of films show that diversity isn’t just about casting, but is also about allowing a lot of different kinds of voices to be heard.
Sundance tends to bring back many of the same filmmakers year after year, but in 2016, the list of returning alumni was longer than ever and included people who essentially owe their careers to the festival: directors like Todd Solondz (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”), Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”), Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”), Kevin Smith (“Clerks”), Kelly Reichardt (“River of Grass”), Whit Stillman (“Metropolitan”), Ira Sachs (“Forty Shades of Blue”), Antonio Campos (“Afterschool”), and John Carney (“Once”), whose names are tossed around consistently as Sundance success stories. In some cases, those artists were back in Park City for the first time in years, and for the most part, they offered reminders of why they’d rocked Sundance in the first place. That’s not true of everybody on that list. Variety compared Smith’s new comedy “Yoga Hosers” to “child abuse,” while The Playlist’s own Russ Fisher called it “a flabby, goofy, comically inert cartoon.” But after the problems Stillman has had getting projects financed, the trouble Lonergan experienced with “Margaret,” and the relative critical and commercial disappointments of Campos’ “Simon Killer” and Carney’s “Begin Again,” it was thrilling to see those four come back so strong. Stillman’s bubbly Jane Austen adaptation “Love & Friendship,” Carney’s 1980s working-class Irish rock musical “Sing Street,” Campos’ recreation of an infamous 1970s local news tragedy in “Christine,” and Lonergan’s rich portrait of grief in “Manchester by the Sea” were among the most talked-about films at this year’s fest.
“Wait, What Movie Were You Talking About?”
Campos’ “Christine” was joined at Sundance by Robert Greene’s quasi-documentary “Kate Plays Christine,” which tells the same story about the 1974 on-air suicide of Florida TV reporter Christine Chubbuck, but from the perspective of an actress preparing to portray her in a movie. The two films inform each other in useful ways and will continue to do so once they go into wider release. But the effect of both playing at the same festival means that it sometimes took a little extra explanation for Sundancers to get across to their friends just which Christine movie they were talking about. There was similar confusion surrounding “Weiner” (a documentary about Anthony Weiner, the notorious sexting New York politician) and Solondz’s “Wiener-Dog” (a dry tragicomedy about how one pooch touches different lonely people’s lives), and between “Indignation” (writer-director James Schamus’ adaptation of a Philip Roth novel) and “The Intervention” (actress Clea DuVall’s “Big Chill”-like directorial debut), not to mention the documentary “Under the Gun” and the Iranian horror film “Under the Shadow.” Meanwhile, as some fest-goers were seeing the fraternity hazing melodrama “Goat,” others were seeing “Nuts!,” about an impotency cure made from goat testicles. “Nuts!” is an animated documentary, but shouldn’t be mistaken for the doc “Life, Animated,” which is about an autistic boy’s love for Disney movies. With all the similar titles and subjects in the fest this year, It’s entirely possible that some movie buffs weren’t even sure which film they were seeing until the opening credits.
Sundance rarely shies away from controversial subjects, and this year’s most dominant topic was gun violence, covered both in documentaries (like the Sandy Hook study “Newtown” and the broader overview “Under the Gun” and fiction features like Tim Sutton’s allusive “Dark Night.” The programmers also brought in Jeremy Saulnier’s 2015 fest-circuit favorite “Green Room,” about gun-toting white supremacists; and even the two Christine Chubbuck films took a moment to get into how and where the depressed TV journalist obtained the weapon she used to shoot herself on-air. Sundance has often shown movies where guns are a big part of the story — especially in the midnight section — but rarely have they been so engaged in real-world repercussions.
Streaming, Streaming, Streaming
Last year, Netflix became a surprise player at Sundance when the streaming service acquired the documentary “Hot Girls Wanted.” Industry-watchers were prepared for similar moves in 2016, but no one could’ve guessed how big of a splash that Netflix and its chief competitor Amazon would make. Before “The Birth of a Nation” bidding war, the bulk of the Sundance headlines had to do with Amazon spending $10 million just for the streaming rights to “Manchester by the Sea.” Amazon also helped back “Love & Friendship” and “Complete Unknown,” and during the fest bought “Wiener-Dog” and the documentary “Author: The JT Leroy Story.” Meanwhile. Netflix acquired more movies than any studio, buying “Under the Shadow,” “Tallulah,” “The Fundamentals of Caring,” “Audrie & Daisy,” and “Brahman Naman.” Non-traditional distribution deals have become fairly common at Sundance ever since CNN partnered with Magnolia Pictures on “Blackfish.” And well-heeled cable channels like HBO and Showtime were active this year too, either producing or acquiring some of the buzziest Sundance documentaries. But what’s notable about Amazon and Netflix’s spending spree is that the two companies ranged well beyond the conventional, taking chances on serious dramas, weird art-films, foreign-language genre fare, and challenging non-fiction. Just as those services have become a destination for prestige television, it appears both are chasing a highbrow brand of film as well. It’s going to be fascinating to see how that commitment pays off in the near future.
Year-round Oscar Buzz
Sundance has yet to produce an Academy Awards Best Picture winner, but several films that premiered in Park City have lately become major Oscar contenders, with 2014’s “Boyhood” and “Whiplash” and 2015’s “Brooklyn” establishing that it’s never too soon to start building awards buzz. That said, it’s often hard to predict which Sundance film is going to stay on the Academy’s radar long enough to enter the big race. Last year, critics seemed certain that “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” was a can’t-miss, while fewer noticed “Brooklyn”’s bona fides. This year, as if to make sure that all bases were covered, everything from “The Birth of a Nation” and “Manchester by the Sea” to “Morris from America” and “Other People” became The Oscar Favorite Of The Day, at least going by the chatter on Twitter. In defiance of the over-hype, some critics jumped onto social media to shout down the prognosticators. Others cooked up a sly hoax, inventing a movie called “AbracaDeborah,” and turning fake enthusiasm into real curiosity —proving how ludicrous and phony a lot of the Sundance/Oscar bluster can be.
The truth is that the festival probably did debut one or more of 2017’s Oscar nominees, and that the two films most often cited as being in next year’s mix — “The Birth of a Nation” and “Manchester By The Sea” — are indeed the likeliest to make the cut. But the former’s violence and political/spiritual rage may work against it in the long run, and the latter is rambling and personal in way that mays not connect widely. If in the end those films don’t get any nominations, it doesn’t really prove anything about their quality or about Sundance’s taste. A lot of the best films at the festival this year — like “The Fits,” or “Certain Women,” or the gorgeous, nightmarish art-horror piece “The Eyes of My Mother” — aren’t “Oscar movies,” even though they won raves. That critics can so easily discern “a good film that could win an Oscar” from “a great film that the Academy won’t like” says something about the ultimate meaninglessness of awards chatter. In recent years, some of the best-remembered Sundance premieres (“James White,” “The Babadook,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” many more) haven’t come anywhere close to the Dolby Theatre. But it’s because of those kinds of movies that Sundance matters.