Generally speaking, this year’s Sundance Film Festival was a very healthy marketplace that guaranteed many of its highlights will make it to audiences beyond the festival circuit soon. From heavy hitters like “The Big Sick” and “Mudbound” to discoveries like “Thoroughbred,” there was plenty of buyer interest spread throughout the lineup. As usual, though, plenty of worthy titles ended the festival with uncertain futures.
Here are a few memorable ones that deserve distribution.
Sundance Film Festival
There are plenty of stories about domestic housewives who grow tired of their oppressive routines, but none quite like Marianna Palka’s vicious feminist satire “Bitch,” in which the writer-director-star plays a woman who assumes the identity of a wild dog. It’s a blunt metaphor, but Palka transforms the absurd premise into a chilling look at the destruction of the nuclear family with a vivid, snarling vision driven by the propulsive energy of its biting critique.
Inspired by a real-life case study documented by psychologist R.D. Lang, “Bitch” follows the plight of afflicted matriarch Jill (Palka) and her clueless husband Bill (Palka regular Jason Ritter). The usually sweet-natured Ritter boldly plays against type, initially coming across as an “American Psycho”-like creep who sleeps with his secretary and buries himself in the office, leaving the care of his three young children to his clearly unstable wife. When she snaps, he’s forced to reconsider his ways, although the deranged events around him suggest he may have missed his window to set things right. Needless to say, this wacky twist on suburban discontent isn’t for everyone, but there’s a definite lopsided entertainment value to watching this bizarre premise take shape. Audiences willing to embrace the mayhem on its own terms will find substance in its themes; paired with that hilarious high concept, “Bitch” has cult classic written all over it. – Eric Kohn
Sales Contact: ICM Partners / MarVista Entertainment
Video essayist Kogonada may have arrived at Sundance as the festival’s most unexpected director, but — thanks to his contemplative, nuanced, and poignant debut feature — he left as one of its most promising. Set entirely in the overcast Indiana city for which it’s named, “Columbus” unfolds like a remake of “Garden State” as directed by Yasujirō Ozu (but better than that sounds). It begins with the collapse of a famous architect, whose partner (Parker Posey) summons the man’s estranged son to his bedside. Jin (Cho) isn’t in town long before he encounters Casey (“Edge of Seventeen” star Haley Lu Richardson), a smart and sensitive 19-year-old architecture nerd who’s deferred her dreams to stay with her addict mother. The budding friendship between the two is nuanced and deeply rewarding, backstopping a portrait of absence that brims full of emotion.
“Columbus” is a small movie, too quiet and introspective to pack the same breakout potential that can launch a Sundance movie into the zeitgeist. But it’s good — it’s the kind of movie that stays with people, and inspires them to recommend it to their friends. Moreover, it has deceptively wide appeal; it could play to young audiences as well as older ones, casual filmgoers as well as cinephiles. In addition to boasting Cho’s best performance and bringing out his fan base, it could also prove to be a defining moment for Richardson, who’s poised to become one of the standout talents of her generation. With a careful campaign and a slow rollout, a smart distributor could make “Columbus” into a winner. – David Ehrlich
Sales Contact: Cinetic, Visit Films (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“God’s Own Country”
Courtesy of Sundance
Director Francis Lee must have known comparisons to Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” were inevitable for his feature debut “God’s Own Country,” a quiet gay romance set against the harsh but beautiful backdrop of Northern Yorkshire sheep farm country — the directors even share a last name. That the younger Lee’s film is far less commercial than the elder’s, which won three Academy Awards and was nominated for Best Picture, doesn’t make it any less watchable. Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) spends his days mucking stalls and pissing on walls, numbing his isolation with booze and strictly no-kissing casual sex.
When a gentle Romanian migrant worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives to help with lambing season, Johnny is cold and distant even as his eyes keep lingering. The two young men eventually retreat for a week to mend a stone fence in a faraway paddock, and Johnny’s animosity gives way to animal instincts. As Johnny’s mud wrestling pushes into Gheorghe’s life-giving tenderness, the film’s brutality melts away and Johnny finally allows himself to see some beauty in the countryside to which he has devoted his young life. Lee’s daring extends from graphic vérité farming scenes (think lamb births, placenta and all), to blatant “Brokeback” references (think gobs of spit rolling down a lily-white backside) that almost dare comparison. It’s a brave gamble, and it works out well for the younger Lee: “God’s Own Country” honors the queer canon while resoundingly earning its place in it. – Jude Dry
Sales Contact: Protagonist Pictures
The feature-length debut from festival favorite Janicza Bravo (previously known for shorts such as “Gregory Go Boom”) continues the surreal blend of dark comedy and alienation found in her earlier work. Collaborating with husband and co-writer Brett Gelman, Bravo constructs the awkward tale of a conceited man seemingly incapable of finding happiness in life. After ruining his relationship with his blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), he’s on the verge of hitting rock bottom when he meets another woman who represents a fresh start. Bravo’s peculiar style — long takes, surreal exchanges and the occasional gross gag — is certainly an acquired taste, but it’s the kind of memorable experience that generates heated debates among viewers with opposing sensibilities. It may not be primed for box office glory, but it has the potential to surprise and delight audiences around the country eager for a kind of deadpan humor that holds nothing back. – EK
Sales contact: UTA/ICM Schwartzemail@example.com.
BB Film Productions
Michael Almereyda’s gorgeous chamber piece is a heady burst of minimalist sci-fi in which an aging woman (the legendary Lois Smith) converses with the hologram of her late husband (Jon Hamm) to learn about her life as she recedes into a senile state. Her daughter (Geena Davis) hovers outside this relationship, skeptical of its nature, while her own husband (Tim Robbins) tries to find a way for everyone — man and machine alike — to get along. Almereyda uses a brilliantly suggestive backdrop, as much of the drama unfolds in the confines of a living room and the yawning beach landscape glimpsed in the background. Almereyda transforms Jordan Harrison’s award-winning play into a minimalist “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” gently probing ideas about man-machine relations while also widening the frame to address broader questions of mortality. The premise will satisfy genre fans look for a deep dive, while others will marvel at this intergenerational actors’ showcase. – EK
Sales Contact: Cinetic Media
Courtesy of Sundance
Updated: A24 has purchased “Menashe.”
The story of a lower-class father attempting to raise his young son doesn’t sound like groundbreaking material, but “Menashe” puts that bittersweet formula into an exciting new context. Shot exclusively in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community in Borough Park with a script almost entirely spoken in Yiddish, the narrative debut of cinematographer and documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein has the precision of an ethnographic experiment. The movie exists within the confines of its insular setting, and features a cast of real-life Hasidim riffing on the traditions that govern their everyday lives, but manages to mine a degree of emotional accessibility that extends far beyond the neighborhood’s borders.
At its center is Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a well-intentioned widow who just wants to be a good father to his young son, even as others in the community insist the boy is raised by a more conventional family. Menashe’s attempts to win back the truth of his peers and become a decent family man blossoms into a surprisingly powerful drama, on par with “Bicycle Thieves” for its gentle vision of father-son bonding, shot with a naturalistic eye reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers. It’s a wholly satisfying window into an underrepresented world, but it’s biggest revelation is just how much the struggles found within its frames look so familiar. Considering the popularity of Jewish-themed movies on the arthouse circuit, from “Ushpizin” to “Fill the Void,” it’s easy to imagine “Menashe” finding a committed audience nationwide. – EK
Sales Contact: Mongrel International
“My Happy Family”
It doesn’t take long to realize that the title of the Georgian drama “My Happy Family” is ironic. Directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Grob plunge into the restless lifestyle of 52-year-old Manana (Ia Shuvliashvili), the matriarch of a cramped and multigenerational household that includes her husband, grown children, parents and various in-laws who pull her from every angle. And it doesn’t take long for Mañana to realize that to escape the mayhem, much to the shock of everyone around her, she can simply move out. The ease with which she embarks on this new stage, even as it baffles her entire community, speaks to the remarkable blend of comedy and sadness that characterizes this sophomore effort from the directors of “In Bloom.” It’s at once a celebration of individuality and its potential to unnerve those who resist it. The story of a defiant woman pushing back against her restrictive society has particular currency today, and with strong word of mouth, this story of feminist rebellion could be readymade for strong returns in limited release. – EK
Sales Contact: Memento Films
“Person to Person”
Dustin Guy Defa’s playful New York ensemble piece follows a handful of characters throughout the city over the course of a single day. Partly adapting the short film of the same name, Defa shifts from the idiosyncratic plight of a record dealer (Bene Coopersmith) who gets a bad deal to the hectic experiences of a pompous gossip reporter (Michael Cera) attempting to impress his young protege (Abbi Jacobson). Meanwhile, a chatty teenager (Tavi Gevinson) questions her sexuality, and a lonely watch vendor (Phillip Baker Hall) inadvertently winds up at the center of several stories. Shot with a gritty, seventies-era feel, the movie develops a wry tone in which every character’s plight is at once funny and oddly melancholic. Audiences may find Defa’s style unpredictable, but never grating or overly sentimental; instead, he provides an exciting new approach to framing the universal struggles of getting through another day. The tone is so open-ended that whether you’re gunning for a comedy or a drama, you’re bound to get something positive out of the experience. Distributors: Think of the trailer possibilities! – EK
Sales Contact: UTA