While this year’s Sundance Film Festival didn’t see a jaw-dropping sale on par with last year’s bank-busting “CODA” buy, sales were brisk both before and during the event, with crowdpleasers like “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” “Fire of Love,” and “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” finding homes at the festival, and other winners like “Fresh,” “Speak No Evil,” and “Master” arriving at Sundance with distribution already in hand. (And that’s just the tip of a vibrant market that’s seen nearly 30 films premiering at the festival find homes, all the better for more eyeballs to land on these stellar offerings.)
And yet many of the best films of the fest are still looking for homes, and thus comes our annual plea: buy these films! We really love them and we think your audience will, too! The year ahead is certainly going to be an unpredictable one for distribution companies as the future of exhibition remains an open, ever-changing question. But the quality of these movies is not up for debate, nor is their potential to resonate with audiences well beyond Sundance.
Buyers: Take note, and get those checkbooks ready.
Veteran documentarian Sam Green followed up last year’s fascinating New Frontier work “7 Sounds” with this entrancing feature-length exploration of auditory experiences. Once again, Green teams up with Le Tigre musician and DJ JD Samson for a personable journey through sound as an eccentric portal for exploring life itself. Green’s expansive survey is both science and history lesson as it explores the multifaceted nature of sound, its modern impact, and aesthetic value. He talks to foley artists and musicians alike across a series of playful chapters, each of which begins with a new sound sans imagery as he invites viewers to close their eyes and contemplate the soundtrack.
Initially designed as a live experience at this year’s festival, “32 Sounds” would work wonders in a theatrical context, especially given that it includes a five-minute dance break. A savvy distributor would recognize this very special cinematic achievement as a celebration of the theatrical experience’s unique appeal, and it would be an excellent reason for people to return to it after a long break. —EK
Sales contact: Jessica Lacy at ICM
“All That Breathes”
This year’s winner of the World Cinema Documentary prize is a gorgeous paean to aviary activism up close. Director Shank Sen’s sophomore effort follows Indian brothers Saud and Nadeem, former teen bodybuilders who work overtime to care for the ailing black kites of New Delhi. These birds of prey contribute to a fragile ecosystem beset by pollution and urban sprawl, but have been ostracized by most bird clinics due to their predatory nature. Sen’s intimate camera captures the brothers’ sibling efforts to rescue these birds and nurse them back to health despite a general disinterest from the world around them. Extreme closeups capture the intricate ecosystem of city life, proving beyond a doubt that no amount of civilization can erase the need to preserve its natural cycle.
Though a natural fit for National Geographic, “All That Breathes” is the kind of poetic environmental ode that opens itself up to much more than its base, and would benefit from a theatrical distributor able to let its birds soar on the scale that the big screen provides. —EK
Sales contact: Submarine
Nothing less than, well, just about everything cinematic is on the table in Nina Menkes’ eye-opening documentary “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power.” Really, look no further than its wordy full title for proof of its big-time ambition, as inspired by Menkes’ “cinematic experience” lecture “Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Oppression.” Menkes has taken that chat around the world for years, with stops at various festivals and universities, and doing something similar with the film it pushed her to make seems like a no-brainer for an ambitious, academically minded distro.
Per its own synopsis, “Brainwashed” attempts “to show how the visual grammar of cinema contributes to conditions that create discriminatory hiring practice, pay inequity and a pervasive environment of sexual harassment in the film industry and beyond.” In short, Menkes aims to walk her audience through a bevy of film clips to illustrate how the very language of films is gendered, much to the detriment of women both on- and off-screen. The results are startling, destined to forever change how its audience watches films. It sounds wonky, and yet it’s not (just like Menkes’ lecture), and could provide a wonderful opportunity for audiences eager to learn so much more than what’s usually on offer in other movie-minded docs. —KE
Sales contact: UTA
In Phyllis Nagy’s feature directorial debut, “Call Jane,” the “Carol” screenwriter turns her interest in portraying the messy lives of real women on a pivotal point in American history, using Elizabeth Banks’ Joy as a canny, if unexpected way into a remarkable group of women. Starting in the summer of 1968, the film tracks the major (political and personal) changes taking root in America, particularly as they help birth the group known as The Janes, an underground organization that was founded to help women find safe abortions in a pre-Roe v. Wade period. Banks, who has stealthily proven her ability in a variety of genres, both in front of and behind the camera, turns in a career-best performance as Joy.
Nagy’s film, which is made with obvious care and respect, was one of two at this year’s Sundance Film Festival that chronicle the work of the Jane Collective. The other is Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ “The Janes,” a well-told documentary that surveys the group’s work from start to finish. Lessin and Pildes’ film will be released by HBO Documentary Films, but viewers who were able to watch both at this year’s virtual fest were given a real seat, as the two films make an excellent double feature. Hey, HBO, want to make it two for two? —KE
Sales contact: UTA (domestic), Protagonist (international)
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
“Emily the Criminal”
It’s been true for awhile now: Aubrey Plaza is a star, and not just a comedic star (though she is) or an indie gem (that, too), but a true-blue leading lady of her own making. Teaming up with first-time feature filmmaker John Patton Ford for her own pitch-black crime thriller was a canny move on her part, and the result is one of the best films of the festival (and one of the best performances of her career).
The film casts Plaza as Emily, whose entire life has been upended because of her criminal record. Hell, maybe not even upended, more like never been able to start. Saddled with student debt for a degree she never got and unable to land a good job because of that damn, dirty record, Emily finds herself drawn into a new kind of enterprise. Yes, it’s criminal, but maybe that’s why she’s do damn good at it. The film has drawn early comparisons to “Drive,” and while the downtown LA setting and pulsating score from Nathan Halpern fit, Ford and Plaza offer something a bit trickier. It’s also more satisfying, blending style with a timely message about the way capitalism beats down people just looking to make some honest cash, the way a criminal past can mark someone for life, the way it’s impossible to move past certain circumstances. —KE
Sales contact: CAA, ICM, Verve
Director Chase Joynt continues the deconstructive approach to trans history he started with “No Ordinary Man” (co-directed with Aisling Chin-Yee) by exhuming the little-seen interviews by gender health researcher Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s through a fascinating modern-day context. By pairing reenactments of interviews with out trans people alongside interviews with the trans performers themselves, “Framing Agnes” interrogates the challenge of comprehending mid-20th century trans experiences through a 21st century lens.
Much like Robert Greene’s metafictional approach to the non-fiction form, Joynt is carving out a fascinating niche steeped in the quest to reconcile past and present challenges for conversations about gender. As an active on-camera participant, Joynt interrogates his own practice in a welcoming manner that opens up the movie’s quest to viewers well beyond its subjects. As a result, the winner of this year’s NEXT section seems likely to enjoy an audience outside of the insular LGBT festival circuit as this promising filmmaker’s distinctive mission continues to evolve through the conversations his movie stirs up. —EK
Sales contact: UTA
“Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul”
While we’re not necessarily in the business of telling distributors and studios how to run their marketing campaigns, megachurch satire “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” is so rife with bankable talent, it’s difficult to picture some smart distro not taking it on for the press tour possibilities alone. While stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown make for a dynamic duo on their own, “Honk for Jesus” also has some big, bright, rising stars behind the camera: twins Adamma (writer and director) and Adanne Ebo (producer). There’s no other way to put it: you want to be in business with these talents right now.
Initially scanning as a “Best in Show”-esque mockumentary send-up of megachurch culture in the time of #MeToo, Adamma Ebo’s feature directorial debut “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” steadily moves into darker territory, though all of it is in service to biting back at a target-rich environment ripe for onscreen ripping. Featuring stars Hall and Brown doing predictably divine work (do these two performers know any other way?), “Honk for Jesus” is equal parts hilarious and painful, an incisive upbraiding of the sorts of people who should have long ago realized no one — especially nattily attired pastors — is above God. In megachurch terms, it’s time to open up those pocketbooks and get to giving (read: buying). —KE
Sales contact: UTA, CAA, ICM Partners
Courtesy of Amazon
Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize winner delivers a riveting supernatural twist on Ousmane Sembene’s “Black Girl,” as Senegalese immigrant Aisha (Anna Diop) attempts to bring her child to New York while working for an affluent white family on the Upper East Side. The slow-burn suspense finds Aisha contending with the strange tensions of an unwelcoming household and the haunting presence of African folklore creeping into her existence. (Anyone familiar with the story of Ansani the Spider will never view that beloved children’s book the same way again.)
The story is at once harrowing and heartbreaking as it clarifies the nature of an underrepresented experience through the lens of a genre that brings its disorienting nature into sharp relief, while establishing director Nikyatu Jusu as a major talent to watch (though she’s been making short films for nearly 15 years). A smart distributor would use the genre hook as the Trojan Horse it’s meant to be. —EK
Sales contact: CAA
Like “Citizenfour” before it, director Daniel Roher has captured a real-life superhero in action. You might think you know the story of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was poisoned by Putin and returned to Russia even though it meant prison time. But this closeup portrait elaborates on his fierce, deadly activism by exploring how he funnels it into charisma and a hunky physicality worthy of movie stardom, all of which is to say he’s a master image-maker in tandem with his desire to address corruption at the highest levels of his country’s government.
Recovering from his poisoning in Germany, Navalny goes on a quest to sort out the truth, an act that culminates in the most remarkable “gotcha!” moment ever caught on camera — though this remarkable cinematic achievement is rivaled by the intensity and emotional frustrations that bubble up when he’s arrested back home, and separated from his supportive wife. A riveting meditation on activism and responsibility in the face of unthinkable fears, “Navalny” is also simply greater cinema — as producer Cassian Elwes tweeted during the festival, it’s a better “Bourne” movie than any of the “Bourne” movies, and deserves the same blockbuster audience.
While it’s already heading to CNN and HBO Max, theatrical rights are available — and the movie’s most exciting sequence deserves to be experienced with a large audience for full effect. —EK
Sales contact: CNN
“We Met in Virtual Reality”
While the “metaverse” has become a buzzword that laypeople love to mock, Joe Hunting’s fascinating, sensitive documentary provides a welcome alternate narrative. Though shot exclusively within the confines of virtual reality social platform VRchat, the groundbreaking approach to its production doesn’t fully capture the nature of what Hunting has done: His impressive camerawork uncovers complex bonds between people in avatar form that couldn’t possibly exist IRL, including his central subjects, a couple who met over VR during the pandemic and fell in love. The camera observes its avatars in such a remarkably naturalistic fashion that with time, the cartoonish nature of their visual manifestations melts away and all we’re left with is pure emotional authenticity. It’s the ultimate contrast to fears of a technocratic society, which is more than welcome at the moment, and should help deepen conversations about the future that lies within the headset. —EK
Sales contact: Cinetic
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