Kim A. Snyder – “Newtown”
As is entirely fitting given its place as an ongoing crisis in American life, the question of gun control cropped up at Sundance regularly this year, and most effectively in Kim A. Snyder’s enormously powerful “Newtown.” Snyder’s a documentary veteran who first turned heads with 2000’s “I Remember Me,” about chronic fatigue syndrome, and most recently made the excellent immigration-themed “Welcome To Shelbyville.” But “Newtown” is likely to kick her up a few levels. Examining the horrific Sandy Hook Massacre in the Connecticut town of the title, the documentary is incisive without becoming exploitative, journalistic without avoiding emotion, and focused entirely, and rightly, on the victims. “Inherently political,” as Katie Walsh’s A grade review said, without being partisan, it sees Snyder capture “the exquisite beauty and inherent terror of parenthood,” with a film that devastates, and proves with its understated, controlled filmmaking, that Snyder could be one of our best documentarians.
Tim Sutton – “Dark Night”
It’s kind of like this: Director Tim Sutton doesn’t have a Wikipedia page yet. And that’s going to change soon as with his absolutely chilling and evocatively composed Sundance film “Dark Night” he jumps into the pantheon of American indie filmmakers you must know. To be fair, Sutton it not a complete unknown, and has the intensely poetic “Memphis” under his belt, which debuted at the 2013 Venice International Film Festival, albeit far outside competition. Already a darling of the not-quite-emerged indie cinema scene (the always-on-the-cutting-edge Filmmaker Magazine love him), “Dark Night” is his first Sundance entry, in the more outre NEXT section, but it evinces a masterclass filmmaker that blends lyrical fragmented images with haunting tones and meticulous control and composition. “Dark Night” is like a prelude to a massacre, and superficially a movie that is part of the gun control conversation at Sundance (a trend that’s part of several pictures). But its much more a terrifying and oblique examination of the American psyche and the sickness that clouds our culture when it comes to violence. It’s a goliath and a must-see.
Theo Taplitz & Michael Barbeiri – “Little Men”
“Love Is Strange,” Ira Sachs‘ terrific last feature, looked at NYC through the eyes of two older people, but follow-up “Little Men,” while featuring great actors like Jennifer Ehle, Greg Kinnear, and Paulina Garcia, focuses on two young boys, and his leads, Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, are remarkable finds. Both are essentially total newcomers, but their roles, as two junior-high students whose fledgling friendship is tested by a rent dispute involving their parents, are meaty, provocative ones. And though Noel Murray found the film “almost aggressively minor,” he also found “modest and beautiful,” and just as Sachs has shown he’s a great director of older thesps, he proves to be terrific are drawing out beautiful turns from neophytes, (Barbieri in particular is one to watch, with Variety saying that he has “Pacino’s charisma”). The movie’s unlikely to change the world, but it seems a certainty that its two young leads will go on to great things.
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton – “Sing Street”
Nine years ago, John Carney debuted “Once,” a low-budget, Dublin-set, music-infused romance, which went on to be a sleeper hit and launch its leads to world-touring stardom. History has repeated itself, as in 2016, Carney was back in Park City, and charmed the pants off everyone with the similarly-themed “Sing Street,” a coming-of-age picture about a young Dublin kid who starts a new-wave band in order to impress an older girl. While “Once” stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova went on to musical stardom but few film roles, we sense we’ll be seeing a lot more of “Sing Street” leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton. The former is a total newcomer, the latter a British actress with a few credits as a child, including “Miss Potter” and “Ballet Shoes,” and who’s been on the rise for a while (she nearly landed the female lead in “Pirates Of The Caribbean 5”), but if “Sing Street” does as well with the public as it did in Sundance, both should be around for a long while to come.
Elizabeth Wood & Morgan Saylor – “White Girl”
At a time when #OscarsSoWhite is the main talking-point in the film world, “White Girl” might seem like an unfortunate title for a movie. But by most accounts, Elizabeth Wood’s feature film debut is terrific, an examination of hedonism and socio-economic privilege that’s had a searing, if somewhat divisive, reaction in Park City. Focusing on college girl Leah and her relationship with a local drug dealer that leads to a dark slide, the film is allegedly based on Wood’s own experiences in her sophomore year of college, and has a raw, unflinching feel that suggests that the filmmaker has a vital and distinctive voice. It’s also likely to be a big deal for star Morgan Saylor, who seemingly banishes memories of her best-known role, Brody’s insufferable teen daughter in “Homeland,” with a performance full of what the Hollywood Reporter called “fierce intelligence and unquenchable sensuality.”
Honorable Mentions: Also worth mentioning, without quite breaking our main list, are the universally excellent young actors in the family of “Captain Fantastic”; Lily Rose Depp, who looks from “Yoga Hosers” to have inherited her father Johnny’s charisma; Julian Dennison, the hilarious lead of Taika Waititi’s “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”; Nick Jonas and former Playlist On The Rise-er Ben Schnezter from “Goat”; Richard Tanne‘s impressive “Southside With You“; and “Jacqueline (Argentine)” actress Camille Rutherford.
Clea DuVall also made an impressive debut as director with “The Intervention,” while Nicolette Krebitz’s “Wild,” about a woman who falls in love with a wolf, was divisive but really loved by those who were keen. Anna Rose Holmer and “The Fits” have some passionate followers too. And on the non-fiction side, “Weiner” helmer Elyse Steinberg made one of the most talked-about debuts. Were you in Park City this year? Anyone we’ve missed that impressed you? Let us know in the comments.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez