Dual personalities and covert intentions were a common theme of the 2016 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, which wraps this weekend in Park City, Utah.
The most buzzed-about films frequently featured protagonists whose intentions weren’t immediately known.
Witness Nate Parker’s slave preacher turned rebellion leader Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation, the historical drama by writer/director/actor Parker that audaciously appropriates the title of a racist white cinema classic to recall a landmark struggle from black history. Selling for $17.5 million (U.S.), a Sundance record, it will feature prominently in both social and cultural conversations in 2016.
Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan Vernon seems like a lady of grace and manners in Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s sizzling adaptation of a Jane Austen novella, but there’s a reason another character compares her to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Lady Susan has men and money on her mind.
And Casey Affleck’s angry handyman Lee Chandler in Manchester By the Sea looks to be just another hard-drinking loner, until a back story carefully unspooled by Kenneth Lonergan reveals a caring family man scarred by tragedy. Is it too late to fix the past?
There was similar dual purpose in Sundance itself. Long a bastion of independent film, where box office ambitions are deemed secondary to artistic achievement, the best of the fest nevertheless showed that commerce and art need not be strangers. A lot of these movies will find an audience, whether it’s at the multiplex or on Netflix.
To that end, here’s my list of 11 of the finest films at Sundance 2016, listed roughly in order of the attention I think they’ll grab after the fest:
The Birth of a Nation
Strength of story, strength of history, strength of vision: Nat Parker’s slave rebellion drama testifies on many levels, the most immediate being the challenge it sets to Hollywood’s #OscarsSoWhite status quo. Parker manifests destiny with this fact-based tale of Nat Turner, an 1800s slave turned rebel leader who was a true superhero.
Love & Friendship
Whit Stillman and Jane Austen are most agreeable companions in this delightful comedy of manners adapted from Austen’s early novella Lady Susan. Stillman’s droll wit and Austen’s uncommon satire, along with Kate Beckinsale’s sublimely scheming merry widow, Lady Susan Vernon, make for a picture that’s as much a pleasure to listen to as to watch.
Manchester By the Sea
Sixteen years after he wowed Sundance with You Can Count on Me, Kenneth Lonergan returns with a character study that unfolds with devastating impact. Casey Affleck demands Best Actor consideration for his soulful depiction of a broken father who returns to his seaside Massachusetts hometown for a family funeral that will reopen old wounds.
Remember when rock was the answer to every problem? John Carney’s latest does, joyfully, set to a 1980s beat that’s as musical and heart-stirring as Once, his 2007 Sundance smash. Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo charms as a bullied Dublin high schooler of 1985 out to impress a neighbourhood girl (Lucy Boynton) by starting a band he hopes will be as big as Duran Duran.
New York’s Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange), an artisan of the small gesture and quiet epiphany, is back with another gem that sets adults (Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Gloria’s Paulina Garcia) and teens (Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri) in a Brooklyn neighbourhood feud story about the disruptive nature of change. Sitcom stuff becomes humanist gold in Sachs’ hands.
Under the Shadow
Sundance always lands superior spookers — The Blair Witch Project, Saw, The Witch — and here’s the 2016 pulse-raiser. Set in 1988 Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, Babak Anvari’s feature debut stars Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi as a mother and daughter fighting supernatural evil while also dodging bombs and repression. Don’t forget to breathe.
Christine/Kate Plays Christine
Two films, one a drama and the other a doc, that illuminate the mysterious 1974 TV suicide of Florida newscaster Christine Chubbuck. Emotional truth resonates in Rebecca Hall’s superb title portrayal in Christine, while Kate Lyn Sheil turns thespian investigator as she seeks both realism and empathy in Kate Plays Christine. A great double bill for a smart art house.
That’s one small step for Apollo 11 hoaxers, one giant leap for Matt Johnson (The Dirties). This what-if wonder by the Toronto filmmaker is structured like a documentary within a documentary, exploring (and teasing) rumours that the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing was a hoax. It plays like a vintage espionage thriller or 1970s paranoia classic like The Parallax View.
Provoking simply by observing, Tim Sutton’s third feature is based on the July 20, 2012 movie theatre massacre in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises. It has no point of view, suggesting anyone could be a killer in our midst, and it captures with surreal vision the dread reality of random gun violence.
First Girl I Loved
Sexual disorientation in high school makes for movie brilliance in this smouldering drama by writer/director Kerem Sanga, who zeroes in on teen anxieties amplified by same-sex urges, petty jealousy and social shaming. Dylan Gelula and Brianna Hildebrand exude authenticity as new BFFs whose attraction to each other is complicated by a confused male (Mateo Arias).