Another Park City film fiesta is upon us, with tens of thousands of talented folk gathering in the Utah mountains for a celebration of independent cinema from across the world. Here is this writer’s pick of what looks good in each category from the most mouth-watering cinematic menu. Be prepared to hear these names again throughout the coming year…
U.S. Dramatic Competition:
Tallulah (dir. Sian Heder) – Any Orange Is The New Black fans may recognise Heder’s name; she is a writer and producer on the show, which is reason alone to get excited for this drama about two women from different worlds who end up caring for a baby. Another reason is the cast, which reunites Juno alumni Ellen Page and Allison Janney, and FINALLY lets us see the magnificent Uzo Aduba (OITNB‘s Crazy Eyes) on the big screen.
The Birth Of A Nation (dir. Nate Parker) – Starring, written and directed by Nate Parker, this is a story that screams to be heard. Nat Turner was an African-American slave who led both free and enslaved people of colour on a rebellion in 1831; in both the movie world (#OscarsSoWhite) and the real world (Ferguson and so many more), his actions and those of the brave people with him resonate today. With a name matching the pioneering but racist 1915 film, over 100 years later Parker’s film may just change the world again.
Jim: The James Foley Story (dir. Brian Oakes) – Many will never forget the images from recent years of orange-jumpsuit clad prisoners, looking right down the camera shortly before their brutal execution. This documentary attempts to give us something more; to tell the story of James Foley, the brave, kind American photojournalist whose efforts to chronicle conflict were cruelly stopped by inhuman murderers. The war with ISIS can seem too abstract to comprehend; Oakes’ doc may remind us that amongst it all, good people are suffering.
Weiner (dir. Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg) – Political scandals: they don’t make ’em like they used to. The recent exception is Anthony Weiner, the Congressman caught in a web of mucky lies over some below-the-belt pics he sent via Twitter. There are different levels of potential humour at play here; if this doc can rise above the pun-heavy headlines, there is something funnier – and more fearsome – to be considered in how politicians value their image, and how the media tries to claim it.
Mammal (dir. Rebecca Daly) – Barry Keoghan’s blank ruthlessness was one of the best things about festival hit ’71. If he can bring as much power to the role of a homeless teen taken in by a grieving mother (the excellent Rachel Griffiths), Mammal will be unmissable.
Brahman Naman (dir. Qaushiq Mukherjee) – We may finally get an answer to that age-old question: what would American Pie look like if it was set in 1980s Bangalore and was directed by one of India’s primary independent filmmakers? Sundance unearths gems like nowhere else, and this has the potential to be a true diamond.
All These Sleepless Nights (dir. Michal Marczak) – What is it to be young? Marczak tries to answer that question with a fluid, energetic documentary about two lovers finding their way through the Warsaw summer. Caught between the adventure of French New Wave and the reality of the living, breathing city of Warsaw, Marczak’s film looks like one that dances that line between truth and fiction.
The Lovers and The Despot (dir. Robert Cannan & Ross Adam) – This story of South Korean film stars turned lovers is too outlandish to possibly be fiction. Captured by the North Korean regime and forced to act to a dictator’s every whim, the very ideas of love, art and truth are up for consideration – as well as a look at a world that we know so little about.
Ali & Nino (dir. Asif Kapadia) – With two engaging, celebrated docs under his belt in Senna and Amy, Asif Kapadia returns to narrative cinema with a story of clashing cultures, religions and political regimes told through the experience of a young couple in Azerbaijan and Persia at the time of World War I. Kapadia has created some of the most memorable screen images of the last few years; there will surely be more to come in this epic tale.
Indignation (dir. James Schamus) – With writing and/or producing credits on Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain amongst many others, James Schamus is a great of his time. There are high hopes for his first feature as director, about a young atheist man who escapes the Korean War draft to study at a Christian school. With a cast including Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon and Ben Rosenfield, and adapted from a Philip Roth novel, don’t be surprised if this is another hit for Schamus’ extraordinary CV.
Under The Gun (dir. Stephanie Soechtig) – Wherever you stand on the gun debate – and Stephanie Soechtig’s documentary is nothing if not comprehensive – it is something that needs to be discussed if the horrific rate of mass killings in America is ever going to be countered. With other features on this topic at Sundance 2016, perhaps the previously unseen footage and power of Katie Couric’s narration will guide audiences towards progress. The shootings have to stop; we have to find a way.
Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny (dir. Louis Black & Karen Bernstein) – A personal choice, because for me Linklater is a film genius, as worthy of acclaim as Kubrick or Scorsese. The career of a filmmaker who is high on output and quality is put under the microscope, with testimonials from many who have joined him along the way. It sounds more than ‘Alright, alright, alright’ to me (sorry).
The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Helmer) – The NEXT section is known for its genre-breaking, original storytelling, and in this regard The Fits looks like a doozy. Telling the tale of Toni, a young girl who trains as a boxer but has her head turned by a dance group, it promises to encompass a range of themes through unconventional, movement-influenced means. Go prepared for something new.
Sleight (dir. JD Dillard) – Described on the Sundance website as ‘an irresistible mix of romance, urban drama and magical super-heroism’, this story of a high school student who must care for his younger sister may seem normal; but look a little closer, and the magic will reveal itself. Have this down as a potential star-maker for Jacob Latimore too.
Under The Shadow (dir. Babak Anvari) – If you’re going to start a movie at 23:45 (as many of the Midnight screenings do), you want something out of the ordinary. This smart horror about a mother caring for her daughter whilst getting by in 1980s Tehran might be just that. Already the subject of online buzz, this could join the list of recent Sundance horror hits that includes The Babadook, It Follows and the soon-to-hit-cinemas The Witch.
The Greasy Strangler (dir. Jim Hosking) – Everything from the title to the characters (owners of a disco-walking tour) to the released image of two dirty men in pink rollnecks screams madness, and I love it. Films like this are why people go to festivals; daring and different, if you take a chance on them you could see something masterful!
So that is my pick of the main sections at Sundance 2016! Limiting it to 2 per category was tough, so why don’t you fill in the gaps – what are you most looking forward to? Which stars do you think will light up the screens this year? Let the world, or at least this corner of the internet know in the comments or at @dreamdepends. And to those who are in Park City, Happy Sundancing!