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The 16 movies that explain Sundance 2016

Featuring Casey Affleck’s career-best performance, Nate Parker’s record-breaking sale, and more.

The Birth of a Nation won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
The Birth of a Nation won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Elliot Davis

The 2016 Sundance Film Festival opened on January 21 and screened its last movie on Sunday — one day after holding an awards ceremony where Nate Parker’s incendiary American slave melodrama The Birth of a Nation won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Last year, the cancer dramedy Me and Earl and the Dying Girl pulled off the same sweep and then more or less faded from view, performing weakly at the box office and drawing mixed reviews. But there’s a good chance The Birth of a Nation will actually still matter to moviegoers next January, and the January after that.

For those who follow major international film festivals in hopes of predicting the Oscars race, Sundance has always been a tricky event to read. The fest has developed a reputation as the place to discover new talent, showing early work by the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. But even the most popular Sundance movies rarely become blockbusters, and only in the past few years — thanks to Boyhood, Whiplash, and Brooklyn — has premiering in Park City, Utah, become a reliably strong first step toward becoming a major Oscar player.

The Birth of a Nation could continue that trend. Or perhaps Kenneth Lonergan’s well-received family drama Manchester by the Sea will be this year’s most enduring Sundance film, earning awards for Casey Affleck's heartbreaking lead performance. But even if neither of the two movies scores big — at the box office or with the Academy — they should both remain relevant for a good long time, because of their individual excellence and because of how they shook up the 2016 festival.

There were really three big stories coming out of Park City this year. The first was prompted by the contentious recent conversations about Hollywood’s lack of cultural diversity, which Sundance joined by programming an eclectic batch of films by and about African Americans. In that context, The Birth of a Nation was the vanguard of a mini movement, earning the longest and loudest standing ovation at the festival’s largest venue for its writer-director-producer and star Parker, and then sparking the most furious bidding war (which ended with the biggest deal in Sundance history, with Fox Searchlight paying $17.5 million to distribute a film that reportedly cost $10 million to make).

The second big story was the strong returns of several Sundance alumni, like Manchester by the Sea’s Lonergan, who launched his career in Utah with the beautiful You Can Count on Me back in 2000. Unlike in most years, not that many unknowns emerged in 2016, aside from Parker (who already had a thriving acting career). Instead, veterans like Lonergan, Whit Stillman (who first came to Sundance in 1990 with Metropolitan), Kelly Reichardt (1994’s River of Grass), and John Carney (2007’s Once) returned to their spiritual home with outstanding new work, and were treated like conquering heroes.

The biggest story of all, though, concerned the business side of Sundance. While The Birth of a Nation followed a traditional path and sold to the specialty division of a major studio, Manchester by the Sea went to Amazon for a staggering $10 million. By the end of the festival’s 11 days, the big buyers ended up being Amazon, Netflix, and a handful of cable networks, all looking to secure the kind of quality content they usually generate in house.

For filmmakers, this new model of selling their big-screen work to television may require some mental adjustment. But for movie buffs who get frustrated by the long wait for Sundance hits to play in their neighborhoods, the changing paradigm could be good news. Chances are most of the good-to-great films listed below will be available for people to watch in their own homes by the end of the year.

Here, then, in alphabetical order, is some of what you have to look forward to:

Author: The JT LeRoy Story

Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

Director: Jeff Feuerzeig (Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, The Devil and Daniel Johnston)

Distributor: Amazon

After making documentaries about two alt-rock cult acts, Feuerzeig turns his attention to a writer who in the early 2000s went from being an underground sensation to palling around with the likes of Billy Corgan and Courtney Love. The bulk of Author consists of a long interview with Laura Albert, the woman who created the character of LeRoy — a gender-bending ex-prostitute and drug addict — and then got in over her head when the books she wrote in his voice began to sell.

The press called what Albert did "a literary hoax," but Feuerzeig’s film asks whether there’s really anything wrong with a fiction writer working under a pseudonym. The result is a fascinating inquiry into identity and celebrity, featuring a wealth of audio tapes and video footage that date all the way back to the moment when a depressed woman in her 30s first begins talking like a teenage boy.

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation.
Elliot Davis

Director: Nate Parker

Cast: Nate Parker (The Great Debaters, Beyond the Lights), Penelope Ann Miller (The Freshman, TNT’s Men of a Certain Age), Armie Hammer (The Social Network, The Lone Ranger)

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

It didn’t take long for some skeptics in Park City to start suggesting that writer-director-producer-star Parker’s long-gestating passion project — a biopic of violently rebellious slave Nat Turner — only became such a favorite at this year’s Sundance because white audiences were overreacting for the Oscars’ diversity controversy. But that’s unkind to both Parker and The Birth of a Nation, which really do have the goods.

On one level, Birth of a Nation is an unexpectedly complex film about Christian faith, as Turner learns how the Gospels can be both a comfort and a weapon. But in addition to bluntly depicting the horrors of slavery, Parker tells a rousing story of radical self-determination, with a great sense of the larger tragedy implied by the title. In short: This likely won’t be one of those ballyhooed Sundance movies that die at sea level. The Birth of a Nation stands a good chance to be a box office hit — and the inspiration for a spate of nervous, wrongheaded newspaper editorials.

Christine

Christine.
Joe Anderson

Director: Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer)

Cast: Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Gift), Michael C. Hall (Showtime’s Dexter, HBO’s Six Feet Under), Tracy Letts (The Big Short, Showtime’s Homeland)

Distributor: None yet

The underrated Hall gives a powerhouse performance here as real-life Sarasota TV reporter Christine Chubbuck, who in 1974 shot and killed herself live on the air. Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich track the last few weeks of Chubbuck’s life, building in queasy intensity as the moment of truth draws near. Some viewers may find that approach to be in questionable taste, but the filmmakers do a remarkable job of recreating the state of journalism and America in the era of Watergate, Vietnam, and televised hostage crises. And Hall makes sure that her Christine is more than just a weird footnote in local new history, crafting a rich, insightful portrait of one woman’s crippling social isolation.

Certain Women

Certain Women.
Nicole Rivelli

Director: Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Night Moves)

Cast: Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff, Brokeback Mountain), Laura Dern (HBO’s Enlightened, Jurassic Park), Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria, the Twilight series)

Distributor: None yet

Reichardt adapts three short stories by award-winning American author Maile Meloy, all set in the small Montana town of Livingston, each about a headstrong woman who has a hard time getting other people to hear what she’s saying. Certain Women tells each story in full, consecutively, starting with Dern as a lawyer with an ornery client, then moving on to Williams as a businesswoman negotiating for a pile of materials she wants for her new house, and ending with Lily Gladstone as a rancher who becomes smitten with an adult education instructor played by Stewart.

Each piece is slow, quiet, and elliptical, with a brief epilogue that Reichardt tacks on at the end of the film. They also have the quality of great literature, where every detail and gesture is imbued with a larger meaning. Certain Women is so muted that some may miss what’s special about it, but anyone paying close attention should see how intimately it captures the interior lives of some lonely Northwesterners.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

Director: Thorsten Schütte

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

The best kinds of fan-friendly music documentaries keep the talking-head interviews to a minimum to make more room for songs, but Schütte’s Frank Zappa doc Eat That Question is unusual in that its subject was as great a conversationalist as he was a musician.

There actually aren’t that many full performances in this movie, and anyone who comes in knowing little to nothing about Zappa’s life and art won’t exactly be able to write a Wikipedia entry after the credits roll. Instead, Schütte assembles old interviews and live performances into something more like an experience of Zappa: his playfulness, his obnoxiousness, and his strong opinions about the insipidness of pop music and the importance of free expression.

The Eyes of My Mother

The Eyes of My Mother.

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Cast: Kika Magalhaes, Olivia Bond, Will Brill

Distributor: None yet

The darkest, scariest film at Sundance this year was this arty, gothic bit of Americana, about a farmgirl who witnesses a shocking act of violence that leads to her becoming a deeply warped young woman. First-time filmmaker Pesce made The Eyes of My Mother with the help of Borderline Films, whose co-founders Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, and Josh Mond are responsible for such edgy indies as Afterschool, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and James White.

Like his mentors, Pesce has made a film with beautifully eerie imagery and unsettling sound design, following a psychologically damaged character (strikingly played by Magalhaes). There’s not much point to the picture beyond freaking audiences out, but it’s incredibly effective at that, working like a visually splendid black-and-white version of an old 1950s horror comic or 1970s splatter flick.

The Fits

Director: Anna Rose Holmer

Cast: Royalty Hightower, Makyla Burnam, Alexis Neblett

Distributor: Oscilloscope

It usually only takes a few minutes to figure out what a given Sundance film means to be: a family dramedy, a quirky road picture, a quiet art piece, etc. But The Fits (which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September) remains refreshingly elusive all through its 72-minute running time.

The movie starts out as the story of a shy preteen gym rat named Toni, who finds herself drawn to the dance teams that rehearse at her Cincinnati community center. But The Fits evolves into something more like heavily metaphorical eco-horror, once the dancers start getting felled by a malady that causes them to convulse, violently, on the ground. It’s not that hard to figure out what Holmer’s trying to say with this film — which depicts maturation as an affliction — but it’s impossible to predict from moment to moment how she’s going to say it. The Fits is absolutely riveting, and cumulatively powerful.

Kate Plays Christine

Kate Plays Christine.
Sean Price Williams

Director: Robert Greene (Actress, Fake It So Real)

Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil (You’re Next, Netflix’s House of Cards)

Distributor: None yet

Because this experimental documentary about depressed TV reporter Christine Chubbuck played at the same festival as Antonio Campos’s more conventional dramatization — and because Greene’s film is openly critical of the very idea of restaging Chubbuck’s on-air suicide — it’s tempting to use Kate as a cudgel against the other Christine. But besides undervaluing Campos’s work, an adversarial approach would shortchange what Greene himself does with this subject matter. He makes the occasion of a film about Chubbuck into a tricky, dense study of how an actress prepares for a role, asking whether stepping into a dead woman’s shoes is worth the potential psychological damage.

Along the way, Kate Plays Christine also tells as much of Chubbuck’s story as it is widely known. Greene and his star Sheil actually have more than just one morbid bit of broadcasting history on their mind, and they express it beautifully.

Little Men

Little Men.
Eric McNatt

Director: Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights on, Love Is Strange)

Cast: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Greg Kinnear (Auto Focus, Flash of Genius)

Distributor: None yet

As a follow-up to his subtle, profound 2014 masterpiece Love Is Strange, Sachs makes a movie that’s even wispier but that grows in the mind after it ends. Taplitz plays an artsy, effete junior high schooler whose family moves to Brooklyn, where he befriends an outgoing, athletic peer (played by Barbieri). The story of their unlikely bond runs parallel to what’s happening with their parents, who are locked into an increasingly ugly dispute over a potentially valuable piece of real estate.

There’s not much plot to Little Men, but the film is engaging and bittersweet, and observant about how class divisions in America are determined by more than just how much money people have. Social power, ethnicity, and personal preferences also play a huge role in separating neighbors.

Love & Friendship

Love & Friendship.
Ross McDonnell

Director: Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Damsels in Distress)

Cast: Kate Beckinsale (The Last Days of Disco, the Underworld series), Chloë Sevigny (HBO’s Big Love, FX’s American Horror Story), Emma Greenwell (Showtime’s Shameless, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies)

Distributor: Amazon for streaming; Roadside Attractions for theatrical

A quarter-century after Stillman made his reputation with the Jane Austen–inspired Metropolitan, the writer-director makes an actual Austen adaptation, turning the obscure novella Lady Susan into a witty, bubbly tale of romantic gamesmanship in 1790s England. Beckinsale is as wonderful as she’s ever been as Susan, a penniless widow who takes advantage of her one social asset — her late husband’s name — to bully and manipulate friends and in-laws into catering to her every whim.

The story’s slight and Stillman’s dryly breezy style sometimes cross the line from "fun" to "exhausting." But Beckinsale is so funny, and Love & Friendship looks so elegant, that the movie is mostly a treat — and one that should go over well with Amazon Prime subscribers when it lands there later this year.

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea.
Claire Folger

Director: Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret)

Cast: Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Gone Baby Gone), Kyle Chandler (NBC’s Friday Night Lights, Netflix’s Bloodline), Lucas Hedges (NBC’s The Slap, The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Distributor: Amazon

Lonergan’s ambitious 2011 film Margaret took so long to complete and went through such a messy behind-the-scenes saga that initially Manchester by the Sea seems like an overcorrection in the other direction: a movie that’s stubbornly minor, about ordinary people having mundane experiences. But as Affleck’s surly Lee Chandler returns to his waterfront hometown to settle his late brother’s estate — and to take guardianship of his teenage nephew (played by Hedges) — Lonergan gradually starts filling in the background of who Lee is and why he left Manchester in the first place.

What emerges is a complicated and at times painfully real depiction of grief, regret, and family legacies, capped by a string of scenes designed to leave audiences weeping. Manchester by the Sea creeps up carefully, using humor, vivid dialogue, and masterful acting to keep viewers engaged — before knocking them flat.

Morris From America

Morris From America.
Sean McElwee

Director: Chad Hartigan (This Is Martin Bonner)

Cast: Markees Christmas, Lina Keller, Craig Robinson (NBC’s The Office, Hot Tub Time Machine)

Distributor: A24

Robinson won a well-deserved Special Jury Prize for his performance in this low-boil fish-out-of-water dramedy, where he plays a soccer coach working in Heidelberg, Germany. And Hartigan won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for how sensitively he tells the story of the coach’s teenage son, Morris, who deals with typical growing pains along with casual racism as he struggles to fit into a community where he doesn’t look, act, or talk like anybody else.

Hartigan broke through at Sundance three years ago with the touching slice-of-life pic This Is Martin Bonner, and he hasn’t lost his knack for tapping directly into what his characters are feeling. Late in this movie, Robinson delivers a monologue about fatherhood and cultural alienation that ended up being one of the emotional highlights of a Sundance that didn’t lack for tearjerking scenes.

Sing Street

Director: John Carney (Once, Begin Again)

Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Jack Reynor (What Richard Did, Macbeth), Aidan Gillen (HBO’s Game of Thrones, HBO’s The Wire)

Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Carney’s Once is one of Sundance’s greatest success stories, going from a completely unknown quantity to a festival favorite (and then an Oscar and Tony winner). His follow-up, Begin Again, didn’t fare as well, although it’s actually much better than its critical reputation. But the next chapter in Carney’s offbeat rock musical trilogy stands to be another smash. Loosely autobiographical, Sing Street tells the story of an early 1980s Dublin teen who reacts to the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and the collapse of the Irish economy by forming a band with his working-class schoolmates.

In addition to featuring some uncanny period detail, Sing Street has an infectiously upbeat soundtrack, replicating the bounce and hooks of bands like the Cure and Duran Duran. Even when the plot becomes preposterously melodramatic, the songs save the day.

Southside With You

Director: Richard Tanne (producer of Mischief Night)

Cast: Parker Sawyers (Austenland, Monsters: Dark Continent), Tika Sumpter (Ride Along, The CW’s Gossip Girl)

Distributor: None yet

The idea of turning Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date into a Before Sunrise–style indie romance may seem gimmicky, but Tanne actually makes good use of his premise, letting the real details from two famous people’s lives give his characters fine shading — and something to talk about.

There’s too much of an "origin story" quality to Southside With You, but Sawyers and Sumpter are very likable as Barack and Michelle, and as they spend the day chatting about art, music, political values, and their very different childhoods, they effectively turn icons into real people. Even committed Obama haters could be charmed … provided they forget whom they’re watching.

Tickled

Tickled.

Director: Daniel Farrier, Dylan Reeve

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures for theatrical distribution; HBO for TV

In the fine tradition of twisty Sundance docs like Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop, this bizarre and absorbing film starts with a kooky idea — New Zealand humorist/journalist Farrier investigating an online video of an "endurance tickling" contest — and then takes multiple sharp turns. As soon as Farrier and Reeve begin working on the story, they are threatened with legal action. Refusing to be bullied, they fly from New Zealand to the United States to try to figure out what’s going on, and discover a wide-ranging blackmailing scheme that’s been ruining people's lives for years.

To say more would spoil Tickled’s many surprises, but suffice to say that nothing is ever as it initially appears for the filmmakers, and as they keep pushing, they learn a lot about how the internet has made it easier to be randomly mean.

Under the Shadow

Director: Babak Anvari

Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi

Distributor: Netflix (in partnership with Vertical and XYZ)

Between The Babadook two years ago and The Witch last year, Sundance has lately become a prime spot to premiere cutting-edge horror films. Given that The Babadook really became a cultural phenomenon once it landed on streaming, it’s not all that surprising that Netflix bought the rights to the similarly spooky Under the Shadow — even though it’s an Iranian film, where everyone speaks Farsi.

Language barrier aside, fright fans should quickly spread the word about this one-of-a-kind ghost story, where a mother and daughter deal with a malevolent supernatural force in their apartment building in a bombed-out section of Tehran. The jump scares are strong, the story builds slowly to a white-knuckle final 20 minutes, and the movie expresses an undisguised rage at how the gender politics in the Muslim world complicate even something as elemental as a woman running from a monster. For all of Sundance’s commitment to prestige drama, it’s often tiny little genre exercises like Under the Shadow that linger the longest, well after all the talk about awards and deals has disappeared.

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