From the 28th to the 31st of January, I attended the Sundance Film Festival with the Stanford Film Society. There were literally of hundreds of films at the festival – I saw 12 of them. I didn’t see a bad film, but this is just a taste of the wonderful selection Sundance had this year. Keep an eye out for these and others coming to you soon.
And without further ado, here are the films I saw at Sundance 2016, ranked and with thoughts:
- Southside With You
The world’s first meta-dependent movie? Richard Tanne’s charming, disarming story about the Obamas first date really only works because of the audience’s awareness of who these people are. That makes for intriguing, fun viewing, but it’s also not the most substantial thing in the world. The best scenes are not the ones focusing on the relationship blossoming, but on Parker Sawyers’ Obama, on the evolution of the ideology of the man who would eventually become President.
Solid performances and direction anchor an iffy script about trust and double-crosses on Wall Street. This is one that takes too long to hit its stride, but once it does it provides suitably fun thrills. The main trio of women – Anna Gunn, Sarah Megan Thomas, and Alysia Reiner – shines.
A fun, entertaining, gruesome film that was written in a week and shot in 17 days, which is both a plus and minus in this case. It has the scrappy energy and polish of the best of indie film, but a rewrite or two might’ve helped tighten things up. (Namely, an incredibly ill-advised love story that actually detracts from the emotional power of the story.) Still, everything about it has potential, and if they choose to do a sequel I’ll be excited to see how they expand this world.
- White Girl
A brutal movie about broken people doing horrible things to themselves and others. Very good performances from Morgan Saylor, Justin Bartha, and Brian Marc, and suitably visceral direction from Elizabeth Wood, lend the film credible realism – but, in the end, it has a lot of oomph, but a disappointing lack of heart. Full of sound and fury, but sadly signifying… not much.
- The Hollars
If you had told me ten minutes into this movie I was going to be an emotional wreck at the end of it, I wouldn’t have believed you. But gosh darn, John Krasinski and company pull it off with their simple, powerful story about a man scared of commitment returning home for a family crisis. The cast is uniformly fantastic – and Margo Martindale for every role, please.
- Captain Fantastic
Matt Ross’s film about an unusual family struggling to hold itself together in the wake of the mother’s suicide adheres to a formula very familiar to Sundance (dysfunctional family road-trip dramedy), but it sets itself apart in some interesting ways. First of all, our lead is Viggo Mortensen, whose fantastic (pun intended) performance lends the film gravitas and real emotional weight, ensuring the film is always as serious about its characters as he is. Second of all, the ideas the premise of the film brings up are deeper than the average Sundance dramedy – is it possible to live a pure life? what are the dangers of the society we live in? what are the limits of idealism? Captain Fantastic isn’t a top-tier film (the way it treats mental illness isn’t ideal, and the third act goes on for way too long) but I enjoyed it a lot overall.
- Dark Night
A moody, languid film inspired by the 2012 Aurora theater shooting that moves almost entirely in silent, action-less beats. This is an interesting film with haunting ideas and unforgettable moments, that absolutely should not be watched at 8:30 in the morning like I did. Slow as molasses but it gets under your skin.
- As You Are
A refreshing coming of age story that isn’t about nostalgia but about something much deeper – miscommunication. Three stars are born in the center roles – Owen Campbell is our sensitive and emotional lead Jack, Charlie Heaton (with the looks and acting chops of young Leonardo DiCaprio) is the brash and complicated young man that enters Jack’s life, and Amandla Stenberg is radiant as their mutual best friend. This is another one that takes a while to get going, but once it does, the results are nothing short of wonderful.
- Swiss Army Man
The opening credits of this movie made me cry from laughter, and the rest lives up to that sequence. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe are fantastic, and it’s a lot smarter than most reviews are giving it credit for. I hesitate the say any more, because the joy of this movie is the surprise of how its pure batshit insanity slowly but surely turns into a deep and affecting story of friendship.
- The Birth of a Nation
A stunningly realized, astonishingly powerful rendition of the brief rise and tragic fall of slave, priest, and rebel Nat Turner. Writer-director-producer-star Nate Parker shines in all his roles, and the rest of the production lives up to his stratospheric passion for the material. It’s a story of the past, but very much of the present – Nat Turner does, and must, live on in all of us. Look out for this one in the Oscar race next year; it deserves the awards coming to it.
- Under the Shadow
Never has a horror movie left such a wide smile on my face, from the sheer excellence of the filmmaking. This Iranian wartime ghost story about a mother and daughter trying to outrun the demons of their circumstance is tense, terrifying, smart, and damn near perfect. Stellar performances, beautiful visuals, and a truly bone-rattling premise makes this one essential viewing.
- Manchester by the Sea
I have not stopped thinking about this movie since it ended. Kenneth Lonergan’s deceptively simple story of a man stunted in silence by trauma and the 16-year-old boy put into his care is such a complex emotional marvel that it lingers with you long after it cuts to black. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges as the two leads have immediately tossed their hats into Oscar contention for next year, and the supporting cast (which includes Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler) is just as good. Can you ever outrun your past? Manchester by the Sea is a quiet and sneaky masterpiece that attacks that question with heartbreaking simplicity. The answer might be in the silences.
Photos courtesy of here