10 films from sundance you should see this year

The best movies from the festival coming to the cinema soon.

by Colin Crummy
17 February 2016, 2:15pm

The Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker was told his movie idea was too challenging to work. Films with black leads didn't make money internationally; he didn't have a big enough name to star in it; the story itself -- of a preacher who organized slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831-- was too controversial. He went ahead anyway, writing, producing, directing and starring in The Birth of a Nation, which played at Sundance to standing ovations even before the film began, was bought for the highest amount ever paid for a film at the festival and won both Audience and Grand Jury awards in the U.S. Dramatic competition. It is already being talked about as an Oscar contender for 2017. Given the race controversy that has enveloped this year's awards season, the momentum behind The Birth of a Nation and the incredible passion of its creator (Parker wants to create a nation of 'change agents'), you would not bet against it.

Certain Women
Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern star in Certain Women but despite this big name billing, Kelly Reichardt's minimalist drama was one of the low key premieres at Sundance. It is also one of the festival's most enduring, straying back into the mind long after the credits rolled. This triptych of obliquely connecting stories unfolds at a pace reflective of real life rather than a film script and the performances match, with naturalistic, easy turns from the trio of stars who play women in various states of isolation in Montana. But it's newcomer Lily Gladstone -- as a lonesome ranch hand who befriends Kristen Stewart's night school teacher in the third, most satisfying act -- who quietly steals the limelight.

Hazing rituals go under the spotlight in Goat, which stars Ben Schnetzer (last seen in the British comedy Pride) as a white, middle class college kid who, after a serious assault, applies to join his brother's (Nick Jonas) fraternity. That assault, in the film's opening sequence, is a violent trigger to explore contemporary masculinity and issues of dominance, rage and insecurity in hazing scenes enacted like U.S. military torture programs. The film has been picked up by Paramount, so expect to catch in the cinema or VOD this year.

Love & Friendship
Progenitor of Wes Anderson, Noah Bambauch, and master of 'comedies of mannerlessness' writer-director Whit Stillman was back with the best laughs at this year's Sundance. Love and Friendship, an adaptation of a Jane Austen novella, stays loyal to the author's sensibilities and era while running wild with Stillman's wit. Kate Beckinsale, who worked with Stillman on The Last Days of Disco, plays an uncharacteristically malevolent force in Austen world, a widowed lady looking to marry off her daughter to a loaded idiot while she sees a prize for herself in a younger, rich suitor. Beckinsale is deliciously viperous with straighter turns from Chloe Sevigny and Xavier Samuel. It's in UK cinemas May 27.

The true story of Floridian newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who in 1974 committed suicide live on air, was the subject of a docudrama (Kate Plays Christine) and this drama, Christine, at this year's Sundance. In the latter, Rebecca Hall plays a brittle and ambitious Chubbuck in a powerfully unsentimental characterization of a woman who put a revolver to her head during a morning news cast. A word-of-mouth recommendation at the festival rather than out-and-out hit, it's not clear how or when it'll reach a wider audience but it is worth seeking out.

As You Are
At 23, Miles Joris-Peyrafitte marked himself out as a talent to watch at Sundance 2016, winning the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for his debut feature film. As You Are takes its name from the Nirvana song and is set in grunge era, small town America where a police investigation provides the backbone to a story about desire, yearning and teen spirit. No word on distribution yet.

In Tallulah, Ellen Page plays the wandering hobo of the title who gets by on small time rip offs and stealing room service food in hotel corridors. But during a hotel trick she becomes embroiled with a guest, a hot mess mom who leaves Tallulah to babysit. Appalled by this, Tallulah kidnaps the baby and ends up on the doorstep of her ex boyfriend's mother [Allison Janney]. That plot might make for zany but this directorial debut from Sian Heder, a writer on Orange is the New Black, has much to recommend it, not least the easy rapport between the two leads and a commitment to show dislikeable female characters on screen. Moreover, it proves a better vehicle for Page's considerable comic talents than this year's Freeheld and the good news is Netflix has already bought the streaming rights on it.

Manchester by the Sea
Before The Birth of a Nation stole all the buzz, Sundance was all about Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan's assured study in grief and trauma. Casey Affleck plays a Boston handyman Lee who, after his brother's untimely death, becomes legal guardian to his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The fallout is slow, as Lee deals with family rifts and his own discord with an ex wife (played by Michelle Williams). We should see this in cinemas by fall but it's well worth the wait.

Morris from America
The fish of water comedy gets an understated treatment from Chad Hartigan, who lands an African American teenager in south west Germany for Morris from America. Newcomer Markees Christmas made one of most impactful debuts at Sundance as Morris Gentry, a chubby kid who has to negotiate his way around Heidelberg and its teen occupants, after his dad (Craig Robinson) gets a soccer coaching job in the city. Morris loves hip-hop, is becoming interested in girls and is a good kid on that edge of adolescent waywardness. Hartigan steers the story in warm, unexpected directions which subtly attest to the trials of being young, black and misunderstood.

The Land
The Land may skate on familiar ground -- four teenage boys treading in Cleveland gang territory to disastrous consequences -- but Steve Caple Jr's film about a group who want to be professional skaters and get involved in the drugs scene to make it happen, has enough subversive elements to keep it fresh, not least the surprisingly convincing characterization of the drug kingpin. Four young actors led by Jorge Lendeborg Jr. give it heart, while support from Erykah Badu, Michael K Williams and executive producing duties from Nas should see The Land make ground this year. It's worth it, especially for Caple Jr's exquisitely shot skating scenes.


Text Colin Crummy

film 2016
films to see