When push came to shove, a choice had to be made between The Birth of A Nation and “the farting corpse movie” (AKA Swiss Army Man), and your faithful narrator has to confess that he went with the former, so apologies for that. There are other films, as well, that I would have liked to have seen, including Complete Unknown, Certain Women and Captain Fantastic, but scheduling and ticket availability didn’t permit. The following, however, are–in rough order of preference–the 23 films I did see at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Generally speaking, the festival is suffering from the revolution in cinema’s ecosystem, as acquisitions were mostly for VOD and streaming rather than significant theatrical exposure, the few celebrated exceptions aside. (Sundance tried in the most tentative way to dip its toe into the wider definition of “film” by including a few made-for-television offerings, including Hulu’s 11/22/63 and Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, but those were screened only once at one of the festival’s smallest venues.) The quality was relatively high, however, and the first half of the list below, at least, is well worth seeing:
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Amazon): Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to his embattled, brilliant Margaret is deeply mournful (yet often very funny), and altogether extraordinary. Casey Affleck gives the performance of his life as Lee, a shell of a man forced by a new family tragedy to test his own ability to overcome the continuing effects of another in his past. He’s matched by Lucas Hedges as Lee’s nephew, who becomes an important part of Lee’s life, and in just a few minutes of screen time, Michelle Williams is indelible as Lee’s ex-wife. (Expect to see bits of Affleck and Williams’ final, scorching scene together on every “Oscar prospects” clip package later this year.) The basic plot situation could easily have been the stuff of routine soap opera, but Lonergan’s touch is vivid and unsentimental; he takes his characters and their troubles very seriously–so much so that the box office may suffer for it–and while there are stylistic flaws (he indulges a bit too much in swelling the soundtrack with classical music in key sequences), he creates characters and dialogue that won’t leave your memory. Manchester (which wasn’t eligible for Sundance awards, since it was out of the “Competition” section) shines with emotional honesty.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION (Fox Searchlight): The real thing or, at a record-breaking $17.5M pricetag, the most spectacular example of “Sundance fever” ever? That will likely be debated throughout the 2017 Oscar season, at which Nate Parker’s film about the rebel slave Nat Turner is very deliberately being aimed. (The fact that it won both the Sundance Jury and Audience Grand Prizes won’t matter much in the long run, since the same was true of last year’s flop Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.) What seems indisputable is that the film is a powerhouse, less polished than 12 Years A Slave but more emotionally direct, thematically ambitious and cathartic. Although Parker is an experienced actor, this is his first work as a filmmaker, and there are rough edges and questionable choices here, including kitschy religious imagery that will make some swoon and others groan. Parker’s point of view on his subject matter will also be questioned and endlessly analyzed. He’s delivered, though, as both a storyteller and a passionate advocate, and his own performance joins those he directed from Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union and Aja Naomi King as those that will be in the awards conversation.
SING STREET (Weinstein): Admittedly, being the feel-good movie of Sundance is something like having the happiest headstone. This infectiously enjoyable Irish musical, however, should delight audiences even beyond the festival circuit. It’s written and directed by John Carney of Once and Begin Again, who is again on a mission to demonstrate how music can transform ordinary lives. This time the band is a ramshackle group of classmates in a Dublin Catholic school circa 1985, and while there’s nothing terribly original here (it’s particularly indebted to The Commitments, with a little Almost Famous around the edges), Carney’s love for the music—which extends to co-writing original songs reflecting the group’s influences as they shift from Duran Duran to Hall & Oates to The Cure—and for his characters make it all hugely entertaining. The young actors Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, as the band’s sensitive leader and his dream girl, and Jack Reynor, as his older brother, give breakout performances. This and Birth of a Nation, as different as they are, were the two Sundance movies to get not just applause but full-hearted cheers from their festival audiences.
SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU (no distrib): Writer/director Richard Tanne had the ingenious notion of creating a Before Sunrise rom-com talkathon about the lengthy first date of a couple who just happened to be Barack and Michelle Obama. It also serves as something of a super-politician origin story, thanks to a (fictionalized) central set-piece that showcases the inspirational man lurking within the easygoing law firm summer associate. (Some Democrats might wish that with its glowing portrayal of the couple’s other half, it could be the opening bell for a Michelle Obama candidacy as well.) A high-concept idea only goes so far, of course–it’s the execution that matters. Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers are pitch-perfect as the Obamas, suggesting the public figures they became but treating them as wholly-rounded human beings, and not attempting impersonations. Tanne doesn’t shy away from subjects iike race and the fundamental principles that should guide one’s life, but his touch avoids the heavy-handed, and he keeps the pace brisk—the 82-minute length reflects the fact that its protagonists are themselves in a hurry, to become the people we know they will.
INDIGNATION (Summit/Lionsgate): Making his directing debut after a long screenwriting and producing career (he was also co-head of Focus Films), James Schamus has created an exemplary old-guard literary adaptation, in this case based on one of Philip Roth’s late shorter novels. Schamus’ script, extremely faithful to Roth, concerns Korean War-era Marcus (Logan Lerman), who tells the story of his downfall, which began when he was one of the few Jews to attend a midwestern university and—this being a Philip Roth story—met a gorgeous blonde-haired, blue-eyed shiksa (Sarah Gadon) who was both the most exciting person he’d ever known and nothing but trouble. Lerman, although impressively stretching beyond his usual bland roles, doesn’t quite have the “intensity” that people keep observing in Marcus, but the rest of the cast is on the money, especially Tracy Letts as the Dean, Marcus’ antagonist and most perceptive observer. Everything about Schamus’ film is polished, well-paced and handsome, from the photography by Christopher Blauveit to the production design by Inbal Weinberg and music by Jay Wadley. If the sum of those parts lacks the spark that separates the high-quality from the inspired, that’s true of Roth’s novel as well: Indignation, on both page and screen, is more Masterpiece Theatre than Portnoy’s Complaint.
GREEN ROOM (A24): A punk band is stalked by neo-Nazis with, among other things, man-eating hounds—and it’s not a goof. Jeremy Saulnier directed the well-regarded thriller Blue Ruin, and Green Room is an accomplished exercise in claustrophobic suspense a la John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13. As grungy as the setting and characters are, Saulnier has his pieces worked out with precision, and the action, when it comes, is brutal, tense and edited with a scalpel. (Julia Bloch did the cutting.) The cast classes up the joint as well, with Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots (see Frank & Lola below for an utterly different role from that underrated actress) and Patrick Stewart among the talent you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in such a low-rent genre piece. Saulnier clearly has the chops for larger-scale commercial thrillers, and he had the best Q&A answer of the festival when he was asked if he was going to forsake the indie world for big-time Hollywood. “I’d love to,” he confessed, ”but those movies are all such shit.” Nevertheless, look for his name to be attached to something high-profile sooner rather than later.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (Roadside/Amazon): The combination of the writer/director Whit Stillman and Jane Austen makes all the sense in the world, and the result is Stillman’s best film in years. He’s always been wonderful at drawing droll characters and writing epigrammatic dialogue for them, but plot has been his downfall; here, Austen gives him the backbone of her narrative, and also holds back his sometimes self-indulgent playfulness. This is a more cynical, acerbic screen Austen than we’re used to from the film romances of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility—the protagonist isn’t a young woman in search of love, but a widow (Kate Beckinsale, making the most of not being in an Underworld movie) scheming for financial security. The narrative is sharply told and satisfyingly rounded, and the cast (including Stillman veteran Chloe Sevigny in a supporting role) is skilled, most especially Tom Bennett, hilarious as a stupendously dimwitted (but very rich) marriageable nobleman.
LOVESONG (no distrib): So-yong Kim’s film is the kind of delicate mood piece Sundance was built to foster (although as its lack of distribution attests, not always successfully). It’s a deceptively simple story about two old friends played by Riley Keough and Jena Malone, both of whom give beautiful performances. With a two-chapter structure, it explores the push and pull of a relationship whose boundaries shift along lines of time, mood and circumstance. Kim effectively broadens the scope of the story in the second half, and uses the cinematography (by Guy Godfree and Kat Westergaard) and music (by Johann Johannsson) as much as the dialogue she wrote with Bradley Rust Gray to convey the nuances of the ties between the characters. Ultimately, much of the power of the film lies in the close-ups of the two actresses, both of whom suggest lifetimes of regret, resentment and passion while often saying little.
EQUITY (Sony Classics): Part of the audaciousness of Meera Menon’s film is that it doesn’t define itself by its own audaciousness. Produced and conceived (with screenwriter Amy Katz) by Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner, who also play two of the central roles, it’s a Wall Street thriller in which most of the leads are women, but it’s not a “women on Wall Street” movie. Rather, it’s a smart, entertaining drama that could easily have had men in those parts. (In fact, it bears a passing resemblance to Billions, where the parallel characters are men.) Anna Gunn plays the high-flying investment banker whose upcoming IPO for a tech company will either make or break her, and Thomas and Reiner are Gunn’s chief associate and a US Attorney on the trail of insider traders. It’s an altogether satisfying example of the high-finance scheming genre, and while not as structurally innovative as Margin Call or The Big Short, it delivers the dramatic goods.
THE INTERVENTION (Paramount): Actress Clea DuVall’s writing/directing debut is a variation on The Big Chill, and it’s a reminder of what a sturdy narrative Lawrence Kasdan’s film had. This time, the old friends are gathered not for a funeral, but to counsel the group’s married pair (Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza) that they’re making each other miserable and should get a divorce—when in fact, they’re all equally screwed up. The driving force of the weekend is played by Melanie Lynskey, who has the bulk of the script’s set-pieces and makes the most of them, but there are also strong roles for DuVall and Natasha Lyonne as another couple, Jason Ritter as Lynskey’s fiancée, and Ben Schwartz (much toned-down from his usual sitcom levels) as a friend getting over a tragedy. DuVall’s Big Chill homage goes a little too far with the introduction of Schwartz’s young, truth-telling girlfriend played by Alia Shawkat (she might as well have been named “Meg Tilly”) and in the end, all the pieces are tied up too slickly for this to be a really exciting debut (although the same could be said about Kasdan’s movie). Even so, DuVall demonstrates that she knows her way around directing complicated multi-camera dialogue sequences, balancing the styles of an ensemble cast, and pacing, all of which will serve her well.
CHRISTINE (no distrib): The most intriguing diptych of the festival wasn’t intended by its filmmakers: both Christine and (see below) Kate Plays Christine tell the story of Christine Chubbuck, a local Sarasota TV journalist who committed suicide on the air in 1974. (She’s become a footnote to pop culture history as the purported inspiration for Paddy Cheyefsky’s “I’m not gonna take it anymore!” anchorman breakdown in Network.) Antonio Campos’ film (from a script by Craig Shilowich) is the more conventional and more successful of the Sundance pair. It’s the straightforward story of Chubbuck’s last few increasingly alienated weeks, as she found herself disappointed in her career and in romance as she neared the dangerous on-air age of 30. Rebecca Hall gives a deeply committed, convincing performance as Chubbuck, sinking deeper into her own head even as she attempts to salvage her principles and goals. Michael C. Hall, as the undeserving object of her longings, is also sharp. Campos provides a no-frills visualization that doesn’t compromise the darkness of the story.
WIENER-DOG (Amazon): Todd Solondz’s latest expression of his humorous contempt for the general state of humanity is a riff on Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar, except that the animal who passes from one set of humans to the next is a wiener-dog instead of a donkey. Where Bresson was engaged by spirituality and moral crisis, Solondz is mostly just disgusted, and in 90 minutes, he manages to feature all manner of bodily functions, illness (emotional and physical), selfishness and, for some reason, Woody Allen parody, with Danny DeVito as the stand-in for an Allen protagonist (all the way down to a Bananas-like poster on his office wall). Unlike in Solondz’s earlier films like Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse (the “wiener-dog” reference has nothing to do with that movie, by the way), the actors are mostly functional representations of Solondz’s curdled world-view, even when played by performers like Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Zosia Mamet and Ellen Burstyn. There are a few sick laughs, and a WTF meta sequence exactly midway, but (particularly for animal lovers) this is not a good time at the arthouse, and there’s little variation among its stories.
WHITE GIRL (no distrib): Many young actresses who start their careers with relatively wholesome entertainments make an effort to prove their adult bona fides (a Selena Gomez example is directly below, and completists will recall that even Anne Hathaway followed The Princess Diaries with the unrated Havoc), but few have committed to that goal as wholeheartedly and persuasively as Homeland’s Morgan Saylor, who seems to spend more time in White Girl drugging (the title refers to cocaine as well as her character) and having sex than otherwise. Based by writer/director Elizabeth Wood on incidents purportedly from her own life, in which Saylor’s character goes to all ends to free her dealer boyfriend from jail, it’s an extreme piece of work, and ultimately it doesn’t go very deep into its drug-addled heroine’s head and repetitiveness kicks in. It’s an impressive calling card for both Wood and Saylor, though, both of whom are clearly fearless, and Wood also gets fine performances from Justin Bartha and Chris Noth as a pair of scumbags who cross her heroine’s path, and a supporting cast of distinctive lesser-knowns.
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING (Netflix): A collection of standard-issue indie dramedy elements, but nicely done all the same. Paul Rudd is a writer who’s abandoned his craft (for reasons gradually revealed) to become a paid companion to a teen (Craig Roberts, from Submarine) with muscular dystrophy. Before long, Rudd has overcome the boy’s mother’s (Jennifer Ehle) objections and taken his charge on a cross-country road trip where they will meet colorful new companions (Selena Gomez shows up as a tough-talking hitchhiker with—you guessed it—a heart of gold), see whimsical landmarks, and learn valuable life lessons. There’s never any doubt where any of this is going, yet Rob Burnett’s script (he also directed, smoothly enough) grants each character some wit and rueful self-knowledge. A modest charmer that probably couldn’t have drawn much of a big-screen audience despite Rudd’s presence, but should find a welcoming home at Netflix.
FRANK & LOLA (Universal): Matthew M. Ross’ directing debut glides along for a while as a 1970s style misfit love story, led by the charismatic team of Michael Shannon as a Las Vegas celebrity chef and Isobel Poots as his much younger lover, both of them expert at suggesting furtive pasts behind their banter and bold sexuality. Lola’s past, though, becomes the crux of the story, and Frank & Lola fumbles its tone, becoming stuck in a revenge drama with Shannon a quasi-Liam Neeson figure, facing duplicitous Eurotrash nogoodniks (Michael Nyquist and Emmanuelle Devos) amid too many twists for the script’s own good. Ross gives his actors space to impart their characters with soul, and he has strong control over the film’s look and feel (the elegant photography is by Eric Koretz, and the score is by Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans). It’s a promising start but not a unified whole.
THE HOLLARS (Sony Classics): I wasn’t at the festival for the opening night dying-mother dramedy (Other People), but I was there for the closer, and that was plenty. John Krasinski’s directing debut Brief Interviews With Hideous Men was stylistically and thematically ambitious (and was barely seen); this time, he’s aimed straight for the middle, and as intended, the result will have a significant theatrical run. He’s assembled a marvelous cast (Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Sharlito Copley, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and there are, to be sure, moments of emotional reality. Too often, though, Krasinski and screenwriter Jim Strouse settle for sitcom humor, easy sentiment and loads of cliché. The character arcs feel truncated (the film was 20 minutes shorter than its listing in the festival program), and Krasinski and Strouse seem terrified of giving the family problems that can’t be solved with a bromide or two, some good feeling and a heavy dose of soundtrack songs.
SOPHIE AND THE RISING SUN (no distrib): The most interesting part of Maggie Greenwald’s film (based on Augusta Trobaugh’s novel) comes at the very end, when a single shot suggests that the point where the script leaves off is where it might more profitably have begun. What we get instead is a very familiar prologue to that story, about the slow-burn illicit 1941 romance between idiosyncratic Southern spinster Sophie (Julianne Nicholson) and Japanese-American Grover (yes, Grover, played by Takashi Yamaguchi). Grover is a fantasy figure out of a Nicholas Sparks novel, an endlessly sensitive painter and gardener who looks great with his shirt off, and it takes Sophie forever to be lured out of her shell. The plot complications come from a Javert-like psychopathically busy-bodyish neighbor (Diane Ladd), and although Nicholson and Yamaguchi are fine in their limited roles, the real humanity comes from Margo Martindale and Lorraine Toussaint, as the only residents willing to open their hearts to the lovers.
JOSHY (no distrib): On the edges of Jeff Baena’s mess is what could have been an engrossing dramedy about a married man (Adam Pally) who has no interest in cheating on his wife, until he meets someone (Jenny Slate) who might be his soulmate. That’s not the story Joshy chooses to tell, though, and the rest could be dismissed as a first-time filmmaker’s awkward start if it weren’t his second film, after the zombie-com Life After Beth. There’s certainly an arresting opening sequence: Josh (Thomas Middleditch) cheerfully comes home on his birthday from a visit to the gym to find that his fiancée has hung herself with his belt. The idea that his buddies decide to go forward with Josh’s bachelor weekend as a way to cheer him up is a perfectly serviceable premise. But Baena has no control over his material at all, which wanders from mumblecore to bro-com to farce, with no internal logic to the story or most of the characters. The cast, a who’s who of “that one from that show” personalities (aside from Middleditch, Pally and Slate, there’s Nick Kroll, Bret Gelman, Aubrey Plaza, Paul Reiser, Jake Johnson, Lauren Graham and Lisa Edelstein) are sometimes funny in isolated moments, but the tone is so uneven that no one can establish any momentum and the movie dribbles away.
KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE (no distrib): Robert Greene’s version of the Christine Chubbuck story is the more conceptually adventurous. It was screened at Sundance in the Documentary section, but its nature is more complicated than that: the actress Kate Lyn Sheil is presented as having been cast in a film about Chubbuck’s life, and the “documentary” purports to follow her preparation for the role, along with other actors cast in the film—but there is no film-within-the-film, and while Sheil presumably knew what was going on all the way, it’s (deliberately) never quite clear what the other performers (including some actual acquaintances and colleagues of Chubbuck) understood. It’s Brechtian and meta, and “Sheil’s” increasing obsession with Chubbuck is meant to echo Chubbuck’s own obsession with her work, just as Chubbuck’s concerns about the tabloidization of the media (she scornfully “reported” her own suicide before blowing her brains out) are meant to widen into the audience’s fascination with this tragedy. Kate Plays Christine, though, doesn’t pull any of this off, instead playing as a stolid and flat exercise in genre-bending.
THE 4TH (no distrib): When an 80-minute running time feels overlong, there’s a lack in the basic concept, and that’s the case with Andre Hyland’s shoestring-budget feature debut. Hyland plays Jamie, who only wants to throw a modest barbecue at his LA apartment for the 4th of July. Everything that can go wrong does, from encounters with the cops to a road rage incident to the Worst Uber Driver Ever, and for a while it’s amusing in a Road Runner cartoon sort of way. After about half an hour, though, it’s easy to be two or three steps ahead of Hyland’s script (if someone mentions that an apartment door needs to be kept shut or the cat will escape, it’s only a matter of time until that feline gets loose), and he didn’t seem to have any interest in expanding the scope of the story. The 4th has a pleasantly shambling feel, and Hyland knows how to construct a gag when he puts the effort into doing it, but the film feels more like a calling card project than a real movie.
ALI & NINO (no distrib): Like something Richard Attenborough might have put together on an off-day. It’s a sweeping historical love story, and its credentials are solid: the director is the documentarian Asif Kapadia (of Amy), returning to his scripted roots, and the screenplay, based on a book by Kurban Said, is by the great Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons). The landscapes, shot by Gokhan Tiryaki, and production design are first-rate. But if there was a way to make this tale of star-crossed WWI era lovers (she’s Christian, he’s Muslim) dramatically engaging, they didn’t find it. Instead, Ali & Nino feels like a lesson in obscure early 20th-century Eastern European history, a series of expository scenes followed by Ali and Nino (Adam Bakari and Maria Valverde, both tepid) yearning for each other, followed by more exposition. By the time it’s over, you’re just hoping there won’t be a quiz.
GOAT (MTV/Paramount): 96 minutes of brutalization. The script by director Andrew Neel, Mike Roberts and David Gordon Green is based on a memoir by Brad Land, and no doubt much of it is true. But is it really news at this point that some college fraternities indulge in dangerous, disgusting behavior when they haze initiates? Neel is trying to make a statement about masculinity (although he stays away from any analysis of the obvious homoerotic undercurrents of the frat brothers’ behavior), and the movie’s Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer) comes to the fraternity already guilty over his passivity in the face of a high school attack. Watching him and his pledge partners endure the bulk of the movie’s running time being pelted with excrement, threatened with bestiality, beaten and essentially tortured, though, it doesn’t feel like much is being said other than “Look at the ugly!” The most impressive performance comes, of all places, from Nick Jonas, who plays Brad’s brother, a member of the fraternity who can’t stand the life he’s leading. Goat, like White Girl, treads the line between depicting awful behavior and wallowing in it, and Goat falls squarely into the mud.
ANTIBIRTH (no distrib): You’d think, objectively speaking, that “plodding” wouldn’t be the word to describe a David Cronenberg-meets-David Lynch horror movie featuring a woman ripping the flesh off her own face and explosively popping a giant pus-filled sore on her foot, then giving birth to a severed (but sentient) extraterrestrial head, not to mention the presences of Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevigny (the latter not exactly performing Jane Austen this time). But plodding is what this winner of the annual “Why Exactly Did I Sit Through This?” Sundance award is. Writer/director Danny Perez alternates between lengthy dialogue scenes that feel like they were shoved into the movie without any editing, and psychedelic hallucination sequences that are like lifts from 1970s grindhouse cinema. This is all probably meant to be a homage to something or other, but none of it is scary, provocative or even funny. Lyonne, incidentally, was also a producer of this thing, and if the inspirational story of this year’s Sundance was Nate Parker’s triumphant struggle to get Birth of a Nation produced, Antibirth suggests that some actors should just stick to acting.