As February dawns, it's safe to say that 2016 no longer has that new car smell. The Academy Award nominations have come and gone, there's been the first fully-fledged industry controversy vai #OscarsSoWhite, and Sundance, the first major film festival of the year, just wrapped. Last week, we brought you the Playlist picks for the major talents that seem likely to break through from this year's lineup.
But now that all the films have been screened at the festival and the awards have been handed out, we're ready to make a more sober assessment. Here, in no particular order, are our picks for the 12 best features and the 6 best documentaries we saw at Sundance 2016. Click on the title to go to the full write-up, or scroll to the end where there's a complete list of all the other reviews from the festival.
"The Birth of a Nation"
Surely you've heard about "The Birth of a Nation" by now. Nate Parker's film, which tells the story of preacher turned revolt leader Nat Turner, made headlines before scooping up both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the festival: after a bidding war, it was bought by Fox Searchlight for $17.5m (a record for Sundance) and it was the only film we can think of in memory to receive a standing ovation before it screened. So it might be easy to imagine that timing, buzz and politics (especially in the wake of #OscarSoWhite) might have oversold the film itself. But it's not so, according to our reviewer, who found it "somewhat ragged but wildly forceful," building to an "overwhelming" conclusion. Which is good news, because there'll be no escaping this title on the awards trail or Parker himself, who's been instantly minted as the hottest director around. [B+]
Director Tim Sutton had already impressed us as an uncompromising, highly individual filmmaker with his last feature, the languid, lyrical "Memphis." So we were primed for his follow-up, which played in the edgier NEXT Sundance sidebar, but we were not expecting to be quite this blown away. Described by our reviewer as "a prelude to violence," it could ostensibly be considered part of the gun control debate, an issue that made itself felt in several films at this year's festival. But Sutton's film is less polemical than poetic, albeit with a much darker effect this time. Featuring a plethora of finely observed, austere, often dialogue-free portraits of a vastly disparate group of individuals, the film is also a masterclass in slow-dread pacing, one that ultimately has much to say about a violence-obsessed American society as an ailing, decaying organism. [A]
There were many reasons to root for "The Intervention" in advance: it's the directorial debut of actress Clea DuVall, a stalwart and singular presence on the indie scene for two decades, starring the terminally undervalued Melanie Lynskey, alongside an assortment of current young independent talent in Natasha Lyonne, Alia Shawkat, Cobie Smulders, Jason Ritter and Ben Schwartz. So it was great news that our reviewer found the film transcendeding its "Sundance bingo" logline (three couples go away for a weekend as part of a surprise intervention for a fourth), calling it "a sharp-tongued and smart observational comedy… [that] escalates into a deftly staged indie farce." Lynskey went on to pick up the U.S. Dramatic Competition performance award at the fest, which will hopefully help getting the adjective "undervalued" detached from her name. [B+]
Hearing a Kelly Reichardt movie described as "divisive" is a little like hearing water described as "wet": she's a filmmaker whose slow, studied style and dispassionate, cool-to-the-touch approach gains her advocates and detractors in roughly equal measure: our Sundance reviewer found the film "utterly enthralling" and a display of "Reichardt in full command of the material." The film is structured as a triptych in which each segment stars a different actress (Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Reichardt regular Michelle Williams), and investigates class division, sexism and unrequited attraction all through her trademark wide-angle prism, via conversations in which the participants talk "past each other." "Certain Women" may not win over her harsher critics, but her fans are in for a typically clear-eyed, thought-provoking treat. [A-]
"The Eyes of My Mother"
The "Sundance horror hit" has become a bit of a tradition over the last few years following the buzz surrounding "The Babadook" and "The Witch," and if perhaps there wasn't quite the same deafening consensus around a horror title this year out, our money goes on writer/director Nicholas Pesce's "The Eyes of My Mother." From its starkly arresting beginning, in which an act of violence is perpetrated against a housewife while her young daughter looks on, only for the daughter to become an active participant in the revenge taken on the assailant once Dad comes home, the film plots a highly original, beautifully shot course through a genre that often feels overgrown with familiarity. And so we follow the girl, now an isolated, alienated young woman (standout Kika Magalhaes) as her attempts to connect back to the world become progressively more horrific. It's the origin story of a monster of the highest order, the kind that "devours other monsters." [B+]
Coming from "Orange is the New Black" writer Sian Heder, "Tallulah" proves a strong showcase for its performers. But when those performers are Ellen Page and Allison Janney (reunited from their "Juno" days), and the script gives both women ample opportunity to flex their talents, the result is bound to be pretty superlative. Our reviewer pointed out that the film's flaws —namely, some credulity-stretching contrivances— are almost wholly redeemed by how they lead to scenes of interplay between these two actresses. In fact, "Tallulah" is "at its best when the plot [which involves Page's young drifter stealing a baby and moving in which her ex's mother] recedes and we get to see Page and Janney's characters testing their tolerance and eventual affection for one another." [B+]