It seemed as if it was still 2015 just five minutes ago. But suddenly, we’re well into January, the Oscar nominations have been announced, a Michael Bay movie has opened, and now the 2016 edition of the Sundance Film Festival is nearly upon us. What the hell happened?
While the early weeks of a new year are often about looking back on the cinema of the past 12 months, as awards contenders roll out wider and organizations give out prizes, Sundance is where the agenda for the year ahead begins to be set. The festival has of course discovered countless filmmakers who are now household names and has picked out movies that have gone on to be big box office hits, Oscar nominees or winners, both, or neither.
With the festival kicking off this Thursday, I’ve run down 30 of the most promising movies in this year’s line-up, across the various strands. You can take a look below, but suffice to say, it looks like another vintage year in Park City, Utah. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments.
Synopsis: Two brothers start up a bar and get caught up in its fortunes as part of Belgium's nightlife scene.
What You Need To Know: It's a great shame that not enough people saw Felix Van Groeningen's last film, the almost preternaturally affecting, beautifully observed "The Broken Circle Breakdown," which won the Panorama award at the Berlinale and an Oscar nod, among many other plaudits (Our own review is here, and the film comes highly recommended). In that story regarding the rambunctious and ultimately heartbreaking relationship between two Belgian bluegrass performers, the director's talent with actors and his acute sense of an insider-y, lived-in authenticity to the subcultures of Flemish Belgium, from where he hails, were more than proven. If those qualities translate to this next film (and the storyline, as much as we know of it, suggests they might), this could be very special, and if so should kick Van Groeningen's stateside profile up deservedly higher.
“The Birth Of A Nation”
Synopsis: The story of Nat Turner, the leader of the biggest slave rebellion in American history.
What You Need To Know: The American legacy of slavery seemed like cinema's last taboo, but filmmaker have begun addressing it in the last few years with films like “12 Years A Slave” and “Django Unchained.” “The Birth Of A Nation” (its title a canny echo of D.W. Griffith’s racist silent epic, which was released 100 years ago) looks to meld the historical accuracy of the former film with the cathartic bloodletting of the latter, and the director is the excellent Nate Parker, who you’ll know as an actor who’s stood out in films like “Arbitrage” and “Beyond The Lights.” He writes and directs for the first time, as well as playing Turner (Armie Hammer and Gabrielle Union are among the supporting cast). This looks like it has the potential to be visually striking, provocative and utterly timely. If Parker can pull it off, maybe we won’t have to talk about #OscarsSoWhite next year.
Synopsis: After a tragedy, a family living in isolation must reintegrate into society.
What You Need To Know: Last year, one of the sensations of Sundance was the documentary “The Wolfpack,” about a family of bright sparks raised in seclusion. This year, a fictional take on similar subject matter could turn out to cause at least as much fuss. Marking the second directorial feature of actor Matt Ross (Gavin Belsom in “Silicon Valley”), this has drawn comparisons with the likes of “Little Miss Sunshine” so far, promising quirky dramedy with an emotional punch. And the cast involved is thoroughly superb: Kathryn Hahn, Frank Langella, rising star George MacKay, “Jessica Jones” actress Erin Moriarty, Steve Zahn, and most excitingly, Viggo Mortensen, an actor who’s decidedly picky and has rarely made a movie like this in his decades-long career. Ross’ previous feature “28 Hotel Rooms” wasn't very good, but we’ve got our fingers crossed for this one.
Synopsis: The story of the intersecting lives of three women in present-day Montana.
What You Need To Know: We dug Kelly Reichardt’s last movie, the Patricia Highsmith-ish paranoid art thriller “Night Moves,” but it felt like many critics and filmgoers didn’t quite know what to make of such a left turn from one of the indie world’s most talented filmmakers. She’s back on more familiar territory for her latest “Certain Women,” which sees her adapt a series of short stories by author Maile Meloy, with Laura Dern playing an attorney involved in a hostage situation, Michelle Williams as a married woman trying to build a house, and Kristen Stewart as a lawyer teaching an adult-education class. Few are better than Reichardt at telling the stories of women in the American West, and she’s assembled one of her best casts to date here. The presence of Todd Haynes, hot off “Carol,” as an exec producer, can only help this films chances.
Synopsis: The true story of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida news reporter who committed suicide live on air.
What You Need To Know: In an odd Capote-like coincidence, this year Sundance brings two movies about the sad true story of Christine Chubbuck. One is Robert Greene’s follow-up to his acclaimed “Actress” called "Kate Plays Christine," a similarly meta documentary that sees indie fave Kate Lyn Sheil researching the true story and investigating the acting process. But we’re more keen to see this, the latest from the “Martha Marcy May Marlene”/“James White” Borderline Films crew, and director Antonio Campos’ first film since the bruising “Simon Killer.” Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck, with Michael C. Hall (no relation, obvs) as her crush and colleague, and it should provide excellent big-screen showcases to two fine actors who’ve been slightly lacking as such of late. With a potent and timely subject, this has every chance to be as provocative and powerful as Campos' previous picture.
Synopsis: When a woman turns up at a dinner party for his birthday, a man becomes convinced he knows her and follows her into the city.
What You Need To Know: An Audience Award winner at Sundance over a decade ago for “Maria Full Of Grace” (which also won an unlikely Best Actress Oscar nomination), Joshua Marston hasn’t been the most prolific filmmaker in the indie world, with just a single feature following, 2011’s equally-good “The Forgiveness Of Blood” (though he has kept busy in the TV world, helming episodes of “The Good Wife” and “The Newsroom,” among others). So it feels like an event to have him back with a new movie, five years on from the last, and it’s particularly intriguing because “Complete Unknown” marks his first English-language feature. It seems to be a riff on the one-long-conversation “Before Sunrise” vibe, and if you’re going to spend most of a movie in the company of two people, spending it with Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz sounds like a good idea (though Kathy Bates and Danny Glover are just two of the supporting cast). The premise sounds familiar, but I suspect in Marston’s hands, it’ll be anything but.
Synopsis: This drama follows the lives of various people who will intersect at a mass shooting at a movie theater.
What You Need To Know: The last few years have seen the NEXT strand become increasingly important at Sundance, with some of the most exciting and important movies that debuted in Park City landing there — it was“Tangerine,” “James White” and “Entertainment” last year, and “A Girl Who Walks Home Alone At Night,” “Obvious Child,” “Listen Up Philip” and “Appropriate Behavior” the year before. The same looks to be true this year, and one of the more intriguing movies in the section in “Dark Night.” Helmed by Tim Sutton, who made a striking debut with “Memphis” awhile back, the film promises to meld poetry and docudrama with a ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter (the title presumably evokes the shooting on the opening night of “The Dark Knight Rises”) that sadly only becomes more and more topical every day. The cast are mostly unknowns, but Sutton’s a real talent, and we’re amped for this one.
“The Eyes Of My Mother”
Synopsis: A Portugese family in a sheltered farmhouse are disrupted by a mysterious visitor.
What You Need To Know: “Christine” isn’t the only movie hailing from the Borderline Films crew at Sundance this year, with Antonio Campos (“Afterschool”), Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and Josh Mond (“James White”) welcoming another filmmaker into their stable, namely Nicholas Pesce. A music video veteran who served as assistant editor on Mond’s film, Pesce makes his feature debut with this lean (just 66 minutes long!) genre-inflected curio, shot in black-and-white. It seems just as singular as some of its Borderline stablemates, but in a very different way, and though I don’t quite know what to make of it right now, I can’t wait to check it out.
“Frank & Lola”
Synopsis: A Las Vegas chef falls for an enigmatic, mercurial young woman.
What You Need To Know: This in no way should be taken as a criticism — in fact, it’s entirely welcome — but Michael Shannon is suddenly everywhere this year. The character actor has no fewer than eleven movies scheduled for release this year, with two at Sundance, and the second, after “Complete Unknown” (see above), is “Frank & Lola.” Written and directed by former film journalist Matthew Ross (no relation to “Captain Fantastic” director Matt Ross, and, full disclosure, a former senior editor at Indiewire, long before our time), the film sees Shannon hopefully doing what Bradley Cooper couldn’t and make a chef character cinematically compelling, while Imogen Poots plays the object of his desire, and Justin Long, Rosanna Arquette and “John Wick”/“Ghost Protocol” villain Michael Nyqvist complete the cast. It’s the kind of movie that could go either way, but given the caliber of the actors involved, I hope it’ll be something special.
“The Free World”
Synopsis: After being freed from prison, a man working in an animal shelter forms a bond with a woman who puts him in a difficult situation.
What You Need To Know: Boyd Holbrook’s become of a Sundance staple in recent years without quite becoming a household name, but the success of Netflix show “Narcos” has put him on the map in a bigger way, which should help bring more eyes to U.S. Dramatic Competition entry “The Free World,” especially as it pairs him with Elisabeth Moss, who only gets better and better with every movie she makes. They’re joined by Octavia Spencer and “Fast & Furious” franchise star Sung Kang in the directorial debut of Jason Lew, an actor who wrote Gus Van Sant’s “Restless.” That film was pretty awful, but I’ve heard some good things about this one, as bleak as it sounds, and in particular about the central performance from Holbrook.