Fun fact: During its first three years (when it was still referred to by the bland moniker of the Utah/US Film Festival), the Sundance Film Festival was held in late summer/early fall. It was moved to January, the story goes, at the suggestion of filmmaker and early supporter Sydney Pollack, under the theory that Hollywood types were more likely to come when the skiing was good. Yes, that’s right, there was a time when they were looking for ways to lure people to Sundance. I like to recall this little tidbit when I’m trudging through the snow and slush of a miserable Utah winter – but it’s also tough to imagine it any other way, as the January placement makes Sundance the starter pistol for the year in film, debuting dozens of the titles we’ll spend the rest of 2016 talking about. Here are a few of the ones we’re looking forward to most.
Kelly Reichardt and Sundance go way back – her debut feature, River of Grass, premiered there in 1994, and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize (that film, which hasn’t been all that easy to track down in the years since, will see a revival screening at this year’s festival ahead of a theatrical re-release in March). And she’s also cultivated a collaboration with Michelle Williams, who starred in her 2008 film Wendy and Lucy and her 2010 effort Meek’s Cutoff. This year, those relationships merge in Park City with the world premiere of her latest feature, based on Maile Meloy’s short story collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Did I mention Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart are in it too? Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart are in it too.
Love & Friendship
Another reunion we’ve been itching for, as writer/director Whit Stillman re-teams with his Last Days of Disco stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny for this adaptation of the early, initially unpublished Jane Austen novel Lady Susan. Their early collaboration was about the extent of Stillman’s work in period pieces (it was set in the early ‘80s); it should be interesting to see how his distinctive, upper-crust wit melds with Austen’s. Seems pretty safe to say it’ll be a good match.
The Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker’s been quietly doing great work for years, in small films like Beyond the Lights, Arbitrage, Red Tails, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Birth marks his feature debut as writer/director, and he certainly isn’t playing it safe; provocatively swiping the title of D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist Reconstruction epic, he stars as Nat Turner, who led the most successful slave rebellion in US history. Gabrielle Union, Armie Hammer, and Jackie Earle Haley co-star.
Like Parker, Clea DuVall is an actor who always livens up anything she pops into; she too is making her debut effort as writer/director, in the story of a group of friends whose intervention in a toxic relationship turns unsurprisingly inward. Appropriately enough, DuVall lined up an ensemble of similarly delightful actors, including Ben Schwartz, Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall, Alia Shawkat, Melanie Lynskey, Jason Ritter, and last year’s Belle of Sundance, Cobie Smulders.
Erykah Badu, Michael K. Williams, Machine Gun Kelly, Linda Emond, and a cast of up-and-comers front this story of Cleveland skateboard kids who get in way over their heads when a bag of illicit drugs falls into their hands. In the broad strokes, it sounds like one of last year’s buzziest titles, Dope; word is this one is chilling, tough, and powerful, and frankly, I’m always up to see Badu flex her considerable acting muscle.
Personal story: my very first year at Sundance, lost and confused and feeling more than a little out of my element, I recognized the kind-looking fellow in line ahead of me from his brief appearance in Chasing Amy (and in the behind-the-scenes documentary about Kevin Smith’s first film, Clerks) and struck up a conversation. His name was Bob Hawk, and was about as nice as a person can be, bursting with boundless enthusiasm over the great movies he’d seen, anxious for recommendations and thoughts on those he hadn’t. I see him every year, at this and other fests, and it’s easy to understand why he’s such a fine subject for a documentary; since the late 1970s, he’s championed small films and first-time filmmakers, helping shape and mold the indie scene he’s so deeply in love with, and directors JJ Garvine and Tai Parquet gathered up many of those he’s nudged along the way to sing his praises.
Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me follow-up Margaret was one of the most contentiously complicated releases of recent years, appearing in theaters something like six years after its completion, and 11 years after his debut. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait nearly that long for his latest, which returns to the familiar territory of strained familial dynamics and the ramifications of tragedy. Kyle Chandler, Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, and Michelle Williams star.
Look, it’s been a while since Todd Solondz was firing on all cylinders, and though it’s being situated as a semi-sequel to his Sundance Grand Jury prize winner Welcome to the Dollhouse, his latest seems less inspired by that classic than Life During Wartime, his ill-conceived recast-everyone sequel to Happiness. But he’s put together a cast that includes Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, Ellen Burstyn, Zosia Mamet, Danny DeVito, and Kieran Culkin, so yeah, this one gets the benefit of the doubt.
Christine / Kate Plays Christine
“I have a lot of friends down in Sarasota,” says a costume designer, early in Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine. “I asked them all about it. They had never heard of her.” The “her” in that statement is Christine Chubbuck, the Florida television anchorwoman who shot herself on live television in 1974, and if nothing else, most everyone in Park City next week will have heard of her – she’s the subject of two separate, stylistically divergent features. Kate is a documentary/dramatization hybrid, somewhat in the style of Greene’s groundbreaking Actress, tracking indie stalwart Kate Lyn Sheil as she researches and plays the role, and wrestles with its implications. Christine is a more straightforward dramatization (with Rebecca Hall in the role of Chubbuck), though in the hands of moody, challenging director Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer), “straightforward” is probably a stretch. The films certainly came together independently, so while their side-by-side Sundance play dates are an odd coincidence, it should be fascinating to see how these gifted filmmakers tackle the same subject.