The Best and Worst of Sundance 2016, Narrative Edition

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This year’s Sundance Film Festival seemed to get off to a rocky start; maybe it was programming and maybe it was poor choices, but I came out of the first couple of days wondering if it was just going to be a weird, off year, and nothing I was hearing from my colleagues seemed to indicate otherwise. But then a series of great movies unspooled, and we ended up with an embarrassment of riches. Yesterday, we took a look at this year’s crop of documentaries; here’s the best and worst of the rest (what I saw of them, anyway).

THE DISAPPOINTMENTS

Two of this year’s most anticipated titles came from big names in indie cinema: one a longtime legend whose spotty recent output marshaled hopes of a return to form, another a beloved screenwriter/producer stepping into the director’s seat for the first time. So how did that go?

Weiner-Dog

I always go in hoping for the best, even when it comes to a filmmaker like Todd Solondz, who made two straight-up indie masterpieces in the late ‘90s (Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness) and hasn’t made anything worth talking about since. But anyone can get their mojo back; sadly, that doesn’t happen here. Instead, Solondz builds his own echo chamber, filling his film with not only explicit callbacks to Dollhouse but thematic and stylistic lines to Happiness and Storytelling, ending up with less a new or even engaged work than the product of an artist writing his own fan fiction.

Indignation

The directorial debut of James Schamus, the gifted screenwriter of several Ang Lee efforts, is impeccably made: handsomely mounted, intelligently acted, gorgeously photographed. It’s too bad it’s so airless. Schamus, usually a crackerjack adapter, can’t figure out much more to do with Phillip Roth’s novel than staging long, lifeless dialogue scenes (with the notable exception of a corker between our protagonist and his dean, which is so sharply written and played, with its bristling text and seething subtext, it could work as a standalone short). And some of the choices are just plain inexplicable; we see, for example, neither the first nor final interactions of the couple ostensibly at the story’s center. It’s a great-looking movie, but it’s a museum piece, seeming too often to be posed rather than captured.

THAT’S SO SUNDANCE

Captain Fantastic

There’s a particular kind of shaggy, quirky, star-driven indie that’s come to define the “Sundance movie,” and in many ways, Matt Ross’ comedy/drama hits that formula pretty squarely. But Ross also seems aware of those expectations, and the ways he can casually upend them; his story of newly widowed father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) raising his six children off the grid strikes, in scene after scene, precisely the right balance of fascination and admiration with wry cynicism and genuine concern. We’re basically on the father’s side, but Ross underlines the human toll of his unbending will, and the limitations of it as well. Funny and surprisingly raw; it’d have one of the festival’s best endings, if they’d had the nerve to cut it off five minutes earlier.

The Intervention

The debut effort from actor-turned-writer/director Clea DuVall is a sharply written and charmingly acted Big Chill-style couples-on-a-weekend-getaway comedy/drama, with four pairs of longtime friends (well, three pairs and one interloper) converging for what turns out to be a “marriage intervention,” intended to break up the woefully unhappy couple whose constant conflicts have made themselves, and everyone around them, miserable. But DuVall’s crisply constructed screenplay sets up tension in all of the relationships, as the weekend mission ends up underscoring the general difficulty of sustaining love and lust over the long haul. It’s a wise, knowing, and very funny piece of work, and if the takeoff is a bit bumpy and the landing too clean, it’s still a very promising debut from a filmmaker who’s clearly been taking notes on all those sets.

THAT’S SO SUNDANCE (cont.)

Tallulah

Tallulah (Ellen Page) lives in a van, begs truckers for shower tickets, and eats by scavenging; when her boyfriend suggests something crazy like an apartment or jobs or kids, she shuts right off. So it’s a little hard to swallow when, a few days later, she bonds with the baby of a horrible, inattentive rich woman (Tammy Blanchard) and decides to just take the kid with her. Such narrative improbabilities fill Sian Heder’s seriocomic drama, and as a result, the tone is all over the place; it skips from full-on drama to flitty comedy in the blink of an eye, and by the time the ending arrives, the picture has a hard time sustaining its heaviness. But there are moments of sheer magnificence in it, mostly character beats between interesting characters; the dynamic between Tallulah and her onetime employer is rich and heartbreaking, while Page and Allison Janney (as her quickie surrogate mother figure) find just the right notes for their developing bond. It’s a mess of a movie, but that may just be the key to its occasional greatness.

Little Men

The films of Ira Sachs offhandedly resonate with the feel of present-day New York City, and like his previous picture Love Is Strange, his new film is about both the people of the city and, unexpectedly, their real-estate woes. The unspoken topic this time is gentrification, as an upper-class family inherits a Brooklyn building and decides to raise the sweetheart rent of the shop below their apartment — which is unfortunate, as the owner’s son has become their boy’s only friend. It’s not an easy good guy/bad guy situation; both parties have valid points and terrible qualities, which is why the ending is such a disappointment (choosing sides not explicitly, but in who it follows and who it leaves behind). That complaint aside, it’s a warm, honest, mellow movie, and Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, the two young actors at its center, are terrific.

WORLDLY VISIONS

Thanks mostly to limited time on the ground, I rarely make it to as many world cinema titles as I should. But these are worth your time.

The Eyes of My Mother

The overwhelming feeling, throughout Nicolas Pesce’s gripping horror drama, is of unsteadiness and dread — you may not know exactly what’s happening, but you do know it’s nothing good. A young girl witnesses the murder of her mother, unspooling a cycle of violence that extends into her adulthood; as the girl in question, Kika Magalhaes is a revelation, with an exhilaratingly off-balance performance that could seemingly go anywhere, anytime. The disturbing nature of the material is matched only by the stunning mastery of form, from the gorgeous black-and-white photography (finding true beauty in ugliness) to the arresting compositions to the brutally efficient cutting (there’s one hard cut that’s as blunt as a hammer to the head, and nearly as unsettling). Certainly not for everyone — its Sundance reception was a mixture of rhapsody and walk-outs — but unforgettable any way you slice it.

Viva

The beats and arcs of Paddy Breathach’s story of an aspiring drag performer’s strained reunion with his estranged, homophobic father are awfully predictable; you can chart out, with a fair amount of accuracy, how the older man will come to accept or at least understand his son, who will in turn come to humanize this specter/monster. And it hits those beats — right down to the equivalent of the proud-parent-in-the-back-of-the-auditorium scene – but somehow it all plays. Much of this is thanks to Breathatch’s close-to-the-ground aesthetic and the emotional honesty of his performers; when the father explains why he left the young boy and his mother (“to give her some hope”), it’s hard not to go wherever they’ve decided to take you.

NEW TAKES ON STREET STORIES

Two relative newcomers take on what they used to call (and dismiss as) “’hood movies,” with refreshingly inventive approaches.

Sleight

A year ago, Bo (Jacob Latimore) was a scholarship student and amateur magician with a bright future. But after a family tragedy, he’s doing what it takes: working for a cheerful yet ruthless drug dealer (Dule Hull, very good), a side hustle that quickly gets out of his control. J.D. Dillard’s smooth-as-silk crime drama is an efficient piece of work; even if you can feel the dominoes lining up in its first half a bit too neatly, you can’t help but feel for this good guy who’s doing some unquestionably bad things. Latimore puts across the depths of his desperation, and while his romance with Seychelle Gabriel’s Holly is a bit of a drag on the picture’s pace, they’re sweet and likable together. And its climax is a sure-fire crowd pleaser.

The Land

You may have seen movies about desperate poor kids who turn to a life of crime as a way out of the ‘hood, but you’ve never seen one quite like Steven Caple Jr.’s The Land, which sifts the tropes and types of those movies through its own dreamlike, hypnotic lens and subverts them in clever, impressive ways. Exploring Cleveland’s hip-hop/skater subculture via a prowling camera and tilted frames, Caple populates this world with fascinating side characters and lived-in moments; it’s a film whose authenticity is as striking as its style.

THE DARK STUFF

No trip to Park City would be complete without a couple of movies that cause your eyes to wince and your psyche to rattle.

Goat

Andrew Neel’s adaptation of Brad Land’s memoir beings with a haunting and appropriate image: a slow-motion, silent shot of shirtless, handsome white guys screaming. They’re fraternity members, but it takes a while to get to them; first, protagonist Brad (Ben Schnetzer) is assaulted and robbed after a party, and Neel lingers on the horror of that attack to emphasize what it’s really about: power. That dynamic, its shifts and psychology, is the real subject here – not just in the hazing rituals of “hell week,” which are harrowing, disgusting, and horrifying, but in the subtler narratives about how that perception of strength draws, to them, the kind of emotional weaklings they can more easily prey upon. There’s a lot to unpack, is the point, and Goat’s bracing (yet never preachy) indictments of toxic masculinity are its best quality.

Christine

Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer) takes a more traditional, narrative approach to the life of Christine Chubbuck than that of accidental documentary counterpart Kate Plays Christine , though this isn’t exactly a conventional account, either; set during the last few months of Chubbuck’s life, Christine observes, methodically, a slow and seemingly inevitable breakdown. Rebecca Hall is searing as Chubbuck, her dour line readings and awkward physicality seeming at first to manifest a perfectionism and dissatisfaction, slowly revealing her barely suppressed depression. As those feelings come to consume her, Campos traps her into this world with candy-colored sets, optimistic pop songs blasting from radios, claustrophobic close-ups, and a driving, relentless score; we know where this story is going, and he knows we know. It suffers a bit in comparison to the somewhat more daring Kate, but nonetheless, it’s a forceful piece of work, and Hall is next-level great.

WORST OF THE FEST (runner-up)

The Free World

Elisabeth Moss is at her bleary-eyed best and Boyd Holbrook marshals an impressively physical performance, but both go to waste in this hoary, predictable Southern melodrama. What begins as a lead-footed trod through Rectify territory turns clumsily into a lovers-on-the-run story, as Jason Lew’s script scatters in clumsy metaphors, inexplicable actions, cliché-ridden dialogue, and head-scratching Tarantino-esque pop culture references. The pair get a good byplay going, and a couple of individual scenes sing, but overall, it’s a creaky mess.

WORST OF THE FEST

The 4th

Writer/director Andre Hyland stars as Jamie, a regular dude who’s just trying to throw a Fourth of July cookout, but his trip to buy lighter fluid is waylaid by a series of misfortunes. The one-crazy-day-in-LA framework makes it sound like another Tangerine, and it sort of is – if everyone in that movie were utterly loathsome. Hyland’s character and performance are immediately off-putting, and the supporting characters are equally hateable, and I know, I know, the move now is to make comedies like The Comedy that are just about making people uncomfortable and annoyed and so on, but you can keep ‘em. There are, admittedly, a few scattered laughs, but it’s mostly just exhausting; in the words of the old “rando” ejected from their cookout, “What a buncha hipster douchebags, Jesus Christ.” Amen to that.

BEST OF THE FEST (runner-up)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Writer/director Taiki Waititi’s follow-up to What We Do in the Shadows is admirably divergent, an eccentric adventure story in which an ill-advised grief and bonding trip to the New Zealand bush turns into a months-long manhunt. Sam Neill is tartly funny as gruff “Uncle Hec,” while Julian Dennison gets a star-marking turn as his foster son. Waititi keeps the gags coming at a furious clip, and while it’s not exactly a spoof, he drolly swipes the visual language and musical sense of action movies and survival flicks to properly frame the absurdity. It’s all light and zippy and amusing as hell, with just enough of a little dab of pathos at the end.

BEST OF THE FEST

10. Love and Friendship

If you skipped the opening credits, you might not even know that Whit Stillman’s new film was a Jane Austen adaptation — it’s a lesser-known work (a novella published nearly a century after its writing), but more than that, despite his previous lack of work set earlier than the 1970s, Stillman’s style and voice translate to Georgian England with little to no adjustment. He comes up with a light, witty, endlessly quotable story of a recent widow (Kate Beckinsale, never better) and her quest to attain suitors for herself and her daughter that will keep them living in the style they’re used to. Gorgeously executed and richly acted — with a bench of supporting players to die for.

9. Rams

When Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) takes his prize ram to an animal competition and wins second place in the opening scenes of Grímur Hákonarson’s comedy/drama, it’s a particularly bitter pill to swallow; he doesn’t lose to just a barely better ram, but one owned by his brother Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), who lives on the farm next door and hasn’t spoken to him in 40 years. Their long-buried rivalry comes to a head in the months that follow, as that prize winner is diagnosed with a deadly and infectious disease that can only be stopped by slaughtering their stock. “This is going to be a hell of a winter,” says Kiddi, when their silence is finally broken (albeit in the midst of a physical assault). “No sheep. Just the two of us!” This small, peculiar story becomes strangely involving; it’s a movie that sneaks up on you, right up to the bursting-dam emotion of its extraordinary closing scenes.

BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)

8. Operation Avalanche

For a certain kind of movie lover (you know who you are), there’s something deeply comforting about the opening moments of Matt Johnson’s found-footage conspiracy thriller, all beat-up old film, scratchy leader, archival footage, the soundtrack consumed by hisses and pops. Slowly, the gimmick reveals itself: this film was shot by the CIA’s A/V team, initially sent to NASA in the guise of a documentary film crew to find a Russian mole in the midst of the race to the moon, only to cook up a certain conspiracy to fake the moon landing. It’s a clever idea, beautifully executed — the footage is convincingly period, and the scenes of them working through the specifics (creating and fixing the iconic images, workshopping Armstrong’s first line) are a hoot. But Johnson also rises above the cute stuff, creating real conflicts, relationships, and tension, and paying them all off.

7. Morris From America

This story of a young black man (the wonderful Markees Christmas) coming into his own in Germany flirts with familiar territory: fish out of water, coming-of-age, cruelty of other kids, etc. But writer/director Chad Hartigan (This Is Martin Bonner) inserts some welcome ripples, from the shady motives of the girl he falls for to the candid handling of his sexual awakening. Best of all is the relationship with his single dad (Craig Robinson, putting across his considerable warmth and good humor — and in multiple languages), which is handled with far more richness and depth than the typical teenage movie. It’s a charming picture, but it takes no shortcuts to easy happy endings.

BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)

6. Embrace of the Serpent

Director/co-writer Cico Guerra crafts a gorgeous and often troubling story of an Amazonian shaman and the two white scientists he leads to a sacred plant, 40 years apart. The stories are told simultaneously, and often unpredictably; each strand is so rich and involving, you forget about the other – until they become inextricably intertwined. It sometimes booms too loudly with the echoes of other films; the Herzog influence becomes even clearer when the record player comes out, and the 2001-lite ending is a bit much. But it’s a fascinating work, filled with unforgettable images and narrative daring.

5. The Fits

Muted yet bold, tiny yet audacious, Anna Rose Holmer’s intimate drama concerns Toni, an 11-year-old tomboy who quietly joins the dance team at the community center where she’s previously spent her afternoons working out and boxing. There’s not an abundance of dialogue, and what there is, is mostly extemporaneous and overheard; Holmer primarily tells her story in the brute strength of her imagery, the way the camera regards Toni as a solitary figure, even when among other people, and then subtly shifts that perspective as she finds herself in a period of discovery and reinvention. Oh, and then her dance teammates start having peculiar, unexplained seizures, a narrative shift that somehow doesn’t dismantle the delicate tonal foundation. It’s the kind of film that’s almost inexplicable – I’m not sure how it was devised, or how it was executed. But I’m glad it exists.

BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)

4. Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt isn’t known as a filmmaker in any particular hurry, and true to form, her latest drama – a trilogy of barely connected stories, adapted from the short fiction of Maile Meloy – is deliberately paced, less interested in action or even conversation than what’s happening between the lines. They may connect, and share certain thematic links, but these play very much as short stories: small destinations and small truths, patiently and sensitively rendered.

3. Green Room

This tense, claustrophobic thriller from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) is grisly, sweaty, scary stuff, but it’s not all empty scares and thrills; his airtight script has the efficiency of a Swiss watch, from the economy of his transitions to the desperation of the conflict to the ingenious utility of the characters (and the bluntness with which he dispatches them). “This… is a nightmare,” one of them despairs, late in the proceedings, and the picture unfolds with the appropriate logic: no easy escapes, no tidy endings, only evil on the other side of a door, all but daring you to come out and dance.

BEST OF THE FEST (cont.)

2. Sing Street

The thesis statement of the latest musical charmer from John Carney (Once, Begin Again) comes early, as a laugh line, as Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and his brother (Jack Reynor) watch a Duran Duran video on Top of the Pops, in Dublin circa 1985. “I mean, what tyranny could stand up to that?” the sibling asks incredulously, and over the course of its rhapsodic 100 minutes, Sing Street argues that every form of tyranny to a 15-year-old — the loneliness of the new kid in school, the bullying of knuckle-headed classmates, the intimidation of a beautiful girl who’s out of your league, the sadness of your parents splitting up, and the misery of knowing you’re in a nowhere place there’s no way out of — crumples in the face of music, of its joy and creativity and boundless possibilities and the way it can become your perfect fantasy version of both your art and your life. The way this movie made me feel, at the climaxes of its second and third acts, is what I come up to this goddamn mountain in the middle of January for.

1. The Birth of a Nation

Actor Nate Parker makes an astonishingly assured debut as a writer/director with this searing, smashing, emotionally wrecking dramatization of the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831. That event is cinematic dynamite, but Parker doesn’t rush it, or cheapen it; he patiently recreates this world, the brutality and horror that were their everyday lives, the spreading of gospel that first sustained Turner, and then turned him. By turns haunting, bracing, and crushing, it’s a film decades overdue, yet simultaneously right on time.