Held predominantly in Park City, Utah, Sundance may be the biggest and most important film festival in the United States for a couple of reasons. One, it takes place very early in the year and two, it often creates the first buzz for films that may end up blowing up later in the year. Some popular titles that you may know, such as Dope, Dear White People, Fruitvale Station and Beasts of the Southern Wild, got their starts at Sundance. As this was my first year attending the festival, I have nothing to compare my experience to, but I will say that I saw quite a few good films while in Utah.
Here are a few that you should keep an eye out for in the coming year:
Who: Director Nate Parker
What: The Birth Of A Nation. The film is the story of Nat Turner, a slave in America who leads a violent liberation movement in Virginia.
Why: The Birth Of A Nation was easily the most talked about film of Sundance. Personally, as a member of the press, I budgeted two plus hours to stand in line to see the film at a screening that was specifically for members of the press and film industry. I made it into the screening, but I was not the first, second or third person in line. From what I recall, by the time we were allowed to file into the theater, the queue was probably five rows deep. If for nothing else, The Birth Of A Nation absolutely deserves accolades regarding the outstanding performance by director/co-writer Nate Parker. Other notable performances include that of Aja Naomi King (How To Get Away With Murder) and a voiceless cameo by Gabrielle Union (Being Mary Jane). Considering its subject matter, it is a tough watch and is definitely a film I may never look at again, but at the very least, I absolutely recommend seeing it for Parker’s performance and a few really stunning symbolic images. Additionally, The Birth Of A Nation won big at Sundance with the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, all after making festival history by selling to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million. This film will no doubt get a lot of attention in the next year, so look out for its release.
Who: Director Rokhsareh Ghaeemmaghami
What: Sonita. A documentary about Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghan teenage girl who, instead of giving in to the tradition of being sold as a bride, becomes a rapper who speaks out against forced marriage.
Why: We find out early on that Sonita’s family plans to sell her to an unknown husband for $9,000. While this may be difficult for us to understand, it is a huge part of the culture in Afghanistan. Disinterested in continuing tradition, Sonita follows the title character as she rebels in one of the most creative and ultimately effective ways possible. The film’s title character is inspiring and a joy to watch and the documentary creates another interesting layer when the filmmaker becomes involved in the situation. If you’re not here for the oppression of the patriarchy and you like to see strong women win, this film’s for you. Sonita was awarded both the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and the World Cinema Audience Award for a Documentary. Watch the trailer below:
Who: Director Tahir Jetter
What: How To Tell You’re A Douchebag. Set in NYC, the film is about a blogger named Ray Livingston who was once a “nice guy”, but got his heart broken and transformed into the absolute worst guy to date or even befriend.
Why: More than anything, HTTYAD is funny and very relatable. If you’re a Millennial who is dating right now, this film is for you. I think I connected with this film because I’m a woman and it does not go easy on the behavior of the title character. Ladies, you have dated/are dating a guy like this and the film is about the most accurate representation of a modern douchebag that I’ve seen yet. Review in more depth here.
Who: Director Spike Lee
What: Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall. The title is pretty self-explanatory, but the documentary explores Michael Jackson’s career and creative development from his time as a member of The Jackson 5 at Motown to his transition out of the legendary label, into early adulthood and during the making and release of his debut game-changing solo album, Off The Wall. The story is conveyed through the perspectives of Quincy Jones and others who were present during this monumental period – via both archival footage and present day interviews – as well as notable contemporary artists such as Lee Daniels, Mark Ronson, John Legend and Questlove.
Why: Spike is known for his good and bad narrative joints, but his documentary projects are his most consistently good work. This film is full of great, rare footage that any and all Michael Jackson fans will love. Air date and review in more depth here.
Who: Director Richard Tanne, producer + star Tika Sumpter
Why: Sumpter is a believable, enjoyable Michelle Robinson, but Sawyers as a young Barack Obama is excitingly spot on. Southside With You is often a slow, dialogue-heavy burn, but when the on-screen Michelle and Barack really connect, that fire that we know and love radiates. No couple will ever be as cute as the real POTUS + FLOTUS, but Sumpter and Sawyers get pretty damn close.
Who: Director Anna Rose Holmer
What: The Fits. Simply put, Toni (newcomer Royalty Hightower) is a tomboy boxer who joins an after school dance team. Starting with the team captain, many girls on the team begin to experience strange spells consisting of shaking, moaning, fainting and the like. Unsure of where these are coming from or what is causing them, these dreaded episodes soon come to be called “the fits”.
Why: Rarely have I seen young Black girls in a coming-of-age story being portrayed in a light I recognize. Holmer’s direction of her young cast paints them as I remember my friends and myself – sweet, silly, and wondrous. The Fits has an amazingly talented cast that delivers nuanced performances that are an absolute joy to watch. Things get strange at the end, but I loved the characters and direction so much, I’m willing to watch the film again to see if I can figure out what the director is saying. Watch the teaser below:
Who: Director Don Cheadle
What: Miles Ahead. This is Don Cheadle’s directorial debut and a not-really-a-biopic about jazz icon Miles Davis.
Why: It’s Don Cheadle. At this point, you shouldn’t even question seeing a film with Don Cheadle in it. Additionally, the film is very unique as it pertains to screenwriting, pacing and editing. More than anything, it is a fun watch. Review in more depth here.
Who: Director + cast member Clea DuVall
What: The Intervention. DuVall wrote, directed and acted in this story of several couples who learn a great deal about themselves while on a trip that begins as a mission to convince one couple to divorce.
Why: First and foremost, this film is hilarious! DuVall successfully writes, directs, and amplifies the talents of a naturally comedic cast. To boot, Melanie Lynskey won the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for an Individual Performance.
Who: Director Sian Heder
What: Tallulah. The film is about a young homeless girl (Ellen Page) who finds herself accidentally babysitting a toddler and then taking it upon herself to assume care and guardianship for said toddler.
Why: Also starring the always awesome Allison Janney, this is a very unique film that dramatically and comedically straddles the line of right and wrong. Although these aren’t my favorite roles for Janney and Page, the story is nearly always engaging and is, overall, a good watch. Additionally, Netflix couldn’t even wait ’til Sundance started to snatch this film up. The distribution activity at Sundance this year has been endlessly fascinating.
Who: Executive producer John Legend and WGN America
What: Underground. This isn’t a film, but it is something you should look out for. Simply put, Underground is a 10-episode, one hour show about a brave group of men and women who come together to organize an epic escape towards freedom via the Underground Railroad.
Why: It’s an excellent show! Air date and more information here.
– Khylen Steward, CBS Local