The first major film festival of the year, Sundance continually sets the climate for the ensuing months' cinematic landscape. At last year’s Sundance, for example, the Saoirse-Ronan-led Brooklyn began its 12-month run towards multiple Oscar nominations, while the horror marvel The Witch gave scare lovers something new to obsessively anticipate. (The Witch will finally open nationwide on February 19.)
Sundance is more than its big-deal film unveilings, though. Each year, the Utah-located festival introduces cinephiles to numerous rookie directors who'll quickly become the major studios’ newest directors of interest, like The Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who's now making the blockbuster-guaranteed Kong: Skull Island; Ava DuVernay, who prefaced Selma with the Sundance breakout Middle of Nowhere; and Ryan Coogler, whose Fruitvale Station exploded at Sundance 2013 and led to the young Cali native getting to make Creed.
With this year's Sundance currently in high gear, the latest crop of buzzworthy filmmakers has already emerged, led by actor-turned-director Nate Parker (Beyond the Lights), whose partially self-funded Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of Nation, was just purchased by Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17.5 million. But what about the directorial pair responsible for Daniel Radcliffe's flatulent dead body comedy? Or the writer-director audacious enough to name his first movie How to Tell You're a Douchebag? Or the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival's Nora Ephron Prize winner whose sophomore flick was just picked up by Sony Pictures Classics?
Get familiar with the 2016 Sundance Film Festival's most promising on-the-rise directors by checking out their earlier work, some of which premiered at past Tribeca Film Festival editions.
Director: Nate Parker
At Sundance 2016 with: The Birth of a Nation
Sundance isn’t over yet, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone else in Park City will have a better week than Nate Parker. After receiving a long standing ovation for his behind-the-camera debut, the hard-hitting Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation, the actor-turned-director saw his film set a new record—its $17.5 million sale to Fox Searchlight is, per industry insiders, the highest price tag for any film sale at any festival ever. The days of Nate Parker movies like Beyond the Lights being neglected by the mainstream are over.
Smart money says that Fox Searchlight will hold onto The Birth of a Nation until the fourth quarter of this year, in order to unleash it into the 2016 awards season race. For now, though, you can get a taste of Parker’s directing chops via #AmeriCAN, a 15-minute short that played at a couple of festivals last year and was also a Vimeo Short of the Week in August. #AmeriCAN starts off like your typical PSA before shifting into a racially charged examination of police brutality. Consider it a test run for The Birth of a Nation’s in-your-face social commentary.
DJ Snake and Lil Jon, "Turn Down for What" (music video)
Directors: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
At Sundance 2016 with: Swiss Army Man
You've probably heard about Swiss Army Man, the most divisive movie at Sundance this year, and the one that caused a parade of walk-outs following its world premiere. Apparently the folks who attend Sundance for movies like Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women don't have much patience for a movie in which Paul Dano plays a depressed man who finds a corpse (played by Daniel Radcliffe), makes that stiff his best friend, and rides said stiff like a makeshift wave-runner as Radcliffe’s deceased character farts and sports a massive erection. Go figure.
If you've seen co-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's previous work, though, Swiss Army Man's wildness shouldn’t be a surprise. Case in point: their music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon's raucous party jam "Turn Down for What," set in an apartment complex and focused on manic humping, asses smashing into faces, and, what else, massive erections. You have to admire Kwan and Scheinert's perverse consistency.
Director: Tahir Jetter
At Sundance 2016 with: How to Tell You're a Douchebag
And the winner for "Best Movie Title at Sundance 2016" goes to… How to Tell You're a Douchebag. Surprisingly, though, it's not a documentary about millennials' social media habits. It's the full-length debut from Tahir Jetter, a writer-director from Maryland who graduated from NYU's film school. How to Tell You're a Douchebag points its judgmental fingers at a Brooklyn relationship blogger, who writes for a self-produced site called "Occasionally Dating Black Women," whose misogynistic ways are upended when he falls in love with a beautiful and widely respected author. The buzz out of Sundance is that it’s the rare kind of romantic comedy: an actually good one.
As How to Tell You're a Douchebag continues to build momentum, Jetter's name is going to be discussed with an increased frequency, and those interested in him would be smart to catch up with his earlier short films, namely Frisk. The tense seven-minute drama shows what happens when two undercover and overzealous cops finally pull over a sexually ambiguous youngster who they’ve long been eyeing. Laugh-free and airtight, Frisk shows Jetter's diversity behind the camera.
Earlier this week, news broke that the woman-centric Wall Street drama Equity sold to Sony Pictures Classics after its world premiere at Sundance, meaning Breaking Bad fans will be able to watch Anna "Skyler White" Gunn in a leading film role, something she’s deserved since the AMC drama finished its historic cable run. But the real story with Equity is writer-director Meera Menon, who's now proven that she's the real deal.
Back in 2013, Menon brought her first feature, Farah Goes Bang, to the Tribeca Film Festival. Programmers and attendees alike were knocked sideways by her charming coming-of-age comedy about three Indian-American women in their mid-20s who hit the road to support John Kerry's presidential run and find themselves as the targets of post-9/11 cultural insensitivity. Equally funny and insightful, Farah Goes Bang earned Menon Tribeca's Nora Ephron Prize, the festival's annual award for a "woman writer or director with a distinctive voice."
To better understand English writer-director Jim Hosking's particular brand of weird, just check out his self-made "Meet the Artists" video that accompanies his 2016 Sundance world-premiering Midnight oddity The Greasy Strangler. He's, to put it lightly, quirky, but he's clearly also kind of brilliant. Not unlike Swiss Army Man, the wonderfully titled The Greasy Strangler has polarized Sundance audience, and it's easy to see why. The film centers around an older father/son duo who dress in pink women's sweaters and, as word has it, show their genitals at will while fighting over a woman and dealing with a serial killer. Comparisons to John Waters have been made. Audience members have reportedly fled theaters in disgust.
Hosking's perverted sense of humor is right there in his previous effort, though. Made as part of the 2014 genre anthology ABCs of Death 2, his short film "G is for Grandad" deals with a similar male familial power struggle, except in this case it's the uncomfortable living arrangements shared between a grown man and his grandfather, both of whom are clad in nothing but their tighty-whiteys. It's purely singular comedic madness.
Robert Greene is doing some excellently adventurous things with the art of documentary filmmaking. The ambitious director's latest film is the Tribeca Film Insititute-supported Kate Plays Christine, one of Sundance 2016's most intriguing selections. Indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil plays herself as she attempts to prep for her starring role in a fake biopic about Christine Chubbuck, a mentally disturbed Florida TV news anchor who committed suicide live on the air in 1974. As Greene has put it in recent interviews, Kate Plays Christine takes a pseudo psychological-thriller-esque approach to moral issues surrounding a project as potentially insensitive as a Christine Chubbuck fictionalization.
Which isn't dissimilar to what Greene did for his 2014 debut, the critically acclaimed Actress. The director's first foray into faux biographical filmmaking, it's about former The Wire co-star Brandy Burre's climb back towards a successful career in front of cameras, and how that messes with her sanity. Actress is loose, often very funny, and altogether unsettling thanks to its lead’s fragile psychosis. With Actress and Kate Plays Christine, Greene has put himself right up there with Rodney Ascher (Room 237, The Nightmare) on the frontlines of experimental docu-cinema.
Speaking of Christine Chubbuck, her tragic story is also the basis of NYC filmmaker Antonio Campos' Christine, in which the great and under-appreciated Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck—indeed, Campos' film is exactly what Kate Plays Christine appears to be condemning. But critics' reactions to Christine have been overwhelmingly positive, with Hall's performance and Campos' delicate yet unwaveringly dark handling of Chubbuck's story being singled out.
If Christine lands a big distributor, it could represent Campos' long-awaited and long-deserved breakthrough. As part of the Borderline Films collective (which includes Martha Marcy May Marlene director Sean Durkin and James White director Josh Mond), Campos has established himself as one of the indie scene’s best talents, a burgeoning master at psychologically edgy character studies that evoke Polanski at his best. Campos' sensibilities are on full blast in Simon Killer, starring Brady Corbet as a wayward college graduate whose self-discovery trip to Paris connects him with a kind-hearted prostitute (played by Mati Diep) and prods his inner sociopath.
Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen has a knack for shattering emotions. The indie film community first learned that fact via The Broken Circle Breakdown, the provocative director's look at how a husband/wife musicians duo copes with maintaining their careers in the wake of their young daughter's death. DVDs of the film should come packaged with Kleenex. The Broken Circle Breakdown, which was distributed by Tribeca Films, certainly affected the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, who put the film on their shortlist for the 86th Academy Awards in 2013.
For his follow-up, van Groeningen has returned to familiar territory. Belgica, which just had its world premiere at Sundance, mostly takes place inside the music venue Café Belgica, a suddenly must-get-into hot spot run by two brothers with hard-rocking inner demons of their own. Early reviews say Belgica "doubles down" on everything that made The Broken Circle Breakdown so impactful. In other words, grab some wholesale Kleenex boxes before seeing this one.
Two & Two (2011)
Director: Babak Anvari
At Sundance 2016 with: Under the Shadow
Indiewire's Eric Kohn called Under the Shadow "the first great horror movie" of 2016, which explains why Netflix secured the Midnight selection's streaming rights before Sundance even began.(Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films will release the film in a day-and-date theatrical rollout prior to its Netflix debut.) And following its premiere last Friday night, Iranian writer-director Babak Anvari's feature-length debut has been universally praised and compared to the 2014 Sundance horror sensation The Babadook. In Under the Shadow, a woman fights to keep her daughter safe from both ghosts and Iraqi air raids while her husband is off fighting in the war.
That same thoughtful blend of genre tropes and political commentary also fuel Anvari's impressive 2011 short film Two & Two. Set in an all-male private school’s classroom, Two & Two pulls zero punches on its way to harshly examining the dangers of tyranny and ending in hauntingly bleak fashion.
Tei Shi, "Basically"
Director: Nicolas Pesce
At Sundance 2016 with: The Eyes of My Mother
In addition to Antonio Campos' Christine, the aforementioned Borderline Films team also has The Eyes of the Mother at Sundance, and it sounds like nirvana for horror fans who appreciate artsy weirdness. Shot in black-and-white, NYU graduate Nicolas Pesce's lean, 77-minute debut, about an especially traumatic and nightmarish mother/daughter relationship, has been favorably compared to the New French Extreme horror wave that delivered modern-day classics like Inside, High Tension, and Martyrs.
While Pesce's name is a brand-new one for everyone at Sundance, indie rock listeners might already be familiar with his work. He’s directed a slew of aggressively genre-leaning music videos, the best of which is for Argentine indie pop singer's Tei Shi’s single "Basically," in which she and other ladies get militant while Pesce goes for a Grindhouse-like exploitation look, complete with cigarette burns on the film stock and "Missing Reel" disruptions.
Ballet 422 (2014)
Director: Jody Lee Lipes
Producer: Anna Rose Holmer
At Sundance 2016 with: The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, director) Manchester By the Sea (Jody Lee Lipes, cinematographer)
Where to watch Ballet 422: Netflix
A big hit at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, Jody Lee Lipes' documentary Ballet 422 provided an intimate peek inside the high-pressured world of ballet choreography, specifically following instructor Justin Peck as he created an original piece for the New York City ballet. Lipes' film, produced by Anna Rose Holmer, is more more grounded answer to Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and the Starz original series Flesh and Bone, both of which apply darker genre vibes to the ballet world’s intensity.
This year, Lipes and Holmer are making huge splashes at Sundance. The former is the cinematographer behind the festival’s most buzzed-about premiere, Kenneth Lonergan's drama Manchester by the Sea, which sold to Amazon for a staggering $10 million and is already generating Oscar chatter. Holmes, meanwhile, made her directorial debut with The Fits, a critically adored narrative film about an 11-year-old tomboy (played by breakout talent Royalty Hightower) who gives up boxing to join a dance team right as the dancers begin succumbing to unexpected fainting attacks.
Jack & Diane (2012)
Star: Riley Keough
Producer: So Yong Kim
At Sundance 2016 with: Starz's original series
Where to watch Jack & Diane: Netflix
One of Sundance's most warmly received premieres, director/co-writer So Yong Kim's Lovesong has been put in the same category as Todd Haynes' Carol, which says a lot. Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road) stars as a young mother who’s fallen out of love with her husband and only stays with him because they have a daughter, Jena Malone plays Keough’s character’s best friend. As the film progresses, their characters' longtime best-friendship quietly evolves into mutual romantic affections that they’re both unable to express and publicly share.
The love and intimacy between two women are also the driving forces behind Jack & Diane, Kim's husband Bradley Rust Gray's lesbian horror romance that premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Kim produced the genre hybrid, which stars Lovesong's Riley Keough as half of a young lover duo (along with Juno Temple) whose budding feelings for one another manifest into a beastly werewolf-like creature. Jack & Diane brought Gray and Kim back to Tribeca following their 2009 Festival world premiere The Exploding Girl, for which star Zoe Kazan won Tribeca's Best Actress honor.
You can say this much about Dawn Porter: she's definitely awesome at tapping into the social zeitgeist. The documentarian's latest hot-button pusher is Trapped, a Sundance 2016 world premiere about America’s abortion practices and perceptions, told through the words and experiences of the lawyers, physicians, and women battling for abortion rights.
Porter’s first documentary, Gideon's Army, a 2011 Tribeca All Access grantee, is even more culturally relevant today than it was when she first released it in 2013. Gideon’s Army follows a trio of idealistic and justice-loving lawyers in the Deep South who’ve made it their missions to fight for the court system’s most overlooked and unfairly oppressed defendants. It's basically catnip for those who have already binged Netflix's Making a Murderer and consider themselves part of defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting’s fan clubs.
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