by Pam Grady
Robert Redford thinks it’s possible that his baby, the Sundance Film Festival, has gotten too big for its small-town britches. “Suddenly, this thing was going haywire,” he told the Associated Press.
He’s just noticing that now? Sundance has been a circus for a while, a weird amalgamation of the independent films that the festival was created to celebrate, the filmgoers who love them, celebrities, journalists, socialites, gift houses, sponsor tents and storefronts and parties. Park City’s quaint Main Street on opening weekend can be especially challenging with one restaurant after another closed for private affairs that seem to take Sundance far from its egalitarian roots. If Redford visited Main Street, it’s easy to see why, in this interview, he sounded like Solomon considering sawing the baby in half as he wondered aloud whether it was time to shut the festival altogether or, at least, consider separating the narrative and documentary categories into two festivals. (The answers to those questions are no and no.)
To paraphrase Chinatown, “Forget about it, Bob, it’s Main Street.” Redford needs to back away from the hullabaloo outside the festival and remember that for most of the people who come to Park City in January, braving freezing temperatures, pricey condos and packed shuttles; who know that for all the movies they see during Sundance, there will still be some on the must-see list that they will be shut out of (Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation for this writer); and who come, anyway, because it’s Sundance. For most everyone, it is still about the movies: It’s about the opportunity to see some of this year’s big movies first; to see some titles that will never show outside the festival arena; and to see these movies on the big screen.
That’s what Sundance is all about, and every festival goer’s experience is different. Who needs gift houses when every night at the Eccles, the Egyptian, the Library, the MARC and all of the other screening venues, the lights go down and something wonderful (sometimes something terrible) unreels? For the class of 2016 and this filmgoer, these films are reason enough Redford should let go of what he can’t control and celebrate what he’s created:
The Lure (2015): Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s first feature won a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Unique Vision and Design at the festival, acknowledgment of a dazzling adult fairytale, a genre hybrid melding musical, fantasy, horror and romance in the story of mermaid sisters who go to work in a Warsaw nightclub in the 1980s. The production design and music are superlative in a provocative film that no one will mistake for Splash or The Little Mermaid.
Miles Ahead (2105): Actor Don Cheadle slips into the troubled skin of jazz great Miles Davis and makes an arresting feature-directing and -screenwriting debut in this drama set in the 1970s, after Davis has recorded new music following a five-year layoff but has decided that he would rather not hand it over to his record label. With an aggressive freelance reporter (Ewan McGregor) and a shady promoter (Michael Stuhlbarg) determined to get their hands on Davis’ tape, what starts off as a drama about a brilliant man and his difficult relationships with both his talent and his muse, ex-wife Frances (Emayatzi Corinealdi), erupts into a darkly funny action film.
Cheadle was nominated for an Emmy for his role as Sammy Davis Jr. in the telefilm The Rat Pack and for an Oscar for playing hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina in the ripped-from-the-headlines drama Hotel Rwanda – and he did not want to do another biopic. The solution he and co-screenwriter Steven Baigelman arrived at in tackling Miles Davis was to write a fictional story that would nevertheless get at the essence of the man. It is a brilliantly realized conceit.
Sing Street (2016): Irish writer/director John Carney seems hell-bent on singlehandedly resurrecting the movie musical as he delivers his third in a row, after Once and Begin Again. This is his most energetic, crowd-pleasing film yet – a coming-of-age tale no doubt inspired by his own ’80s-era youth. Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is a delight as a 15-year-old who looks to bands and music videos for style tips as his solution to fitting in at a new school and winning a girl’s heart is to form a group of his own. Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and The Cure are only some of the bands that influence an ever-changing sound and a constantly evolving look. A tremendous film by itself, its appearance at Sundance was made even more special by Walsh-Peelo and co-star Mark McKenna serenading the crowd with a short, acoustic set after the movie screened.
Swiss Army Man (2015): Aka “The Farting Corpse Movie,” this might have been the most contentious film at Sundance. The Daniels — Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan — won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award, vindication after the drama starring Paul Dano as a stranded man and Daniel Radcliffe as the flatulent dead body he finds and befriends split audiences. Think Castaway with a cadaver in place of Wilson the volleyball and without the obnoxious Fed Ex corporate branding. Dano and Radcliffe are among the more adventurous actors of their generation and this offbeat existential comedy gives them plenty of room to play.
Operation Avalanche (2016): Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson riffs on a nearly 50-year-old conspiracy theory in a found-footage mockumentary about a group of young CIA analysts out to fake the first moon landing. Johnson plays the group’s ringleader, blissfully unaware of just how in over his head he is, even as he travels to Shepperton Studios to visit Stanley Kubrick and conspires to pull the wool over the eyes of the entire world. Truly extraordinary visual effects, and Johnson and his team’s field trip to NASA to capture a little covert footage, go a long way toward selling the conceit in a film both smart and funny.
First Girl I Loved: (2016): Writer/director Kerem Sanga left Sundance with the NEXT Audience Award for this delightful coming-of-age tale in which yearbook photographer Anne (Dylan Gelula) falls hard for star softball player Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand). Complicating the situation is Anne’s best friend Clifton (Mateo Arias), whose feelings for her have deepened and who is consumed by jealously. The three leads are absolutely charming in a film that captures heady young love and the confusion of adolescence.
Kate Plays Christine (2016): In 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old Sarasota, Fla., TV news reporter, shot herself live on air. The event was said to have inspired Network, with troubled Christine transformed into Peter Finch’s mad-as-hell newsman Howard Beale. Two films at Sundance reclaim the story for Chubbuck. Antonio Campos’ Christine is a drama starring Rebecca Hall. Kate Plays Christine, which won Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Writing, takes a more unusual approach.
Few of Chubbuck’s shows were taped — although her final broadcast was, at her insistence, footage that has been kept under lock-and-key for four decades — so there is little film of her in existence. That suits Greene just fine as he hires actress Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards, You’re Next) to go through the steps of preparing to play Christine in a nonexistent biopic. The research is impeccable — Sheil talks to people who knew Chubbuck and even visits the store where Christine bought her gun, and buys one herself — but ultimately Chubbuck remains a mystery and it is the actress playing her, her preparation and her qualms about re-enacting Christine’s actions that come into sharp and intriguing focus in a film that blurs the line between reality and drama.
This is just a peek at the riches on screens in Park City this year. The complete Sundance Film Festival program can be viewed and downloaded here.
Pam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.