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birth of a nation sundance.jpg

What Are the Movies Everyone's Talking About at This Year's Sundance?

By Rebecca Pahle | Lists | January 28, 2016 |

By Rebecca Pahle | Lists | January 28, 2016 |

Sundance is that time of year all the fancy film people you know lose their minds about movies that everyone who isn’t at Sundance won’t be able to see for up to another year. It’s impossible to tell which of the 123 films playing at the 2016 edition of the fest, running now through January 31st, will be able to parlay their Sundance buzz to wider theatrical success—for every Little Miss Sunshine, there’s a Hamlet 2—but still, for those with an interest in film, it’s useful to keep an eye on the breakout success stories. Here are the big ones.

The Birth of a Nation
Just as the discussion surrounding diversity in the film industry gets a boost due to the second straight year of #OscarSoWhite, Birth of a Nation rolls into Park City and starts turning heads. Actor Nate Parker (The Great Debaters, Red Tails) told his agents after wrapping production on Beyond the Lights that he wouldn’t do another movie until he had the chance to play Nat Turner, the leader of a 1831 slave revolt. Two years later, he’s not only starring in, but also directed and wrote, The Birth of a Nation. The film deliciously takes its title from D.W. Griffith’s infamous 1915 historical epic, which casts post-Civil War African Americans as violent, power-hungry boors and the KKK as heroes. Parker’s Birth was purchased by Fox Searchlight for a reported $17.5 million, which (if the figure is accurate) makes the film the biggest acquisition in Sundance history.

Swiss Army Man
This is the “Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse” movie that prompted walkouts and the best headline Variety has ever published. Paul Dano stars as a man stranded on a desert island who uses the gaseous qualities of a corpse to help him escape. You’d never know it, but it’s apparently quite the bizarre little film. It’s not going to have the wide-ranging commercial prospects of previous Sundance breakouts like Little Miss Sunshine or Precious, but if it’s as weird as people say, it could develop a cult following.

This Todd Solondz film, a quasi-companion to his 1995 cult classic Welcome to the Dollhouse that involves several stories connected by the presence of a daschund, has proven one of the most controversial of the festival. The ending, in particular, has some decrying the film as pretentious, mean-spirited twaddle (let’s bring that word back, y’all); all I know about it is that it involves some sort of harm coming to the eponymous dog, so that’s a nope from me.

It’s a different ween this time. Switch out the dachsund for former Congressman Anthony Weiner, whose 2013 bid to become New York City’s major was derailed by a sexting scandal. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg had access to Weiner as his political implosion was going down (not like that, you pervs); the result, says Jordan Hoffman at Vanity Fair, is “one of the best campaign films ever made.” Weiner’s already been the subject of some controversy, with the directors denying rumors that footage unfavorable to Hillary Clinton (Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is one of her top advisors) was cut from the film due to political pressure.

Sing Street
Writer/director John Carney had one Sundance megasuccess back in 2007 with the indie Irish musical Once, and now he’s aiming for another with the ’80s-set Sing Street. Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo stars as Conor, a scrappy Irish young’un who starts a band in order to woo an older girl. This feel-good coming of age tale is reportedly peppered with Back to the Future references and the musical stylings of bands like Duran Duran and The Cure, so count me in. Here’s the trailer, so you can get a better sense of it:

Manchester by the Sea
Word on the street is that this one will make you sob like a motherfucker. The perpetually underappreciated Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a “brooding, irritable loner” tasked with raising his teenage nephew after the sudden death of Lee’s brother (Kyle Chandler). Its writer/director is one Kenneth Lonergan, whose last film, Margaret was famously the subject of years-long legal shenanigans after one of its financiers tried to hijack it with his own alternate edit. The film eventually slunk into theaters and came to be regarded by many as an unheralded classic. Things are looking more promising for Manchester, which was acquired by Amazon for a reported $10 million. A theatrical release is planned.

Love & Friendship
Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) directs this adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, a comedy of manners about a widow (Lady Susan) trying to secure husbands for herself and her daughter (Morfydd Clark). Disco’s Chloë Sevigny co-stars, as do Xavier Samuel, Stephen Fry, Tom Bennett, and Shameless’ Emma Greenwell. I stopped watching Shameless after Joan Cusack left, because any piece of media without Joan Cusack isn’t really worth my time, but I assume me tearing at my hair and yelling about how Mandy deserves better is still accurate, right?

Morris from America
Newcomer Markees Christmas already won the karmic lottery once when he was named “Markees Christmas,” and now he does it again by starring in Morris in America, a coming-of-age comedy that already sold to A24 for a rumored seven figures. Christmas stars as Morris, a 13-year-old African American boy who struggles to adjust after he and his father (Craig Robinson) move to a predominantly white city in Germany.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
It’s a road trip comedy from What We Do In the Shadows director Taika Waititi. Do I even need to tell you anything else to catch your attention? Here’s a short trailer. And yes, that is Sam Neill, aka the person a theoretical blogger named Rebecca had her first crush on when Jurassic Park came out. Jeff who? Look, nine year old me was very sophisticated.