In its current and most recognizable iteration, that affiliated with Robert Redford, the Sundance Film Festival dates back to 1991, which means that many filmmakers who presented their earliest works at the festival are now cohabiting with a newer generation they’ve likely influenced. Included in that year’s lineup were novices Todd Haynes and Richard Linklater, alongside Barbara Kopple, who had already won an Oscar for Harlan County, USA, and canonical documentarians the Maysles. This juxtaposition of emerging and well-known has been a tenet of the festival since its inception.
The influence of the films from that year’s lineup was manifest in 2016. Sometimes obviously: Kiki, a lively and timely documentary broaching New York’s voguing scene is clearly indebted to Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking Paris is Burning (1991). Sometimes theoretically: actor Nate Parker’s directorial debut The Birth of a Nation, a biopic of slave rebellion-leader Nat Turner (which I was unable to see) made headlines for its record-setting acquisition to the tune of $17.5 million, and perhaps recalls Julie Dash’s groundbreaking Daughters of the Dust (1991), the first-ever theatrically released film directed by an African-American woman, which chronicles the northward diaspora of South Carolinian women circa 1900.
Many filmmakers who debut at the festival consider it a home. Case in point Kelly Reichardt, whose Certain Women was the standout in a year that included a restoration of her first film, River of Grass, which premiered at the festival 22 years prior.
An adaptation of three short stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women is a quiet and profound film that chronicles the female experience as told in fragments. The film’s sprawling vignette-like structure follows women at subtly transformative periods in their life, allowing each member of an exceptional ensemble to shine. Laura Dern’s frustrated lawyer to a disgruntled client (a superb Jared Harris) sets the subtly feminist tone early, as the character wonders if she would have to repeat her expert counsel as often to her client were she a man (this double standard was unknowingly reiterated during the Q&A when a man asked Reichardt if she had trouble maintaining a critical eye while juggling her roles as editor/writer/director—would anyone ask that of Paul Thomas Anderson?). Reichardt regular Michelle Williams shines as the misunderstood matriarch of a family who fails to recognize her contribution, and Lily Gladstone, a native of the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana, is the film’s true revelation as a native woman who befriends and harbors feelings for her teacher, an also great Kristen Stewart.
New Yorker Ira Sachs, whose debut film The Delta played the festival in 1997, returned with Little Men, a heartbreakingly affectionate look at friendship, love and family, featuring the festival’s two breakout performances by young Theo Taplitz and Jake Barbieri. It’s nice to see Kate Beckinsale do something other than fighting vampires, as she was afforded a too-rare chance to show her lucid comic timing by reteaming with Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, 1990) for Love & Friendship, an unlikely and winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s early novella. Black comedy purveyor Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, 1996) was warmly greeted for Wiener-Dog, his best film in almost 20 years, which features an inspired cast including Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, and Zosia Mamet, a highlight in a rare dramatic role.
Some of the festival’s other best films arrived courtesy of first-time or early-career filmmakers hailing from Brooklyn. Antonio Campos’s Christine tells the true story of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota television journalist who committed suicide on live television. It’s perhaps the film that has lingered most, thanks in large part to Rebecca Hall’s virtuoso performance and the impending sense of dread cultivated by Campos’s roaming camera and impeccable early-70s period detail. Tim Sutton unleashed his Elephant-like depiction of American gun violence Dark Night, a gorgeously elegiac fictional accounting of the Aurora theater shooting. Nicolas Pesce’s singularly macabre Eyes of My Mother, filmed in stunning black and white, is sure to be a hit hit among genre enthusiasts, while Suited, an HBO documentary about a Brooklyn-based clothier catering to the queer community, redefines the term retail therapy, and will elicit many tears of joy and empathy.
The most welcome corporate presence at Sundance this year (of which there were many) was Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform that is single-handedly revolutionizing the world of American independent cinema. Fourteen films supported by their service (including Maya Angelou and Still I Rise, River of Grass, and Spa Night, to name a few) were in play, including Nuts!, Penny Lane’s uproariously unique animated docuhistory of “Dr.” John Brinkley, notorious for pioneering the transplantation of goat testicles to cure male impotency. While his story may start in an unlikely fashion, it soon becomes something fascinating and altogether unexpected, and no less than a curio of 20th-century Americana. Lane’s clever direction and Coen Brothers-esque storytelling approach distinguishes the film from the festival’s many other documentaries.
I was slightly cooler than most on Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, a terrifically masculine look at grief and the rebuilding of self that, in my seemingly lone opinion, suffers from an inconsistent tone and distractingly jumpy structure, but all in all Sundance 2016 was a lineup filled with mostly hits. Be on the lookout for The Lure, a Polish film by first time director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, that absolutely corners the market on mermaid horror musicals.