Sundance Film Festival: 12 Breakthroughs from Park City 2016

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A happy year at Sundance offers forth not a spring of fresh blood, but a geyser.

This was one of those years, where categories were populated with more unheralded faces than usual. Good news for cinema’s next generation; bad news for writers on the ground (like Carlos Aguilar, Maddy Kadish, Kelly Leow and Jeff Meyers), trying to narrow down an annual “Breakthroughs” list.

Shiny new names abound amongst the following 12 entries, but this time around we sprinkled in a handful of what we’re calling “level-uppers”—people whose names film fans already know, but whose work this year constitutes a major step up, a dramatic change of course, or, simply, resounding confirmation of a previously detected well of talent.

Some candidates we considered who didn’t make the final cut were young actors Royalty Hightower (The Fits) and Markees Christmas (Morris from America), director Agnieszka Smoczyńska of Polish genre-bender The Lure, actress Morgan Saylor from White Girl, and actor Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea. Though we had full intentions of include below-the-line contributors, directors and actors as they are obnoxiously wont, monopolized the spotlight this year. We were impressed, though, by people like The Fits’ writer/editor Saela Davis, Christine writer Craig Shilowich and musician Maica Armata, who composed and sang the haunting score for Tim Sutton’s Dark Night (and appears in a couple of memorable scenes). Lastly, though we managed to catch a lot, there was much more we didn’t get to see that would’ve certainly yielded up more candidates for this list.

All that said and done, we’re very excited about the following talents. Look out for them in 2016 and beyond.

Babak Anvari, director, Under the Shadow

Babak Anvari. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Babak Anvari. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Sundance’s Midnight track has unearthed some real cinematic gems, acting as a launchpad for talented filmmakers who know how to transcend the limits of their genre. This year the hands-down stand-out was Babak Anvari’s feature debut Under The Shadow, a low-budget horror flick that marries old-school frights with an urgent feminist subtext. The Iranian-born, British-raised director sets his tense, claustrophobic tale in 1988 Tehran, at the height of the Iran-Iraq War. Shideh (the captivating Narges Rashdi) must keep her daughter safe after her husband is ordered to the front line, but something darker and more sinister than wayward bombs has come to haunt the building—and it wants Shideh’s daughter. Anvari has the patience of a spider as he weaves his web of fully formed characters, creepy mythology, metaphors for female oppression and scream-inducing jump scares. The movie (and its six figure Netflix deal) will undoubtedly catapult this talented young director into bigger things, though whether those will be as artistically ambitious as this Farsi-language fright fest remains to be seen. – Jeff Meyers

The Daniels, directors, Swiss Army Man

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Photographs by Joyce Kim

Beyond the deceptively juvenile fart and penis gags that populate Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s debut feature, Swiss Army Man, is a profoundly existentialist and ultimately life-affirming account of an unorthodox friendship that defies the constraints of mortality. Starring another Daniel (last name Radcliffe) and Paul Dano, this visually revitalizing film confronts the viewer with the very things that prevent us from pursing happiness. Known collectively as The Daniels, the duo is behind unconventional music videos such as the hilarious “Turn Down for What” by DJ Snake and Foster the People’s “Houdini.” Together they present an inspired, fresh voice in the independent moviemaking realm. – Carlos Aguilar

David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, directors, Tickled

David Farrier (photograph by Dylan Reeve) and Dylan Reeve (photograph by Dominic Fryer)

David Farrier (photograph by Dylan Reeve) and Dylan Reeve (photograph by Dominic Fryer)

When is a documentary about tickle fetish subculture not really a film about tickling? When it’s about cyber-bullying, legal intimidation, blackmail and a shadowy sociopath with a bank account big enough to torment anyone who questions his behavior or motives. When Farrier, a New Zealand TV personality, decides to look into Competitive Endurance Tickling for his program, his attempts to connect with a U.S. event’s producer are met with virulently homophobic emails and cease and desist threats from lawyers. Farrier and Reeve follow the trail to Los Angeles, Florida, Michigan and New York, linking together the WTF tactics of a vile boogeyman while exposing the insidious undercurrents of cruelty and desperation that lie beneath a seemingly silly pastime. It’s not every day that cops are called out to a Sundance screening, but even as Tickled played before audiences, one of the film’s subjects was spotted scribbling notes in the dark. When the lights came up, he was gone. To be continued? One can only hope. – J.M.

Lily Gladstone, actress, Certain Women

Lily Gladstone. Photograph by Pete Betcher

Lily Gladstone. Photograph by Pete Betcher

Gladstone was the first and only candidate to play “the Rancher” in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, a character who anchors the third and longest chapter of the feature (and who, in Maile Meloy’s original short story, is actually male). It’s evident why. As a lonely Montana ranch hand who finds herself drawn to the company of a young teacher (Kristen Stewart), Gladstone barely has any lines, but there’s an immense yearning in her body language—slow, stoic—and her large, expressive eyes. The actress, who grew up on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation, has a background in theater, but is garnering indie cred working with directors like Arnaud Desplechin and Sarah Adina Smith. –Kelly Leow

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