After three exalted decades, Sundance maintains its spot on the international film festival circuit as the premiere U.S. event of the year, bringing some of the most visionary contemporary moviemakers to Park City, Utah.
In fact, if you’re reading this, you’re most likely either at the festival (we’ll buy you a drink), licking tender rejection wounds (chin up—there’s always next year), or dreaming up the screenplay that will one day spit you out onto these hallowed, snowy streets.
This year, the festival, long known for moody and broody offerings, has programmed more comedies than ever. It seems a lightness of spirit will be in the cold air, with films like The Overnight (a playdate-gone-wrong romp from Patrick Brice, who brought the comedy-horror Creep to South by Southwest last year) and Sean Baker’s Tangerine (a revenge tale of a working girl and the pimp who scorned her). To add another twist, we’ll be seeing some comedy vets step into the dramatic light. Kristen Wiig is in two dramatic features this year (Diary of a Teenage Girl and Nasty Baby) and Sarah Silverman will lead I Smile Back, about a woman on the edge of self-destruction.
“Because comedians have an inherent ability to observe human nature and the roots of desire,” says John Cooper, festival director, “they are well suited to taking on more complex personas.”
As for Slamdance, the 21-year-old festival has come of age in a major way, with more expansive themes this year than usual. “More than other years, we’ve got vast, crazy subjects,” festival director Anna Germanidi says. Hilary Campbell, festival coordinator, talks about the intense emotions anchoring their slate: “There are a lot of comeback stories, like Ryan Wise’s I am Thor and Jeremy Royce’s 20 Years of Madness.” (Campbell calls the latter a top pick.)
What else is a good bet at Slamdance? According to Germanidi, the shorts are where tomorrow’s marquee names are duking it out today. “Slamdance has always been adept at finding new talent through shorts—Benh Zeitlin came to Slamdance with short films.” (She names “Viking,” “Salt,” “A Tenista,” and “Running Seasons” as narrative shorts to look out for.)
By necessity, the following list is assembled more anecdotally than scientifically: using moviemakers’ previous work, intriguing plots, caliber of actors, and insider tips from personal sources. So with these selections as a starting point, you can begin plotting your Park City schedule.
Bob and the Trees (dir. Diego Ongaro)
Sometimes small stories make the biggest impact, and this fictionalized tale of Bob Tarasuk, a real logger in rural Massachusetts, is primed to do just that. Part of Sundance’s NEXT program, Bob and the Trees is the feature debut from Diego Ongaro, who co-wrote the script with his novelist wife, Courtney Maum, and filmmaker Sasha Statman-Weil. Bob is a 50-year-old logger with a soft spot for golf and gangster rap, struggling to make ends meet in a changed economy. Alongside co-DPs Danny Vecchione and Sundance vet Chris Teague (Obvious Child, Appropriate Behavior) on two Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras, Ongaro wanted “to capture how bleak and never-ending the winters [in Massachusetts] can be.” He and Teague collaborated on the short film of the same name back in 2010, as well, and the feature, which similarly blends documentary and fiction, expands on Bob’s compelling narrative. “But don’t get me wrong,” Ongaro says. “This isn’t a documentary; this is a feature that uses documentary storytelling tools to tell a narrative film.”
Take Me to the River (dir. Matt Sobel)
“My family, like many, is a complex web of secret alliances and unspoken feuds, the origins of which no one can even recall, let alone agree upon,” says Matt Sobel, a first-time feature director hailing from San Jose. So it’s no surprise that the idea for Take Me to the River came from Sobel’s annual familial truce-slash-reunion. In the film, Logan Miller plays a naïve California teen who visits family in Nebraska for a reunion. Aiming to stay out of the drama, he’s unwittingly pulled back in after happenstance places him at the middle of a deep and dark family secret. Robin Weigert (from 2013’s Sundance pick Concussion) co-stars as Miller’s mother, and Louie’s Ursula Parker, already a seasoned actor at the ripe age of 11, plays the cousin at the crux of the seedy story. “I did everything I could to see the film through others’ eyes,” Sobel says of the film’s sensitive content. “It was important for me to remember that people bring immense amounts of predilections and baggage with them into a film. It’s not my job to make everyone see it my way; however, it is my job to consider and be responsible for each conclusion a viewer might draw from the story.”
The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir. Kyle Patrick Alvarez)
Two years ago, Kyle Patrick Alvarez brought the first-ever film adaptation of David Sedaris’ work to Park City with C.O.G. This year he comes with The Stanford Prison Experiment, a story penned by veteran TV writer Tim Talbott, about the experiment conducted in 1971 by a Stanford professor who studied the effects in 24 males of becoming either a prisoner or prison guard. With 25 lead roles, it’s definitely an ensemble piece, full of up-and-coming actors and vets alike: Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, Olivia Thirlby and Billy Crudup. Alvarez was drawn to the possibilities that an incredible ensemble cast could bring to the screen, and says, “It took a lot of auditioning.” Alvarez reunites with his C.O.G. DP Jas Shelton, but this is the first time he hasn’t written something he’s directed. “It was exciting to come at it as just a director, to look at the material and try to find a way to make it my own,” he says. “I wanted the movie to feel different than my other movies, but still feel like it came from me.”
Songs My Brothers Taught Me (dir. Chloé Zhao)
Chloé Zhao’s feature debut follows the lives of Johnny, a high school senior, and Jashaun, his 13-year old sister, after the unexpected loss of their father and the impact the loss has on their future plans to get off Pine Ridge Reservation. Says Zhao: “People often ask me, ‘If life is hard on reservations, why don’t [the residents] just leave?’ I feel that I know the answer but can’t articulate it in words. To best answer that question, I made this film.” Over the years, Zhao, a Tisch grad, developed friendships with locals at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and was eager to understand the complex lives there. “Despite the issues Pine Ridge faces as a community that we often hear about on the news,” she says, “there is also a strong youthful spirit and culture which is still very much alive and should be a subject of pride.” Like last year’s Drunktown’s Finest, the film features mostly first-time Native American actors, many from the reservation itself.
H. (dir. Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia)
For co-directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, the story of H., a re-imagining of the legend of Helen of Troy, came from several places. The original idea for the film took root almost two years ago and was originally set in New York City. Upon meeting a stranger at a dinner party, however, and learning about Troy, NY, the pair quickly changed gears. “Given our predilection for shooting films in smaller, somewhat unknown towns and cities (as with our first two features, OK, Enough, Goodbye and Recommended by Enrique), we wanted to set it in Troy,” Attieh and Garcia say. H. is a film formed around a simple image: Something falls out of the sky. After a meteor allegedly explodes over Troy, two women, both named Helen, find themselves losing control of their lives in this sci-fi psychological drama. H. premiered at the Venice film festival last year, and recently netted its creators a 2015 Indie Spirit Award nomination in the Someone to Watch category. Attieh and Garcia have always worked together, and have no intention of doing otherwise any time soon. “We both have huge egos,” the duo writes in an email to MovieMaker, “and over time those egos have, like ourselves, morphed into each other, creating a larger, grander super-ego. Luckily, we’ve found a way to make things work—even if this typically means arguing for a while about everything until one of us convinces the other. But it can get pretty nasty.”
Stockholm, Pennsylvania (dir. Nikole Beckwith)
Nikole Beckwith’s feature debut has eerie similarities to the real-life story of three Cleveland women reunited with their families after 10 years of captivity by an abductor. In Stockholm, Pennsylvania, a young woman, Leia, is brought back to her family after 17 years of living with her kidnapper. The venerable Saoirse Ronan stars, and Cynthia Nixon plays Leia’s mother. Having grown up during a number of focal national kidnapping cases, Beckwith says, “It became part of my worldview very early—both the vulnerability of being a child and, later, the predatory culture that surrounds growing up as a woman. I think as a culture we have a kind of voyeuristic hunger about stories of victimization, and also a detrimental romance with the notion of happy endings.” Beckwith was conscious of having the least amount of experience of anyone on her own set, due to her background in theater and acting (“I knew it, we all knew it,” she says, looking back). But it’s often the least jaded writer-directors who produce the greatest work.
Entertainment (dir. Rick Alverson)
The trope of the sad comedian makes meaty fare for the Sundance slate, where dour is often in vogue. In Entertainment, a broken, aging comedian (Gregg Turkington) plays third-rate venues and visits novelty tourist attractions through the California desert, lost in his vain attempts to reach his estranged daughter. Lured by a lucrative Hollywood gig and the possibility of a reunion, he trudges through a series of surreal mishaps alongside indie heavyweights like John C. Reilly, Michael Cera and Dean Stockwell. “This film is a look at the inevitable end of the European-American white male patriarchy, the cultural hierarchy, and the misdirections that accompany it,” says Alverson, who graced Sundance first in 2012 with The Comedy. “It’s a meditation on the problem of [employing] metaphors in art and entertainment as a way of unpacking life and experience.” Alverson’s muted emotions run throughout his films; this one will hopefully offer the same sobering delights as the rest.
Girlhood (dir. Céline Sciamma)
It’s easy to be drawn to stories born from real-world observation. For writer-director Céline Sciamma this film (called Bande de filles in French, effectively eliminating any accidental connection to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood) was inspired by the teenage girls Sciamma regularly witnessed hanging out in Paris: around the Les Halles shopping center, in the metro and Gare du Nord train station. “They were always in a gang—loud, lively, dancing,” she tells me via email. “Wanting to delve deeper, I sought out their blogs and became fascinated by their aesthetics, styles, and poses. Beyond their irresistible energy, their profiles reflect all the themes that are at the heart of my ongoing work as a filmmaker: the construction of a feminine identity within the framework of social pressure, restrictions, and taboos, of which image and identity are central.” One of the girls, Marieme (played by newcomer Karidja Touré, who appears in every scene), is fed up with her abusive family, lack of school prospects, and the “boys’ law” in the neighborhood. Marieme starts a new life after meeting a group of three free-spirited girls, changing her name and style, and dropping out of school to start stealing as a means to gang acceptance.
Darkness on the Edge of Town (dir. Patrick Ryan)
“I really wanted to make a western in southern Ireland,” says writer-director Patrick Ryan, who grew up in the same County Kerry locations in which his film was shot. Darkness is about Cleo, a troubled teen sharpshooter (Emma Eliza Regan) who seeks to avenge her estranged sister’s death after she is found stabbed in a public bathroom. Blinded with guilt and anger, Cleo is unaware that her best friend, Robin (newcomer Emma Willis) is the murderer she’s sworn to kill. The film, co-starring Irish actor Brian Gleeson (son of Brendan), promises a bloody showdown with arthouse sensibilities. “The plot hinges on a quest for vengeance,” Ryan says, “but I wanted to move away from the traditional ‘whodunnit’ structure and create something based around unrelenting tragic irony. The audience knows who the killer is from the get-go, and, striving for originality in every aspect, I wanted to cast two women in the leads. That isn’t seen a lot, unfortunately.” The script was originally conceived in 2011, the year Ryan received his masters from the National Film School of Ireland, as did co-producer and cinematographer Tommy Fitzgerald. Despite receiving a number of awards, including the prestigious BBC Writersroom accolade in 2012, Ryan struggled to find funds. Through crowdfunding, family, friends, and personal savings, his team raised a modest budget of €18,000 ($22,000) and decided to forge ahead on their own. Slamdance marks its U.S. and international premiere.
Wendell and the Lemon (dir. Lawrence Krauser)
Wendell and the Lemon, which started as a short story written in college by novelist-poet-playwright Lawrence Krauser 30 years ago, is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. (His words, not mine. Well, Shakespeare’s words, but you understand.) Sheer curiosity might get you into the theater seat for this one. Working with New York City theater actors and based on Krauser’s 2001 novel, Lemon, the film tells the tale of Wendell (Todd D’Amour) who finds a lemon on the sidewalk, takes it home, and becomes, somewhat against his own will, inordinately fond of it. “Complications ensue,” Krauser vaguely explains. The film was made for pennies and shot over 18 days, just after Krauser’s triplets were born prematurely. His wife, painter Larissa Tokmakova, edited the film.
Tired Moonlight (dir. Britni West)
Shot in writer-director Britni West’s hometown of Kalispell, Montana, Tired Moonlight is a love letter to rural America. Alex Karpovsky is reason alone to get into the theater for this one, but the weird and wild story (punctuated by weirder and wilder 16mm Kodak cinematography by Adam Ginsberg) is what gets it on this list. “Every town has a post office, lovers, guns, switchblades and beer,” says West in her synopsis of the film. “You just have to know where to look and when to look the other way. Pitting grand landscapes against dinners of fried chicken and the roar of V8 engines on Saturday nights, the film wanders through Solitaire games, secrets lost in cavernous hearts, and the 50 miles of bad road that always gets you home.” Tired Moonlight, a bit of a fictional-verité style hybrid, is West’s feature debut after a series of short films and a stint as set decorator on one of last year’s fest faves, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter. The ensemble cast was cobbled together with friends, family and open auditions held in the local Kalispell Community Center. “I had a full script and scenes like a talent show, where I’d hired extras and so forth,” says West, “but I also like to be open to changing things around, picking up new ideas along the way. The main actors were all in on the story and script, but having it be loose seemed a gentle approach for the non-actors, like RainLeigh Vick, the four-year-old who just kills it on screen. She sort of symbolizes the childish nature of all of the characters, really; a bunch of people who just never seemed to grow up.”
Sweet Micky For President (dir. Ben Patterson)
“Would you ever think that Wyclef Jean would be running against Sweet Mickey for president of Haiti?” asks Slamdance’s Campbell. “I couldn’t believe I didn’t know that was a story. This movie is a great, feel-good doc; it just hits all the points.” First-time feature director Ben Patterson’s film is an entertaining ride through the improbable and timeless true story of Sweet Micky’s rise to the presidency in Haiti. Pras Michel of hip hop group the Fugees returned home to Haiti after 2010’s devastating earthquake to mobilize a presidential campaign for the country’s most controversial musician, Michel Martelly, a.k.a. Sweet Micky. Patterson was there to capture it. “I met Pras in New York shortly after the earthquake, and he was frustrated and angry about the lack of leadership, the corruption, and how Haiti was being depicted in the media,” Patterson says. “Despite never having been a politician and having no political party or backing, Pras assured me Martelly would be president. It was really just the two of them. I had to see how this would play out, so I grabbed my camera and started to film.” The stakes were huge, and the film is loaded with hilarious moments only Sweet Micky could provoke. The great soundtrack boasts songs from the Fugees, Wyclef Jean and Pras’ new band, GET FR3E. Sweet Micky is an important story about the fight for democracy and how artists can change the world.
On Her Own (dir. Morgan Schmidt-Feng)
American farming has been at an important cultural crossroads in recent years. Hence the reason for listing this must-see: the documentary On Her Own. Nancy Prebilich, a fifth-generation farmer, lives and works on a 90-acre ranch in Bodega, CA. After the sudden death of her father, Nancy has struggled to save their farm and, ultimately, her family. Her story is one with a window into history, which is what drew Morgan Schmidt-Feng to document it in On Her Own. “My past and our collective past as an agrarian nation inspired me to tell this story,” he says, referring to his grandmother, who was raised on a farm in Iowa. Schmidt-Feng filmed the Prebilich family on their farm over the course of five years, and the story that emerges is both personal and global. MM
Photos courtesy of the Sundance Institute, 2015 and Slamdance Film Festival, 2015. Featured image by Jill Orschel.