The best film of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival (so far) stars Viggo Mortensen as a father raising his six children in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, teaching them, on the one hand, to live off the land and physically take care of themselves, but also multiple languages, political theory, and advanced philosophy. When the death of their mother forces Viggo to bring his children back into society, some hilarity ensues, and yeah, this plot sounds excessively “Sundancey.” But writer/director Matt Ross (you know him as the villainous and Lumbergian Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley) isn’t here to make a charming comedy about a quirky family. Ross uses this high concept to weave a truly poignant story about what it means to actually educate and prepare your children for the world, and how you can still never totally get it right.
2. Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea
For a brief 24-hour period, Manchester by the Sea had notched the all-time Sundance record for most lucrative distribution sale (before it was shattered the next day by The Birth of a Nation), selling to Amazon for a reported 10 million dollars. The film is great, but the real reason Amazon paid so much for it is because Casey Affleck already feels like a sure-thing Oscar nominee. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret), Manchester by the Sea continues his fascination with normal people dealing with the aftermaths of traumatic experiences, but this is his best iteration yet. Affleck plays Lee, a Boston maintenance man forced to care for his 16-year old nephew after the death of his brother, but a tragedy in his own past is preventing him from being able to emotionally provide for another person. As Lonergan slowly brings us into Lee’s story, never revealing things too quickly, Affleck exudes all of the pain, distance, and repression of the most tragic PTSD survivors. This is how good we always hoped he’d be.
3. Under the Shadow Finding the Horror Balance
I don’t like most horror films, because most of them are terrible. Under the Shadow is a great horror film because it understands what that means. Taking place in Tehran during the 1980s, in the midst of the Iran/Iraq war, this is the story of a mother and her young daughter, who is maybe being haunted by a djinn that stole her doll and has marked her for death. Structurally, Under the Shadow is much like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, revolving around a mother who at first doesn’t think anything’s wrong, then maybe thinks something’s wrong, and finally knows something’s wrong. Also like those two classics, Under the Shadow doesn’t have a single scare for probably the first 40% of the film. It draws you in slowly and makes you care about the setting, characters, and circumstances, knowing that only then does it have the power to truly make you scream for sweet Jesus. And you will.
4. Kevin Smith's Speech About Sundance
The new Kevin Smith film, Yoga Hosers, about two teenage girls working at a Winnipeg convenience store and using yoga to fight Nazis reincarnated as sausages (…I’ll just wait here while you make sure you read that right), is about 20 minutes of a funny, promising film followed by over an hour of a pretty terrible one. Smith described it as a mix of Clueless and Gremlins, which is accurate thematically but definitely not qualitatively. And yet, attending that screening is something I’ll always remember, because of the long speech(es) Smith gave about what Sundance meant to him, and why being creative is so important, even when you suck. (“Most of my films suck,” Smith said.) While he was physically born in Jersey, Smith said he was really born at Sundance in 1994, and it changed his life forever. He’s been back nine times since then, and Sundance is his “personal Lazarus Pit,” referring to Ra’s Al Ghul, the Batman villain who is constantly reborn every time he enters a Lazarus Pit. Smith then switched gears and spoke about how important it is to just be creative, because all of us “can be content providers,” and no matter how much of the content may suck, someone will still walk up to you one day and say that something you created changed their life for the better. It’s a little too cliché to say that Smith’s words have changed my life, but they meant a lot to me and I’ll always remember them.
5. Miles Ahead Breaking the Biopic Formula
Since Ray and Walk the Line struck Oscar gold a little over ten years ago, we’ve seen an increasingly large number of musical biopics in recent years. After Straight Outta Compton and the Hank Williams film that premiered in Toronto, Miles Ahead is the third biopic of a major musical innovator that I’ve seen in the last six months. It’s also the best one, because it wants nothing to do with being a musical biopic. Starring and directed by Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead focuses on a specific moment in Miles Davis’ life, at the beginning of the ‘80s, when he hadn’t released any new music in five years. From there, it swerves into left field, fabricating a fever dream of Miles’ mental state and inner traumas, attempting to reach a truth (via contrived characters and events) about what would cause one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century to stop touching his instrument. The result is something that takes an almost fan-fiction route to actually capturing what made someone tick. Cheadle nails the lead performance, but even more importantly, comes off like a seasoned director embracing real experimentation with the form.
6. Julianne Moore as a Danish Intellectual
In Maggie’s Plan, the delightful new comedy from Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur, wife of Daniel Day-Lewis), Greta Gerwig stars as a New Yorker that wants a baby, and has her eyes set on the already-married Ethan Hawke to give her one. Julianne Moore plays Hawke’s insufferable Euro-intellectual wife, who’s set up as the pseudo-villain in the film’s first half. That eventually switches, and it’s a credit to Moore’s acting and Miller’s script that the switch never feels forced or the result of suddenly-different characterization. And Moore is hilarious as a Scandinavian ice queen, weaponizing her pretentious accent.
7. Whit Stillman's Character Introductions
Whit Stillman films aren’t usually my thing, but he always finds a way to include some little tick or flourish that I love. With his Jane Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship, it’s the character introductions that set the tone and make the film. As each character enters the story, we cut to a shot of that person standing outside their provincial estate, turning toward the camera, and awkwardly smiling as their personalized title card comes up on the bottom of the screen, often saying innocuous things like “She packs and unpacks.” They never got old.
8. Tom Bennett's Supporting Turn in Love & Friendship
The British aristocracy has never been more hilariously inept.
9. Werner Herzog as Opening Narrator
The opening moments of Herzog’s Lo and Behold, a documentary about the internet, take us to the UCLA building where the internet was born, and Herzog chimes in, as truly only he can, with the words “Here in this repulsive looking hallway…”
I wish Werner Herzog would narrate my life.
10. Christine's Character Work and Production Design
Christine Chubbuck, a young, ambitious, and emotionally troubled Sarasota news reporter, killed herself on air in 1974, inspiring the screenplay for Network. This film version of her life in the months leading up to her suicide is way too long, which sadly undermines what is otherwise a really painstakingly detailed and thoughtful character piece about a troubled woman in a calm and quiet emotional spiral. The look of this film, from the costumes and the sets to the ‘70s color palate that gets saturated in smoke, effectively absorbs you into this world, and Rebecca Hall has never been better as the titular character. With better editing, this would have been a great film.
11. Getting to See a Teen Sex Comedy From India
The film in question, Brahman Naman, was not very good, and its best moments involve a Jethro Tull song. But how cool is it that Sundance brought a teen sex comedy from India all the way to Utah? Pretty damn cool. Plus, it led to the best audience Q&A question I’ve ever heard: “Was that really your penis?”