2016 Sundance Dispatch 1: Festival kicks off with crowdpleasers, women's stories and inventive challengers...


The 2016 edition of the Sundance Film Festival kicked off with the news of Indiewire’s recent sale to Penske Media and on the heels of the 88th Oscar nominations, with the corresponding controversy around lack of diversity among this year’s crop of nominees. At least one of these topics was top of mind and occupying the conversations in the streets and around the restaurant tables of Park City among industry people who once again flocked to the snowy mountains of Utah—this year, colder than the last few in recent memory.

Lining up for the traditional Day 1 press conference at Park City’s historic Egyptian Theatre, festival founder Robert Redford, director John Cooper and Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam addressed the curious crowd and spoke about this year’s trends, while carefully steering clear off direct commentary about Hollywood’s diversity problem and the overwhelmingly white crop of Oscar nominees as a direct result of it (prior to AMPAS’ drastic changes to membership and voting rules). Instead, the trio kept the focus on the Institute’s mission, directing the conversation towards its efforts in crafting a diverse film culture. “Diversity comes from the word ‘independent’,” said Redford, pointing out that independent artists have a tendency to break the norms, reflecting diversity in the end products. “Take a look at this year’s range of talent,” said Putnam. “Anyone with a voice out there has a place here.”

The trio also saluted the changing face of documentary filmmaking, with storytellers embracing multiple creative forms including animation, while being more engaged with the audience. “They are thinking ‘theatrical’,” said Cooper. Emphasizing the presence of issue-based films in this year’s lineup, Cooper noted that the festival basically shows films with subjects that occupy the filmmakers’ minds. “A few years ago, it was all about the financial crisis. This year it’s ‘guns’,” he added. As The New York Times also noted, a trio of projects in this year’s lineup—Tim Sutton’s Dark Night (NEXT), Stephanie Soechtig’s Under The Gun (Documentary Premieres) and Kim A. Snyder’s Newtown (U.S. Documentary Competition) jointly bring the national debate over gun legislation into sharp focus.

I kicked off my Sundance Film Festival—which includes 123 feature films and 49 first-time filmmakers this year—with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. Programmed as part of the Documentary Premieres section, the entertaining and nostalgic documentary looks back through the life and legacy of the TV legend with adoration and gusto (with perhaps some excess of it). Using plenty of archival footage from many of his beloved shows–from “The Jeffersons” and “Maude” to “All in the Family”–and talking-heads interviews with those in his close circle and the likes of Amy Poehler, Rob Reiner, Lena Dunham and even George Clooney, the film emphasizes Lear’s appetite for liberal politics which he bravely employed to push the boundaries of episodic storytelling on TV. In fact, the political aspects of the doc made for a strangely timely viewing experience, proving how far American Society–marching into another Presidential election as we speak–has and hasn’t come since the famously controversial abortion episode of “Maude.” “We got 16,000 letters,” Lear said, referring to the response to the episode. “Sixty five million people watched and no state ceded.” He was in attendance at the Eccles with the filmmakers, all greeted by a rapturous standing ovation. In the World Documentary Competition, Kevin Macdonald’s Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang impressed with its portrait of a rebellious artist and the stunning visuals of Guo-Qiand’s massive-scale art installations made by fireworks and explosions. 

Soon after a quick stop at Indiewire’s annual and typically packed chili party (which is almost an unofficial Sundance kickoff tradition), and saying quick hellos to fellow writers, I ran back to Eccles for Chris Kelly’s Other People, a U.S. Dramatic Competition title. Telling the story of an openly gay comedy writer (a very charming Jesse Plemons) who returns to his home in Sacramento to be with his sick mother, Other People blends over-the-top raunchy comedy with serious drama to wildly mixed results. Amid its confused tone, the film’s strongest asset–apart from J. J. Totah, who brought down the house both during and after the movie–is undoubtedly Molly Shannon. In a very meaty role that gives her the rare opportunity to display the full range of her talents, Shannon was the highlight of this otherwise sweet and somewhat forgettable film.

Friday–the first full day of the festival–dialed up the Sundance bizarre-o-meter to its full strength, with films across a range of programs unapologetically challenging the festival audience's senses. Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s World Dramatic title The Lure was my first stop in the morning. As hard as it is to believe, The Lure is a musical that tells the story of two sisters who happen to be flesh-eating vampire mermaids, employed at a Warsaw nightclub. Navigating the waters of femininity and gender dynamics against a canvas of social structure, The Lure is lit up by a dazzling and ingenious production design, as well as superior cinematography by Kuba Kijowski. It is not quite my movie; very surreal (as one would expect from the subject matter) and it bites off more meat (no pun intended) than it can chew at times. Yet I suspect The Lure is one of the most inventive films we’ll get to see at Sundance this year.

Things got even more bizarre from there. Premiere title Wiener-Dog–the first movie I truly loathed in a long time–finds an angry Todd Solondz taking a journey through classes of American society. Using an adorable dachshund as a plot device (and I really mean “device”), Wiener-Dog attempts to make shallow commentary on life, death and humankind while having little to no concern about any of its characters, and worse, its titular creature.  The ending is truly appalling and offensive (dog people–stay far, far away). Yet perhaps its most glaring offense is how thin and superficial its ambitions are.

Because one can’t see everything, I had to–at least for today–skip Swiss Army Man. My Twitter feed told me the film is about Paul Dano using Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse as a vehicle, and his farts as fuel to go home. At least that is my read after trying to confirm with multiple Twitter users. Intriguing enough, yet the film apparently saw multiple walkouts. I am happy to say I saw two masterworks among the films that managed to freak audiences out on Friday, both from debuting directors: NEXT title The Eyes of My Mother (Nicolas Pesce) and Midnight movie Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari). Produced by Borderline Films (also behind Martha Marcy May Marlene and last year’s critically acclaimed James White) and set in an ambiguous time period in a remote Portuguese village, The Eyes of My Mother follows a young woman with a tragic past as she tries to deal with her loneliness and traumatic childhood. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, The Eyes of My Mother is truly visionary filmmaking with top-notch performances and a stellar soundtrack. Any description of this movie will make it sound a lot tamer than it is, but Pesce’s film is unmistakably violent (which explains the walkouts). But for the patient, it has many rewards, like a fundamentally heart-wrenching story against a stylishly atmospheric setting.

Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow, on the other hand, can be called a new horror classic, alongside the likes of The Babadook and The Orphanage. Finding literal and metaphoric horrors in the war-ridden Iran of 1980s, Under The Shadow’s screams are loud and its jump-scares are thoroughly effective—so much that I am no longer sure if I’ll be able to sleep during my stay in Park City. Too much information would spoil the many joys of this excellent horror film; just know that Narges Rashidi’s performance as a mother raising a daughter in the midst of an active war and in a haunted apartment will be talked about for some time.

One of the other titles that stood out on Friday was Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America. Returning to Sundance following his excellent This is Martin Bonner, Hartigan tells the story of a black father and son living in a German town as two emigrants from America. Morris finds it hard to make friends or exist without being picked on by school bullies. But he falls in love with a charismatic girl living in a problematic family situation, and his life changes. This has everything one would expect from a Sundance coming-of-age tale. Yet, Hartigan’s story smartly adds another dimension to an alienated teen by setting the story in Germany, away from an American way of thinking about race and identity. He captures the ignorance that leads to racial stereotyping quite accurately. Morris From America is sweet and heartwarming, with great performances from Craig Robinson and the newcomer Markees Christmas.

Lastly, World Competition title Sand Storm (Elite Zexer) completely knocked my socks off. This is a wonderful woman’s picture—a slow-burning and suspenseful emotional drama where a young woman from a Bedouin village in Israel falls in love with a boy her father does not approve of. Matters are even more complicated, as her father has just entered his second marriage (having two wives at the same time) and built a brand new home right next door while they suffer without food and electricity. The shot-by-shot delicately composed Sand Storm is a gem of a film, the kind that holds onto your emotions long after the credits start rolling. Robbed of any kind of social status or freedom, the women of Sand Storm help each other out in big and small ways, even when they don’t know how they fit into each other’s worlds. Zexer explores big thoughts in a small world, mostly in confined spaces.

The next few days will give us the new Kenneth Lonergan, Kelly Reichardt, Antonio Campos, Meera Menon and the works of many filmmakers I can’t wait to get acquainted with. Because that’s what Sundance is all about in the end: discovery.