There may have been more snow than sunshine during the 10 days of Sundance last month, but the screens were alight with cinematic promise and invention. Independent film tends to be a hit or miss proposition, probably more of that latter in theatrical box-office terms. So it’s hard to assess how this year’s Sundance harvest will fare in attracting audiences beyond the festival circuit. At the same time, with well-financed streaming services like Netflix increasingly in the picture, that could be a game changer.
There was no dominant title this year, unlike 2016 when The Birth of a Nation was the sensation of the festival and multiple prize-winner. Subsequent controversy that dogged its director and lead actor, Nate Parker, unfairly sank its theatrical release and awards season prospects. There was also no Manchester by the Sea, which continued to build critical acclaim following its Sundance premiere. It has six Oscar nominations including best picture, along with hundreds of other award nominations and wins.
The top Sundance prize, the grand jury award in the U.S. dramatic competition, was something of a surprise, going to the opening night film, Macon Blair’s directorial debut, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, which was a very strange trip indeed. I must say I loved Blair in his first major acting role, as an instrument of vengeance in Blue Ruin (2013) directed by childhood friend Jeremy Saulnier. He was also one of the few survivors in Saulnier’s Green Room (2015). In I Don’t Feel at Home, after a depressed nursing assistant, Ruth (Melanie Lynskey), is burglarized, she teams up with oddball neighbour Tony (Elijah Wood) to go after the culprits, with fittingly screwed-up results. I started the festival in a sleep-deprived state due to airline travel woes. The movie’s antics certainly kept me awake, but I’m not sure how well its anarchic weirdness will play with a more mainstream audience. Who knows, it could become a cult classic.
Here are the dramas that most impressed along with some honourable mentions. They are U.S. films unless otherwise noted.
Writer-director Maggie Betts received a special jury award for breakthrough director for this story of a young woman raised in a non-religious home who believes she has a vocation to become a nun. Taking place in the early 1960s, the mother superior (Melissa Leo) of the convent she enters resists the reforms of Vatican II. Margaret Qualley gives a remarkable performance as the devout novice who wrestles with matters of faith and sexuality amid these institutional tensions. This is a great film deserving a full review in a future column.
The Nile Hilton Incident (Sweden/Germany/Denmark)
Winner of the world cinema grand jury prize, writer-director Tarik Saleh recreates the atmosphere of Cairo on the cusp of the 2011 revolution as a typically corrupt policeman named Noredin (Fares Fares) becomes involved with the murder of a famous Lebanese singer at the upscale Hilton hotel. Inspired by an actual 2008 murder, the corruption and deadly coverup reaches into the regime’s high places. An indication of the sensitivity of the story is that production was shut down by Egyptian state security and had to be moved to Morocco. As the film’s producer notes, it is “about what made the young people rise against the police force and a corrupt elite, foreboding the revolution.” Indeed the date it began, Jan. 25, was national “police day.” Egypt’s return to a repressive military regime reveals a system that has restored its power.
The Wound (South Africa/Netherlands/Germany/France)
Directed by John Trengove, the story follows Xolani, a solitary factory worker who joins a group of men from his community as they go into the mountains of South Africa’s eastern cape region for the initiation of a number of teenage boys. This secretive and increasingly controversial traditional Xhosa tribal practice known as “ukwaluka” involves a ritual circumcision and healing period. Xolani harbours another more personal secret. He’s gay and has a relationship with a married man, the discovery of which leads to a tragic conclusion.
Winner of the U.S. dramatic audience award, writer-director Matt Ruskin tells the true story of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) who was arrested and wrongfully convicted as an accomplice in a murder that he had nothing to do with. He would spend over 21 years in prison, some in solitary confinement. Much of that was after the actual killer, a juvenile at the time, confessed to being solely responsible and had served a much shorter time. In this gross miscarriage of justice, Warner was fortunate to have a close friend, Carl King, who never gave up on the case, as well as the support of a woman, Antoinette, whom he married in prison. His fight for justice is inspirational, though the film ends with the sobering statistic that, of the U.S. prison population of 2.4 million, an estimated 120,000 are innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted.
Director Dee Rees (Pariah) brings to life an epic story, set in the Deep South in the years following the Second World War, that is a reminder of the price inflicted by racial prejudices and savage social hierarchies. Adapted from the eponymous Hillary Jordan novel, the mud-brown Mississippi Delta is a microcosm of a larger struggle over land, power, and the right to human dignity, in which a friendship between returning veterans of different skin colours threatens the dominant order.
God’s Own Country (U.K.)
The world cinema directing award went to writer-director Francis Lee for this intensely raw and intimate drama set on a sheep farm in rural England where the only son, Johnny Saxby, lives with his mother and father, who is disabled by a stroke. Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is a taciturn loner struggling to keep the farm going while seeking release through binge drinking and furtive sex. When a Romanian immigrant, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), is taken on as a hired man, a relationship develops that penetrates Johnny’s defences and promises relief from pain and loss.
Lady Macbeth (U.K.)
In the rural England of the mid-19th century, the young and beautiful Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds a way to survive a forced marriage to an older man who is frequently absent. Even after her affair with a stable hand, known to her black maidservant, comes into the open following a crime of passion, Lady Katherine finds a way to turn the tables and emerge on top. Her steely willfulness is something to behold in this noirish gothic fable directed by William Oldroyd.
When a young indigenous woman from the reservation, a victim of violent sexual assault, is found dead in the snow, the local wildlife officer (Jeremy Renner), an expert game tracker, gets pulled into the criminal investigation along with a greenhorn female FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Native American police chief (Canadian Graham Greene; the victim’s mother is played by another Canadian, Tantoo Cardinal). The wintry Wyoming scenario, in which drilling sites encroach on the wild landscapes, culminates in fatal revelations and confrontations that bring a measure of harsh justice to this new American frontier as imagined by first-time director Taylor Sheridan, an acclaimed screenwriter whose credits include Sicario and the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water.
Written and directed by Alex and Andrew Smith, Montana’s wintry wilderness becomes a test of survival when a teenage boy (Josh Wiggins) living with his mother in Texas goes to visit his estranged father (Matt Bomer) who challenges him with a big-game hunt, evoking memories of his own hunter father. When the adventure takes a tragic turn it’s the reluctant son who must shoulder the burden if both are to make it out alive. The boy is the only hope to save the man in this ultimate trial.
Justin Chon writes, directs and plays the lead role in this audience award winner from the cutting-edge “NEXT” category. The story, set in Los Angeles at the time of the 1992 race riots, revolves around Korean brothers who operate a women’s shoe store in a mixed-race neighbourhood. They have close ties to 11-year-old Kamilla (an amazing performance from Simone Baker) whose African American mother had been killed along with their father in a holdup. But there’s no escaping the rising tensions that threaten to engulf them too.
Director/co-writer Mark Palansky delivers a chilling tale that unravels the suspicious death of a visionary scientist who has invented a way of recovering and recording people’s deepest memories. But who then controls them? Peter Dinklage is excellent as the survivor of a car crash that killed his brother and for which he feels responsible. His haunted search for the truth of what happened brings him to investigate the death and, in a shocking final reveal, to fit some of the fractured remembered pieces together.
Rebel in the Rye
Writer-director Danny Strong does a decent job of recreating scenes from the life of the famously reclusive and elusive author J.D. Salinger (convincingly played by Nicholas Hoult) who suffered from many rejections and wartime post-traumatic stress before his iconic novel The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, after which he never published another word till his death in 2010. Salinger’s relationship with Columbia University mentor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), later abandoned, is well portrayed, as is his doomed romance with Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch). (This biopic is considerably more successful than the fictional tortured-author fable Sidney Hall. The talented teen rebel of the title turns a schoolmate’s “suburban tragedy” into a bestselling novel and fan following that, spiralling into dangerous territory, causes him to repudiate his work and disappear under an assumed name. Despite Logan Lerman’s efforts in the role of Sidney at different life stages, and Elle Fanning as his girl next door, the plot’s muddle of implausible melodramatic devices made this one of the few Sundance misfires.)
Sami Blood (Sweden) — The daughter of a traditional reindeer-herding family dreams of escaping the racism she encounters in the boarding school to which she is sent in the 1930s. But her life’s journey leads back to reconnecting with her identity.
The Discovery — Robert Redford stars as a controversial scientist who claims to have unlocked the secrets of the afterlife. The ensuing suicide crisis becomes intensely personal when his skeptic son (Jason Segel) falls in love with an affected young woman (Rooney Mara).
The Hero — Sam Elliott commands the screen as an aging former star of westerns with an incurable cancer who is ready to throw in the towel until spurred by younger women to keep on living.
The Yellow Birds — Its cinematography earned a special jury award and the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers, was co-written by David Lowery, whose haunting A Ghost Story played in the festival’s NEXT section. When 18-year-old recruit Murph (Tye Sheridan) is reported as missing in Iraq, his mother desperately seeks answers including from a returned older army buddy, Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich). Afflicted by PTSD, he can only withhold the terrible truth so long.
Carpinteros (Woodpeckers) — The first-ever Sundance selection from the Dominican Republic is set in the notorious Najayo prison where the separately housed male and female inmates use sign language to communicate across barriers. A fragile love story develops that defies the jealousies, rivalries and menace of violence.
Beatriz at Dinner — Salma Hayek gives a powerful performance as a Mexican immigrant who has built a caring practice as health provider and masseuse. Circumstances lead her to be invited to stay for a fancy dinner that the husband of a wealthy client is holding for a Trump-like billionaire tycoon. He may have all the power but what Beatriz brings to the table reveals the ugliness of an arrogant and ruthless worldview responsible for destroying people’s lives.