The Sundance Film Festival launches in several weeks and over the ten days in scenic Park City, Utah, there will be plenty of option for festival filmgoers. After perusing the schedule, we spotlight the 20 Most Anticipated Films of the festival.
THE GREAT EIGHT
The Birth of A Nation
When a little slave boy, Nathaniel “Nat” Turner, was taken to meet the Elders in the deep woods of 1800s Southampton County, Virginia, it was determined he would be a prophet. It became evident that the unusually intelligent boy would become able to read, so he was encouraged to study the Holy Bible and be a preacher to his fellow slaves. But when Nat’s master decides to profit from his preaching skills by putting him on an inter-county preaching tour, Nat begins to see the full contours of slavery and is moved to become a different kind of leader.
Based on true events, The Birth of a Nation is the long-awaited story of Nat Turner, the American-born slave who would lead the most successful slave rebellion in American history. Having appeared as an actor in several features at the Sundance Film Festival (Arbitrage, Red Hook Summer), Nate Parker returns to the Festival with this bold, compelling, and deeply inhabited first-time feature — and proves that he is an ascending triple-threat talent.
Southside with You
One Chicago afternoon in 1989, a Harvard Law summer associate named Barack Obama finagled a tête-à-tête with an attorney from the prestigious corporate law firm where they both worked. Her name was Michelle Robinson, and his pretense was a friendly outing to a community organizer meeting. In Michelle’s eyes, it was most certainly not a date. But as ice cream gives way to a stop at the Art Institute, and the community gathering conveniently becomes a chance for Barack to lecture brilliantly on activism, it’s stunningly obvious to Michelle that this cigarette-smoking smooth talker is desperately trying to woo her. As their epic encounter continues into evening, and these fiercely bright minds go head-to-head, sparks fly.
Southside With You takes plenty of poetic license to craft this charming, playful story out of true-life events, yet actors Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers embody the essence of two people matched in power, idealism, and intellect. As the second Obama presidential term winds down, it’s profound to consider just how serendipitous and consequential that day in 1989 was — not just for Michelle and Barack, but for America.
Inspired by events in Miles Davis’s life, this is a wildly entertaining, impressionistic, no-holds-barred portrait of one of twentieth-century music’s creative geniuses. Holed up in his Manhattan apartment, wracked with pain from a variety of ailments, sweating for the next check from his record company, and dodging sycophants and industry executives, Davis is haunted by memories of old glories, humiliations, and of his years with Frances Taylor, his great love.
Academy Award–nominated actor Don Cheadle — co-writer, director, and lead actor — remarkably captures the musical legend on film through an impressively orchestrated use of images and sounds. Varying cinematic rhythms and beats are used to create a singular and intoxicating viewing experience as Cheadle displays a deep understanding of the man and his music.
Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall
One morning, a television set broke down in a living room in Gary, Indiana, leaving a large family of children with nothing to do—so they started singing. Soon the family was singing at talent shows and winning trophies. Their first four recorded songs would top the charts, and launch the career of one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known.
Director Spike Lee assembles a wealth of archival footage, interviews with contemporary talents and family members, and Michael’s own words and image to create this insightful chronicle of the star’s early rise to fame. An in-depth look at a chapter of his career that is rarely examined, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall allows audiences to travel with Michael as he gets his start at Motown, strikes a new path with CBS records and forges a relationship with legendary producer Quincy Jones. An illuminated portrait emerges of how an earnest, passionate, hard-working boy would become the “King of Pop.”
Maya Angelou and Still I Rise
Distinctly referred to as “a redwood tree, with deep deep roots in American culture,” icon Maya Angelou gives people the freedom to think about their history in a way they never had before. Dr. Angelou’s was a prolific life; as a singer, dancer, activist, poet, and writer she inspired generations with lyrical modern African American thought that pushed boundaries.
Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn’s unprecedented film celebrates Dr. Maya Angelou by weaving her words with rare and intimate archival photographs and videos, which paint hidden moments of her exuberant life during some of America’s most defining civil rights moments. From her upbringing in the Depression-era South to her swinging soirees with Malcolm X in Ghana to her inaugural speech for President Bill Clinton, we are given special access to interviews with Dr. Angelou whose indelible charm and quick wit make it easy to love her.
Skillfully crafted with heart and ease, this film reflects the vibrant spirit of an American legend who was determined to live her philosophies and fought for what she believed in her whole life.
O.J.: Made in America
The producers of ESPN’s 30 for 30, along with award-winning director Ezra Edelman, tell the story of one of the most polarizing people in American history, O.J. Simpson. They explore how Simpson’s rise and fall was centered around two of America’s greatest fixations—race and celebrity.
The film deftly reveals how Orenthal James Simpson first became a football star, why America fell in love with him off the field, what happened in the trial for his ex-wife’s murder and his subsequent acquittal, and finally, why he is now sitting in jail for another crime 20 years later. His is a story that divided America like few things before or since, and it is perhaps the defining cultural tale of twentieth-century America. The film parallels his incredible story with that of race in America, astutely examining the tragic way that they intertwined.
United Shades of America
CNN’s newest original series follows political comedian W. Kamau Bell as he explores America’s racial stereotypes and lifestyles. Kamau asks questions and gets himself into some awkward and, at times, unpredictable situations, while making people laugh along the way.
The Festival is screening an episode in which he travels to Harrison, Arkansas, a charming southern town that happens to have a thriving chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. While Harrison’s leaders want to promote their home as inclusive and tolerant, the KKK are determined to use new PR tactics to keep all minorities out. Kamau questions whether this “new KKK” is really anything different.
United Shades of America offers the perfect template for Kamau to showcase his impressive insights and humor. By diving headfirst into areas that he “doesn’t understand,” he utilizes laughter to bring the most unlikely of people together. While he doesn’t shy away from asking the tough questions, he is also at times in fear of his life — all the while wondering, can’t we all just get along?
This lush portrait of contemporary Compton, California, set to a booming soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar depicts quotidian moments of black life that are suffused with creativity, joy, and sadness. From buoyant adolescent moments to ominous nighttime scenes, reality and fantasy dance to a haunting soundscape flashed across two screens.
THE BEST OF THE REST
The Free World
Mo Lundy (Boyd Holbrook) is a man attempting to move past a brutal two-decade stint in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He spends his days caring for abused animals at a shelter while trying in vain to reintegrate into a world that feels utterly foreign to him. A chance encounter with Doris (Elizabeth Moss), an enigmatic kindred spirit equally scarred by violence, lands him in a situation where choosing to do the right thing means risking his hard-won freedom and his life.
Adroitly written and directed by Jason Lew and dripping with atmosphere and dread, The Free World is a harrowing tale of two lost souls finding solace in each other. Grounded by two intimate and affecting performances from Holbrook and Moss, along with excellent supporting turns from Octavia Spencer and Sung Kang, this neo-Southern Gothic tale never feels less than achingly real.
Morris from America
Morris from America revolves around a 13-year-old African-American boy named Morris and the relationship he has with his father, Curtis, during the transitional period of adolescence. Complicating matters, they are new residents of Heidelberg, Germany — a city of rich history but little diversity. Morris falls in love with a local German girl named Katrin, and his tumultuous connection with her takes him on a journey that ends in self-discovery and a new dynamic to his relationship with Curtis.
Morris from America has style and heart so perfectly calibrated that it unfolds effortlessly before our eyes. Pulsating with the rhythm of a 13-year-old’s heart, this film springs from different cinematic traditions to become a distinctive coming-of-age story all its own. Writer/director Chad Hartigan returns to the Sundance Film Festival (This Is Martin Bonner, 2013) with another nuanced character piece featuring a breakout star. This time, it is Markees Christmas in the lead role who turns in a dizzyingly endearing performance that will have audiences cheering “Ich Liebe Morris!”
As a female rapper in conservative Iran, Sonita’s talents are a liability. But Sonita insists on dreaming big. Her beats are as solid as stones, her rhymes are fierce, and her videos are a piercing howl against the constant injustice, fear, and sexism women must endure. It was only a matter of time before her charismatic presence and spirited eyes changed her fortune, and with the help of acclaimed director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, she is suddenly offered a scholarship that leads her on a dangerous trip back to Afghanistan and ultimately to Utah. All the while, Sonita’s conservative mother insists she must be married off soon, at a price, and threatens to derail Sonita’s life at its most critical juncture.
An intimate portrait of creativity and womanhood, Sonita highlights the rarely seen intricacies and shifting contrasts of Iranian society through the lens of an artist who is defining the next generation.
Toni, an 11-year-old tomboy, trains as a boxer with her brother at a rec center in Cincinnati’s West End but becomes fascinated by the dance drill team that also practices there. Drawn to their strength and confidence, Toni eventually joins the group, tirelessly rehearsing the routines, befriending some of the girls, and even piercing her ears to fit in. But when members of the tight-knit group start experiencing mysterious fits of shaking and fainting, Toni’s desire for acceptance becomes complicated.
The Fits brims with breakout talent, including Royalty Hightower’s captivating Toni. But filmmaker Anna Rose Holmer, in her feature debut, puts forth a striking and distinctive vision—a cinematic meditation on movement, the body, adolescence, and identity that eludes categorization. Working from real stories of mass hysteria, Holmer creates a subtle visual grammar to convey a coming-of-age story in terms of movement and choreography rather than conventional dramatics. Her atmospheric aesthetic, vivid acoustic landscape and dissonant score establish an ambiguous psychological space through which Toni moves as if her journey through The Fits is itself a dance.
How to Tell if You’re a Douchebag
Ray Livingston is a relationship-blogging hack (“freelance writer, actually”) responsible for Brooklyn’s infamous blog, “Occasionally Dating Black Women.” The well-written, if not controversial, blog has generated some notoriety, but Ray is chafing from an overextended stay in New York, romantic ennui, and a stagnating writing career. After a particularly crappy week, he goes off on a tirade and harasses a gorgeous random passerby, only to discover that it’s Rochelle Marseille, one of New York’s up-and-coming authors. Moving to make amends in an effort to preserve his media clout, Ray is stunned when Rochelle gives him more than he ever thought she would.
Brimming with exciting new talent, How to Tell You’re A Douchebag is a fresh, buoyant, super-sexy comedy delivered with a twist for a generation addicted to their screens and digital accounts. First-time feature director, Tahir Jetter, intelligently retools old rom-com formulas to give us this smart and meaningful tale of a misogynist who falls in love.
A filmmaker introduces us to the subject of his documentary—the beautiful Jacqueline Dumont, a young Frenchwoman who claims to have uncovered a covert assassination conspiracy. While unsure of the eccentric Jacqueline’s veracity, the filmmaker nonetheless enlists a couple of interns and heads to the holistic retreat in Argentina where she’s hiding out, to explore her claims and film her story. Upon arrival, the filmmaker begins to doubt the worthwhileness of his venture but finds reasons to hope that he might actually be capturing something big, something real, with his increasingly makeshift film.
Driven by Wyatt Cenac’s drily witty performance as the unnamed filmmaker, Jacqueline (Argentine) is a hilarious, low-key misadventure, that also insightfully explores a director’s ambiguous relationship to his craft and continually turns its political thriller underpinnings on their head. First-time feature director Bernardo Britto (a Jury Prize winner for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival short Yearbook) makes fresh use of the mockumentary format to create a film playful in both form and content that reflects the uncertainties and hopefulness inherent in every artistic endeavor.
Teenage buddies Cisco, Boobie, Junior, and Patty Cake skateboard the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, dreaming of getting discovered by a sponsor and skating their way out of poverty. That is until the boys discover a bag full of pills in the back of a stolen car. Cisco’s entrepreneurial instincts take over, and in a flash, their lives get better. But no one counted on having to come face to face with the cold, calculating, and notorious drug queen pin, “Momma,” who runs the toughest gang in town.
Director Steven Caple Jr. makes an auspicious debut with this atmospheric film filled with pitch-perfect performances by an ensemble cast, including newcomer Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Erykah Badu, Machine Gun Kelly, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Linda Emond, who is bone chilling as Momma. More than a crime drama, The Land is a beautifully rendered story about friendship, values, and what it means for disaffected youth to come of age on the streets of Cleveland.
Hip-hop artist Nas will executive produce the indie drama and produce the film’s soundtrack.
When Bo, a handsome and gifted high school student, suddenly becomes the sole caretaker for his little sister, Tina, he foregoes college to dedicate his talents to the craft of magic. He wows audiences as a street magician but still has to make ends meet, so he cleverly uses his skills to peddle drugs for the local dealer, Angelo. However when Bo falls for Holly, an adorable teenager in need of support, he decides to get out of the drug business, causing Angelo to threaten his family. Bo must now rely on his sleight of hand and brilliant mind to save the day.
Sleight is a smart and refreshing film that delivers a thrilling and irresistible mix of romance, urban drama, and magical super-heroism. Glistening with warmth, charm, and indelible performances by a fresh young cast, JD Dillard’s debut feature is a shining example of inventive indie filmmaking at its best.
Eubanks (Danny Glover), an old-school pig farmer from Georgia on the brink of losing his family farm, sets off on a road trip with Howard, his beloved and very large pig. As they make their way across the border to Mexico to find “Howie” a new home, Eubanks’ drinking and deteriorating health begin to take a toll, derailing their plans. His estranged daughter, Eunice (Maya Rudolph), is forced to join them on their adventure. Driven by strong convictions and stubbornness in his old ways, Eubanks attempts to make peace through his devotion to Howie and desire to mend his broken relationships.
Director Diego Luna tackles the old and new in an age of global markets, factory farming, and disposable relationships. Luna’s poetic postcard road film to Mexico, guided by a soundtrack evoking the South and old rock ‘n’ roll, is lyrically photographed following the gorgeously overgrown, winding roads of Central America. Luna trusts his audience, letting the story unfold in a bold, un-expository way, allowing tour-de-force performances by Glover, Rudolph, and, of course, Howie the pig.
With 1980s Dublin mired in recession, Conor’s parents move him from a comfortable private school to a rough inner-city public school where the scrappy 14-year-old forms a band. Mentored by his older brother, a dropout who’s hip to cool tunes, Conor starts to compose lyrics and the glam-ish band finds its “no covers” groove. Renaming himself Cosmo, he convinces the mysterious, über-cool Raphina to star in their music videos (and tries to win her heart in the process).
John Carney, whose musical passion and DIY vibe refreshed a genre with Once and Begin Again, spins a loosely autobiographical story in which music again offers a refuge–from school and family strife. He spent over a year collaborating on original music (a throwback to ‘80s vibrancy) that’s catchy but plausible for a youth band, and his talented cast plays it like they mean it. Carney’s nostalgia isn’t only for a bygone Dublin and its soundtrack, but for that moment when you pour your heart into something, and it can mean everything to you. When songs can save your life.
Emboldened by a giant block party on the evening of their high school prom, a group of students enters the night with the hope of transcending their rural town and the industrial landscape that surrounds them.
Perspective 2: The Misdemeanor
Rose Troche and Morris May return to the Festival (after Perspective, Chapter 1: The Party, 2015 Sundance Film Festival) with the second chapter of their powerful live-action Perspective series. When two young men are stopped by New York City police officers, a simple misdemeanor spirals out of control, turning the situation rapidly antagonistic. With each party suspecting the other, no one is able to stop the chain of events that follows.