20 Films to Watch at Sundance and Slamdance 2016

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20 Films to Watch at Sundance and Slamdance 2016

For those of us in the indie film world, the six weeks or so between the announcement of the Sundance Film Festival program and Opening Night are fraught with excitement and anticipation. What’s going to blow us away? What works by masters are we going to see? What new masters are going to emerge?

Some of the best films of the fest always take us by surprise, but that doesn’t mean we don’t make our wish lists in advance anyway. Here are the 20 films I’m most excited about this year.


The Birth of a Nation

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The Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
The Sundance Synopsis: Set against the antebellum South, this story follows Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner, accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. After witnessing countless atrocities against fellow slaves, Nat devises a plan to lead his people to freedom.
The Key Players: Director/Screenwriter/Actor Nate Parker; Actors Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley and Gabrielle Union
The Draw: We’d go to see any biopic on Nat Turner. One starring Nate Parker, one of the finest young actors currently working, is especially appealing. But one also written and directed by Parker? Where do I sign?


Brahman Naman

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The Category: World Cinema Dramatic Competition
The Sundance Synopsis: When Bangalore University’s misfit quiz team manages to get into the national championships, they make an alcohol-fueled, cross-country journey to the competition, determined to defeat their arch-rivals from Calcutta while all desperately trying to lose their virginity.
The Key Players: Director Q
The Draw: Are you kidding me? Who wouldn’t want to see that movie?


The Free World

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The Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
The Sundance Synopsis: Following his release from a brutal stretch in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, Mo is struggling to adapt to life on the outside. When his world collides with Doris, a mysterious woman with a violent past, he decides to risk his newfound freedom to keep her in his life.
The Key Players: Director Jason Lew; Actors Boyd Holbrook, Elisabeth Moss and Octavia Spencer
The Draw: Actor/director Jason Lew has attracted some serious talent to his feature directing debut, which is always a good sign. Prepare to watch the dazzling Elisabeth Moss cement her “see-anything-she’s in” status.


Fursonas

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The Category: Slamdance Documentary Competition
The Slamdance Synopsis: Like any community, the Furry world is one with gossipers, dreamers, followers, whistleblowers and the one guy who wants to rule them all.
The Key Players: Director Dominic Rodriguez
The Draw: An entire documentary about Furries already sounds hilarious and wonderful—but the description Slamdance provides implies this one might be revealing and dramatic as well.


Goat

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The Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
The Sundance Synopsis: Reeling from a terrifying assault, a 19-year-old boy pledges his brother’s fraternity in an attempt to prove his manhood. What happens there, in the name of “brotherhood,” tests both the boys and their relationship in brutal ways.
The Key Players: Director Andrew Neel; Screenwriter David Gordon Green
The Draw: It hasn’t been a good run for movies with this animal in the title, between the high-profile flops Goats and The Men Who Stare at Goats. But I have faith in a David Gordon Green project to break the curse.


Holy Hell

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The Category: U.S. Documentary Competition
The Sundance Synopsis: Just out of college, a young filmmaker joins a loving, secretive, and spiritual community led by a charismatic teacher in 1980s West Hollywood. Twenty years later, the group is shockingly torn apart. Told through two decades of the filmmaker’s archival materials, this is their story.
The Key Players: Director Will Allen
The Draw: Sundance has a good record with cult-y dramas (notably Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene), and the mysterious circumstances of this one have us intrigued. Originally, even the name of the director was kept hidden, but has since been revealed to be Will Allen.


The Intervention

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The Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
The Sundance Synopsis: A weekend getaway for four couples takes a sharp turn when one of the couples discovers the entire trip was orchestrated to host an intervention on their marriage.
The Key Players: Director/Actor Clea DuVall; Actors Melanie Lynskey, Cobie Smulders, Alia Shawkat and Ben Schwartz
The Draw: I know, I know. The setup sounds a little bit like a lot of undercooked microbudget indie films you’ve seen at festivals before. But Clea Duvall has spent a large portion of the 21st century as one of the most underrated actresses of her generation (most recently in Argo, although her finest work was arguably in the HBO series Carnivale), so I’m curious to see what she can do as a director. Plus: Dude. That cast. When the awesome Cobie Smulders is the third most interesting actor in your film, you’ve done well.


Kate Plays Christine

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The Category: U.S. Documentary Competition
The Sundance Synopsis: This psychological thriller follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida television host who committed suicide on air in 1974. Christine’s tragic death was the inspiration for Network, and the mysteries surrounding her final act haunt Kate and the production.
The Key Players: Director Robert Greene; Kate Lyn Sheil
The Draw: One of the most shocking stories in the history of American journalism finally gets not one, but two movies at Sundance. The meta aspect of Greene’s narrative-ish documentary will feel familiar to anyone who saw his wonderful Actress, and in this case that’s a good thing. Kate Lyn Sheil will undoubtedly be, as always, magnificent.


The Land

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The Category: NEXT
The Sundance Synopsis: Four teenage boys devote their summer to escaping the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, by pursuing a dream life of professional skateboarding. But when they get caught in the web of the local queenpin, their motley brotherhood is tested, threatening to make this summer their last.
The Key Players: Director Steven Caple Jr.; Actors Erykah Badu and Michael K. Williams
The Draw: Michael K. Williams in a movie about aspiring professional skateboarders from Cleveland? Done and done.


LO AND BEHOLD Reveries of the Connected World

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The Category: Documentary Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Does the internet dream of itself? Explore the horizons of the connected world.
The Key Players: Director Werner Herzog
The Draw: Of course, anything Herzog does is high on my priority list. Even his misses are worth watching. And the opening sentence of that synopsis is classic Herzog—you probably heard his voice saying it in your head.


The Lovers and the Despot

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The Category: World Cinema Documentary Competition
The Sundance Synopsis: Following the collapse of their glamorous romance, a celebrity director and his actress ex-wife are kidnapped by movie-obsessed dictator Kim Jong-il. Forced to make films in extraordinary circumstances, they get a second chance at love—but only one chance at escape.
The Key Players: Directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adam
The Draw: I’ve been waiting for this one ever since my wife read me the New Yorker article out loud. It looks to be one of those documentaries where the underlying story is so fascinating it almost doesn’t matter how good the filmmaking is.


Lovesong

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The Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
The Sundance Synopsis: Neglected by her husband, Sarah embarks on an impromptu road trip with her young daughter and her best friend, Mindy. Along the way, the dynamic between the two friends intensifies before circumstances force them apart. Years later, Sarah attempts to rebuild their intimate connection in the days before Mindy’s wedding.
The Key Players: Director So Yong Kim; Actors Jena Malone, Riley Keough, Brooklyn Decker, Amy Seimetz and Rosanna Arquette
The Draw: I’ll be honest: I didn’t even have to read the director’s name or the synopsis to know it was going to be on this list. That’s an absolutely killer lineup of actors. Any two of those five would put the film on my shortlist; with all five, it’s shot near the top.


Mad

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< b>The Category: Slamdance Narrative Competition
The Slamdance Synopsis: A matriarch past the point of a nervous breakdown, her two daughters that don’t give a damn, and the heat-seeking missiles of resentment they toss at each other create a lively backdrop for this dark and dramatic comedy.
The Key Players: Director Robert G. Putka; Actor Jennifer Lafleur
The Draw: If you like them dark and nasty, this is the film for you. I’ve seen it, and it’s really good. Jennifer Lafleur continues to impress every single time out.


Manchester by the Sea

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The Category: Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: After his older brother passes away, Lee Chandler is forced to return home to care for his 16-year-old nephew. There he is compelled to deal with a tragic past that separated him from his family and the community where he was born and raised.
The Key Players: Director Kenneth Lonergan; Actors Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler
The Draw: The latest from American treasure Kenneth Lonergan, starring two of the best actors alive. A complete no-brainer.


Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall

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The Category: Documentary Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Catapulted by the success of his first major solo project, Off the Wall, Michael Jackson went from child star to King of Pop. This film explores the seminal album, with rare archival footage and interviews from those who were there and those whose lives its success and legacy impacted.
The Key Players: Director Spike Lee
The Draw: The man who directed the best narrative film of last year, and who has quietly become one of the best documentarians in the world, returns to the subject of Michael Jackson. Be prepared for a great walk down Memory Lane. If you’re not going to nominate him for an Oscar for Chi-Raq, at least have the decency to support his next film.


Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper

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The Category: Documentary Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Gloria Vanderbilt and her son Anderson Cooper each tell the story of their past and present, their loves and losses, and reveal how some family stories have the tendency to repeat themselves in the most unexpected ways.
The Key Players: Director Liz Garbus
The Draw: In the hands of a lesser director, I wouldn’t necessarily be that interested in the subject matter. But I trust Liz Garbus completely, and I have no doubt this will be fascinating.


Richard Linklater—dream is destiny

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The Category: Documentary Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: This is an unconventional look at a fiercely independent style of filmmaking that arose in the 1990s from Austin, Texas, outside the studio system. The film blends rare archival footage with journals, exclusive interviews with Linklater on and off set, and clips from Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and more.
The Key Players: Directors Louis Black and Karen Bernstein
The Draw: A personal note: Since I was the director of 21 Years: Richard Linklater, many people have asked me if I’m upset that this film is out so soon after mine. Let me be clear—I hope there are 50 documentaries made about the genius Richard Linklater. And Louis Black was so brilliant in my doc about Linklater that I can’t wait to see what he does with a film of his own. Number one priority.


Sing Street

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The Category: Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: A boy growing up in Dublin during the ’80s escapes his strained family life and tough new school by starting a band to win the heart of a beautiful and mysterious girl.
The Key Players: Director John Carney
The Draw: Carney’s Once is a masterpiece, of course, but Begin Again was an underrated film as well. The man knows how to do musical uplift. Expect tears to be shed in the Eccles.


Unlocking the Cage

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The Category: Documentary Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Follow animal rights lawyer Steven Wise in his unprecedented challenge to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans. By filing the first lawsuit of its kind, Wise seeks to transform a chimpanzee from a “thing” with no rights to a “person” with basic legal protection.
The Key Players: Directors Chris Hegedus and Donn Alan Pennebaker
The Draw: Like their friend, the late Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus just keep getting better with age. If you liked Project Nim (and I loved Project Nim), this should be a given to check out.


Yoga Hosers

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The Category: Midnight
The Sundance Synopsis: Colleen Collette and Colleen McKenzie are teenage besties from Winnipeg who love yoga and live on their smartphones. But when these sophomores get invited to a senior party by the school hottie, the Colleens accidentally uncover an ancient evil buried beneath their Canadian convenience store.
The Key Players: Director Kevin Smith; Actors Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith, Johnny Depp, Ralph Garman
The Draw: Look, at this point, a write-up in a curtain-raiser isn’t going to convince you. At this point, you’re either down with Kevin Smith, or you’re not. I’m down with Kevin Smith. Wherever he wants to take me this time.


Michael Dunaway is the producer and director of 21 Years: Richard Linklater, a New York Times Critics Pick starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke; Creative Producer for the “Sarasota Film Festival”:www.sarasotafilmfestival.com; Movies Editor of Paste; host of the podcast The Work; and one hell of a karaoke performer. You can follow him on Twitter.

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