In addition to The Birth of Nation, from the many world premieres I saw at Sundance here are the 10 that most impressed. A number have been picked up by distributors like Sony Pictures Classics so one can look forward to significant theatrical releases.
It’s been 16 years since writer-director Kenneth Lonergan earned the Sundance grand jury award for You Can Count On Me. His return counts as an unalloyed triumph since this sensitive small-town drama, presented out of competition, was the best-reviewed new film of the festival. Mostly shot on location in the Massachusetts coastal community of the title, the central character is Lee Chandler (superbly played by Casey Affleck), a sullen loner nursing a tragic past, glimpsed in flashbacks, that has estranged him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and children. Lee’s self-imposed solitary world is upended when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack and entrusts the guardianship of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) to Lee. The young man, a talented hockey player with no shortage of girlfriends, proves to be a handful. The turn of events forces Lee to confront his demons and, as if returning from exile, find a way to reconnect and move forward. This is a beautifully realized story with layers of depth and the ring of emotional truth.
Writer-director John Carney scored a previous musical-drama hit with Once, which soared after taking a 2007 Sundance audience award. This semi-autobiographical effort had people enthusiastically applauding while dancing in the aisles. Set in mid-1980s Dublin, a schoolboy, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), being taught by strict Christian Brothers on Synge St., meets soulmate Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who lives in a home for girls. She calls him “Cosmo.” With several other non-conformist mates they form a band, and urged on by older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), the elements come together of musical rebellion and escape. The result is both poignant and hugely entertaining. The premiere audience in the vast Eccles Theatre was even treated to several songs played by Walsh-Peelo and a bandmate from the film.
This masterwork by director and co-writer Anne Fontaine tells the true story of the trauma suffered by a group of Catholic nuns in a Polish convent in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. It’s the winter of 1945 and the “liberated” area is under Soviet Red Army occupation when a desperate nun seeks assistance from the French Red Cross that is treating survivors of the Nazi camps. The convent had been invaded by soldiers and a number of nuns raped. A young doctor’s assistant, Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), takes increasing risks in clandestine visits to provide medical attention and act as a midwife. She must also contend with the afflicted Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) who fears moral scandal more than death. It is too late for her but somehow from this terrible casualty of war there emerges a touch of grace.
More proof that the Israeli cinema continues to produce top-quality films of searching realism and honesty. Writer-director Elite Zexer received the world cinema grand jury award for this gritty portrayal of a troubled mother-daughter relationship set in a conservative Bedouin Arab community in southern Israel. While Jalila (Ruba Blal) must endure her husband’s acquisition of another much younger wife, her daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar) pursues a forbidden love affair with Anwar. When the liaison brings scandal and Jalila is blamed and banished, Layla must decide whether to submit to an arranged marriage.
Winner of the world cinema audience award, this heartfelt mother-son love story from debut director Carlos Castillo portrays the daily struggle of 28-year-old Alberto (Manolo Cruz who is also the film’s writer and producer), bedridden with a neurological disorder and hooked up to a machine to survive. His house is beside the Caribbean Sea yet he is trapped in this bodily prison. Although tenderly cared for by his mother Rosa (Vicky Hernandez) and neighbour Giselle, Alberto’s greatest desire is to reach and feel the sea, a desire stronger than life itself. Cruz and Hernandéz were also honoured with a special acting award by the Sundance jury.
Felix van Groeningen, whose previous feature The Broken Circle Breakdown was Oscar-nominated, received the jury directing award for this uproarious Flemish-language melodrama about two mismatched brothers, the savvy one-eyed Jo (Stef Aerts), and stormily married Frank (Tom Vermeir), who decide to open a brash Brussels nightclub for better or worse. Again the music scene plays a central role. Having missed the opening-day press screening I ended up watching the movie after midnight. Not only did the pounding soundtrack keep me awake, but beyond the surface theatrics of sex, drugs and techno-pop dance beats, the visceral maelstrom of fraternal and family relationships under fire held me enthralled.
Similar to Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, this is a considerable triumph for Mirjana Karanovic as the director, co-writer and principal actor in a drama that recalls a brutal period of history with wrenching personal and social results. She plays the “good wife” Milena of the gruff Vlada (Boris Isakovic), a seemingly contented middle-aged mother of successful daughters whose comfortable life is shattered by twin discoveries. A malignant tumour in her breast requires a mastectomy. Worse, while cleaning out a shed she finds a tape with evidence of Vlada’s war crimes during the Bosnian genocide. Facing a crisis of family, friends and faith, she must decide how to cope with these equally challenging cancers.
This Wall Street morality tale made waves for being produced, directed (by Meera Menon) and written (by Amy Fox) by women with women in the principal roles. To its credit the corporate intrigue belies any comfortingly virtuous notions of empowerment or ethical superiority. The central character, Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn), is a high-powered investment-banking executive having an affair with another high roller (James Purefoy) in the firm who’s being investigated for insider trading by a former classmate of Naomi’s, a lawyer with the Securities and Exchange Commission. While Naomi aggressively heads the stock-market debut of an upstart tech company, her pregnant right-hand woman plays a double game. There’s a “big short” involved from which no one comes away looking good. Explains Menon: “With Equity, we were seeking to tell a story about the strength and drive of female ambition in male-dominated work environments like Wall Street. . . . in the edit, we discovered the story underneath the story, how sometimes that fight for recognition can meet impossible circumstances, resistance at every level, and land in a place where ambition turns into something a bit more unsettling — ruthlessness.”
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt has carved out an impressive niche in American cinema with films like Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and Night Moves. (Her debut feature River of Grass was screened as a Sundance retrospective.) Based on Maile Meloy’s loosely intersecting short stories set in Montana, the narrative begins with a Livingstone lawyer, Laura Wells (Laura Dern), being called in to defuse a hostage crisis involving a distraught middle-aged male client. Laura is having an affair with Ryan (James Le Gros) who has troubles of his own with wife Gina (Michelle Williams) and daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). Meanwhile a struggling law student, Beth (Kristen Stewart), makes long drives from the town to teach a course she is ill-equipped for, attracting more than educational female interest from solitary ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone). Intimate and acutely observed, these seemingly small slices of life in a sparse rural landscape bear eloquent witness to the human longing for connection.
Selected as the closing-night premiere, this crowd-pleasing dramedy directed by Rob Burnett ticked off some critics but I found myself won over by the relationship that develops between Ben (Paul Rudd), who has lost a child before becoming caregiver to 18-year-old Trevor (Craig Roberts). Wheelchair bound with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the acerbic young man chafes against an over-protective mother and challenges Ben’s earnest ALOHA principles (ask, listen, observe, help, and ask again). When they go on a bizarre road trip to the “world’s deepest pit,” with a detour to Salt Lake City to see Trevor’s uncaring estranged father, a bonding happens that offers no cures but gives Ben the inspirational push he needs. As much as encounters along the way seem contrived to milk sympathetic audience response, what both gain from “caring” is the picture’s saving grace.
There isn’t space for honourable mentions but let me offer praise for a number of female performances: Molly Shannon in Other People; Lilith Stangenberg in Wild; Rachel Griffiths in Mammal; Canadians Sarah Gadon in Indignation and Ellen Page in Tallulah; Rachel Weisz in Complete Unknown; Imogen Poots in Frank & Lola.