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Kenneth Turan on the 31 films worth keeping an eye on at Sundance

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic

"There Is Only One. Park City," the glossy magazine ads insist. "One Place You Are Meant to Be."

Yet another promotion for the Sundance Film Festival, opening Thursday night in that bustling Utah town? Guess again. For the first time in memory, the big news in Park City this time of year is not the film festival but the skiing.

For the merger of Park City Mountain Resort with the Canyons has created what one awe-struck travel writer described as "a 7,300-acre mega-mountain" enhanced with $50 million worth of upgrades. Can any film festival compete with that? You better believe Sundance is going to try.

FULL COVERAGE: Sundance Film Festival 2016

Oblivious to anything going on on the slopes, tens of thousands of moviegoers will descend upon Park City to devour the dramatic features and documentaries that light up its numerous venues starting Jan. 21 and running through Jan. 31.

This year, the flood of films vying for one of Sundance's 123 feature slots became, if anything, more intense, with 4,081 submissions (1,972 from the U.S., a whopping 2,109 from overseas) entering the chase. Better odds than the Powerball, but sill a daunting proposition.

Always tweaking its programming to respond to all this interest, Sundance is going all out, for instance, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its New Frontier section. A pioneer in presenting virtual reality to audiences, the festival will showcase no fewer than 30 examples of the revolutionary technology.

Sundance is also not neglecting its reach into adventurous televised content, both long and short. It will show a couple of half-hour episodes of Amazon Prime's "The New Yorker Presents," an intriguing intellectual variety show that features short films, poetry, cartoons and more. And it will show all seven hours and 42 minutes of ESPN's documentary series "O.J.: Made in America," which places the celebrated murder trial in the broader social context of race, sports and celebrity.

But, finally, it is the Sundance dramatic and documentary features that the crowds will be showing up for. Most impressive on the dramatic side of the ledger are:

"Agnus Dei." A skilled director (France's Anne Fontaine) takes on a potent story based on events in 1945 Poland: Nuns who've become pregnant after being raped by rampaging Russian soldiers turn in desperation to a young French female doctor for both medical assistance and their fears of being damned.

"Certain Women." Indie veteran Kelly Reichardt finely adapts three elegant, exactly written short stories by Maile Meloy for an evocative, modulated film starring Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams that deals with the human need for connection amid the persistence of loneliness.

"Indignation." Screenwriter and film executive James Schamus has chosen for his haunting directorial debut a disturbing late Philip Roth novel set against the Korean War about the relationship between an inexperienced college freshman and a beautiful but tortured blond transfer student.

"Sand Storm." A different side of Israeli society is featured in this moving story of a mother and daughter in the Bedouin community who are caught in different ways between tradition and modernity when the head of the family takes a second wife.

Other noteworthy dramas include:

"Ali & Nino." Top documentarian Asif Kapadia ("Amy," "Senna") returns to his feature roots with this high-gloss adaptation of a celebrated World War I novel about star-crossed lovers in remote Azerbaijan.

"Captain Fantastic." A vigorous performance by Viggo Mortensen dominates this emotional melodrama about a back-to-the-land survivalist family that is forced into unwanted contact with contemporary culture.

"Lovesong." Using her low-key, observational style, director So Yong Kim examines the emotionally fraught relationship between two best friends.

"Love and Friendship." Writer-director Whit Stillman returns to acerbic form with this Kate Beckinsale-starring adaptation of "Lady Susan," an early Jane Austen novella unpublished in her lifetime about an unscrupulous woman scheming to get ahead.

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"Morris From America." A deft coming-of-age tale with a twist: 13-year-old baby rapper Morris, along with his father, are "the only brothers in Heidelberg," a staid German city.

"Operation Avalanche." A wacky mockumentary set in 1967 about two inept CIA documentary filmmakers who decide to help NASA out by faking footage of a manned moon landing.

As always, the documentary side of Sundance overflows with fine work. This year's docs are especially strong on films exploring different corners of music and art.

"Becoming Mike Nichols." Nichols, articulate and polished in this, his last interview, talks about his early days, with wonderful clips of his work, with Elaine May thrown into the bargain.

"Cameraperson." A documentary cinematographer for 25 years, Kirsten Johnson artfully constructs a visual collage/memoir of sequences and images from her work around the world that have moved her.

"Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures." An unblinking look at the personal life and intentionally disturbing work of a photographer who wanted to become a legend by specializing in the forbidden.

"Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall." Steering away from Jackson's personal life, Spike Lee offers a knowledgeable, in-depth treatment of the genius in his music.

"Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang." A visually stunning look at the literally explosive art of the Chinese fireworks virtuoso and his passion to create a 1,650-foot "ladder to the clouds."

"We Are X." The pioneer glam rock band X Japan, a major musical force in its native land, is examined as thoughtful leader Yoshiki and bandmates prepare for their American debut at New York's Madison Square Garden.

And over at the rival Slamdance festival, "The Million Dollar Duck" offers an engaging look at the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the Super Bowl of wildlife art.

Always a subset of Sundance docs are those that offer warm-hearted stories, and the ones this year are especially moving. These include:

"Gleason." How Steve Gleason, former NFL free spirit, copes with both the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and the coming of fatherhood.

"Life, Animated." When autism robbed a young boy of speech, Disney animated films amazingly provided him a way back and a road map for life.

"Sonita." A young Afghan woman in Tehran dreams of rap stardom while her family plans to sell her as a bride.

Also wonderfully lively and emotional are two docs that deal with the LGBTQ community. "Kiki" takes us inside the New York ball scene and an alternative family, while "Suited" presents a Brooklyn tailoring firm that changes lives by making custom men's suits for clients for whom that pleasure is especially meaningful.

Sundance wouldn't be Sundance without films about social issues, which this year include not one but two fine docs on gun violence ("Newtown" and "Under the Gun"), one on increasingly marginalized abortion clinics in the South ("Trapped") and another on the experience of spending decades in a cult ("Holy Hell.")

Deftly mixing the personal and the political is a trio of documentaries with mesmerizing story lines:

"The Lovers and the Despot." A way strange international incident has frustrated film fan (and North Korean dictator) Kim Jong-il kidnapping a top star and top director from the South to improve his country's product. Really.

"The Settlers." The most divisive group in today's Israel lives in the occupied West Bank, and this thorough and thoughtful film allows those residents to speak for themselves.

"When Two Worlds Collide." It gets personal when a charismatic leader of Peru's indigenous Amazon dwellers faces off against the country's pro-development president.

Apparently determined to be all things to all living creatures, Sundance even has two films in which animals are, at the very least, costars. In "Mr. Pig," Danny Glover as a grizzled farmer shares screen time with a pig that just happens to be his best friend.

And the hidden surprise just might be "The Eagle Huntress" from the festival's Sundance Kids section, a stirring documentary look at a feisty 13-year-old Mongolian girl determined to be the first woman ever to be allowed to hunt with a majestic golden eagle. Betting against her is not advised.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 21, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Where the reel action is now - Ten days of dramas, docs, O.J. and VR await" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe