Sundance: From buzzy to under-the-radar, a festival for every film fan

Sundance: From buzzy to under-the-radar, a festival for every film fan
Gabrielle Union, left, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, director Nate Parker, Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley from the film "The Birth of A Nation." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The Cannes Film Festival, a wise man once said, is not only impossible to describe to someone who's never been there but also "nearly impossible to describe to someone who has been there." And what's true of Cannes is becoming increasingly true of Sundance.

That's because the annual extravaganza in Park City, Utah, has increasingly become several different but overlapping events — each with its own characteristics, priorities and even its own audience.


Most visible is Hot Ticket Sundance, the festival that journalists, critics and movie business movers and shakers tend to frequent. Its focus is on the films people are talking about and fighting to get into, whether because of high acquisition price, place in the zeitgeist or even actual quality.

The hottest movie this year and the all but inevitable winner at Saturday night's awards ceremony of both the dramatic grand jury prize and audience award was Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation."

A seven-year labor of love for Parker, who starred, wrote and produced in addition to directing, "The Birth of a Nation" deals with the charismatic Nat Turner and the events leading to his 1831 Virginia slave rebellion. Deeply felt, emotional filmmaking, albeit with problematic elements, "Birth" was acquired by Fox Searchlight for a reported Sundance record of $17.5 million.

Winner of the grand jury prize for world drama was Elite Zexer's "Sand Storm," a moving story of a mother and daughter in Israel's Bedouin community caught between tradition and modernity.

In other noteworthy dramatic awards, the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award went to Chad Hartigan for his "Morris From America," a deft coming-of-age tale with a twist: 13-year-old Morris, along with his father, are "the only brothers in Heidelberg," a staid German city. And the director's award went to Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan's "Swiss Army Man," a film about a flatulent corpse. Really.

Also part of Hot Ticket Sundance, though not eligible to win anything because of the festival's determination to ghettoize established creators, was Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea." The kind of powerful, emotional filmmaking that leaves a scar, "Manchester," to be distributed by Amazon Studios, stars Casey Affleck as a surly misanthrope forced to confront the tragedy that upended his life.

The second Park City subset might be called Quotidian Sundance. The films here invariably play to appreciative audiences at packed houses ("500 people at 8:30 a.m., awesome," said one director), though they do tend to fly under the radar, eschewing Hot Ticket status no matter their quality.

Two of the most satisfying of these, quarantined like "Manchester" in the Premiers section, were New Zealand director Taika Waititi's "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" and Joshua Marston's "Complete Unknown."

The adventure-filled tale of an unlikely alliance between an overweight reprobate of a teenager and a surly loner (the veteran Sam Neill at his best), "Wilderpeople" is very much its own film, warm, playful, comic and eccentric all at once.

"Complete Unknown" is a smooth and pleasingly enigmatic entertainment, a treat for fans of actress Rachel Weisz, who, costarring with the protean Michael Shannon, displays the range of her talent as a woman with the chameleon-like ability to discard lives like second skins.

Sundance documentaries, for their part, were as uniformly strong and fascinating as they've been in previous years, and if none of them made it into the Hot Ticket category, that was not for lack of trying.

The grand jury prize here went to Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's "Weiner." A searing snapshot of how modern political campaigns are run and the way our current culture of public shaming works, it's so intimate and invasive that you frankly wonder why the subject, disgraced former congressman and abortive New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, agreed to participate.

The documentary directing award went to Roger Ross Williams for "Life, Animated," about an autistic boy whose life is changed by Disney animation, while the documentary audience award went to Brian Oakes' "Jim: The James Foley Story," about the U.S. journalist executed by Islamic State.


On the world documentary front, both the grand jury prize and the audience award went to Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's "Sonita," the deftly done story of a young Afghan woman in Tehran who dreams of rap stardom while her family plans to sell her as a bride.

Also noteworthy, though not winners, are two other films about unusual individuals:

"Maya Angelou and Still I Rise." The opportunity to spend time exploring the rich and complex life, as painful as it was joyous, of this exceptional writer was as nourishing as it sounds.

"Uncle Howard." Filmmaker Aaron Brookner's poignant attempt to connect with and memorialize his late uncle Howard, the idol of his youth, director of "Burroughs, The Movie," and an exemplar of the 1980s downtown New York hipster scene.

With everything from demonstrations run by Samsung to "Factory Farm," an unflinching look inside a slaughterhouse sponsored by Animal Equality, on view, virtual reality was present enough at Sundance 2016 to be its own mini-festival.

This was especially so at the festival's New Frontier section, a pioneer for several years running in presenting VR to eager viewers, which this year showcased more than 30 examples of the technology in action, including "theBlu, Encounter," a mesmerizing underwater experience that has an 80-foot blue whale floating serenely by, and "The Leviathan Project," which cleverly incorporates touch into the VR world.

Most impressive was "Real Virtuality: Immersive Experience," which truly immerses you so completely in a complex alternate reality, including moving through an enormous neon-lit city, that you'd swear you'd actually been there. No one really knows where VR is going, but experiences like this make you eager to go along.