23 Sundance Movies You Need To Know About

We watched a lot in Park City so you didn’t have to — and these are the films worth talking about. In no particular order!

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, and Gretchen Mol

Kenneth Lonergan’s beautifully rendered character drama follows Casey Affleck’s Lee, a muted, angry man living in Boston, who is clearly in some sort of exile. When Lee has to return home, to the frigid (in every sense) town of Manchester after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler, seen in flashback), he makes no pretense of how painful it is for him — and then he finds out the unwelcome news that he has been made his 16-year-old nephew’s guardian, effectively sticking him back into his past. Manchester by the Sea is about broken love, parenting, carelessness, pain, responsibility, and family. It’s one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen — I wept throughout, as did most other people in the theater — but it’s also funny, which is an emotional relief. There are no easy answers in Lonergan’s story, but the film asks whether there can be degrees of forgiveness and grace, or whether those are absolute states. The performances are superlative: Affleck is stunning; Lucas Hedges, who plays the nephew, will soon be a star because of this movie; and Michelle Williams, who is always good, has never been this good. (I yearn for Lonergan to do a companion movie from her character’s point of view.) As my colleague Alison Willmore put it, Manchester by the Sea and The Birth of a Nation are the two Sundance movies we’ll be discussing for the rest of the year. And I can’t wait for you all to see this one so we can talk about it. —Kate Aurthur

Distribution: Amazon, which is bigfooting into the film market, bought Manchester by the Sea for $10 million. Unlike Netflix, which is committed to day-and-date VOD for its films, Amazon will partner with a distributor for a more traditional theatrical release for Manchester by the Sea. Considering its Oscars prospects, let’s assume that release will be in the fall.

Courtesy Sundance Institute

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation

Directed by: Nate Parker
Written by: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, and Gabrielle Union

Going to the premiere of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was like attending an explosion. Parker’s telling of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion felt like a particularly meaningful convergence amid the United States’ current crisis with racial politics — from police brutality to #OscarsSoWhite. After all, Parker, an actor, director, and writer who’s most recognizable from his lead performance in Beyond the Lights, had spent seven years trying to make this movie. Its Sundance debut was a moment of triumph for him — one he shared with the entire cast, the movie’s producers, and seemingly everyone else who had worked on it. Luckily for everyone there — and for future audiences — The Birth of a Nation is riveting, and yes, it is an achievement. The story builds to the rebellion, which, when it comes, is an adept sequence of action set pieces propelled by sweet revenge. That’s not all there is to The Birth of a Nation, though; Nat’s slow radicalization takes up most of the story, which is where Parker-the-actor shines. The Birth of a Nation does have its weak spots, and they are glaring — its female characters are poorly drawn, and its magical realist element tries to serve as both exposition and catharsis, but instead looks cheap and feels cheesy. Read Willmore’s review for her full take on the film. —K.A.

Distribution: Oh my, yes. Fox Searchlight bought The Birth of a Nation for $17.5 million, a Sundance record.

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Sing Street

Sing Street

Directed by: John Carney
Written by: John Carney
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Aidan Gillen, and Mark McKenna

The feel-great movie of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and a delight from start to finish. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Conor, a teenager during the Irish recession of the 1980s, whose parents send him to public school to cut back on expenses. In order to impress a girl, he starts a band, heavily influenced by a parade of ’80s groups his smart, cool, thwarted older brother (Jack Reynor, who may be the Irish Chris Pratt) tells him about. Sing Street is John Carney’s third movie musical, after Once and Begin Again, and there is no one else making movies like this out there. It’s impossible to describe in words how life-affirming, appealing, and transporting this movie is — I would sing about it, but no one wants that. Just lovely. — K.A.

Distribution: Luckily, you’ll be able to see Sing Street yourself soon enough; the Weinstein Company will release it, probably in the spring.

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Tickled

Tickled

Directed by: David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

New Zealand TV journalist David Farrier first stumbled upon a “competitive endurance tickling” video in 2014. At the time, he had no idea that it would ultimately send him down a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction rabbit hole involving a mysterious cyberbully with seemingly endless resources and an overwhelming need for videos of strapping, athletic men being tied down and mercilessly tickled. That sounds insane, and it is, thrillingly so. Along with his directing partner Dylan Reeve, Farrier’s pursuit of the story provokes a series of escalating legal threats that, at times, turn disturbingly personal. But they only manage to goad Farrier and Reeve to dig deeper, and what they discover is revealed in one of the strangest and most fascinating feature films to play this year at Sundance, full stop. —Adam B. Vary

Distribution: Tickled does not have U.S. distribution yet.

Courtesy Sundance Institute


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