Sundance 2016

While films continually flickered on screens around Park City, the movie market set to work, but acquisitions seemed to be a mixed bag this year. While huge bids were made on quality material—among them, Fox Searchlight’s record-breaking deal of $17.5 million for director Nate Parker’s Grand Jury Prize- and Audience Award-winning The Birth of a Nation and Amazon Studios’ $10 million bid for Manchester by the Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan—there was mediocre fare often seeking too much money for rights. As a result, the festival wrapped with a number of films still up for grabs, but they may find sales soon with the endless avenues of distribution available these days. The ever-expanding VOD model tops the list, often pushing theatrical releases out while simultaneous launching across home entertainment platforms. Case in point is Netflix, who infamously released Beasts of No Nation in theaters last year while streaming to couch potatoes on the very same day of its release.

Indeed, Sundance 2016 will go down as the year of streaming. In total, Netflix and Amazon outspent everybody else at the festival. Netflix nabbed worldwide rights to many well-received indies, including Tallulah (starring Ellen Page and Allison Janney) for $5 million and The Fundamentals of Caring (starring Selena Gomez and Paul Rudd) for $7 million, as well as the creepy Iranian indie horror film Under the Shadow.

Amazon also outbid traditional studios for cutting-edge material. Its biggest buys included Love & Friendship, starring Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, and the aforementioned Manchester by the Sea, starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, neatly coming out on top over a trifecta of big guns in Fox Searchlight, Focus Features and Universal Studios. Other films in Amazon’s stable included Complete Unknown, Gleason and Wiener-Dog.

Streaming remains the radical antagonist to the studio megaplex mindset, but old-school dynamics still persevered. While Netflix bid an astonishing $20 million for the rights to The Birth of a Nation, it was Fox Searchlight who walked away with the biggest film of the event for almost $3 million less, due no doubt to the studio’s prestige and plausible Oscar® buzz machine once the film is released nationwide.

While deals were afoot, features continued to screen, with a number of highly entertaining entries across many categories. Here are some films that were signature Sundance entries, work of consequence beyond the glitz and glamour of high-profile acquisitions.

The Lure

This Special Jury Award-winning film was recognized for its unique vision and design, and deservedly so. A 1980s-set musical horror film, The Lure was a bizarre, yet riveting feature. Sundance is renowned for screening films that push the boundaries of filmmaking, and The Lure was no exception. A Polish entry in the World Drama section, it will warm the hearts of David Lynch fans—which, is to say, it will disturb, offend and probably mystify the average filmgoer.

In essence, The Lure is a trippy allegory for teenage sexuality. It begins on a dark night at the water’s edge when a family of musicians spots two mermaids close to shore. After singing an enticing melody, the stunning aquatic creatures are helped ashore and quickly recruited to join the band at a neon-lit dance club in Warsaw.

When one of the mermaids, Silver, falls in love with the bassist, the more cunning sister, Golden, goes out to hunt for food, unable to assimilate with mankind and escape her bloodthirsty nature while worrying that her sister’s relationship will doom their shared dream of swimming to a new life in America.

This Euro-pop flick wittily plays with lust and repulsion in compelling ways, as the bewitched sisters and their glittering long tails lead us through an absurd, yet thoroughly intriguing film full of dark shadows and dripping blood.

Wild

A powerful, emotional journey that rides a razor-sharp edge between offensive and evocative, Wild is the third film directed (and written) by German actress Nicolette Krebitz, the story of a rebellious woman who turns away from her mundane existence to embrace the endangerment of the wild.

The story begins when Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is startled by a lone wolf staring back at her from the edge of the woodlands close to her home. The encounter awakens something deep inside, driving her to purchase raw steak, left in the woods, in an attempt to befriend the beast.

The encounter soon becomes an obsession, a catalyst that leads to Ania’s tranquilizing and leashing the wolf before bringing it back to her high-rise apartment. This is where the film begins to examine the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable and watchable on film, with a series of intense scenes that will offend some and fascinate others. It’s an incredibly powerful performance from Stangenberg, whose presence on screen is undeniable, laying everything on the line, as cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider frames her beautifully throughout.

Wild is a look at our instincts deep within, taken to the extreme on screen. Bravo for the powerful, provocative filmmaking that ultimately may have gone too far.

White Girl

This is an unflinchingly real portrait of drug use based on the experiences of the film’s director, Elizabeth Wood. An entry in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, White Girl is the story of Leah, a college student who goes to extremes to get her drug dealer boyfriend out of jail. The film unveils a drug world of radical debauchery, as Morgan Saylor (Homeland) bravely plays Leah, who quickly falls down the rabbit hole into a dark world of heavy drug use and deceit.

The title of the film doesn’t refer to its beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed lead, but rather to the kilo of cocaine left behind by Leah’s boyfriend Blue (played with conviction by Brian “Sene” Marc) after he’s arrested dealing drugs on the streets.

Although hedonistic and raunchy, the constant drug use on screen quickly numbs the mind, while hyper-realistic filmmaking underlines the inherent dangers of living a lifestyle of excess, especially apparent when the film’s lead snorts and screws her way out of trouble. The depravity of Leah’s situation becomes full-blown once Blue is arrested, and she goes on to make incredibly foolish choices with a kilo of coke in hand, snorting and selling her stash with no care for the repercussions of her ways.

White Girl plays as privileged youth run rampant in New York City, the story of a well-to-do girl who rapidly becomes the victim of her own self-wreckage. It’s a powerful portrait of someone too preoccupied with her own wild abandon to calculate the consequences of her rebellious ways. If this is a vicarious expression of Wood’s own experiences, it’s a bitter, yet powerful pill to swallow.

Operation Avalanche

Already purchased by Lionsgate before screening, Operation Avalanche attracted a big audience. Writer-director Matthew Johnson also created The Dirties, a Slamdance Film Festival winner in 2013.

Operation Avalanche plays with intrigue in fascinating ways, a found footage film from 1967 featuring four undercover CIA agents sent to NASA posing as a documentary film crew to investigate the possible existence of a Russian mole. They successfully tap phones and break into offices while interviewing scientists, but when they end up uncovering a shocking NASA secret, they decide to embark on a new mission that puts their own lives at risk. One of the biggest conspiracies in American history begins to unfold on screen, as the CIA agents fake the moon landing during the Cold War in order to beat the Russians to the punch.

A large part of the film’s realistic ’60s feel was achieved by using old ’50s Angénieux lenses on Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras, with much of the footage shot covertly at NASA and Shepperton Studios in London. Shooting in RAW, footage was converted into a 2K scan from the Pocket Cinema Camera’s Super 16mm chip, then graded after the final 16mm conversion. The result is a compelling film that grants us immediate access to an era gone by.

It’s A Wrap

An ever-expanding slate of films encompassed Sundance 2016, indicative of the festival’s continued efforts to embrace an evolving cultural landscape of filmmakers from all over the world. Sundance also expanded the art of storytelling in new and exciting ways, especially prevalent in its experimental New Frontier exhibition. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, New Frontier featured 30-plus reality-shattering virtual-reality installations in various venues, compelling stories told in a powerful emerging medium.

Meanwhile, documentary premieres featured a host of intriguing profiles, including Frank Zappa, Robert Mapplethorpe, Maya Angelou, Michael Jackson, Norman Lear and O.J. Simpson. The U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize went to Weiner, a political pic about disgraced former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner.

Various special events also offered one-of-a-kind insights into the creation of new independent works at Sundance, while Slamdance was abuzz with its own collection of visionary filmmakers. That event, in venues nestled at the end of Main Street, was established by spirited filmmakers after their works were rejected by Sundance. In response, they formed their own festival, which turned 20 this year, and has only grown to enhance the cinematic experience for Sundance festivalgoers in Park City.

Sundance 2016 included a variety of virtual-reality experiences, as well as various panels such as the Adobe-sponsored “Editing Insights from Hail, Caesar! and Deadpool,” which featured Deadpool director Tim Miller and Hail, Caesar! editor Katie McQuerrey.

Visit the Sundance Film Festival website at sundance.org.

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