PARK CITY, UTAH – Sundance is the sort of exploratory film festival where you can catch a documentary on whether the Internet dreams of itself, or see horror legend John Carpenter in a short about a supernatural killer, or watch a Peru/Qatar coproduction dramatizing the environmental fate of the Amazon.
It’s also a launchpad for the year’s coming mainstream hits. “Brooklyn,” with nominations for best picture, best adapted screenplay and best actress, debuted here in 2015. And this year’s presentation featured several features likely to spark attention in the run-up to next year’s awards season.
“Manchester by the Sea”: Kenneth Lonergan’s touching film seems likely to equal or surpass “Brooklyn” in next year’s Oscars. A humane drama about the complicated lives of a blue-collar family, it shows Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) in masterful form. He’s a superb writer of relatable characters and a director leading viewers to spasms of laughter, then deeply felt tears. Casey Affleck plays a man facing a legal challenge that resurrects a long buried family crisis, giving the kind of performance that raises the bar so high it breaks it. Lonergan’s characters speak to each other like real people, but their small talk and silences communicate in a profound way. It is real life and pure artistry hand in hand.
“Weiner”: Here is a fine portrait of political campaigning in the Internet age. The doc’s filmmakers gained remarkable fly-on-the-wall access to scandal-plagued congressman Anthony Weiner’s comeback attempt in New York City’s mayoral race. They capture Weiner’s complex personality and the news media’s relentless focus on controversy. While Weiner works to rebuild the career that his sexting torpedoed, his political views are submerged by his private mistakes. It’s an unsparing but compassionate comedy of errors, with his wife’s looks of anxiety and empathy acting as a silent Greek chorus to the saga’s tangled web of surprises.
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”: The winner of the Covert award as Sundance’s most adorable feature. Stories about a grumpy old cuss warming up to a sweet rascal are standard crowd-pleasers. That’s merely the blueprint of this funny New Zealand jewel. Star of tomorrow Julian Dennison plays a preteen troublemaker taken in by a crusty foster parent (Sam Neill) whose hiking retreat with the boy triggers a nationwide manhunt. The cantankerous pair cross paths with outback blockheads, a child protection officer and the extremely small army. It’s easy to see why Marvel grabbed director Taika Waititi to helm the next “Thor.” His walk-on appearance as a preacher flubbing a funeral is a highlight on its own.
“Maggie’s Plan”: Writer/director Rebecca Miller revives the sort of whip-smart romantic comedy that Woody Allen delivered in his prime. Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke play Manhattan academics who fall in love. Too bad he’s married to a top-ranked professor (Julianne Moore). The unlikely triangle plumbs New York neuroses to absurd depths, with Miller guiding her stellar cast to new heights. The film’s best surprise is Gerwig as the well-intentioned control freak, a role that carries her to major league stardom.
“Miles Ahead”: Don Cheadle directs, writes and stars in this anti-biopic. It turns the late career comeback of jazz genius Miles Davis into a mix of fact-based biography, thriller and fantasy. Cheadle’s impersonation and trumpet work are remarkably accurate. Davis’ unlikely relationship with a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) who becomes his partner in drugs and rebellion is an entertaining new take on the buddy comedy.
“Green Room”: Jeremy Saulnier’s wicked survival saga combines the tension of 1980s siege thrillers with sick jokes. When a struggling punk band witnesses an offstage murder by skinheads, it becomes the neo-Nazis’ next target. The bloody battles that follow are like watching rival tarantulas in a jar. The against-type casting is flawless. Usually heartwarming Imogen Poots plays a petite bystander with a gallows humor streak of feral violence. The thugs are led by a frightening Patrick Stewart. As he faces off against band member Anton Yelchin, Saulnier creates a horrific meta-world of two “Star Trek” icons out to kill each other.
“Swiss Army Man”: None of these movies has this film’s go-for-broke weirdness, starring Paul Dano as a shipwrecked would-be suicide. He is drawn back to living when a corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe washes ashore and comes to life with a chatty streak and endless flatulence that makes him useful as a Jet Ski and bazooka. Turning Harry Potter into Harry Potty isn’t for many people’s taste — certainly not mine — but Sundance has something for everybody.
“The Birth of a Nation”: Nate Parker’s drama about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion made a sonic boom here. Fox Searchlight reportedly paid $17.5 million to acquire it, launching a tsunami of 2017 Oscar buzz. Parker earned legitimate admiration for the effort he invested in this passion project as producer, writer, director and star, and it respectably captures a socially significant event. Still, the touching film is no artistic home run, playing like a feature spinoff of “Roots.” It’s several rungs below Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” (which won Searchlight an Oscar), Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” or any film by Spike Lee. Premature excitement also triggered the memory of the $12 million paid at Sundance last year for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” which performed marginally at the box office and through awards season. Making a film is challenging; marketing it is often even harder.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186