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12 Films to Anticipate at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

Swiss Army Man

As always, Sundance is chock full of anticipated films, many by friends, colleagues and filmmakers we track here at the magazine. Below are 12 films I’m really hoping to see while I’m in Park City.

Swiss Army Man. Consider The Daniels’s (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schweine) arresting and surreal string of music videos and short films their very long tease for a debut feature that promises to be one of the Dramatic Competition’s most anarchic entries. The film stars Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano and, explaining the title, Schweine told Filmmaker last summer, when The Daniels made our 25 New Faces list, that the film is “about a man stranded in the wilderness who discovers a dead body and uses it as a multi-purpose tool.” Expect to have your mind blown.

Indignation. Disclosures abound: James Schamus is a personal friend and professional colleague. Way back in the day, he was invited by the IFP to edit their Off-Hollywood Report, Filmmaker’s precursor magazine, and asked me to be the co-editor. (You know the rest of that story.) So, let me just say that it is thrilling for me to watch this producer, screenwriter and executive step behind the camera to bring his keen intelligence and storytelling chops to Indignation, Philip Roth’s 1951-set tale of generational anxieties. He’s got a fantastic cast, led by Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon and Tracy Letts, and I know the film will kick the asses of anyone who has ever thought to themselves, “What I really want to do is direct….”

Sleight. Screenwriter and now director J.D. Dillard has come up through the machinery of Bad Robot, working as an assistant at J.J. Abrams’s production company. He even travelled abroad to be on the Star Wars set, but his debut feature is a more down-home affair, one that adds a gentle sci-fi inflection to a story set in the world of Los Angeles street magic. Dillard himself knows his way around the pasteboards, and he’s brought various experts from the world of magic and its youthful offshoot, cardistry, along for the ride.

Cameraperson. Very high on my list is Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, described in the Sundance catalog as a “visually radical memoir” by one of the sharpest documentary minds around. You know Johnson as a director of photography on films like The Oath, Two Towns of Jasper and Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Maybe you caught her Field of Vision short, The Above, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. Here, she revisits old shoots and culls through her archive of footage to reframe moments of her past work and create a story that is both personal and about the act of recording.

All These Sleepless Nights. There’s tremendous buzz on this World Cinema Documentary, which looks at a pair of Warsaw twentysomethings as they spend a summer in a post-breakup haze. Michal Marczak’s film is said to have a visual style influenced by the French new wave and the kind of deep insight into its characters that might be found in literary fiction.

Kate Plays Christine. “Here’s something to know about me,” I said to a director the other day about my personal taste. “I can sometimes go down a meta rabbit hole.” In other words, my love of twisty, self-reflexive filmmaking experiments lands me smack in the target audience for Robert Greene’s hybrid documentary, Kate Plays Christine, in which independent actress Kate Lyn Sheil stars in a “cheap ’70s soap opera” version of the story of Florida TV anchor Christine Chubbuck, who blew her brains out on air.

Manchester By the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan’s prior feature, Margaret was, for my money, the best independent film of the last decade. It was also criminally under-seen and under-distributed, the result of a tangled, contentious production for the ages. There have been no litigation reports regarding Lonergan’s latest, an intimate drama starring Ben Affleck as a man returning home to care for the teenage nephew of his recently deceased brother. Here’s hoping that Lonergan’s dramatic powers remain undiminished while the Sundance premiere insures that more people actually see this film.

Goat. This violent drama about fraternity hazing with a script by David Gordon Green has been in the works for over a decade. Christine Vachon and Killer Films stuck with it, though, finally landing it in the hands of director Andrew Neel, who comes off one of my favorite independent features of recent years, King Kelly. Eager to see his kinetic sensibility applied to this tale.

The Birth of a Nation. A historical drama sure to contain potent contemporary resonances, this first feature by actor Nate Parker tells the story of former slave Nat Turner and his 1831 liberation movement.

Uncle Howard. Many, many years ago, Robin O’Hara and I were set to work with director Howard Brookner on a 25-minute short for the now-defunct PBS series, Alive from Off Center. Brookner had AIDS, and by the time the project moved forward, he was too sick to direct. So, I’m personally quite interested in seeing this feature doc by his nephew Aaron Brookner, a bit of cinematic sleuthing into his uncle’s legacy as well as an evocation of the vibrant downtown arts scene of the 1980s.

Jacqueline (Argentine). The debut feature of 25 New Face Bernardo Britto, whose Yearbook was one of the most exquisite and moving shorts of recent years. Expect a similar level of playful invention in this political thriller of sorts starring Wyatt Cenac.

Newtown. Kim Snyder’s documentary on the Newtown school shooting — a documentary that focuses on the grief of the families who have lost children — promises to be one of the most devastating and necessary films of the festival. In a world where gun control legislation is thwarted while conspiracy theorists dub shooting survivors “crisis actors,” Newtown promises to give us, sadly, too many faces to confront.

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