The biggest story at this year's Sundance Film Festival was the record-breaking bidding war for The Birth of a Nation, a prestige biopic about rebellious slave Nat Turner. When Fox Searchlight snatched it for $17.5 million — $5 million more than any other flick in the festival’s history — their intention was clear. Oscars So White? Not this year.
Thing is, The Birth of a Nation isn't very good. The ham-fisted throwback feels out of step with Sundance's less-publicized but more exciting showcase of black talents telling a range of black stories, from the sci-fi thriller Sleight, which will put 28-year-old African-American director J.D. Dillard on Marvel's shortlist, to the clever comedy How to Tell You're a Douchebag, in which a lothario struggles to woo a smart, polyamorous writer once she discovers his blog, “Occasionally Dating Black Women.”
Elsewhere in the festival, Craig Robinson and first-time actor Markees Christmas charmed crowds in Morris From America, about a father and son who move to whiter-than-white Heidelberg, Germany, and audiences were knocked sideways by the young, black and female cast of The Fits, a dreamlike coming-of-age drama about a high-school dance squad crippled by a contagion right out of Salem.
These films about characters, not racial constructs, testify to the variety of voices we should be hearing in 2016 — they think beyond Oscar season and insist that there's power in other points of view besides tragedies and Tyler Perry. To counter any doubters who automatically classify a film with black actors as “niche,” the small romance Southside With You, about a first date, pitched itself as Before Sunrise with a twist: The nervous lovebirds are Barack and Michelle Obama, proof that these literally are the stories that shape our world.
Remember these titles. (Most of them were bought for a fraction of Birth's high-pressure price tag.) And here are 10 more Sundance 2016 films to watch:
Tickled — When New Zealander journalist David Farrier stumbled across a video of competitive endurance tickling, shot here in Los Angeles, he expected the best he would get out of it is an absurd human-interest story. But when he reached out to the organizer for comment, he was ordered to shut up about the tickling — or else. Farrier's resulting documentary is one part quirky investigation, one part nail-biting thriller as he and co-director Dylan Reeve fly to California to spy on film shoots (“We could hear laughter coming out of the vents,” he whispers) and are, in turn, threatened by three men, one of whom followed the film to Sundance with a legal pad and took furious notes.
Spa Night — Actor Joe Seo won Sundance's Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance with his quiet turn as a gay Koreatown teenager whose part-time job at a sleazy sauna dares him to acknowledge his sexuality. This is the Los Angeles most filmmakers ignore: a culture clash where kids speak English, Korean and Spanish, with an ear for the successful-at-all-costs social pressures that stifle David and his struggling parents. For another fresh look at K-Town, check out The 4th, Andre Hyland's ultra-low-budget comedy of aggravation about a broke hipster whose bike gets crushed by a car with dangling truck nuts.
Weiner — In 2013, disgraced former senator Anthony Weiner agreed to let a documentary crew follow his campaign to become mayor of New York, a candidacy that started shakily, rebounded with a vengeance as audiences booed rivals who dredged up his two-year-old sexting scandal and then quickly collapsed when a Las Vegas porn starlet revealed Weiner's naughty nom-de-plume Carlos Danger. It's a ringside seat to the rise and fall of a self-destructively passionate politician, indicting both his need for validation from strangers and our need to throw — or tweet — the first stone.
Tallulah — A broke drifter (Ellen Page) surprises her ex-boyfriend's mom (Allison Janney) with a baby she claims is her granddaughter. It isn't — she's stolen the infant from a drunk — but the lie gives her a place to hide while the cops track her down. Page's feral performance as a dumpster-diving loudmouth anchors Sian Heder's pragmatic comedy about women trying, and failing, to be maternal.
Under the Shadow — Among Sundance's recent strain of art-house horror flicks — from The Babadook to It Follows to The Witch — this Iranian period piece might be the best. In 1988 Tehran, while Saddam Hussein bombs the city, a stubbornly liberal mother hoards forbidden Jane Fonda VHS tapes and rolls her eyes at neighbors who believe in child-torturing djinns. So what if djinns are mentioned in the Quran? She's more modern than that — except that in this collision of politics, personality and superstition, even the most modern women aren't free from ancient beliefs.
Holy Hell — In 1985, Will Allen joined a California hippie group named the Buddhafield and fell under the thrall of its leader, Michel, a beautiful ballet dancer who led self-actualization sessions in Speedos. Michel asked Allen to film his revolution. He documented the Buddhafield for 22 years. Allen's fascinating footage shows us how a utopia mutates into a cult, and how a true believer forgives himself for losing two decades of his life to a madman.
The Lure — If you only see one Polish mermaid murder musical this year, it must be Agnieszka Smoczynska's dark-hearted drama about two half-fish starlets who star in an erotic nightclub act in 1980s Warsaw until one of them swoons over the wrong boy. The Lure dirties up Hans Christian Andersen's sacrificial themes with a grimy neon backdrop and violent new twist: These killer mermaids literally eat men's hearts. Bonus — the soundtrack is fantastic.
Manchester by the Sea — Kenneth Lonergan's chilly drama about a hot-tempered janitor who refuses to move home and adopt his dead brother's teen son gives Casey Affleck the star turn he's long deserved. A full year before the 2017 Oscars, this is the performance to beat.
Author: The JT Leroy Story — Remember that strange literary scandal where the HIV-positive transgender teen whose memoir The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things made him a celebrity darling, only to be revealed as an impostor, the concoction of a mentally shaky San Francisco housewife who dressed her niece in a bad blonde wig and sent her into the world to party with Bono and Courtney Love? It doesn't matter if your memory is hazy. The housewife, Laura Albert, recorded every phone call she made as JT Leroy and gave her tapes to documentarian Jeff Feuerzeig, who tries to make sense of whatever would cause a woman to tangle herself in impossible lies. As an added treat, Albert plays messages from Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, who reveals his self-given nickname “the Corgan-a-tor.”
The Greasy Strangler — It's hard to love Jim Hosking's aggressively atonal comedy about a naked sociopath who slicks himself in lard, eats human eyeballs and seduces his virgin son's first girlfriend. It’s also hard to stop laughing. Weirdly, Greasy Strangler wasn't the only Sundance midnight movie to combine serial killing and sausages. In Kevin Smith's Yoga Hosers, two teen convenience store clerks defend their town against deadly Nazi bratwurst, or “Bratzis.” Hey Zeitgeist, I'll take one of each — with relish.