This year's Sundance Film Festival was one of the most dramatic in years: Online players Amazon and Netflix didn't just make a few acquisitions, they pounced on films like nobody else, and Amazon walked away with the festival's best-reviewed film, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea. Against the backdrop of #OscarsSoWhite, Nate Parker's Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation scored the biggest Sundance deal in history. And Paul Dano rode Daniel Radcliffe's farting corpse like a jet ski. Somewhere in the middle of all of that, Esquire took a series of stunning, barely moving portraits. Altogether, 120 feature films premiered at the festival, and, no, we didn't see all of them, but we did see thirty—including these eleven that you're going to love.
Birth of a Nation
Don't let them see you sweat? Nah. Nate Parker's passion-project biopic of the enslaved preacher Nat Turner, who led a bloody uprising in 1831, thrives because the writer-director-star's do-or-die intensity is palpable in every scene. A historical epic shot on a shoestring budget, the film has plenty of rough edges, but Parker's zeal is never in doubt. Fox Searchlight acquired the film for a record-breaking haul of $17.5 million—and will push it hard into 2017's Oscar season. For Esquire's full report, click here.
Andrew Neel's frat-hazing drama could have settled for after-school-special cliché, but a game cast (including Nick Jonas, sterling newcomer Ben Schnetzer, and a foaming-at-the-mouth James Franco) elevates this story, even as the young actors drag each other through puke, blood, and mud. For Esquire's full report, click here.
There has probably never been a more thoroughly documented film about the inner life of a cult than this film: For twenty-two years, director Will Allen was a member—and chief videographer—of an idealistic cult called the Buddhafield, led by a charismatic porn star-turned-ballet dancer-turned-guru named Michel and populated by beautiful young things in search of a family. Through the decades, you see the cult curdle, even as the group's fitness-freak leader is revealed to be a warped and abusive narcissist. The film only gets scarier, especially as you realize how hard it is for the director to truly break free from Michel's influence.
The best weird-as-fuck film of the festival was not the Daniel Radcliffe-as-farting-corpse lark Swiss Army Man. It was Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska's musical-horror epic about two mermaids who become cabaret stars, while falling in love and dining on human flesh. The elaborate, high-concept dance numbers would make Katy Perry seethe with jealousy; the gore would impress Rob Zombie.
Manchester by the Sea
In 2000, playwright Kenneth Lonergan made his Sundance debut with his warmhearted family drama You Can Count on Me. Sixteen years later, he turns his tough-minded empathy toward the story of a struggling, emotionally-stunted widower (Casey Affleck) who returns home to take care of his wise-ass nephew, played by the relentlessly likeable breakout actor Lucas Hedges. (Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler are also excellent). Adult in the best possible way, laced with genuine laughs, and gut-punch surprising at moments, Lonergan's drama isn't just one of the best films of the festival, it's sure to be one of the best of this year.
Once director John Carney hasn't just done it again. His new musical film, about a rag-tag group of boys who form a band so the lead singer (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) can seduce the cutest girl in town, is an instant, top-of-the-pops classic: a desert-island-disc love-letter to Dublin, teenage love, and the early days of the music video (and Duran Duran). When Weinstein releases the film this spring, bring a date.
James Schamus ran Focus Features, and co-wrote three Ang Lee films: The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain. For his directorial debut, he adapts Philip Roth's coming-of-age novel about a Jewish kid (Logan Lerman) at a Christian college—and does so with a keen eye and a wicked sense of humor. Lionsgate purchased it out of the fest; look for awards buzz to build around his script and terrific supporting actor, playwright Tracy Letts.
Southside with You
This film honestly shouldn't work, but halfway through Richard Tanne's story about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date in the 1989, an unexpected thing happens: You stop thinking about what this film has to say about the First Couple, and you begin to take in what this film says about love. For more on this lovely romance, starring Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, click here.
Filmmaker So Yong Kim is a master of American naturalism: Her new drama, starring Jena Malone and Riley Keough as two old friends with an unshakeable but strained bond, is her best yet--and a breakthrough moment for Keough, the granddaughter of Elvis Presley (who, let's be real, never made a film as good as this).
If David Farrier and Dylan Reeve's film was just a film about people who get off on tickling videos, that might be enjoyable enough. But as soon as the New Zealand reporters begin digging into this subculture, they get sucked into an underworld of fake identities, online harassment, identity theft, and manipulation. What begins as a profile of a quirky subculture becomes an online mystery-horror thriller, in which the bogeyman is everywhere.
The most underrated film of the festival, Elizabeth Wood's party-monster rager of a film made much of this year's lineup look anemic. A phenomenal, no-holds-barred Morgan Saylor lets it rip as a messy, coke-snorting, drug-dealing young woman who has no clue what the hell she's doing or who she's hurting in New York, yet gets away with it because, well, she's a white girl. The fact that it was one of the festival's most divisive films is a testament to its relentless, messy honesty: Wood both assembled one of the best (and most diverse) acting ensembles of the festival and established herself as an exciting director to watch, with real cinematic chops.