Correction appended, Feb 2.
The Sundance International Film Festival in Park City, Utah, has seen the premieres of dozens of critically acclaimed films, from Oscar nominees (Brooklyn, Boyhood) to cult comedies (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Napoleon Dynamite) to indie hits (Little Miss Sunshine, The Blair Witch Project). If 2016 was any different from years past, it was not in the number of potential future hits the festival churned but in the names of the distributors that snatched them up: More than ever, Netflix and Amazon were first to the bidding table with the biggest offers.
The shift in acquisitions reflects the changes in how people consume movies—with indies often finding bigger audiences on couches than in theaters. Still, no matter the vehicle by which they’re transmitted to viewers, these titles generated buzz among festival-goers and big offers from distributors. Here are the films to watch for this year:
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- The Key Role a Local Newspaper Played in the Trial Over Ahmaud Arbery's Murder
- TIME's Top 100 Photos of 2021
- 2021: The Year the Grift Kept Giving
The Birth of a Nation
By far the buzziest premiere at Sundance this year was this drama about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831. Written, directed and produced by Nate Parker, who also stars as Turner, the film took home the festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. dramatic competition, prompting early discussions of the 2017 Oscar race. It also broke the record for the highest amount ever spent to acquire a film from the festival, with Fox Searchlight doling out $17.5 million for distribution rights.
Manchester By the Sea
Many deemed writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Boston-based drama the must-see movie of the festival. The film stars Casey Affleck as a handyman summoned to his hometown by the news of his brother’s death who learns, upon his return, that he must assume guardianship of his teenage nephew (played in breakthrough fashion by Lucas Hedges). Acquired by Amazon, the film will debut theatrically before it’s available for streaming.
Former teen idol Nick Jonas makes a play for Serious Actor in this fraternity hazing drama adapted from Brad Land’s 2005 memoir. Jonas plays an Ohio teenager who survives a brutal post-frat party assault only to face further trauma as a pledge the following fall. With all of the unsavory headlines the Greek system has earned in recent years, the film is less exposé than it is exploration of the drivers and consequences of young male aggression and peer pressure at American universities. Goat was jointly acquired by Paramount Home Video and MTV.
Netflix acquired the streaming distribution rights to this Ellen Page drama, which finds the Juno star once again playing a reluctant mother-figure—in this case, to a baby neglected by an irresponsible parent. Playing opposite Allison Janney (as she did in Juno), Page is a vagabond whose aversion to attachment of any kind makes caring for an infant a tricky proposition. The film is the directorial debut of Orange Is the New Black writer Sian Heder.
This financial thriller is positioning itself as the first female-driven Wall Street flick, and its themes of workplace inequity are indeed timely. Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn stars as a high-achieving investment banker who, along with her deputy, is denied a well-deserved promotion. Tension builds as she forges ahead into the fray, becoming further entangled in the sketchy finance-world scene as a prosecutor played by Orange Is the New Black’s Alysia Reiner pokes around for dirt. Sony Classics snatched up the movie prior to the festival’s start.
Morris From America
In a coming-of-age tale that won the Special Jury Award for Individual Performance for Craig Robinson and a screenwriting award for scribe Chad Hartigan, breakout star Markees Christmas plays a teenager, Morris, who has just moved with his widowed father (Robinson) to Germany. An adjustment that would be difficult for any teen is compounded by Morris’ finding himself the only black teen among a sea of white peers, and he copes by immersing himself in the world of hip-hop (writing rap lyrics actually penned by Hartigan as a teen). Distributor A24 nabbed the rights to the film.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the actor who won the Special Jury Award for Individual Performance. It was Craig Robinson.
The Fundamentals of Caring
Another win for Netflix, this indie comedy stars Paul Rudd as an unemployed father, grieving the loss of his son, who becomes caregiver to a teen with muscular dystrophy. Rudd’s Ben Benjamin forces newcomer Craig Roberts’ Trevor out of his self-imposed seclusion by dragging him on a road trip to see the country’s strangest roadside attractions. Along the way, they pick up a runaway (Selena Gomez) and a pregnant woman (Megan Ferguson). It’s just the kind of charming human story that might have struggled in theaters but could draw a solid audience on the streaming service.
John Krasinski’s sophomore directorial feature, which prompted a late-stage acquisition by Sony Classics, is a quirky family dramedy anchored by Krasinski as the son of a small-town matriarch (Margo Martindale) who embarks on a hometown visit rife with dysfunction. Richard Jenkins plays dad while Anna Kendrick lends her quirky charm to the role of pregnant girlfriend. It’s a premise we’ve seen before, but its solid cast, along with the perennial appeal of watching a family that may indeed be crazier than your own, should attract an audience.
From John Carney, the Irish writer-director of Once and Begin Again, comes another charming musical dramedy, this one set in his home country during the mid-1980s. Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo stars as a teenager attempting to win the affection of a girl (Lucy Boynton) by forming a band with a rag-tag team of misfits. Their original songs draw inspiration from Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and Joy Division. The film is as much a portrait of brotherly love as it is one of young love, and its testament to the power of standing out, rather than blending into the adolescent mass, feels as good as the songs themselves.
Swiss Army Man
Easily the most divisive film at this year’s festival, Swiss Army Man had audiences running for the doors during a scene in which a corpse, played by Daniel Radcliffe, unleashed a torrent of flatulence. But testing the boundaries of that discomfort was sort of the point, says Radcliffe—who stars alongside Paul Dano and Mary Elizabeth Winstead—for he believes there is a real need to examine our unease with certain aspects of the human existence. Directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, veterans of the music video scene, won the Directing award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
The feature directorial debut of actress and writer Clea DuVall finds a group of friends gathered at a remote cabin as they attempt to convince one of the married couples among them to divorce. Starring, among others, Natasha Lyonne, Alia Shawkat, Cobie Smulders and Melanie Lynskey—who won a Special Jury Award for Individual Performance—it’s an update to the kind of thirty-something dramedy pioneered by The Big Chill. Paramount Home Media will partner with a theatrical distributor to release the film.
This behind-the-scenes look at Anthony Weiner’s 2013 campaign for mayor of New York City won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary Competition. The doc, co-directed by a former aide, details how the progressive politician went from serious contender to laughingstock Carlos Danger thanks to a sexting scandal, examining both media spin and the candidate’s own attempts to reclaim the narrative. Weiner will be released in theaters before playing on Showtime.
The festival’s other wiener was not a disgraced politician but a canine, the titular Dachshund in Todd Solondz’s first Sundance film since his 1995 black comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. The movie, nabbed by Amazon, plays like a series of shorts, connected by the dog’s passage from one miserable set of humans to the next. Studded with stars like Greta Gerwig, Ellen Burstyn and Danny DeVito, it will win fans among those who appreciate unfettered oddness and honest, if not always sunny, human observation.
This documentary portrait of former NFL safety Steve Gleason offers an intimate look at what it’s like to live with ALS. Gleason, who was diagnosed at 34, when his wife was pregnant with their first child, captured much of the footage himself over the span of four years, with director Clay Tweel weaving it all together. The film is as heavy on the laughs as it is on the tears, as its subject faces both fatherhood and his deteriorating physical condition with a mix of humor and vulnerability. Amazon will partner with Open Road to release the documentary both theatrically and on its streaming service.