Nearly 100 feature films had their world premieres at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah this year. The average moviegoer will never hear of about 80 of them, give or take. Those movies will play at art-house theaters or via video on demand (VOD), and some will be successful within their realm, but they’ll never be part of the conversation for casual movie fans. So which Sundance movies will you be hearing about this year? What new indie gems should you be looking forward to? Here are seven to make a note of.
1. THE BIRTH OF A NATION
The Birth of a Nation
—writer-director-star Nate Parker's account of Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion—was undoubtedly the most talked about film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. After its rapturously received first screening (“stirring, soulful, and incendiary,” “an articulate howl of anguish and rage”), it was the subject of a bidding war that ended with Fox Searchlight paying $17.5 million for it—the highest price tag in Sundance history. (Netflix offered even more but was turned down because Parker wanted a wide theatrical release.) The film also benefited from great timing, premiering the same week that the Academy Awards were being criticized for being too white and the Academy was scrambling to increase diversity among its members.
What’s next: Fox Searchlight will definitely push it for awards consideration, but don’t expect them to hold it until the end of the year. They’ll want to strike while the iron is hot and get it out soon. Look for it in theaters this summer.
2. UNDER THE SHADOW
An Iranian horror film set during the 1980s war with Iraq didn’t ping anyone’s radar before the festival, where it was one of nine movies in Sundance’s Midnight section. Once people saw it, though, the pings came fast and loud (“terrifying, a spooky ghost story that singes the nerves as much as it coddles the mind”), with many favorable comparisons to 2014 Sundance breakout The Babadook. (They have similar scenarios: In Under the Shadow, a mother and her young daughter are alone in an apartment where there might be an evil presence, while all around them bombs are falling.) Foreign language horror is a tricky sell—the young target audience for horror tends to eschew subtitles—but you can expect this one to earn a devoted following by those who do see it.
What’s next: Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films will release it in a handful of theaters and on VOD, probably sometime in 2016. Netflix bought the worldwide streaming rights, so it will end up there after everything else.
The most universally praised movie at Sundance 2016 was this drama by Kenneth Lonergan, whose You Can Count on Me was a hit (and subsequent Oscar nominee) way back at Sundance 2000. Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as a wrecked man who faces further pain when his brother dies and leaves him guardianship of his 16-year-old son. Critics called it "pitch-perfect filmmaking" and "the finest possible incarnation of the sort of starry, delicate drama that is a festival standard."
What’s next: When Amazon bought distribution rights (theatrical and streaming), the deal included money to promote the film for awards like next year’s Oscars. So that probably means it’ll be in theaters at the end of the year, a.k.a. "awards season."
4. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
This was another crowd-pleaser, an adventure comedy about a rebellious teen and his foster uncle (Sam Neill) evading capture in the New Zealand wilderness. It was directed by Flight of the Conchords collaborator Taika Waititi, whose profile has risen lately because he’s making the next Thor movie. (He also directed and co-starred in the hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows.) One critic called it “a sweetly told laugh-out-loud adventure”; another said it’s one of the few “truly fantastic kids movies.”
What’s next: You’ll probably have to keep your eyes peeled for this one, as it’s being distributed by The Orchard, a newcomer with only one theatrical release, Digging for Fire, under its belt. Expect it to play on a few screens but mostly be a VOD release sometime in 2016.
Courtesy Sundance Film Festival
Critics emerging from the first public screening of this 1980s-set Irish musical from the director of Once could barely contain their enthusiasm on Twitter, using words like “joyful,” “smile,” “crowd-pleaser,” and “delight,” plus many references to its infectious soundtrack (which has original songs as well as ’80s classics). John Carney’s Once follow-up, Begin Again, fared poorly when it was released in 2013, but Sing Street seems to be a (dance) step back in the right direction.
What’s next: If you’re in the U.K., you can see it in theaters in March. The Weinstein Company has distribution rights in the U.S., where it will probably hit theaters this summer.
6. MORRIS FROM AMERICA
Craig Robinson from The Office plays the dad in this father-son coming-of-age comedy about black Americans living in Germany, and Sundance audiences loved him. But there was even more praise for Markees Christmas, the newcomer who plays his 13-year-old son nursing a crush on a haughty German girl. Another big selling point: the old-school ‘90s hip-hop soundtrack, which Robinson and Christmas quote from frequently.
What’s next: It was picked up by hot new indie distributor A24, whose 2015 releases included Ex Machina, Room, and The End of the Tour. That means you’ll probably find it in theaters (maybe even hundreds of them) sometime this year, and probably on VOD as well.
SWISS ARMY MAN
Maybe you heard about this one, not by its title, but by the common description: “the Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie.” Swiss Army Man is indeed about a man (Paul Dano) on a desert island who finds a flatulent corpse played by Radcliffe. (The title refers to the many uses that the man finds for the dead body, including using its post-mortem erection as a compass.) The absurdist, juvenile comedy wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, prompting more than the usual number of walkouts at the premiere screening and dividing critics. But the people who liked it really liked it.
What’s next: A24 picked this one up, too, though they probably won’t give it quite as wide a release as Morris from America. An existential gas-oriented farce is tough to market, even with Harry Potter. Still, look for it at your nearest art-house theater in 2016.