Sundance 2017: A Look At The Year’s Best New Indie Films

I’ve been so busy covering the Oscars the past month that I didn’t get a chance to cover any other big news. Specifically, I never got a chance to discuss the hits coming out of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. So, one month later, allow me to tell you all about the hit indie movies we’ll be seeing in the next year.

Let’s start with the two big winners, the Jury Prize and the Audience Award. The Jury Prize went to Blue Ruin/Green Room director Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, a thriller which tells the story of a burglarized woman who tracks down the thieves with her obnoxious neighbors, starring Melanie Lynskey, Jane Levy, and Elijah Wood. The film is currently on Netflix, if you have any interest (I’ll be checking it out shortly). Meanwhile, the Audience Award went to Crown Heights, a film based on a This American Life episode, and chronicles the amazing story of Colin Warner, a man falsely accused of murder, and his best friend Carl King, who devoted his life to proving Colin’s innocence. The film stars Keith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha as the two friends, as well as Nestor Carbonell, Brian Tyree Henry and Bill Camp. The film has been picked up by Amazon Studios, fresh off of the success of awards success with Manchester by the Sea, and will be in theatres later this year. Both films were critical smashes

Speaking of awards, major Oscar contender Mudbound shook things up by going to Netflix, which leaves its awards chances up in the air (Netflix has major success with their television programs, but are looked down upon in the film races). However, the film still drew praise for its direction, screenplay, and acting (particularly Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, and Garrett Hedlund), and could be the next Manchester, Boyhood, or Brooklyn at the Oscars. Meanwhile, Oscar contender The Yellow Birds had the opposite reaction, with many critics panning the film’s execution and filmmaking, although they did appreciate performances by Alden Ehrenreich, Tye Sheridan, Jack Huston, and especially Jennifer Aniston. Nevertheless, this seems like a film that’s finding itself on the outside looking in for the Oscar race.

Other critical hits included Wind River, Patti Cake$, Thoroughbred and Call Me By Your Name. Wind River is the third film written by Taylor Sheridan, who enjoys using terse stories of crime to explore bigger themes, after Sicario and Hell or High Water. He also will direct this film, which tells the story of an investigation of murder on a Native American Reservation, as conducted by Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. Meanwhile, Patti Cake$ tells the story of a young girl, played by Danielle MacDonald, who desires to rap while living at home with her troubled mother, played by Amy Schumer’s incredibly talented friend Bridget Everett. Meanwhile, the thriller Thoroughbred received a series of great reviews, both because of its tense story and because of the final performance of Anton Yelchin. It features two centerpiece performances by rising stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke, and has been picked up by Focus for release later this year. And finally, there’s the critical smash of Call Me By Your Name, a film following a 17-year old who begins an affair with a 24-year old academic, played by Armie Hammer. The film has a stunning 100% approval rating, and has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for a release later this year, probably during Oscar season.

Yes, that is literally Casey Affleck wearing a ghost costume to represent being a ghost. Thanks, Sundance.

Sundance was also the home to many surrealist stories that used their odd concepts to explore deeper, surrealist ideas. The oddest was probably A Ghost Story, a film directed by acclaimed indie filmmaker David Lowery. Fresh off his big-budget smash Pete’s Dragon, this film literally stars only Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a couple ripped apart by Affleck’s death, reflected in him portraying a ghost complete with a sheet over his head. As odd a premise as this is, it is getting absolute raves as the best existential drama in ages. Then there’s Lemon, the stereotypical story about a man’s life falling apart after his ten-year relationship ending. However, the film will be anything but, considering it is written by and starring Brett Gelman, the surrealist and anti-humor star of Eagleheart and frequent Comedy Bang! Bang! guest (his humor has been called so polarizing he has actually been “banned” from the show several times. I personally adore him). The cast includes Judy Greer, Michael Cera, Shiri Appleby, Gillian Jacobs, Rhea Perlman, and Martin Starr. Graphic novel adaptation Wilson starring Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern was supposed to be a surrealist extravaganza, but left most critics cold. Fox Searchlight will still be releasing the film on March 24th. Jack Black is also starring in an absurdist dramedy about a polka star who tricked his fans into a Ponzi Scheme. The film, titled The Polka King, received strong reviews and will be out later this year.

However, there are two films I am most excited about from this festival: The Big Sick and Brigsby Bear. The Big Sick is written by comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his equally funny wife Emily V. Gordon, and is a romantic comedy in the vein of the Golden Era (I’m talking Hugh Grant and Meg Ryan), inspired by their own lives. It follows Kumail (Nanjiani himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) as they begin to fall in love despite objections from both of their families (he’s a Pakistani Muslim and she’s white) and she battles a rare disease. The rest of the cast includes Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Anupam Kher, and one of my favorite comedians Bo Burnham. The film will be released by Amazon Studios on July 14th, the couple’s tenth anniversary. As for Brigsby Bear, the film is an anti-comedy (in simplest terms, something that is funny by not being funny, a la The Lonely Island), written by and starring the SNL great Kyle Mooney. The film follows a young man who was kidnapped as a child and kept in a bunker for several years with only a made-up show to entertain him: Brigsby Bear, a Barney-esque character. Upon his release, he decides to bring the character that brought him joy to life, and sets out to create a motion picture dedicated to the creation of his captor. Mark Hamill plays the captor, and the rest of the cast includes Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear, Andy Samberg, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, and Beck Bennett.

Other hits at the festival include Lily Collins anorexia drama To The Bone (set for release by Netflix), the Groundhog Day-esque Before I Fall starring Zoey Deutch (coming to theaters this Friday), and the Instagram celebrity satire Ingrid Goes West, starring Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen, which has been acquired by Neon and has some of the greatest reviews of the festival. As for documentaries, the two most powerful were Strong Island, an exploration of director Yance Ford’s life in the wake of her brother’s murder by a mechanic during a dispute, and The Force, a film which explores the tensions and complexities of the Oakland Police Force (one of the most infamous in the world). And Al Gore is apparently back with An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. I personally hated the first one, and thing it was more of a net loss in terms of climate change recognition than a gain, so I’m not looking forward to this one at all, but that’s just me. None of these documentaries have release dates yet.

So that’s this year’s crop of Sundance contenders. Will any be box office hits? Will any flop? Is the next Best Picture winner a part of this field? We’ll know soon enough as the 2017 slate of film continues to push ahead at full force.

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