The glossy hubbub of the Golden Globes, Oscars, and other hullabaloos of awards season tend to dominate conversations about movies this time of year, but hardcore cinephiles know to split their attentions in January between the Oscar race and the Sundance Film Festival. Among the most prestigious U.S. film festivals and a crucial launching board for many of the indie darlings in the year to come, Sundance is a vital annual engagement on the film calendar. Hollywood will migrate en masse to Park City, Utah for 10 days of schmoozing and movies on Jan. 21, making now the perfect time to bone up on what to expect from the programming slate.
The stereotypical Sundance film is an American independent, maybe directed by an actor trying their hand on the other side of the camera, often revolving around comfortably upper-middle-class folks’ personal crises. But the festival also lends some valuable exposure to foreign pictures still hungry for wider U.S. distribution, drawing attention to little-seen pictures whose only other hope for a bump in publicity would be a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the Oscars. (If there be any immutable truth in this world, it’s that foreign films are a hard sell for American audiences.) Read on below for a sampling of five films scheduled to play at Sundance that are more than worth looking out for in 2016, and then go forth and sound refined at cocktail parties.
Embrace of the Serpent (U.S. release Feb. 17)
Like Jospeh Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness retold from the perspective of the colonized rather than the colonists, Colombia’s submission to this year’s Academy Awards tracks two white men as they move downriver and their relationship with Karamakate, a native Amazon shaman and the last survivor of his tribe. The crisp black-and-white photography somehow makes the visuals even more lush and overgrown instead of washing them out, and reports from Cannes were overwhelmingly positive. The Film Stage‘s Giovanni Marchini Camia placed it as his #3 pick for 2015, and the newly-released trailer foretells not only savage beauty, but a redefinition of what it is that makes some beauty savage and others not so.
Rams (U.S. release Feb. 3)
The far-off island nation of Iceland conjures to mind visions of rolling hills, pronunciation-proof names, the music of Björk and Sigur Rós, and of course, hilarity! At least, it will once Grímur Hákonarson’s deadpan comedy Rams inevitably charms domestic audiences and rockets Icelandic cinema to the top of the world stage. Unlikely as all that is to happen, Rams does still look like a drily funny piece of work, with two rival farmers and estranged brothers breaking their 40-year feud to secure their populations of sheep after an outbreak of a deadly sheep-disease hits their small village. Iceland? Sheep-diseases? How could it not be a laugh riot?
The Lobster (U.S. release March 11)
This comedy about romance (an important distinction from a romantic comedy, which this is most certainly not) is in the English language and features Hollywood A-listers such as Colin Farrell and John C. Reilly, but a work this self-assuredly strange and blackly humorous could’ve only come from the mind of Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth). It’s a pretty boilerplate romantic premise: boy is taken to facility, boy is forcibly set up with girl against the threat of transmogrification into an animal, boy feigns attraction to girl, boy meets other girl, boy falls for girl, society attempts to stamp out non-sanctioned attraction between boy and girl, boy watches in horror as John C. Reilly is brutally punished for furtive masturbation, etc. etc. You know. The usual.
Cemetery of Splendor (U.S. release varies by city, begins in early March)
To quote Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight, let’s slow it down. Let’s slow it way down. Playing like an ADD patient’s worst nightmare, this poetical vision of modern Thailand from master Apichatpong Weerasethakul (you may call him “Joe”) luxuriates in unbroken, unmoving takes that stretch on for minutes at a time. It can be jarring to get used to, but once viewers have acclimated to the film’s leisurely pace, there are untold bounties of beauty hidden within every frame. Humor, too; for a hushed, lyrical art film from Thailand, there are a surprising number of boner jokes contained within.
Viva (U.S. release Feb. 5)
Doubly timely, Viva plays directly to the relatively new American fascinations with our now-open neighbors in Cuba as well as the art of drag-queen performance. Though directed by Irishmen Paddy Breathnach and Mark O’Halloran, the film centers on the self-christened Viva, a young Cuban boy who dreams of breaking it big in the colorful world of cross-dressing lip-syncing. Pressures from his traditionalist family as well as sociological norms at large will both conspire to keep him from his done-up destiny, but aspirations this true cannot be denied. An exuberant work of considerable social importance, Viva could be the latest in a line of films — this year’s dynamite Tangerine, for one — that toy with gender as their main theme.