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Sundance 2016 Offers a Sneak Peek at Narrative, Documentary and Midnight Selections

Another year of discovering the best new films—many unveiled at festivals varying from Sundance to Cannes to Toronto to AFI—is almost over. What better way to celebrate this exhilarating, exhausting year of cinema than to start all over again?  

With perfect timing, the Sundance Institute has revealed a large batch of movies that will show at its 2016 festival, as the Park City, Utah event continues to be the best place for movie-goers to kick off their film year. Here’s just a sampling of what will be playing within the U.S. Dramatic Competition, the U.S. Documentary Competition, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, World Cinema Documentary Competition, the NEXT program, and the Midnight program. 

The U.S. Dramatic Competition, per usual, has some very exciting world premieres up its sleeves from a diverse array of new talents, many making their directorial debut. “Red Hook Summer” scene-stealer Nate Parker has his first film behind the camera with the fantastically titled “The Birth of a Nation,” which tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave liberation movement in 1831 Virginia. Parker plays Turner, and is joined on-screen by the likes of Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Roger Guenveur Smith and more. 

Writer/director Meera Menon, who was awarded the Nora Ephron Prize at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival for her feature “Farah Goes Bang,” comes to Sundance with a financial drama called “Equity,” about a female investment banker who “leads a controversial tech IPO in the post-financial-crisis world.” The film stars Anna Gunn, James Purefoy, Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner

Actress Clea Duvall makes her writer/director debut with “The Intervention,” also appearing on-camera with a cast that includes Melanie Lynskey, Cobie Smulders, Alia Shawkat, Natasha Lyonne and Ben Schwartz. Duvall’s script is about a weekend getaway for four couples that’s revealed to be an intervention for one of them. 

“Orange is the New Black” writer Sian Heder will make her own debut as a writer/director with “Tallulah,” starring Ellen Page, Zachary Quinto, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard, Evan Jonigkeit and Uzo Aduba. The film is about a young woman who steals a toddler from a “wealthy, negligent mother,” and the effect that this action has on three women. 

Another debut comes from writer/director Elizabeth Wood, with her very curious “White Girl" (pictured above). This project, starring Morgan Saylor, Brian ‘Sene’ Marc, Justin Bartha, Chris Noth, India Menuez and Adrian Martinez, is about “a college student [who] goes to extremes to get her drug dealer boyfriend out of jail.” 

The 2016 Sundance Film Festival also boasts the world premiere of Richard Tanne's “‘Southside with You,” about the famous first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson in 1989 through Chicago’s South Side. The film features Parker Sawyers as the future president and Tika Sumpter as the future First Lady. 

With many other titles left to name, here are a few highlights from the U.S. Dramatic Competition: “Goat,” starring Nick Jonas, about a 19-year-old’s brutal experience in a fraternity; “Swiss Army Man,” starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, about a man’s journey with a dead body; Antonio Campos' “Christine,” starring Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Maria Dizzia, Tracy Letts and J. Smith Cameron, about a true-life female news reporter in Saraosta, Florida; “Morris from America,” from “This is Martin Bonner” director Chad Hartigan, about a 13-year-old American who moves to Germany, starring Markees Christmas and Craig Robinson

In the U.S. Documentary Competition, a whole set of current issues and true American stories are given the feature treatment through a nonfictional lens: “Audrie & Daisy,” from co-directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, focuses on the rippling effects of social media bullying from the perspectives of both genders involved. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s “Weiner” has a behind the-scenes look at the Anthony Weiner scandal as it unfolds. In the Kim A. Snyder documentary “Newtown,” the effects of the Newtown, CT shooting are presented, as “the traumatized community finds a new sense of purpose.” Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine" (pictured above), a “psychological thriller,” documents actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play Christine Chubbuck, the Florida television host who committed suicide on air in 1974. And along with many other titles—like Keith Fulton & Lou Pepe’s “The Bad Kids” (about at-risk students using education to battle poverty) and Sara Jordenö’s “Kiki,” about a LGBTQ safe space for youth—last but not least there’s “Holy Hell,” whose director is listed as “undisclosed” on the press release. The film is made up of twenty years of footage, as a young filmmaker documents their time within a spiritual community in 1980s West Hollywood that is torn apart two decades later. 

For the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, twelve films from around the world represent burgeoning directors, and what the fest promises to be “fresh perspectives and inventive styles.” From Belgium, France and the Netherlands comes “Belgica,” about two brothers who start a bar in Belgium, from “The Broken Circle Breakdown” director Felix van Groeningen. From the United Kingdom and India (and a director named Q) comes “Brahman Naman" (pictured above), about a misfit quiz team from Bangalore University looking to beat their rivals in Calcutta, and lose their virginity. As well, director Assad Fouladkar’s “Halal Love (and Sex)” is a “tragic yet comic” look at Muslim men and women trying to satiate their desires while following their religion’s regulations. It comes from Lebanon, Germany and the United Arab Emirates. 

Life experiences beyond those of Americans are explored in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, which proves to be just as diverse as its World Cinema Dramatic sibling. Michal Marczak’s “All These Sleepless Nights” follows two people as they explore the streets of Warsaw “in search for answers.” Coming from Iraq is director Bahman Ghobadi’s “A Flag Without a Country,” which follows a singer and a pilot who are a “source of strength to their society” in Kurdistan, one dealing with “life, war, and ISIS attacks.” The baffling story of a celebrity director and actress ex-wife who were kidnapped by Kim Jong-il to make movies (the subject of Paul Fischer’s recent book “A Kim Jong-il Production,”) gets the documentary treatment with Robert Cannan & Ross Adam’s U.K. film “The Lovers and the Despot" (pictured above). From Mexico, Maya Goded’s "Plaza de la Soledad" is a documentary about photographing prostitutes in Mexico City for over 20 years shows how they “strive for a better life—and the possibility of true love.” 

Anyone who has taken a walk on the weirder side of Sundance knows that the most challenging features live in the NEXT section. That seems to be the case with this year's line-up for the category, which includes “Dark Night" (this article's main image), from director Tim Sutton, who previously orchestrated a resonant atmosphere with suburban teens with “Pavilion.” With terrifying immediacy to all-too-recent events, this film (starring Robert Jumper, Anna Rose, Rosie Rodriguez, Karina Macias, Aaron Purvis and Eddie Cacciola) explores a “new American nightmare” that unfolds in a Cineplex massacre. Also on the bill, director Anne Rose Holmer makes her directorial debut with “The Fits" (pictured above), about an 11-year-old tomboy assimilating to a dance team that starts to suffer fainting spells (the film stars Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, Da’Sean Minor, Lauren Gibson, Makyla Burnam and Inayah Rodgers). And misogynists will get their due Sundance-style, possibly, with Tahir Jetter’s film “How To Tell You’re a Douchebag,” which is simply listed as a “romantic comedy that follows a misogynist who falls in love.” The film stars Charles Brice, DeWanda Wise, William Jackson Harper, Alexander Mulzac, Jenna Williams and
Tonye Patano.

And last but not least, there’s the Midnight section, a specifically cult-ready festival component that has given the world the kooky and/or spooky likes of “The Blair Witch Project,” “Delicatessen” and “The Babadook.” This year’s arrangement includes a few notable names, like Rob Zombie’s “31,” about five friends who are forced to survive 12 hours against evil clowns (starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Malcolm McDowell, Richard Blake, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Jeff Daniel Phillips and Meg Foster). Another recognizable name is Kevin Smith, who returns after “Tusk” with “Yoga Hosers" (pictured above), about two friends who uncover “an ancient evil buried beneath their Canadian convenience store” (starring Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith, Johnny Depp, Justin Long, Austin Butler and Tyler Posey). 

Not to be overlooked are the midnight titles whose ominous log-lines precede them, tempting viewers with either a massive discovery or a misfire. Writer/director Mickey Keating’s “Carnage Park” tells of a batch of crooks who botch a bank heist, and then find themselves fighting a “psychotic ex-military sniper” (starring Ashley Bell, Pat Healy, Alan Ruck, Darby Stanchfield, James Landry Hébert and Larry Fessenden). Similarly, there’s a very curious air to Babak Anvari’s “Under the Shadow,” about a mother and daughter in war-torn 1988 Tehran, who are stalked by a mysterious evil in their apartment (starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian and Arash Marandi). Last but not least, Richard Bates Jr.’s “Trash Fire” focuses on a young couple “entangled in a horrifying web of lies, deceit and murder.” This film stars Adrien Grenier, Angela Trimbur, AnnaLynne McCord, Fionnula Flanagan, Matthew Gray Gubler and Ray Santiago

With more titles from many other categories to be announced, this is just a massive sampling of what Sundance 2016 will offer. As always, will be there to cover the festival as thoroughly as our bodies and minds will let us, so be sure to tune in next month as we navigate Park City's essential festival, in search of the best and most special films of 2016. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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