This year, Exclaim! was fortunate enough to attend the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Aside from listening to hot film industry gossip while we waited in long-ass lines for food, transportation and movie screenings, we also managed to see some great films. Sundance sets the pulse for the year of cinema, so consider this our guide for what to check out (and what to avoid) in 2016.
Director Will Allen spent 20 years as the official videographer for a weirdo cult called the Buddhafield, so that means he had an arsenal of footage to draw from when he finally escaped the clutches of his odd, Speedo-wearing leader. The resulting Holy Hell is not without its flaws (it kinda falls apart at the end), but the deep well of behind-the-scenes footage will have you on the edge of your seat for most of the documentary.
If you're looking for a new spin on the popular coming-of-age movie, Morris from America is the film for you. The film stars Markees Christmas as Morris, a young black boy who bonds with his father (Craig Robinson) over their mutual love of hip-hop. Only thing is, they're doing so while starting a new life in rural Germany. Completely out of place, Morris eventually starts hanging out with a techno-loving teenager who steals his heart. The beats are familiar, but Morris from America offers an entirely fresh perspective on this classic story.
With a history of music videos for the likes of Black Dice and Animal Collective (including the band's ODDSAC oddity), Danny Perez is already a well-known name in some circles. With Antibirth, he has written and directed his first narrative feature, and the resulting film is an instant midnight classic. Natasha Lyonne stars as a stoner with a disgusting alien pregnancy, and the film unfolds as a body horror comedy that does Troma better than Troma.
Unfortunately, there were a handful of films that let us down at Sundance. With a cast that included Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate and Adam Pally, Joshy should have been the year's best comedy but ultimately flubbed its tone. Rather than settle on a bro comedy, a mumblecore relationship drama or something else altogether, the film instead felt like an unfocused mess.
Despite some solid performances and strong directing, The Land felt like an after-school special. It's a shame, too, because the film arrived with some big-name daps — it co-stars Erykah Badu, and it was executive produced by Nas.
Christine is based on the same true story as Network, but it failed to prove why it should exist when we've already got Sidney Lumet's 1976 classic. If you know the story you won't have a reason to watch, and if you don't know the story you'll likely be bored until its explosive conclusion.
Gasland director Josh Fox was too obnoxious for his own good in the ultimately cloying climate-change doc How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change. It's a shame because there are some good facts presented in here, but they're diluted with way too much footage of Fox playing the banjo and dancing around his apartment.
In Love & Friendship, director Whit Stillman applies his love of high-society backstabbing to the world of Jane Austen. While some period pieces are stuffy, Stillman maintains his acerbic with throughout. Combined with excellent performances from Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett, it's another fantastic film from the ever-reliable Stillman.
X Japan is probably the only band that's sold 30 million records while wallowing in North American obscurity, but We Are X will certainly change that. The film focuses in on co-founder, composer and drummer Yoshiki, whose entire career has been built around his own physical and emotional pain. He's not the only interesting member, however — frontman Toshi caused the band's 10-year hiatus when he joined a cult. We Are X is a unique, strange and compelling rock doc that'll have you air-drumming along by the end.
From Broad City writer Chris Kelly comes a film that will have you laugh hard and cry even harder. Other People opens with Molly Shannon dying of cancer, then rewinds a year to make us watch her fade away. There are some truly painful emotions on display here, but the comedy aspect of this drama is not an afterthought. Instead, the sadness is countered with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, making Other People one of the funniest comedies (and saddest dramas) of the year.
Impoverished, broken, addicted and disinterested in school — these are The Bad Kids in Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe's latest collaborative film. As the principal of Black Rock High School, however, Vonda Viland's a real-life Tami Taylor. She speaks in inspirational maxims and rises before the sun to make sure they get to school on time. The Bad Kids presents some truly tragic human stories, then demonstrates an unspeakable amount of hope. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more inspiring doc this year.
Then there's Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan's brooding meditation on regret and redemption. Set in Massachusetts, the visuals are as relentless and cold as the unspeakable drama that unfolds for its characters, but the film's painful plot line is never tedious thanks to the outstanding performances from its ensemble cast.