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What’s Hot at Sundance 2016

The 2016 Sundance Film Festival started Thursday, and already a film has been purchased… by Amazon. One can say that this is representative of the market for indie films… that Amazon and Netflix and Hulu are the hot players; and VR-Virtual Reality is the new buzzword.

But who cares about trends and platforms. Let’s talk films and stories.

SAND STORM (Israel): As wedding festivities get underway in a Bedouin village in Israel, Jalila finds herself in the awkward position of hosting her husband Suliman’s marriage to a second, much younger wife. During the celebration, Jalila stumbles across eldest daughter Layla’s involvement with a boy from her university—a strictly forbidden liaison that would shame the family. Burying the indignity of Suliman and his new bride living next door, Jalila also tries to contain Layla’s situation by clamping down on her. But younger and possessed of a boundless spirit, Layla sees a different life for herself. A story of tradition, modernity, and divided family, Sand Storm upends expectations. At its core, Elite Zexer’s mesmerizing debut feature portrays the emotionally layered relationship between mother and daughter, both bound by custom while struggling to adapt to a changing world. Zexer, a TAU graduate, spent ten years with Bedouin women. In Arabic with English subtitles. Produced by Rami Yehoshua, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, Ygal Mograbi, Haim Mecklberg, and Estee Yacov-Mecklberg. Starring Lamis Ammar, Ruba Blal-Asfour, Haitham Omari, Khadija Alakel, and Jalal Masarwa.

THE SETTLERS (France/Canada/Israel/Germany): A documentary. In the nearly 50 years since Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens have established communities in the West Bank. The settlers, as these residents are known, have been viewed by some as the righteous vanguard of modern Zionism and by others as zealots and squatters who are impediments to peace. Director Shimon Dotan, who currently teaches at NYU, opens up a space in between these extremes, offering unprecedented access to pioneers of the historical settlement movement and a diverse range of modern-day settlers, religious and secular alike. The result is a comprehensive, provocative exploration of the controversial communities who continue to extend an inordinate influence on the sociopolitical destinies of Israel and Palestine. In English and Hebrew/Arabic with English subtitles. Dotan’s previous projects have included Hot House; Smile of the Lamb; Repeat Dive; and You Can Thank Me Later

BACON AND GOD’S WRATH: A 9 minute short doc. A 90-year-old Jewish woman reflects on her life experiences as she prepares to try bacon for the first time. Directed by Sol Friedman who is based in Toronto, Canada.

ANOTHER KIND OF GIRL: A 9 minute short doc. Filmed during a media workshop for Syrian girls in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp, 17-year-old Khaldiya Jibawi meditates on how the camp has opened up new horizons and given her a sense of courage that she lacked in Syria. Khaldiya Jibawi is now 18 years old and from Dara’a, Syria, but she now lives in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp. Another Kind of Girl was her first time using a camera and making a film, and she continues to make videos when she can. Jibawi would like to start initiatives in the camp that will help other girls express their stories?through media, a comedy troupe, and theatre?and use the power of storytelling to create change in their community.

DINNER WITH FAMILY WITH BRETT GELMAN AND BRETT GELMAN’s FAMILY: A 23 minute short narrative. Brett Gelman throws his parents a dinner and tribute for their 40th anniversary with the help of legendary actors Tony Roberts and Patti LuPone. The evening soon unravels into a mind-melting comedic orgy of psychological torture and family dysfunction. Directed by Jason Woliner, Written by Brett Gelman and Jason Woliner. Woliner was the non-performing member of the MTV sketch comedy Human Giant and later served as showrunner and primary director on Adult Swim’s surreal action comedy Eagleheart. He is a director for Fox’s The Last Man on Earth and Comedy Central’s Nathan for You.

WEINER: A documentary that follows the fall and rise of former U.S. Congressman Anthony (call me Tony) Weiner. With unprecedented access to Anthony Weiner, his family, and his campaign team as they mount his New York City mayoral campaign, the film documents the impending political meltdown of epic proportions. During the campaign, Weiner is forced to admit to new sexting allegations. Yet, Weiner tries to forge ahead, but fails. Weiner teeters the line between political farce and personal tragedy, exposing the ex-congressman’s hubris while highlighting the sheer ugliness of the media’s takedown of his family. Directed, produced and shot by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. Prior to filmmaking, Kriegman worked as a political consultant and campaign advisor for local and national candidates—including for Congressman Weiner — years before the sexting scandal became public.

MI AMIGA DEL PARQUE (Argentina/Uruguay): While her filmmaker husband works in Chile, harried young mother Liz struggles to take care of her infant son. Feeling out of place amongst the tight-knit group of other parents at the park, and judged by her newly hired nanny, Liz is drawn to factory worker Rosa, a plain-talking single mother she meets at the swings one day. The friends’ increasingly apparent class differences, along with swirling rumors about Rosa’s motives, feed Liz’s suspicions that her new pal might be a sinister influence on her already fragile life. An honest appraisal of the public and private faces of motherhood, Mi Amiga del Parque casts the insecurities and exaltations of female friendship in equally sharp relief. In the role of Liz, Julieta Zylberberg fully embodies the anxieties and discomfort of a woman unraveling at the upheaval of her entire identity, while Ana Katz (who is also the film’s writer/director) plays the shrewd, fiery Rosa with a fierce sensitivity that earns both empathy and suspense.

KILLER: A 20 minute short. Directed by Matt Kazman, a filmmaker and bar mitzvah videographer. When Dusty masturbates for the first time, something terrible happens.

JOSHY: Written and directed by Miami-born Josh Baena. After his engagement ends badly, Josh decides to joins a few male friends for his bachelor-party in Ojai, California. A comedy about the emotionally inept nature of male love and bonding.

LIFE, ANIMATED: This documentary is about Owen Suskind. At three years old, Owen was a chatty, energetic little boy. Then he stopped speaking and disappeared into autism, At 7, Owen was engaged only by Disney films. One day, his father, Ron Suskind, donned a puppet—Iago, the wisecracking parrot from Aladdin—and asked “what’s it like to be you?” And poof! Owen replied, with dialogue from the movie. Life, Animated tells the story of how Owen found in Disney animation a pathway to language and a framework for making sense of the world. Roger Ross Williams directs.

SUITED: A documentary that introduces us to Bindle & Keep, a tailoring company based in Brooklyn, that caters to a diverse LGBTQ community and looks beyond the gender binary of male and female. Clothier duo Rae Tutera and Daniel Friedman provide good fits that aids gender nonconformists in identity, empowerment, and feeling good presenting themselves to a mirror and the world. The doc takes a modern, evolved look at gender through the conduit of clothing. Directed by Jason Benjamin, and produced by Sheila Nevins, Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner, Carly Hugo, Stacey Reiss, Ericka Naegle, and Sara Bernstein. The producers/director all got customer suits made for the Sundance premiere. In the doc, Lena Dunham’s queer sister gets a custom made suit for the first time. Lena was brought to tears when she tried on her own custom suit that actually fit her body, which is not a sample size. Based on a 2013 NYT profile of the tailors.

UNCLE HOWARD: When Howard Brookner lost his life to AIDS in 1989, the 35-year-old director had completed two feature documentaries and was in post-production on his narrative debut, Bloodhounds of Broadway. His boyfriend was no writer, Brad Gooch. Howard let his young nephew, Aaron, hang out on the set and walk around downtown. They had a secret handshake, and Howard gave Aaron a cool toy from Japan. Now 25 years later, Aaron, sets out on a quest to find the lost negative of Burroughs: The Movie, his uncle’s critically-acclaimed portrait of legendary author William S. Burroughs. When Aaron uncovers Uncle Howard’s extensive archive in Burroughs’ bunker, it not only revives the film for a new generation, but also opens a vibrant window on New York City’s creative culture from the 1970s and ‘80s, and inspires a wide-ranging exploration of his beloved uncle’s legacy. Aaron connects with Uncle Howard’s friends, lovers, and collaborators (including Jim Jarmusch) through the treasure trove of outtakes and video diaries he discovers, Aaron constructs at once a paean and an elegy to a complex, creative man—cut down, like so many others of his generation, in his prime, but who lived his short life to its fullest.

LITTLE MEN: Jake (Theo Taplitz) is a quiet, sensitive middle schooler with dreams of being an artist. He meets the affably brash Tony (Michael Barbieri) at his grandfather’s funeral, and the unlikely pair become friends. But then a rent dispute breaks out between Jake’s father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Brian has inherited the Brooklyn building that Leonor rents for her first floor shop. It is a story of friendship, bonds, changing neighborhoods and gentrification. Directed by Ira Sachs. Written by Mauricio Zacharias and Ira Sachs.

UNLOCKING THE CAGE. A documentary by famed filmmakers D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. This doc follows Jewish, vegetarian, animal rights activist Steven Wise into the courtroom for an unprecedented battle that seeks to utilize the writ of habeas corpus to expand legal “personhood” to include certain animals. Wise’s unusual plaintiffs—chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko, once famed showbiz stars—are now living in filth, struggling to survive. Wise and his impassioned legal team take us into the field, revealing gripping evidence of such abuse and plunging us into the intricacies of their case as they probe preconceived notions of what it means to be a non-human animal.

NORMAN LEAR. JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU: A documentary. Arguably the most influential creator, writer, and producer in the history of television, Norman Lear brought primetime into step with the times… Good Times. His shows included All In the Family, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. He shifted the national consciousness, injecting enlightened humanism into sociopolitical debates on race, class, creed, and feminism. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is the definitive chronicle of Mr. Lear’s life, work, and achievements, but it is so much more than an arm’s-length, past-tense biopic; at 93, Mr. Lear is as vital and engaged as he ever was. Directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware, Detropia).

BELGICA: Two Belgian brothers start a tavern and get caught up in its fortunes as part of Belgium’s nightlife scene. Directed by Felix Van Groeningen who is hotter than a microwaved boureka

THE BIRTH OF A NATION: Nat Turner leads America’s biggest slave rebellion (with a nod to the racist D.W. Griffith’s silent fiml that hit theaters a century ago) . Written and directed by and starring Nate Parker.

CHRISTINE: On July 15, 1974, a Florida news reporter named Christine Chubbuck abruptly shot herself in the middle of the head during her live morning broadcast. This is a recreation of her incident and life, and more so a study of women in corporate life. Directed by Antonio Campos. Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck. Michael C. Hall plays her colleague and love interest.

COMPLETE UNKNOWN. Zod, an artist is having a birthday party. A woman arrives at the party. The birthday boy (Michael Shannon ) is convinced that he knows her (Rachel Weisz) and they dated 15 years ago. Where has she been? A tricky list of lies is presented. He follows her to the city. The first English language film for director Joshua Marston.

FRANK AND LOLA: Actor Michael Shannon as a Las Vegas chef who… falls for a young woman (Imogen Poots). Written and directed by film critic Matthew Ross. Supporting cast includes Justin Long and Rosanna Arquette.

GOAT: Singer Nick Jonas stars in this brutal true story about a fraternity brother who hazes the crap out of his pledge (Ben Schnetzer (not a member of the tribe)). Written by David Gordon Green (not a member of the tribe, but director of three episodes of “Red Oaks” about a Jewish country club).

HOLY HELL: Will Allen, for over two decades, from ages 22 to 44, was the assistant to Michel, the leader of a secretive, West Hollywood religious community or cult called BuddhaField. He was also their documentarian. So when he left the cult, he made a doc film about why he and others stayed in it for as long as they did. It is also about reintegrating into the world, recognizing community, and finding one’s value.

6 Comments

  1. Larry

    1/31/2016 at 1:06 pm

    In the festival’s world cinema showcase, “Sand Storm,” an Israeli drama focused on two Bedouin women trying to change seemingly unchangeable customs, won the grand jury award, on Saturday evening, January 30.

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