The best from Sundance: big winners, films and future stars to watch

Nate Parker's slave rebellion film The Birth of a Nation takes top prizes at the festival of independent film, Kenneth Lonergan delivers his moving third feature, and a 13-year-old New Zealander with comic timing is a name to watch out for

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 3:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 February, 2016, 12:07pm

Given the rousing Sundance premiere of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, the story of an 1831 slave rebellion that has been likened to 2013 Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, it was a foregone conclusion that the film would emerge the big winner in Park City, Utah. Indeed it did, taking out both the grand jury prize and the audience award, as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Whiplash and Fruitvale Station had done in previous years.

The big shock of the night was that Swiss Army Man, a repetitive mess of a film starring Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse, took out the directing award in the US dramatic section for Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.

Many of the contenders that missed out were far better, such as Antonio Campos’ Christine, starring Rebecca Hall in her strongest role to date as Christine Chubbuck, the 29 year-old bipolar American news anchor who shot herself on live television in 1974; and Tallulah, the film directing debut of Sian Heder (Orange Is the New Black) which marks a Juno reunion of sorts, with Ellen Page as a young drifter who kidnaps a baby girl from her incompetent mother and goes to live with Allison Janney’s jilted wife.

A special jury award for breakthrough performance went to Joe Seo for Spa Night, about a closeted gay Korean-American teenager who follows his desires and finds more than he bargains for at a Korean spa in the Koreatown of Los Angeles. Seo, who was no longer in town to accept his award, said generously on Twitter that the film’s openly gay American-born director Andrew Ahn is “one of the 13 Hot Directors to Watch according to The Wrap!!! Bring it on!”

Also competing in the US dramatic competition was the quietly compelling Lovesong, directed by the Korean-born American So Yong Kim (Treeless Mountain, For Ellen). It tells the story of two women, played by Riley Keough and Jena Malone, as they embark on a road trip but struggle to express their feelings for one another.

First-time Chinese director Yao Huang’s romantic drama Pleasure. Love. was entered in the world dramatic competition. The film unfolds in two sections. The first features charismatic newcomer Ying Daizhen as a penniless writer who falls for a beautiful older businesswoman (Yu Nan); the second part is a kind of reversal of the story, with an older businessman (Guo Xiaodong) meeting a young girl (Ying again) at the same Beijing dance hall. It’s all a bit confusing – though the film looks fabulous.

Also in the world competition was Touching the Void director Kevin McDonald’s documentary Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang. It focuses on the spectacular pyrotechnic displays and art of the 58- year-old, Chinese-born, New York-based artist and how his father’s history and his own experiences during the Cultural Revolution and afterwards in Japan and New York have influenced his art.

Generally the more commercial Sundance offerings screen in the non-competitive Premieres section, and these are the films most likely to make it to Hong Kong cinemas, the Hong Kong Sundance programme aside. The second film already generating 2017 Oscar buzz, besides The Birth of a Nation, is Manchester by the Sea, the long-awaited third film by Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret).

Produced by Margaret star Matt Damon to ensure Lonergan had the freedom to make the film he wanted, the story follows Casey Affleck’s janitor as he struggles to keep his life together after a family tragedy.

“That was incredibly moving. I can’t make films like that,” a clearly emotional Judd Apatow told me as we filed out of the cinema. The comedy mogul was one of the many Hollywood heavy hitters in the audience to lend their support to Lonergan, a director so much of Hollywood admires.

Humour was sorely needed at the festival, and Paul Rudd and Taika Waititi came to the rescue. Rudd admitted he was too busy “being an ant” to do much preparation for his role as a caregiver in Rob Burnett’s The Fundamentals of Caring, though his repartee with Craig Roberts (Submarine) as an 18- year-old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy is priceless. A sassy Selena Gomez is no slouch in the humour department either, and gives one of her best performances as a hitchhiking runaway.

Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which he based on Barry Crump’s New Zealand classic Wild Pork and Watercress, delivers fellow New Zealander Sam Neill his best film role in years. The story follows Neill’s curmudgeonly wilderness explorer, who suddenly has to head into the bush in the company of an equally irascible 13-year-old, played by rapidly rising star Julian Dennison (Paper Planes), a heavy- set kid with impeccable comic timing. Watch this face.