As we speak, my bucket list is in the process of becoming one entry shorter.
I am currently on a plane to Utah, about to attend my first ever Sundance Film Festival in Park City. And even though this year’s festival is reaching its end – the final day is Sunday – the buzz and excitement surrounding the movies showing is still high. I’ll be seeing as much as I can, both on screen and off, and sharing my reviews and takeaways right here at OnMilwaukee and on Twitter over the weekend.
But before my plane ride ends and the film fun begins, here are 10 movies I’ll be keeping my eye on this weekend – and you should be keeping an eye on the rest of the year.
1. "The Birth of a Nation"
If you name your movie "The Birth of a Nation" – only the title of one of the most influential and important films in the history of the medium – you’re going to get people’s attention. And if you name your Nat Turner slave revolt movie "The Birth of a Nation" – only the title of arguably one of the most famously racist films in the history of the medium – you’re going to get ALL of the attention.
Well, that’s what star and director Nate Parker ("Beyond the Lights") did, and judging from the early responses to the film, the final product sounds as good as it does bold. It’s definitely a frontrunner for some of Sundance’s awards – and some Oscars come next year. Fox Searchlight bought up the film for a now Sundance record $17.5 million, and with that big of a pricetag, one imagines the studio has big plans and expectations for Parker’s movie.
On July 15, 1974, Florida TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck committed suicide during a live television broadcast. Her tragic story of battling depression takes center stage in "Christine," a drama about the newswoman’s final days. It’s hard to say I’m excited for a movie that sounds this grim and emotionally draining, but it’s certainly an intriguing and potent story. Plus, after years of being a strong supporting player in movies like "The Gift," this might just be the big showcase role that Rebecca Hall deserves to shine in.
3. "Kate Plays Christine"
On July 15, 1974, Florida TV news reporter Christine … wait a second, is my internal record skipping? Nope; in an odd coincidence, there is also a documentary about Christine Chubbuck’s tragic drama coming to Sundance.
I know what you’re thinking: Do we really need two movies about this small grim chapter of TV history? If they have two different, equally interesting approaches, then why not? And "Kate Plays Christine" certainly has that, following a real-life actress (Kate Lyn Sheil) as she researches the truth and reasoning behind Chubbuck and her death in order to play the reporter for a show. It sounds like a fascinating search into the reality of an unreal incident.
4. "Jim: The James Foley Story"
It’ll take some work to emotionally prepare for "Jim," a documentary about journalist and Marquette grad James Foley. Obviously, we all know how his life horrifically came to an end; from the early word, however, the tender and personal documentary focuses more on Foley’s life – who he was, what he believed in and why he did the work he did – rather than how it came to a brutal, abrupt halt. The doc was quickly snapped up by HBO early on in the festival and will make its premiere later next week on Saturday, Feb. 6, so soon you’ll be able to pay tribute to a beautiful life that no act of brutality could erase.
5. "Manchester By the Sea"
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan had to fight heaven and hell to get his last film, the critically adored "Margaret," released out into the world in a version he could live with. I doubt he’ll have the same struggles with "Manchester By the Sea," a story of grief that’s already wowed critics and been bought by Amazon Studios for a hefty $10 million sum. Much like "Birth of a Nation," prepare to hear this one’s name – as well as the names of its stars, especially Casey Affleck – come next Oscar season.
6. "Sing Street"
"Once" is one of my favorite movies, a sweet, sincere and soulful micro-budget "musical" so good, it briefly managed to make even the Oscars delightful. It’s THAT charming. It’s so good that, even though Irish director John Carney’s similarly music-minded follow-up "Begin Again" fell pretty short of its predecessor – the authenticity was just a touch off this time – I’m still totally on board for whatever he does next … which happens to be "Sing Street." The early buzz has been describing the film as the director’s version of "The Commitments," as if I needed any more convincing to check this out.
7. "Green Room"/"The Lobster"
Fine, I cheated; there’s just so many to pick, and these two barely count as Sundance movies. Both premiered at Cannes last year, and both are coming out fairly soon, hopefully wide to Milwaukee. But I’m too intrigued by these two to leave them off.
First, there’s "Green Room," writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the critically beloved revenge thriller "Blue Ruin" (and yes, he does have a color theme going on here). If you haven’t seen "Blue Ruin" and need a further nudge, the violent thriller’s premise is basically neo-Nazis versus punk rockers, with Patrick Stewart playing the lead neo-Nazi.
Then there’s "The Lobster," the latest film from Oscar-nominated Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. His last film, the Best Foreign Film nominee "Dogtooth," was a bizarre and dark tale of two kids raised by insanely overprotective parents, turning their home into a weird, borderline inbred alternate reality that the grown children start to fight against. Crazy, right? Well, "The Lobster" is about a world where everybody needs to find a mate or else they get turned into an animal of their choosing. Also: Colin Farrell has a silly little mustache. Lanthimos just out-crazied himself – and it sounds fascinating.
Warning: That’s not even the most bonkers movie on this list.
8. "Southside With You"
"Southside With You" is just your typical young first date romance story … except the fledgling couple just happens to be the future POTUS and FLOTUS. While some of the early buzz has knocked the movie for portraying Young Barack as a borderline deity – treating him as a future president rather than a regular person – but no one’s seemed to have any complaints about the charming performances from Tika Sumpter ("Ride Along 2") as Michelle and Parker Sawyers as Barack. Plus, considering its presidential premise, I have a hard time believing it’ll suffer from being your typical brainless meet-cute rom-com.
9. "Under the Shadow"
Iranian cinema is producing some of the most fascinating, thoughtful films out there right now – despite the efforts of its restrictive government. But even if they have to film them in secret and smuggle them out of the country in cakes, they’re getting out there – to the delight of both their creators and audiences.
"Under the Shadow," an Iranian horror movie, sounds like a worthy new chapter in this fascinating new wave of Iranian cinema. It’s an exciting dip into genre film for the scene, a fresh burst of a new perspective of scary.
10. "Swiss Army Man"
Daniel Radcliffe, The Boy Who Lived, plays a farting corpse that a man stuck on a desert island (Paul Dano) rides on the ocean to freedom. Forget what I said about "The Birth of a Nation" and "Manchester By the Sea"; THIS will be your Best Picture winner next year!
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.