Sundance Wrapup: No Repeat of 'Birth of a Nation' Runaway of 2016

Justin Chang
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Many of the films on offer at this year's Sundance Film Festival could scarcely help engaging directly with the US election and its consequences to a surprising and mostly heartening degree.

PARK CITY, Utah -- By the time the Sundance Film Festival came to a close Saturday night, it was clear that there had been no 2017 equivalent of The Birth of a Nation at the festival this year -- no cinematic sensation that swooped in from nowhere to dominate the prizes, score the biggest acquisition deal and promise the industry a badly needed diversity makeover. (Happily, this year’s Academy Award nominations have spared us a three-quel to #OscarsSoWhite.)

If anything, a certain amount of caution could be detected on the part of distributors, journalists and even filmmakers, as though everyone in attendance were trying to avoid the trap of self-importance in a year when real-world matters -- from President Donald Trump’s inauguration and the women’s march to reports of a cyber attack on the festival -- provided more than their fair share of off-screen drama.

Which is not to suggest that the films unveiled over 10 days in Park City, Utah, were somehow disappointing, or not up to the challenge of speaking to our politically fraught moment. Far from it. There were, as usual, movies about fractious racial divisions, including Mudbound, Dee Rees’ symphonic, superbly acted drama about two Mississippi families -- one white, one black -- struggling to survive in the shadow of World War II.

Less widely seen, although it won the audience award in the festival’s Next sidebar (devoted to innovative, low-budget work), was Justin Chon’s Gook, a raucous, bittersweet comedy set during the Los Angeles riots in April 1992. Shot in black-and-white, the movie both explores and sneakily subverts the fractious relations between Korean and African Americans during that tumultuous chapter.

Even apart from the confrontationally titled likes of Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time, many of the films on offer could scarcely help engaging directly with the election and its consequences to a surprising and mostly heartening degree.

Few of us who filed into the first screening of Beatriz at Dinner -- director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White’s elegant, squirm-inducing dark comedy about a Mexican-born masseuse (Salma Hayek) clashing with an obscenely wealthy real-estate mogul (John Lithgow) -- expected to find ourselves face-to-face with the first cinematic allegory of the Trump era. What seems at first like a too-easy skewering of racial and class divisions soon veers into richly unsettling dramatic territory, anchored by perhaps the finest, most controlled performance of Hayek’s career.

If Beatriz at Dinner felt so eerily timely that it might well have gone into production on Nov. 9, a number of documentaries proved no less accommodating of extremely recent headlines. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, a stirring follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth (2006) from directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, follows Al Gore on his latest rousing crusade against climate change, then builds to a forlorn postelection shot of the former vice president vanishing into an elevator in Trump Tower.

Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press, Brian Knappenberger’s account of the legal battle between Gawker and Hulk Hogan and how the interference of billionaires like Peter Thiel might jeopardize the First Amendment going forward, received its first public screening on Tuesday, which gave the filmmakers just enough time to squeeze in footage from Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

It was hard to watch Bryan Fogel’s entertaining Russian-doping Olympics expose, Icarus -- which drew the meaningfully titled Orwell Award from the U.S. documentary jury -- without thinking about Vladimir Putin’s other alleged behind-the-scenes manipulations on a different international stage. Similarly, it was difficult to see Jonathan Olshefski’s deeply moving, years-in-the-making documentary Quest, about the everyday travails of a black family living in north Philadelphia, and not share his subjects’ indignation when they hear news of Trump’s birther conspiracy -- a reminder of just how significant and symbolic a victory the Obama presidency remains for so many minorities in this country.

Meanwhile, over in the U.S. dramatic competition, the grand jury prize went to a violent dark comedy whose title, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, seemed to capture the political mood. But this Netflix original production, skillfully written and directed by Macon Blair, wasn’t especially political -- or maybe it was, given that it focuses on a woman (the terrific Melanie Lynskey) who slowly but surely seizes control of her life, reminding the people around her that every mean, mindless action has a consequence.

Blair’s movie was scarcely the only Sundance title about a woman or group of women rebelling against a repressive order. The highlight of the dramatic competition for me was Novitiate, a revealing portrait of life among aspiring nuns in a 1960s convent, which earned filmmaker Maggie Betts a breakthrough director prize from the jury. Splendidly acted by an almost all-female ensemble, the film features particularly standout performances by Margaret Qualley as a sensitive young postulant and by Melissa Leo as the convent’s not-unsympathetic Gorgon of a Reverend Mother.

Another dramatic competition entry bolstered by an actress’ superb lead turn was Roxanne Roxanne, Michael Larnell’s rickety but heartfelt film about the straight-out-of-Queens hip-hop legend Roxanne Shante (Chante Adams, who won the jury’s breakthrough performance prize). Roxanne Roxanne would make a fine double bill with another competition title, Patti Cake$, Geremy Jasper’s exultant, energetic fiction about a young New Jersey rapper (the sensational Danielle Macdonald), which became one of the festival’s big hits and was acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures for $10.5 million.

The theme of female empowerment extended to the World Cinema dramatic competition, where one of the standouts was Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’ My Happy Family, a beautifully crafted drama about a middle-aged Georgian woman (Ia Shugliashvili, in a remarkable big-screen debut) who makes the simple, radical decision to find her own apartment after spending years under the same roof with her husband, children and parents.

Set to screen next in February at the Berlin Film Festival, My Happy Family was a reminder that not every excellent film emerges from a festival with an award under its belt. Many of them, like Michael Showalter’s terrific cross-cultural, cross-generational dramedy The Big Sick, starring and co-written by Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley), are not even awards-eligible at Sundance, where the competitions consist of mostly first- and second-time filmmakers. Nevertheless, The Big Sick got the prize it wanted: a $12-million acquisition by Amazon Studios, in one of the festival’s richest deals.

Also ineligible for Sundance awards -- though its distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, is surely hoping for prizes later in the year -- was Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s gay love story about the slowly growing attraction between a precocious 17-year-old (Timothee Chalamet) and his family’s academic houseguest (Armie Hammer). This was the best movie I saw at Sundance 2017, for its ravishing filmmaking as well as its piercing wisdom about the evanescence of first love. Its sun-drenched northern Italian setting couldn’t have been farther away from Park City, but Call Me by Your Name nonetheless captured the enduring spirit of Sundance: aesthetically bold, emotionally complex and, in ways that don’t immediately announce themselves, political to the bone.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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