Every winter, the filmmaking industry descends on Park City, Utah for the country’s largest independent film festival, the Sundance Film Festival. Here, newcomers and veterans alike debut the films that will rule the indie circuit in the coming year. The Festival is the pinnacle of independent filmmaking, showcasing unique and captivating films that set themselves apart from the mainstream.
This year Shutterstock, in partnership with Variety, hosted a portrait studio at Sundance. In their free time, the Shutterstock team got to see some of the films making their debut. Here are the six that caught their attention.
Over the last decade, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has established herself as one of the most compelling directors working in American independent film. 2016 marked her return to Sundance after a ten-year break (her first feature, Old Joy, premiered at Sundance in 2006). Working once again with Michelle Williams, who starred in Reichardt’s two most acclaimed films to date, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt shaped Certain Women as a triptych of three distinct but overlapping stories. Williams is joined by Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, and newcomer Lily Gladstone, and each of these women gives a heartfelt, tone-perfect performance. Like Reichardt’s other work, Certain Women is slow-moving and introspective as it masterfully explores the spaces and people in between. —Derick Rhodes
Swiss Army Man
While Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse may have stolen the show when it comes to talk about this film, Swiss Army Man is not to be overlooked as a one-trick-pony. Beautifully crafted and realized in the inventive visual style of their music video work, Daniels Kwan and Scheinert (collective know as “The Daniels”) have created an astounding first feature. The film combines the narrative sensibility of Charlie Kaufman with the playful visual approach of directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, through which Scheinert and Kwan explore themes of mortality, friendship, love, and loneliness via groundbreaking performances from Radcliffe and his co-star, Paul Dano. —Derick Rhodes
Director Jeff Baena returns to Sundance with his sophomore feature following his 2014 Sundance debut of Life After Beth. Highlighted as “the funniest drama you’ll ever see” by cast member Alex Ross Perry, Joshy is a refreshing twist on the classic boys weekend flick. Baena uses tragedy to explore the clumsy nuances of male bonding, opening with the death of the title character’s fiancee, then fast-forwarding a few months to a gathering of friends for what was supposed to have been his bachelor party. Largely improvised and featuring a strong lineup of comedic talent (Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate), Joshy satisfies as a dramedy with a wealth of simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking moments. —Ashley Patterson
Comedian/writer/director/editor/actor Andre Hyland returned to Sundance this year with an evolved version of his uniquely hilarious short film, Funnel. The 4th is an 80 minute feature jam-packed with largely improvised situational comedy revolving around the main character’s mission to throw the perfect 4th of July barbecue. Filmed in and around his own LA home and starring many of his own friends, Hyland’s The 4th takes DIY filmmaking to a new level and delivers a feel-good comedy about a down-and-out slacker who is having the worst day of his life. —Niko Brown
The Birth of a Nation
History was made at this year’s Sundance when The Birth of a Nation, helmed by first-time filmmaker Nate Parker, was picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight for a staggering $17.5 million—the largest amount in the festival’s history. Recounting the story of Nat Turner’s transformation from child slave, to charismatic preacher, to determined leader of the slave rebellion of 1831, Parker pushes the conversation about America’s history—and how it relates to our current cultural moment—into new territory. Supported by a brilliant cast (including Dwight Henry, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith and Gabrielle Union) Parker plays the adult Turner’s transformation with a singular intensity, guiding the audience all the way through to the searing, unforgettable violence of the closing scenes. —Derick Rhodes
Author: The JT LeRoy Story
Director Jeff Feuerzeig, best known for his beautifully crafted 2006 documentary of cult singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, once again takes viewers on a captivating journey into the life of an exceptional artist. Author: The JT LeRoy Story compassionately recounts the complex and controversial tale of the writer Laura Albert, who catapulted to literary fame in the late 90s via what she describes as the “avatar” of a teenage boy, JT LeRoy. Laura’s fascinating perspective on writing as JT, coupled with Feuerzeig’s tone-perfect use of animation, make for a must-see documentary with universal appeal. —Derick Rhodes
Top image: The Birth of a Nation. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.