The Sundance Film Festival traditionally kicks off the year in nonfiction cinema. While its fiction (narrative) programs can be hit or miss, the documentaries are always worth paying attention to. Most of what we’ll be talking about in the year ahead is set to debut in Park City over the next week and a half. And the 2016 fest looks especially promising, because a number of modern and legendary doc makers have exciting new projects.
Of course, the best film at Sundance this year will probably be something that’s not even on our radar yet. Just as in the past, we’re really anticipating ever doc showing at the fest, but here are some immediate highlights we can’t wait to see:
1. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog)
Any documentary exploring the subjects of the internet and artificial intelligence would pique our attention, but one that has Werner Herzog off screen complimenting robots on their beauty and narrating his thoughts on the future of man in the age of increased digital and decreased social connectivity is sure to be one of the most fascinating and entertaining films of the year.
2. Unlocking the Cage (Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker)
An issue film from Hegedus and Pennebaker, masters of the direct cinema form? This is sure to be more an observation courtroom doc than cinematic activism but there is a clear leaning towards animal rights advocacy. That’s fine, as The War Room also leaned in the direction of promoting Bill Clinton for president and that’s still a work of genius. Unlocking the Cage is also another Kickstarter success story, one a lot of fans are anxious to finally see. It should also be hitting HBO later, for those not hitting the fest.
3. Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)
Never mind that I’m always excited about Greene, a former Nonfics contributor and serious voice in documentary criticism, whose work I’ve been a fan of since 2010’s Kati with an I. His latest looks to be his most creative and challenging and unconventional. Not to be confused with the other film at Sundance this year about news reporter and on-air suicide Christine Chubbuck (dramatic competition title Christine), this one does have some fictional elements in following actress Kate Lyn Sheil in preparation to play a dramatic version of the shocking true story.
4. Flag Without a Country (Bahman Ghobadi)
Ghobadi made one of my favorite films of 2005, the devastating drama Turtles Can Fly, and he made one of my favorite films of 2010, the hybrid portrait of the Iranian underground music scene, No One Knows About Persian Cats. He has now hopefully made one of my favorite movies of 2016 (provided it’s released in the U.S. this year) with a feature more classifiable as documentary — it’s in the world doc competition — about Kurdistan and its nation-less people.
5. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing)
The Oscar-nominated duo behind Jesus Camp and Detropia return to Park City with a biographical film, which isn’t their usual kind of documentary. I’m exciting for something different from Grady and Ewing, yet I’m also hopeful they infuse their typical experiential style into the mix. More following Lear around, less talking heads.
6. Bob Dylan Hates Me (Caveh Zahedi)
The latest autobiographical film from the sometimes controversial Zahedi (The Sheik and I) is an animated documentary about the time he met his childhood idol, Bob Dylan. I expect this to be as funny as anything he’s done, probably with less discomfort than some.
7. Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper (Liz Garbus)
Garbus is currently nominated for an Oscar (her second chance), so she’s obviously really hot right now. But even without the official recognition, she’s simply one of the better biographical documentarians around. Hopefully that distinction didn’t peak with last year’s What Happened, Miss Simone? and we get an equally compelling portrait of the Vanderbilt family and its most famous living mother and son. Look for this one on HBO later this year if you can’t get to Sundance.
8. Nuts! (Penny Lane)
Potentially one of the quirkiest docs of this year’s festival, Nuts! is about a man who got rich curing men’s impotence with goat testicle transplants. He was also a con man who invented a lot of his own biography, so this is one of those kinds of films where truth isn’t just stranger than fiction but is also possibly just a fiction itself. Lane, who previously broke out with Our Nixon, should become even more notable with this very different doc (also a Kickstarter success) which employs a lot of animation and seemingly a ton of research to get to the bottom, or at least near it, of this bewildering tale.
9. Gleason (Clay Tweel)
I have no interest in football and don’t know who Steve Gleason is (the film focuses on the former NFL player being diagnosed with ALS). I do have a lot of interest in the work of Clay Tweel, however, and am so far still on board with anything he’s had a hand in. After getting his start as a part of the team behind The King of Kong, Tweel has directed riveting works on such subjects as kid magicians and 3D printers, plus the expectedly fascinating Finders Keepers, which was a hit last year for more reason than its simply having the strangest doc story in years.
10. Trapped (Dawn Porter)
What may seem like just another Sundance-obligatory issue film about abortion, this one focused on health clinics in the South, will be something more at the hands of Porter (Gideon’s Army). She doesn’t make flashy or manipulative docs, and I expect another powerful film (another Kickstarter success) concentrated on characters above anything else. I like the people Porter finds to spotlight, and while their story and issues do matter, for me they just matter period.
11. The Bad Kids (Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe)
It’s been more than 10 years since we got a feature from Fulton and Pepe, who earned my interest first with the 2002 unmaking-of-a-film doc Lost in La Mancha and second with the serious faux rock doc (don’t call it a mockumentary) Brothers of the Head. The Bad Kids doesn’t sound so distinct, apparently just another candid nonfiction teen movie about struggling high school students in the Mojave Desert. I have high hopes it stands out anyway.
12. Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang (Kevin Macdonald)
Seeing as he even impressed me with the YouTube-sponsored crowdsourced doc Life in a Day, I should probably have Macdonald’s latest doc higher on this list. If only the artist-focused subject matter and conventional-seeming approach sounded more exciting. I am optimistic that the Oscar-winning director (One Day in September) once again surprises me.
13. Holy Hell (Will Allen)
I can’t help but be interested in films about cults, and fortunately Sundance never disappoints in having an obligatory selection or two. This one is made by a man who actually was a member of a cult and who filmed much of his experiences and observations during that time. Even if the film is not good, the story ought to be compelling.
14 & 15. New Field of Vision Shorts: Peace in the Valley (Mike Palmieri and Donal Mosher) and Speaking is Difficult (AJ Schnack)
As excited as I am about Field of Vision, I gave them the last spot on this list just because they seem more intently suited for their own online outlet than a film festival, and we’re already able to stream one on the web (down below) and will be able to stream the other soon enough. Not that I would pass up the chance to see new films from Palmieri and Mosher (October Country) or Schnack (Caucus) on the big screen with a crowd — part of the shorts programs rather than another spotlight on FoV — so they’re certainly essentials.