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Some editions of the Sundance Film Festival go down in history as “The Year of…,” marking a breakthrough or obvious landmark film. Early on, there was the year of sex, lies and videotape, the year of Reservoir Dogs (even though, incredibly, neither of them won the top prize) or, more recently, the years of Beasts of the Southern Wild and Fruitvale Station. So obviously talented were the filmmakers involved that it was almost as if the other movies entered in those respective years didn’t matter.
This is another of those years, one in which The Birth of a Nation bestrode Sundance like the Colossus of Rhodes, dwarfing all other entries in terms of thunderous audience reaction, headlines, sociological and historical import and an all-time record acquisition fee. More than anything, Nate Parker’s labor of love is a film very much of the moment, a work that, even though it took seven years to make, feels like a natural outgrowth of everything that’s been happening in recent times on the racial front — from Ferguson and police shootings to Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite and all else that’s (somewhat ironically) been going on during the seventh and eighth years in office of the country’s first black President.
In the current climate, it’s easy to imagine that Birth, its artistic shortcomings notwithstanding, will still be on everyone’s minds a year from now, when the Academy does penance for its current perceived slights by nominating it for a slew of awards. Certainly Fox Searchlight, which guided the decisively superior 12 Years a Slave to the best picture Oscar two years ago (does no one complaining about the Academy’s demographics remember that?), will make sure that the film stays on everyone’s radar between now and then, and there can be no doubt that the pic will be a significant commercial success.
And surely we’ll be hearing about a White House screening soon. On March 21, 1915, D.W. Griffith screened his epic The Birth of a Nation, a filmmaking landmark in which the Ku Klux Klan are the good guys, at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson. The first Southerner to occupy the Oval Office since Reconstruction and a man who fostered and strengthened federal segregation and Southern Jim Crow laws, Wilson praised Griffith’s work with the famous remark, “It is like writing history with lightning.” Obama may say the same about Parker’s film.
Lost in all the thunder and lightning surrounding the new Birth is a film that itself would make a very interesting candidate for a White House screening, Richard Tanne’s engaging and very likeable account of the Obamas’ first date, Southside With You. It’s a small movie, to be sure, resembling more than anything Richard Linklater’s walking-and-talking Before trilogy. Still, it was a risky idea to try to pull off, and the writer-director and his fine actors Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers rise to the occasion with fine, naturalistic work.
There were other dramatic features to commend at Sundance this year, including Kenneth Lonergan’s richly orchestrated drama Manchester By the Sea, Meera Menon’s hard-edged Margin Call-female-companion-piece Equity, and Whit Stillman’s effervescent Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship. With more than one hundred world premieres on offer and only a week to see them, I’m certain there were some other good ones I’ll have to catch up with down the line.
But the most powerful and, for me, thematically relevant film I saw at Sundance 2016 was Wild by German writer-director Nicolette Krebitz. Neither as stylistically audacious nor as devastatingly grim as last year’s two European knockouts, Son of Saul and The Tribe, the new film nonetheless captures something about the inchoate deterioration of belief in Western values post-World War II, post-communism and post-widespread religious affiliation.
On the face of it a small story about a blank, unengaged, average young urban German woman who becomes drawn to a stray wolf she encounters in a nearby woods, startlingly captures it, keeps it in her apartment and develops a profound identification with it, Wild is both rigorous stylistically and very extreme dramatically and thematically; it does teeter on the brink and dare you to dismiss it at certain moments. But the pic expresses and engages with what is arguably the most disturbing undercurrent in modern life, an increasing rejection of civility, moral standards and any values at all, an anti-civilization impulse that goes way beyond moody traits like cynicism, despair and nihilism to embrace an animalistic primitivism and baseness.
There were traces of the divestiture of civilized standards in other films as well, notably Andrew Neel’s accomplished American dramatic entry Goat, but Wild goes much, much further than any other in dramatizing the rejection of the accepted conventions of thousands of years of religious, philosophical and civic endeavor in favor of an embrace of our animal natures. As such, it’s a significant new addition to the list of art works testifying to the breakdown of civilization and how readily some people come to embrace moral Armageddon.
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