Sundance is the largest independent film festival in the United States, and every January, tens of thousands of people flock to Park City, Utah to see the latest batch of indie films. Movie fans have plenty of reasons to pay attention to the Sundance Film Festival — since it began in the late 1970s, it’s been a venue for some of the most well-known independent films of all time to make their debut. From Clerks to Whiplash, and with dozens of films in between, Sundance has launched careers — and helped smaller-budget films land distribution deals.
This year, the festival runs from January 21 to 31. While not every film that premieres at Sundance will make waves, there are several that have already made fans and industry insiders sit up and take notice. Documentaries, short-form films, and incredibly out-there horror comedies have played to maximum capacity crowds. And there are a few films that have surpassed the crowded field of premieres and Sundance competition contenders. Here are five films that have everyone at Sundance — and everyone who wishes they were there — buzzing.
1. The Birth of a Nation — dir. Nate Parker
Don’t confuse this film with D.W. Griffith’s much-maligned 1913 epic — Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation shares nothing in common with the racist historical drama other than its name. This gripping drama tells the story of Nat Turner (Parker), a devoutly religious slave who defied the odds and led the Southampton County, Virginia slave rebellion of 1831. The film earned uproarious praise when it premiered at Sundance on January 25. Then, it made history when Fox Searchlight acquired it for a record-breaking $17.5 million. Critics have called it “a biographical drama steeped equally in grace and horror.” The Birth of a Nation also stars Armie Hammer, Aunjanue Ellis, Mark Boone Junior, and Aja Naomi King.
2. Manchester-by-the-Sea — dir. Kenneth Lonergan
When Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) dies unexpectedly, his younger brother Lee (Casey Affleck) takes custody of his teenage son. That’s the premise behind Manchester-by-the-Sea, a stunning new drama from seasoned indie writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. The film has all the makings of a Sundance hit — a cast of actors like Affleck and Michelle Williams who are not strangers to the indie scene; a dreary, small town aesthetic; and — most importantly — a powerful story. According to Variety, Sundance viewers were awed by the film, and it’s already getting Oscar buzz. Amazon bought the distribution rights to Manchester-by-the-Sea for an impressive $10 million.
3. Indignation — dir. James Schamus
Philip Roth is one of the most respected American authors of our time. Unfortunately, his carefully crafted plots and irreverent style rarely translate well onto the screen. But that’s not the case with Indignation, a period drama adapted from Roth’s novel of the same name. The film tells the story of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a working-class Jewish high school student who finds himself ideologically at odds with the societal rigidity of the 1950s era he’s growing up in. Indignation is film executive James Schamus’s directorial debut — and it’s been lauded by critics and Sundance audiences alike, who almost unanimously agree that it’s an emotional powerhouse. Summit Entertainment bought distribution rights for Indignation for $2.5 million shortly after it premiered on January 24.
4. Dark Night — dir. Tim Sutton
Gun violence has been a hot-button issue in the United States for several years — but its impacts are rarely explored in cinema. Tim Sutton’s minimalist Dark Night tackles it in a very abstract way. The film, which premiered at Sundance on January 26, has drawn comparisons to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant — and with good reason. Dark Night follows several individuals and groups through what feels like a fairly normal day — until they come together at a movie theater and collectively experience the horror of a mass shooting.
The film’s title is an obvious nod to the July 2012 mass killing at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Critics and audience members largely agree: The foreboding, uncomfortably tense mood that Dark Night creates despite its mostly mundane, meandering plot is Sutton’s commentary about the psychological impact of living in a time period where the threat of violence seems omnipresent. Though it hasn’t been picked up for distribution yet, Dark Night has the honor of being one of the most talked about films at Sundance this year — and helped writer-director Tim Sutton ink a high-profile representation deal with UTA.
5. Southside With You — dir. Richard Tanne
It’s not uncommon to see a romantic drama at the Sundance Film Festival. But a romantic drama about our current Commander-in-Chief and the First Lady? That’s not something you see every day. It is, however, what hundreds of festivalgoers were treated to when Southside With You premiered on January 24. The film follows a young intern Barack Obama (newcomer Parker Sawyers) on his first date with Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) in Chicago. Though it’s about arguably the most famous political couple in the world, the ambitious and uplifting movie mostly strays away from politics. It’s a hot topic at the festival — often referred to as the “Obama’s first date” movie. But critics and audience members agreed that it’s much more than that. Bolstered by compelling performances by its leads, Southside With You is effective as both a realistic love story and as a biographical portrayal.