The Best of Sundance 2017: Jessica Williams, ‘Patti Cake$,’ and Jay Z’s Call to Action

The Daily Beast’s senior editor Marlow Stern and senior writer Kevin Fallon on the highlights of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, from the Oscar-worthy to the terribly sexy.

It was, all things considered, a strange year to be at Sundance.

The world’s premier independent film festival, held annually in the mountains of Park City, Utah, kicked off on January 19th, the same day as then President-elect Donald Trump’s truly embarrassing inauguration welcome concert. It’s first full day of screenings fell on Inauguration Day, a day of mourning for the majority of the country, and day three saw millions of women across the world taking to the streets to protest President Trump. Sundance held a satellite women’s march, led by comedian Chelsea Handler and attended by the likes of Kristen Stewart and Peter Dinklage, albeit in a blizzard that blanketed the town with up to two feet of snow.

While the inclement weather made getting around a hassle, there was plenty to take our minds off the barrage of snowstorm(s), including an electrifying late-night concert by Major Lazer at Park City Live, the annual post-film soirees by Acura and Chase, and that tummy-warming Utah bourbon. But best of all were the films, which were the finest they’ve been in recent memory. So, from an aspiring female rapper from the slums of Jersey to an Oscar-worthy Reconstruction-era drama to a gay love story for the ages, here are The Daily Beast’s annual Sundance awards. BREAKOUT STAR

Marlow’s Pick: Danielle Macdonald, Patti Cake$

When I learned that Danielle Macdonald—who portrays the plus-sized white girl/aspiring rapper Patricia Dombrowski (aka Killa P) in Patti Cake$—is Australian, my jaw dropped. Hers is a performance exploding with such raw power, verbal dexterity, and aching authenticity that she had to be a product of the film’s depressed Jersey surroundings; perhaps a local MC who won a casting contest. But no: Macdonald is just that good. Were it not for her lived-in turn, Geremy Jasper’s film would, like Hustle & Flow before it, crumble under the weight of its hip-hop movie clichés, but instead it absolutely soars. As Killa P battles against insurmountable odds—poverty, family, perceptions of beauty—you root for her every step of the way, hoping she’ll achieve her hip-hop dreams. It’s no wonder Fox Searchlight shelled out $9.5 million for this crowd-pleaser.

Kevin’s Pick: Jessica Williams, The Incredible Jessica James

I’m tempted to continue to sing (rap?) Danielle Macdonald’s praises here, too. It’s the performance from Sundance I can’t stop thinking about. Bridgett Everett, who plays her mom and has a wild turn in Fun Mom Dinner as well, also deserves a mention. But I get so excited thinking about what Jessica Williams’s star performance in The Incredible Jessica James is going to do for her career. The former Daily Show correspondent plays a self-described “unicorn” in Jessica James, an intelligent, sexual, unapologetic woman whose confidence and humor explode on screen, revealing Jessica’s insecurities and self-doubt in its wake. It’s a rich, bombastic, hilarious, and even romantic performance, one that allows the powerful image of Williams and her voice to shine through unfiltered, just as Williams herself has always been.


Kevin’s Pick: Call Me by Your Name

You couldn’t walk down Main Street in Park City without overhearing someone rave about Call Me By Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino’s sweeping gay love story. Starring breakout Timothée Chalamet as Elio, the 17-year-old son of academics summering in northern Italy, and Armie Hammer as Oliver, the grad student that visits for the season, every frame of the film is drenched in sunlight and hormones. As Elio and Oliver give in to an irresistible, intense connection, the idyllic Italian setting and new-love raw intimacy emanates from the film like pheromones you are carnally drawn to. The film is at once hopeful, devastating, and sexy as hell, punctuated by a monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg about a parent’s love and acceptance that is so beautiful it might even get people to stop talking about the peach.

Marlow’s Pick: Mudbound

The third feature from filmmaker Dee Rees (Pariah) is a sprawling drama chronicling the plight of two families, one white (the McAllan’s) and one black (the Jackson’s), struggling to survive on a flood-plagued Mississippi farm in the years before, during, and after World War II. It is, first and foremost, a triumph of perspective: a film that cycles through six narrators, offering their divergent points of view on race, family, war, and whiteness-as-currency. And those six narrators are brought to devastating life by a dynamic cast that includes Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, and Rob Morgan. The sheer scope of the film, too, marks a big leap forward for Rees, as the narrative travels from the cotton fields of Mississippi to the battlefields—on land and in the air—of World War II. Mudbound premiered to a standing ovation at Sundance, and had some critics whispering “Oscar” in January, which is no small feat.

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Kevin’s Pick: Rob Morgan, Mudbound

The epic scope of Mudbound would hardly resonate without the astounding performances of its stacked cast—Garrett Hedlund, Carey Mulligan, and, yes, Mary J. Blige included. But it’s the dogged, steely turn by Rob Morgan as Hap, the patriarch of the black family working the muddy fields of a Mississippi Delta farm, that makes this hymn of survival, struggle, progress, and all that stands in its way really sing. Constantly torn between wanting to create a better world for his children and his own dignity and pride, Morgan manages to cycle through anguish, resignation, hope, and defeat with just a change in the furrow of his brow and a calibration in the intensity of the gaze from his soulful brown eyes. Hap is a tragic figure and a hero, but above all a father, weathering the burdens and the blessings of life through Morgan’s dynamic performance.

Marlow’s Pick: Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out

One of the highlights of the Sundance Film Festival is its “surprise midnight screening,” typically in a tiny theater, and typically showcasing an over-the-top film. Past midnighters have included the first half of Nymphomaniac and the unintentionally hilarious Jupiter Ascending. This year, the packed house was treated to a raucous screening of Jordan Peele’s Get Out—a psychological thriller about a young black man, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who pays a visit to his white girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) childhood home to meet her parents. What transpires is a horrifying journey to the heart of liberal racism (think: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets The Others) that’s anchored by a star-making turn from the British Kaluuya, who provides one of the most haunting depictions of racial torment—allowing us to absorb every otherizing glance, stare, and comment—in horror history.


Marlow’s Pick: Aubrey Plaza, Ingrid Goes West

There were so many rich female performances at Sundance 2017—Danielle Macdonald’s preternaturally gifted MC in Patti Cake$, Mary J. Blige’s nobly restrained matriarch in Mudbound, and Zoe Kazan’s fragile firecracker in The Big Sick among them. But no performance stuck with me quite like Aubrey Plaza’s unhinged Instagram stalker Ingrid Thorburn in the Ingrid Goes West. As Ingrid delves deeper and deeper into her social media psychosis, conning her way into the lives of a vapid Instagram influencer (Elizabeth Olsen) and her pseudo-artist boyfriend (Wyatt Russell), a complex portrait emerges, raising questions concerning the bounds of authenticity and artifice, online and IRL. And Plaza is a revelation here—a cringe-worthy manifestation of our collective thirst for e-validation.

Kevin’s Pick: Holly Hunter, The Big Sick

Midway through the Judd Apatow-produced The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s romcom about their dramatic and unlikely Pakistani-WASP relationship, the story no longer becomes about how this romance works but about parents: how we relate to them or rebel against them, and how they define us as much as we reshape them. Holly Hunter plays Emily’s mom, who is thrust into the narrative when Emily is put into a medically induced coma. She’s a spitfire, crackling with flaming one-liners and fiery glares. But she’s also a wounded mom, angry at the injustice of the world and brittle at the thought of losing her daughter—baking soda emotions to her vinegar, steely personality that causes her every feeling to bubble out of her uncontrollably. It’s a mess, and a riveting one.


Kevin’s Pick: God’s Own Country

Independent film, and certainly Sundance, has long hosted an erotic smorgasbord of all kinds of sex: kinky and graphic and beautiful and disturbing and hot, hot, hot. This year, however, gay sex finally got that treatment. There were scenes both vulnerable and raw in Call Me By Your Name. The moody and much grittier Beach Rats featured more nudity, more thrusting, and an actual spectrum of sexual experience, from scary to thrilling to sensual. But it’s God’s Own Country that featured the kind of steamy sex that makes you both pant and cry. It’s a deeply felt, but also almost imposingly muscular, romantic drama about sheep farmers in Yorkshire whose rapid and intensely emotional relationship is forged out of the sheer solace of finding love in a place so hopeless as much as it is out of their sexual attraction. There’s plenty of that, though, including an athletic and graphic sex scene shot rolling around in the mud that adds new context to what it means for a film to be dirty. That’s why God’s Own Country is so great: it’s dirty and romantic and arousing and naked and, most of all, incredibly beautiful.


Marlow’s Pick: TIME: The Kalief Browder Story

Unlike last year’s Weiner, there was no one standout doc at this year’s Sundance fest, but several accomplished ones. Step, about an inner city Baltimore dance troupe, is beautifully uplifting, leading to a $4 million acquisition by Fox Searchlight, while Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press is a remarkably timely prelude to President Trump’s war on the free press. But filmmaker Jenner Furst’s in-depth chronicle of the trial, imprisonment, and aftermath of Kalief Browder—a 16-year-old Bronx teen who was falsely imprisoned for stealing a backpack, spent three years in the hellscape of Riker’s Island (and over 800 days in solitary), and took his own life upon his release—is a powerful indictment of the criminal justice system, institutional racism, solitary confinement, and Riker’s Island. This six-part TV docuseries, produced by Jay Z and Harvey Weinstein and premiering later this year on Spike TV, may be this year’s O.J.: Made in America.