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  • Rough Cut Staff

A Year in Cinema: Film Festivals of 2016

If you know die-hard cinemaniacs, you’ve heard of it. If you’ve been on Twitter around, say, Labor Day weekend, you’ve seen it. And if you’ve attended a film festival – from Cannes to the smallest local fest – you’ve experienced it. The Festival High. Disasters are suddenly redeemable. Average becomes sublime. Basic competence is turned into a masterpiece.

Because they cannot be divorced from the setting, the context, and the experience, festivals are often nothing more than a quick snapshot of a particular swirl of feelings in one time and place. Sometimes it takes days for reality to set in; sometimes months; and occasionally it’ll take years before the 20/20 of hindsight can fully kick in.

That’s what this series is about. To honor our favorite festivals, we’re looking back at the Festival-Years-That-Were from 5, 10, 25, and 50 years ago. In this first entry, we’ll look at how the year 2011 progressed through film festivals – from the early hype-building to the coronation of Cannes through the awards prognostication hub of early Fall. We’ll try to capture how things changed over the course of a single year, and what it all means with a bit of distance and objectivity.


Awards Front-Runner: The Birth of a Nation

Critical Darling: Manchester by the Sea

Breakout Potential: The Daniels, Swiss Army Man; Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea

Indie Darling: Morris from America

Peaked Here: Midnight Special

Under the Radar: Captain Fantastic

Change Gon’ Come: Taika Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople


In the four and a half months before Cannes 2016, global audiences saw dozens of exciting new films at Sundance, Berlin, and South by Southwest. Nothing shocked the film world like debut director Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation selling for a whopping $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight – a then-record for a Sundance acquisition. Either you know of the trajectory for both Parker and his film over the course of the year, or you’ve never heard of him, in which case, you can take a guess.

Also out of Sundance, the mastermind behind You Can Count on Me and Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan, graced fans with just his third film in 16 years: Manchester by the Sea. Selling quickly for $10 million to Amazon, Manchester made immediate waves amongst the critical community. Boasting a stacked cast (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges), Manchester appeared to have what it takes to run the gauntlet from Sundance in January to the Oscars over a year later.

A number of other films popped in the early festivals. Swiss Army Man divided audiences – exactly the type of reaction that can cast a spotlight on its directors, The Daniels. 5 years later and we’re awaiting their narrative follow-up, Everything Everywhere All at Once. We may know shortly if Swiss Army Man was a watershed moment or the beginning of a bright career.

One career we’ve seen take off since 2016: Taika Waititi. Hunt for the Wilderpeople was Waititi’s fourth straight Sundance premiere, starting with his film debut 9 years earlier. It would also be his last Sundance debut – as he’d move on to Thor: Ragnarok (no festival), Jojo Rabbit (TIFF), and Thor: Love and Thunder (upcoming, no festival). We couldn’t have guessed the perennial indie director from New Zealand would become the hottest director in franchise filmmaking.

Jeff Nichols’ Spielbergian Midnight Special debuted in competition at Berlin, following up as a headliner at South by – only to fizzle after its March release, potentially clearing the way for Nichols’ second film of the year (and the more Oscar-friendly one), Loving. Weiner, the documentary about disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, launched a thousand opinion pieces at Sundance, only to fall relatively flat through the rest of the year.

Plenty of movies used an early festival to bootstrap into a relatively successful release, including indies like Sing Street (Sundance), Morris from America (Sundance screenwriting award and SXSW), Don’t Think Twice (SXSW), Little Men (Sundance and Berlin), and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (Sundance). A few big-name directors dropped studio films with early release dates at these festivals, rarely to the type of plaudits or earnings that were probably sought. Namely, the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar played Berlin just days after its premiere in Los Angeles – before petering out of the conversation fairly quickly.


Awards Front-Runner: The Birth of a Nation

Critical Darling: Manchester by the Sea

Breakout Potential: Adam Driver, Paterson

Indie Darling: Paterson; Personal Shopper

Peaked Here: I, Daniel Blake

Under the Radar: The Nice Guys; Hell or High Water

Change Gon’ Come: Adam Driver, Paterson; Julia Ducournau, Raw


What can often be the single-most impactful festival in a given year, 2016 Cannes had a diffuse effect on the conversation in film – there was no Parasite, to use a recent example. As is often the case, the Palme d’Or winner, I, Daniel Blake, raised a few eyebrows and hasn’t maintained a reputation as the clear best film out of that year’s competition. Cannes didn’t add any major awards front-runner or critical darling to the mix – at least not enough to displace The Birth of a Nation and Manchester by the Sea in those positions.

What Cannes did give us: Adam Driver, Serious Actor. Driver had a series of similar roles in Noah Baumbach movies; he put the world on notice with Girls; and he exploded in December 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But it was in 2016 that he cemented his interest in, and ability to be, one of the finest actors of his generation. In Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, he scales back his larger-than-life persona, penetrating audiences with the unrequited love we give to our unfulfilled dreams. He would follow that up with a role in Martin Scorsese’s Silence at the end of the year, and he wouldn’t look back from this very simple approach: pick good directors to work with.

2016’s Cannes greatest legacy is perhaps the surprising future of its films and filmmakers. Two films that played out of competition to positive but muted response, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys and David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water would go on to have two of the best shelf-lives of any films at the festival. Neither played in official competition. Hell or High Water would even go on to a Best Picture nod.

Speaking of films playing far from the competition: Julia Ducournau’s cannibalistic horror movie, Raw, played International Critics’ Week. She’s made one film since. It won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Titane comes to US theaters in October.

2016 Cannes also saw two frontrunners for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film burst onto the scene – Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, the eventual winner, and Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, a nominee. To my money, one of the best films of the year was Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, premiering to overwhelmingly positive reviews at the festival yet coming home empty-handed. This was also when the staying power of Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic first became evident. After failing to fully distinguish itself from the glut of cute-good independent films in the first few months of the year, Ross’s debut won a hard-earned spot in the Cannes lineup. It would go on to earn a surprise nomination for Viggo Mortensen.

Cannes may not have had one or two movies that broke the internet, but it left us with a legacy that’s still yielding returns a half-decade later.

The Fall Festivals

Awards Front-Runner: La La Land; Lion

Critical Darling: Moonlight

Breakout Potential: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Indie Darling: A Quiet Passion

Peaked Here: The Birth of a Nation

Under the Radar: The Bad Batch

Change Gon’ Come: Jessica Rothe, La La Land; The White Helmets


The heavyweights came to play in the 2016 fall festivals – Venice, Telluride, and Toronto (TIFF). Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land both blew audiences away on the lido before returning stateside to play Telluride, and finishing out the triptych in Toronto. Meanwhile, Barry Jenkins’ eventual Best Picture winner Moonlight debuted at Telluride, immediately setting critics abuzz in the normally sleepy mountain town. In Toronto, La La Land took him the People’s Choice Award, often a precursor for future Best Picture Winners, while Emma Stone foreshadowed her Oscar win with a Best Actress trophy in Venice.

But the fall festivals weren’t just top heavy. Lion took home second prize in Toronto, an indication of the sort of populous support that would carry it to a Best Picture nomination. Pablo Larrain added a second unconventional biopic to his studded 2016 with Jackie, bowing at Venice and continuing on to TIFF, after which Natalie Portman’s turn as the former First Lady would eventually garner her an Oscar nomination. Two films that split audiences – Nocturnal Animals and Hacksaw Ridge ­– would generate both support and controversy on their way to surprising awards wins (Nocturnal Animals at the Globes) and nominations (Hacksaw Ridge at the Oscars).

As some controversial figures rose, others began their fall, as these festivals marked the beginning of the end for Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which would eventually make only $16.8 million at the box office – less than the amount Fox Searchlight paid for it less than 9 months earlier.

These festivals also offered a taste of success to come. Jessica Rothe played a bit part in La La Land as one of Emma Stone’s roommates – she would go on to Scream Queen status with the following year’s Happy Death Day and its 2019 sequel. And Netflix kicked off its immensely successful strategy of seeking Oscar gold in documentary and short categories – placing The Ivory Game and the doc short The White Helmets at Telluride, the latter of which would win the Oscar. Netflix would run this strategy on repeat over the coming years, leading to the most recent awards ceremony, at which the studio took home the Oscars for best live action short, best animated short, and best documentary feature.

Odds and Ends

The documentary scene would heat up into the Fall – after I Am Not Your Negro premiered at TIFF and won the People’s Choice Award for documentary, it earned slots at the two premiere late Fall festivals, the New York Film Festival and the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest. It was joined by the premiere of Ava DuVernay’s 13th, which opened NYFF, and would go on to win the Oscar. NYFF saw a few other notable premieres, namely 20th Century Women and The Lost City of Z.


It’s hard to tell from when you’re in the middle of a big year – but that’s what 2016 has turned out to be. Chazelle and Jenkins have each put out another film and a TV series each, proving themselves to be two of the greatest young talents behind the camera. This year will see a return from Pablo Larrain to the notorious female politician biopic, shifting from Portman as Jackie to Kristen Stewart as Spencer (Princess Diana). Asghar Farhadi is back with A Hero, his second film since 2016’s The Salesman, and by all accounts his strongest. While Denis Villeneuve has graduated from Arrival to Dune – with a pit stop in 2049 in between.

What will the next 5 years bring for the filmmakers of 2016? How will we view their films and performances with a bit more hindsight?

Tune in next week for the second version of our festival season retrospective: 2011.


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