Over the past 10 days, the Sundance Film Festival proved, once gain, that American independent cinema is in good hands. Over 200 movies screened here at Park City, and the quality was, once again, something to behold.
People were still raving about last year’s lineup, one of the very best in the festival’s 39 year history, which gave us Manchester by the Sea, OJ: Made in America, Love & Friendship, Sing Street, Certain Women, Hunt For the Wilderpeople, The Fits, Swiss Army Man, Weiner, Captain Fantastic, Little Men, Indignation, Camerperson, Green Room, and even Nate Parker’s controversial The Birth of a Nation.
The more Hollywood goes into crass commercialism, the more likely a film festival like Sundance will matter. It’s as simple as that. This year there was a record number of films by women and people of color. In fact, many of those films were the highlights of this 39th edition.
Matt Ruskin’s Crown Heights won the prestigious dramatic audience award. The film, a true story of Brooklyn teenager Colin Warner, wrongfully convicted of murder in 1980s New York, was a by-the-books, but powerful indictment of the American justice system, and reminded me of a more condensed version of Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane. It’s the kind of movie that can stir you up, and get you riled for change.
Over the past 5 years, the Grand Jury Prize has gone to future Oscar nominees: Whiplash, Winter’s Bone, Precious, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Don’t expect this year’s winner, Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, to do any damage come Oscar time, not to diminish its impact as a fantastic film. Blair has been an actor I’ve been keeping a watchful eye on the past few years, with him being Jeremy Saulnier’s muse in both Green Room and Blue Ruin. Suffice it to say that he takes quite a bit from Saulnier’s visceral style of filmmaking for his feature directing debut, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, which loosely borrows its name from Woody Guthrie’s song of isolation, I Ain’t Got No Home. Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood make a formidable team in this tale set in the ever-growing “me, me, me” generation. Lynskey’s home is broken into with personl belongings stolen. Wood is the weirdo neighbor that she teams up with to find the perpetrator of the robbery, and he’s the highlight of the film — engrossing, comic, frightening, lonely and armed with nunchucks, you have to see this performance to believe it. They make a formidable, comic team, but the film’s crossings through many genres make it difficult for it to be pinpointed as a comedy. Blair is clearly influenced by David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which depicted a dark underbelly of Americana that this film seems to wholeheartedly embrace almost religiously. It isn’t a perfect film, pacing issues, including an over-stretched finale, could have used a bit of trimming, but there are many surreal and memorable moments in Blair’s film that will stick with viewers when the film gets its Netflix premiere on February 24th.
Sundance still feels vitally important. Having premiered 9 Best Picture nominees in the past 7 years, it’s a continuous hotbed for low-budget indie filmmakers whose vision is uncompromised by greed. Here are 10 more films that will likely be heard from in the next year or so.
1) A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
David Lowery’s film is one of the most audaciously original narratives I have seen this decade. Shot with friends Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as a personal side project while he was filming Pete’s Dragon, the film is not necessarily supposed to be scary as much as an engrossing meditation on life and death. The less you know, the better, but the film’s official synopsis is perfectly put together to tell you all you need to know: “This is the story of a ghost and the house he haunts.”
2) Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
The romance between a seventeen year-old Italian boy named Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and an American summer guest Oliver (Armie Hammer) staying at his parents’ cliffside mansion in southern Italy, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name was the film most people believed would survive through next year’s Oscar season, and for good reason. Guadagnino has made one of the year’s best movies — sensual, sexy, and touching, it’s a film that is simply told, but packs a wallop by the end of its 130 minute running time.
3) The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
All hesitations you might have had about this Judd Apatow-produced film is thrown out the window once Kumail Nanjiani appears in Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick. The film, a touching and heartfelt personal account of the real-life relationship between Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon (played beautifully by Zoe Kazan), is one of the best romantic comedies to come around in ages because it makes us actually care about the outcome. This is the best Judd Apatow movie and it wasn’t even directed by Apatow.
4) Mudbound (Dee Rees)
A messy, complex and invigorating account of post-WWII racial tensions in 1940’s Mississippi, Dee Rees’ Mudbound is about the timeless racial struggles that are still happening in America. Rees, whose Pariah is one of the most underrated films of this decade, tells the story of two army men, one white and the other black (Gareth Hedlund and Jason Mitchell), returning home to rural Mississippi, having seen the horrors of war and struggling to deal with the racial injustices at bay. They form a friendship that gets the townspeople talking: neither man cares about the other’s skin color, they just need comfort in each other’s bruised souls, and Rees nails the touching friendship they build.
5) Patti Cake$ (Geremy Jasper)
I called Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$ a hip-hop Whiplash, and that’s an apt description for a familia film that also feels like it’s directed by a new, exciting talent. The film’s breakout star, Australia’s Danielle Macdonald, plays Patti, an overweight, extremely white Jersey-born aspiring rapper who can win any free-style battle, but can’t find a way out of her miserable, blue-collar town. Jasper directs the hell out of the film, and his visually exciting style breaks through the film’s familiar tropes by making you care about Patti and her road to a better life. Jasper pulls off the impossible: although you feel like you have seen a film like this one before, you can rest assured that there has never been anything quite like Patti Cake$.
6) Novitiate (Margaret Qualley)
Maggie Betts’ feature film debut, for the most part, does not feel like the work of an amateur. The shot selection, framing, and tone are all top-notch. Set in the early 1960s and during the era of the reform that would be known as Vatican II, a young lady, perfectly played by Diana Agron, decides to join the nunhood due to her unadorned love for God, but things get complicated. A changing, more progressive church, and sexual desire for her peers starts to interfere, leading her to question herself. Novitiate is a messy, sprawling 123 minute film that leaves you truly shaken by its final frame. Melissa Leo, stunning as the conflicted nun from hell, is a particular standout.
7) Icarus (Bryan Fogel)
Given all the attention that Russia’s Vladmir Putin has been getting of late, it would be very hard to find a more relevant film than Bryan Fogel’s documentary Icarus, which deals with the Russian government’s Olympic cheating scandal. The scandal was uncovered by accident by Fogel, who was following a Russian scientist for a doping documentary, but found out he had a much bigger story at hand. This is the kind of film where a twist happens in almost every frame and the filmmaker, Fogel, seems to have stumbled upon a goldmine of a narrative.
8) City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman)
Another documentary, this one about ISIS stronghold Raqqa, Syria, might be the most definitive document thus far about the Syrian civil war. Director Matthew Heineman gets frontline access to the citizen journalist collective of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” as they try to defy threats against their lives by the terrorist organization and fight the misinformation and indoctrination of their people at the hands of evil. Another great Syria documentary, Last Man in Aleppo won the World doc prize. Both are unflinching and unforgettable.
9) Ingrid Goes West (Marti Spicer)
If there ever was a film that dealt with our craze for social media in the most intelligent and assured way, it would be Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West. Thee film has a career-making performance from Aubrey Plaza as an emotionally unbalanced, celebrity obsessed millenial (Aubrey Plaza) who decides to head out west and stalk an Instagram celebrity (a pitch-perfect Elizabeth Olsen) to the brink of martyrdom. It’s one of the best dark comedies to come around in ages and smartly updates the stalker genre for the social media generation. A perfect fit if you ask me.
10) Thoroughbred (Cory Finley)
If Heathers was more artsy and minimalist, you’d get Cory Finley’s finely attuned Thoroughbred. A theater veteran, Finley brings out the best of his two leads, here played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke, as they get themselves involved in a murder plot that is as highly unpredictable as it is stark and pitch black. It’s a sleek and stylish film that sneaks up under you and never lets go.