The best films of Sundance 2017

Over 10 days, I watched 26 movies at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Some were awesome, some weren’t, but here are eight of my favourites…


Call Me By Your Name

Call Me by Your Name - Still 1Forget The Lone Ranger and The Man From UNCLE, Armie Hammer finally lands a role that reveals the full breadth of his talent in Luca Guadagnino’s third feature (after I Am Love and A Bigger Splash). As an academic who spends the summer of ’83 in northern Italy with a professor and his family, Hammer is breezily charismatic, his enigmatic brainbox soon catching the eye of 17-year-old professor’s son Elio (Timothée Chalamet, fantastic), with whom he shares an adjoining bedroom. Their friendship gradually deepens into something more profound, and amid the apricot trees and watchful ruins of the Italian Riviera, Guadagnino unspools a transcendent love story brimming with warmth, passion and feeling. Unmissable.

 

Thoroughbred

anya-taylor-joy-thoroughbred“The only thing worse than being incompetent, unkind or evil,” says Amanda (Olivia Cooke) midway through this savage teen drama, “is being indecisive.” Deadly observations are Amanda’s thing, especially when – as in this case – she accompanies them with vase-smashing violence. A borderline sociopath with a murky past, Amanda’s cold-hard-truth approach to life first repulses, then beguiles study buddy Lilly (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s got a few secrets of her own – and an irritating step-father she daydreams about killing. Expertly playing with light and dark, director Cory Finley’s stark debut is a moody semi-chamber piece that delights in Heathers-esque wit and dreamy visuals – and a firecracker final turn from Anton Yelchin. It’ll haunt you for days.


An Inconvenient Sequel

an-inconvenient-sequel-al-goreIt’s not quite Gore vs Trump, but the newly-inaugurated US President casts a long shadow over this follow-up to 2006’s Oscar-winning doc An Inconvenient Truth. In a year when Trump was on everybody’s lips at Sundance, the current White House resident punctuates this engaging if not entirely revelatory sequel by appearing in news footage and sound bites, threatening more dark times ahead. Elsewhere, An Inconvenient Sequel catches up with Al Gore’s anti-global warming campaign a decade after he first unveiled his Powerpoint presentation, revealing the devastating toll it has already taken on the polar ice-caps and cities like New York. It’s a brisk, engaging watch.

 

Manifesto

Manifesto - Still 3You want weird? How about Cate Blanchett playing 13 different characters in one film? Want MORE weird? How about Cate Blanchett playing 13 different characters then reciting the art manifestos of scholars like Jim Jarmusch, Andre Breton and Claes Oldenburg? That’s the hook in German artist/director Julian Rosefeldt’s second feature, inspired by his own art installation (currently touring the globe) and a bold, beautiful, surprisingly funny sermon on the current state of the creative landscape. Naturally, it’s all about Blanchett – whether playing a homeless man, a newsreader, a punk or a puppeteer, she’s utterly riveting, ensuring that while Manifesto may challenge more mainstream audiences, it’ll captivate those with an appetite for audacious cinematic experimentation.


Beatriz At Dinner

beatriz-at-dinnerSalma Hayek delivers a career-best performance as the titular holistic practitioner in this radiant comic drama from director Miguel Arteta. Mousy and watchful, Beatriz offers Buddha hugs to everybody she meets, but butts heads with ruthless businessman Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) when she’s inadvertently invited to a client’s ritzy dinner party. At first playing as a fish-out-of-water comedy, Mike White’s script incrementally pulls focus on Beatriz, revealing a woman whose admirable if steely beliefs make her unexpectedly formidable. Hayek has never been better, glowing with a quiet magnetism, while Lithgow is terrifyingly plausible as the Trump-like Strutt. There are echoes of White’s TV series Enlightened here, and Beatriz At Dinner boasts the same lingering power – and, in light of the presidential election, it couldn’t be more timely.


Beach Rats

beach-rats-movie-jphNotable for its remarkable central performance by Brit newcomer Harris Dickinson, this gritty, Brooklyn-set drama caused a flurry of controversy over its exploration of sexual identity, but the ambiguity director Eliza Hittman paddles in perfectly mirrors her film’s roving teen protag. In a mesmerising and, uh, revealing turn, Dickinson plays teen Frankie, who kills time smoking, doping and chasing girls by day – then surfing the internet for older men by night. Shooting on grainy 16mm, Hittman follows Frankie from beaches and bedrooms to the dark woods he uses as cover for gay hook-ups. Her camera lingers lovingly on Dickinson, whose troubled eyes at once hint at Frankie’s seeming denial over his sexuality, then at his lack of awareness at how his actions impact others. At once brutal and empathetic toward a floundering young man, Hittman’s film will inevitably be spoken about in the same breaths as Mysterious Skin and Moonlight.


Before I Fall

nullThe YA adap craze may be waning, but it was far from dead at Sundance – a bit like Before I Fall’s high school heroine who, after a car accident, keeps reliving the same day she and her friends seemingly died. Yeah, Groundhog Day comparisons are there for the taking, but director Ry Russo-Young squeezes the time-loop hook for all it’s worth. As Samantha (the excellent Zoey Deutch) runs the gamut of frustration, smoky-eyed rebellion and beyond, there are surprises at every turn in an atmospheric exploration of fate and redemption. Russo-Young plumbs honest emotion with minimal sugar-dipping, while shouting out to everything from Carrie and Mean Girls to Pretty Little Liars. And, yes, Groundhog Day.

 

The Big Sick

the-big-sick-movieSilicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani co-wrote this comedy drama, basing it on his real-life relationship, which goes part way to explaining why its warmth and wit earned him rave reviews at this year’s Sundance. Kumail plays a version of himself, a soft-spoken Pakistani-American and wannabe stand-up comic whose mother is so desperate for him to marry that she spends most of her time setting him up with suitable Pakistani women. But when Kumail falls for non-Muslim Emily (Zoe Kazan), he risks losing his family in the name of love. The Big Sick was produced by Judd Apatow, and the comedy mogul’s influence manifests in the film’s winsomely awkward comedy – particularly the hour-long segment in which Kumail attempts to win over Emily’s parents (a brilliantly cast Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). Though it’s long at two hours, this should rightly make an even bigger star of Kumail, who has a gift for incendiary one-liners and bumbling charisma.

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