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.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)

One of the boldest and most original films to screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild picked up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Cinematography Award at the closing night ceremony after surfing a roaring wave of positive buzz. And we doubt it’s going to stop there – this most auspicious of enviro-fantasies is Oscar-bound, and when it lands it’s sure to cause as much wonton destruction as its impressive central storm scene.

A tantalising hybrid of rugged fantasy, character drama and disaster epic, Beasts is a an enchanting oddity that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. At its heart is six-year-old Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives in a Southern delta community called ‘The Bathtub’ (because floods are a daily threat). When her tough love father Wink (Dwight Henry) falls ill, Hushpuppy sets off in search of her mother on a quest to put the world to rights again.

All bristly impudence and pouty bottom lip, Wallis gives a blistering central performance that imbues Beasts with a crude and affecting mood. Raw talent like this is gold dust in the movie industry, and Wallis carries the film with ease, her whimsical narration both quirky and stirring. She’s a fiery heroine, and leads a phenomenal cast of unknowns who are all equally impressive.

After a dreamy introduction, things really get going as a hurricane threatens The Bathtub (Hurricane Katrina is used as both a vague reference point and a thematic device throughout). Meanwhile, melting icecaps unleash giant, long-dormant monsters that charge across the globe towards our little welly-wearing heroine.

Part Where The Wild Things Are, part something else, Beasts is a feral, joyfully atypical fairytale. Debut director Benh Zeitlin – who adapted Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious for the screen – creates a richly dilapidated world where you feel every creaking floorboard and every blast of wind.

True, it feels vaguely ostentatious at times, a consequence of its ambitious themes and dreamy language. “The entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” glowers Hushpuppy with wisdom beyond her years, just one of her remarkable if unrealistically mature observances.

Beasts, though, is the best kind of fantasy. Rooted in a believable, rough-and-tumble reality, its outlandish flourishes are grounded in stomach-flipping emotion. As told through the eyes of our young heroine, it makes a perfect kind of nonsense that defies explanation. It’s a draining, soaring, staggeringly original bit of storytelling that’s spellbinding from start to finish. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Sundance 2012: The best movies (that I saw)

Beasts Of The Southern Wild
The Grand Jury Prize dramatic competition winner and TF’s film of the day on Day 8. A gripping, entirely unique creation, Beasts is part childhood fairytale, part enviro-drama, and wholly enchanting. It stars a cast of unknowns, and is the debut feature of director Benh Zeitlin, whose true grit visuals – paired with dreamy narration – are both whimsically arresting and grubbily unpretentious.

Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, remarkable) lives in a Delta community known as ‘The Bathtub’, because it’s in constant threat of flooding. When Hushpuppy’s father falls ill, the end of the world seems nigh – especially when the melting icecaps unleash deadly monsters called aurochs. Wonderfully weird and flush with atmosphere, Beasts is a beautifully-lensed, surprisingly savage lullaby.

Indie Game: The Movie
Super Meat Boy, Fez and Braid are the subject of this enlightening documentary – so-called ‘indie games’ created by fanboy joystick-twiddlers who do their stuff outside of the system.

It’s revealed to be a perilous occupation as we get to know the four developers behind those three games, all of whom are variously reclusive, eccentric and super-creative. Thanks to the four developers’ surprisingly frank input, Indie Game works as both an exposé of the booming underground game industry and the tortured creatives behind their conception.

Room 237
One for the Kubrick fans, Room 237 picks apart The Shining in forensic detail, as fans of the film offer their readings of the film’s many possible meanings. Devoid of talking heads, it uses interview chat tracks and footage from other movies (mostly Kubrick’s) to tell its story.

The result is a tongue-in-cheek experiment that lets the interviewees do the talking. Craziest reading of The Shining? One guy’s insistence that it’s an ‘apology’ from Kubrick for ‘faking’ the Apollo 13 landing footage. Hysterical.

Simon Killer
As emotionally volatile as its title suggests, Simon Killer comes from the same creative team behind the phenomenal Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s not hard to see the through-line. Killer is just as darkly bewitching, presenting a troubled, inscrutable protagonist in Brady Corbet’s Simon, who gets lost in the seedy underbelly of modern day Paris.

Killer pulses with seedy clinches and queasy camerawork as director Antonio Campos explores the darkside of voyeurism with unflinching grit. Meanwhile, it’s got one of the coolest synth-pop soundtracks since Drive. Damn near a modern day Vertigo, Killer will be studied, analysed and discussed for years to come.

Safety Not Guaranteed
Winner of the Screenwriting award, Safety Not Guaranteed is an eccentric dramedy starring Scott Pilgrim’s Aubrey Plaza as Darius, a disenfranchised twenty-something who investigates a guy who claims to know how to time travel.

Though she’s best known for her caustic wit, Plaza softens off the rough edges while delivering an excess of deadpan goodness. The film’s final act tonal shift will divide audiences, but in general Safety is a hilarious, character-driven film that never takes the easy route. It’ll be interesting to see how they market this one.

Nobody Walks
Olivia Thirlby is the eye at the centre of a very sexy storm in this warm, hysterically funny dramedy. When her young filmmaker breezes into town, she comes riding a wave of effortless sexiness, which carries her through a net of passions-gone-wild as men queue up to fall at her feet.

Though the film could’ve done with more depth, it wisely plays down the angst and is content to sit back as sparks fly between its central players – including Rosemarie DeWitt and John Krasinski.

Wish You Were Here
It was completely overlooked at the awards, but Aussie favourites Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer definitely deserved kudos for their performances in this hard-hitting homegrown drama.

A beautifully shot traveller’s warning, the film follows what happens when Palmer’s boyfriend goes missing during a trip to Cambodia. Co-writer and co-star Felicity Price tempers a fantastic portrait of Edgerton’s wronged wife, easily stealing the limelight from her better-known co-actors.

West Of Memphis
Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Oscar-nominated helmer Amy Berg, Memphis goes to extraordinary lengths to (finally) exonerate the Memphis Three – a trio of Arkansas teens who were jailed for murder in the early ‘90s.

Though it’s too long at 150 minutes, we expect a pre-release polish will make Memphis even more powerful than it already is. It haunted us for days.

For A Good Time, Call…
It won’t win any awards for subtlety or heartfelt drama, but Good Time well and truly lives up to that title with some of the snappiest dialogue, broadest comedy and perfectly-timed performances we’ve ever seen in a smutty comedy.

Giving American Pie a run for its money, this laugh riot – which follows two frenemies who move in together and set up their own sex chatline – offered us welcome shelter from a storm of restrained indie love stories that rained down on the fest. And for that we’re very thankful.