This year’s Sundance was dominated by politics and climate. With Trump’s almost daily proclamations and alternative facts spurring conversations and outrage (mostly outrage), it was sometimes difficult to enjoy a light-hearted comedy with four quadrant appeal. I even overheard an executive ask another what quadrant they thought ‘ignorant racists’ belonged to. Whereas the Oscars makes the big headlines for political grandiose statements put forth by big names (Meryl Streep got in ahead of the game at the Golden Globes), Sundance is great for a feet on the ground pulse of the nation understanding of our political climate. Of course, indie film is not necessarily a cross section of America, which is where a lot of the problem of last November came from. Never before have I been surrounded by so many people who just couldn’t comprehend how we could have gotten here. So yeah, it was hard for escapist silliness to really win over the crowd.
In fact, with the festival invoking climate change so strongly by opening with INCONVENIENT SEQUEL and featuring several features that continued the conversation, spending the entire week thinking about our political future, lead by a man who thinks climate change is a hoax, was completely unavoidable. The massive amounts of snow didn’t help either, much of the time it felt like I was trapped in WALKING OUT, like the cover picture of this article. On Saturday, the national women’s march proudly took over the morning, for a march on main street at 7000 feet altitude, delaying panels, bus routes and seeing uber charge as much as $250 for a 5-minute ride. But once the festival started gathering steam, I found myself drawn to stories about individuals discovering new worlds – either to overcome or to be swallowed by them, clearly a reflection of how small and at times powerless I feel right now. Hello 2017.
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
Before getting to my list, I would be remiss to not discuss the largest shadow hanging over Sundance right now (and all of film festivals really), Netflix. Buying more films than any other ‘distributor’ there, debuting several products it already owns and using Sundance essentially as its personal launching platform, Netflix has changed the way the festival works, more than any other high profile buyer. One of my favorite films of fest was Macon Blair’s I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE, a film that won the grand jury prize and will be released on February 24, 2017 on Netflix. In a festival that at one point stood for discovery, what is the point of putting a film in competition that already has high profile distribution and will never even be seen theatrically? The Netflix model worries me as someone who cares about film festivals and filmmakers. When Netflix buys a film, they more often than not pull it from the film festival circuit, limiting the chances that filmmaker will have to play their film before a gathered audience, in a theatrical setting. They are limiting that filmmaker’s opportunity to meet audiences and hear feedback face to face and hone their craft. They are limiting the filmmaker’s chance to network with other filmmakers on the festival circuit and develop relationships and support networks that will serve them as they move forward in their career. They are limiting a filmmaker’s chance to get out in front of money people, and raise funding for their next project.
For years, Sundance has fought to find the balance between discovery new talent, supporting alumni, and serving as a launching pad for studio’s ‘indie’ arms with their questionably ‘indie’ films full of stars and presold. This year it was truly difficult to find anything completely fresh and undiscovered. In fact, the most original film I saw in Park City this year was at Slamdance, DAVE MADE A MAZE, a film so fierce in its independent filmmaking aesthetic it was truly like no other film in town. I would also like to single out a Slamdance film FUTURE ’38 as one of my favorites on the week. Both films reminded me why I love going to film festivals far more than any of the dozen Netflix prebought, prepackaged, presold films that you will be able to watch on your couch in the next few months.
Anyway, here is my Sundance in fives. Five Favorites, Five Frustrations and Five Fails:
5. SIDNEY HALL – Shawn Christensen follows his SXSW audience award winner BEFORE I DISAPPEAR with a sprawling drama about a writer who disappears from the world and the man trying to hunt him down. Told out of sequence along several timelines, the film takes advantage of film as a media to paint a complicated portrait of a man – not always likeable – but thoroughly engaging. This is the kind of film made for the arthouse movement of the late nineties – do those films even get released any more? I hope so because this is a filmmaker who is really finding a singular voice and we are lucky to watch it develop over more and more complicated narratives. My one disappointment with this film is that it felt like about 20 minutes of a director’s cut had been forcibly removed, I don’t know, the film and the characters needed a bit more time to breath and maybe Christensen wasn’t able to convince his producers of that.
4. LA TIMES – Maybe because I will never get enough of those first three Whit Stillman films, maybe because I lived in Los Angeles for three years and found the people there for the most part insufferable, or maybe because it was near the end of the fest I still hadn’t seen much that made me laugh, Michelle Morgan’s comedy about a couple that breaks up because they think they might not be as happy as their friends really charmed me. As I watched scene after scene of people just not knowing how they fit into the world or with each other, I couldn’t help but remember my first experience with Stillman’s METROPOLITAN, a film that, along with BROTHERS MCMULLEN, made me want to be a filmmaker. This is someone just telling us about the people around them, and doing it in the most amusing and honest way. Satire at its best.
3. WIND RIVER – The directorial debut by the writer of SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER, WIND RIVER delves back into the ‘unprepared law enforcement’ motif that Taylor Sheridan has going, as Elizabeth Olsen plays a young FBI agent sent to investigate the murder of a girl on an Indian reservation. Teaming up with a local hunter (Jeremy Renner) who has recently lost his own daughter, the two navigate the questionable jurisdiction of federal lands, private security forces and vigilante justice. A gripping drama, beautifully shot, the film never lets any of the characters off easy. More of a slow burn noir than an action film, WIND RIVER captures a disregarded corner of America, and gives us a couple deeply nuanced but flawed characters to explore it with.
2. INGRID GOES WEST – This dark dark comedy about a girl (Aubrey Plaza) who patterns her life off an Instagram celebrity and then tries to befriend her, is both very of the moment and incredibly painful. But also really funny. This new starset – social media influencers – are possibly the first sign that our culture has truly descended into hell, and the Matt Spicer-directed film skewers influencers as well the mindless followers that make them possible. Elizabeth Olsen (again!) excels as the vapid Taylor Sloane and O’Shea Jackson Jr (aka Ice Cube’s son) is hilarious as Plaza’s landlord/drug-dealer/boyfriend/screenwriter/batman-fanatic. Big congratulations to Tim League’s NEON who snagged one of the smartest film of the fest (and one of the most #trending) for their second narrative pickup.
1. BRIGSBY BEAR – The Brigsby Bear Adventures was James’ favorite TV growing up (and into his twenties), easily because it was the only show on TV – little did he know it was being made just for him. Now finally freed from the bunker where his fake parents held him captive he wants only one thing, to know how Brigsby Bear ends. Kyle Mooney comes to his own as naïve man-child who emerges from abduction, reuniting with his long-lost family and struggles to find his footing in the real world. His whole world had been Brigsby and he dedicates himself to becoming a filmmaker so he can finish Brigsby’s adventures himself. Sweet and funny, Brigsby Bear becomes a testament to the power of art – the way it helps in self-expression and building community. The all-star cast of Mark Hammill, Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear, Andy Samberg, and fellow SNL’er Beck Bennett never overshadow the story which manages to be hopeful and uplifting in the face of despair circumstances, exactly the film we need right now.
I also want to give a shout out to the top doc of the fest, ICARUS, which starts as an investigation into cycling doping practices and chances into a friendship with the Russian doping czar who singlehandedly helped 2/3 of Russian athletes cheat the Sochi Olympics. The subject matter of the film (thankfully) finds itself hijacked by the documentarian’s attempt to get the whistleblower out of Russia to testify. And I would like to single out the star-making performance by Daily Show’s Jessica Williams in THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES, a really funny romantic comedy about a playwright unwilling to compromise on the dating scene who stumbles into a surprising relationship with app developer Chris O’Dowd. Nothing groundbreaking here, but Williams is so darn likeable and brash as a strong-willed female character. I also love that the mixed-race nature of the hookup is basically an afterthought and doesn’t overwhelm the story line which is more about her own understanding of happiness. She also gave the most inspiring speech at the March on Main.
5. REMEMORY – I actually felt like this SciFi thriller starring Peter Dinklage about a device that helps you record your memories permanently but leads to the death of its inventor worked quite well. Carved from the same mold of slow-burn SciFi like GATTACA or TIME LAPSE, REMEMORY is more about the need for or misuse of the technology and how it affects the user, than some sort of new model for society. So why does it end up on this list? There is a major plot point at the end that ties the film up so unnecessarily and feels lifted from Indie SciFi ANOTHER EARTH. It doesn’t add much to the story and unfortunately undercuts much of the drama of the last few hours.
4. A GHOST STORY – David Lowery’s new film is not a horror film at all but a love story. Shot in inexplicable black and white (my least favorite shooting choice – why? Why does this film need to be in black and white… plus its clearly digital black and white) as well as in a 4:3 aspect ratio (another odd choice), the film is a little style over substance. Past the stylistic selections, I quite liked the message of the film but thought the execution was somewhat lacking. The pacing is glacial, which is fine once we reach ‘ghost time’ but the first twenty minutes of the film could probably have been tightened to about five. There is also a bit of a pay-off of the end which doesn’t quite pay-off. I don’t know, this is the perfect example of a filmmaker achieving passion-project status where maybe the passion ran a little wide and lost sight of story.
3. BEACH RATS – This well-shot, well-performed coming of age / coming out film (or as I like to call the much produced genre ‘coming of gay’) has a lot going for it. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a good looking kid who is having trouble with his sexual identity. With his father dying of cancer, he has taken to the internet to hook up with guys, guys who are all much older and somewhat resemble his father… which is an amazing plot point that never gets dealt discussed or dealt with. Another thing is his group of male friends – one of them seems not like the others (and its not our lead) and doesn’t want to participate in the fake hook-up turned violent the rest of them plan to score some weed – he just disappears. Why? Could he also be dealing with his own sexual issues? Why not make something out of that? And then there is the ‘girlfriend’ Frankie tries to have a relationship with, maybe to prove to himself that he’s not gay. She completely disappears in the final 1/3 of the movie and does not figure into the end plot. With all these lost strands of film, it seems instead the director (Eliza Hitman) has chosen to make an open-ended but ultimately dissatisfying film that could have been so much more.
Early XX poster art with directors not represented in the final film
2. XX – I fully applaud the idea of an all-female horror anthology but was pretty disappointed with how this turned out. The four films contained within all feel like overlong short films, but with none of the payoff that a 20+ minute short really requires (I highly doubt any of the parts of this would have been programmed on their own). There is nothing to connect the films, storywise or tonally, although there are really cool stop motion animations (which unfortunately also do not seem to be setting anything up in the execution) The first short is the most successful, THE BOX, and plays out as a sort of Outer Limits or Twilight Zone episode. Directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, the short hints at a larger story that we are just catching a glimpse of, and sets the collection on the right track. After that, XX sort of crumbles under simplistic ideas and dull tropes. Roxanne Benjamin’s DON’T FALL is a generic creature feature where the male and female victims are equally stupid (so I there’s your gender equality). Karyn Kusama’s HER ONLY LIVING SON suffers from dull, unlikeble characters and a simple plot that builds up to a reveal that is not a reveal and was guessed by the audience a long time ago. Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, delivers a comic misstep with THE BIRTHDAY PARTY which is basically a rewrite of WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S and not the slightest bit horror – in fact, the director admitted in the Q&A that she doesn’t even like horror films, which makes me ask why was she asked? She’s not an aspiring director – if the goal of the project was focus some attention on women making horror, why give over ¼ of the film to someone not even interested in the genre, who doesn’t need the exposure. [In fact early reports of the film included installments from Mary Harron, Jennifer Lynch, and the Soska Sisters, all of which would have been more welcome additions.] But ask any festival director, we can probably give you ten names of female genre filmmakers looking to get exposure. I was even more frustrated during the Q&A when producer Todd Brown actually said “women are not writing scripts” and called upon women in the audience to write more. Which is just a ludicrous statement. It’s not that women aren’t writing scripts, it’s just that the mostly male gatekeepers that serve as agents, managers and producers are less likely to take a chance on them and get them made. That’s a problem endemic in the industry. I applaud the effort and the energy behind XX – but to say women aren’t writing is just one more way men running the industry can escape their responsibility to seek out diversity. Look at any screenwriting program at any college, it’s mostly 50/50. I took to Facebook to vent my frustrations after this screening and not surprisingly had more that 50+ female screenwriting friends chime in with their thoughts. One of them, the talented Gab Cody, reflected “I went to listen to agents speak on the subject and none of them accept submissions. They said ‘we’ll find you.’ Really? Because it seems like you’re rep’ing the same kind of people telling the same kind of stories (mostly). Well, I know my writing is efficacious and that I have the necessary skill and vision, but if my writing is judged as ‘not ready’ while a man’s writing is judged as ‘needing development’ that’s a reflection of implicit bias.” Exactly, and when a woman does breakthrough, she gets applauded for her unique vision – its like they forget that that’s something people want when they are analyzing potential clients. I struggled long with how much I wanted to vent on this in this article but if a fantastic producer like Todd Brown (and I mean that, he does great work) doesn’t think women are writing scripts then that really shows how closed the system is. (Now he also said he is the main gatekeeper at XYZ films and reads most of the submissions himself – so female screenwriters, the door is apparently open, they (XYZ atleast) wants to discover you – so send him a pitch, his email is easily discoverable if you search – hint, one of my favorite resources is http://everyonewhosanyone.com ).
1. MUDBOUND – I know I’m going to be in the minority on this one, sure Oscar bait by its epic narrative and racially-charged storyline (not to mention being written and directed by an African-American woman) but this film suffers from extremely poor adaptation. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to love in this film, especially the performance (Mary J. Blige gives a powerhouse turn as Florence Jackson, a woman caught between loyalty to her family and not offending the surest form of pay available to them). The setting is also fraught with history and conflict, much of which I’ve never seen on film. Set after World War Two, MUDBOUND’S primary plot involves two men, one white, one black, returning from war wrestling with their own demons, and the friendship they strike up, a friendship the rural community in Alabama cannot suffer. Also, sharecropping… a huge part of American history that somehow never appears on film, despite the conditions being only slightly better than slavery eighty years earlier. Unfortunately, this film never overcomes its roots as a book. The multiple point-of-views keep intruding on the narrative such that we can never get more than a few minutes of story before some voice over has to tell us how we feel about it. And everyone gets a voice over so the story never feels like it has any direction. The few times the voice over disappears, the film really digs in and works, only to have someone waxing poetically afterwards to remind us how hard life is, which really we just saw. It is a simple matter of not trusting the medium – the film is working, and none of the voice over feels like it is adding anything new to the story. It may be a case that the filmmaker just wanted to be too loyal to the book and not lose the author’s distinctive voice but too bad… this is a different medium – people can always enjoy the book as the book. Furthermore, at 138 minutes the film is unquestionably overlong. There is a simple solution to that, one that will never be accepted but which I will suggest anyway – cut the first thirty or so minutes of the movie. The real film starts as the two men return from war. Everything that happens to that is just set-up and establishing characters. The characters, however, are fairly well-drawn and there is nothing you couldn’t ascertain in the performance and tension just starting much, much later. All the backstory comes out later anyway. You also don’t need the opening flash-forward of burying the coffin – this only seems to exist in the film to let us know where we will be when we end, but getting there has not necessarily changed this scene, which would play just as strongly at the end of the film without seeing it first at the open of the film. So yes, specific notes from someone not a producer on the film, but I always find myself doing that when the film is so close to being great.
5. MARJORIE PRIME – This SciFi drama about a hologram of your dead relative that you can talk to after they die was full of lots of great ideas but oddly paced and feels like a play… mostly because it was based on a play and they did not do a whole lot to change it up. Jon Hamm is great in it. Geena Davis, Tim Robbins also good. With all these stars and a really fascinating central premise, how could the film fall so flat? Mostly because it felt like the scenes of the play were just lifted and dropped into a screenplay format with nothing else done to make it theatrical. I’m not say there should have been explosions and gunfire, but there is a certain evenness of story-telling and conflict that can work as a slow-burn in a play, and maybe still play in your mind hours later, that just doesn’t hold your attention on screen. This is a big difference between the 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional space. Our films have frames and the stories are contained within, you have to fill that frame to give it energy, use the space, use the tension, the tension can’t just exist in our own mind. Ultimately this production is just a relic of a stage play, one helpful to maybe get more people to produce the play, but not much else.
4. HOT GIRLS WANTED: TURNED ON – A new docuseries from Netflix based on the documentary from 2015, this Rashida Jones produced and directed episode falls flat because ultimately the series does not know what it trying to do. Is it trying to make general statements by collecting diverse experiences and examples? Or is it trying to just show specific stories up close, and let the viewer make the generalization. This episode features two women working in porn as directors, so not enough to really make generalizations. Additionally, the experiences and circumstances of these two women are so different, that looking at them side by side offers nothing in the terms of understanding. Finally, one of the two stories is just so much more interesting than the other – the story of Holly Randall, daughter of the first woman to photograph for Playboy, Suze Randall – that you spend the whole time wishing the whole episode had just been about her. In fact, there easily could have been a feature length documentary on her and her mother and their relationship and the business, but crammed in as half of a 44 minute episode you feel like you are not getting much of the story. I have high hopes for this series, so maybe I am holding them to a higher standard than I should but this installment did not live up to its goal of telling the story of female directors working in porn. It feels cursory at best.
3. WHERE IS KYRA? – Oh my god this is the slowest film ever. Michelle Pfeffeir stars as an out of work woman who takes care of her mother until she dies, then decides to dress as her mother and continue to cash her social security checks. With extremely unlikeable people, and barely written characters, it is hard to grab ahold of anything in the story, plus the plot peters along so you are always three scenes ahead of where it is going and everything overwritten. Also its like the cinematographer didn’t realize he had to light the scenes. Add to that Michelle Pfeffeir basically ends up looking like when the kids dress ET up like an old woman in the Spielberg classic, adding a laughable edge to something that was supposed to be… well I don’t know what was intended, because it looks frankly ridiculous
2. THE WORKERS CUP – What a missed opportunity to talk about FIFA shoving a world cup in a place full of human rights violations woefully unprepared to host. Instead it ends up reading like a hooray for the companies building the stadiums, which is exactly what the so-called workers cup was intended to do (letting the workers for the individual companies play a soccer tournament). It takes until the last ten minutes actually get to these issues but by then it is too late – we have practically no footage of the workers working, no discussion of the issues of employment, like it basically being 5 years of forced labor where the company owns you. Instead, the film plays more like one of those Sports Illustrated ‘season to remember’ videos that you order immediately after a super bowl or world series victory by your favorite team, a season in a capsule – but who cares about that? These are not real soccer teams. These are real people being tricked into playing soccer for free so the companies can look better to the outside world despite essentially instituting human trafficking. Deal with that!
1. MANIFESTO – the most self-indulgent film I have ever seen. Art manifestos are read over slow motion shots of Cate Blanchett in different costumes (most of which are not very good – lots of bad make up here). Sometimes she performs the manifestos in character as if they were legitimate lines of dialogue. The manifestos don’t always seem to have much to do with what is on screen, nor do they seem to progess from one to the other in a meaniful way, nor is it possible to tell whose manifestos they are. I only made it 25 minutes. I challenge anyone on the Sundance programming team to seriously argue for the inclusion of this film if Cate Blanchett is not lending her presence to it (pretty telling she was not at the festival to support it).