Okie dokie, that was a nice break for some other writing work. Finger cramps anyone? Let’s get to it for the last eight films I saw at Sundance. My favorite of the fest is in the mix, along with a few that left me pretty meh, and one that was sadly a big letdown.
If you missed Part One, here’s the link:
Now on to PART TWO.
Thoroughbred was such a nice surprise for me. It feels different than most films out there, which is exactly why Sundance was a perfect home for it. The story revolves around an odd friendship between two young girls who begin to toy around with the idea of killing one of the girl’s stepfather. The scenes consist mainly of long conversations of dialogue with little action. At the Q&A the director said he initially wrote it as a play, and that’s exactly how it feels. But the acting is the centerpiece here. Its two main stars are two of the best young actresses working right now. I’ve been completely transfixed by Anya Taylor-Joy since I saw her stunning role in The Witch, and Olivia Cooke was phenomenal in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Both were incredible past Sundance films. Together they make one of the most bizarre yet fascinating relationships I’ve seen in a while. On a sadder side note, this was Anton Yelchin’s final role, and a further reminder of what a great loss that was.
Walking Out is definitely an exercise in minimalist cinema. The basic premise follows a teenage son that flies into the remote mountains of Montana to visit his father, who has isolated himself in the country after the divorce. The father wants to teach his “city” son how to be a man so he takes him into the mountains to kill his first moose. While deep in the snow, they run into some issues with a bear and a weapon mishap. As the title suggests, the rest of the film is spent with them trying to walk out in the freezing snow after both of them are injured. This film takes its sweet time, which I know was the director’s plan, but I kinda wished it would have sped up a bit more. Sometimes the viewer feels as bogged down as the characters. But it had some good qualities. First of all, it’s gorgeous. It takes place almost entirely in the snowy mountains. It makes you feel freezing cold, uncomfortable, and never really at ease. While the majority of the film consists of only two actors, in flashback scenes we also get a little taste of Bill Pullman as the grandfather. In my opinion this sidestory worked well, and kind of saved the film for me. Overall it wasn’t the most exciting experience, but still interesting enough. And cold. Damn cold.
Ingrid Goes West
Let me say this right up front… Ingrid Goes West might be one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I’ve seen in long time. You know this from the very opening scene. But considering our obsession with social media, it’s also one of the most timely and intriguing. Ingrid is a total cipher who is obsessed with Instagram. These images are her only “friends.” After being released from an institution after a nervous breakdown following the death of her mother, she discovers an Instagram “celebrity” and decides she wants to be her friend. Ingrid takes all her money and travels west in order to find this girl and enter her life. This is basically a movie about a stalker and how social media is used for stalking. It’s kinda terrifying as you know situations like this are all too true. Aubrey Plaza is fantastic as Ingrid. She is completely unhinged, yet puts on such a disguise whenever she’s with her fake Instragram bestie (played by Elizabeth Olsen.) This is a complete send up of not only the social media culture and its version of “celebrity”, but also a send up of the entire Los Angeles lifestyle (Venice mainly). It’s hard to watch, but ultimately fascinating. Note* It won the screenwriting award for the fest.
Sigh. Okay, here goes… XX was the film I was the MOST excited for at the Festival. It’s a horror anthology (my favorite) with every story written and directed by only female directors (hell yes!) I’m so in on this idea it hurts. It consists of four unrelated stories that are connected loosely by some phenomenal stop-motion animation that reminded me of past Tool videos. Well, I’m sad to say this was my biggest disappointment of the fest. I wanted to like this so bad, but it just fell short. I know a lot of people really liked it, so this is only my opinion, but to me it just felt passionless. I thought these directors would shoot for the fences and deliver something truly special. Instead it almost felt like they phoned it in. Only one of the stories seemed like it actually even had an ending. There’s a difference between leaving something vague and just leaving something unfinished. These felt like the latter. The direction and visuals were great; that wasn’t the problem. For me the stories themselves simply felt ho-hum. And while all the stories had female actors usually playing mothers, surprisingly only the last story felt like it really delved into a female-focused/motherhood storyline. And while I’m completely used to clunky acting in horror films, a few of the stories were truly hurt by it. Dammit, maybe I was just expecting something different because a lot of people seemed to like it. Crap, I hate saying something bad about someone’s creation, especially because I have some friends of friends that were involved with the production (the horror world is small). But for me, I feel like they missed the mark with this one. Dammit. That sucked to write. I’m sorry. Okay moving on…
And now I give you my absolute favorite film of the entire festival. Mudbound is absolutely mesmerizing. Of all the films I saw at the fest, this one has the biggest opportunity to make a big splash, both with audiences and come next awards season. Mudbound is set in the Deep South, Mississippi to be exact, during WWII and post-WWII. It shows the trials and tribulations between two families, one white and one black, trying to make their lives work the best they can. This is pre Civil Rights era where the Clan still holds power. There are many different storylines and many different narrations. In fact, the film itself is unique in that it follows six different voices, both visually via their characters, and listening to their actual narration of their inner thoughts. At first it’s a bit disconcerting, but once everything starts to line up, it’s utterly intoxicating. It’s too much to describe all the various storylines within the two families, but just know it worked. The acting is spot on. Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige and Jonathan Banks all deserve kudos for their performances. I loved this movie. I can’t say enough about it. It was so powerful and so well done on every level. Netflix must agree because they bought it for 12.5 million. So worry not, you will be seeing it soon.
And now for the movie that caused the most drama at the festival amongst friends, haha. Killing Ground is a dismal little Australian film. It really is. It’s a type of horrific film that is simply not for everyone. If you’ve seen films like Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave, you know exactly what you’re in for – a tough viewing experience. Killing Ground has the very basic premise of a couple that travels into the wilderness to camp and notices the campsite next to them is completely set up but with no inhabitants. Dual storylines, one in the present and one in the past, parallel each other until they meet. Eventually we discover what happened to the family at the other campsite, and what is about to happen to the current couple. Let’s just say it’s not good. I’ll be honest, I didn’t enjoy the dark and dismal places this film went. The villains were just almost too abhorrent. It felt completely devoid of any hope at all. But still, within all the darkness, I could step back and acknowledge that it was really well done and had some real craft to it. Well, my buddy did not see it this way and kinda lost his shit, vocally scolding the filmmakers who “even chose to made this shit.” I obviously took offense because, as a horror writer, I sometime “choose to make this shit” too! Haha, anyway, all is well, nothing a little differing opinions amongst friends can’t hurt.
Lemon is the type of movie that Sundance loves to wallow in – a bizarre, quirky comedy about a psychologically troubled and depressive wannabe actor. That’s all on full display here, and well, while there were some really funny moments within, and a mind-numbingly incredible cast for this kind of film, Lemon felt utterly pointless. It’s basically about a man who “used to be on broadway” and now is teaching acting classes in Hollywood and posing for Hep C advertisements. We watch his downward spiral for almost 90 minutes, and about 15 of it is fun. Every scene that Michael Cera is in is comedy gold (although truth be told I’m a huge Michael Cera fan), and all the family sequences are entertaining as hell. But that’s not the film. The film follows a horribly unlikeable person doing horribly unlikeable things. I know there’s an audience for this type of film, but once the credits rolled I couldn’t help but feel like I kind of wasted my time. Anyway, there you go.
Fun Mom Dinner
My last film of the entire festival was also the one that felt the least Sundance-y in any way. Truth be told, that was kind of a nice feeling. Sometimes you can only take so much darkness and dismay and need a simple comedy with some heart. Fun Mom Dinner is exactly that. It’s about four moms that decide to break away from their kids and go out on the town. Hijinks ensue. If you’ve seen the Hangover or Bridemaids, you kinda get the gist, only this film takes place over the course of one night and is on a MUCH smaller scale. The moms are key and they are the meat of the film. Toni Collette, Katie Aselton, Molly Shannon are all fantastic, but the real scene stealer here is Bridget Everett. She is a comedy powerhouse and so much fun to watch on screen. There are some fun smaller roles by Adam Scott, Rob Huebel (one of my favorites), Paul Rudd (his wife wrote the film), and even Adam Levine. It’s goofy fun with a lot of pot and a lot of female bonding. I know moms like this. I know MANY moms like this. It’s just an enjoyable fun time that has some mass market potential.
And… that’s a wrap. Those are the 16 films I saw during the 2017 Sundance film festival. It’s been a few days since I’ve been back and I’m still thawing out, but overall it was yet another damn fine time. Sundance is always an incredibly inspiring time. Can’t wait to go back.
See you all in 2018.