Hey gang. I’ve been asked to do a recap of my experience this year at the Sundance Film Festival. As many of you know I spend a week at Sundance every year. I’m a homegrown Utah boy and grew up not far from Park City, so I’ve been one lucky bastard that I’ve been able to attend every single fest since I was in high school. The one exception to that was a few years ago when I had to cancel the day before my flight in order to save my TV series (only to have it disappear later that year.) But I digress…
Even though I mainly go to the fest to check out all the horror titles that I can, I’ve had a connection to Sundance in some way, shape, or form for about 20 years now. My university (go Utes!) dealt closely with it. Many of us volunteered for it back in the day. I’ve had many friends with flicks there. Every year is filled with once-in-a-lifetime experiences and insane stories. This includes everything from sharing a condo for the week with the delightful Martin Starr, to hanging at a cast party with Kurt Russell (one of my all-time idols), only to have one of my dear friends imbibe a bit too much and rush to the bathroom where the sweet Goldie Hawn followed and held her hair as she threw up. Ahh, good times. I swear I could write a book about all the bonkers Sundance experiences over the years.
Regardless, this year felt different. Much different. Mainly because the entire world feels different. Even though I work in the film industry, it all feels kind of trivial right now because of what’s going on in the country. Regardless, I tried my best to focus on the films and the experiences, and dammit if I don’t have some of the best friends a guy could ask for to help with this. So yeah, we made the absolute best of it.
Saying all of this, instead of a full recap of the fest and all the experiences, I’m just going to give a quick recap of the 16 films I saw while I was there. My average is 18 films so I slipped a little this year, but I still saw some dandies. I’m going to break it up into two parts recapping eight films each.
Here’s PART ONE. I was pretty lucky because all eight of these movies I enjoyed in various degrees. No stinkers in this bunch (can’t necessarily say that about some of the movies in PART TWO, but you’ll have to wait and see.) Anyway, here goes…
The first film I saw at the festival was Wind River, and for the majority of the week it was my absolute favorite film I saw there. Only one film beat it out for being my favorite, but more on that one in Part Two. Wind River was written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, the fantastic screenwriter of Sicario and Hell or High Water. It’s a dramatic mystery about a Fish & Game Employee who must team up with an FBI agent to solve a murder on an Indian reservation. It’s insanely well done with a surprisingly complex performance by Jeremy Renner. The entire film takes place on the Wind River Indian Reservation, and in nearby Lander, Wyoming. This hit close to home for me because my sister both lived in Lander and worked as a doctor on the rez to help pay off her med school loans. The relationships between those on the rez and who they see as the outsiders is as accurate as it gets. It’s an amazing film all around. And on a side note, it was a nice surprise to see a friend of mine, Matt Del Negro, in a supporting role. Matt, I had no idea you could play such an asshole. You’re way too nice in real life. Well done, man.
Next on the docket was Raw. This wasn’t a premiere in that it’s played some fests before, but that only made me more excited because of what I’d already heard. Raw is a nasty (in a good way) little French film about a girl that gets accepted into a notorious vet school and must go through insane hazing along the way. The girl, who is a devout vegetarian, undergoes a hazing ritual where she has to not only eat a rabbit kidney, but also has blood thrown on her (and in her mouth.) Well, let’s just say that this taste of meat starts to change her. Her body starts getting horrific rashes and she feels like she’s going insane. But that’s nothing since now she’s starting to desire human flesh. Yep, it’s a movie about that blossoming of a cannibal. It’s messed up and fun as hell. Although personally, what’s insane to me is how much more horrific the hazing rituals are compared to the flesh eating. I guess that says something about me, huh?
Dave Made a Maze
Dave Made a Maze was the only Slamdance film I saw this year. I try to catch as many of the genre films as I can at the festivals so this one caught my eye. It’s about a guy who makes a cardboard fort in his apartment only to go inside and get lost. When his friends go in after him they discover that it’s now somehow an insanely huge and intricate cardboard labyrinth filled with booby traps, monsters, and even a cardboard Minotaur chasing them. As you can guess from the premise, it’s complete madness, but damn if it isn’t also one of the most inventive little flicks I’ve seen in a while. Almost everything in the film was created completely out of cardboard so the practical effects junky in me was in heaven. Even when someone is killed violently, the “blood” is nothing but red confetti. Insane, but trust me, it works. It’s just a bizarre and outrageously fun movie with a lot of heart.
The Polka King
Polka King is another showcase for Jack Black to show his chops. He really is such an amazing actor to watch and one of my favorites. He’s got more energy than 10 men. If anyone saw Bernie from a few years ago, you know exactly what to expect with Polka King. It’s a quirky character study based on a true story, where Jack Black fully inhabits a crazy persona and harsh accent. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Jan Lewan, the polka showman/Ponzi-scheme mastermind, you’re in for a treat. It’s one of those stories that you can NOT believe is true, and yet is. All the actors here give it their all and I fully enjoyed this film. It does falter from the Sundance curse of being a bit too long, but overall it’s an insanely enjoyable experience. If you’re a Jack Black fan, see this one immediately. I think Netflix bought it.
Bad Day For The Cut
This little Irish revenge thriller is exactly what I’ve come to love about Sundance. Small movie. Simple premise. Down and dirty. I probably would have never sought this movie out if it weren’t for the festival, but I’m glad I did. This revenge thriller travels on some tried and true territory – man goes on violent streak for revenge after someone he loves is killed. But what I enjoyed about this movie was the brutal Irish spin on the material. Some of the characters are unique as are some of the reveals. Overall it’s nothing new, but a damn good yarn of violent Irish revenge.
Surprise Midnight (Get Out)
This was one of the more entertaining nights of the entire festival. This year in the catalog they simply had a spot for a “Surprise Midnight” movie. Since I usually see every single movie in the “Midnight” section of the catalog, AND I love surprises, this was basically tailor made for me. I was not disappointed to find out that the surprise was Jordan Peele’s directorial debut horror film, Get Out. Get Out is a racially charged little ditty that could not be more aptly timed because of the state of things right now. It’s about a white girl who takes her black boyfriend home to meet her extremely white family and all their friends. But slowly the boyfriend starts noticing some strange things about all the “help” at the estate (that all happen to be black.) I don’t want to ruin anything more than that because figuring it all out is part of the fun (although truth be told I did figure things out pretty early because it treads on the territory of another film I love.) Yet, even if you figure it all out it really doesn’t matter because Get Out is just a damn fun ride. The acting is spot on all around. How much do I love Bradley Whitford? All in all Jordan Peele did a fantastic job. You can tell he truly is a horror junky. God bless him for that. Oh, and this screening did end on a fun note where at the Q&A a man sitting directly behind us stood up to ask a question and it was none other than Patton Oswald. You just never know who you’re sitting near at a Sundance screening.
Band Aid was a cute little relationship movie that many people I know personally can connect to strongly. At first I thought, uh oh, it’s going to be another pretentious and boring millennial-minded movie about “artists” who just smoke pot and talk about how life isn’t fair to them. But guess what? It was actually a quite delightful millennial-minded movie about artists who just smoke pot and talk about how life isn’t fair to them. It’s about a couple that’s been together for a long time. Both are artists that haven’t achieved their dreams, and they bicker and fight constantly. Anyone who’s been in any relationship ever can relate here. But they discover that it works for them to write and sings song about their issues with each other instead of fighting, and it becomes a wonderfully cathartic and creative invention. The characters are likable, the songs are wonderful, and the story is full of heart and insight. I liked this film much more than I thought I would. And trust me, the entire movie is worth Fred Armisen’s performance alone. He truly is one of the funniest people working today. He could stare at the screen and do nothing for 5 minutes and I laugh. God bless that man.
Lately it seems every year at the festival there is a documentary that is a movie nerd’s wet dream. This year it was 78/52, a talking head documentary entirely about the shower sequence in the original Psycho. Now at first you’re thinking, “How do they make an entire movie about one sequence in one film?” Well, the answer is, they don’t. While yes, most of the film is filled with an INSANE amount of details and interesting tidbits about the sequence itself, the movie also fills the gaps with various Alfred Hitchcock anecdotes as well. Let’s be honest, this movie is for the movie nerds only. I myself enjoyed the hell out of it. Even the moments that were a little info-heavy and dry, the film junky part of me was fascinated. I’m guessing normal viewers could easily be bored by the in depth study of this sequence, but if you’re a Hitchcock fan, it’s definitely worth a view. As a bonus, Marli Renfro, Janet Leigh’s body double for the shooting of the shower scene (it was mostly her you saw), attended our screening and took part in the fascinating Q&A along with the director.
Okay, that’s it for now. I’m going to take a break from writing for a minute. Part Two should be up later tonight!
UPDATE: Here’s the link to PART TWO: