Oh Sundance, how much do I love you?
Since I grew up in Utah, Sundance has been a part of my life for quite a while. I’ve been actively going to the Sundance Film Festival for over 20 years now. It’s my favorite week of the year. I still remember my very first Sundance screening ever. It was Stuart Gordon’s cult midnight movie, Space Truckers, way back at the 1997 fest. It was a smaller and much different festival back then. Great memories of my being a young college student, freezing in line with a bunch of buddies, outside the Egyptian theater on Main Street. Right next to us was a chain smoking Parker Posey (still a relative newcomer), also just waiting to get in to watch some bizarro madness. That’s kind of how it was back then. No super VIP shit. Just movie-watchers and industry folks mingled together in an ice cold stew. Good times all around.
Fast forward to 2020 and, man oh MAN, has Sundance changed over those 23 years. It has gone from a smaller indie film fest, to a juggernaut filled with corporate sponsors. I honestly could write a book on all my insane Sundance experiences over the years… from partying with my idols Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn at a private party that none of us were supposed to even be at… to watching Nick Nolte wander down Main Street at 2am in a blizzard, barefoot, wearing nothing but a bathrobe, messed up out of his mind, screaming at things that didn’t exist (this was right around his famous mugshot time period.) Every year, Sundance provides moments that simply defy logic. But for me this year, Sundance 2020, it was less about the parties and experiences, and all about the movies. Sure there were some great times, but mostly it was about doing my favorite thing in the world – sitting in a darkened theater, watching films.
Because of trailers that give away all the best moments, or reviewers that give you all the juiciest parts in their critique, a film festival is one of the only places left where you can still watch a movie without any previous knowledge. Choosing flicks based on reading a simple paragraph in a catalog is exciting. It can provide a film experience that is a spectacular surprise, or a sad trombone-inducing pitfall. This year, there were some of both. Since I obviously lean toward the Midnight section of the festival, I saw a lot of awesome genre stuff, but not everything was a winner. And yes, my trip was cut short because of unfortunate circumstances, so I missed out on a few of the movies I was most excited about (sad I had to give up my ticket to Impetigore!) Even though I couldn’t arrive until Monday, still, in just over 4 days, I saw 14 films. Here are my teeny-tiny, spoiler-free, reviews of each.
FOR PART ONE, I WILL DO THE FIRST SIX MOVIES. STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO.
MY MONDAY FILMS:
The first movie I saw after arriving in Park City was sadly my biggest bore. Since I was seeing a midnight movie every night of the week, maybe it was a good thing I got my largest yawns out of the way early. I hate to say too many negative things about movies because I know how much work goes into each and every one, but sorry, Luxor was a major snoozefest. It was trying to be a cerebral reflection on a traumatized woman who was attempting to find herself again, but instead it basically consisted of a woman who didn’t talk, walking around verrrrry slooooowly through historical sites in Egypt. It felt more like 90 minutes of stock footage than an actual film. Major yawn.
Thank goodness for Wendy. I loved the audaciousness of this movie. Benh Zeitlin’s 2nd feature after the incredible Beasts of the Southern Wild (which I saw at Sundance eight years ago) continues his unique visual storytelling. This is a new interpretation of the Peter Pan story, but from Wendy’s point of view. It’s bizarre, gorgeous, and captivating. It goes in directions you are most definitely not expecting. While it doesn’t succeed with every choice, and is a bit frenetic at times, I still enjoyed the hell out of it. Benh is an incredible filmmaker and also a great composer. The score he co-composed (with Dan Romer) almost steals the film. Unbelievable music that enriches a superbly strange fantasy. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those looking for something different, I highly recommend it.
His House was one of my favorite films of the festival. I feel like it sadly was a bit overshadowed by the other horror film with “House” in the title, Dark House, because that one sold for 12 million and stole headlines. But His House deserves its kudos. It is topical, fascinating, and flat out TERRIFYING. Dealing with the hot-button issues of refugees and asylum, this twisting and turning flick says something while also freaking you the hell out. It has a few sequences that are so relentlessly terrifying, I found myself gripping my leg in complete tension. I won’t say much more, but when I saw those faces staring out from holes in the wall, I lost my shit. Such a great and unique film. Definitely see it.
MY TUESDAY FILMS:
Amulet was a lot of fun. It’s a definite slow burn, but luckily for me, I love slow burn horror movies. It’s basically about a soldier that returned from a war, homeless, and heavily traumatized (lots of that theme in this year’s festival). He stays at a reclusive woman’s house in exchange in helping her as she takes care of her ailing mother in the attic. But nothing’s exactly what it seems… Even though the plots have NOTHING whatsoever to do with each other, this movie kind of reminded me in tone of A Dark Song. They’re both slow-paced films with minimal characters that suddenly erupt into complete bonkers endings. I absolutely love when films “go for it” in their climax. Not easy to watch at times, but I had fun with it.
Kajillionaire is the absolute definition of a “Sundance Movie.” Well acted, seriously bizarre characters, clever dialogue, and something to say. Although, for me personally, that’s not always a great thing. This was one of two movies (more on the 2nd coming up) I saw at the fest that, while checking off all the marks of a great Sundance indie movie, just left me a little empty. I have a hard time watching ugly characters do ugly things for 90 minutes. While they may be good movies, they’re unpleasant experiences for me. Kajillionaire follows the story of a “family” of con artists that squeak by in life by stealing and conning people in horrible ways, and suddenly things are upended when a new girl enters their life. I don’t know. Well made, but it was just too ugly for me.
I liked Bad Hair, but I didn’t love Bad Hair. I wanted to like it way more than I did, but this is a definite case of a movie needing a better editor. At 2 hours it drags a lot, but this baby could have flown by so much better at 90 minutes. The story of a woman’s bad weave that possesses her, and eventually others goes from campy to funny to scary to flat out insane. It takes a while to get there, and you have to wallow through a lot of meaningless subplots, but the second half is a lot of fun. And yet, again, I feel like there was a much better movie in there somewhere. It had a lot going for it, and some really great performances, but it just needed another draft I think, and some editing.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading.