I grew up in Salt Lake City, and Robert Redford‘s Sundance Film Festival has been my true life’s education. My first film was Richard Linklater‘s Slacker (1991) and I haven’t stopped learning from its films in the twenty-four years since. A truly wild and crazy group of films lay just beneath the surface of this year’s edition, which closed last weekend. Here are my favorite overlooked “Off-Beat Narratives” of Sundance 2015.
Sean Baker‘s Tangerine (U.S.) really kicked things off with a bang when the frenetic character study concluded with the credit “Shot entirely on the iPhone 5S.” Not only did the World Premiere audience at Park City’s Library Theatre gasp but it truly put into perspective what independent cinema can still achieve. As these true-to-life manic Los Angeles characters rush back-and-forth between late-night donut shops, swamped in the orange glow of the neon lit streets, the chaotic feelings of John Cassavetes and Safdie brothers started to build in my pulsating veins. Produced by the Duplass brothers and snatched up rightfully by Magnolia Pictures, Tangerine is the kind of film that breaks down barriers. Programmers need to put this film out for a universal cinephile public to experience instead of relegating it into “minority” film festivals. In fact critics should take note at how they present the film in their reviews even, which automatically will create biaisms pro and con. Tangerine is not an orange, so don’t treat it like one.
Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brother Taught Me (U.S.) took four years and over one hundred hours of footage to make. Shot on the American Indian reservation of Pine Ridge, the infamous South Dakota setting of Michael Apted’s 1992 duo Incident at Oglala and Thunderheart, as well as Chris Eyre’s Skins (2002). The still struggling community allowed director Zhao to integrate herself almost entirely to create a beautiful portrait of a brother and sister who are forging their own ways in their inevitable evolution. Stunning camerawork (debut feature by Joshua James Richards) and truly remarkable performances by its first time actors. Producer Forest Whitaker was on hand for the post-World Premiere screening along with the entire cast and crew and emotions flooded the cast as they discussed the true depictions of their lives on camera. Fortissimo Films snagged the rights to the film and it should be at the top of your wishlist for 2015.
Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous (U.S.) is the highly anticipated follow-up to her 2008 debut, Half Life, and the wait was well worth it. Winning the Special Jury Award for Collaborate Vision, this low-budget cerebral sci-fi flick digs into John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) territory and emerges with a prophetic look at the obsolescence of human beings. We as a species all know how limited we are compared to computers. We all know how irrelevant our choices are compared to corporations. And yet we keep pushing on in the hope that the next generation won’t have to make the same mistakes. Striking VFX (by our Bay Area’s very own Academy of Art University) help take this “little film that could” to new heights and could very well be this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Jennifer Kim’s nuanced performance as a mother who will do just about anything to support her daughter should be remembered next December at the Independent Spirit Awards. But more importantly, I keep thinking about the father sitting in front of me as he wiped his steady tears away throughout the film. Something’s shifting in our world. Are you prepared?
The Park City at Midnight category always brings something to talk about and while I missed the seven-figure deal-scoring Corin Hardy’s The Hallow, which will be released by IFC later this year, Eli Roth was on hand with his latest, Knock Knock (U.S.) showcasing Keanu Reeves. Like his previous Chilean-produced films Aftershock (2013), a wonderfully gory homage to Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974), and The Green Inferno (2014), an even gorier homage to Ruggero Deodato‘s Cannibal Holicaust (1980), Knock Knock pays tribute to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997/2007) but inverts the home invaders to two sexy Chilean women as they play with a married man (Reeves) who is clearly part of the one percent. Reeves, hot on the heels of his genre success for John Wick (2014), makes sure to give everything he’s got, reaching quite a crescendo in an hilariously intense monologue of desperate ranting. Knock Knock delivered what I was looking for and Roth doesn’t seem concerned with working with a big studio anytime soon, so let’s hope he just keeps cranking em out.
But easily my favorite film at this year’s festival was Guy Maddin‘s relentless magnum opus, The Forbidden Room (Canada). Layered with the energy of five hyperactive tweenagers, four screaming babies, three stray weasels, two drunken sailors and an old dapper Queen, this is the Guy Maddin film to end all Guy Maddin films. For those not converted, this Manitoban first emerged from the depths of Winnipeg in the latter part of the 1980s with Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Archangel (1989) and (until now) his defining film, Careful (1992). His particular blend of 1920s Expressionist Silent cinema and 1960s Underground aesthetics have always been an acquired taste. Especially as he disappeared for almost a decade completing only Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), his return has been quite glorious, making such cult classics as Dracula, Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), The Saddest Music in the World (2004), Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) and My Winnipeg (2007). But like Keyhole (2011) which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and then disappeared, his latest may be too much for even the most seasoned movie watcher. Running 130 minutes, the amount of information that is afflicted upon the viewer seemed to tilt most everyone on the three rows that surrounded me. Shocked one moment, baffled the next, suddenly laughing hysterically and then fast asleep, countless unsuspecting moviegoers were simply in over their heads. Not only was each silent movie title card in a different font, modeled after every great film of the 1920s, Maddin, working with first time co-director Evan Johnson, developed a brand new morphing effect that would twist each image or character into some hybrid monstrosity before transitioning into another. Psychotically designed into three acts, a maniacal method to all of its madness slowly but surely reveals itself for those few hundred of us that remained transfixed in the film’s World Premiere screening. With a cast ranging from Udo Kier to Charlotte Rampling to Mathieu Amalric to Geraldine Chaplin, this nostalgic throwback to Underground Camp cinema is a genuine treasure trove filled with knee-slapping guffaws, wide-eyed amazement and grins a mile long. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy! (Japan/Singapore/U.S.) may have only been twenty-one minutes long but it sure did take my breath away. Winning the top Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction Film and starring Kaori Momoi the lead from Shohei Imamura’s deliriously demented Eijanaika (1981), this heartbreaking character study of Setsuko, an unmarried fifty-five-year-old “office lady” will hopefully be turned into a full-blown feature. Camerawork by newcomer Mitch Arens romantically captures the loneliness of Japan, making Setsuko’s confusion even more hypnotic. I have no doubt that Hirayanagi named the lead character after Yasujiro Ozu‘s defining actress Setsuko Hara and that is one more reason for you to track this gem down.
Sebastian Silva‘s Nasty Baby (U.S.) stars himself alongside Kristen Wiig as they inhabit Silva’s real life apartment in Brooklyn. Much anticipation filled the Egyptian Theatre at the World Premiere especially since he had last graced the Sundance screens in 2013 with his drug induced Michael Cera duo of Magic, Magic and Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus. All I can safely say is that the audience was severely caught off-guard at multiple points in the film and if you can stay away from any and all spoilers for this movie, you will thank me later. Silva has consistently had a knack for delivering the goods since his 2009 crowning achievement The Maid, which was uniquely followed by Old Cats (2009). The Q&A that followed was easily one of the best of the fest due to how many ways the film can play.
Speaking 0f leaving audiences completely baffled, Rick Alverson‘s Entertainment (U.S.) showcasing the uncomfortably aggressive, real-life showman Neil Hamburger. Following up on Alverson’s polarizing masterpiece The Comedy (2012), which daringly exposed Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s sociopathic humor, Entertainment seems well on its way to upset even the most avid fans of Gregg Turkington, who is the man behind Neil Hamburger’s alter-ego. Delivering only a few good laughs, Alverson and Turkington are much more interested in stranding the viewer in the middle of no man’s land with a lost soul doing and saying whatever he can just to exist. Like The Comedy, the film is reminiscent of early-1970s Hal Ashby and Robert Altman so keep your eyes glued for some serious Americana field trips (one of which directly connects us to the cinematic era, while another was a reference to D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Company!). Daring and purposefully unnerving, the film felt seemingly endless for the three twentysomethings sitting in front of me. Upon the film’s conclusion, one of the guys succinctly summed it all up by stating, “I mean, seriously… why did they call it ‘Entertainment?’”
Charles Poekel‘s debut feature Christmas, Again (U.S.) is so thoughtfully pieced together that I had to revisit it twice! Mumblecore alum Kentucker Audley delivers a stunningly understated performance as a broken-hearted Christmas tree seller. But i’ts the subtlety by one of my favorite contemporary cinematographers, Sean Price Williams, who has shot such stunning contemporary classics as Ben and Joshua Safdie‘s Heaven Knows What (2014), Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip (2013), and Ronald Bronstein‘s Frownland (2007) that makes this not only a treasure of Sundance 2015, but the perfect movie to stay up all night watching.
Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert (U.S.) follows Jesus during his unknown forty nights in the desert. While this could have been a disaster from the get-go, Garcia’s debut feature is a film that offers up some pretty profound questions. Punctuated by striking camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) and a tour-de-force performance by Ewan McGregor who also plays The Devil, this meditative trek into one family’s struggles (with yet another memorable role for young Tye Sheridan) is a movie for all denominations.
Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel’s D Train (US) which sports Jack Black as a fat, mediocre business man from the Midwest who heads to Los Angeles to try and lure the popular guy (James Marsden) back to their twenty-year high school reunion. The film has quite a few tricks up its sleeve that truthfully are better left to be experienced. With some surprising (accidental?) nods to Daniel Petrie’s Lifeguard (1976), this often serious bromance might cause a mini sensation with the right timing especially since Jack Black’s last dramatic effort, Richard Linklater’s Bernie (2011) unfairly slipped through the cracks.
The hit of Sundance 15 had to be James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour (US). Following a weekend between novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) and Time magazine journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), this often hilarious, ominous journey deftly captures two men admiring and competing with the world and one another. Segel is a revelation while Eisenberg again perfectly captures the nervous ticks of modern males. Much food for thought here, especially with the taboo subject of Wallace’s life choice. (And for those of you who are tentative about seeing the movie because it look as if Segel’s long hair under his head bandana is a wig, I can firmly tell you that it is his real hair.)
Kornél Mundruczó’s White God (Hungary) which won Un Certain Regard at this past year’s Cannes Film Festival rounded up 200 real stray dogs in Hungary not just to unleash them in the film’s jaw-dropping opening sequence, but the director announced they had found homes for every one of them since the completion of the film. That said, dozens of dog lovers skittered out at all points during the screening of this incredible journey as director Mundruczó does the seemingly impossible, humanizes his protagonists. But what is important to know going in is that the intense cruelty and violence mostly shot off-screen are being used as parable and allegories for universal horrors. The difficult streets of modern day Hungary become the perfect backdrop for a moral lesson from the eyes of god.
In Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe (Ukraine), an all deaf-mute cast lead the way without a single line of spoken dialogue. This otherworldly experience forces audiences to pay attention to every action that these excluded teenagers slowly divulge in front of you. (The Ukrainian sign language is not subtitled.) While it ruthlessly emphasizes the violent, transgressive, and explicitly sexual nature of the teens, there is an intense structuralist method of “fours” being utilized here that a second viewing revealed. You need to experience the completion of each entire action to be rewarded with one of the best movies of the decade. (This was on my “Best-of” last year but keep your eyes peeled for its debut in the U.S. in 2015!)
Ficks’ Picks: Off-Beat Sundance Narratives
1. The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin, Canada)
2. Tangerine (Sean Baker, U.S.)
3. Christmas, Again (Charles Poekel, U.S.)
4. Entertainment (Rick Alverson, U.S.)
5. Oh Lucy! (Atsuko Hirayanagi, Japan/Singapore/U.S.)
6. Songs My Brother Taught Me (Chloé Zhao, U.S.)
7. White God (Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary)
8. Advantageous (Jennifer Phang, U.S.)
9. Nasty Baby (Sebastian Silva, U.S.)
10. Last Days in the Desert (Rodrigo Garcia, U.S.)
11. The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, U.S.)
12. Knock Knock (Eli Roth, U.S./Chile)
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and curator/host of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, a film series at the Castro Movie Theatre which showcases underrated, overlooked and dismissed cinema in a neo-sincere manner.