Matt’s Sundance 2021 Diary
While we continue to endure abnormal conditions, it’s a delight to see the Sundance festival return during the year’s chilly initial months. I am ecstatic to be covering the long-traditioned fest for the first time. Over the next week, I will be engulfing a series of snacks as I try to highlight as many of the festival’s offerings as possible. Some of my coverage will feature full-length reviews, while other indie entries will be covered in the form of bite-sized reviews. Either way, let’s get this show on the road!
I have to start by giving some major props to the people operating this year’s remote-driven festival. From the selection process to the screenings themselves, the crew really made the process as accessible as possible while still promoting interesting communal aspects. I hope other festivals take notes, as this year’s Sundance accomplished an impressive feat on a digital front. Heading into my first Sundance movie, I certainly felt some butterflies of excitement as the opening frames began to scroll.
VIEWING #1 – CODA
Synopsis: A hearing child in a deaf family who finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her family’s reliance on her to be their connection to the outside world.
I have a full review planned for this title, so I’ll keep it brief. Sundance is overrun with well-intended coming of age crowdpleasers, but this is one of the few to really get the balance right. Writer/director Sian Heder implements a sensitive hand that allows authentic exploration of her thoughtful subject matter. Her all-star cast, including a true breakout from star Emilia Jones, imbue infectious charm and dimension into roles that would be thankless in less-assured hands. It’s a truly winning crowdpleaser, one that’s sure to draw standing ovations once it receives a deserved theatrical run.
VIEWING #2 – CENSOR
Synopsis: After viewing a strangely familiar video nasty, Enid, a film censor, sets out to solve the past mystery of her sister’s disappearance, embarking on a quest that dissolves the line between fiction and reality.
I enjoy indulging in the sinister thrill of Sundance midnight festival movies, especially when they are as thoughtfully-constructed as Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature. Set amidst the 1980’s Britain, an era where blood-soaked “video nasties” caught national outrage despite their inherent emptiness, Censor aims for more substance than your average genre film. Bond leans into sharp lighting and old-school framing techniques to depict Enid’s breakdown of reality. As our protagonist gets deeper into re-examining her past, Bond steadily builds her surrealist atmosphere with some chilling results. Star Niamh Algar holds the narrative together through sheer commitment, morphing Enid’s psychological suffering into an affecting decay of persona.
Bond’s debut displays an eager voice as she stretches towards thoughtful ruminations. That sprawling ambition becomes a hindrance considering the tight 84-minute runtime, with the atmospheric strengths often being asked to carry the heavy-lifting for the more intriguing thematic ideals. The script (co-written by Bond and Anthony Fletch) lingers on our confused relationship with violence and the empty outrage that often overtakes these conceptions. Mixed with other socio-political factors, the series of promising conceits are eventually reduced into an uninteresting muddle.
Censor also leaves something to be desired as a horror vehicle. Bond clearly adores her genre forefathers, but her attempts to make a more conscious entry zaps what made those films so beloved. Her film mildly dips into gore-driven frames without eliciting much tense entertainment from their values. Some will passionately take to Bond’s unique genre melody, but Censor’s thematic disconnect weighs down the narrative’s potential.
VIEWING #3 – FLEE
Synopsis: Flee tells the extraordinary true story of Amin, a man on the verge of marriage which compels him to reveal his hidden past for the first time.
Approaching the documentary format with a raw artistic drive, I was truly enamored by what director Jonas Poher Rasmussen accomplishes with this personal narrative. He intelligently implements the freeing techniques of animation to depict Amin’s tumultuous journey to freedom. Each frame presents impeccable detail and creative form shifts, oftentimes dancing between subconscious memory and reality to recall events scaling levels of accuracy. The vivid depictions allow the story’s emotionality to reach affecting heights with its timely subject matter. Rasmussen’s well-textured style choices morph Amin’s personal journey into a universal meditation on immigrant’s disenfranchised treatment across the globe (I love the choice to juxtapose Amin’s journey with rosy sitcom programs playing out in the peripheral).
Documentaries often fixate on factual information to highlight their socio-political narratives. Rasmussen intelligently lets his intimately-drawn confessions speak volumes on their own right, promoting an empathetic understanding of the difficulties facing Amin and his well-meaning peers. As he reflects on being a participant in a worldwide conversation, Amin reveals his deeply-seated resentment to being a footnote for casual onlookers. The raw disclosures ruminate on Amin’s oppressive cultural background and the ambivalent treatment of immigrant travelers, with their personal stories largely reducing into talking head media narratives.
Flee thrives as a distinct reminder of refugee’s singular odysseys to newfound homes. Their personal hardships deserve more attentive understanding and care than what our single-minded society would like people to believe. With NEON purchasing the film’s rights, I hope Rasmussen’s unique offering reaches the mainstream airwaves it deserves.
VIEWING #4 – CRYPTOZOO
Synopsis: Cryptozookeepers try to capture a Baku, a dream-eating hybrid creature of legend, and start wondering if they should display these beasts or keep them hidden and unknown.
I was luckily able to check this out a few days before the fest and get a full review laid out, but here are some rough initial thoughts before that is up:
Cryptozoo is another inspired use of creatively-drawn animation, although Dash Shaw’s cynical narrative can’t quite connect with its pertinent thematic intentions. The talented voice cast is largely wasted in solemn roles as Shaw gets caught up in a tonal crisis that’s never solved.
In my downtime, I got to play around in the New Frontier VR room for festival patrons to converse in. It’s a fun little playground to roam around in, even offering the chance to run into a few of the fest’s star-studded talents. I am glad Sundance put in the effort to promote as many communal aspects as possible.
VIEWING #5 – HOW IT ENDS
Synopsis: On the last day on Earth, Liza goes on a journey through LA to make it to her last party before the world ends, running into an eclectic cast of characters along the way.
I wrote a full review of Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jone’s latest wandering comedy. It won’t be for everyone, but I was charmed by its low-key frequency.
VIEWING #6 – ON THE COUNT OF THREE
Synopsis: Val has reached a place where he feels the only way out is to end things. But he considers himself a bit of a failure—his effectiveness lacking—so he figures he could use some help. As luck would have it, Val’s best friend, Kevin, is recovering from a failed suicide attempt, so he seems like the perfect partner for executing this double suicide plan. But before they go, they have some unfinished business to attend to.
I have a review planned for this one, but it might be one of the few titles I take some time to sit with. Jerrod Carmichael’s debut feature is volatile in its content and delivery, which can lead to some soaring highs and lows.
As a whole, the empathetic emotional work benefits from fearless performances by Carmichael and Christopher Abbott. The narrative’s tonal high-wire tonal act succeeds despite its combustible elements, meshing dark humor with well-meaning ruminations on mental illness and PTSD. I am curious to see how this film is received when it reaches the masses, as I am sure it will receive a multitude of reactions.
VIEWING #7 – IN THE EARTH
Synopsis: As the world searches for a cure to a disastrous virus, a scientist and park scout venture deep in the forest for a routine equipment run.
I have a full review scheduled for Ben Wheatley’s latest festival offering. While I admire the writer/director’s efforts to imbue an inventive genre edge, his latest missed opportunity gets caught in a familiar favoring of style over substance. It’s probably my favorite work of his to date, and I still can’t say it works.
VIEWING #8 – MOTHER SCHMUCKERS
Synopsis: Issachar and Zabulon, two brothers in their twenties, are supremely stupid and never bored, as madness is part of their daily lives. When they lose their mother’s beloved dog, they have 24 hours to find it – or she will kick them out.
Acting as a delightful celebration of stupidity, Mother Schmuckers follows a recklessly scattershot detour into two brother’s bizarre odyssey. I can see where many will be taken aback by directors Harpo and Lenny Guilt’s abrasively boisterous effort, but I can’t deny my enjoyment of their hilariously wild ride.
I don’t think the scattershot narrative fully sustains its sleight runtime, but the Guit brothers deserve praise for imbuing the material with a sharp artistic bend. It’s truly amoral and vulgar in the best possible ways.
VIEWING #9 – JOHN AND THE HOLE
Synopsis: A coming of age psychological thriller that plays out the unsettling reality of a kid who holds his family captive in a hole in the ground.
Writer/director Pascual Sisto’s high-concept premise is more intriguing for its delivery than its content. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in Sisto’s visually assured hands, with his Yorgos-esque concoction of dread shrouding the project in a foreboding unease. Sisto’s twisted fable operates as a realization of John’s untamed coming of age, utilizing a balance of acidic wit and dread to convey an adolescent’s naive mindset. At its best, Sisto explores both the wide-eyed allures and downbeat realities of adulthood from a clever adolescent perspective.
As strong as the visual components are, I don’t think this narrative would work with a less-equipped cast. Charlie Shotwell capably carries the minimalist narrative on his shoulders, painting John’s stunted exploration with a balance of conviction and empathy. Jennifer Ehle and Michael C. Hall properly elevate the stern adult roles through their naturalistic bickering, while Taissa Farmiga elicits a few of the film’s most personal moments as John’s older sister.
John and The Hole doesn’t quite work as well as it should. Sisto’s deeper examinations of the familial nucleus lack nuanced development, often settling for overworked imagery as a means of blunt communication. It may be too limited to make a lingering statement, but Sisto ensures his audience’s engagement throughout the dangerously unchecked narrative.
VIEWING #10 – WILD INDIAN
Synopsis: Two Native American men learn to confront a traumatic secret they share involving the murder of a schoolmate.
Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. has his pulse on pertinent cultural dynamics with his debut Wild Indian. His exploration of two adults, one driven by a coldly controlled suppression of childhood trauma, while the other remains emotionally wrecked by the traumatic events he witnessed. The former friend’s dissident journeys attempt to realize the starkly different handlings of personal and cultural guilt. Similar to their shocking crime, the lingering shame and pains of their Native ancestors follow the characters at every turn.
Wild Indian highlights a pertinent and overlooked cultural subsection, yet its delivery can’t quite convey its thematic purpose. Corbine’s mannered composition gazes towards surface level moments, whisking along a truncated 80-minute runtime that desperately lacks breathing room. The few sensitive frames are quickly brushed past for a completely overbaked third act. An initially meditative character piece morphs into a series of melodramatic frames during the oddly-structured finale. It’s a shame, as Michael Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer offer revealing performances amidst the dramatically stagnant frames.
Corbine has thoughtful ideas and a sharp visual eye, but his uneven narrative debut gets trudged in a mucky mix of melodrama.
VIEWING #11 – PASSING
Synopsis: Follows the unexpected reunion of two high school friends, whose renewed acquaintance ignites a mutual obsession that threatens both of their carefully constructed realities.
Acclaimed actress Rebecca Hall makes her writing/directorial debut with Passing, an intimately-framed period piece that keeps its ruminations on race and division in the periphery. Hall’s debut delivers elegant poise and vision for a first-timer, with Director of Photography Eduard Grau shooting the period setting with a sharp visual eye. The adept framing allows audiences to bask in the film’s simmering emotions while still highlighting the tremendous performance work.
Stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are standouts at every turn, navigating the character’s emotional minefield with reserved, yet impactful emotionality. Negga is particular is a true light here, playing Claire as a buzzy socialite sensitively searching for meaning outside of her falsely-defined marriage. When the two share the screen, their chemistry is oftentimes intoxicating and lived-in as they travel through a gamut of emotions (the repressive restraint of the era reminded me a lot of Todd Hayne’s masterpiece Carol).
Passing has the bones of a masterwork, but its screenplay can’t escape a few deficiencies. Hall occasionally overcrowds her articulate framing with talky-dialogue that dispels the alluring atmosphere. I wish she let the power of her impressive visuals do more of the communicating, often tripping in a trap several first-timers suffer from. These missteps don’t overshadow a fairly-impressive debut for Hall, who clearly has the immaculate eye and thoughtful sensibility of a truly great director.
VIEWING #12 – R#J
Synopsis: A modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet told through our social media environment.
Some may bemoan another Romeo and Juliet adaptation, but credit to director Carey Williams for registering an impressive debut within his well-articulated approach. At the heart of this adaptation, Williams vibrantly observes our common modes of communication, oftentimes reflecting on moments of beauty and tragedy outstretched by social media’s always-revolving doors. Williams intelligently works to make the familiar scrolling pop with visual flair while allowing his adept young cast to take center stage with their youthful energy.
R#J registers an endearing impression through its makeshift delivery. I just wish Williams’ film was more willing to explore outside the confines of its archaic narrative. The mix of real-world dialogue with verbose, Shakespeare soliloquies never finds a real comfort, while the more dramatic frames trudge familiar territory without much impact. I don’t think the narrative provides a consistently compelling experience, but I do see a lot of promise in Williams’ creative verve and am excited to see where the director goes from here.
VIEWING #13 – EIGHT FOR SILVER
Synopsis: In the late 1800s, a man arrives in a remote country village to investigate an attack by a wild animal but discovers a much deeper and sinister force that has the manor and its townspeople in its grip.
I have a full-review planned down the line for this moody creature feature. All I’ll say is writer/director Sean Ellis crafts his own unpretentious ode to the Wolfman, and I am very much here for it.
VIEWING #14 – MASS
Synopsis: Years after a tragic shooting, the parents of both the victim and the perpetrator meet face-to-face.
I’ve already published my review for this affecting boilerplate drama. It’s an honest and emotionally raw journey through grief and the evolving road it often takes. Don’t be surprised if this becomes an awards-fixture, especially for its standout ensemble performances.
VIEWING #15 – MARVELOUS AND THE BLACK HOLE
Synopsis: A teenage delinquent (Miya Cech) teams up with a surly children’s party magician (Rhea Perlman) to navigate her dysfunctional family and inner demons.
I admire writer/director Kate Tsang’s playfully verve as a director. Similar to its protagonist, Marvelous and the Black Hole presents a charming visceral spunk to complement its coming-of-age themes (a few creative dream sequences add a humorous touch). Tsang also sets the stage for Miya Cech and Rhea Perlman to develop inviting chemistry. Perlman’s peppy charms make a fitting complement to Cech’s hardened persona.
While consistently affable, Marvelous can’t compensate for the film’s milquetoast narrative. Tsang’s script travels through the familiar coming of age trappings with an ineffectively indie kitschiness. Her protagonist’s journey through lingering grief has potential on the page, but the film proves too inert to explore any sentiments of note. Everything is so breathless across the 80-minute run-time, as most of the intriguing dimensions are reduced to empty positivity.
Kate Tsang’s debut shows promise, and her film could connect nicely for an adolescent audience. For me, the played-out narrative road map isn’t imbued with enough emotion or wit to sustain the experience.
VIEWING #16 – TOGETHER TOGETHER
Synopsis: When Matt (Ed Helms) hires Anna (Patti Harrison) to be his surrogate mother, the two form a tight-knit bond as they work through the complicated process.
I am planning a full review of this title. Personally, I am a big fan of what writer/director Nikole Beckwith accomplishes with her unique relationship drama. Avoiding (and even mocking) Hollywood tropes at every turn, Beckwith paints a sensitive story of friendship between two isolated and vastly different people. Ed Helms and Patti Harrison bring this wonderful onscreen pair to life, with Helm’s earnest over-eagerness matching effortlessly next to Harrison’s acidic wit.
I was really charmed throughout Together Together‘s good-hearted runtime, and I hope it reaches mainstream audiences when it’s officially released. Beckwith’s pertinent pulse on human dynamics makes her a thoughtful talent to watch going forward.
VIEWING #17 – PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND
Synopsis: A notorious criminal must break an evil curse in order to rescue an abducted girl who has mysteriously disappeared.
From direct-to-video action films to sitting in the driver seat of auteur-driven, genre cinema, Nic Cage has performed an impressive career transition. His latest inventive genre effort, Prisoners of the Ghostland, paints Cage as a reckless mercenary in a world where Eastern and Western cultures collide. As you could guess, Cage’s abrasive delivery makes for endlessly compelling cinema. Whether he’s yelling about an exploded testicle or delivering lines with a cooler-than-cool flow, few are more engaging than Cage in the prime of his shlocky shtick.
A somewhat goofy concept finds compelling ground under director Sion Sono’s poised control. The Japanese director’s English-language debut comes with his typical verve intact, allowing audiences to bask in the colorful pleasures of his twisted dystopia. His visual dynamism elevates chaotic swordfights and straight-forward gunplay into an extravagant feast for the eyes. I also love the ways Sono uses the dissident cultures to reflect on Western culture’s oppressive hold on the Eastern sensibility, portraying his worthwhile thematic conceits through clever bits and a plethora of exaggerated stereotypes.
Prisoner’s isn’t always at the top of its game, as the surface-level screenplay fails to engage on a thematic or narrative level. The deficiencies require Sono and Cage to carry the film on their shoulders, but they prove to be capably up for that task. It’s an endearingly unkempt ride, one that offers a few clever introspections into its own genre conception.
VIEWING #18 – LAND
Synopsis: Edee, in the aftermath of an unfathomable event, finds herself unable to stay connected to the world she once knew and in the face of that uncertainty, retreats to the magnificent, but unforgiving, wilds of the Rockies. After a local hunter brings her back from the brink of death, she must find a way to live again.
Land opens in theaters next Friday, so I’m planning to have a full review for its nationwide rollout. For now, I’ll sing the praises of Robin Wright for her sturdy directorial debut. While admittedly sleight, her gentle story of recovery resonates in its own emotive ways. Credit to Wright and co-star Demian Bichir for bringing the narrative together, with their vulnerable performances conveying their lingering pains.
VIEWING #19 – JOCKEY
Synopsis: An aging jockey aims for a final championship when a rookie rider arrives claiming to be his son.
Perhaps the surprise hit of the festival for me. I wrote my full-thoughts on this authentically-drawn sports film, which features a fantastic lead performance from star Clifton Collins Jr. I am glad Sony Pictures Classic has scooped this film up, and I hope it reaches a sizable audience.
VIEWING #20 – WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR
Synopsis: Alone in her attic bedroom, teenager Casey becomes immersed in an online role-playing horror game, wherein she begins to document the changes that may or may not be happening to her.
Creepypasta culture gets an ominous deep-dive in Jane Schoenbrun’s feature We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. I’ve always admired cyber films that utilize tech to ruminate on its inherent strengths and weaknesses, but most computing efforts (I am looking at you Unfriended) settle for overbaked truths.
Schoenbrun’s effort offers some worthwhile conceits. They thoughtfully examine unbridled adolescence and internet culture’s unkempt dangers with a genuine eye. Despite the good intentions, Schoenbrun’s experience can’t quite make for a compelling narrative. The interesting technical elements can only do so much to overcome the script’s relatively stagnant structure. Bits and pieces are fascinating though, leaving me intrigued to see where Jane Schoenbrun goes with their next project.
VIEWING #21 – COMING HOME IN THE DARK
Synopsis: A school teacher is forced to confront a brutal act from his past when a pair of ruthless drifters takes him and his family on a nightmare road-trip.
Admirably dour and remarkably well-composed by director James Ashcroft. I can see this being a genre favorite for many at the festival for its relentless pace and shocking moments of violence.
For me, these types of relentlessly downbeat thrillers need a bit more dramatic weight to back up their senseless violence. I don’t think this film says anything that hasn’t been said with more weight or depraved humor before (Funny Games is a good example). It’s a well-constructed exercise that’s sure to have its passionate supporters, but the lack of substance failed to truly engage me.
VIEWING #22 – THE WORLD TO COME
Synopsis: Somewhere along the mid-19th century American East Coast frontier, two neighboring couples battle hardship and isolation, witnessed by a splendid yet testing landscape, challenging them both physically and psychologically.
Audiences are not foreign to women’s suppressed love being the focal point of a period setting (Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite treaded these grounds last year). These well-connected concepts are intelligently explored once again in director Mona Fastvold’s latest The World to Come. Longing with a balance of joys and pains, Fastvold elicits an expressive love story boiling under her subdued delivery.
Stars Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby are spell-binding to watch when they share the screen. Their pulsating chemistry boils under the surface, lighting a warm fire amidst Fastvold’s well-composed, yet dreary setting (Daniel Blumberg’s score is sensationally vivid). While Fastvold’s explorations on oppressive gender dynamics and sexual discovery aren’t particularly revelatory, her film rarely reaches a false moment during its personal odyssey.
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