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“Drop the mind.”Last year’s installment of the Sundance Film Festival was warm and sunny. This year? Not so much. There was snow (lots of it), there was black ice (lots of it), and there was Sting (lots of him). But the weather didn’t matter much considering we spent most of our waking hours stowed away inside theaters all across Park City, Utah. Or holed up in our condo typing thousands of words on the dozens of films we digested. It’s fun being a film critic.
For our sophomore year of Sundance coverage, the Sundance Three — Justin Gerber, Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, and myself — managed to review nearly 35 films from January 21st to the 29th. There was the good (Manchester by the Sea, The Lure), the bad (Carnage Park, Yoga Hosers), and the ugly (31, Antibirth). Once again, there were even a few Oscar contenders in the batch, specifically one extraordinary debut that secured one extraordinary deal.
While this year lacked an oomph in certain fields — the documentary features, namely — the great outlasted the abysmal, making Robert Redford’s annual tradition a customary treat for cinephiles everywhere. As Justin Gerber proclaimed last year, “We came. We saw. We reviewed a lot of movies.” Because it’s been a week, as they say, we’ve ranked them all in order from worst to best for your leisure. Aren’t we nice?
Next stop: Austin, Texas. Oooh, somebody stop me!
Hardly has a film felt so transparent in its creative bankruptcy. There isn’t a single second of originality to the whole production, from robbing Carpenter’s score for The Fog all the way to the surprise ending ripped straight out of The Purge. Once the credits roll, the only reassuring notion is knowing that Rob Zombie can’t possibly make another movie like this, that he has to try something else, that he has to find a new way to scare his audiences. Sure, it’s an ugly place to be in, but it’s no more despicable than the mess that’s 31. You’d be better off thumbing through r/wtf. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
There are at least six different movies in Antibirth, and none of them work in tandem. Director, writer, and AnCo buddy Danny Perez tries too many things all at once without any of the finesse to make this either gel or implode in a brilliant mess. Instead, it’s just a mess, one that sputters in all sorts of oddball, incoherent directions that are mostly frustrating and dull. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
Carnage Park is an exploitation movie down to its very bones, from the lurid real-life trappings to the excessive, lingering violence throughout, but writer-director Mickey Keating never really finds a handle on which sort of throwback film he wants to make. He solves this riddle by making quite a few of them, none of which seem to fit anything that comes before or after, until the film descends into a murky fugue that destroys most of that aforementioned early goodwill. The most interesting of its modes is the one that sees Wyatt square off against Vivian (Ashley Bell), who finds herself in the middle of Wyatt’s living hell after being taken hostage during a bank heist gone terribly awry. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
While Yoga Hosers continues Kevin Smith’s quest to push himself into increasingly strange and uncomfortable directions as a filmmaker, it’s either too derivative or too malformed to work the vast majority of the time. Characters are introduced with Technicolor cutaways to a faux-Instagram page, canted angles appear and disappear again, and at one point Smith even introduces a black-and-white flashback to provide some context regarding the Nazi imagery that the film crassly invokes for shock value without really having even the slightest idea what to do with it. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
The Fundamentals of Caring
By the time the film gets around to slipping a lesson or two about DMD into the dialogue, The Fundamentals of Caring reveals itself as a message movie in the business of warming hearts at the expense of any kind of more honest or meaningful storytelling. It’s true that few movies are this aw-shucks nice these days, and for a short while The Fundamentals of Caring finds ways of retaining that kindness without lapsing into platitudes. But by the time it’s over, the film instead offers a reminder of why most movies, about this topic or otherwise, aren’t so aggressively nice. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
The Free World
The Free World works when dealing with the themes found within its title. When we have our freedoms taken away, how difficult is it to get them back? Is it wholly possible? Somewhere along the way, Lew decided such a story wasn’t compelling enough. Mohammad’s boss tells him at one point, “You bury the past, or it’ll bury you.” Jason Lew surrenders to the past, and while it doesn’t completely bury The Free World, it drops a good amount of dirt on it. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]
Joshy has not one but two sex worker scenes. It’s got boys being boys on vacay. It even manages to toss in a subplot that follows a married man on the verge of cheating with another woman (Jenny Slate, who does a lot with what could have been a nothing role). Jeff Baena’s crime is that he tries to make it a dramedy at the last minute and doesn’t come close to earning it. It’s a shame, because while the comedy beats are familiar, the uber-talented cast of Joshy give them a new vibe. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]
For whatever one could say about Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s long-gestating passion project about a particularly fraught period in the late ‘70s in Miles Davis’ life, it can never be said that Cheadle hasn’t given everything he has to the film. In addition to stepping into the legendary jazz musician’s complicated shoes, Cheadle also directed the film, co-wrote it with Steven Baigelman, and even contributed to some of the film’s original musical arrangements. That’s to say nothing of him learning how to play the trumpet, in order to do proper justice to Davis’ work as authentically as possible. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
The performances are so strong in Other People that they just about make up for the weak storytelling. Maybe “weak” isn’t the best definition for writer/director Chris Kelly’s debut feature film, but its structure definitely pales in comparison to all the effort given on screen. We get vets Paul Dooley and June Squibb alongside sketch comedy icons Matt Walsh and Kerri Kenney. Another scene brings us Retta and Lennon Parham. The movie is loaded with talent from start to finish, but the movie they’re in doesn’t have the focus they deserve. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]
Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall
Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall is a whole lotta fluff, but tasty fluff. It’s an enjoyable watch that should satiate the fans and offer an alternative for those uninterested in poring through the Internet for clips and backstories. And at a time when we’re still mourning the loss of a similar icon — ahem, the Starman himself — there’s never been a better time to wax nostalgic and celebrate the loss of our idols. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review here.]
Joshua Marston’s latest, Complete Unknown, dabbles is an existential drama with big questions that hit harder on the way out of the theater than in it. The American filmmaker and screenwriter, who swept 2004’s Sundance with his critical darling Maria Full of Grace, returns to gnaw at the truths and fallacies of life. Identity comes into question and the concept of relationships are often challenged, making for a moody dissection on how we’re more or less trapped. At times, it recalls the tugging heartburn of Linklater’s Before Sunset while also the dreamy facade of Scorcese’s After Hours. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
While The Intervention tastes vanilla, there’s enough flavor here to keep wanting more from Clea DuVall. Despite its flaws, the film still manages to win you over, even if it never actually surprises you, making it quite an assured debut. That’s more than one can say about other ensemble dramedies cut from the same cloth. It also goes without saying that any ensemble film is always going to be a risk, even for veteran filmmakers, and that ambition bodes well for DuVall’s future. In the end, The Intervention, oddly enough, winds up feeling exactly like those annual get-togethers: “It was nice.” [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
Kate Plays Christine
Much of Kate Plays Christine is more of a form exercise than it is a documentary portrait, which works to both the film’s benefit and detriment. In the former category, Robert Greene shoots the film with an intimate elegance that ably parallels Sheil’s journey into character; while some images border on the staged, artifice is something of an operative point of the film, and so while it may render some sequences distracting (particularly a walk through Chubbuck’s real-life home rendered at some angles that are frankly impossible without some prior staging), it’s nevertheless an effective means of illustrating Sheil’s inner turmoil regarding the role. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
First Girl I Loved
What writer and director Kerem Sanga captures so well in First Girl I Loved is high school. What he captures even better is falling in love, or the naïve idea of what it means to be in love as a teenager. Anne’s love for Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand) is pure but burdened with what it would mean not only for her relationship with Cliff, but for her life in general. Sanga conveys this to us with such a deft touch that it’s a shame he fumbles the other issues that arise in First Girl. If the film is trying to display the trials and tribulations with coming out, then it can’t dismiss the unforgivable acts of its heroes. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]
Morris From America
Craig Robinson finds a nuanced balance between pathos and comedy, cracking wise even as he’s trying to keep a lot of ships from sinking at once for the sake of not making his son’s life any harder than it already is, or his own. In its more successful moments, Morris from America knows this lesson well: adulthood is hard from the early passage into it and onward, and all you can do is try to make it work. Usually that means figuring out what the hell that actually means to you. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
What Christine gets right above all else is that it comes at depression from a different angle. Director Antonio Campos (Afterschool) evades drone and downpours in favor of ‘70s soft rock and bright skies. It’s ultimately a tale of two halves, although Rebecca Hall remains pitch-perfect throughout. Her portrayal of Christine Chubbuck may or may not be a perfect representation of the late reporter, but her depiction of a depressed individual is spot-on. She never plays Christine as a caricature. She plays her with mood swings — the way the disease works. A subplot and a longer-than-necessary runtime threaten to undercut Hall’s performance, but in the end the movie succeeds as a solid investigation into the day-to-day life of one suffering from the depression. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]
The Lovers and the Despot
At times, The Lovers and the Despot verges on the surreal; were a mockumentary made of this same topic, it would seem reasonably plausible as an impossible tale of conspiracy. But it all happened. While Sang-ok passed away in 2006, Eun-hee remains to tell their story, and the clear immediacy of the incident, even decades later, is evident in her testimony. What happened to them in North Korea, and what they came to know about the way in which the country works and is maintained, is truly unbelievable despite the total veracity of it all. And as both an utterly mad true story and as a document of the boundless reach of the cinema across borders and cultures and even ideologies, The Lovers and the Despot is wild, valuable viewing for all. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
“Everything has a beginning, and everything has an end.” This is one of many sobering life lessons we learn over time, but one we traditionally never grasp until it’s too late. It’s also the crux of Todd Solondz’s latest cutthroat comedy, Wiener-Dog, a varied collection of quirky stories that meditate on the breathless march towards our respective graves. The 56-year-old cult filmmaker, who smashed independent cinema to pieces over 20 years ago with 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, offers a sardonic twist on mortality through the sordid adventures of an adorable dachshund. For 90 minutes, the titular pooch takes us to four very depressing corners of America that surprise us with their unlikely humor. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]
Let’s just address the Elephant in the room: Dark Night bears more than a passing resemblance to Gus Van Sant’s Palme D’Or-winning visual poem about the moments leading up to the Columbine shootings, right down to its similar final frame. And yet, there is a political undercurrent to Tim Sutton’s film that Van Sant mostly eschewed in favor of a more humanistic approach. Though that same humanism is applicable here as well, Sutton rather pointedly includes a number of small indications that Dark Night aims to comment on the culture that engenders the acts of violence around which the film is brutally, inevitably based as the acts themselves. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]
The Greasy Strangler
Stocked with full-frontal nudity, outlandish violence, outrageous sex, and eccentric characters from start to finish, The Greasy Strangler is a movie that has to be experienced to be believed. It goes on a little too long and isn’t as effective in the very end as it is at the start (blame desensitization). However, in a current climate where most movies are beset by moping twentysomethings who can’t get it together or teenagers rallying together to save the world, it’s refreshing to follow a greasy strangler and his weirdo son in a weirdo world where nothing makes sense from minute to minute. Original thought is in short supply these days. The Greasy Strangler is not. Whether too much freedom is a good thing, well, I’ll leave that up to you bullshit artists! [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]