MCN Columnists

By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

14 Must-See Films at Sundance ‘14

While the Sundance 2014 line-up has been out since late November, it usually takes me until I have a physical program guide in my hands before I know exactly what it is I need to pay attention to. (The information, while available online via the festival website, is just far easier to digest in print). Now, having spent the past days combing through the catalogue, I’ve found several films that have me more than excited to return to Park City. I steered clear of rubber-stamping Sundance regulars, or the latest Joe Swanberg venture (Happy Christmas), Kristen Wiig drama (The Skeleton Twins) or either of the Phillip Seymour Hoffman films (God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man). Not that those films don’t sound just fine, mind you.

The following is grouped by programming section. My must-see films are primarily American, but as Sundance is the premiere festival for American independent cinema, it’s expected.

US Documentary Competition

THE CASE AGAINST 8 – Directed by Ben Cotner, Ryan White

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One of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had at Sundance was a public screening of 2010’s 8: The Mormon Proposition (nary a dry eye in the house). And given Utah’s recent marriage equality gain (Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage was ruled unconstitutional on December 20), it now seems especially prudent to take in a documentary about the subject. The Case Against 8 follows a team that took the first Californian marriage equality lawsuit to the Supreme Court, and it’s sure to be affecting.

IVORY TOWER – Directed by Andrew Rossi

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I love when documentaries are described as “urgent.” Ivory Tower looks at Harvard University and ties it back in to the financial crisis, painting “an urgent portrait of a great American institution at the breaking point.” With looming tuition costs and crippling student debt across the country, is going to college really worth it? As a recent university graduate, I’ll be sure to see this film and update readers on this pressing question. (Kidding aside, the film sounds fascinating.)

FED UP – Directed by Stephanie Soechtig

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There’s a common theme in the upcoming documentaries I want to see. Alongside The Case Against 8 and Ivory Tower and their respective crises, Fed Up focuses on an issue that is currently paramount in the United States: obesity. The film promises to reveal a “thirty-year campaign by the food industry, aided by the US government, to mislead the American public, resulting in one of the largest health epidemics in history,” which is a lofty, damning claim. Whether or not the film pays off, though, is something else entirely.

Sundance Premieres

LITTLE ACCIDENTS – Directed by Sara Colangelo

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I’ve been interested in small-town mysteries ever since binging on “Twin Peaks” last summer, so I’ll be making sure I catch Little Accidents. The film looks at a tiny American industry town coping with the disappearance of a teenaged boy, and as the drama unfolds, three residents are sucked into a “web of secrets.” Sold. The film also gives us the chance to check in on Jacob Lofland, the child actor of Mud who played Neckbone.

THEY CAME TOGETHER – Directed by David Wain

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I’ll be honest: as a big fan of offbeat comedy troupe Stella (featuring the stylings of David Wain, Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter), I’m looking forward to They Came Together solely because it’s a project written by Showalter and Wain. Wain reteams with Paul Rudd (having worked previously together on 2012’s Wanderlust), while Amy Poehler, Ed Helms, and Cobie Smulders tag along in this New York City-based subversive romantic comedy. Michael Ian Black makes a cameo.

YOUNG ONES – Directed by Jake Paltrow

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First glance at the program book: is that Michael Shannon holding a rifle? Yes; yes it is. A quick Google search later and I learn that Young Ones is a science-fiction Western by a director I’m not familiar with. But it doesn’t really matter what this film is about in the slightest, because director Jake Paltrow had me at “Michael Shannon with a rifle.” I hope that’s what the initial pitch to producers boiled down to.

THE RAID 2 – Directed by Gareth Evans

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I was going to avoid putting this film on my must-see list because it’s kind of a no-brainer. But since I saw The Raid at TIFF’s Midnight Madness world premiere and was present for a sneak-peek Midnight Madness clip of The Raid 2 back in September 2013, it’s safe to say that I need to see this film as soon as I possibly can. Reportedly, the running time is a hard-punching 148 minutes.

THE VOICES – Directed by Marjane Satrapi

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Whenever I see the term “genre-bending” in a Sundance programme book, I’m immediately interested. Then I notice The Voices features an “evil talking cat” and a “benevolent talking dog” in a live-action film by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and I say to myself, “oh look, Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick star in this.”

I ORIGINS – Directed by Mike Cahill

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You’ll remember director Mike Cahill from Another Earth, winner of Sundance 2011’s Alfred P. Sloan prize. He’s back at the festival with I Origins (again starring Brit Marling), a film that features two molecular biologists who discover “startling evidence that could fundamentally change society as we know it.” For better or for worse, the premise reminds of something like Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (which played Sundance’s Park City at Midnight program in 2010) but as Cahill’s film is playing in the Premieres section, we can expect a more dramatic sci-fi.

HITS – Directed by David Cross

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David Cross (Tobias of “Arrested Development”) joins Sundance for his feature directorial debut. Hits looks at a small town in upstate New York obsessed with the realm of YouTube fame, featuring a major turn by Matt Walsh (of the Upright Citizens Brigade) and a small role for Wyatt Cenac (one of the best “Daily Show” correspondents in memory). Cross is following the path of his “Arrested Development” co-star Jason Bateman who recently debuted with the fairly funny Bad Words, so it should be interesting to catch Cross’ chance at bat.

Sundance’s “Next”

PING PONG SUMMER – Directed by Michael Tully

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Michael Tully (of HammerToNail.com) brings us what could a part of a Computer Chess double-bill: Ping Pong Summer sounds awkward, it sounds funny, and it’s set in the 1980s. Add in summer love, rap music, and some misunderstood adolescence, and you’ve got the makings of a potential Sundance gem. And look at that: Susan Sarandon’s in it!

US Dramatic

KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER – Directed by David Zellner

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The summary for Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter reads like a bizarro Nebraska: “a lonely Japanese woman becomes convinced that a fictional satchel of money is, in fact, real. Abandoning her structured life in Tokyo for the frozen Minnesota wilderness, she embarks on an impulsive quest to search for her lost mythical fortune.” That cache of money? We (and Kumiko, apparently) last saw it in Fargo. It’s a 105-minute long solo show (Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi plays the title character) and it sounds fantastic.

THE SLEEPWALKER – Directed by Mona Fastvold

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The set-up: when a young couple is violently interrupted at their home by some unexpected guests, The Sleepwalker “transcends genre conventions and narrative contrivances to reveal something disturbing.” And this movie isn’t in Sundance’s Next program? Count me in for something unique with this Norwegian-American co-production. With songs by Sondre Lerche; co-written by co-star Brady Corbet (Simon Killer).

World Cinema Dramatic

BLIND – Directed by Eskil Vogt

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Scandinavian cinema is often some of the craziest. Blind sees a woman who has recently lost her vision face her deepest fears and repressed fantasies as she navigates her house, alone with her husband. There’s surely more to this movie than its vague summary in the Sundance guide, as director Eskil Vogt helped write Joachim Trier’s excellent Oslo, August 31st. I don’t know what to expect other than something striking.

For more Sundance as it happens, follow @Jake_Howell on Twitter.

One Response to “14 Must-See Films at Sundance ‘14”

  1. Sam E. says:

    1. David Cross also has experience behind the camera in creating the excellent IFC miniseries Todd Margaret.

    2. I would add Zach Braff’s Garden State follow Wish I was here to the list.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin