Sundance Review Roundup
Another year of the Sundance Film Festival has come and gone, and unfortunately this year I didn't keep up with my review writing on a timely basis to give coverage while the fest was going strong. So instead of giving you a bunch of late reviews now that it's all over, I decided instead to rank all the films I saw this year and condense all my thoughts in one post. This year has been decried by many writers as a slow year for Sundance, with few standouts. But at the same time, I heard so many films being raved about, though not all movies I was able to get a chance to see (The Tale, Sorry To Bother You). While the films I selected ended up being pretty hit or miss, the hits were probably stronger than the majority of what I ended up seeing last year. I usually like to build anticipation for my top pick until the end of a list, but this year I find myself so eager to talk about the best films that I just can't help myself.
Toni Collette gives a jaw dropping performance as a woman trying to keep her sanity (as well as her family's) after the loss of her mother. Hereditary follows in the Sundance horror footsteps of The Babadook and The Witch of being absolutely terrifying and bound to be one of the best horror films of the year. I thought I had this movie figured out early on, and then it did something utterly amazing: it shocked me. It shocked me to my core. From that point forward, I sat back and let the movie surprise me, and horrify me. And horrify me it did. Hereditary might just be one of the scariest horror films in years, and it does so not necessarily by being revolutionary, but by being traditional. Hereditary takes tried and true formulas and makes them fresh and new again. It's a remix of old school horror, but it works so well due to first time director Ari Aster's perfect execution. Hereditary is an absolute must see for horror buffs. RATING: 9.5/10
2. AMERICAN ANIMALS
American Animals is the stylishly told true story of four college boys who set out to rob their local college's special collections library. Director Bart Layton artfully mixes documentary and movie to tell this story with the real life versions of the characters popping in to add their recollections here and there. American Animals accomplishes the incredible feat of managing to be funny, tense, thrilling and even sobering all at once. Half the fun is how creatively told it all is, and it's easy to get swept up in their plan without thinking of the actual life consequences...until the real counterparts ground you back to reality. There's more to American Animals than just a heist movie, it's about the moral boundaries we cross and the repercussions to our humanity. RATING: 9/10
Paul Dano gives an amazing and accomplished directorial debut with Wildlife, a Richard Ford novel adapted by Dano and longtime companion Zoe Kazan. Wildlife is mostly seen through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy named Joe (Ed Oxenbould,) whose recently unemployed father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) leaves his family to fight a nearby wildfire. Joe's mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) does not take the departure well and finds the burden of having to provide for her son to be unbearable, as well as an undeniable strain on her marriage. Dano favors a simple and sensitive approach, pulling thoughtful performances from all three of his leads. The film relies strongly on Oxenbould's young shoulders and he is definitely up to the task in a challenging role that requires less in word, and much more beneath the surface. Joe is soft spoken and not too eager to interject himself; he's a constant observer. While Joe only sees glimpses of who Jeanette really is and the listlessness of her life, Carey Mulligan is still able to imbue a selfish character with desperate humanity. Gyllenhaal has the least screen time of the leads, but is dependable as always. Wildlife is a quiet simple story, but a very effective one. RATING: 8.5/10
Director Andrew Heckler spent 20 years trying to bring the true story of former Ku Klux Klan member Mike Burden (played by Garrett Hedlund) to the screen. Burden was raised in the Klan and considered them family. But one day his life changes when he meets and falls for a single mom named Judy (Andrea Riseborough in the first of many Sundance movies on this list) who eventually issues an ultimatum for Mike that he leave the KKK, in order to protect her son from the Klan's influence. But leaving the Klan isn't so easy, and Mike finds an unlikely ally in the local Reverend (Forrest Whitaker) who has always been at odds with his former family. I would have liked to see more scenes that truly convinced me of Mike's conversion, but I still think that this was a powerful story and a story worth telling. Also Garrett Hedlund and Forrest Whitaker give their all to this film and were incredible. I may have even shed a tear or two. RATING: 8/10
Andrea Riseborough appears again in the story of Nancy, a woman who has a terrible habit of catfishing everyone around her. When she discovers a couple on tv whose missing kidnapped daughter is roughly the same age as herself and whose age projection photo looks just like her, she reaches out informing these strangers that she believes she could be their daughter. Nancy is a fascinating film where the main character not only cons those around her, but also the audience into whether or not we can trust her. The film is intriguing throughout and Riseborough definitely makes an unlikable character fascinating enough, but with such a shady lead you always feel the film keeping you at arm's length. The biggest problem, though, is the ending is left far too vague. I understand there can sometimes be a value to a "write your own adventure" ending, but in this case it just seemed lazy. RATING: 7/10
It's been over a week since I've seen Mandy and I still don't even know how to feel about it, other than being able to label it with certainty as one of the most bizarre movies I've ever seen. The first half is a straight up drug fueled crazy nightmare, while the second half is an over the top absurd Nicolas Cage revenge fantasy. It's hard to recommend this to anyone but truly patient fans of bizarre cinema, but it certainly had it's share of unforgettable moments, including a Nicolas Cage performance at its most unhinged and ridiculous. It also left me speechless more times than one at its sheer ludicrousness. RATING: 6/10
7. DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT
Gus Van Sant's latest features a couple of great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill in particular, but its lack of focus in what it wants to be and meandering nature left me underwhelmed overall. The film follows the story of cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) and his battle over his addiction to alcohol. He finally hits rock bottom when he gets paralyzed in a drunk driving accident but through the help of his AA group, he tries to find a life worth living again; a life filled with love and a career he can actually obtain and be passionate about. All the while, he must come to terms with how his life lead him to this point and what he needs to learn from it. This movie definitely had its moment, and as I already mentioned, had terrific performances. I just wanted more from it and less at the same time: less meandering and more focus. RATING: 6/10
8. TIE: SUMMER OF '84
And finally, my two least favorite films I saw this year both came from the horror section of the festival, both have teen leads, and both were incredibly mixed bags for entirely different reasons. Summer of '84 was completely uninspired and unoriginal. Basically taking the plot of The 'Burbs and setting it to the backdrop of Stranger Things...except this time the characters personalities consist solely of being obsessed with porn. The film is completely predictable and holds no surprises...that is until the last ten minutes which actually were pretty good. But by then it's a little "too little too late." But bonus points for using my last name as their suspected serial killer's name so I got to hear constantly of how awful and evil Mackey really was. Assassination Nation on the other hand felt more fresh, but within the first 5 minutes I thought I could possibly have walked out of the film and not cared. Assassination Nation is like The Purge meets an episode of Black Mirror, meets Mean Girls...except all the characters are bland and two dimensional (two in particular are completely devoid of personalities.) It gets better in the second half and there are truly some stylish and well executed sequences to be found here. Plus I did kinda dig that the whole movie was basically a personification of the mob mentality of internet culture...I just wish it were a little less obnoxious. RATING: 5/10
And that's a wrap...until next year that is. But in the meantime, we can all look forward to these films hopefully coming out within the next year. I know there are many I'm still very eager to see and can't wait til they hit theaters.