This time of year I’m usually envious as my friends and colleagues fly off to Park City, Utah to chill with celebrities and watch loads of movies. They always claim it’s all about the work; not about the socializing, then they post pictures of themselves on the ski slopes with hot Hollywood starlets. I’m left to write about the movies they get to witness in this dispatch from Sundance.
1. The Hollars
Sundance has never only been about small indie films making it big against all odds. The already famous love bringing their vanity projects to the Utah winter and making that big distribution sale. John Krasinski, the TV star currently enjoying a run of success in feature films, has a family comedy on offer at the festival this year. The Hollars is one of those ensemble pieces that draws big name talent. Krasinski is directing and starring. His co-stars will be Anna Kendrick, Charlie Day, Sharlito Copley, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Randall Park, among others. It’s also the kind of safe indie movie – a big city guy goes back to his small town and his dying mother – distributors love.
2. Other People
Chris Kelly writes for the venerable late night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. He debuted his first feature film on Sundance’s opening night. The film features Jesse Plemons, an actor on the rise, as Kelly’s stand-in in the semi-autobiographical tale. In another safe Sundance movie, the writer goes home to visit his dying mother (Molly Shannon) and his ultra conservative family. The sidewalk buzz has Shannon stealing the movie with her dramatic performance. To the jaded critics at the festival, the story felt very familiar.
3. Swiss Army Man
The Sundance lab champions writers of small, offbeat scripts that are unlike anything else in theatres. That’s an apt description of the movie from the latest lab success stories Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. Their film, starring another Daniel, Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano, features a corpse (Radcliffe) that hydroplanes across the ocean by farting, that same corpse’s reanimation and his suicidal friend (Dano) who is stranded on a deserted island in the first act. You and I are not the only ones raising our eyebrows quizzically like a dog who smells something really bad. Some audiences walked out in anger according to reports, others cheered wildly. Swiss Army Man seems to be the kind of film that wins raves at Sundance and nowhere else; however, it seems interesting enough to give it a look.
4. Love & Friendship
For the cineastes attending Sundance, a Whit Stillman film on the playlist is like a bird watcher finding a rare bird. The once vital filmmaker makes a film every few years, usually dialogue-heavy comedies of manners. It won’t surprise his fans that his latest film is based on a Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan. It may come as surprise that Stillman didn’t update the setting to one of the haunts of his youth, like a NYC disco or an Ivy League college campus. Like Wes Anderson, Stillman is somewhat divisive in that some love him adore him, and others find his movies talky and precious. According the glut of Sundance observers, Love & Friendship is his talkiest, most precious yet. The film stars Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan and co-stars Chloë Sevigny and Steven Fry.
5. Yoga Hosers
Speaking of once vital filmmakers, Kevin Smith, whose debut film Clerks won an award at Sundance in 1994, is back with another bemused look at society from behind a convenience store counter. Yoga Hosers is billed as a sequel to his previous horror film Tusk, part of a True North trilogy. They are a group of films set in an alternative universe Canada where maple syrup lines the shelves and the kids speak in exaggerated Canadian accented English. Johnny Depp stars as monster hunter who chases down evil with the help of two store clerks played by Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose and Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn.
6. Morris in America
With the Oscars reeling over accusations of being “so White,” it’s a sure bet that a distributor will snatch up one of the strong selections featuring African American casts and/or directors, looking to diversify the nominations next year. While the slave revolt drama Birth of a Nation and the urban thriller Sleight have strong buzz, Morris in America is the kind of small “Black film” the festival tends to champion. Morris (Markees Christmas) moves from the US to Germany with his soccer coach father (Craig Robinson) and lands there all at sea with nothing but his self-professed rap skills to keep him afloat among his hostile and possibly racist classmates. The film has good, not great reviews, but already has a distribution deal.
7. Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall
Spike Lee the narrative filmmaker is nearly less loved than Spike Lee the documentary filmmaker. Critics loved his look at the tragic flood in New Orleans in 2005 that killed hundreds. Lee’s taking another look at the music of the late Michael Jackson, focusing on a specific period of the artist’s growth, just as he did with the 2012 film Bad 25. As one might expect, Lee has access to the people intimately involved in Jackson’s life and career as few others might, and Lee’s insight on African American life during the 1970s and ‘80s makes the film an important pop culture artifact.
8. Miles Ahead
Don Cheadle directs and stars in the abstract form biopic of improvisational music legend Miles Davis. It’s set in 1975 New York, with Ewan McGregor playing a reporter trying to get a story on the reclusive musician. The report from Toby Leonard of the Belcourt Theater notes that Cheadle proves he can direct, and we already know the multiple Golden Globe Award winner can act. The Hollywood Reporter agrees, finding that Cheadle avoids the standard issue biopic, using the freeform style of “bebop” music as the template for telling Davis’ story. The script ignores not only Hollywood conventions, but often time and space, serving up a disconcerting but riveting look at the man who for many is the face of jazz music.
Every festival these days has its midnight selection, a slate of films that usually come from the horror genre, an acknowledgement that even the snobbiest film geek loves a good visceral experience on occasion. Rob Zombie is the big name this time around, and his film once again recalls the drive-in movie experience of the 1970s as some road trippers get roped into a dungeon death match as the well-heeled look on. The buzz on 31 suggests Zombie’s strict adherence to the hyper-gore horror of the post-Vietnam era has lost some of its punch.
10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Sundance has had some success exposing the work of little known directors from outside the US. This year, the festival may do the same for New Zealand’s Taika Waititi, whose comedy-adventure is getting raves. The film features Maori actor Julian Dennisson and Australian legend Sam Neill. Waititi’s work is getting good reviews at Sundance; however, his Hollywood payoff may have already happened. He’ll be directing Thor: Ragnarok this year.