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Festival Favorites

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Festival Favorites

Image Courtesy of Danny Moloshok | Invision | AP

Image Courtesy of Danny Moloshok | Invision | AP

Image Courtesy of Danny Moloshok | Invision | AP

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Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to escape from the polar vortex of Chicago and attend the closing weekend of the Sundance Film Festival in the beautiful mountain valley of Utah. The Park City fest is most known for not only being the first big festival of the every year but also being an amazing place full of fresh cinematic talent, unique perspectives, and amazing films. It is an absolute dreamland for independent distributors to pick up films that will set the scene for the year ahead. Some of the most popular films that have premiered in the past few years include “The Witch,” “Manchester By The Sea,” “Whiplash,” “Call Me By Your Name” and “Eighth Grade.”

This year was rather special for the film industry. Nearly 60 percent of the narrative films in competition at the festival were directed by women. On top of that, several major indie studios spent mounds of cash acquiring some of the fest’s hottest films. Amazon Studios came out on top, spending an estimated grand total of $47 million, which is easily a record for the fest.

Being my first time at the fest, I was overjoyed with the experience — big shout out to the volunteers and programmers for making for what might possibly be the best film festival experience I’ve ever had. I got to see 13 films in the span of five days, so here’s the rundown on some of the highlights from the fest and what you should/shouldn’t see.

Velvet Buzzsaw

An ultraviolent horror-comedy satire on the Los Angeles modern art world starring Jake Gyllenhaal as an art critic named Morf Vanderwalt sounds like something that should be a slam dunk. Unfortunately that’s not the case with this film that ends up being aesthetically repulsive, smug and thematically dull. It dropped on Netflix a mere five days after premiering at the fest.

Wounds

Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari follows up his deep critical hit “Under the Shadow” with this tonally confused and druggingly paced body horror film centered around the toxic masculinity of a New Orleans bartender (a vivaciously entertaining Armie Hammer) after he discovers a cursed cell phone. I love the idea of it, but the execution just has zero sense of purpose.

The Wolf Hour

An aggressively mediocre film if I’ve ever seen one. Naomi Watts gives it her all as a paranoid broken author in this single-location film set in her musty apartment in the volatile Bronx in the summer of 1977. It’s a dynamite recipe for an emotional and compelling film and it dabbles in that from time to time, but mostly misses the mark executionally.

Fighting With My Family

Selected as the surprise screening for the festival, it tells the true story of Paige, a professional wrestler’s rise to fame in the WWE. The film boasts some genuinely great performances and some touching grand gestures. Unfortunately, it has significant trouble breaking away from the sports crowd-pleasing film formula to truly stand out on its own.

The Death of Dick Long

Daniel Scheinert exploded into the indie film scene at Sundance in 2016 when his co-directorial debut “Swiss Army Man” rocked audiences. He followed that up at Sundance this year with this equally-as-weird tale of a backwoods Alabama metal band trying to cover-up the embarrassing death of their lead singer. It navigates its tone bizarrely, between moments of absurdist humor and sincere human drama, but it meets its end goal spectacularly.

Hala

This lowkey coming-of-age tale about a Muslim teenager coming to terms with her faith and her difficult home life made headlines when it became the first major festival purchase by Apple. It’s a good and safe choice for them. The film, while somehow being both simultaneously too slight and way too overstuffed, is deeply impactful in how personal and in-touch it is. Lead actress Geraldine Viswanathan solidifies her movie star status.

Them That Follow

Pentecostal snake churches in Appalachia have always been a weird interest of mine. It’s also a topic that has gotten nearly no cinematic attention which is what makes “Them That Follow” feel so special. Directors Britt Poulton and Daniel Savage treat the subculture with respect and a fitting critical eye. It’s wildly impressive for a debut feature and has some of the best performances I saw at the festival.

Apollo 11

A groundbreaking documentary achievement that chronicles the amazing story of the Apollo 11 lunar journey, the film uses real never-before-seen archival footage. It has its fair share of staggeringly dry moments but it also boasts some of the most awe-inspiring and beautiful imagery I’ve ever seen. This should be required viewing for all schools across the country.

Greener Grass

“Greener Grass” is a demented and deeply hilarious deconstruction of the vicious conformity of upper-class suburbia. While definitely not for everyone, it has the potential to be a massive midnight-movie cult sensation. Directors Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe not only write and direct the film but they also lend tremendous leading turns.

Big Time Adolescence

This will be reductively labeled as “The Generation’s [insert any teen party comedy]” but what Jason Orley does with this film goes beyond others. He makes a teen comedy that is not only gut-bustingly funny, but also sincere and with an honest sense of sadness. It also solidifies Pete Davidson as a bonafide comedy movie star.

The Souvenir

By far the most divisive of the films I saw at Sundance, the slow pace and idiosyncratic nature of Joanna Hogg’s deeply personal semi-autobiography prompted several to walkout at the screening I attended. For me, this was a gripping and heartbreaking look at the intersection between personal tragedy and artistic aspiration. Honor Swinton-Byrne lends a sublime debut lead performance.

Honey Boy

Shia LaBeouf’s autobiographical recount of his traumatic childhood and the ensuing destructive aftermath was the buzziest film going into the fest and for good reason. Not only disarmingly tender and visually stimulating but also profoundly cathartic. In a world where it proves difficult for men to be open and emotional about their pent-up inner demons, this proves to be quite refreshing and groundbreaking in a way. LaBeouf and Lucas Hedges deliver career-best work.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

This film is a lot of things. It’s a deeply personal look at a struggling gentrified city, a battle cry for widespread sincerity, a meditation on our connection to our surroundings and a sensitive portrait a very particular kind of platonic codependent male friendship. This is a film that immaculately tows the line between being an intimate, affectionate film and a grand, stylish visual gesture. It’s invigoratingly singular and it reminded me why I’m even in film school to begin with.

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