Festivals / Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2016: Death 24x a Second


Sundance London will be coming to Picturehouse Central for the first time 2 -5 June 2016. The festival will feature the international and UK premieres of films from the 2016 edition of the renowned Sundance Film Festival.

London Cinemas And Acquisitions Coordinator Paul Ridd gives us an overview of the best films at the recent Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

The spectre of death hung over an otherwise jolly few days in Utah for the Picturehouse Entertainment team this Sundance. Almost a structuring preoccupation in the competition, the ending of life and its myriad implications was amply explored in a festival defined by a huge and encouraging diversity of new films and new voices.

Films as wide-ranging as Kenneth Lonergan’s Chekhovian Manchester By The Sea, Todd Solondz’s hyper-cynical Wiener-Dog and Werner Herzog’s thoughtful Lo And Behold grappled with mortality in subtly different ways, the theme finding its nadir in the sight of ex-Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe playing a rotting, farting corpse in the bizarre and divisive comedy Swiss Army Man.


Manchester By The Sea

Following up his masterful Margaret (2011), Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea was a monumental exercise in slow-burn emotion. The quiet drama, led by a wonderfully nuanced performance by Casey Affleck, followed a volatile young man grieving for his recently deceased brother. Slow and contemplative at first, the film delivered a big reveal in its second hour that expertly rejigged the stakes, building to an extraordinary denouement which provided some of the festival’s most moving scenes.


The Birth Of A Nation

In a louder, more conventionally dramatic register, Nate Parker’s breakout hit The Birth Of A Nation used the historical incident of a 19th-century slave uprising to explore the growing radicalisation of a good man confronted with violence and death. Building to a crescendo of sacrificial heroism to rival Braveheart (1995), the film hit all the right emotional beats, more than earning its high price tag as potentially the most commercially bankable film at the festival.

More traditional ‘Sundance indie’ fare could be found ready to take up the mantle of quirky hits such as Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Juno (2007) and the like, albeit with perhaps more melancholy and subtlety this time around. But that might simply have been all the death talking.


Captain Fantastic

The assured debut feature Captain Fantastic took as its starting point a mother’s suicide, exploring the fallout for her feral kids living in the wilderness with their vehemently anti-establishment father. Viggo Mortensen’s sophisticated, ambiguous performance as the mighty patriarch powered a film which, under a veneer of indie cuteness – all bright colours, treacly music and scenic settings – exposed the near-impossibility of existing outside the mainstream.

Another dying matriarch anchored Saturday Night Live veteran Chris Kelly’s expertly crafted debut feature Other People. Following a young gay man returning to his home town to care for his terminally ill mother, the film was consistently witty and often surprisingly raw, lingering longer in the mind than the wispier, more inconsequential US indies Lovesong and The Intervention, despite some gorgeous cinematography in the former and standout performances in the latter.



But in terms of fully rounded comedy with thematic heft, Todd Solondz’s disarmingly moving Wiener-Dog was the most memorable exercise in blackly comic rumination. Combining cinematic assurance with hilariously dark wit and toilet humour to explore loss, frustration and fear of death across a multi-stranded narrative of modern life, Solondz’s film found its unity and pathos in a singular sausage dog, culminating in a final sequence so despairing, bitter and nihilistic as to be positively thrilling.

In a more experimental vein, the strange puzzle piece Dark Night assembled fragments of the day before a horrific shooting in a suburban cinema. Holding up a broken mirror to small-town American life in its cross-section of future victims simply living their lives, the film almost ached with gloom.



Equally confrontational was Andrew Neel’s graphic and visceral fraternity thriller Goat, which fused the milieu of frat comedies with an almost Haneke-esque disaffection. The torture rituals experienced by hopeful prospective fraternity brothers played out in long, uninterrupted sequences with little music or subjectivity to fall back on. Horrifying in scale and relentless in its sadism, the film struck an uneasy balance between vicarious shocks and human drama, all building towards a death that gave it a sense of sadness and empathy, even after all the carnage.

Away from death and in the documentary realm, the ingeniously tongue-in-cheek Author: The J. T. LeRoy Story inventively utilised candid interviews, archive footage and borderline libellous voicemail recordings to tell the story of a monumental literary hoax that seemingly had half of Hollywood duped.


Lo And Behold

In a darker register, Werner Herzog’s idiosyncratic documentary Lo And Behold explored the growth of the Internet in sarcastically demarcated chapters, proving particularly powerful in one disturbing sequence exploring the impact of a viral death photo on a grieving family. The film’s presentation of the Internet as a potentially toxic, unregulated space in need of policing was a powerful call for change, giving it weight amid Herzog’s customarily off-kilter musings.

More typical doc pleasures were to be found in Spike Lee’s affectionate portrait Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall, the revealing Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny about the iconic Texan indie director, and the glorious Maya Angelou And Still I Rise, which conveyed the scale and cultural impact of this phenomenal woman’s life.

The genre standout was British director Babak Anvari’s barnstorming Iran-set chiller Under The Shadow, with shades of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002) by way of Asghar Farhadi’s family mysteries About Elly (2009) and A Separation (2011). The film expertly fused slow-burn horror thrills with a surprising emotional depth in its exploration of a mother and child marooned in a haunted house and contending with loss and abandonment.

2014.12.17 Agnus Dei rez Anne Fontaine; www.annawloch.com

Agnus Dei

The foreign-language highlight was Anne Fontaine’s slow, melancholic historical drama Agnus Dei, which explored in exquisitely subtle detail the inner workings of a post-World War II Polish nunnery blighted by violent, shameful attacks from Russian troops. Newcomer Lou de Laâge’s mesmerising performance as a French nurse grappling with the practical and moral implications of helping the women and keeping their secret anchored a film full of warmth and humanity despite the grim subject matter, calling to mind Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) in its snow-capped visuals and Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills (2012) in its thematic depth.



For pure weirdness the low-budget trash homage The Greasy Strangler gave us all a run for our money, but nothing could quite outdo German director Nicolette Krebitz’s deliberately confrontational character study Wild for commitment. The film pitched a lonely, frustrated young woman against a feral wolf with which she forged a strong sexual bond. Full of outlandish imagery, and driven by a fiercely uncompromising performance from Lilith Stangenberg, the film went to places few have gone to explore the frustrations and restrictions of femininity, ending on a note of bizarre empowerment and insolence.

But it’s to the opening five minutes of Swiss Army Man we must turn for the most unforgettable sequence this Sundance. Depicting a marooned and suicidal Paul Dano water-skiing to safety on the back of a farting corpse, the images doubtless still haunt the Picturehouse Entertainment team. They were, however, symbolic of a line-up that was nothing if not intensely memorable, and we look forward immensely to sharing at least some of these titles in the Sundance London showcase at Picturehouse Central in June.

Paul Ridd


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