Paul Ridd, London Cinemas And Acquisitions Coordinator at Picturehouse, is back from snowy Utah with a round-up of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Picturehouse Central hosts the London edition of the festival, 1-4 June.
With the task of seeking out the very best contemporary cinema has to offer both for our theatres and June’s London showcase, we hit Park City for that snowiest, coldest of festivals, Sundance.
With last year’s offerings being so strong, with the likes of Wiener, Life, Animated and Tickled going on to box office and awards-season success, the bar was set extremely high for documentaries. Thankfully there were some real cinematic gems to be found.
Stunning widescreen framing, striking images and terrific sound design combined to give immersive Green Helmets doc The Last Men In Aleppo a power and immediacy so many other docs on the subject have failed to quite capture. Whilst its subject matter remained tragic and often unbearable to witness, the film achieved something we have never quite seen before, allowing unprecedented access to the lives of the brave ambulance men patrolling the Syrian city’s ruined streets.
In an entirely different register, Hitchcock geek-out documentary 78/52 took an almost surgical approach to the assemblage and impact of the critical shower scene from Psycho, combining visual inventiveness and insightful commentary to deliver something both accessible to non-experts and respectful to hard-core fans.
For those with the patience and the passion, meanwhile, a lengthy doc about The Grateful Dead, Long Strange Trip, and Machines, a meditative doc about the interior workings of a material factory in India, proved immensely rewarding. The former was admirable for its exhaustive approach, being filmic catnip for Dead Heads, the latter for its thoughtful pacing, stunning cinematography and often horrifying window into a world of Victorian-style working conditions.
At the cult end of the spectrum, the midnight section didn’t disappoint the punters. The real highlights this year were Marianna Palka’s unclassifiable Bitch, ensemble horror XX and epic action thriller Bushwick.
In the deeply strange Bitch, a depressed housewife with a cheating husband suddenly transforms into a human dog, leaving her family to deal with the arrival of a howling, defecating, violent monster. Part gross-out comedy, part scabrous satire of the hell of motherhood, Palka’s film lingered in the mind long after its deafening score, unusual sound design and striking imagery had faded.
In XX, meanwhile, a quartet of talented female horror directors, including The Invitation‘s Karyn Kusama, each directed spine-tingling short horrors loosely themed around the concept of ‘motherhood’. With some real shock moments, stylish cinematography and snappy pacing, the film is another amazing testimony to this year’s wealth of female talent behind the camera.
But for sheer audacity, originality and cool, guerrilla war movie Bushwick was the film to beat. Comprised of 43 shots seamlessly edited to simulate the effect of a single take, the film echoed last year’s Hardcore Henry as well as classic John Carpenter dystopias in its immersive delve into a sudden street war erupting on the streets of Brooklyn. An unforgettably exciting film, punctuated by Aesop Rock’s cool, thumping score, this movie is likely to break out well beyond the art house and indie space.
Some real masterpieces were on show in the main competition strands this year. The struggle to maintain dignity and agency in horrific circumstances proved a resounding theme amongst that body of films, a theme in keeping with the uncertainty of the current political climate as well as the harsh snowy death-traps of the Park City landscape. Thankfully there was plenty of hope and optimism to be found there as well.
In Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz At Dinner, Salma Hayek plays a Mexican masseuse who inadvertently winds up guest at a dinner party lauded over by a monstrous Trump-alike industrialist played by John Lithgow. As the two enter into a sort of muted battle of wills, the tension rises and the emotional resonances of Hayek’s wonderful performance had us rooting for a character like no other at the festival. In Novitiate, a group of recently initiated nuns suffer under the rule of a tyrannical Mother Superior (an astonishing Melissa Leo) in the early 1960s. The film’s various scenes of emotional cruelty and torture are counterbalanced by a real mischievous sense of humour and some barnstorming showdown sequences, which prevent it from becoming altogether depressing and austere.
In I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, regular Jeremy Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair wowed as writer and director for this acidly funny revenge thriller about a depressed young woman’s attempts to get justice after her house is robbed. The oddball team of Melanie Lynskey in the lead with Elijah Wood as a whacked neighbour handy with a pair of nun chucks made for the unlikeliest romantic pairing of the festival in this surprisingly sweet, shockingly violent story of vigilante vengeance.
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Kyra in bleak character study Where Is Kyra found a very different mode of resistance in her attempt to stay afloat in a brutal, uncaring cityscape. Continuing to claim her dead mother’s welfare cheques whilst disguised as the elderly woman, Kyra struggles to maintain her sanity and dignity even as the reality of her scheme becomes apparent to those around her. A haunting and unflinching work, the film proved one of the festival’s most uncompromising, boldest statements driven by Pfeiffer’s terrific return to form as lead actress.
A trio of outstanding gay movies rounded off the fest. Each dealt with burgeoning gay love stories with their own very distinctive look and feel for the subject. In Beach Rats, director Eliza Hittman adopted a Claire Denis-esque aesthetic to get right under the skin of a closeted New York teen who, when he isn’t having sex his girlfriend, trawls gay hook-up sites in search of anonymous encounters with older men. Full of vivid scenes, energy and intense eroticism, the movie ended on a note of ambiguity that was unusually bold for a fest full of happy endings.
In British director Francis Lee’s excellent debut feature God’s Own Country, a pair of Yorkshire sheepherders begin a passionate romance reminiscent of the cloistered story of gay love in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain but with a melancholic tone and stunning cinematography entirely the film’s own. I Am Love director Luca Guadagnino’s rapturous period piece Call Me By Your Name took an entirely different approach to its story of a young man seduced by an older student in the Italian countryside during one hot summer in the 1980s. A film full of life, colour, nudity and Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name is surely the first film to play Sundance to feature a scene of masturbation involving a peach, and won the hearts of audiences unanimously with its rapturously romantic fusion of Merchant/Ivory and Pedro Almodovar styles.
All in all, an excellent crop of truly cinematic movies this year gave us plenty to look forward to for the rest of the year of theatrical releases. All eyes are now on Sundance London, where some if not all of these highlighted films will make their bow on UK screens.
Bringing you the best of the annual festival to audiences across the pond, 2017 Sundance Film Festival: London will take place at Picturehouse Central between 1-4 June.
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