Exclaim!'s Best (and Worst) Films from Sundance 2017
Published Jan 27, 2017This year's Sundance Film Festival could not have come at a more fascinating time in history — while the Oscar nominations demonstrated a push toward diversity in Hollywood, America also inaugurated their divisive new president in one Donald Trump.
That move was met with an enormous women's march across the world, and Park City, Utah was no different. Lead by Chelsea Handler, thousands of people marched down Main Street in protest of their new POTUS. Most likely in response to the march, hackers launched a cyber attack against Sundance — on January 21, the fest's entire server was down for hours, meaning no one could access the festival's wifi. Even the box office was shut down.
Aside from all of the distractions (and the dozens of celebrities milling about the tiny town), we managed to watch a ton of films at this year's Sundance. Here's the good, the bad and the great stuff we enjoyed at the fest.
L.A. Times, the directorial debut from writer and actor Michelle Morgan, is a fun if familiar study of young couples in Los Angeles. Sometimes it feels a little too insider baseball for those of us who live outside of SoCal, but the film boasts some solid, self-effacing laughs and fantastic cinematography nonetheless.
While Alex Ross Perry's 16mm infidelity study Golden Exits may have come off a little pretentious, it still offered some solid acting from Jason Schwartzman, Mary-Louise Parker and Beastie Boy-turned-thespian Adam Horovitz.
If you're craving something a little more serious, The Yellow Birds offers an unflinching look at post traumatic stress disorder. Though it's got some problems (including an incredibly annoying choice for its closing music), the film features strong performances from its leads.
That Dayveon was produced by George Washington director David Gordon Green is no coincidence — both films utilize mouth-watering cinematography to follow young black boys in the American south. The film's plot is a little too subtle, but it's still a totally engrossing watch.
In the documentary realm, In Loco Parentis takes a low-key cinéma vérité look at life in an Irish boarding school. While it doesn't offer any massive socio-political revelations, it does offer an unprecedented look at life as a child. Think of it like a modern take on Seven Up!
Further, Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of the Free Press is an unfortunately prescient doc about the end of free speech and democracy. If you followed the Hulk Hogan/Gawker trial as it unfolded, you likely know much of the story, but Brian Knappenberger's chilling film frames it as a catalyst for the rise of Trump in an increasingly anti-media landscape. It's scary as all hell.
Following a young, party-obsessed German teen as she experiencing her sexual awakening, Axolotl Overkill could've been the next Christiane F. Instead, the film's plot is relentlessly confusing, and it's only made worse with the addition of random indie quirks.
Axolotl is not the only movie that suffered from its descent into quirkiness. Lemon would have succeeded if it stuck with its dark tone. Instead, the directorial debut from Janicza Bravo pairs pitch-black humour with dorky Napoleon Dynamite goofiness, and the resulting film is a mess.
Horror anthologies are almost never good — the short films simply don't have enough time to develop anything interesting. XX unfortunately follows that trend, but it's even worse because it started with a compelling idea. The film offers four short horror films from four female directors (including first-time filmmaker Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent). In a genre that desperately needs diversity, XX is a welcome concept that's executed terribly.
Director Jeff Baena has made some serious missteps in the past, as neither Life After Beth nor Joshy lived up to the talents of their impressive ensembles. With The Little Hours, however, he's made his first truly great film. Set in the 1300s, this screwball comedy exposes sexual repression in Catholicism while delivering wacky pratfalls like a modern, indie Mel Brooks.
Though it's sturdily directed by Michael Showalter, The Big Sick fits in with the oeuvre of its producer Judd Apatow. Rather than focus on male, white ennui, however, the film retells the true story of how Pakistani comedian Kumail Nanjiani met his wife (co-writer Emily Gordon). It's a sweet, unique rom-com that will undoubtedly draw a massive audience later this year. It's no wonder the film sold to Amazon for $12 million USD after its premiere.
If you'd like to spend 90 minutes with a lump in your throat, Jonathan Olshefski's stunning documentary Quest was made for you. The film follows the triumphs and tragedies of one low-income family in North Philadelphia for the better part of a decade. Cancer and gang violence are just some of the issues they face, but the family is most inspiring with their ceaseless optimism. In a world that desperately needs more empathy, Quest is a timely and important film.
Kyle Mooney's big debut was undeniably one of the fest's most anticipated premieres, and while Brigsby Bear doesn't deliver the zany comedy one might expect it offers something better altogether. Steeped in sweetness, the film is a heartfelt ode to creativity packed with plenty of '80s and '90s nostalgia. If you've been longing for a Teddy Ruxpin influence in modern cinema, you're in for a treat here.
Still, the best film of the festival had a far lower profile. Dustin Guy Defa's sophomore feature Person to Person is a collection of shorts weaved together as a narrative anthology film. It follows the loosely intersecting lives of New Yorkers, and utilizes a sweet, warm comedic tone. The director has said that his biggest comedic influence is Peanuts, and that's abundantly evident here. With its crackly 16mm look and accompanying soul-heavy soundtrack, Person to Person is an aesthetically pleasing masterpiece.