Sundance 2018: Diversity and Arthouse Takeover

I went to Sundance 2018 and saw 10 films in total. I made it a mandatory action on my part to select films on my ticket package that weren’t getting all the major buzz; ones that were from first or second-time directors I’ve never heard of or ones that looked and sounded more on the experimental side. And I also made sure to ask myself: ‘What about the stories of people that are being silenced or forgotten?’ I was lucky enough to catch some vital, artful and impactful cinema, but I highly doubt enough audience members made it out to these screenings. Most of the ones I saw were from the NEXT competition section at Sundance which highlights bold, boundary-pushing and innovative works by up-and-coming filmmakers. I also saw some films in the World Cinema, US Dramatic and Documentary competition sections. Pretty diverse lineup.

Overall, my first time ever going to Sundance Film Festival was an incredible experience -one that I miss already (been over a month). I’m blessed and humbled by the opportunity to work at The Future Project – a nonprofit movement that works in schools to unlock the limitless potential of every young person in this country. As part of the unique learning culture at this organization, they provide a program called “Learning in the World” for their employees. A $1K funded, personalized professional-development experience that allowed me to take the next step in my career path and long-term goals: maximizing audiences for American and foreign independent films across traditional and emerging media platforms. Attending film festivals, like Sundance and even more local ones that I’ve been to like NYFF and BAMcinemaFest, are important learning experiences. I get to see films that I love but then they don’t find distribution, or do, but end up with a poor release strategy (from said distributors). It’s sad to think about that for the great films I saw, but it’s assuring to know that a lot of these top players don’t know everything there is to know about the indie film market. There’s room for someone like me 😉

Cut to the chase. Alright, of the 10 films I saw, 8 stood out and deserve to find an audience both domestically and internationally. Times are pressing, and cinema is a medium that allows people to watch and try to understand. When done right, films can provide a learning experience through the power empathy, and maybe even ignite the flame for viewers to learn more and do something different with their lives. Sundance 2018 accurately proved this to be true for me. Here are the highlights:

 

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Reed Morano. Peter Dinklage. Elle Fanning. First Day at Sundance

That’s all I needed to know when I chose to catch I Think We’re Alone Now, part of the US Dramatic section at Sundance. Reed Morano has been getting some notice lately (Emmy-winner for The Handmaid’s Tale) so it’s fitting she reminds everyone with this low-budget flick where she started at: some serious indie multitasking. She definitely executed Cinematography and Directing duties, as far as I know. I wouldn’t be surprised if Morano had her hands in editing too. Regardless, she’s the MVP. It’s remarkable how she fully understands film as a visual medium. I love watching a film where dialogue doesn’t serve exposition and purely exists authentically to enhance the visual language.

The narrative and overall scope of the film didn’t hold up against Morano’s visionary command. In the end, I felt a bit disappointed considering the film’s strengths. More of a mood piece than a fully realized film, and I believe that could be due to the screenwriting by Mikowsky. What if Greta Gerwig, or Diablo Coby or Dee Rees had written this screenplay?

 

 

My Rating: 75%, C

I Think We’re Alone Now is currently seeking US distribution.

 

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WTF? But in a good way…I think. This is Piercing, from the Midnight Section:

the sophomore film by Nicolas Pesce. His first feature was the sublime horror film The Eyes of My Mother. It’s a seriously disturbing film, yet equally thoughtful and striking. I had my hopes high when I knew I was seeing Pesce’s next film.

Piercing is some sick, twisted, kind of timely b-movie trash. There were times where this film had potential to be truly great.  Some flaws here and there – needs another round of editing; some scenes overstayed their point. The writing is as sharp as ever though, and with precise craftsmanship behind the camera and in the editing room, this low-grade flick provided a novel cinematic experience. I left the theater really wanting to visit the source material; a novel by Ryû Murakami (also the author of Audition). 

I saw Piercing at 11:59 pm in Salt Lake City, which was a super cool experience. Everyone was hyped and I could feel the energy from the audience. The horror genre is one of the only ones that can use the time of day as variables to heighten specific emotions, particularly fear, and paranoia. While this is definitely no Suspiria (Argento, 1977) or Scream (Craven, 1996), this is a savage little film taking place in a visceral, romantic and highly disturbing near-future, dystopian world. Luckily, the crowd I was in was loving all of this madness. Though overall, I do admit that Piercing let its style take over whatever substance it has – which became unclear at the end. But I don’t think the filmmakers cared and by its shockingly funny last shot…I don’t think I did either? lol

You won’t want to look away either (even if you want to), or you may miss Mia Wasikowska’s (The Kids Are All Right; Only Lovers Left Alive) dynamo performance as Jackie: a mysterious call-girl who’s invited into a sadistic death trap of “repressed hetero-male sexuality.” Joking, but a pretty accurate description of Chris Abbott’s (It Comes At Night; James White) dopey Reed. Jackie is written to perfection, with Wasikowska eliciting an image of a woman that we both fear and root for, hoping she is as smart as we think she is. Piercing would be mediocre at best without the character of Jackie, and with Waskikowska owning every inch of it, the film belongs to her.

 

 

My Rating: 83%, B

Piercing is currently seeking US distribution.

 

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The Big Winner At Sundance 2018: The Miseducation of Cameron Post takes the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize

This film may just be Chloe Grace Moretz’s best performance to date. If not, it’s at least the best since her pair of revelatory turns in Kick-Ass and especially Let Me In (USA). In Miseduation, Moretz confidently leads the wonderful ensemble, including Sasha Lane (American Honey breakout), Jennifer Ehle, and John Gallagher Jr. The acting is high-grade across the board and is the clear highlight of MisEducation. Everything else….well…

The narrative, visual language, and dramatic beats are quite predictable in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. It ended up turning into the more conventional fare, with sparks of originality. I had to really push myself to accept that because the story and themes are incredibly powerful and raw. I’m glad this film was made and hopefully reaches audiences beyond the LGBTQA+ communities. Gay conversion therapy is a crime. The people who claim to love their children, friends, nieces, etc. and tell them they need to do this therapy…are not doing any of that out of love. Period.  I just wish director Desiree Akhavan’s cinematic vision was as impactful and effective as this vital story (based on the book of the same name by Emily M. Danforth).

 

 

My Rating: 85%, B

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is currently seeking US distribution.

 

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Chloe Sevigny Produced and Stars in the Most Memorable Film at Sundance 2018

Lizzie, directed by Craig William Macneill, premiered in US Dramatic section, competing for the Grand Jury Prize.  Lizzie is indeed one of the most memorable films I saw at the fest. A complete sensory experience that looks as if it was produced in Europe. On that note, Saban Films acquired the film’s distribution rights and we’ll see if an international film festival tour is on the horizon prior to its summer theatrical release. 

Lizzie is a decadent, visceral, poignant, disturbing and pretty stunning re-imagining of the infamous 1892 murders of the Borden family. Saw this film late at night during the second-half of Sundance in Park City, and like Piercing, the time of day bled into the theater energy. The cinematic experience became bewitching, aided most predominantly by the standout score by Jeff Russo. But that can also be said about the cinematography, deft direction, and most especially career-best performances from Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart (can she get an Oscar nomination already???).

This film was a passion project for Sevigny and she felt so compelled to tell this story after staying at the Borden house, which is now a Bed and Breakfast (according to her THR interview). And we’re the more grateful for it. I didn’t look at Lizzie Borden as simply a killer, I saw a lonely young woman born ahead of her time. Her rage to commit the murders (which I believe she did) wasn’t out of any lust of fixation, but out of desperation to pursue a life of happiness and freedom. What other choice did Lizzie Borden have?

 

 

My Rating: 92%, A-

Saban Films will be releasing Lizzie Summer 2018

 

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Helena Howard Delivers the Performance of Sundance in Madeline’s Madeline

One of the most critically acclaimed films at the fest came out of the NEXT section. Its program had a killer lineup of bold, innovative independent films – including Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline.

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This type of filmmaking is my s!@#! An experimental-phantasma of images that Director Josephine Decker deems transcendent by using the art of cinema to tell this particularly compelling narrative of a young woman’s coming-of-age. Decker is an immense talent who should find herself having a “breakthrough filmmaker moment” with this gem. But the film’s success should be equally credited to Helena Howard’s revelatory debut performance as the title character, Madeline. This is the type of acting (and film) that rarely comes around. Last time I was in awe of such new talent was probably in Elizabeth Olsen’s earth-shattering debut in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). The range that teenage Howard is displaying in Madeline’s Madeline is some serious skill and is very much needed to ground the bizarre and brilliance of this exercise in style and cinema. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Decker and Howard working together again – and considering the magic they just made here, I think everyone in the industry will want more of them.

 

My Rating: 95%, A

Madeline’s Madeline is currently seeking US distribution (A24 – where you at?)

 

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Kusama: Infinity is the Documentary I Will Be Talking About All of 2018.

The first words I wrote in my notebook after walking out of the 9:15 am screening in Park City: Just changed the way I view the world. Now that’s how you know that you’ve seen a film of high quality, not just as entertainment, but an art form that stirs something deep inside you to actually alter your perception.

This film explores artist Yayoi Kusama’s journey from a conservative upbringing in Japan to her brush with fame in America during the 1960s (where she rivaled Andy Warhol for press attention) and concludes with the international fame she has finally achieved within the art world. Now in her 80s, Kusama has spent the last 30 years living in a mental institution in Japan.

She may be the most successful female artist now but it took decades of ridicule, heartbreak, depression….and a whole lot of dreaming. Kusuma: Infinity is a documentary about a human being whose art spoke when she couldn’t. Yayoi was ahead of her time; no one wanted to listen, let alone support her – both in the US and especially Japan. It was in the margins while in the States where she found her community – progressive art curators, few but very close friends, and she was literally marrying same-sex coupes 40 years before any law permitted it! Yayoi Kusama is a Dream Director – though labeled with an illness, that will and should never define who she is. This is all seen through an experimental, defiant and visionary eye from director Heather Lenz. This is how documentaries should be made, like any other art film.

Lenz has not only amplified a voice whose history was forgotten, even silenced, she created a wrenchingly humane and inspired vision of a true artist. And the world is better off for it.

 

 

My Rating: 100%, A+

Kusama: Infinity is currently seeking US distribution…

 

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A Cinematic Poem For The Ages and NEXT Innovator Award Winner: We The Animals

One of the most unique films I saw at Sundance 2018. Artful, innovative, and deeply resonant as a piece of nostalgia. Adapted from the novel of the same name, director Jeremiah Zagar finds poetry in the interior life of his protagonist, Jonah (unbelievable debut by Evan Rosado). What makes this film different than most other artsy, coming-of-age films is how the audience is not completely aware of how much Jonah is growing up before our eyes – and how everything he witnesses in his home has some sort of socio-emotional impact on him. It’s a sort of taboo subject to explore sexuality in a household, and understanding that it’s actually part of human nature. Not so much culture. It’s the bonds that Jonah creates with his siblings, for instance, that help shape a lot of his actions and choices. 

The last few scenes of We The Animals are sublime. It’s shocking and poignant in how the audience is experiencing the same emotional reactions to the inciting incident – and mostly because we have no idea what Jonah is going to do next (and where’s he’s going). We know him, yet we still don’t. Isn’t that life? By using the art of cinema to tell the truth, Zagar transcends any movie conventions and arrived at Sundance last month with a film made of pure magic.

 

 

My Rating: 100%, A+

The Orchard will be releasing We The Animals sometime this year.

 

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The Best Film I Saw at Sundance 2018: And Breathe Normally

Winner of the World Cinema – Dramatic Best Director prize, Isold Uggadottir has written and directed a tender and intimate, yet oh-so -thrilling drama from beginning to end. And Breathe Normally artfully illustrates two women’s lives that will intersect while trapped in circumstances unforeseen. Between a struggling Icelandic mother and an asylum seeker from Guinea-Bissau, a delicate bond will form as both strategize to get their lives back on track. In the wrong hands, this could be really melodramatic material. But, thankfully it was in the right ones.

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Not one moment of the film feels false. It all feels true. No one needs to scream or shout or painfully ball their eyes out. This is a different kind of immigration story. And Breathe Normally is a film that shows us -not tell- how WE are the solutions to each other’s problems. Not our s!@# laws that we have to follow (and which prevent people from escaping unlawful murder from their countries). Masterful writing, nuanced direction and acting slowly but steadily immerses us in Iceland’s beautifully bleak, and yet familiar environment. Nothing is never explained to us through dialogue, we the viewer have to find out information as we go. Nothing is predictable, every choice and action reveal something new. And most importantly, social and class themes aren’t forced in And Breathe Normally. They are just there, existing as life is.

 

 

My Rating: 100%, A+

And Breathe Normally is currently seeking US distribution

 

Thanks for reading and go to the movies!

Eden Sapir, 3/2/18

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