After a long week of hurriedly stuffing my face with bad food between screenings, I’m finally back from Sundance. How was this year’s crop of films? Well, it’s a little silly to generalize about so many films, especially when one couldn’t possibly see them all in the space of a week. But of the ones I did see, most were fine, a couple were less than fine, and two blew me away. Certainly, nothing was as bad as Assassination Nation last year, which is… good?
Here’s the rundown:
1. Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Mads Brügger’s latest documentary is a bombshell, that’s the only way to describe it. I echo Mike Ryan in wondering why the findings in this movie aren’t front page news around the world. This was a two-hour film — which Mads actually apologized for before the film, and that’s all we’re really asking with long movies, to know that you really tried to make it shorter and couldn’t — where everyone in the audience stayed for the post-film Q&A. That’s unheard of. It’s possibly the only post-film Q&A that I was sorry to see end.
It was obvious as soon as the credits rolled that there’d be a rush to discredit Brügger, and the New York Times has already questioned whether Cold Case Hammarskjöld “revives dubious conspiracy theories,” or that it could lead people to be suspicious of doctors trying to fight AIDS in Africa. Which is certainly a fair concern, but also doesn’t refute the truth of what Brügger found. The author of that piece also quotes a Times review of Brügger’s last movie “questioning whether Brügger was trustworthy,” though the linked piece (a review) doesn’t offer any evidence of it.
In any case, it’s hard to have this debate without spoiling the movie. Needless to say, it’s worth seeing.
2. The Report
“Is this your homework, Larry?”
Speaking of movies that depict the CIA in nefarious light, there’s Scott Z. Burns’ The Torture Report. Adam Driver plays the Senate staffer who tried to blow the whistle on the CIA’s illegal torture program in what plays out like The Insider for torture. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller about Very Serious Events, but the beauty of it is that even as breathless and as righteously angry as it is, it doesn’t ignore the comedic possibilities of the story. The subplot about the Laurel and Hardy-esque Milo Minderbinders who sold the CIA torture techniques for fun and profit would make a great spinoff. And how can you not love a movie that casts Buffalo Bill as John Brennan?
3. The Pop-Up Magazine Live Show
Okay, I cheated, this one isn’t technically a movie. Pop-Up Magazine does a “live magazine” show featuring stories, music, and performances. It’s non-fiction storytelling using every basically medium available — audio, video, photographs, animations, songs. Sometimes you get to see the characters from the stories right there in front of you! It’s kind of like when you’re reading a book about a place and you go to Google it to look at pictures and video from there, except they do it for you. It’s a great format — better than comedy, better than film, better than theater. I laughed, I cried, I got to enjoy it with an adult beverage. And it was only 90 minutes. They’re in New York and DC this week.
4. I Am Mother
One of the many Australian films playing this year’s fest, you wouldn’t be able to identify I Am Mother‘s country of origin by the accents. It’s set in the days after an “extinction event” inside an automated bunker where the last human on Earth (Clara Rugaard) is being raised by an iPod-faced robot named “Mother,” voiced by Emily Blunt. But is she the last human on Earth?? Directed by commercial director Grant Sputore, it’s an indie that looks like it cost $60 million, and they’re not just empty calories. It’s a smart, sleek sci-fi with very little wasted energy.
5. Official Secrets
Yet another movie about intelligence service malfeasance! I’m sensing a theme here! Directed by Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Official Secrets is about yet another whistleblower, this time British, a GCHQ translator who leaked a memo about a US/UK joint operation in which the NSA would spy on UN Security Council members in order to find information to use to blackmail them into supporting the Iraq War. It’s kind of a lighter, more sugary version of The Report, which lacks some of The Report‘s humor and acting chops (Keira Knightley is no Adam Driver, unfortunately). Though it does have a delightful scene featuring Ralph Fiennes giving the most restrained, British version of “f*ck off and die” imaginable.
6. Big Time Adolescence
Big Time Adolescence is a coming-of-age dramedy that’s somewhat festival conventional, hitting all those coming-of-age touchstones you expect, but still a pleasant, breezy watch with plenty of solid comedic moments. The lead and his love interest don’t quite have the acting range to differentiate this movie from similar ones, but if nothing else it’s a breakout turn for Pete Davidson, whose abilities clearly go beyond stand up and sketch. He’s wonderful as the sad, self-destructive clown. I hope he figures his shit out, because he’s a lot more interesting than most sketch-performers-turned-actors.
7. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile
This take on Ted Bundy from the director of The Ted Bundy Tapes is plenty entertaining and beautifully shot, but (as I wrote) I can’t help but wondering if there was… more? I mean sure Ted Bundy did a great job charming people and conning them into thinking he was normal, but this movie goes so far as to make you wonder if he was even guilty at times. It’s an interesting summary that doesn’t quite go deep enough.
8. Top End Wedding
This is essentially a Big Fat Greek Wedding for indigenous actress Miranda Tapsell, born and bred in Australia’s Northern Territory. As a rom-com, Top End Wedding is fairly broad and corny, but it has the benefit of depicting some truly interesting people and places that you don’t normally see on film. For me it was worth it for that alone.
9. Brittany Runs A Marathon
Another imperfect dramedy that if nothing else proves its star is capable of bigger and better things. Jillian Bell is a delight as the eponymous Brittany, a self-loathing party girl who starts to find meaning in distance running, as is Utkarsh Ambudkar, playing her some time love interest, Jern. It’s all a little broad though, and it’s hard to fully celebrate a movie about body issues that expects you to unironically celebrate its protagonist achieving her dream of working in… uh… advertising. I mean where do you think body issues come from? You can’t just leave that plotline out there, uninterrogated. Come on, man.
10. The Nightingale
From The Babadook director Jennifer Kent comes this tale of colonialism and revenge set in 1820s Tasmania. There’s a lot to like in The Nightingale, from Aisling Franciosi’s gorgeous, haunting singing voice (she’s “the nightingale” of the title) to the sheer degree of difficulty of Kent shooting an entire scene in Gaelic and another in Palawa kani. It’s admirable filmmaking on just about every level, beautifully made and true to its setting. The only real knock on it is that it’s unrelentingly grim to the point of being nightmarish. Between this and last year’s Sweet Country, you could have a perfect “Please Don’t Make Me Watch That Again” double feature about Australia’s colonial period. The Nightingale is a movie you should watch, but I doubt you’ll enjoy the experience.
11. Velvet Buzzsaw
Dan Gilroy started making a satire about the art world and then apparently discovered horror movies halfway through. Velvet Buzzsaw is kind of like an R-rated Scooby Doo episode where Gilroy just lets his actors have all the scenery they can chew. It’s fun to watch Jake Gyllenhaal and company just sort of go nuts, but I wish the movie had followed through on some of its weirdness.
12. After The Wedding
Starring Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, and Billy Crudup, After The Wedding is about family secrets and loss, an impressive little French braid of a plot, but in order to fully enjoy it I’d need to know why Michelle Williams’ character spends the entire movie acting put upon. There’s also a third act revelation designed to explain some of the events earlier in the movie that I can’t spoil here, but suffice it to say I hate it. Julianne Moore’s husband directs (Bart Freundlich) and everyone acts super hard.
13. The Sound Of Silence
A film starring Peter Sarsgaard and Rashida Jones about a “house tuner” adapted from a short film. The premise is interesting but the “romance” (if one can even call it that) is one of the most bloodless I’ve seen, a movie where pretty much every character acts like sex is something you read about in the New Yorker. This one probably should’ve stayed a short.
14. Native Son
Director Rashid Johson’s contemporary take on Richard Wright’s 1940 novel stars Ashton Sanders from Moonlight as Bigger Parks, who in this version is a punk rock bike messenger who loves Death and Bad Brains and Mozart but hates hip hop. Margaret Qualley from The Leftovers plays the daughter of Parks’ benefactor, a compelling combination of cluelessly sheltered and alluringly wicked. There are a lot of interesting choices but they’re so out there that it’s hard to know what they add up to. The acting is solid from top to bottom (Bill Camp!) but there so much window dressing that Native Son loses the power of its source material. It’s the rare case of a protagonist being too unique.
Armie Hammer! Cockroaches! A secret portal! All of these things add up to… Honestly, I’m not really sure, but it was fun for a bit while it lasted. Armie Hammer works as the bartender at a New Orleans dive bar. He breaks up a fight one night and ends up with some creepy college kid’s cell phone, which contains some disturbing pictures. His girlfriend, played by Dakota Johnson, and love interest, Zazie Beetz, also factor into the story. There’s an element of Tom Hardy’s Venom in Armie Hammer’s possibly-possessed bartender, a couple jump scares, and a LOT of cockroaches. It’s intriguingly strange, but ultimately it doesn’t really go anywhere. I can handle a protagonist I don’t quite understand or a story that doesn’t quite wrap up, but not both.