This year’s Sundance (or as The Guardian telling called it: Porndance) was especially heavy on the sex and politics this year, with films like kink and Interior. Leather Bar being vaguely disguised porn and documentaries like The World According to Dick Cheney and Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer being oh so topical. If you weren’t getting irrationally angry, sobbing next to strangers, or staring at Juno Temple’s breasts, possibly all in the same movie, then you weren’t doing Sundance right.
I managed to see 12 films in 6 days, beating out last year’s record by 3 movies. Holla! In order of appearance: Magic Magic, Afternoon Delight, Big Sur, The East, Valentine Road, Escape From Tomorrow, Milkshake, American Promise, The World According to Dick Cheney, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, In a World, and Fruitvale. Of course, a few films in particular stood out. As always, I make no claims that these were the “Best” films at the festival (for that, check out Sundance’s list of this year’s Award Winners), but these were five films that I loved the shit out of.
5. Magic Magic
This was the first film I saw at this year’s Sundance and quite the introduction to the festival. I knew three things about the film going in: 1) it took place in Chile, which didn’t interest me; 2) it starred Michael Cera, which could have gone either way; and 3) whoever wrote the synopsis in Sundance’s guidebook either hated the movie or hates to write, since it was the most vague descriptions in the whole directory. (Which is saying a lot.)
As it turns out, Magic Magic is essentially about a girl’s descent into Schizophrenia. Reserved Alicia (Juno Temple) goes to Chile to visit her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning), who appears to be having the time of her life studying abroad. Almost immediately after she lands, her cousin gets a mysterious call and has to return home, leaving Alicia alone to go on a road-trip to Santiago with Sarah’s strange, unwelcoming friends. Once they’re there, the line between reality and hallucination disappears. The film creeps along slowly, building tension subtly rather than with cheap jumps or loud noises. None of the characters are particularly likable (Brink, a diplomat’s son played by Michael Cera, is particularly creepy as fuck) and the viewer is ever sure who’s responsible for the evil in the house, if anyone, if not all of them. Ultimately, the film investigates underestimated evil, the kind that stems from good intentions gone awry– and while it’s hard to say that Magic Magic was enjoyable to watch, it was a 97 minutes long, exquisitely-crafted time bomb.
4. Afternoon Delight
After being throughly freaked out by Juno Temple in Magic Magic, I was shocked when she sauntered on screen as jail-bait stripper Mckenna during Afternoon Delight, a comedy that’s sex-driven but not nearly as raunchy as its title may suggest. Bored housewife Rachel (Kathryn Hayn) goes on a date night to a strip club with her husband (Josh Radnor/Ted Mosby/himself) in a desperate attempt to end their six-month dry spell. He buys her a lap dance from Mckenna, she doesn’t dig it, they go home, they continue life as normal– until Rachel decides to befriend and “rescue” McKenna, putting her up in their spare room and hiring her as a nanny for their son.
Afternoon Delight feels an awful lot like watching a group of young moms hang out, if the moms are witty, beautiful, and likely to refer to someone as “Kosher Amanda.” The script is peppered with quick, tongue-in-cheek jokes that lean Jewish hipster — the film does take place in Silver Lake, after all — and Jane Lynch has a great supporting role as a therapist who’s more interested bragging about her strong lesbian relationship than listening to anyone else’s problems. Yet Soloway does a fantastic job straddling the line between comedy and tragedy, often in the same scene: a Women & Wine Night turns from drunken revelry to sobering confessions of abortions past, a shopping trip in which Mckenna buys trinkets for the kids she babysits turns into one of the most subtly heartbreaking scenes in all of Sundance. Easily the best part of Afternoon Delight is the fact that for every scene during which you’re crying with laughter, there’s one coming up where you’ll sob ugly, ugly tears.
3. Valentine Road
There are some films you see and immediately think that was important. Marta Cunningham’s Valentine Road, a documentary about a 2008 school shooting, is one of those films. The facts of the story go like this: eighth grader Larry King asked Brandon McInerney to be his Valentine, embarrassing him in front of his friends; the next day, Brandon brought a gun to school and shot Larry point-blank in the back of his head. Larry was 15. Brandon had just turned 14.
Valentine Road covers an enormous range of controversies: gun violence, sexual orientation, gender identity, white supremacy, intolerance, abuse, the failings of the school system, judicial system, seemingly every system… Some of the most shocking interviews are with teachers who misuse the Individual Education Program — i.e., the “Special Needs” program — to suppress Larry’s gender identity and with jurors who claim Brandon was just “trying to solve a problem” by killing Larry. (One particularly heinous teacher insists that while she “doesn’t know if she’d use a gun,” she would’ve given Larry “a shift kick in the ass” for asking to be Brandon’s valentine.) But Cunningham does her best to make an objective film, which adds a layer of uncomfortable responsibility. Brandon, it turns out, was the abused son of two divorced drug addicts; he was the “good kid,” the quiet brother who didn’t do drugs or act out. Although he had just become a teenager, he was being tried as an adult, facing a life in jail. One of the most significant scenes is when Brandon graduates, having finished his diploma in prison. As he reads off a thank you speech to his supporters, there’s a strange sense of both pride and disgust for this boy who’s allowed to dream of a better life after causing another one’s death.
Fruitvale won both the Grand Jury and Audience Prize for the US Dramatic Competition and it’s easy to see why. It opens with a real-life camera phone video of Oscar Grant being beaten and fatally shot by police outside of a BART train on New Year’s Day 2009. (Cue a collective gasp from every damn person in the audience.) From there, the film follows Grant (Michael B. Jordan) on his last day of life. Seeing the brutality of what happened to Grant right from the beginning adds a layer of apprehension to every scene. Grant, a drug dealer who’s just lost his legal job at a grocery store, means well. He decides to stop dealing, even though he has no other source of income. He’s a caring father, even though he’s young. He loves his girlfriend, even though he struggles to be faithful to her. He’s helps strangers, even when they’re white women who look a little scared of him. And the fact that he’s about to die never leaves you.
Fruitvale is an emotionally exhausting movie. I spent the last twenty minutes crying. Not tearing up, not getting watering eyes, but full-on, loud, shaking, crying. There was snot everywhere. I was heaving for breaths. It was an ugly sight but I didn’t have time to be embarrassed because I was too busy crying. And so was everyone else in the theater. I saw the last showing of Fruitvale and when it ended, everyone sat in their seats, in the darkness, silent. We’d cried together, gasped together, swore together, and then, we were shocked together. After one 90-minute day, we felt like we knew this man and then, though we knew it would happen, he was taken from us. Imagining how the real Oscar Grant’s friends and family must have felt is beyond comprehension.
For the number one film I loved the shit of at Sundance, head over to my review of Escape From Tomorrow.
Think I left out a film or want to know about one I didn’t cover? Leave a comment below.