With just a few weeks past since the Utah festival closed, but at least one major international film festival and the Oscars already done and dusted in the interim, it is perhaps the perfect time to reflect on a fascinating year at the Sundance Film Festival. A chance to look back at some of the highlights as well as ahead to our annual Sundance London at Picturehouse Central at the end of May.
Indeed, the astonishingly brief gap between Sundance and the Berlinale this year arguably allowed little pause for sales agents, exhibitors and critics to take stock, look beyond the headlines, hype and mega-sales to consider as a whole what amounted to a vintage year in the festival’s history. It was a festival self-consciously guided by the watchword ‘Risk’, and as such felt imbued with an atmosphere of healthy change. Typically future-led, the programme reflected an invigorated and diverse film landscape in the US and beyond.
British entries fared particularly well critically and with audiences. Raves for Shola Amoo’s impressive second feature The Last Tree generated buzz and excitement for its release later in the year.
In Amoo’s new film, young British-Nigerian Femi – played as a teen by magnetic breakout star Sam Adewunmi (pictured above) – is forced to adjust to moving back home with his birth mother in London after an early adolescence spent in foster care in the idyllic British countryside. The film follows Femi across three distinct periods in his adolescence, deftly grappling with themes of race, identity and assimilation. Recalling the structure and look of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, but with a unique spirit and striking take on material drawn from the filmmaker’s own experiences, the film is served beautifully by a wonderful orchestral score and lavish widescreen lensing, ending with an emotional wallop that signals a filmmaker very much in command of his powers.
Also looking to the UK, Sophie Hyde’s hilarious and wise Dublin-set Animals evokes the spirit of Whit Stillman and Lena Dunham in its raucous story of female friendship and hedonism drawn from Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel. Starring the pitch-perfect duo of Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat as late 20-somethings grappling with friendship, sex and adult responsibilities, this gorgeously-shot film’s staunchly unsentimental and feminist take on Withnail and I-esque material proved a hit with critics and stuck long in the memory.
In Main US Competition, the big winner, stark character piece Clemency featured Alfre Woodard as a prison warden grappling with her responsibility to oversee death row inmates as they approach imminent execution. Measuredly paced and exquisitely crafted, the film contained some of the festival’s most powerful and wrenching scenes.
Another stand-out was dazzling ensemble drama Luce, in which a gifted all-American teen adopted as a child from war-torn Eritrea comes under sudden close scrutiny from his parents and teachers alike after a series of questionable choices throws some doubts on his character. Featuring a nuanced central performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr (Monsters And Men) and outstanding support from Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, the film’s fierce intelligence and ambiguity prompted audiences to reflect on issues of race, prejudice and their own threshold for moral compromise, even as it entertained with thriller-like plotting and a pulsating score.
Arguably, international films tracked the biggest gains in terms of exposure. Always a highlight of the programme, the International Competition nevertheless felt reinvigorated in terms of the films chosen and the noise created from programmers and critics alike.
Spectacular survival thriller Monos from Columbian director Alejandro Landes riffed on ‘Lord Of The Flies’ and Apocalypse Now with its wild cinematography and pounding score from Under The Skin composer Mica Levi. The film immerses the viewer in its story of child soldiers struggling to keep it together in war-ravaged mountains and jungles, being at once a thrilling experiential action flock and a universal rumination on the plight of mobilised children and teens in any war-torn country.
Australian debut filmmaker Mirrah Foulkes meanwhile impressed with her darkly funny and breathlessly entertaining period comedy Judy And Punch, a feminist spin on the revenge film that tackled misogyny and the birthing of the infamous puppet tradition of ‘Punch and Judy’ with a fun, punk style. Powered by an astonishingly committed central performance from Mia Wasikowska, and reminiscent of the raunchy spirit and look of vintage Terry Gilliam, Foulkes’ film combined humour, lavish production design and slick pacing to create a unique power and humour entirely its own.
Likewise, Swedish helmer Johannes Nyholm’s effortlessly original horror riff Koko-Di Koko-Da found some bizarre middle ground between Groundhog Day (1993) and Don’t Look Now (1973), drawing power and tension from a familiar scenario of a fractured couple on holiday. Suddenly and inexplicably finding themselves thrown into a nightmarish scenario, the pair must face off against demonic figures straight out of fairytales, even as they confront a shared trauma from the past. A true discovery and a scary experience all in.
More shocks were to be found in the festival’s Midnight strand, extremities of various sorts playing out for the strong-stomached and open-minded. In necessarily confrontational fashion, Lucas Heyne’s strange, unclassifiable thriller Mope explores the true story of a low-level porn star-driven to extreme violence by professional failure and mental illness. Nathan Stewart Jarrett gamely inhabits the role of troubled performer Steve Driver, managing to draw pathos from the film’s awkward shift from gross-out satirical comedy to outright horror. Heyne’s is a stark and weirdly moving film which does not shy away from the extremes of porn and the seedy world of production, even as it finds some jet black humour in a horrifying true story.
Similarly tonally bizarre and refreshing was Babak Anvari’s Wounds, a sly follow-up to his Sundance breakout Under The Shadow (2016). Armie Hammer’s apathetic barman Will finds himself sucked into a nightmarish world of online snuff, body horror and unknowable curses in a film which riffs effortlessly on Cronenbergian themes, bodily anxiety and ghoulish humour, culminating in a bizarre and chilling finale.
More obviously humorous ghoulishness was to be found in Patrick Brice’s Corporate Animals, scripted by Peep Show’s Sam Bain. In this horror comedy, sitting somewhere between TV’s The Office and The Belko Experiment (2016), a group of hapless office workers find themselves trapped in a subterranean cave after a dreadful work bonding trip goes drastically wrong. Featuring stand out performances from a wildly funny Demi Moore and Ed Helms, this acerbic, gory comedy pulls no punches as it plunges its cast into a desperate situation in which a wealth of interpersonal resentments, work competitiveness and murderous impulses come bubbling to the surface.
There was also intelligence and emotional richness to be found in the festival’s stellar Documentary line up. Here, everything from lavish biopic docs Ask Dr Ruth and Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, awe-inspiring experiential films like Apollo 18 and less traditional fare like the devastating observational doc Midnight Family stood out for their truthfulness and commitment to various subjects.
In Ask Dr Ruth, legendary sex therapist Ruth Westheimer looks back on her legacy, brought to painstaking life through archive, hilarious new interviews and playful animation. Apollo 18 meanwhile utilises a wealth on unearthed archive footage to explore the US mission to space in the 1960s, bringing preparations for the first expeditions to vivid life. Midnight Family meanwhile creatives a realistic cinematic experience from a Mexican family running a private ambulance service in the streets of Mexico. Dedicated to nighttime work, struggle for adequate pay and most of all to saving lives, the film’s observational style is always highly moving, a fitting testimony to an inspiring group people.
With it’s commitment to diverse and independent cinema, as beautifully reiterated by founder Robert Redford in his opening speech at the festival, Sundance continues to energise and excite audiences about cinema. We can’t wait to bring some of these and more to Picturehouse Central, London for Sundance Film Festival: London from May 30 – June 2 2019.
Tickets for Sundance London now available.