By Orla Smith
Awaiting the start of the surprise film at this year’s Sundance London film festival, I realised that the couple sitting next to me had been tipped off.
Quickly, I reached for my headphones to drown out their voices; although I was about to find out the identity of this mystery film in a few minutes anyway, I wanted to be ignorant along with everyone else right up until the point when enlightenment would reach us all as a collective group. Finding out from the people next to me and finding out from the screen might technically be the same thing, but you don’t go to film festivals for technicalities – you go to experience.
I’d been to festivals before… well, one to be exact. But a single day at the London Film Festival isn’t the same. That’s a one and done thing, on such a large scale that you feel dwarfed by the enormity of the city and the films around you. This was different.
This time, I returned daily over an entire weekend, to the point that Sunday was like leaving a sort of second home I’d carved out for myself within a single building – Central Picturehouse – that was home to the thousands of worlds it feels like I walked through over those four days. In fact, at least half of those infinite worlds were crammed into a 90 minute short film programme, one that felt like an encapsulation of all that cinema has to offer.
It was after that programme that I hurried over to Screen 1 for the surprise film – it was ‘Patti Cake$’, one of Park City’s most talked about crowd-pleasers, and as someone who was, at the time, running on very few hours of sleep and attempting to watch a film at 9pm through bleary eyes, it was the exact kind of caffeinated jolt of energy that I needed.
In total, I saw nine features and seven shorts, almost all of which I’d recommend with confidence. The festival reached its peak on the final day with a double bill of ‘The Big Sick’ and ‘A Ghost Story’, two of the big four that swept the festival in January (I’ll just have to wait patiently for ‘Call Me By Your Name’ and ‘Mudbound’). Among all that I saw there, here’s how they rate among each other. Suffice to say, independent cinema is alive and well.
- Crown Heights (dir. Matt Ruskin)
The one and only dud among the features I saw was ‘Crown Heights’, a well-meaning, shapeless and dull film about the wrongful incarceration of Colin Warner, as heard on the ‘DIY’ episode of ‘This American Life’. Lakeith Stanfield (who also appeared in ‘The Incredible Jessica James’ – more on that later) is always a compelling presence, but he can’t save this film, which is directed with so little coherence or care that it feels like there was nobody behind the camera at all.
‘Crown Heights’ will be released in UK cinemas at a later date
- Patti Cake$ (dir. Geremy Jasper)
It’s hard to call ‘Patti Cake$’ an objectively good film, but it’s infused with such rambunctious energy that it’s difficult to dislike. Aggressively unsubtle and formally sloppy to a T, the whole film runs off the undeniable charisma of lead Danielle Macdonald. If you take anything away from this film, it’ll be her.
‘Patti Cake$’ will be released in UK cinemas on 1st September
- Dina (dir. Antonio Santini & Dan Sickles)
A touching love story between two people on the spectrum, ‘Dina’ finds moments of humour and warmth through its astonishing editing. The 4:3 camera remains still throughout, but where Kitty Green’s ‘Casting JonBenet’ used that format earlier this year to watch her subjects squirm within the frame, ‘Dina’ uses it to give them room to breathe.
‘Dina’ will be released in UK cinemas at a later date
- Beatriz at Dinner (dir. Miguel Arteta)
It’s easy enough to find traces of Donald Trump in almost all art – he’s on our minds so constantly that’s it’s no surprise we’d see him reflected in places where he has no right to be. But in the case of ‘Beatriz at Dinner’, that point of reference feels very fitting. It’s a sleek, spare film filled with anger and held by one of Salma Hayek’s best performances.
‘Beatriz at Dinner’ will be released in UK cinemas at a later date
- The Incredible Jessica James (dir. Jim Strouse)
Many of us were sad to see Jessica Williams go when she left ‘The Daily Show’, but after ‘The Incredible Jessica James’, it’s easy to see her departure not as the end of a career, but the birth of a new one. She’s effervescent as an energised New York playwright looking for success and stumbling across love along the way. The film is light and joyful, managing to lightly and graceful touch on something deeper when Jessica visits her hometown.
‘The Incredible Jessica James’ will be released on UK Netflix at a later date
- Bitch (dir. Marianna Palka)
Along with ‘Raw’, ‘Bitch’ continues a surge of recent horror exploring the female psyche. But in this case the film is more of a comedy – even the images of body horror are used sparingly as the film keeps its focus trained on Jason Ritter’s neglectful husband, trying to keep his life together and look after his four kids when his put-upon wife suddenly turns into a dog. Literally. Ritter’s performance is a work of comedic genius, and the places in which the film takes his character both surprised and delighted me. In certain moments, it even managed to be quite moving.
‘Bitch’ will be released in UK cinemas at a later date
- Sundance Short Film Tour
Including: ‘Come Swim’, ‘5 Films About Technology’, ‘Night Shift’, ‘Lucia, Before and After’, ‘Ten Meter Tower’, ‘Pussy’, ‘And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye’
With the exception of ‘Night Shift’, which ends up without much of an aim, every single one of these shorts was pretty exceptional. If these are the filmmakers of the future, I’m in. Kristen Stewart’s ‘Come Swim’ was the headliner, and it demonstrates an experimental imagination and knack for expressive sound design and editing. ‘Pussy’ and ‘5 Films About Technology’ had the audience in peals of laughter, as did ‘Ten Meter Tower’, a film that challenges the assumption that a 15 minute Swedish documentary about people trying to jump off a diving board couldn’t be the funniest film of the year. ‘And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye’ finished off the program in haunting fashion, showing off a few masterful tracking shots, but it’s ‘Lucia, Before and After’ that takes the cake. Subtle visual storytelling is utilised to create a startling, entrancing piece of minimalist filmmaking. The sounds and images are visionary. This is a filmmaker who’s come out of the gate fully formed. Keep your eyes on Anu Valia. In ten years, we may be calling her one of the masters.
- The Big Sick (dir. Michael Showalter)
‘The Big Sick’ is every bit as lovely, funny and inviting as you’ve heard. It’s one of those rare films: not only could I not imagine anyone not liking it, I can’t imagine anyone not loving it. Every cast member delivers career best work, including lead Kumail Nanjiani, who not only reaffirms his comic mastery but also delivers a deeply genuine dramatic side that runs deeper than I ever would have expected. But rest assured: this is easily one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years.
‘The Big Sick’ will be released in UK cinemas on 28th July
- A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)
If you loved ‘The Tree of Life’, then you’ll fall head over heels for this DYI version. Very rarely in my life have I been so taken aback by a film being so radically different, and so radically more than what I expected – if you haven’t already, don’t watch the trailers. This is a film that you have to simply let happen, and it’s glorious. The talk of the town in January was the five plus minute unbroken shot of Rooney Mara eating a pie, and yes it’s amazing, but by the time the film has come to a close that scene will be the last thing on your mind – between that scene and the end of the film is the whole of life, the universe and everything, laid before your eyes in a swirl of time, and memories and the pain and beauty of the incomprehensible vastness of the universe. It’s impossible to articulate just how much ‘A Ghost Story’ really is. It’s a film that you can only understand by watching and feeling. By the time December rolls around, it will be one of the year’s defining achievements.
‘A Ghost Story’ will be released in UK cinemas on 11th August
- Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) (dir. David Lowery)
I struggle with the placement of these top two films, but suffice to say: a David Lowery film was the best thing I saw at Sundance London 2017. And maybe the best of all of them was a movie that came out a whole four years ago. ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ was not something that I expected. What I expected was to catch-up on the flawed, middling but promising calling card of an up and coming director before I saw his masterpiece, ‘A Ghost Story’, the next day. I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed like this, by a film of such staggering beauty that you can’t help but let tears flood out of you when it regularly becomes too much to bear. It’s not a tightly constructed, polished film, but one that is free; one that breathes and flows to the rhythm of life. It is both immense and intimate, and the two work side by side, complimenting and contradicting each other. I gazed up in awe at the screen, and after I could sit in my seat no more, I left and didn’t know what to do with myself. It is that feeling of wholeness that we film fans strive to capture every waking moment, but rarely ever do. Within the span of 48 hours, David Lowery allowed me to feel that twice.
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