Sundance is over. It was a great year, and now that we’ve all had a weekend to think it over, some of the Alamo Drafthouse crew in attendance would each like to share which films got into their brains the most over the week. This is not necessarily a list of favorites but rather the films we found most noticeable.
Wendy is a strange movie. Some will find it slow and laborious. Some will dislike it simply because it offers yet another unneeded Peter Pan retelling. It’s possible grownups will think it’s for kids, and kids will think it’s for grownups. But I loved its beauty and collection of truly wild children. This Peter Pan feels like you’re watching someone make up the legend in real time, right in front of you.
I struggled all week with why I enjoyed this Shudder film so much. There isn’t much for me to point at. A slow burn that quietly haunts more than it scares, La Llorona simply engrossed my attention even if not much was actually happening. I would have gladly watched another half hour of the film.
You are probably going to hear a lot about Minari in the coming year. It just has a perfect recipe of features that could cross it over into the mainstream. It’s moving, complex and all kinds of adorable. I’m sure A24 has big plans for this one, which charmed pretty much everyone who saw it.
You won’t learn much about truffle hunting in this short documentary. You won’t learn much of anything, really. This is above all just a sweet look at some old men who are in love with their dogs. That’s pretty much it. That sounds boring but the dogs are SO GOOD.
This was one of the year’s big crowd pleasers, which is really a feat considering the documentary follows the political machinations of a hive of future Republicans. But while you can see this with a pessimistic slant, it is much easier to take away a positive message from these kids. For real. Just wait until you meet Rene Otero.
A couple in their early thirties decides to disconnect from technology in an attempt to try and be “better” with a week long trip to a cabin in upstate New York. And then aliens invade the Earth. Filmmaking duo Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson direct arguably the best comedy at this year’s Sundance. Relatable, hilarious, instantly quotable, and featuring some creatures you won’t soon forget, the film also manages to comment on environmentalism, dependence on technology, and the very purpose of existence, without ever seeming preachy or on the nose. I can’t wait to see this over and over again.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Eliza Hittman’s sensitive, grounded film about a teen girl traveling with her cousin from rural Pennsylvania to New York City for an abortion hits hard. The film’s slice of life aesthetic purposefully removes any potential melodrama from the harrowing journey, allowing the audience an authentic emotional experience that can only be attained through this kind of intimate filmmaking. One scene in particular where the protagonist primarily uses the titular four words in one long take is a quietly devastating masterclass in neo-realism that I can’t get out of my head.
Lawrence Michael Levine’s fourth feature, and boldest yet, is extremely my shit - a dark comedy about the cathartic power of creating art and channeling darkness into something productive, posing as a relationship drama - or maybe it’s both? The type of film that begs for a second (or third or fourth) viewing to unpack its complexities and revel in its inspired second act shift, I couldn’t help but sneak in a second viewing during the fest to see how my theories held up. Featuring a tour de force performance from Aubrey Plaza with outstanding supporting turns from Chris Abbott and Sarah Gadon.
Described by many as The Wedding Singer meets Groundhog Day, this pitch perfect rom com walked away from Sundance with the largest sale in history and for good reason. Inventive, involving and a total blast, Palm Springs reminds us of the value of living in the moment and the joys of being able to look ahead, which together truly make life worth living. A total crowd pleaser.
Winston Duke stars as a man who must interview prospective souls, each vying for a chance to be born. The film, from director Edson Oda, plays out like a reverse Defending Your Life, with the heart of Michel Gondry and the aesthetic of that one Social Network trailer. I’m a sucker for films that wear their heart on their sleeves and Nine Days is one big sloppy emotional kiss of a movie.
The audience might be limited for this youthful spin on Richard Linklater’s Slacker, where a group of poets and musicians take audiences on a rambling tour of Los Angeles, but its earnestness left me enamored. Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) has directed a movie that is goofy, sweet and, I predict, highly rewatchable. The elderly and the cranky aren’t going to like it, though.
Michael Keaton and a very thick Boston accent star as a lawyer tasked to assign a worth to the lives lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks as part of a government-sponsored victim fund. The topic may be niche and a tad awards bait-y, but the performances are spot on, especially Stanley Tucci who is fantastic as a blogger who rallies the victims’ families in asking for reform on the policy. With the right distributor and campaign, Tucci and the film could be awards contenders.
A hack writer struggles to pen a werewolf screenplay, wrestling with his insecurities when he discovers a young neighbor is an accomplished horror novelist. I feel seen. I loved this horror anthology that focuses on the art of storytelling, deftly balancing scares and humor. It’s not for everybody - writer/director/star Josh Ruben may or may not have made this movie solely to show off the fact that he’s the modern day Michael Winslow - but horror obsessives might dig it.
Finally a movie that plays into my tendency to confuse Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams! Anthony Hopkins delivers a stunning performance as a man withering under the onset of dementia, finding it difficult to recognize his daughter or even where he is at any given point in time. The film offers audiences an immersive experience into the effects of dementia and watching the movie, which plays with perception in an extremely effective way, is what my dad must feel like when he watches a Christopher Nolan film, which I guess is the point.
There’s a lot going on in this horror comedy from the director of Dear White People about a woman whose weave is possessed and thirsty for blood. The film is set in the early ‘90s and deals with the emerging African American presence in mainstream pop culture, with some insightful commentary about the way traditions and legends are homogenized by the majority. Before you begin to think the film is too brainy, it also features gory gags about sentient locks of hair. If you think Candyman by way of Body Parts, you’re halfway there. Not all of it works all the time but I don’t care - I loved it! The film feels exciting and fresh and is clever in its use of influences.
Promising Young Woman
Nothing is quite what it seems in Emerald Fennell’s clever, complex first feature. Not only does her twist-filled story subvert audience expectations of a rape-revenge film, but it does so with a perfect mixture of humor, empathy, anger, and love.
Possessor is far from the first sci-fi thriller to explore the definition of humanity and how much control we have over our choices. Brandon Cronenberg’s take on these existential questions, however, brims with moral complexity and unforgettable visuals. Add in impressive practical effect work and remarkably strong performances, and you have a new masterwork of science fiction.
The tweets that inspired this film’s epic journey are poetry in and of themselves: an unabashed exposé of a fascinating world. Director Janicza Bravo infuses that true story with a biting sense of humor and bold style to ultimately explore sex in both its empowering and damaging forms. Zola is a wild ride of a film that proves that good stories can be found in the most unlikely of places.
Zoe Wittock’s elegant allegory Jumbo is easily the most heartfelt and empowering film I’ve seen this year. Her message rings clear and true: love is love in any form, and the greatest expression of love is accepting those around you without judgment. Not the newest message in the world, but one delivered passionately in this uniquely whimsical yet relatable fantasy.
As the daughter of a former beauty queen, the premise of Miss Juneteenth felt intriguingly personal. As I’d hoped, Miss Juneteenth thoughtfully explored the complexities of mother-daughter bonds, missed opportunities, misguided ambitions, and the quest for authenticity amidst a sea of unfair expectations.
James Shapiro on the year's Midnight lineup...
The Night House
David Bruckner’s latest stars the always terrific Rebecca Hall as a recently widowed schoolteacher. Bruckner introduced the film by suggesting that knowing ghosts exist isn’t as scary as knowing they don’t – and that nothing awaits us after we die. Hall’s Beth has some knowledge of the matter. She was in a car accident when she was younger, and her heart was stopped for several minutes. Before she was brought back, she didn’t experience any afterlife. However, with her husband gone she can feel a presence in the house and the truth about that presence – and what may or may not await us after we die – kept this midnight audience on the edge of their seat.
It feels like there's always one big film that comes out of Sundance’s midnight program and The Night House is the one for this year. Quickly picked up by Searchlight in the fest’s first deal, they are looking to further establish themselves in the genre space after their success with Ready or Not. Bruckner’s film is one of the more commercial entries from this year’s Sundance, mixing in scares that rely on an audience using their imagination and jump scares that can be a full-on assault to your senses.
Natalie Erika James’ Relic is a spooky house thriller starring Emily Mortimer. A mother has gone missing and when she returns, she can’t remember where she’s been and is extremely defensive when pushed. There may or may not be something more sinister at work here – or it could just all be dementia. The more Mortimer’s Kay digs into the past and into the house itself, the scarier the film becomes.
Relic works because the production design is terrific. The house is as important as any character in the film with its secrets and decay feel like a real-world manifestation of an old and diseased mind. It may take its time to get where it's going, but once Relic reveals its true destination, it's a treat for slow burn horror enthusiasts.
Actress-turned-director Romola Garai's debut, Amulet, is about as far away from Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights as one can get. Amulet deals with the repercussions of rape and how it is used as a war crime against civilians. It’s told in two stories, one that takes place in the past as a soldier saves and takes care of a mother escaping a war zone. The other follows the same soldier years later, now homeless and suffering from PTSD, as he is welcomed by a nun (Imelda Staunton) to stay at her house if he helps repair and maintain it. He’s not the only guest. There’s also an awkward young woman who he is destined to fall for and then there’s the presence upstairs. Known just as “Mother”, it lives locked in a bedroom and its only interaction with the other house guests are its moans and screams.
Amulet is another slow burn horror movie, but where Garai’s film goes is unforgettable. It trades traditional scares and build up for something more akin to a pre-religion monster film that’s surprising and bonkers. The morality of most horror films is if you commit a wicked act, you will be punished, and Amulet proves that the patient can be rewarded by something unique, creative and amazing.
Remi Weekes' His House was picked up by Netflix right before the fest in a similar way to how they bought Under the Shadow. The comparisons don’t stop there. Both are excellent examples of getting new stories from filmmakers with different backgrounds. Both also deal with the horror of war and how the atrocities witnessed by those who have war thrust upon them can never be left behind.
His House follows a young couple who escape from Sudan to Great Britain and their struggles to accumulate as immigrants in a progressively more xenophobic culture. It doesn’t help that their new home is apparently haunted, but what really haunts this couple is more than the traditional spirits you usually see in a horror film. There’s something deeply sinister that this couple cannot escape. There are some things in our past that won’t go away until we acknowledge what we’ve done and even then, it may be too late.
Run Sweetheart Run
Blumhouse returned to Sundance midnight for a second straight year with a film featuring “Sweetheart” in the title. In 2019 it was J.D. Dillard’s excellent Sweetheart. In 2020 it was Shana Feste’s first foray into genre, Run Sweetheart Run. This “Sweetheart” entry follows Ella Balinska’s Cherie on a blind date set up by her boss. Unfortunately, the date is with a literal monster and it turns deadly as the evening goes on. She’s on the run in Los Angeles, but she can’t escape and will have to ultimately confront her pursuer in order to survive.
Run Sweetheart Run is most effective as social commentary about how African Americans are invisible to white, American culture. Especially when they need help. Feste uses this social phenomenon to great effect here to ratchet up the tension and keep the film moving at a brisk pace. Balinska is also excellent in this film which could be headed to a wide release in March.
As usual, Sundance’s midnight program wasn’t just full of scares and thrills, but was filled with terrific new voices and performances that we will hopefully be seeing and following for years to come.