This week at Sundance was a whirlwind of movie watching and interviews. One thing is certain, there is a reason why Sundance is the go-to in finding new voices, sustaining voices, and giving a glimpse into a running theme of movies to come top of the year. There was certainly a running trend of female characters at the forefront and a lot of thrillers… a lot – subtext to the current social climate. Documentaries ran the gamut of climate change, social disruption, human rights and using your creative voice in a time of uncertainty. When I needed a breather from these heavy subjects, I turned to the festival’s short films – I really had hoped they kept the Shorts Program as intended for the in-person screenings, in that it was easier to navigate – but in hindsight, I liked the ability to pick and choose as I liked. I was never disappointed by the quality of storytelling and filmmaking in these shorts – they gave me hope for those voices and future generations of filmmakers to come.
Here’s what I was able to catch over day five through day eight:
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, is a wonderful character piece written by Katy Brand and directed by Sophie Hyde. Emma Thompson gives one of the best and vulnerable performances of her career. The simplicity of the storytelling gives way for deep and meaningful dialogue, between characters Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) and Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson). The film recently got a distribution deal through Searchlight.
The Exiles is both a love letter to groundbreaking documentarian Christine Choy and a timely piece for the world. Who wouldn’t want to make a film with or about their film school mentors? I know for certain, if given the opportunity to do so, I’d jump at it in a heartbeat. Violet Columbus and Ben Klein do a superb job in capturing the essence of their subject, Christine Choy, and finishing what she started – an in depth look at the Tiananmen Square massacre and how it affected all involved. It’s a beautiful closure to what Christine had abandoned filming in 1989. The texture and attitude is greatly carried through, by shooting the movie on Kodak film.
What can be said about Master, written and directed by Mariama Diallo? Well, a lot. This movie title itself is multilayered in subtext and carries a lot of weight. It’s a harrowing story, through a lens that doesn’t let up or turn away. You intrinsically feel for Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) and Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), thanks to Mariama’s bold and fearless vision and the cinematography by Charlotte Hornsby. Here’s hoping that Mariama and team come back together again for another project.
Documentarians Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern are back with another, dare I say, quintessential music documentary – a great follow up from their feature documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits!. It’s an immersive journey back in time to the early 2000s NYC music scene. What stood out the most to me was the intensity behind each bands story, their individual outlook and ability to look inward and tear apart their artistry all told through voice over and footage – not one talking head or interview. If you’re a fan of the bands The Strokes, Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs – this is for you.
Writer-director Bradley Rust Gray gives a multi-layered emotional character journey in his film blood. It’s a beautiful tale about loss and grieving and finding love again. Parsing out your day dreams and reality. One quintessential line that has made an imprint was from Yatsuro (Issei Ogata), “Humans think too much.” It pretty sums up the movie for me – especially with the lead being a photographer, whose primary job is to observe.
Another movie centered around female identity and independence is the film Happening, directed and co-written by Audrey Diwan, and written by Marcia Romano, Alice Girard, Anne Berest based off the novel by Annie Ernaux. It’s a jarring glimpse into the life of a young woman determined to finish her education and be a writer, but her world is upended by a very unexpected pregnancy. We follow Anne Duschesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) step by step as she navigates her way through finding herself and seeking help with an abortion, during a time when abortions were still illegal in France in the 1960s. I had mentioned in my recap for Call Jane that that film was reminiscent to the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, without the intensity…well this film is just as intense as Cristian Mangiu’s film.
I close out day six with two wonderful and distinctly different short films, Zoon by Jonatan Schwenk, co-written with Merlin Flügel is an outlandish and adorable short about Axolotl’s and surrounding creatures who enjoy the simple things in life. The second short was Bump written and directed by Maziyar Khatam – with it’s simple premise of two young men who bump into each other on a sidewalk, one of them is unwilling to let go the trivial encounter, where he seeks retribution – he’d like to bump the other man back. It’s hilarious but also says a lot about the idea of men, their insecurities and also, a shared common ground with some respect sprinkled in.
Sirens is a very bold documentary, directed by Rita Baghdadi, about an all-female Lebanese metal band. But it’s also tackling sexuality, human rights, society, the pitfalls of the music business and friendship. I was surprised that the subjects allowed themselves to be documented, knowing the repercussions that could arise – fall out with family, society, etc. But I absolutely applaud their fearlessness in representing themselves, their community…all in the name of rock and roll.
I had missed the premiere of Emily the Criminal, written and directed by John Patton Ford. I was pleasantly surprised by the storytelling and that it was a crime-thriller based in Los Angeles – and seeing LA in a different light than we’re used to seeing it. The movie is still simmering for me – as it’s another female character in a thriller, with a steady performance delivered by Aubrey Plaza. It’s difficult not to compare this film to Uncut Gems by the Safdie brothers. The chaotic rhythm and the eccentricities of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is one of the many reasons why that movie really stands out so boldly. Whereas in Emily the Criminal, there seems to be a missed opportunity in shaking things up as a filmmaker but I do applaud a straightforward story and a character on a mission.
I ended my viewing window with Girl Picture directed by Alli Haapasalo and written by Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen. It’s the second Finnish film I’ve watched from the festival, and was not disappointed. Girl Picture does a wonderful deep dive into what female friendships are like, especially at such a young and impressionable age, similarly to what the creative team behind Am I OK? delivered. It was messy, it was fun, it was chaotic and there was a lot of love behind each and every character.
As the festival prepares for their 2022 Award Winners, live today on Twitter at 3PM MT, in which I look forward to seeing who takes home which award, I won’t be surprised by those who will ultimately be snubbed. It’s an awards “show” after all. And not every movie will strike the same chord with every viewer, and every viewer, I would hope, will not be in the same agreement about what movies “shoulda-coulda-woulda” but at the end of the day, one thing we can all share is the love of movies. Writing, producing, directing, getting a movie seen, submitting to festivals, and everything in between is a lot of work. As a filmmaker, you’re sharing with others your vision, your point of view, your voice – and that’s no easy feat (for most). I implore you, next time you watch an indie feature or short, whether you liked it or not, take a moment to appreciate what this filmmaker did to get to this point. And if it’s a film that really bore itself into your mind and heart, tell your friends, share it with others. And lastly, thank the filmmaker for making their art. I would say run out and hug and kiss the filmmaker, but we’re still practicing safe social distancing (for the most part).
If you haven’t already, check out Script’s exclusive interviews with God’s Country director and co-writer Julian Higgins along with co-writer Shaye Ogbonna, Am I OK? screenwriter Lauren Pomerantz, and Watcher screenwriter Zack Ford. More Sundance filmmaker interviews to come, so check back often!