With this final spotlights post, we bring our coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival to a close (you can read the previous posts here and here). We conclude by taking a look at six more feature films, once again using our world famous Sundance Viewing Priority Level (VPL) Guide to discern those films to seek out and those to avoid. Enjoy, and we’ll hope to see you in Park City next year!
SUNDANCE VIEWING PRIORITY LEVEL GUIDE:
VPL A = An absolute must-see. Monitor film and entertainment news sites religiously to see if this picture will be widely released, and then plan to be first in line to see it.
VPL B = If you’re in a movie mood and your first choice is sold out or not playing at your nearby theater, this picture is a wholly acceptable substitute. It’s not stellar, but it’s perfectly enjoyable, and it won’t be a waste of your time.
VPL C = If you need to escape a family argument, duck out of work to take a break, or fill a few hours on a long and lonely rainy day, there are probably worse ways to spend your time than seeing this picture, though not many. It’s flawed, and you’ll forget about it instantly, but it’s not totally dreadful, and it has at least one or two minor reasons to recommend it.
VPL D = Don’t even think about it. Avoid at all costs. Your time, money, and sanity are too valuable to waste on this dreck.
1.) Wind River
(USA 2016, 111 min. Directed by Taylor Sheridan. Category: Premieres)
If you loved Hell or High Water and Sicario, you’re sure to be ecstatic over this new picture, which not only is also written by Taylor Sheridan, but directed by him as well. Sheridan’s directorial skills here match his writing prowess, as he takes us to rural Wyoming in the heart of winter to unspool a story that echoes the sparse, poetic beauty of the snow covered landscapes. When a teenage girl’s body is found deep in the backcountry, a seasoned local Fish and Wildlife agent (Jeremy Renner) is called in to aid the fish-out-of-water neophyte FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) assigned to the case. What follows is a stellar crime thriller with a first season True Detective vibe that continues to deftly explore the familiar Sheridan themes of violence, retribution, and the struggles of the American West. Renner and Olsen have terrific chemistry, and the supporting cast — including Hell or High Water’s Gil Birmingham and the great Graham Greene — are uniformly excellent. Wind River marks my first 2017 prediction for multiple award nominations come award season. You heard it here first. VPL: A+
2.) Brigsby Bear
(USA 2016, 100 min. Directed by Dave McCary. Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Saturday Night Live cast and alumni pictures have been a mixed bag in terms of success; for every acclaimed Sisters or Wayne’s World, there’s a cringe worthy Deuce Bigelow or Cabin Boy. Luckily with Brigsby Bear, we get a film that falls in the former category. Co-written by current cast member Kyle Mooney and first-time writer Kevin Costello, the film is also directed by Dave McCary, an SNL sketch director, and Andy Samberg (who also has a small part) is one of the film’s producers. That’s some great comedy cred, and the resulting unique and hilarious picture doesn’t disappoint. Mooney also stars as James, who is returned to his family in his early 20s, after being kidnapped as an infant by a well-meaning but weird (to put it mildly) couple. In a nicely ironic touch, the “father” in the couple is played by Mark Hamill; he keeps young James wrapped up in a fictional universe his entire life. No, it’s not Star Wars — it’s Brigsby Bear, a complicated, fantasy/sci-fi kiddie show that is pretty much all young James knows. The bulk of the picture details James’s culture clash when he returns to his real, suburban family, and the issues that arise from James’s Brigsby obsession. While the set up is inherently funny and lends itself to many laugh-out-loud moments, the film also handles some serious themes well, including isolation, trauma, and grief. Thoughtful and sweet, Brigsby Bear explores and celebrates how the power of family, creativity, and community can keep us all sane. VPL: A
(Canada 2017, 104 min. Directed by Kogonada. Category: Next)
Lovers of both architecture and slow, languid character-driven dramas will enjoy this picture, the feature film debut of the Korean video artist Kogonada, who both writes and directs. Filmed in Columbus, IN, a city known for its modernist architecture, the film has a stillness that often borders on pretentious; lots of dramatic pauses in natural conversations don’t always feel realistic. But Haley Lu Richardson, as a local girl enamoured with her town’s claim to fame, and John Cho, as the visiting son of an architecture professor who has fallen ill, bring a warmth and vitality to the picture that save it from being too cold and distant. Kogonada also raises some interesting questions: does architecture have the power to heal? What are our obligations to our parents as we get older, especially if they haven’t always been nurturing and kind? Richardson’s Casey and Cho’s Jin force each other to confront some hard truths, and their slowly developing friendship is the best part of the film. Parker Posey, who we see on screen way too seldom, also has a nice turn as the ailing professor’s assistant and an old friend of Jin’s. If viewers can be patient with the film’s slow pace, they will be rewarded with a quietly astute observational study of connection, art, inspiration, and dreams that is worth a watch. VPL: B
4.) The Hero
(USA 2016, 96 min. Directed by Brett Haley. Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, The Hero reunites director Brett Haley, writer Marc Basch, and veteran actor Sam Elliott two years after their well-received I’ll See You in My Dreams. Here we find Elliott playing Lee, an aging movie star mostly known for a role in a Western some 40 or so years prior that made him famous. When a speech Lee gives at a low rent Western movie appreciation awards banquet goes viral just as Lee gets some tough news about his health, Lee gets the chance to resurrect his career, reconcile with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter), and possibly start a new relationship with a much younger acquaintance (Laura Prepon) of his drug dealer (a scene stealing Nick Offerman). Elliott and Prepon keep this heady material from turning into melodrama with low-key, lived in, authentic and charming performances. Basch and Haley also wisely candidly address the 35+ year age difference between their two romantic leads, which helps keep the pairing from seeming too icky, and makes the viewer more empathetic toward the couple. And, in a real treat for cinephiles, Elliott’s real life wife, actress Katharine Ross (Butch Cassidy! The Graduate!), makes her first on-screen appearance in over ten years, playing Lee’s ex-wife Val. It’s a small part, but Ross brings to it all the right notes of grace, humor, and compassion, and makes us realize just how much we’ve missed her. VPL: A-
(USA 2016, 94 min. Directed by Justin Chon. Category: Next)
The Los Angeles post-Rodney King verdict riots of April, 1992 were almost 25 years ago, but we’re reminded how relevant the issues of that time still are in writer/director Justin Chon’s atmospheric new picture, artfully shot in black and white. Chon (who had a memorable role in last year’s underrated Seoul Searching) pulls off a trifecta here, also starring as Eli, who, with his brother Daniel (David So), runs a barely-staying-afloat shoe store inherited from their father in gritty Paramount, CA, just a few miles from the heart of the riots. Kamilla (Simone Baker), an 11-year-old African American girl likes to hang out and help in the shop, and her connection to the Korean-American brothers becomes clear over the course of the movie. Chon effortlessly alternates between humorous and serious moments; a scene in which the brothers and Kamilla spontaneously dance to “Maneater” in the shop is just as affecting as an exceptionally well-crafted one in which various characters react with outrage to hearing the news of the verdict. Smart, funny, poignant and sad but always unflinchingly honest, Chon’s picture reminds us of the rich diversity of our cities, and of the common humanity that binds us all. VPL: A
6.) Band Aid
(USA 2016, 91 min. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones. Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition)
How do couples survive for the long haul? How can two people build a happy, safe, and comforting home together? Those are the questions actress and writer Zoe Lister-Jones (Life in Pieces; New Girl) explores here in this dramedy, her directorial debut. She also co-stars as Anna, a former writer and current Uber driver in a rut with her equally underemployed graphic-designer husband Ben (Adam Palley). As the couple’s fights begin to worsen, they decide maybe singing about their problems will help, and so, with the aid of their eccentric neighbor Dave (Fred Armisen), they form a band to air out their frustrations musically. The lyrics of their songs make for some of the funniest bits in the movie (who knew dirty dishes could be a great topic for a rock song?). Lister-Jones’s writing is indeed sharp — she drops a Holocaust joke and a 9/11 joke in the picture’s first five minutes — but the picture also has a serious side, as the reason for some of the couple’s issues begins to come clear. Palley, known for his comedic chops, proves himself just as adept in dramatic roles in some tough scenes here that he handles with startling depth and truth. Lister-Jones has created an emotionally realistic picture about the nature of relationships and the way little problems often mask larger issues of grief and anger. And, as in life, sometimes those issues need to be addressed with unchecked laughter, and sometimes with raw, bitter tears. VPL: A-