Park City, Utah – The Sundance Film Festival, launchpad for some of the most innovative American directors working today, is kind of like Forrest Gump’s eclectic box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
The 2018 edition, which ends Sunday, is framing 110 independent films from 29 countries and feels even more miscellaneous.
As usual, this year I happened on indie surprises good and bleak, but with a higher percentage of hidden gems. Several seem about to be catapulted to wide audiences and Academy Award attention like last year’s breakout hits “Get Out” and “The Big Sick.” Others offered challenging perspectives that diversify film storytelling, not only along lines of gender and cultures, but into unclassifiable narrative journeys fusing nonfiction and dramatization.
Sundance selections can transform conventional genres into exciting experiments or demonstrate creativity gone up in smoke. Here’s a quick look at some of what I saw.
You don’t hear the term “art house action epic” very often, but there is no other way to describe the astonishing “You Were Never Really Here.” Two enormous talents band together in this ominous revenge thriller: Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix, each incapable of doing anything clichéd.
Phoenix plays a grizzled Marine Corps vet who works as a brutal bodyguard for hire, selling his services to rescue captives abducted into sex trafficking rings. His latest client wants him to retrieve his preteen daughter from a midtown Manhattan bordello, and to very badly hurt the people responsible.
He walks into a much deeper web of conspiracy and violence than he has faced before. And it all takes place in a society where no one pays the horror any attention. If David Lynch created a more nightmarish remake of “Taxi Driver,” it would be something like this.
Political satire and world history collide in “The Death of Stalin,” a delicious dark farce directed and co-written by “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci. Handsomely mounted and wonderfully acted, it focuses on the power struggle in Moscow’s upper brass when one of the power brokers dies unexpectedly. Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor lead an international cast. Uproarious, scary and depressingly realistic by turns, it has been banned from cinemas by the Kremlin’s Culture Ministry for containing “information whose distribution is legally banned.” They’re missing a really good show.
“Blindspotting” fuses a best-buddies comedy about two Oakland moving men with a tough-minded contemporary political statement about race, class and cops. Co-written by and co-starring “Hamilton” Tony winner Daveed Diggs and his lifelong friend Rafael Casal, it views their rapidly gentrifying ’hood as a pressure cooker where even committed homeys can come to a boil. A polished, confident directorial debut by music video director Carlos López Estrada, this is the sort of Sundance breakthrough that deserves to spark a distributors’ bidding war.
Phoenix is on the screen again in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” a comedy about the late cartoonist John Callahan, a Portland, Ore., slacker who drank himself into a crippling car accident, then turned his situation into politically incorrect jokes about disability, race, religion and any other target available. It has a deep vein of humor unexpected from director Gus Van Sant, and another sensational performance from Phoenix, who gets support from Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara and Jack Black.
“The Rider” is a drama where realism and fiction coexist in a balance that is unbelievable, yet at the same time completely believable. It’s a story about young South Dakota rodeo stars, horses and accidents, tragedy and loyalty that is deeply moving. Director Chloé Zhao’s deft handling and the cast’s stellar performances raise it to amazing.
Stars are born
The English murder mystery “Beast” is the first film role for TV actress Jessie Buckley. She is cast as a lovely but introverted young neurotic who is facing deeper troubles than are immediately apparent. She falls for an enigmatic, roughly handsome huntsman, fiercely defending him from suspicion for a series of violent homicides. With mounting surprises, director and screenwriter Michael Pearce elevates what at first seems like a standard whodunit, but it’s Buckley’s stunning performance that makes it a real winner.
Experimental filmmaker Josephine Decker directs the idiosyncratic “Madeline’s Madeline” in a way that keeps the entire story from viewers until the last minute — or maybe beyond. She takes a daring, no-explanations approach in this character piece following a teenage performance artist in New York City who is on her way to either a fine stage career or a nervous breakdown. In her virtuoso debut performance, Helena Howard displays a quicksilver emotional talent as extraordinary as the prodigy she plays.
Although starring in the new “Star Wars” films has made Daisy Ridley famous, in “Ophelia” she shows her real chops for the first time — and they are impressive indeed. Director Claire McCarthy re-imagines “Hamlet” in a sumptuous production that will have Shakespeare purists spitting venom but should delight the man (and more importantly, woman) on the street. Ridley moves Hamlet’s underexplored girlfriend to center stage, operating on an equal footing with the formidable Naomi Watts as Queen Gertrude.
Nicolas Cage goes full Nicolas Cage in “Mandy,” a psychedelic trash-horror shocker that is deranged on purpose. The bloody first half seems designed to exhaust the audience’s shock endurance so that Part 2 can deliver nonstop dope slaps on our defenseless noggins. As a woodsy logger wreaking vengeance on the sadistic cult that invades his home, Cage delivers the craziest performance of his bizarre career.
It’s “vengeance is mine” time once again in the technically brilliant French slaughter-fest “Revenge.” American actress Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz gives a scarlet-splattered smackdown to three wealthy Gauls who brought her to their remote hunting lodge and did her very, very wrong.
“Never Goin’ Back” is the kind of comedy intended for the delight of young knuckleheads, the annoyance of their parents and the downfall of western civilization. Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone are dazzlingly funny as high school dropout BFFs planning a week off to chill at the beach. A Beavis and Butt-Head quality crime wave ends with their house robbed, their rent money lost, their jobs in jeopardy and jail on the horizon. If you get tired of serious movies about angry, strong women, this irreverent, shapeless, proudly tasteless absurdity is for you.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • @colincovert