What we saw at Sundance

From rapturous 'Fits' and glorious 'Certain Women' to a stabbing 'Lesson' and a freewheeling 'Lovesong', the film fest shined.

48 Hills film critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks snuck into Sundance 2016 to scope out the best flicks of the fest. 

1. Anna Rose Holmer, The Fits (USA/Italy)
Quite simply the most hauntingly thoughtful film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. NYU cinematography undergraduate Anna Rose Holmer began as a camera assistant on Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight (2008) and as a grip on Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010). In 2014, she began scouting Cincinnati, finding not only the absolute perfect school rec hall for her directorial debut but an entire cast of young girls, all of whom attended the school.

Holmer establishes a pure, uncompromised cinematic style by quietly following Toni, an 11-year old girl boxer who roams spooky hallways, longingly gazing at “legit” dance team members. The precocious newcomer Royalty Hightower has a perfect blend of introverted determination and wandering magic, while an unexplainable contagion seems to be inhabiting random girls within the school.

What is so unique about The Fits is its power to hypnotize any viewer who is prepared for a full-blown transcendental journey. In fact, Anna Rose Holmer’s relentless otherworldliness is exactly what puts her feature debut The Fits at the top of my list. Not only does Holmer’s film combine the rigid silence and physical exertion of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (Good Work, 1999), the eerie off-center camerawork by Paul Yee evokes the foggy locker rooms in Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976) and the abandoned buildings in Paul Lynch’s Prom Night (1980).

Most importantly, Holmer’s film gives her female protagonists actual character arcs. As the mysterious virus continues to attack the class, each sequence and every shot should become more important to the audience. This cinematic process forces viewers to emotionally dig-deep within themselves to truly connect with what these pre-teen inhabitants are speechlessly experiencing. For those who stay in-synch with this 72-minute, mini-masterpiece and allow themselves to feel one of the most unique and sensational finales in recent years, genuine catharsis might actually be attained.

2. Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow (UK/Jordan/Qatar)
The best horror film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was without a doubt Babak Anvari’s debut feature. Similar to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), this Britain-based Iranian filmmaker has crafted an insanely terrifying and emotionally charged nightmare that had people screaming out loud as well as covering their faces for much of the film.

Set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), a young mother Shideh (stunningly portrayed by the mesmerizing Narges Rashidi), attempts to hold her family together as the walls of the world are literally falling down around her. Combining surreal psychological terror, heartbreaking social issue trauma, and downright face-slapping shocks, Anvari has achieved not only one of the scariest films of the decade, but a call for action against the looming horrors for women within their family, in their career, and in their war-ridden cities. NOTE: Make sure to experience Under the Shadow in a loud, surround sound theater.

3. The best Midnite Movie in Park City this year was in fact at the Slamdance Film Festival. Ruth Platt’s brutally intelligent torture-porn flick The Lesson (UK) had gaggles of audience members literally falling onto the floor as they scampered for the exit doors. Evoking both Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Lucky McKee’s The Woman (2011), Platt’s debut feature follows two decidedly delinquent high schoolers that are finally forced to confront their own apathetic and sociapath(et)ic tendencies.

First time actor Evan Bendall gives such a guttural and empathetic performance that I started comparing him to Linda Blair in William Friendkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Marilyn Burns in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The unshakable vision of this gruesome yet stunningly intellectual morality tale should pique the interest of even the most jaded and arrogant horror fans.

Writer-director Ruth Platt is as much of an educator in genre storytelling as the torturer is in her film. Bring your notebook and pencil to take down as many “lessons” as possible, ranging from the themes in Charles Dickens to the archetypal character names in William Golding. Because this master class in literature, cinema, and philosophy is more than just a test, it is here to inspire your life.

4. Kirsten Johnson, Cameraperson (USA)
The cinematography work on Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour (2014), Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War (2012) and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) has established Kirsten Johnson as one of contemporary documentary’s most important assets. Her fearless tenacity in putting herself in harm’s way (literally and figuratively) in order to “get the shot” is nothing short of true inspiration.

Sundance 2016 on 48 Hills: 'The Cameraperson'
‘The Cameraperson’

Which is why her globe-trotting directorial debut is so powerful — we finally get to feel what her eyes and ears have been experiencing for over 15 unstoppable years. Utilizing outtakes and footage from dozens of her projects, Johnson bounces around the world, showcasing profound moments of her career, ranging from a glorious, gloomy sky that is suddenly torn by a bolt of lightning to an everlasting hand-held sequence of a newborn baby in an African clinic as it desperately gasps for air. The non-narrated, sporadic structure of this New Frontier Film somehow works perfectly, making Cameraperson one of the most unique documentaries of 2016.

5. Matt Johnson, Operation Avalanche (USA/Canada)
This hilarious “period-piece mockumentary” of NASA’s Apollo landing hoax not only “talks the found-footage talk” (similar to Johnson’s brilliant 2013 debut feature The Dirties, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative at the Slamdance Film Festival) but his sophomore effort truly “walks the rebellious walk.” Astoundingly shot in a purposefully grainy 16mm (that was blown up to HD) and looks remarkably like it was filmed in 1967, writer-director-actor Matt Johnson actually tricked modern day NASA officials into allowing him to film inside the real headquarters. This Q&A revelation after the world premiere screening was one of the festival’s highlights.

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'Operation Avalanche'
‘Operation Avalanche’

Johnson explained “We contacted NASA and we told them we were making a ‘documentary’ about the Apollo program. They surprisingly agreed to let us film on the premises, so all of the scenes that are actually in the film, where I’m introducing myself as Matt, a documentary filmmaker? That was all real.”

Johnson has crafted a genuine “Cold War” thriller here. And while there’s a ton of cinematic references — that go well beyond the obvious Stanley Kubrick surface — keep a close-eye open for each movie poster hanging on walls. They each seem to significantly (and psychologically) relate to a different character. But nothing can prepare you for the film’s climactic, single-shot driving scene that now ranks pretty damn high on my favorite chase sequences in film history. This is not just a young Canadian filmmaker to watch; Matt Johnson is a genuine force who has now completed two fully realized films that contemporary audiences should embrace.

6. Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women (USA)
Kelly Reichardt has created yet another nuanced and heart-wrenching masterpiece, this time based on Montana writer Maile Meloy’s short stories. Weaving together four reserved women’s lives in Livingston, Montana may not sound like the kind of film that could climb its way into your innermost guts and set up a campfire; But that is exactly what this revelatory film did for me.

'Certain Women'
‘Certain Women’

Reichardt’s all-star cast members give some of their greatest recent performances, led by Laura Dern as a lovelorn lawyer, Michelle Williams as a persistent progressive parent, and Kristen Stewart as an obliviously motivated 20-something. But it’s astounding newcomer Lily Gladstone who humbly steals the show, as a hard-working rancher. I must say that watching someone riding a horse has truly never been such a romantic experience in all my cinematic life. Like all of Kelly Reichardt’s previous treasures — Old Joy (2006), Wendy & Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Night Moves (2013) — her understanding of classic American cinema is boundless, allowing her to re-envision those stories and images, breathing her very particular brand of stoic yearning into each and every gesture.

7. Taika Waititi, Hunt For the Wilderpeople (New Zealand)
While Taika Waititi takes over Hollywood with his next two projects: Thor 3: Ragnorak (2017) and a sequel to his funniest film to date What We Do In The Shadows (2014), hysterically entitled We’re Wolves, his latest “little film that could” should put Sam Neil back on the map with a wonderfully gracious performance.

This magical realist New Zealand adventure drops an unloved, rebellious, little fat kid into the wild, wild southwest — and I’m here to say that this was the feel good film of Sundance this year. Luckily writer/director Waititi has held onto his unique dry-humor, which dates back to his debut feature Eagle Vs. Shark (2007) as well as his underrated second film Boy (2010). But this krazy kids flick is not just satisfied with referencing all of the 1980s films its creator grew up loving: The movie itself is an actual throwback to the kind of children’s fare that were laced with some very heavy adult issues like Walter Murch’s Return to Oz (1985) and Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches (1990). Make sure to catch this truly loving film upon its initial theatrical release. It’s the kind of experience that you’ll be talking about years from now, perhaps even sharing with children of your own.

8. So Yong-kim, Lovesong (USA)
As we celebrate the official 10th Anniversary of the mumblecore genre, it’s exciting to see the only female filmmaker to be included in that cinematic hipster scene presenting a new film that equals or even surpasses her landmark debut In Between Days (2006), which even won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance that year. This time, actress Riley Keough, who also stars in the Amy Seimetz’s new Starz TV adaptation of The Girlfriend Experience (which also premiered at Sundance this year), takes the emotional reigns with gusto as Sarah, a young mother who is completely caught off guard by the sudden reappearance of her college friend Mindy (Jena Malone).

'Lovesong'
‘Lovesong’

Much like So’s overlooked For Ellen (2010), which Paul Dano subtly referenced in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth (2015), the power in Lovesong lies within the character’s inability to express their true feelings. Independent Spirit Awards could be on the horizon for this bundle of true love, but more importantly, make sure you see this on the big screen so that you too can be transported into the whirling clouds during what has to be the most breathtaking sequence on a ferris wheel since Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948).

9. Ira Sachs, Little Men (USA)
Sundance veteran Ira Sachs continues to use legendary Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu as his starting point to explore contemporary New York City. Like his previous gem Love Is Strange (2014), which structured itself around Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), Sachs tackles the difficult issue of gentrification and makes it especially challenging to his viewers by presenting the story from the gentrifier’s perspective.

'Little Men'
‘Little Men’

Using both of Ozu’s films I Was Born But… (1932) and Good Morning (1960), the moral dilemmas of modern society encroaching on the present (and perhaps old fashioned) world is explored from a child’s viewpoint. Sachs seems to have nestled himself nicely into a mature genre of strong character-driven, social issue films.

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With standout performances by both the glorious Chilean actress Paulina Garcia (from 2013’s Gloria) and newcomer Michael Barbieri, who plays the wise-talking “little man” Tony with the kind of natural charm that Anthony Michael Hall projected in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984) and Jodie Foster in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). Ira Sachs is on an Ozu roll. Let’s hope he reimagines Late Spring (1949) or Early Summer (1951) next.

10. Rob Zombie’s 31 (USA) starts out with some seriously swanky characters and radical references ranging from Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) to John Carpenter’s They Live (1987). And when 1980s character actor E.G. Daily popped out in a typically adorable get up, I almost forgot all about Sherri Moon Zombie’s jaw dropping lion top.

'31'
’31’

But while 31 consists of some truly stunning sequences combined with some glorious (and gory) set pieces, this is the first time I have felt left wanting much more at the conclusion of one of Zombie’s films. Even his most misunderstood entry, Lords of Salem (2012), may not have had “the power and the gory” that his exploitation tour de force The Devil’s Rejects (2005) delivered, but it most certainly concocted a witches’ brew of lovable and unreliable narrators, allegorical themes, and a jaw-dropping performance by partner in crime Sherri Moon.

But like Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, Zombie’s latest film feels like it went into production much too soon and without a complete understanding of its characters or its story’s actual purpose. And while there is much to celebrate cinematically about each of these three auteurs’ violent and vengeful explorations, I am at a loss as I attempt to uncover anything hiding beneath their surfaces.

"Dark Night"
“Dark Night”

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night (USA) took the exact opposite approach towards exploring its horrific subject matter… by not showing it. Loosely based on the Aurora, Colorado massacre in 2012, in which a gunman killed 12 and wounded 70 moviegoers attending a screening of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, this haunting, slice-of-life exploration of the random events that led the townsfolk to the movie theater is paced like Claire Denis’ Friday Night (2002) and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003). In fact, the cinematographer Helene Louvart, who shot Wim Wenders’ Pina (2011) and Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes (2008), was the perfect fit for the director’s intense visual style. Combined with Memphis (2013) and Pavillion (2011), Tim Sutton is an American filmmaker who is attempting movies that not only are beautiful to look at, but melodic to experience, no matter what the subject may be.

11. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man (USA)
The Jury Prize for Best Directing caused more than a few controversies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with some audience members walking out, while others complained about the film’s uncouth behavior. What might get lost in the mix is how impressively this unique and uncompromised debut feature can be seen through completely opposite lenses.

Swiss Army Man
Swiss Army Man

One way of responding could be to contagiously laugh at the screwball actions of Hank (Paul Dano), a man stranded on a desert island with a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe). Another way would be to question Hank’s reliability as a narrator and view this surreal, spiritual spiral as an existential journey into complete madness. Either way, Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as a dead body is the kind of profound achievement you might expect from a Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett play.

Swiss Army Man is not just the most infamous film at Sundance this year; It is the perfect Hollywood calling card for first time filmmakers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinart, as well as being a completely neo-sincere film. Movie lovers should put aside all of its buzz and just experience it for themselves. Love it or hate it, it’s one film from 2016 that most definitely will not be forgotten.

BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF PARK CITY 2016
1. Brian Golden Davis, The Million Dollar Duck (USA) – Audience Award & Jury Award for Documentary Feature at the Slamdance Film festival
2. Sara Jordeno, Kiki (USA/Sweden)
3. Thorsten Schütte, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (France/Germany)
4. Maya Goded, Plaza De La Soledad (Mexico)
5. Bahman Ghobadi, A Flag Without a Country (Iraq)
6. Marc Johnson, Yuyu (France)
7. Deborah Stratman, The Illinois Parables (USA)
8. Jeff Feuerzeig, Author: The JT Leroy Story (USA)
9. Stephen Kijak, We Are X (UK/US/Japan)
10. Brian Bolster, The Trick’s List (USA)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the Midnites for Maniacs series at the Castro Movie Theatre, Alamo Drafthouse & Roxie Theater. He also writes film festival reviews for many Bay Area outlets.