Movies

What we saw at Sundance 2018, round two: Women fight back

Assassination Nation

Read part one of Jesse Hawthorne Ficks Sundance 2018 coverage here. 

FICKS’ PICKS Sundance sported some of the best Midnite Movie entries in recent years, which not only found raucous sold out audiences but attracted the distributor NEON, who has purchased the North American theatrical rights for both Coralie Fargeat’s debut feature Revenge and Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation

Both movies explore the theme of female vengeance: There will undoubtedly be many debates and even some serious arguments as to how these films handle such violent and controversial subject matter. Revenge is perhaps the more straightforward of the two, following a tried and true rape-revenge structure—ala Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981).

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Utilizing gorgeously saturated cinematography, the film is framed in a fairly protective way towards its victim’s initial violation, which allows audiences to understand the situation as opposed to experience the horror. Director Fargeat then follows Jen (Italian newcomer Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) as she hunts down the three married men who did the act. The audience most definitely cheered at every stabbing or shotgun blast to the culprits, but what I found most intriguing was how the director spent much more time deconstructing and punishing the men’s despicable behavior, rather than focusing on the empowered victim herself.

Revenge

While Revenge works quite well, I lost my mind and flipped head over heels for Sam Levinson’s prophetically high-strung Assassination Nation. Symbolically set in Salem, Massachusetts, the movie follows a group of high school girls banding together as their town is attacked: A data hack is exposing every person’s internet history. Assuredly self-aware and purposefully provoking (a trigger warning precedes the film), this hyperkinetic social satire has the most eye-popping and overwhelming opening sequence in many a moon. 

During the world premiere’s post-film Q&A, Colman Domingo, who plays the principal of the school, said the film was “a war on toxic masculinity, at all costs.” The film consistently questions the misogynistic world its characters are trapped in, and so plays into the dilemma of the year: Does Assassination Nation become part of the psychotic social media that it set out to satirize? What makes Levinson’s exploitation flick most unique to me is how it never wavers from the perspective of its four female leads and never expects any nudity from the actresses. Controversial and triggering, there is no other film I can recommend higher from this year’s festival. Be warned: Some viewers will (aggressively) disagree.

Night Comes On

Jordana Spiro’s debut feature Night Comes On is a third revenge flick at Sundance, but it most definitely follows the beat of its own drum. Following two young girls (age 17 and 10) as they track down a man from their past, this poetic expedition does a remarkable job at allowing space and time to affect its characters as well as its viewers. Lead actors Dominique Fishback and Tatum Marilyn Hall deliver such moving performances that you will be thinking about them days after. Much like the melancholy movies of the early 1970s, this cinematic experience was a major standout in Sundance’s NEXT category, which is dedicated to “pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling.”

While the trailer for Ari Aster’s Hereditary has already hit the streets, the release date isn’t until June 8, meaning it can build as much anticipation as possible. Already coined “the scariest film of the decade” this absolutely terrifying familial ghost story is led by a jaw-dropping, gut-churning, career-defining performance by Toni Collette. Not since The Babadook have I withstood the kind of uncomfortable silences, followed by glass shattering, high-pitched shrieking from a movie theater audience. In fact, I watched two audience members speed walk out of the film, one whispering to the usher, “This is too scary!” and the other covering the front and back of their pants. Only one of them returned.

Mandy

The most talked-about and difficult screening to get into this year was the world premiere of Panos Cosmatos’ psychedelic mind-melter Mandy, which boasts a legendary battle-axe performance by Nicolas Cage. The follow-up to the director’s debut cult classic Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) is structured into distinctive sci-fi chapters, loading each sequence with a cluster-fuck of Jim Jones-esque cult leaders and a full-on “Nouveau Shamanistic” turn by Nicolas Cage, who sincerely guzzles a giant bottle of vodka while screaming and battling an army of Hellraiser-like cenobites. Punctuated by a brain-pounding synth score by the legandary Jóhann Jóhannsson, this very personal extravaganza (with a very long running time of 121 minutes) is most definitely recommended, and is still seeking a distributor. 

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn

Jim Hosking’s extremely divisive, surrealist second feature is An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn. With more audience members walking out of this than any other film in Park City this year, I found this follow-up to Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler (2016) surprisingly romantic and addictively hilarious. Even though the film starts off clunkily, the abstract nature of Aubrey Plaza’s comedy really starts to gel as soon as Jemaine Clement graces the screen. In an unprecedented move, the publicist for the film offered free marijuana to the press, further reinforcing the imminent legacy of this modern day cult classic.

Ficks Picks’ Round Three is up next, covering documentaries.

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 and Roxie Theater. He is also a member of the San Francisco Critics Circle and writes film festival reviews for 48hills.

What we saw at Sundance 2018: Live from Park City

Sundance acclaim: 'Blindspotting' is a deep look at life, hip-hop, and gentrification in Oakland.

Read part two of Jesse’s Sundance coverage here

FICKS’ PICKS The air felt different to me in Park City this past week. With the lowest snowfall since 1976, the streets seemed seared and the mountains parched. My thoughts often returned to years past. I was lucky enough to grow up in these canyons. My first year of attendance was 1991. I was 15 and my first two films were the world premieres of Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Todd Haynes’ Poison. Now, 27 years later, I attended 30 features and 20 shorts at both Sundance and Slamdance film festivals, showcasing a whole new batch of first time filmmakers. Use this SPOiLER-FREE list of the most memorable movies throughout 2018.

DRAMAS TO WATCH FOR

Tamara Jenkins’ latest opus Private Life kicked things off with a bang. The writer and director of Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) and The Savages (2007) explores the ups and downs of a couple attempting to get pregnant in the complex world of fertility alternatives. Both Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti give pitch perfect performances, which should not be taken for granted. This 130-minute anti-Rom-Com is a real standout due to the director’s choice to allow many scenes to just breathe, including the stunning final sequence.

Similarly, Jennifer Fox’s The Tale flips a tried and true genre on its head, baring the brutal complications of the director’s first sexual relationship. Laura Dern’s performance packs an emotional wallop as a woman who has to weave through the dilemmas of what it is to be a victim vs. what agency she had in her past. The difficult subject matter caused many heated discussions in Park City and will surely ignite more when it premieres on HBO later this year. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, it has been announced that The Tale will not be released in movie theaters.

Paul Dano’s gorgeously paced debut feature Wildlife took it’s time to do things right. Based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, this 1960s story of a young boy in Montana watching his parent’s marriage dissolve achieved near perfection for me. Dano’s work with his actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan is especially noteworthy as they ache with the frustrations of not only the era but with a certain timelessness that feels as memorable as Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick.

Desiree Akhavan’s wonderfully poignant The Miseducation of Cameron Post not only took home the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, it’s the perfect sophomore feature. (Akhavan’s first film Appropriate Behavior, from 2014, has stuck with me over many other recent Sundance debuts.) Following the struggles of three queer teenagers stuck in a gay conversion therapy center for Christians, the movie showcases Chloë Grace Moretz in a heartbreaking performance as the title character. Newcomer Forrest Goodluck stole the show as an androgenous Lakota teen. With only 10 American states officially outlawing these conversion therapy camps, this devastatingly honest film is an immensely crucial voice for these troubled times.

Carlos López Estrada’s universally celebrated debut Blindspotting was one of the festival’s earliest purchases (by Lionsgate!). Written by and featuring striking performances by Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) and Rafael Casal, the film hilariously confronts the gentrification issues within the Bay Area (Oakland specifically). Brace yourself for some extremely upsetting content handled quite efficiently by a first time filmmaker, with perhaps a debatable misstep in its Paul Haggis-ish roundabout climax (i.e. Crash).

While Spike Lee was filming his 23rd narrative feature Black Klansman (produced by Jordan Peele and due later this year), he secretly filmed Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over play at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. A story of two young men as they attempt to pass from one reality into the next, this updated Waiting For Godot by way of David Mamet-esque writing was as engaging an experience as Lee’s superb 2008 documentation of Stew’s Passing Strange. Don’t let this theatrical gem slip through your cinematic cracks.

By far the biggest surprise in Park City was Joanne Mony Park’s debut feature Fish Bones which premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. New York-based Korean fashion model Joony Kim plays a model who is disjointedly attempting to piece together her life. Gloriously lo-fi, non-linear, and sporting the best soundtrack of any film in Park City, this uniquely crafted piece is essential viewing for anyone looking for a crispy new voice in cinema.

Joaquin Phoenix starred in two films this year. The first was Gus Van Sant’s return to form Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot based on the memoir of the controversial Portland-based cartoonist John Callahan. Utilizing mockumentary techniques via To Die For (1995) and emphasizing straight forward, Oscar worthy acting ala Milk (2008), Van Sant gets back on solid ground, giving Phoenix and especially Jonah Hill, what surely will be two of the most memorable performances of the year.

But nothing can prepare you for the sheer flawlessness of Lynne Ramsey’s adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here. Sporting a monstrous Joaquin Phoenix performance that not only lingers for days after experiencing it, it won the Best Acting award at Cannes this year. Ramsey’s immaculate filmmaking style is in tip top form here, making each thrilling sequence and every violent cut, a genuine moment of cinematic bliss. Ranking right alongside her previous masterpieces of Ratcatcher (1999), Morvern Caller (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), this psychological thriller is simple in its scope, but magnificent in its execution.    

FICKS PICKS: ROUND 2 is up next, covering Midnite Movies and Documentaries. See last year’s Sundance coverage here

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 & Roxie Theater. He is also member of the San Francisco Critics Circle and writes film festival reviews for 48hills.