Going into Sundance’s 30th edition, there was much excited chatter about Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which, in stark contrast, grew out of an 18-minute short that played the festival just last year. Neither disappointed: Boyhood was instantly proclaimed a masterpiece by most who saw it and Whiplash was nearly universally adored, winning both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Beyond these titles—with the possible exception of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I—there was little that screamed “must-see” (unsurprisingly, sales thus far have been soft). Yet apart from the usual barrage of “Sundance Movies,” i.e., precious déjà-vu-inducing romantic comedies and dysfunctional-family dramas, plus two overblown sequels—why?—there was plenty to be enthusiastic about, with strong, genuinely innovative films cropping up at a steady rate.
What We Do in the Shadows
For starters, the Midnight section was the best in years. The fest’s growing taste for half-baked horror-comedies finally paid off with What We Do in the Shadows, which put a little life back into the mockumentary genre. Directed and written by its stars, regular Kiwi collaborators Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, the film features four male vampire roommates who reveal to us—or rather the camera crew that’s documenting them—the details of their nocturnal life. Ranging in age from 183 to 8,000, and in appearance from adorably youthful to Nosferatu-crusty, this endearingly juvenile bunch (further proof that men never, ever grow up) squabbles over chores and riles up the local werewolves whenever their paths cross. They also go to clubs, struggle to keep up with the latest technology, and watch movies—the group makes references to Twilight, Blade, and admits to lifting tricks from The Lost Boys. But they’re also blood-sucking monsters, and the film doesn’t shy away from carnage. Bloody, hilarious, and ultra-quotable, this one demands repeat viewings. In fact, for the first time in my Sundance history I considered returning to a film for a second helping—and I wish I had.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A second vampire offering, this time in the NEXT section, stood out for its proudly offbeat approach. Advertised as “The First Iranian Vampire Western,” A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the debut feature from Iranian-American Ana Lily Amirpour, tells the tale, in moody black and white, of a sullen, nameless vampire (Sheila Vand) residing in a place called Bad City. A true loner, she seems to take little pleasure in her immortality, and kills her prey mercilessly. But she finds herself softening in the presence of Arash (Arash Marandi), whom she meets and takes home one night. (He’s coming from a costume party dressed as Dracula, completely unaware of the irony.) They are instantly drawn to each other, perhaps because he’s also a little dead inside, working a thankless job and tending to his debt-ridden junkie father. A deliberately paced film filled with striking images, ethereally beautiful people, and one wonderfully expressive cat, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has already drawn comparisons to early Jim Jarmusch for its deadpan humor and cool. (Incidentally, Jarmusch’s own vampire flick, Only Lovers Left Alive, screened in the Spotlight section.)
Cold in July
Jim Mickle is a filmmaker who matures significantly with each new movie. In his fourth, Cold in July, a low-key family man (Michael C. Hall) is left in shock after shooting an intruder who breaks into his home late one night, his remorse eased only by the knowledge that the victim was a wanted criminal. To add to his troubles, the dead man’s apparent father, Russel (Sam Shepard), turns up fresh off parole and threatens vengeance. When the corpse proves to have been misidentified by the police, the two men team up—and are soon joined by Russel’s old friend and fellow Korean War veteran, Jim Bob (Don Johnson, in a splashy performance that pretty much steals the show)—to uncover a truth that turns out to be as nasty as it is unexpected. Pulpy and fierce, Cold in July manages to overcome its drastic tonal shifts and its female-unfriendly nature—the film’s one non-disposable woman, the protagonist’s wife (Vinessa Shaw), is underdeveloped and unconvincing. But the acting in the film is exquisite, and matched in caliber by the direction, cinematography (by regular Mickle DP Ryan Samul), and writing (with a script adapted from a Joe R. Lansdale novel by Mickle and frequent collaborator Nick Damici, who also appears in the supporting cast).
More playful in approach, The Guest is equally impressive. The most “Eighties” film not made or even set in that decade, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett’s follow-up to the delectable You’re Next is likewise a darkly humorous story about the gruesome unraveling of a family, here set in motion by the arrival of David (Dan Stevens), a charismatic veteran who shows up unannounced, claiming to have served in Afghanistan alongside the family’s deceased son. They take him in and let him stay despite early signs of aggressive behavior, because his outbursts appear to be protective in nature. It’s only when the family’s teenage daughter (Maika Monroe, who would have been huge in the Eighties) gives in to her suspicions about David—despite lusting for his hot bod—and contacts his old Army base, that it becomes clear just what they’re dealing with. Highly referential to the best of Eighties cinema without ever resorting to ridicule, The Guest is fast-paced fun right through to its totally awesome finale set at the best high-school haunted house ever constructed.
Another entertaining Midnight entry, and also the most frightening, was The Babadook, from Australian first-time writer-director Jennifer Kent. What starts off as a seemingly standard evil-child outing gradually transforms into something else entirely. By the end, the supremely grating and peculiar 7-year-old Samuel (newcomer Noah Wiseman, eerily reminiscent of The Shining’s Danny Lloyd) is the most sympathetic thing in the film. The Babadook is a bogeyman-like figure pictured in a super-creepy handmade children’s pop-up book that mysteriously appears and cannot be disposed of no matter how hard Samuel’s mother (Essie Davis) tries. Despite the occasional silly moment, Kent’s film is the real deal. The Babadook features a number of genuinely unsettling scenes (embarrassing disclosure: I checked the closets and under the bed before I tried to sleep that night), but it also packs an emotional punch. That’s mostly due to Davis’s truly shape-shifting performance as a woman who must contend with the loss of her husband (who died the day their son was born), her resentment toward the unmanageable boy, a sister that wants nothing to do with either of them—and then something far, far worse. “Baba dook dook dook!” should take its place in the annals of horror history alongside “Candyman” and “Bloody Mary” as words too terrifying to repeat but too tempting not to.
Of the many highly divisive films at this year’s festival, I found three in particular—all featuring mentally ill protagonists—to be commendable misfires, bold but overly calculating in their attempts to shock, surprise, and perhaps even delight: Marjane Satrapi’s cheerfully sinister The Voices, in which Ryan Reynolds plays a dorky factory worker turned woman killer whose dog and cat speak to him when he’s not taking his meds; David F. Wnendt’s juvenile gross-out Wetlands, about a teenage girl with an extreme fixation on germs and bodily fluids (her own and others’); and Lenny Abrahamson’s quirk-fest Frank, whose title character, the enigmatic yet clearly troubled leader of an awful experimental band, is played by Michael Fassbender, wearing a ridiculous giant papier-mâché head for most of the film.
Successfully original and good, on the other hand, was I Origins, Mike Cahill’s follow-up to After Earth, which premiered at Sundance three years earlier and was also a love-it-or-hate-it work (I was in the love camp). Whereas Cahill’s debut film was science fiction, I Origins sticks solely to science (with a little metaphysics thrown in) as the backdrop to an illuminating narrative that plays out on two, oddly intersecting dramatic planes: the whirlwind—and tragically short-lived—romance between a serious-minded molecular biology Ph.D. student (Michael Pitt) and a free-spirited model (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey); and the student’s deeply meaningful professional (and later personal) relationship with his exceptionally smart and patient lab assistant (Brit Marling). Their shared passion is the eye, and at one point after years of research, they learn of a shocking discovery that puts into question everything they believe, or more precisely, don’t believe. With luck, audiences’ own personal beliefs about the existence of the human soul won’t stop them from letting go and savoring this film.
Blind, another eye-centric gem, is the feature debut of Eskil Vogt, who co-wrote Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, and here reveals a visual style as sharp and assured as his facility with words. Blind features the spellbinding Ellen Dorrit Petersen as Ingrid, a writer who has recently lost her sight, along with her desire to leave the safety of her apartment. The film explores her attempts to reinvent her newly darkened existence (living with a husband who isn’t exactly supportive), and the role a creative mind can take in this process. When Ingrid isn’t on screen, contending with some of life’s little rituals like eating or cleaning that the sighted take for granted, characters of her own invention appear (a lonely sex-obsessed introvert and his neighbor, a single mom also longing for companionship), suggesting the ways in which, with just a little imagination, fiction can easily become entangled with reality. Memorable, thought-provoking, even a little bit heartbreaking, Blind and I Origins represent another kind of Sundance movie—the kind that miraculously turn up just when it feels like over-viewing and under-sleeping might bring on your own blindness.