My up-to-the-minute experience of my first Sundance Film Festival
By Sean Blanford
Monday, February 1st
2:44 pm: Fell behind again, but it’s because I am trying to get in a many films as possible since my wife and I are going out to dinner for her birthday tonight! So two films after World’s Fair, the first being Eight for Silver, a period horror that was one of the few disappointments of the festival, which is a bummer because I have been craving good horror content. Heavily reliant on jump scares and gore and leaving suspense at the door, this was a dull affair that had beautiful costume design and more than adequate special effects. The werewolf/lycan story has been told many times, some good, some bad. This was sadly just kind of there.
Secondly is another recommend, Ma Belle, My Beauty, centered around the relationship between two former lovers who are reunited in France and how the traverse their underlying felling for one another even though one is newly married to a man. The set design and acting by the lead actresses Idella Johnson and and Hannah Pepper-Cunningham.
10:33 am: So when I said I wanted to go to a World’s Fair to try and relax my brain, this 100% wasn’t it. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a scary and effective look at internet culture through the eyes of the stellar performance from Anna Cobb in her feature film debut as Casey. What I am noticing from this year’s festival is discovering new directors that I will want to follow after this, and writer-director Jane Schoenburn (also in her feature debut) is one of them. I’m now going to take a thirty minute brain break and hopefully the next film will be a little less intensive.
8:54am: So, what can I say about Pleasure? Well, it wasn’t a bad film, not in the slightest. The look at a young Swedish woman’s attempt to become the next big porn star was extremely intense, unglamorous, but polished in it’s appearance. This is potentially the unsexiest film about sex you’ll see this side of Gaspar Noe’s Love, but this is much like Violation that I don’t know if this is one I can recommend to a majority of people. It is graphic, difficult, and unrelenting. So let’s get a palette cleanse and head off to a World’s Fair.
6:52 am: Rise and shine, campers, it’s day five of Sundance, the first of two days before awards are handed out that, for the most part, are premiere-free and are mostly used for second-chance screenings. This gives me a bit more wiggle room to start and end films when I want to without the pressures of wanting to see the premiere films right away and end them with everyone else. Before I get to my first film of today, I want to recap last night’s midnight feature, and it’s probably the best out of the lot I have seen. Heralded from TIFF this last fall and receiving the festival’s Rising Stars Award, Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s Violation is an artistic and pull-no-punches entry into the rape-revenge horror subgenre, and one that I could not stop thinking about since I saw it. It is uncomfortable, and it isn’t supposed to be, so I can’t recommend this to everyone, but all I can say about it is “wow”. Today’s fast-and-furious day begins in Sweden with Pleasure.
Sunday, January 31st
10:42 pm: It isn’t often that a film leaves me speechless, but Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland did just that. Beautiful set design, insane stunt coordination, and Nic Cage at his, well, Nic Cagiest. After a film like this, I would want to unwind what I just saw and maybe call it a night, but not so fast. TIFF Midnight Madness darling Violation is how I am rounding out today’s proceedings, then it’s off to bed, that is if I’m able to fall asleep.
7:45 pm: For my thoughts on Robin Wright’s Land, check out my full review! As for now, it’s time for some beautiful Nic Cage insanity in Prisoners of the Ghostland.
4:42 pm: Fourth film in the bag, which was the Ed Helms/Patti Harrison pregnancy dramedy Together Together, about a man (Helms) and his “relationship” with the woman who is his surrogate (Harrison). While I am extremely grateful that writer/director Nikole Beckwith steered very far away from the romantic comedy tropes, I didn’t find the film particularly funny, which for a film marketed as a comedy is a bit troublesome. Rather, I appreciated the heartfelt moments between Helms and Harrison as they try and figure out what exactly they are to one another. The ending came out of nowhere, which gave me a shock but at the same time has kept me thinking about what the film truly meant in the end.
1:52 pm: The problem with wanting to sleep in and then making lunch a priority is having to pack three write-ups into one post. I promise I’ll be better (haha).
First up, El Planeta, a beautifully told mother-daughter grifter story from artist Amalia Ulman. Casting her real-life mom in the film was smart because the chemistry between the two worked really well, even if the story as a whole felt a bit meandering. An overall great first feature though.
Next up, Mass another in the small cast, single location movies that I love to chew up, as Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney create this onion of a film, peeling back layers upon layers of drama between the family of a school shooter and the family of one of its victims.
Lastly was the stellar documentary At the Ready, a look at a group of El Paso high schoolers who are in training to become police officers and border patrol agents. Being in the times we are in with how immigration was treated in the last several years, this gave a look at those people who are young and inspired enough to have the drive and desire to make a difference.
7:37 am: Slept in a little late (but I really needed it) so hopefully, I will be able to get to the two catch-up films before the start of my premiere slate today. Speaking of, today is STACKED, with Robin Wright’s Land and Nicolas Cage’s Prisoners of the Ghostland amongst a slew of other great films. The first film on today’s docket is one that wasn’t even on my radar before the start of the festival, but several people I am in an Instagram group was so excited about it I had to add it to the slate. The film is called El Planeta.
Back to last night, and the midnight film Coming Home in the Dark, a thriller out New Zealand. This is the best of the midnight films I have seen so far, and I was so behind what it was saying, right up until the last five minutes. Maybe there is something super nuanced that I missed, but it just felt so flat and anti-climatic that it ended up being kind of a disappointment. On to Day 4!
Saturday, January 30th
11:01 pm: Heading into the last film of the day, and I won’t have anything to say about it until tomorrow due to the embargo. As for R#J (Romeo and Juliet), it was an interesting and fresh take on a known commodity, the use of social media in the film could have been kitschy to the point of overkill, but the balance was there to make it be less of a gimmick and more of a storytelling device. The acting from the leads was terrific, but the ending change (will not divulge) didn’t sit with me. Not the change, but how it was executed just seemed clunky.
7:45 pm: Heading into the final two films of day three, which will bring my total of films viewed to 15 in two-an-a-half days. The caffeine is flowing in this household, and it makes me wonder if this was an in-person festival how one would be able to carry such a large load of films and maneuver around the snowy hills of Park City. Anyway, the previous film I watched was Passing, the feature directorial debut of Rebecca Hall and while I loved the cinematography and lead performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, I was left wanting more. I have never been one that has to rely on huge moments or bombast, but this felt kind of flat.
3:31 pm: There were films I rated highly because they were really well-done films I enjoyed, but my vote right now for best film goes to Wild Indian. My lord what a movie. I am absolutely floor by the story-telling spanning thirty-five years of carrying the burden of murdering someone and the effect that decisions made on two people’s respective futures. Michael Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer were stellar as Makwa and Teddo, and a superb directorial debut for Lyle Mitchell Corbine.
1:18 pm: Deadline is reporting that the rights to Coda have sold to Apple for 25 million, breaking the record set last year by Palm Springs by over 2 million dollars. This is so exciting that this stellar film found a home, and that people will get to see this hopefully in the not-to-distant future.
1:01 pm: Well that was just the pick-me-up I needed. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street was a telling look at the behind-the-scenes of what it took to get the show on the air, the processes that went into how an episode got created, and how it got education and diversity onto television in a time when children’s television needed something great. The bloopers and stories were very funny, but damn you Big Bird for sneaking in and making me cry. Next up is Wild Indian featuring Jesse Eisenburg and Kate Bosworth.
11:02 am: Boy do I need a glimmer of light, because the last two films, Cryptozoo and John and the Hole left me feeling a little bleak, with Hole being really disappointing. I really didn’t know what it wanted to be or the story it was trying to tell, and when a film at the end leaves me with so many questions (and not in a good way), I just felt empty. Luckilly the next film on the docket and the first premiere of the day is a Sesame Street documentary!
7:41 am: After an adequate night’s rest and no nightmares from last night’s midnight feature Knocking, which was a lot like Censor in that it was more of a thriller with horror elements than an outright horror movie in the more traditional sense. Now it’s on to day three and my first of two seven-film schedules. The first film of the day is the much talked about trippy animated feature Cryptozoo.
Friday, January 29th
10:40 pm: Heading into the last film of day two, and the sixth film of the day, and it’s another midnight horror screening! Censor last night didn’t do enough to keep me too awake, so let’s see if Frieda Kempff’s Knocking will frighten me out of my skin.
As for On the Count of Three, my lord what a film. I love when a film can subvert my expectations, and as someone who typically delves in comedy, Jerrod Charmichael both as the director and co-lead alongside a very game Christopher Abbott with his stringy bleach blonde spaghetti hair created a touching film about friendship as two people who have an agenda to complete before a planned double suicide. This is up there with Coda and Flee as my early favorites of the festival.
8:01 pm: With dinner in my belly and a Red Bull in my hand, I now trek on to films seven of the festival, Jerrod Charmichael’s On the Count of Three, which follows up film six, Zoe Lister-Jones’ end-of-the-world comedy How It Ends. How It Ends was quite enjoyable given the restraints given that it was filmed during the pandemic in Southern California, and while not all the jokes land, the combination of fun cameos and comradery between Jones and co-star Cailee Spaeny as Jones’ younger self worked really well.
3:53 pm: Just finished film five, Christopher Makoto Yogi’s I Was a Simple Man was a beautiful slow burn looking at family, tradition, grief, and looking at the different segments of a man’s life. This was another film, much like One for the Road, that was a heavy watch and dealt with a similar subject matter (illness) with an emotional yet soft touch. I am really enjoying many of the films I’ve seen, but hopefully, I can get out of this trend of watching films centering around sickness and death. I could go for something a little more lighthearted right about now.
Good news, though! It has been announced that Neon has purchased Flee, marking the first purchase out of the festival. With the strong word-of-mouth this excellent film has garnered, it is great to see a major indie company pick this up. Here is hoping for similar good news for CODA in the coming days, if not hours.
1:39 pm: After a brief interlude I dove straight into my fourth film, One for the Road directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya and produced by the legendary Wong Kar-Wai. This was a long heavy movie about two friends who come together after one is diagnosed with terminal leukemia. There was a lot I loved about this film, but the pacing really dragged, and with a little more restraint and focus this could have been an excellent film in my eyes. However, this was still very good and one I don’t regret seeing. This wraps up the catch-up from yesterday’s portion of the schedule, and now I am heading into the first of four premieres today.
8:05 am: Flee is a beautifully told hybrid of animation and live-action footage mainly taking place in the late 80s and into the present day. We follow Amin, a young Afghan refugee, as he has to struggle with the on-going war in his country, the separation from his family, as well as his own sexuality and keeping that from those that he loves. In the three films I have watched so far, they have all been really complex stories told in interesting ways, and this so far is my favorite. I am going to try and sneak in at least one or two more films before my first premiere this afternoon.
6:15 am: After a late night that had me up until one in the morning (you’ll be seeing this a lot over the next few days), it’s time for an early start to try and get in a few second-day films before the start of my premiere slate. The last film I watched was the first in the midnight slate of films, the directorial debut of Prano Bailey-Bond entitled Censor, an extremely solid psychological horror film about a young woman who is a film censor back in the 1980s who is also dealing with the mental drama of feeling responsible for the death of her sister. Blurring the lines between what is real and what is all in her head, the film has an ending that I just can’t shake.
Now it’s time for some coffee and to start the first of three extremely packed days!
Thursday, January 28th
9:31 pm: When I hear someone tell me to bring tissues to a movie, my reaction is always to put on the macho facade faux tough guy act. Well, congratulations Sian Heder, you got me.
CODA was a really well-acted look at what it’s like to be an outsider, whether it be in your family (being the only hearing member of your deaf family), being made fun of at school, or having a talent that you feel too afraid to let out there. Emilia Jones is an absolute treasure as Ruby, the hearing daughter of a family who runs a fishing boat. Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant were all fantastic as Ruby’s parents and older brother, and Eugenio Derebez as Ruby’s music teacher Mr. V. stole most, if not all the scenes he was in.
The story beats may have been familiar, and while the story in the middle gets to be a bit muddled, this was a fantastic way to start my first Sundance Film Festival.
3:58 pm: Even though I have been to the Toronto International Film Festival three times, something about covering Sundance feels different. This is the first time I have covered a festival with Press and Industry access, and while I feel comfortable in my abilities in watching and writing about what I have seen, the fact that I have been given so much more access than I ever have before feels overwhelming and enlightening all at the same time. My hope is the work I put in will make whoever reads my reviews, whether they be short or long-form, to be able to see some of these amazing movies.
Speaking of which, as of right now I have a total of nineteen films on my slate which are confirmed, with that number reaching close to thirty if I catch everything I want in the second viewing portion of the festival. Since the premieres don’t begin until 7 pm my time, I decided to take in the animated shorts selection, and this was a vast array of fun and interesting films, many of which caught my attention both for their style and story. Of the nine that were featured in this 72-minute block, my three favorites were GNT, KKUM, and Souvenir Souvenir. If you have the opportunity and the time to check this out, I highly encourage you to do so.