I’ve seen nearly two dozen full length films, including documentaries and features. What follows is a quick report on the most memorable fiction films I’ve seen so far, in four categories:
The Wild - films that made my heart beat faster, that were intense and exhilarating
Blue Ruin - directed by Jeremy Saulnier (who got his start in 2007 with the Slamdance-selected Murder Party), and starring his friend Macon Blair as a bearded and unkempt vagrant who eats from the trash and sneaks into empty houses to bathe. When he finds out that the man jailed for killing his parents is about to be released, he decides it’s up to him to enact justice. Unfortunately, he doesn’t plan things very well, and he’s ill prepared for the consequences. I found the film to be quite gripping and intense, with strong performances throughout.
The Weird - distinctive flicks that told compelling stories in unconventional ways
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter - in this, the latest film from the Zellner Brothers, Rinko Kikuchi stars as a withdrawn Japanese woman who is unhappy with her job as office assistant. She imagines, at least, that she is meant for much bigger things. She discovers a clue to her destiny in an old VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, whose opening credits (falsely) proclaim to be a true story. She takes pages of notes, focusing on a briefcase full of $100 bills that was buried in the snow near a barbed wire fence. She travels to Michigan and is quietly but doggedly persistent in the face of facts that trouble her fantasies. It’s a quirky tale, very well told with convincing performances throughout. I really liked it.
White Bird in a Blizzard - Gregg Araki’s latest is a loose adaptation of the novel by Laura Kasischke, which is itself loosely inspired by a true story about a Midwest housewife who suddenly vanished. 17-year-old Kat (Shailene Woodley) has a lot to deal with, and her mother’s disappearance is far from the top of the list of her concerns. Her dumb-as-nails but sexy boyfriend is losing interest in sex, and the tough detective assigned to the case of her missing mom is willing in private to take his place. Araki makes the story his own, with sitcom-style sets full of kitschy ’80s furniture, and through a series of flashbacks and haunting dream sequences dissects the troubles and longings at the heart of Kat’s seemingly ideal suburban family.
The Wacky - films that were really out there, not necessarily in a good way
R100 - the name of this Japanese film is meant to suggest that it’s subject matter is too mature for anyone under 100 to tolerate and understand. In the end, though, it seemed to be the product of a seriously twisted teenager. A lonely Japanese businessman hears about a mysterious organization. It turns out to be an unconventional S&M club, and after signing up he has random encounters with beautiful women in leather, who humiliate him in public or beat him into submission. He ends up liking it, until the humiliations become both painful and personal. It’s an intriguing premise, and in its somewhat realistic beginnings I found it to be surprisingly moving. Halfway through, though, it gets really weird, and descends into campy wackiness. For a more consistently satisfying strange Japanese flick, check out Funky Forest: The First Contact.
Wetlands - I confess, I couldn’t bring myself to see this one after reading the description and hearing about it from lots of people who had. It tells the story of a young German woman, who is fascinated by her bodily fluids and scents, and the film is, apparently, quite graphic in its depictions of her sexual experimentation. Here’s what Eckerd College student Dominick Cuppetelli had to say about it: “This is by no means a movie for the family to sit down and watch on a Sunday night. In fact, it may be so unholy that it shouldn’t be played on Sunday at all. The film couldn’t go five minutes without the audience shuddering in a flurry of emotion. I don’t have a sensitive stomach at all and even I was fighting my body’s reflex to gag at times. But in all it’s unholiness, its gruesome subject matter, its visceral imagery, it is actually a pretty fantastic film.”
The Wonderful - surprisingly lovely and delightful films, that reminded me why I love Sundance
The Lunchbox - Ritesh Batra directs and Irrfan Khan (the older Pi from The Life of Pi) stars in this delightful story about a lonely widower and a neglected wife, who connect and fall in love by accident. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) hopes to impress her husband with a new recipe she sends via Mumbai’s incredibly effective lunchbox delivery system. A rare glitch in the system sends the meal to Saajan (Khan) instead, and they begin a correspondence that takes him out of his shell and helps her to envision other possibilities than the future she faces with a man who doesn’t love her.
Land Ho! - one of my favorite films so far at the festival, Land Ho! was directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz. I'm not the only one who loved it. The sleeper hit was one of the first to be picked up for distribution, by Sony Pictures Classics. The film stars Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson as a pair of retirees who travel to Iceland in order to reclaim their youth. Earl Lynn is a plastic surgeon with a thick Kentucky accent, who calls things like he sees them, and has a rude sense of humor. His friend, and former stepbrother, Paul, is more soft-spoken. Their relationship plays out against the backdrop of stunningly beautiful Icelandic vistas in this hilarious and surprisingly moving road trip comedy.