Decided to finally catch up a little bit now that all of my Sundance writing is over and up online. So here are some thoughts about all of the works I saw there. This is a fairly long piece because it covers a whole lot of movies.
Features (with Links to Extended Writing)!
A Glitch in the Matrix (Rodney Ascher)
The films of Rodney Ascher are as much of a challenge to the audience as they are to the filmmaker: how does one approach figures who speak with the utmost sincerity about notions that may seem far-fetched, if not outright ridiculous? It’s easy to roll eyes at the Kubrick conspiracy theories of Room 237 and find the horrors presented in The Nightmare a little too silly to be scary. With A Glitch in the Matrix, Ascher offers his most compelling set of theories and thought experiments to date; an often unsettling and frequently fascinating exploration into simulation theory and those who believe in it.
All Light, Everywhere (Theo Anthony)
Early on in Theo Anthony’s excellent documentary, All Light, Everywhere, its narrator spells out its thesis succinctly: “Any measurement is only as accurate as the measuring instrument.”
If Rat Film explored how those in power create the narratives required to oppress those they seek to control, and Subject to Review navigated how imperfect all forms of perspective are, Anthony’s latest film is a perfect comingling of the two — an exploration of how everything we use to present a certain truth is shaped by the way we attempt to capture it. Surveillance and violence are depicted as inherently linked as the filmmaker details the long history of photography; long since the days of pigeons and cameras shaped like gatling guns, each technological innovation pushes society further into a police state that only benefits those with the power to shape perception.
Playing With Sharks (Sally Aitken)
Sharks have been lurking in the depths of our cultural consciousness for decades now. From the fear that Jaws instilled in audiences in 1975 to the endless consumption of bogus Shark Week docufiction that Discovery Channel peddled, there has been a sense of terror around these unique creatures that few have tried to truly dissipate.
To look at Valerie Taylor’s best known film works, including Jaws and Blue Water, White Death, one might believe the diver and photographer to be one such perpetrator of these myths. But Sally Aitken’s documentary Playing With Sharks offers an in-depth look at the way Taylor (and her husband Ron) dedicated her life to showcasing the beauty of the ocean’s most misunderstood creatures.
Cryptozoo (Dash Shaw)
The current state of American animated cinema is more than a little disappointing; Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, and more regurgitate the same formula and offer nothing new but a juxtaposition of cartoon designs and hyper-realistic imagery; animation for adults is all too rare. When something like Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski’s Cryptozoo comes along, it’s easy to recognize as one of the most gorgeous works of American animation in ages.
There is a willingness to experiment with animation and layers that is present from the very first frames of Cryptozoo that makes it immediately captivating. One simply watches two hippies roaming through the forest, engaging in their erotic and philosophical musings, without the realization that something so small and dark and intimate will explode into a psychedelic adventure that asks an important question: can humans and cryptids ever truly co-exist in peace?
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Jane Schoenbrun)
The world premiere of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair at Sundance Film Festival felt like a communal experience for those of us who have existed online since the 2000s. Amid a number of features — including A Glitch in the Matrix, The Pink Cloud, Knocking, and more — that explored isolated spaces and how we navigate loneliness, Jane Schoenbrun’s directorial feature debut was a highlight: a nuanced exploration of how the web can both comfort and manipulate, with all of the videos we perceive and all of the conversations we have slowly changing us over time.
As protagonist Casey (Anna Cobb) plays World’s Fair Challenge, an online role-playing horror game, she allows the autoplay button to bring her to the next video, and the next one, and the one after that; the algorithm taking her deeper and deeper into the world of the game. In each video, she’s showing each change, real or imagined, in herself. The videos she films as part of the challenge and its aftermath are barely viewed, but as she documents the changes that may be happening to her, a mysterious stranger named JLB (Michael J. Rogers) reaches out online to warn her of what dangers lie within the game. There is uncertainty to be found everywhere, but most especially in how Casey seems to be processing the overwhelming unease that both mentally and physically surrounds her.
Trans viewers especially have responded to the film en masse, identifying with the film’s exploration of dysphoria. Schoenbrun, a nonbinary creator themself, has been overjoyed at the reception by viewers and critics alike at the festival, and is aware that the film is opening up a conversation around what it means to create a “trans film” that isn’t what many might expect from the label. Bitch spoke with Schoenbrun about the film, dysphoria, and how the internet shapes our identities.
Features (Just Some Thoughts)!
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Jane Schoenbrun)
[Wanted to include my initial thoughts in addition to my interview with the director and sincerely encourage everyone to check this out]
A smart, sensitive exploration of how what we perceive distinctly changes who we are. The web can exist to both comfort and manipulate, especially for those of us who need to escape the most. Beautiful work by Jane Schoenbrun.
I think the way the film navigates the progression of time, slow and steady but also quicker than we ever realize until it’s too late, is nothing short of amazing. A lot of subtlety in Anna Cobb’s performance; when “turning points” happen, they’re as exciting as they are painful.
Really nails how we navigate our own identity through what we outwardly present. Sometimes those shifts so deeply internal that we struggle to speak them aloud. Sometimes it’s “I know for some people it’s a big change; that’s not what it feels like for me.” Other times, a scream.
Also, not that anyone needs me to say this but this movie is hella trans and I would simply like more weird trans horror and more unique trans coming of age stories and just more trans art that is this bold and interesting and great.
El Planeta (Amalia Ulman)
Enjoyed existing in this film, with these women, and made me miss wandering around a city aimlessly and spending time family that I don’t always get to see. An endearing slice-of-life about navigating spaces and events when a part of them is missing.
I think synopses and reviews calling them “grifters” feels misguided honestly; it’s very much a portrait of two individuals dealing with loss (of love, of wealth, of comfort, etc) and adjustment (to living without those things) through a very casual lens.
I understand some folks won’t vibe with its style, but there’s beauty and humor in the little things here. It’s in someone watching a video of their old cat, longing to pet it, and then showing the audience the now-empty space next to her feet that he used to fill. Lovely.
An aside: not to complain about subtitle translations (maintaining comic intent is hard!), but this adorable wordplay doesn’t work as well when you change “leo” to “I’m reading”
“Que haces afuera?”
“Si, ya se que te llamas Leo.”
“Ha, ha. Festival del humor.”
Prisoners of the Ghostland (Sion Sono)
Bloated, under scripted, and all over the place? Yes. A wildly poetic? ambitious? spaghetti western? samurai? drama? action? comedy? epic? with touches of Mad Max? and Troma? and more? Yes! Not his best, but a self-aware, delightful Sono.
Happy enough with Cage here (it’s fun!), and enjoyed what little Boutella got to do, but nothing compares to Bill Moseley’s flawless turn as a western villain with a harem of Japanese women & the film’s gorgeous! gorgeous!! gorgeous!!! set design!!!!!and costume design!!! Just a totally wonderful imaginative production!
Anyway, when this movie drops, tell your friends to get high and prepare themselves for a gonzo mash-up of Fallout New Vegas, Ghosts of Tsushima, Red Dead Redemption, and I don’t even know what the fuck else, lmao. Bong rips for a Sion Sono and Hideo Kojima collab to happen!!!!!
Pleasure (Ninja Thyberg)
A truly lived in feature that gets the nuances of porn shoots — both at their best (that submissive bondage scene with a safe work environment!) & and their worst (manipulative, ignoring boundaries, assault). Appropriately intense, but respectful while being successfully provocative. Great direction & lead performance; riveting stuff throughout.
Be nice if discourse around this wasn’t just pearl clutching repetition about how graphic or intense it is. Exciting how studied it is, how willingly it depicts fetish positively & sex work as actual hard work, and how it navigates relationships (both professional and friendly).
And I’m sure someone will take this as a ridiculous comparison, but I haven’t been this fascinated in dissecting the power dynamics, staging, execution, and performances within both sex scenes and conversation scenes alike in a film since Verhoeven’s Showgirls.
Strawberry Mansion (Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney)
Life is but a dream. Even as capitalism encroaches upon even our internal universe, down to taxing what we dream, we must attempt to embrace the beauty and absurdity that exists in imagination. Really lovely, emotional work, music especially.
Adjacent to Gondry more than anyone else (Maddin and Gilliam are fair to bring up); lackadaisical with casual pacing and modest ambitions. Calling it an “Adult Swim short gone long” is underselling its beauty, overselling its surrealism, and incorrectly implying aimlessness, imo.
And no, I would not call it Lynchian because that’s a stupid and overused term, but I’ll be damned if there aren’t some splashes of Twin Peaks’ spirit inside of this, in more than one instance, despite having a very different sense of humor and horror for its storytelling.
Just really loved so much of what this film was doing and I understand that not everyone will vibe with it, but I can honestly say I teared up more than once and especially when Bella says, “I wanted someone to share my dreams with.” Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Ana Katz)
Has some amusing and touching scenarios, especially early on and fairly late on, but ultimately meanders far too much for its own good. Fond of Daniel Katz’s low key performance, whose irreverence I vibed with more than the film itself. And as partial as I am to animated or sketched sequences in cinema, the work included here feels like something of an afterthought, which is kind of a shame because there’s a nugget of a concept there. There is stuff to like in this film, but I don’t think it feels complete.
That said! I always forget how comforting it is for me to exist in a world that’s just people existing and speaking in Spanish until I watch another work like that and it feels very homey to me. Reminds me of being in cities without family and stumbling into a Spanish speaker.
Passing (Rebecca Hall)
Refreshing to see a contemporary B&W film that isn’t dull gray, using color and light exquisitely to complement the text. The chemistry between Thompson, Negga, and Hall’s (very queer) gaze is intoxicating; she navigates spaces with intimacy and delicacy.
Seeing negative reviews reminds me of the reception toward Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea; tinged with misogyny and a sense that Certain Filmmakers (esp queer women) can’t create well-paced work with distinct aesthetic craft, exploring conflicting emotions, without harsh critique.
I won’t say there aren’t a few scenes that feel as though they’re staged like a play more than a film, but overall there’s a real naturalism that comes with being made by a filmmaker who understands what it’s like to be conflicted by their own identity and how to engage with it.
Haven’t read the novella (but I did just excitedly order a copy), but Irene’s story resonated with me a lot. Who among us that exists between cultures (in my case being a white latinx & non-binary) hasn’t felt jealousy or admiration for those we perceive as better off than us?
Prime Time (Jakub Piatek)
Wish there was anything interesting to say about this. Not particularly thrilling, nor does it work as a slow burn. Occasionally remembers its characters are more than props and tries to give them depth, but, just kind of empty with no real stakes. Sure thinks it has something to say though. Or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t really care anymore.
Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen)
Kind of wish this was a graphic novel instead of an animated film, but the film’s strengths are in the little queer things — it’s in expressions, small gestures, and intimate memories. It’s all about Amin honestly. His candid recollections are the real art.
I can see why everyone is going gaga over this — serious subject told through palatable animation — but I found its aesthetic shifts for melodramatic beats (and the splicing in of archival footage) distracting, as opposed to the simple beauty that comes with a man recalling his life.
Knocking (Frida Kempff)
Despite some solid (if fairly inconsistent) cinematography and a committed performance from its lead, this feels like a very drawn-out half-baked concept. Has no clue what it wants to be about — grief? insanity? no! it’s ~reality~ — and it shows throughout.
It’s, like, a very lazy attempt at a psychological thriller. And a very messy attempt at including gaslighting. And flat out just uninterested in mental illness beyond surface level. Also, just stupid in this day and age to reference Persona for no reason whatsoever.
The whole time I kept coming back to a number of early 2000s j-horror works that navigate this same territory and paranoid aesthetic, from the building itself to the angles used within it, but mine the mind and heart of their characters to create emotional and unsettling dramas. This movie really has no interest in going beyond its sort of basic atmosphere and that’s a damn shame.
In the Earth (Ben Wheatley)
Clint Mansell’s best work in…I can’t even remember how long. Wheatley delivers an engaging piece of science fiction, packed with as much humor and gore as I’d come to expect of him. Adored the visual effects and strobe lighting work so much.
Love that it consistently pivots through seeming influences, but inevitably becomes a film about how what we believe in — be it religion or science — makes fools of us all. Really fond of most of what Wheatley’s doing editorially, though a couple of abrupt cuts feel out of place.
Overall just feels like a nice apologia for Rebecca and return to the early days of his work, particularly in line with A Field in England. Plus, it’s the kind of contagion cinema of present day that isn’t annoyingly on the nose. Cannot state enough how much I adored Mansell’s music here. Like, holy shit, it’s so great.
John and the Hole (Pascual Sisto)
Mmmm, well, it’s not nearly provocative or bleakly humorous enough despite having some interesting moments. Almost wants to be both Lanthimos & Haneke without realizing those aesthetics don’t actually work. Just really unsure of itself overall.
This child actor is not strong enough to support whatever this movie was asking of him, which, frankly, I’m still unsure what it WAS asking of him. And limiting your talent to being stuck in a hole is a choice. I don’t think this film has any real statement to make whatsoever.
But, hey, what did I expect from the writer of Birdman.
Human Factors (Ronny Trocker)
Uninterested in the psyches of characters, with nothing to say about the bourgeoise or the politics around them. Tries to create something of a mystery and fails to do so to make up for how shallow it is as a drama. People will compare this to Haneke and I will simply have to tell them they’re horribly wrong.
Censor (Pano Bailey-Bond)
A contemporary horror film that tries to ape classic aesthetics (eighties horror in general though not necessarily that of the Video Nasties it’s preoccupied with) and actually succeeds; lighting and editing are especially exquisite. Confident direction and a willingness to not take self too seriously actually makes for good ‘trauma horror’ & great debut.
Also: Niamh Algar is damn good in this and that the performance paired with the film around her is really interesting and subtle horror that indulges in some great bodily ticks and expressions I dug a lot. “Extreme violence and gore” warning on Sundance site a bit misleading though.
Don’t want to call something adjacent to Peter Strickland, but its editorial and comic sensibilities are absolutely in line with him. Certainly not as polished or as studied as his best works, but boy oh boy I still enjoyed myself.
Shorts (Just Some Thoughts)!
For this section, I will be keeping things simple and only highlighting the shorts I was incredibly fond of. You can find my thoughts on the other works listed below (which range from good to bad), but I figure there’s no point in taking down a short film unless it’s, like, offensively bad. So here are some thoughts on some favorites!
In The Air Tonight (Andrew Norman Wilson)
My initial NYFF thoughts: An absolute gem of fan fiction based around mythologizing Phil Collins, and, more specifically, ‘In the Air Tonight.’ Creates a playful story through voiceover (with lots of small jokes like Collins calling Daryl Hall for a ‘private eye’) and visuals (like including a fight scene from T2 and two cocks blowing their loads simultaneously during the song’s drum break). Laughed out loud multiple times and jammed through the entirety of the credits.
My current Sundance thoughts: In the Air Tonight is effectively a creepypasta told through montage. On rewatch you allow yourself to be less drawn in by the enticing visuals (which are still wonderfully seductive and cut together so fluidly) and try to focus a little more on the scripting and the way it peppers in these wonderful subtle jokes amidst a lot of melancholic nonsense about identity and reflection and stardom and the self that is sort of expositional and told via monologue but also just sort of just compelling and entertaining storytelling.
Misery Loves Company (Sasha Lee)
I, too, am a depressive asshole who would absolutely adore being crushed to death by a meteor. Gorgeously animated with great music. Short, sweet, music video-ish.
Ghost Dogs (Joe Cappa)
Absolutely goddamn delightful; unsettling and amusing in equal parts. Just a total fucking nightmare that I had tons of fun with and is just really interesting on an animation level.
Unliveable (Enock Carvalho, Matheus Farias)
You know, I’d typically find myself at odds with any film about trans women (especially missing trans women) that center themselves around a cis woman, but there’s such a sensitivity on display here that I found myself incredibly drawn into it. This is a lovely and intimate piece of science fiction, grounded in characters and the drama they’re trying to process (with high stakes never being taken into melodramatic territory) that I could easily picture being expanded into a feature. Honestly? I want more.
Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma (Topaz Jones, Simon Davis, Jason Sondock)
This is a stunning use of montage, home video, archived footage, interviews, and music to create an engaging document about a unique range of black experiences. This is really what playful experimental work should look like; at times amusing and casual & at other times stark and political, but always using its style to center black art, black discourse, black spaces, and black lives. More unique visual albums!
Flex (David Strindberg, Josefin Malmen)
I almost think its more absurd flourishes take away from how flat out engaging the filmmaking is, making the playful scripting and great delivery a little less impacting. Delightful short that isn’t trying to be anything more than what it is though.
Yoruga (Federico Torrado Tobon)
Precisely the kind of offbeat melancholic short I appreciate. Just a man, a turtle, and the ache that comes with only having a connection for a limited time.
KKUM (Kim Kang-min)
Incredible use of stop motion animation to tell a really lovely and engaging story. Kept being pleasantly surprised by the new directions that this filmmaker took in manipulating foam to create a dreamy landscape.