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This weekend we’re watching: Films and documentaries from Sundance Film Festival

A general view the Egyptian Theater at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2017 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Since its creation back in 1985, Sundance has premiered some of the most groundbreaking features and documentaries. We look at the festival’s programme over the years.

Sundance is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world and arguably brings more upcoming independent directors, filmmakers and producers into the spotlight than any other.

This year’s festival has reportedly produced even more waves and quality films than we’ve come to expect, including the first South African-directed film in competition in the world cinema documentary category of the Sundance Film Festival. Influence, directed by Daily Maverick’s very own Richard Poplak and Diana Neille is “a feature-length documentary about Bell Pottinger and what firms like it represent in modern politics”. The film made an appropriately big splash at the festival on Monday the 27th.

Blood Simple, 1985: Grand Jury Award for dramatic film

A man hires a shady detective to investigate whether his wife has been cheating, and asks him to kill her if indeed she has been.

This is the film that made the mighty Coen brothers. But it wasn’t just them, Blood Simple was also the first major film of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld who went on to become a renowned director himself and actress Frances McDormand, who then married Joel Coen, and starred brilliantly in many more Coen brothers’ films, two of which she won Academy Awards for.

In hindsight, Blood Simple is exactly what you’d expect from the Coen brothers’ directorial debut: a delightfully deviant deluge of dark humour and deadpan dialogue. Part of the film’s genius is how the intricate story is pieced together by tiny believable miscommunications, and this narrative precision as well as its careful use of light and dark stretched the film noir as a genre.

Sex, Lies and Videotape, 1989: Audience Award

Graham, the film’s main character, has a rather unusual fetish – he’s decided that conversation is more intimate and erotic than sex itself, so he videotapes women discussing their lives and sexuality. Of course, the conversations are all mind games, and ironically, what makes them so lascivious is the sexual tension they provoke and the expectation that they will lead to sex.

Sex, Lies and Videotape is the film that brought Steven Soderbergh to fame, and the story of the making of the film has become part of the legend surrounding his rise as a director. It was written on yellow legal pad in merely eight days during a trip to Los Angeles, and yet it has hugely influenced independent film-making.

Reservoir dogs, 1992

The story of a group of diamond thieves who plan to rob a jewelry store. It all goes south pretty quickly and things get rough.

Quentin Tarantino’s feature film debut, Reservoir Dogs is characteristically inspired, gruesome, witty and excellent. It’s a cult classic, generally regarded as a milestone moment of independent film-making, and packed with the cheeky dialogue and riveting chaos we have come to expect from Tarantino.

Four weddings and a funeral, 1994

Charles, an endearing chap played by a young Hugh Grant, searches for love over the course of five social occasions. The characters seem to live out their lives in public, and the omission of their personal lives seems a reference to traditional British etiquette and culture of privacy. The film is quirky, relatable and captivating.

A surprise success, Four Weddings and a Funeral went on to become (at that time) the highest-grossing British film in history and catapulted Hugh Grant into international acclaim. Its influence on the British film industry and romantic comedy was enormous (and possibly on eulogies).

The Usual Suspects, 1995

A survivor of a massacre (played by Kevin Spacey, who himself has since been accused of sexual misconduct by several people in the wake of the #MeToo movement) is interrogated in custody, and through convoluted story telling and flashbacks explains how a police line-up of criminals ended up attempting a high-risk heist together, and how it all went wrong.

In the wake of Reservoir Dogs three years earlier, The Usual Suspects initially received both praise and criticism based on their similarities. But The Usual Suspects feels like a very different film, and it transports you at a different pace, delving ever deeper into the criminal psyche and mystery.

The Blair Witch Project, 1999

 Three student filmmakers disappear after hiking into the woods intent on filming a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch. A year later, their footage is discovered and the film itself is made up of this “recovered footage”.

The Blair Witch project seems almost proud of the shoestring budget it was made on. There are no crazy special effects or monster chase scenes, the fear and suspense is all created through suggestion. Stick figures hanging from trees, unexplained slime on a backpack. The students’ terror is spawned from the sinister lack of explanation for supernatural occurrences which are relatively minor as supernatural horror movies go.

The film revived the “found footage” format which has since been used in several successful thrillers, and is still one of the most successful independent films of all time.

Memento, 2000

A man searches resolutely for his wife’s killer, despite his constant struggle with anterograde amnesia (the inability to form new memories), suffering from short-term memory loss every 15 minutes or so. Using a complex system of polaroid photographs and tattoos, he slowly amasses clues to the mystery.

Christopher Nolan’s first film is a mind-bending psychological thriller shown in brief episodes in reverse chronological order. It requires two hours of your undivided attention if you hope to unravel the enigma, but it’s so worth it.

***

Making waves at Sundance in 21st century

Napoleon dynamite, 2004: The misadventures of a socially awkward high-schooler.

Supersize Me, 2004: The fast food social experiment documentary which shook the world (and might have contributed to the discontinuation of the supersize McDonalds burger).

Primer, 2004: An inspired low budget time travel cult classic.

Little Miss Sunshine, 2006: A delightful poster child of Sundance Films and feel-good movie.

Moon, 2009: An underrated science fiction film about a man on the moon slowly losing his mind.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012: A surreal tale of a small girl growing up in a supernatural flooded world.

Whiplash, 2014: The gut-wrenching tale of an aspiring drummer and his hard-ass mentor.

Get out, 2017: A blood-curdling thriller which comments on racism in America.

***

Standout Sundance Films of 2019 (by This Weekend We’re Watching contributor, Joshua Stockhall) 

Honeyland, 2019: Grand Jury Prize Documentary, Documentary Special Jury Award for Impact for Change and Special Jury Award for Cinematography

Hatidze Muratova lives with her bedridden mother, Nazife, on a smallholding in the Macedonian mountains. They have neither electricity nor running water and Muratova supports them by selling the honey she collects from a few beehives. Despite her poverty, though, her lifestyle is spiritually rich. She leaves the bees’ half the combs they produce, existing in sustainable peace with her environment.

When another family (the Sams) move into the region, they befriend Muratova. Realising the modest living she makes as a beekeeper, they bring in their own beehives. Muratova offers her guidance, but warns them that if they take too much from the hives, their bees will attack her own. The chance to make money in poverty is too great a temptation and as they ignore Muratova’s warning they take the little she has to survive.

Honeyland has such a sense of magical realism one forgets it is a documentary. In her yellow shirt and green headscarf, Hatidze Muratova sings to her bees and they respond to her touch. She is never stung, seen in the film removing honeycombs barehanded. She values her life in spite of its hardships and approaches each obstacle as a simple task to be completed. In this sense, just like her honey, she is rich.

The raw emotive depth this film reaches stems from its uninterrupted narrative. Watching a father hitting his son or the neighbours selling too much honeycomb and then lying about it to Muratova; it is difficult to watch as the story unrolls impassively, and even more difficult not wanting to react. Though frustrating, the way the camera removes itself lends a sense of inevitability to the account. Muratova’s burdens are hers alone to respond to, bringing us into the closest possible contact with someone’s hardship. Honeyland is unmissable.

Apollo 11, 2019: US Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing 

Though not as dramatic as First Man’s account of the moon landing, Apollo 11 retains the epic feel of space voyage. Using archival footage, much of it from Nasa’s own vaults, the film traces the mission from its launch, through its various phases to the astronauts’ safe return.

The film shies away from anything too tense — after all, we know the mission was successful — and instead directs its focus to what it was like to be there. We see the crowds camping out at Cape Canaveral, a technician patching up the Saturn V rocket, technicians waiting at Firing Centre 1. There is no emphasis on the mission’s difficulty; a 20,000 mile per hour docking sequence is represented by a 2D animation. The “narrator” is simply Mission Control.

Perhaps because of it being grounded, there is something quite moving about the documentary. There’s proximity to the event, a feeling of “we united and did this.” Apollo 11 is the closest you can get to humanity’s defining moment.

Dronningen (Queen of Hearts), 2019: Audience Award World Cinema Dramatic

Anne, an accomplished lawyer and caring mother, must accommodate her contemptuous stepson, Gustav, when he comes to visit his father.  When she catches him stealing she gives him an ultimatum: either he engages with the family or she exposes his behaviour. As Gustav softens to his new home, he takes a liking to Anne and the two discover an intimacy that quickly becomes romantic.

Dronningen’s storyline makes it an easy film to condemn, but to do so would overlook an impressively psychological story. The film is less interested in morality than with how people, adults specifically, manage a relationship with someone less mature emotionally than they are. It may not be comfortable, but Dronningen is a compelling watch.

***

Promising Sundance Films coming in 2020

Rebuilding Paradise: The multi-award winning director of Rush, Pavarotti and A Beautiful Mind is premiering his latest documentary at Sundance. Howard has a penchant for retelling true-stories, but this will be his first documentary made during the time of the events. Rebuilding Paradise is the account of a community that loses their homes to the California fires and must start again from scratch.

Tesla: Director Michael Almereyda dropped out of Harvard University to pursue filmmaking and on the strength of a script he wrote about Nicola Tesla, acquired a Hollywood agent. Now, some 30 years later he is taking his script to the screen and has cast the untouchable Ethan Hawke in the leading role.

Falling: Viggo Mortenson has an accomplished career outside Lord of the Rings, although he might always be known as Aragorn. Lately, though, he’s tried his hand at directing and has now come out with Falling, a story of the tumultuous relationship between a father and his gay son. Set in the American Midwest the film has been likened with Terence Mallick’s Tree of Life, high praise for a directorial debut.

Worth: Michael Keaton is back, taking a risk acting as the lawyer who calculated the payout owed to victims of 9/11. Though this film will raise peoples’ hackles, Keaton may just surprise us. ML 

If you would like to share more ideas of reviews with us, please leave a comment below and we will reach out. 

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