BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC This year I had the honor of attending Sundance as a member of the working press — well, virtually that is. We are still currently in the middle of a pandemic. Sundance, the Park City, Utah-based film festival started by Robert Redford 36 years ago, is well known to film buffs for premiering the can’t-miss films of the year. This year Sundance ran from January 28th to February 3rd and screened 72 features and more than 50 shorts.
I’ve attended more than a dozen virtual film fests in some capacity over the last year and Sundance exceeded any and all expectations for how a fest can and should run in this new ‘virtual’ world. As press we were given a seminar on how to most effectively use their custom platform, and to mimic an IRL fest films were still screening against one another in real time slots so you still had to pick your battles wisely. About 15 minutes before films, there was a virtual waiting room, with a chat function, to mimic that getting settled in your seat and checking in with those around you to gauge word of mouth on what is the can’t-miss at the fest vibe.
All screenings featured intros with directors and a post screening Q&A with cast and crew that was interactive as well. You could tell this was real time, because you still had the groan worthy questions getting through, like making a filmmaker explain in excruciating detail the ending of a film that was obviously meant to be ambiguous. I saw roughly five films a day with 28 films total at the fest and these were some of my favorites in no particular order, you will probably be hearing about in the months to come.
CODA Directed by Sian Heder
Opening Sundance this year was Sian Heder’s follow-up to Tallulah (2016), Coda, a re-imagining of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier. Coda, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, the only hearing member in a family of deaf fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts. When Ruby discovers a love of singing her senior year of high school, it leads to the crux of the drama: her teacher believes she has the talent to get a scholarship at Berklee. This happens just as her family decides to break out on their own and start a co-op, which Ruby is an integral part of, since she is the only one who can bridge the gap between her deaf family and the outside fishing community.’
SABAYA directed by Hogir Hirori
About five years ago ISIS attacked the Yazidi people and while thousands were killed, hundreds of Yazidi women were kidnapped and sold as sex slaves or ‘Sabaya’ on the black market. This film is a harrowing documentary about a group of men that have made it their life’s work to rescue and rehabilitate these women, opening up their hearts and their homes to them while risking their lives in the process. Most of the film is just these men — no more than five at any given time — assisted by a group of newly freed Sabaya known as ‘infiltrators’ who go into these camps looking for women being hidden from the authorities and free them. While this doc is filled with hope as woman after woman is rescued, there’s also a grim reality on display, like when they discover and free a seven year old Sabaya.
PLEASURE directed by Ninja Thyberg
Director Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure is the Swedish director’s second feature and is based on her previous award-winning short of the same name. While women directors taking on the adult film industry in cinema isn’t something new, it’s the Swedish director’s empowering take on the American porn industry in particular, with that fresh outsider perspective that gives the film its power. Pleasure is the story of Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) who comes to LA from Sweden bright eyed and determined to be the next big porn star. Unlike some protagonists in these sorts of films, Bella is intelligent, cognizant, confident and capable of what she is going to do, and just how she is going to do it.
COMING HOME IN THE DARK directed by James Ashcroft
Coming Home in the Dark is New Zealand director James Ashcroft’s stunning debut and quite possibly one of the best genre films you will see this year. The film is a relentless thriller that starts out simple enough: a family out for a hike in the gorgeous New Zealand wilderness are happened upon by two nefarious drifters. What starts out as a simple robbery turns into something much more, when one of the drifters recognizes the Dutch patriarch of the family and takes him and his M?ori wife hostage. From there we as the audience is fed bits and pieces of the backstory in an attempt to piece together “the why”, and it’s downright masterful how this plays out. Powerfully acted and flawlessly executed there’s not a second wasted in the tense 93 minutes runtime as Ashcroft guides us through this night of captivity.
THE SPARKS BROTHERS directed by Edgar Wright
Director Edgar Wright is probably best known for his love of music, and how it’s been such an integral part of his filmmaking process in whimsical fictional narratives like Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. This time out he tries his had at the documentary genre with a very passionate look at one of his favorite musical acts you’ve probably never heard of, Sparks. Wright makes the case for what could possibly be one of the most influential bands in pop music is also one of the most overlooked as well.
Given Wright’s penchant for rapid fire montages and info dumps, it makes sense he would be a great documentarian, given that the point of the forms is to convey information in an entertaining and engaging manner. Wright does a remarkable job of tracking 25 albums and more than 500 songs the band has recorded to date, bringing in celebrity super fans to speak candidly about their career’s ebb and flow. The film doesn’t dig too deep into the personal lives of the brothers, choosing instead to focus on the music, where there is more than enough drama to fill multiple documentaries.
VIOLATION directed by Madeleine Sims-Fewer & Dusty Mancinelli
Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s debut feature Violation is an empowering feminist take on the invariably exploitive Rape Revenge sub-genre. What puts this film head and shoulders above similarly themed outings is Madeleine Sims-Fewer the unflinching and heart breaking portrayal of Miriam, the film’s victim-protagonist Miriam, in addition to her co-writing and co-directing duties. Violation flips the audience’s expectations to tell a much more nuanced story, venturing into that gray area that most directors fear to tread. Violation is a ferocious depiction of absolute cause and effect that is chilling in its exactness.
CENSOR directed by Prano Bailey-Bond
Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature length directorial debut Censor is a period piece taking place in the United Kingdom in the 1980s during the Video Nasties era. For those not privy to this bizarre slice of genre history, Video Nasties refers to that ignominious era when the British government was heavily censoring or outright banning horror and exploitation films for the sake of protecting their citizens who they believed would turn into mass murdering heathens if they ever saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its full uncut bloods-gushing glory. Keep in mind, this was at the peak of the home video boom, so this is when video distros were plumbing the seedy depths of New York’s then-infamous 42nd street for any and all content to put on video store shelves, the more lurid the film or the subject matter, the better. Censor is the story of a female censor Enid (Niamh Algar) who begins to come apart at the seams when she thinks she glimpses a woman who she believes is her long-lost sister, who vanished when she was a child, in a fictional slasher film she’s, um, censoring. This sends her down a rabbit hole as she attempts to track down the reclusive director of said film and the mysterious woman she thinks is her sister, which turns her journey into a surreal descent into Hell.