By Kyle Wooldridge
This year, I was fortunate enough to go to the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah with our Executive Producer, Brandon Kratkoczki. While we were there, we told ourselves that it was just a vacation, that we weren’t going to do much work for the Reel Deal so we could enjoy ourselves. Naturally, that didn’t work too well, because I can’t watch a movie without having thoughts on it these days. Even though it is likely that none of you have seen any of these movies, I want to share some thoughts in a (relatively) condensed form by listing my top five. Who knows, maybe my reviews will inspire some people to see some of these movies if and when they get wide releases. In total, I saw 12 movies while I was there, so this top five accounts for a little under half of them. Without further ado, here is my top five list in descending order:
5. American Animals
American Animals is based on the true story of four college students who are bored with their lives, so they plan a heist of rare and valuable books from their school’s library. This film is a fictional narrative, but also features documentary-style interviews with the actual people the story focuses on. I can’t think of a film I’ve seen that blends fiction and nonfiction in this way, and I really like what the real commentary adds to the film. The filmmakers also use this technique to portray themes of perspective and memory, and how those can affect storytelling. It reminded me of Kurosawa’s Rashomon a little bit in that how it argues that there is no one truth to a story, but rather multiple perspectives from which the story is remembered.
The story of American Animals itself is fun and engaging, and the central heist is very suspenseful. My biggest complaint, and what made this film land at fifth instead of fourth on my list, is the pacing. It starts a little slow (where the interviews are relied on the most to keep things interesting), but when the action starts picking up, the interview scenes are abandoned entirely until after the heist is over. I really would have liked to hear more from the real guys during the robbery itself. Regardless, I think American Animals is a fun heist movie with a very unique twist to it.
Burden follows the true story of KKK member Mike Burden, who meets a woman named Judy. He leaves the Klan behind to start a new life with Judy and her son, but he struggles to keep his past behind him. Burden won the Audience award for best film in the U.S. Dramatic category, and I can see why. This is the kind of compelling story that people like to root for, and the fact that it’s based on a true story makes it even more powerful. Despite being one of the longest films I watched at the festival, with a runtime of just over two hours, the pacing is so well done that it sometimes felt even shorter than some of the ninety-minute movies I watched. Garrett Hedlund, who appeared in Mudbound at last year’s festival, does a fantastic job playing Mike, and Forrest Whittaker as Reverend Kennedy is also phenomenal. These two strong performances really help carry the film and its themes of kindness and forgiveness.
I only really have one complaint about the movie, and that is its villain, KKK boss Tom Griffin. I really liked him as a father figure to Mike, and they have a really interesting dynamic when Mike renounces the KKK. I thought this relationship was really well done for most of the film, but towards the end, Griffin becomes more like a cartoon villain. At one point, he makes an aggressive and surprising turn and literally tries to light a man on fire. This irritating jump from Griffin’s previously underlying menace is a disservice to one of the strongest characters. Overall, Burden is a really interesting and important story with strong themes and characters, and I would definitely say it is worth a watch.
3. You Were Never Really Here
You Were Never Really Here is about a man named Joe, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who makes a living tracking down missing children for clients, but one of his jobs goes wrong. I can’t really say much more about the film without giving things away. This is one of the best crafted films I’ve seen in awhile; every technical aspect of it is really good. One of the most interesting things about the cinematography is that little violence actually happens on screen, yet this still feels like a very violent movie. This is done with careful camerawork and editing tricks. For example, there is one scene where Joe breaks into a building to rescue a young girl, and we witness this all through security camera footage with soft music playing instead of the actual audio of Joe beating people with a hammer. This distances the audience from the action, making it more impactful. In addition to the cinematography, the sound design is incredible. The movie is loud, disorienting, and puts the audience on edge; I felt the tension throughout the film even when nothing was happening, and this was largely thanks to the sound design.
While the technical elements are phenomenal, the story doesn’t lack either. There are some really interesting themes, and Phoenix’s performance matches them. While the story is far from bad, it is a tiny bit hard to follow sometimes. I really like the use of flashbacks to reveal information, and I like that it doesn’t spoon feed us all the information, but some of the flashbacks are confusing. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into detail about specific ones, but that is really my only complaint with the film, and the only thing keeping it from being higher on my list. This film has been picked up by Amazon, so when it gets released, I would highly recommend watching it.
Arizona is a crazy, violent, suspenseful dark comedy that’s fun to watch from beginning to end. It’s about a real estate agent named Cassie who witnesses a murder. From there, the situation continues to escalate as she gets captured and must escape the murderer in a partially developed neighborhood. What I liked most about Arizona was Danny McBride’s character, Sonny. McBride is perfect for this role; he manages to be just the right mix of scary and funny at the same time. McBride really embodies the tone of the film, and the whole thing works because of his performance.
The film truly feels like a series of unfortunate accidents that keep escalating the situation to the point of no return, and it is a lot of fun to watch how events unfold. The housing development is a great setting for the game of cat-and-mouse because even though there is an illusion that people are all around, with the houses everywhere, nobody really lives in them. In addition to that, the neighborhood is in the middle of the desert, so even if Cassie can escape, there seems to be nowhere to run. At times, some of the film’s events feel improbable, but the darkly comedic tone helps it work. For example, just when you think one character finally has found a weapon for self-defense, her car explodes, and it is hilariously ironic. Balancing these two polar opposite tones can be very tough to do, but Arizona does it so well, and it is definitely a wild and fun ride.
1. Assassination Nation
I don’t want to say too much about the plot of Assassination Nation, because the movie is truly a wild ride, and the less you know, the better. Basically, the film follows four teenage girls in a town where residents’ personal information keeps getting hacked and uploaded for everyone in the town to see. From there, things start to get out of hand. First of all, I thought the tone of this film was really great. It is fast-paced and hilarious, but also manages to be really tense at moments. The movie is very stylized, but it manages to stay true and realistic to the high school experience in today’s era. The stylization and tone really help to propel the satire of this film. At times, Assassination Nation feels a little bit like a Tarantino movie in the way it handles its violence and humor, which I thought was really effective. There are also a lot of poignant messages and themes, and nobody is safe from being poked fun at. Something this film does better than many other similarly violent and stylized movies is that it makes you care about the main characters early in the film, so that when things start going crazy, you feel invested in the fates of these girls.
On the technical side, the cinematography in this film is outstanding. There is a tracking shot that lasts well over five minutes, and it is phenomenal. I have so many more good things to say about Assassination Nation, but the most important thing about it is that I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun watching a movie. The best part was that the whole audience got into it. People were cheering and laughing and gasping throughout. I really felt like I bonded with a lot of strangers just through our mutual enjoyment of this film. Assassination Nation got picked up by a distributor for ten million dollars, and it’s worth every penny. There is currently no release date for it, but I would highly recommend watching it as soon as it comes out.