12 Highlights From This Year’s Sundance Film Festival

Our guy in Utah gives us an early rundown of the movies we'll soon be seeing at our neighbourhood multiplexes, including a few local surprises.

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You’ve no doubt heard of the Sundance Film Festival touted in movie trailers, seen about on the pop culture blogs, and written about by movie-lovers for years. Held annually in the snowy resort town of Park City — population 8000, but that swells by tens of thousands for ten days in January — it’s an idyllic locale and a somewhat fitting place to hold a film festival, since it’s usually so cold that you wouldn’t want to do anything but sit inside watching movies all day.

Amongst the masses on Park City’s historic Main Street, I spotted what I think was a Kardashian, Elijah Wood and Nick Cave casually strolling down the street (alas, not together), and overhead tales of teenage girls taking photos in the place where One Direction’s Harry Styles had stood the previous day. One of my fondest memories will remain my accosting of Joe Swanberg at a bus stop to geek out over his movies — he made last year’s Drinking Buddies, and was at Sundance to premiere Happy Christmas with Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham — and his scruffy beard was doing all sorts of crazy things to my altitude-addled brain.

But the films! I saw 27 in just eight days, missed a couple of the big titles that everybody’s since been crowing about, and caught a whole bunch of others. Here’s a quick wrap-up of some titles that you should keep your eyes peeled for at local festivals and arthouse cinemas throughout the next year.

The Australian Film That Will Have You Shaking In Your Boots

The Babadook

Directed by: Jennifer Kent

Starring: Essie Davis

One of the biggest word-of-mouth hits of Sundance was this Aussie horror film about a malevolent children’s book named The Babadook, and the single mother — played by Essie Davis in captivating fits of madness and decay — who begins to take on an evil spirit. Genuinely scary and bombastic in its execution, it’s one local film that should get bums in seats when it’s released through Umbrella Entertaining later this year. A fellow critic at my press screening screamed, and no, it wasn’t me.

For fans of: scary movies, terrifying children on movie nights, top hats

The Australian Film That Puts A Bold Face On Trans Issues

52 Tuesdays

Directed by: Sophie Hyde

Starring: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Del Herbert-Jones, Imogen Archer

Australian director Sophie Hyde won the directing prize in Park City for her somewhat experimental take on this mother and daughter drama. Filming only on Tuesdays for 52 weeks to reflect the film’s plot, 52 Tuesdays follows the struggles of high schooler Billie, after her mum Jane decides to transition into James, and the effects this has on both James and her sexually curious daughter. Star Del Herbert-James is gender variant in real life and gives the role of James a knowing passion, but it is 17-year-old newcomer Cobham-Hervey who steals the show as the plucky Billie. Somebody needs to cast her as Mia Wasikowska’s sister immediately. The film opens in limited release on May 1.

For fans of: serious explorations of Trans issues, quality Aussie films, Adelaide

The Film That Will Get You Hated Across the Internet If You Don’t Like It

The Raid 2: Berandal

Directed by: Gareth Evans

Starring: Iko Uwais, Alex Abbad

After my very negative review — in which I called this sequel to The Raid (2011) “excessively indulgent and monotonous” — went live, I was immediately bombarded by people calling me a “pussy” who “mustn’t have ever been in a fight” and for whom The Avengers must be more my speed of an action film. While it’s true I’ve never been in a fight, I’m not exactly sure how that’s come to be a negative, unless your warped sense of masculinity dictates punching somebody in the face. In the end though, while I may not have liked his film, director Gareth Evans was ever the gracious gentleman and came to my defence on Twitter. I guess when your film is at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, you can afford to not take it so personally. The film opens locally next month.

For fans of: martial arts, people’s jaws being ripped out of their skulls

The Film That Will Have Movie Lovers Crying Four-Star Tears

Life Itself

Directed by: Steve James

Starring: Roger Ebert

That thing I just said about The Raid 2? Yeah, double it for this documentary about the late Chicago film critic, Roger Ebert. Despite a career in which people always had an opinion on whether he was getting soft, not smart enough, hyperbolic, a bad critic, and all sorts of other fun things, since his death last year, if you say a disparaging word about Roger Ebert, you may as well have shot a dog. Life Itself is a moving documentary, but also a fairly rudimentary one. Unsurprisingly, I’ve seen multiple people claim they can’t watch this film objectively because of their love of its subject (I can sympathise since I had the same reaction to last year’s documentary on queer icon Divine, I Am Divine).

For fans of: Roger Ebert, film criticism, crying spontaneously into your popcorn

The Film That Brings Together New Zealand And Vampires

What We Do In The Shadows

Directed by: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

Starring: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Rhys Darby

One of the faces behind Flight Of The Conchords and the director of the Kiwi hit Boy (2010) teamed up for what was the funniest film at Sundance. What We Do In The Shadows is a mockumentary, but the freshest and liveliest since Borat, and focuses on a flat in modern-day Wellington that houses four vampires who have to deal with such problems as blood-splattered dishes piling up in the sink and the new recruit going around town at night using his vampire status to pick up chicks like he’s from Twilight. Fans of the pair (and Rhys Darby — aka Flight‘s goofy manager, Murray — who also appears) will surely not be disappointed.

For fans of: vampires, Flight Of The Conchords, NZ cinema

The Film For People Sick Of Movies About Man-Children


Directed by: Lynn Shelton

Starring: Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell

I didn’t catch Laggies — I was seeing Happy Valley, a documentary about paedophiles and hero-worshipping football devotees because obviously — but it was purchased for a lot of money, so odds are we’ll all get to see this acclaimed comedy eventually. I’ve been a fan of Lynn Shelton’s work in the past — including Your Sister’s Sister (2011) and Humpday (2009) — and it’s nice to hear of a film that focuses on a young woman (Knightley) who won’t grow up, rather than the usual dude bros with extended adolescence.

For fans of: that cast, mumblecore graduates, Sam Rockwell dancing (which I assume he does here like in everything else)

The Film For Scorned Musicians


Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Starring: JK Simmons, Miles Teller

Winner of the audience and grand jury prize at the festival, Whiplash is based on an 18-minute short film that’s basically JK Simmons (raping Nazi Vernon on Oz) — in his best impersonation of R Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) — playing a college band teacher who seeks to break a drummer who’s not up to scratch. The feature-length adaptation also stars Miles Teller, who was recently so good in The Spectacular Now.

For fans of: masochism, the education system, people who think drummers are overrated

The Film To Make Vampires Cool Again

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Directed by: Ana Lilly Amirpour

Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi

The best film I saw at the festival was another vampire movie, but this one is also a black-and-white feminist drama set in Iran that favours atmosphere over blood (although there’s a bit of that, too) and turns the chador into a supernatural cape that fights off masculine oppression. Set to a soundtrack of modern Iranian rock, ‘80s electropop and western-twanged tunes by Federale, this superb piece of filmmaking is inspired by graphic novels, comic books, and the works of David Lynch.

For fans of: more vampires, feminist genre movies, Let The Right One In

The Film To Make Your Jaw Drop


Directed by: Richard Linklater

Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood actually feels like a spiritual cousin to his much-loved Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, 1995;  Before Sunset, 2004; Before Midnight, 2013). It follows the life of a young boy — whose parents are played by Hawke and Arquette — and was filmed at regular intervals over 12 years. At nearly three-hours long, it will reward audience’s patience as they marvel at the achievement. The film is due out in locally later this year

For fans of: cinematic experiments, a more condensed version of Michael Apted’s Up series

The Film To Turn You Off Chicken Nuggets


Directors: Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion

Cast: Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer

This horror comedy — and none-too subtle parable about the crumbling state of America’s education system — is super gross, but also a whole lot of fun, as a schoolyard of pre-teen kids turn rabid and cannibalistic after eating a bad batch of manufactured chicken nuggets. Written by Australia’s Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious), who also co-stars, and produced by Elijah Wood, Cooties not only created some of the biggest laughs of the festival, but also one of the biggest sales — it sold to big time distributor Lionsgate for a rumoured seven-figure sum.

For fans of: comedies with gory horror, anti-American sentiment, vegetarianism

The Film That Proves There’s More To Elisabeth Moss Than Mad Men

Listen Up Philip

Directed by: Alex Ross Perry

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter

As if the locally-produced mini-series Top Of The Lake didn’t prove that Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen wasn’t a one-time fluke, Elisabeth Moss showed up at Sundance with two films. I didn’t catch The One I Love (where she stars alongside Mark Duplass and Ted Danson), but Listen Up Philip is a biting, literary work of next level drama from relative newcomer Alex Ross Perry. Moss is particularly stunning as the put upon girlfriend of a narcissistic novelist — like, we’re talking Oscar-worthy, folks. Let’s make this happen!

For fans of: Noah Baumbach’s Margot At The Wedding (2007), New York cynicism, bitter Woody Allen

The Film To Make You Hate Anne Hathaway A Little Bit Less

Song One

Directed by: Kate Barker-Froyland

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen

This Brooklyn-set musical stars Hathaway as the sister of a comatose musician, who then befriends her brother’s idol. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but has a charm reminiscent of Once (2006) thanks to its great songs and intuitive use of New York City and in particular Williamsburg’s hipster-trendy music clubs and bars. Hathaway is still rocking the pixie haircut from Les Mis, and hopefully this performance goes some ways to repairing the damage that her victory lap of last year’s awards season had on her fanbase.

For fans of: Once, New York, shaggy-haired musicians, drunk Mary Steenburgen

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer and film critic from Melbourne, and currently based in New York City. His work has been seen online (Onya Magazine, Quickflix), in print (The Big Issue, Metro Magazine, Intellect Books Ltd’s World Film Locations: Melbourne), as well as heard on Joy 94.9.