If only we could resurrect writer Jane Austen and ask her zombified corpse what it thinks of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the 2009 mash-up novel put together by Seth Grahame-Smith. Using her 1813 classic about love and aristocracy as a basis, Grahame-Smith fused the romance novel with all the brain-munching aspects the modern, zombie sub-genre has to offer. Surprisingly enough, the mash-up novel was a success with both critics and audiences, and now the beloved story of engagements and the undead has made its way to the big screen. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, adapted and directed by Burr Steers, follows through on the novel's success, providing a ball of humor, romance, and an abundance of exploding heads. It's enough to satisfy anyone not beholden to either side of the mix.
It's not exactly easy to make light of and laugh at disabilities without coming across as insensitive, which is why this film is so unique. The Fundamentals of Caring (original Sundance title, as it has apparently been changed to The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving) stars Craig Roberts as a boy named Trevor with Duchenne muscular dystrophy who is confined to an electric wheelchair. He requires a caregiver who helps him do many basic tasks, though he always tends to scare them away because he's blunt and loves playing sick jokes on them. The humor in this film is what makes it so entertaining to watch, since the script is otherwise full of too many easy cliches that prevent it from being much more than another good laugh.
We all know that movies can change lives, in small ways and in big ways. But that change is often internal, and it's hard to track exactly how we are affected. The documentary Life, Animated (which premiered at Sundance) is an absolutely wonderful documentary that perfectly captures how one autistic boy learned to communicate and engage with the world through Disney animated movies. It's a triumphant and inspiring story, but it's also a beautiful documentary that features many clips from Disney movies as well as original animation (by Mac Guff). The film is about Owen Suskind, following him as he moves into his own place for the first time in his life. His entire VHS collection of Disney movies is the very first thing he unpacks.
Sundance loves to find and premiere the next generation of horror films, and this is one of them. It's very likely most people have never seen a ghost movie like this before, which is refreshing for the genre. Under the Shadow is a horror-thriller set in Tehran, Iran, about a mother and her daughter encountering eerie supernatural forces in their bombed out building. The only worthwhile comparison to make is that this film reminded me of The Babadook, another Sundance film (from 2014), with a plot involving tensions between a mother and her child, not to mention some very creepy things going on. Under the Shadow is frightening and captivating, and while it doesn't have the most extensive mythology, it is a satisfying horror experience.
This documentary is freakier than most horror movies. Tickled is not really a documentary about tickling, even though it is a documentary about tickling. Produced out of New Zealand, this entertaining and egaging documentary (co-directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve) follows Kiwi pop culture journalist David Farrier as he investigates a company that films professional tickling events. It all starts when he discovers a wacky video online of "competitive endurance tickling", and attempts to contact the people behind it. Suddenly, David is tumbling down a rabbit hole of legal threats and insane discoveries as he attempts to get to the bottom of this. It becomes a doc about the abuse of money, and how power hungry some people are.
There's no doubt about it - this is a film you're going to either love or hate. Swiss Army Man is one of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival's most divisive films, with some of my fellow critics walking out before they could even finish it. The film is unquestionably unique, I've never seen anything like it, and while it starts out totally wacky everything clicked for me about 30 minutes in. The film opens with Paul Dano playing a man stuck on a deserted island trying to hang himself. But before he can do so, a dead body in a suit (played by Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. Attempting to ignore it, the body begins to fart, then before you know it he's riding this farting body like a jet ski back to land. I told you it's wacky, but actually quite fun.
As Aristotle once explained, every story is either a tragedy or a comedy. This film is a tragedy – in the true sense of that word. It's very depressing, and sad, but depressing in a good way, if that's possible to imagine. I say that because it captures some very beautiful, intimate moments of connection among friends dealing with the hardship of young life. As You Are is the feature directorial debut of filmmaker Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, premiering at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and it will hopefully give Miles the break he needs to make more films - because he seems to be a very talented storyteller. While it's not the best film of the fest, it does show quite a bit of potential, and it's a powerful story about love and what it makes you do.
Through the hazy light that seeps in via Venetian blinds and in the midst of the cold, dark hallways that make up the world in Jacob Gentry's Synchronicity, a mind-bending, sci-fi love story unfolds. Much of what plays out rests in familiar territory. The general design of the futuristic (but not quite future?) world is more than a little reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. But that familiarity in structure only serves the love story Gentry is telling, the greater of the two mysteries with which the filmmaker presents. With focus, determined pace, and nice swaths of dry humor, Synchronicity emerges as more than the sum of its influences' parts. Gentry succeeds in creating the world, implications and subtext of the story he's telling.
It's time to rise up, to revolt, and to inspire real change. The Birth of a Nation is the feature directorial debut of actor Nate Parker, who has been working on this project for the last seven years. Parker writes, directs, produces and stars in this cinematic story of Nat Turner, a real-life slave in the 1800s who leads an uprising in Virginia. His legacy is meant to inspire "change agents", and for years his story was covered up to prevent this from happening. But now the story has been told (again after being published in books), exquisitely, and Parker's take on Nat Turner is a triumph. It's a sensational, riveting film that spends less time on the revolt itself, more on the man that realizes he is the one who must passionately lead an uprising.
There's nothing like great music that makes you so happy you want to get up and dance. The latest film from John Carney, the Irish director who broke out with the musical Once at Sundance in 2007, is called Sing Street and it's utterly joyful. It's almost an Irish version of School of Rock amped up to 11, but there's such an unique, energetic, exciting vibe to it, I think it's time to proclaim Sing Street as the new winner of the Battle of the Bands. Sing Street so much fun to watch, but it's also genuinely passionate about encouraging the weirdos and oddballs to be whatever they want. Sing your heart out, fight against authority, be someone.
It's always exciting to see films at the Sundance Film Festival that mark the feature directorial debut of ambitious, talented storytellers. A majority of the films they program at the festival are small features made on extremely limited budgets that become the breakout project for many people. That is definitely the case for JD Dillard, director of the film Sleight, which is part of the NeXT category. Sleight is about a young street magician living in Los Angeles that must fight off a drug lord using his intelligence and natural talent in order to save his younger sister and win over a girl. It's a fairly simple story, but the film is still awesome.
Pretty much everyone who loves movies is a fan of the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series from Richard Linklater. They represent the pinnacle of love stories in cinema, and they're hard to top. The closest any film has come to feeling like this is Richard Tanne's Southside With You, a story about Barack Obama's first date with Michelle Robinson in Chicago in back in 1989, many years before he would become President of the United States. The film just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the same venue where I saw, and went head over heels crazy for just a few years ago, Linklater's Before Midnight. It's a very sweet, engaging, and inspiring love story that unfolds as Barack takes Michelle around the city over the course of one day.
This is the film I've been waiting for. And I don't just mean it's the film I was waiting for at Sundance, but perhaps this is the film I was waiting to come across in my life. Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic is one of the most inspiring, invigorating, and intelligent films I've ever seen at Sundance. I don't care if that sounds hyperbolic, this is one of those times when hyperbole is actually necessary. This film floored me, and I'm still on a high from it, with so much to say about it. It's brilliant, it's uplifting, it's encouraging, it's warm, it's touching, it's funny, it's endearing. All these adjectives are necessary because it's a film that has filled me with so much happiness and hopefulness that I can't help expressing my love for this film. It's everything.
Taika Waititi is back and better than ever! No seriously, this film is Taika's best yet, and I've been following him ever since I saw Eagle vs Shark premiered at Sundance 10 years ago. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the latest feature from Kiwi director Taika Waititi, who writes and directs and also has a small role in the film. Set mostly in the New Zealand "bush", the mostly uninhabited forested wilderness taking up some of the island, the story is about a troublemaker foster care kid named Ricky Baker who finds his true family when he's taken from the city to the countryside. I laughed my ass off, but the film actually has an immense amount of heart, too. By the end I was a fan of Ricky Baker and his "screw this" attitude and wanted more.