Sundance Film Festival 2017

A recap.

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The parka is the great equalizer at the often-snowbound Sundance Film Festival. Stick boldface in a down coat and pull on a wool toque, and it’s easy to move (mostly) unnoticed around the 10-day film fest founded by actor-director Robert Redford to showcase independent cinema.

Of course, what truly matters at Sundance is what goes on inside the theatres, and I’ll share my five favourite films soon. But first, some thoughts on how stars look like everybody else when bundled up to brave the January weather. It creates a relaxed vibe among movie-lovers anxious to see the films for the first time, and that’s one of the reasons filmmakers and actors say they adore this festival.

The mountain town in the heart of Utah’s ski region experienced an above-average snowfall during Sundance 2017. As a concession to photographers on the red carpets outside the theatres—most are held in tents because it’s freezing, or snowing, or both—celebrities may slip off their outerwear to pose in jeans, hats, and sweaters. Pun intended, it’s the polar opposite of Cannes, Venice, and the Toronto International Film Festival.

Marjorie Prime actor Tim Robbins brushed past me in the hallway at the Park City Marriott festival headquarters on the way to a filmmakers’ lounge and I had no clue. Yes, Jon Hamm in clear-framed glasses, cardigan, jeans, and chin-high scarf nestled into a couple of days’ growth on his face is still recognizable, but he is Jon Hamm, after all. Hard to hide that light.

Same for 24-year-old Canadian transgender vlogger Gigi Lazzarato, known to her more than two million YouTube subscribers as Gigi Gorgeous. The day before the world premiere of the documentary This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, about what Lazzarato calls her “journey” from childhood to coming out as gay and her gender transition, I spotted her leaving the Sundance media hub on Main Street. Channelling Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago, the towering blonde was dressed head-to-toe in form-fitting white, with a long hood ringed in alabaster fur acting like a frame for her carefully made-up face. Crowds parted on the sidewalk for her to pass, and cars stopped as she tip-toed across the snowy street, trailed by an entourage of family and friends.

Back on the parka beat, Chelsea Handler led a thousands-strong Women’s March down Main Street the day after U.S. President Donald Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. The stars came out to support the anti-Trump cause, either speaking (Maria Bello, Jessica Williams) or marching (Kristen Stewart, John Legend, Connie Britton, Laura Prepon, Benjamin Bratt, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman, Charlize Theron). Like many of the 8,000 people there, Bello, Handler—even Offerman—wore the pink hats emblematic of the movement.

While Canada Goose seemed the parka of choice (the Canadian company is a festival sponsor, often gifting stars with outerwear), there was evidence that Montreal-based Moose Knuckles is picking up some fans. I spotted actress Olivia Culpo wearing a dark navy version.

But back to the movies. Here are five of my favourites from the 2017 festival.

The Big Sick (directed by Michael Showalter): A whip-smart comedy that grabs at the heartstrings as often as it does the funny bone. It’s also topical as can be, exploring what it means to be Muslim in a divided America. Kumail Nanjiani (HBO’s Silicon Valley) co-wrote the quasi-autobiographical story with wife Emily V. Gordon and stars opposite Zoe Kazan in her best work since Ruby Sparks. A perfect blend of humour, romance, and drama.

Mudbound (directed by Dee Rees): Set in the circa-World War II American South, Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan play a struggling farm couple, while the sharecropping family working the same piece of land—played by Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige (both heroically outstanding)—endure racism, hatred, and hardship, much of it coming from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul star Jonathan Banks. The film veers into occasional melodrama, but Dees steers an epic story of two families with a sure hand.

78/52 (directed by Alexandre O. Philippe): Be still my film-nerd heart. This black-and-white documentary explores the 78 camera setups and 52 cuts used to create the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror Psycho. With commentary from the likes of Janet Leigh’s body double and some of the top horror filmmakers and editors working today, the story behind the shower curtain—and theories about why it became a legendary piece of American cinema—is revealed, discussed, and dissected in minute detail.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana): How many musical mysteries are left undiscovered? This Canadian documentary explores the often-unheralded contributions of indigenous people in shaping popular song. Through interviews with dozens of top artists, the film explores these influential music-makers—many of whom kept their heritage hidden. Fittingly, Rumble won Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Masterful Storytelling.

Wind River (directed by Taylor Sheridan): There are echoes of Quentin Tarantino here, as well as some Clarice Starling in The Silence of The Lambs, but Sicario and Hell or High Water screenwriter Taylor Sheridan still impressed with this tight thriller (his directing debut). Jeremy Renner is broodingly terrific as a U.S. Fish & Wildlife wilderness hunter who discovers the body of a Native American teen in the Wyoming woods and finds himself teamed with an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) determined to solve the murder despite her inexperience. Excellent performance from Renner.

Casting JonBenet (directed by Kitty Green): This completely unexpected documentary is not the anticipated rehash of the still-unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old child beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey. Rather, it’s a fascinating film based on what is said by average people—the kind of chatter heard at coffee shops, in drugstore checkout lines, and on talk radio. Green interviews costumed actors auditioning to play the family, investigators, and others. In between going over their lines, they offer up opinions about what they think happened that night; what emerges is everything from crackpot theories to perhaps-credible suggestions. The final 10 minutes in the Ramsey house set are riveting.

Snow or no snow, these films deserve an audience.


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February 2, 2017