I’ve been Sundancing for 7 years now and while this was a particularly strong year for the festival, it was not a strong year for genre films. In fact, one of the best genre films I saw in Park City this year was at Slamdance where THE VAST OF NIGHT nailed a perfect homage to THE TWILIGHT ZONE with the tale of a small town radio operator who discovers some extra-worldly signals on his frequency. Teaming up with local telephone switchboard operator to get the source of the interference, they uncover a conspiracy of UFOs and government facilities and the kind of paranoia only possible in a bygone era. Flawlessly shot to capture the late night television vibe, the film manages to create a sense of foreboding that really no other did this year.
As far as strict SciFi goes, the feature debut from Grant Sputore, I AM MOTHER, will not disappoint anyone. This slick-looking film about a girl (Clara Rugaard) raised in a bunker by a robot (voiced by Rose Byrne) had one of the best production designs in the entire festival. With hints of EX MACHINA, or rather the future of the issues brought up in EX MACHINA, Daughter, as she is known in the film, begins to question her entire life when an outsider (Hilary Swank) shows up just outside the bunker door. Unable to trust her entire life, Daughter begins to question what it means to be human and what her entire life has been building up to. This is the kind of sci-fi film that could get a gigantic release like ANNIHILATION did last year, but has enough for people to grab onto that it would not disappoint like that film did for many. What's truly amazing is the depth Rose Byrne does with just her voice as a mother robot.
LITTLE MONSTERS (which has been picked up by Neon and announced for SXSW) was the comedy hit of the festival. ALIEN: COVENANT actor Alexander England plays Dave, a down-on-his-luck directionless bro. Crashing at his sister’s place (and into her life), he leads his nephew into several hilarious poor-choice scenes attempting to win his girlfriend back, until he falls in lust at first sight with his nephew’s first grade teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). Then on a school field trip to the zoo with Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), a horde of zombies attack. That’s right, a horde of zombies. The film is ridiculous and spirals out of control quickly, but in the best possible way. Strangely, in retrospect, the scenes before the zombies arrive are actually funnier, but it’s still a hilarious film.
One the biggest issues I had with the midnighters at Sundance this year were how predictable they were. HOLE IN THE GROUND didn’t seem to have an original thought in it, right down to the recycled cinematography. How many films about creepy kids do we need? Why does anyone live in rural Ireland if the entire landscape is overrun by curses and ghosts? Why do I care about these characters? Stop using your score to created tension that your plot can’t! Ugh. I was so bored by this film, I wanted the entire house to get sucked up by the hole in the ground. Or, did I mention there is a weird sinkhole in the woods? No matter, let’s ignore that and just watch a mother get increasingly paranoid.
Playing outside the midnighter section but still a genre film, BABADOOK filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s second feature THE NIGHTINGALE is basically a perfect movie. Not a film for the weak-willed, this colonial Australian revenge thriller follows Claire, an Irish conflict who is basically the personal property of a British officer. After an opening unspeakable 25 minutes of rape, beating, and murder, Claire is left for dead, no prospects for her future. Teaming up with an Aboriginal guide, she follows the British officer and his assistants across Tasmania to enact revenge. The Nightingale is a great film because in addition to being a cheer-inducing revenge tale, it delivers social commentary about Aboriginal relations, convict culture, and colonialism. It is almost a social justice film masquerading as a midnighter.
After making one of my favorite films of 2016, the SciFi street magician film SLEIGHT, J.D. Dillard had raised my expectations pretty high for his second feature. Unfortunately, SWEETHEART does not even approach the complexity of that film. Kiersey Clemons plays a young woman shipwrecked on a tiny tropical island who finds herself hunted by a Lovecraftian creature that arises from water each night. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this film, its just so simplistic that at times it feels more like a 1st draft of a script than something ready to be shot. In contrast to SLEIGHT, which gives back to the viewer upon repeat viewings, Sweetheart delivers sort of cliché CAST AWAY scenes minus the beach ball, followed by cliché run from the monster scenes – all very well shot (in fact, the first appearance of the monster may have been my favorite shot in the entire festival) but not requiring much depth. There is none of the intricate character development that Dillard’s first film delivered. In fact, when two more character show up in the final third of the film, they offer briefly a hint of an interesting back story, before they just become fodder for the monster. Maybe that was the intent of the filmmaker, but it just made the film a bit underwhelming.