From our sister publication the LA Weekly, lead film critic Amy Nicholson has kindly agreed to give us a uniquely targeted Sundance report that ditches the drama and gets to the heart of the upcoming movies we really want to know about.
Take it away, Amy.
Sundance used to be synonymous with tender coming-of-age stories about troubled kids. Okay, it still is. But the rising popularity of its Midnight movies – where Trollhunters and V/H/S got their start – has spilled over into the rest of the fest. Who would have thought one of the hottest tickets of the week would be the sequel to an ultra-violent Indonesian action flick? This year, Sundance was all about the nerd, from cult comedians to documentaries that dissected the perils of the Internet to two films designed solely to push the boundaries of good taste. And the even better news is most of them will make it to a theater near you – or at least to VOD.
11. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
It’s been a year since 26-year-old Aaron Swartz hung himself while facing federal charges for grand larceny and computer fraud that could have cost him a million dollars and 50 years in prison. In that time, he’s turned from a warning to a cause celebre to a martyr for the information age. Brian Knappenberger’s rallying documentary is a tribute to a fallen hacktivist as well as a challenge to our government that it’s time to rethink its attitudes about the public domain. But its greatest strength is how it humanizes Swartz, a big-thinking prodigy who’s been seen more as a symbol than as a complicated and idealistic young man.
10. What We Do in the Shadows
Despite a couple awesome bloodbaths, this horror/comedy mockmentary by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, Eagle vs. Shark) is more comedy than horror. In a dirty mansion in Wellington, four vampires – an 18th-century dandy, a 13th-century lothario, an 8,000-year-old ghoul, and a club guy who was just turned this year – are suffering through a generation gap that tops anything the Real World has ever thrown together.
And that’s before the dude-bro werewolf pack crashes their house. Awkward, gory, and hilarious, it’s Spinal Tap for the macabre, with a joke about virgins and sandwiches that instantly became the most-quoted one-liner of Sundance.
9. To Be Takei
Ever since his groundbreaking appearance on The Newlywed Game with his husband Brad, George Takei has embraced his multiple identities: gay rights champion, social media wizard, and, of course, Sulu. This doc about the most popular 76-year-old on the web balances fun and fluff with a touch of bitterness: Takei’s childhood in a Japanese internment camp, his struggle to find work as a young, Asian actor, and his Star Trek co-star William Shatner’s obvious discomfort with his sexuality.
Director Jennifer M. Kroot needles Shatner with a montage of Sulu/Captain Kirk slashfic, but we all know it’s Takei himself who got the best revenge. Taking the mic at Shatner’s roast, he grinned, “Despite our tensions, I’m honored you invited me to be here tonight. I can finally say what I’ve waited 40 years to say: ‘Fuck you and the horse you rode in on!'”
Like the MPAA, the Japanese ratings board Eirin classifies films by ages: G, PG-12, R15, and the most strict, R18. Imagine, then, the outlandish wonders of Hitoshi Matsumoto’s R100, an insane black comedy about a mattress salesman (Nao Omori of Ichi the Killer) who bounces into the world of bondage. After he signs a contract allowing dominatrixes (dominatrixi?) to surprise-beat him whenever they want for a year – including a sushi restaurant – we meet black leather bikini babes Saliva Queen, Gobble Queen and Whip Queen, and towering 6’9″ blonde Lindsay Hayward as the company’s intimidating CEO.
What, you were expecting something tame from the writer/director/star of Big Man Japan?
Yeah, the German novel Wetlands was the best-selling book in the world for one month in 2008. But you still don’t want to bring your mom to this giddy, gross-out adaptation. Wetlands, so named for the humidity in a girl’s panties, tracks a teenager named Helen (Carla Juri) who’s in the hospital for a self-induced anal fissure caused by reckless shaving. In the opening scene, she sticks a finger in her ass. And from there it gets grosser – pube monsters, tampon-swapping, unorthodox toilet cleaning, and a bukkake scene that ensures you’ll never eat spinach pizza again.
Bopping around Sundance with a smile on her face, Juri was an immediate legend. How could such a sweet-faced, sprightly girl have made a movie that tops The Human Centipede? And how long till Quentin Tarantino makes her a star stateside?
6. Nick Offerman: American Ham
Seventy-seven minutes of Nick Offerman stand-up is almost exactly like watching Ron Swanson take the stage at Sizzler and hold court. No complaints here. Structuring his act around his personal ten commandments (yes, two are “Eat Red Meat” and “Paddle Your Own Canoe”), Offerman digresses into talking about whatever he damned well wants including his support for gay marriage, his kindly dismissal of the Bible as “uneven,” and his red hot lust for wife Megan Mullally – his evil ex Tammy on Parks and Recreation, whom he lovingly calls his “property.”
Would Swanson take off his shirt and mimic Johnny Cash, though? Maybe not, but Offerman is glad to.
5. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
In 2001, 29-year-old Takako Konishi from Tokyo froze to death in the Minnesota snow. The cause of death was suicide, but rumor had it she’d traveled 6,000 miles in search of the buried fortune from Fargo. Alas, the Coens were kidding when they said it was inspired by a true story. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is fiction turned tragedy turned fiction again, with Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim) playing the doomed tourist who, in trying to track down a myth, found herself turned into one. And yes, Alexander Payne, the king of the Midwest, is a producer.
An infected chicken nugget turns an entire school into teacher-eating zombies in this goofy horror/comedy starring Elijah Wood, Allison Pill, Jack Brayer and Rainn Wilson. It’s a high-concept lark, but first-time directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion don’t skimp on the gore or the grim recognition that to survive, these teachers have to kill children. (Even flesh-munching children have parents, and boy, are they going to be upset.) Cooties is more fun than innovative, but you’ve gotta love its retro-schlock poster.
3 and 2. Love Child and Web Junkie
South Korea is famous for having the fastest Internet in the world. And it’s also where two parents got so obsessed with the online game Prius that they let their 3-month-old daughter Sarang (aka Love) starve to death while, ironically, raising a virtual girl called Anima.
Love Child asks if Internet addiction deserves to be a mitigating factor in manslaughter – and the companion documentary Web Junkie answers yes. In China, Internet addiction is legally classified as a disease. Web Junkie embeds itself in Chinese rehab camps where military instructors and therapists force the country’s lonely only children to put down the mouse. If this is the future, it’s time to back away from the computer and go outside for a walk.
1. The Raid 2: Berandal
This bigger, bloodier, more bone-breaking sequel to the 2011 surprise genre hit doesn’t quite measure up to the hype. Despite its two-and-a-half hour running length and complicated mafia-versus-mafia-versus-mafia-versus-cops plot, it’s not the Godfather of action movies. But it is a damned decent action movie with one car chase, two kitchen fights, and three brawlers – Hammer Girl, Baseball Bat Man and the return of Yayan Ruhian, aka the original’s Mad Dog – who have to be seen to be believed.
I preferred the single-location claustrophobia of the original, but judging by the screams and gasps in my theater, most people were delighted that director Gareth Evans gave them exactly what they wanted: more, more, more.
For more Amy Nicholson, check out her work every week in the LA Weekly.