Slamdance has really come into its own. It is often seen as a raucous compliment to Sundance, which takes place in the same town of Park City, Utah. Yet Slamdance offers up a program this year that would be the rival of many larger festivals. The focus is on films by first time directors, (these are the only films both fiction and non-fiction that can be in competition, but with a budget of under a million dollars, and lacking distribution). For those films that do not fit the designation, or are by Slamdance alumni, there is another program called Beyond, which features a similar approach.
Many of our favourite films have unspooled at Slamdance over the years, like a film that we took a shining to immediately, The Dirties, Kung Fu Elliot, one of the most riveting documentaries that we saw last year, premiered at the festival, The King of Kong, a Fistful of Quarters, perhaps the greatest video game documentary ever, debuted at the festival, Murder Party, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, Copenhagen, we could go on. But this year’s slate, its 21st, rivals ‘em all. Below is a list of films that we believe will be standouts at this year’s Festival. The first thing that jumps out is the breadth of the list. There is really something for everyone. It began with a couple of films, but then the intrigue level was high, and our curiosity was piqued, to say the least.
Some of these films you’ll be hearing about in a major way this year, and some may not make it. Regardless, every single one of these films delivers something for the discerning viewer, and by all means, whether attending the festival, or on the lookout for a standout new film, keep these gems in mind.
For fans of: Psychological horror.
Why you should care: What is great about the film Body is that it is almost unclassifiable, which almost, but not quite, contradicts the “For fans of” listed above. This story is about a trio of bored girls, Holly, Cali, and Mel (Helen Rogers, Alexandra Turshen and Lauren Molina). They have nothing to do on Christmas Eve, until a daring suggestion is given. Body initially starts out like a teen comedy, throws in a dash of I Know What You Did Last Summer, but then veers into something different, a film about actions and reactions, and features stand-out performances by its three young actresses. Dan Berk and Robert Olsen have created a Body, and it’s alive.
For fans of: Americana, Landscapes, Wavelengths
Why you should care: Writer-Director Britni West filmed Tired Moonlight in her hometown of Kalispell, Montana, and the love that she has for growing up in the secluded mountain area shines through in this challenging, but poignant movie. This unconventional film shimmers with beauty, and weaves a spell on the audience, in its depiction of Dawn, played by first-time actress Liz Randall. But then suddenly in the middle, Alex Karpovsky (known to many as Ray from Girls) shows up, playing Crazy Mike, speaking Russian, and what seemed like tangents start to cohere perfectly, so that by the explosive finale, the film will just seep into your being.
For fans of: Canada, Music, Canadian Music
Why you should care: Co-directors Pavan Moondi and Brian Robertson fill the screen with Toronto, in every way shape, and form. The Toronto locations are extremely recognizable, the actors in the film are people that Torontoians may intimately know or pass by on the street, and the music selected in part by Brendan Canning, also a producer, captures Toronto’s essence. The film centers around Edith Welland, (Leah Fay Goldstein, a musician from the band July Talk and a first-time actress) playing an actress who is struggling to find direction. Her best friend, Nick is played by writer and comedian, (and yes, musician), Nick Flanagan. Goldstein is the standout of the film, as the not always likable Edith, and fans of Toronto will see Edith as a welcome guide.
For fans of: Horror, Comedy, Horror-Comedy
Why you should care: In a year with so many serious films, this one is a refreshing palette cleanser. There were a couple of scenes in Clinger that were just laugh out loud funny, but also gruesome, and it was hard to control the convulsing with giggles as the film got sillier and sillier, but in a way that has some heart as well. To give away too much would spoil the fun, but we can say that leads Fern Peterson (Jennifer Laporte) and Robert Klingher (Vincent Martella) start off in a relationship, and that Klingher wants to make a grand gesture to celebrate an anniversary, which goes horribly awry. We are chuckling now just thinking about it.
For fans of: Found footage, The Internet, Horror
Why you should care: In a sense, the “for fans of” section is almost unnecessary for Ratter, because it could be the film that ends up reaching the largest audience. This promise does not at all detract from the pure visceral horror of Branden Kramer’s Ratter. Perhaps most damning is how complicit we become in watching Emma (Ashley Benson, from Pretty Little Liars) go through her daily routine from a webcam on a phone or laptop, and dialing up the threats with creepy phone calls, seeking comfort in Michael, (Orange is the New Black’s Matt McGorry). The film hauntingly sheds light upon how we overly rely on and spy while using technology.
For fans of: Family conflicts, Foreign film, The wage gap
Why you should care: This Johanna Moder film from Austria plays a bit of a gag on its audience. Through its poster, tagline, and through the start of the film, High Performance seems like a jaunty film: Daniel (Marcel Mohab) rides a bike, which he does, and his brother Rudi wears a suit, also true. Daniel lives an artist’s life, and Rudi is a businessman, and Rudi sets up Daniel with Nora (Katherine Pizzera) in order to teach her about presentation skills, as Daniel is in a comedy troupe. Sounds almost like an overdone TV pilot, doesn’t it? Then it reveals an act of manipulation that completely blindsides its viewer, and the expectations just go “whoosh”.
Darkness on the Edge of Town
For fans of: Calvary, (yes, it’s that good), gunplay, bleak family dramas
Why you should care: Let’s get one of the Calvary connections out of the wayfirst. Yes, Brian Gleeson with his red mane of hair and beard is the brother of Domhnall Gleeson and the son of Brendan Gleeson. But Darkness on the Edge of Town looks incredible, sounds incredible and writer-director Patrick Ryan does an excellent job keeping its audience glued to a familiar story, but telling it in a way that makes committed viewers care about the fate of Cleo Callahan (Emma Eliza Regan) and especially Robin O’Riley (Emma Willis) who delivers an downright chilling performance. The film has been called a western, but exhibits very Irish sensibilities. A stunner.
Wendell and the Lemon
For fans of: Dave Eggers at his most surreal, lemons
Why you should care: Every film festival needs a film that seems to defy classification. Laurence Krauser’s Wendell and the Lemon is that very film. It’s a head scratcher, but an absolutely engaging thrill ride, thanks to Lawrence Krause, adapted from his novel which was published as a part of Eggers’ McSweeney’s label. In the vaguest description of plot, Wendell (Todd D’Amour), a run-of-the-mill office worker, suffers through a personal trauma, and sublimates his feelings by falling in love with a lemon from the Planet Citron. Yes, it is as weird as it sounds, yet it somehow becomes a really philosophical meditation on dealing with particular stress.
Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang
For fans of: Basketball, North Korea, “How did they do that?”
Why you should care: Colin Offland’s off-the-wall documentary about basketball player Dennis Rodman, and his strange relationship with Dear Leader Kim Jong-un, is first of all significant for its “How did they do that?” element. Just how did Offland and his crew manage to film so much in North Korea, not exactly known for its freedom of information? But after that level strips away, the viewer is left reeling by at times how peaceful the country appears, but then some spectacles border on the ridiculous. But the real coup of the documentary, which would play so well at Hot Docs, is who the real crazy appears to be. Footage from the game too is unbelievable.
My Fathers, My Mother and Me / 20 Years of Madness
For fans of: Families, Reunions, Performance Art
Why you should care: At a first glance, these films could not appear to be more different. The Austrian movie contains some of the most unsettling footage, (this film is for adults only, and then some), seen in a documentary in a long time. The film looks back on the commune Friedrichshof, into which director Paul-Julian Robert was born. He attempts later in life to try to confront his mother and piece his experience back together. Jeremy Royce’s 20 Years of Madness is a look back on a public access show from the mid-90s. The footage on the show was very raw, (think Wayne’s World but set outside in the Detroit suburbs and you’ll have some idea of the ragtag nature of the original production).
But then, a common theme emerges, which is the influence that powerful men hold over impressionable people. The leader of the commune, Otto Mühl got his start as a performance artist, and took that element of performing to extremes, and more revelations come to light where the point where the audience wonders how this man could cast such a spell. And then, in 20 Years of Madness, it slowly creeps up on the viewer the influence that de facto leader of 30 Minutes of Madness has upon the rest of the group, and how he comes across, quite frankly, as something of a bully, it is clear that the two films share more than a showing at Slamdance.
Birds of Neptune
For fans of: Self-expression, Music, Dance
Why you should care: The husband and wife team Steven Richter and Flavia Rocha created this mature affair, set in Portland, Oregon, featuring music from local artists. In a sense, the film draws parallels to Diamond Tongues, but is much sadder. It is essentially a story of responses to loss, as Mona (Molly Elizabeth Parker) and Rachel (Britt Harris) express the loss of their parents quite differently, with Mona showing off her body and acting out, and Rachel putting her soul into music, and playing away her feelings. A young boy named Thor enters the story at some point, as does a grad student named Zach, and the turbulence haunts the viewer long afterwards.
For fans of: The female gaze
Why you should care: Jiyoung Lee’s feature explores an issue that seems to be heretofore unveiled, which is the needs of female wanting to exploit and objectify a man. Perhaps far more surprising is that the titular Female Pervert, Phoebe, (Jennifer Lee), a video-game designer, is Asian. Female desire seen through the lens of an Asian woman is a far from being fertile subject in contemporary film, to say the least While the trailer for the film hints at the theme of the movie, (a woman wants to use a dildo on a man, and proceeds to mount it on a Theremin), it is actually quite different, and features a later sequence that is as profound as it is unexpected.
Yosemite (Closing Night Film)
For fans of: James Franco, Palo Alto, Literary Fiction
Why you should care: Gabrielle Demeestere a classmate of James Franco at NYU, (yes, this is how they met), films a work based upon two short stories from Franco’s book, Palo Alto. While Gia Coppola’s film focused upon teenagers, the protagonists here, Chris, Joe and Ted, (Everett Meckler, Alec Mansky and Calum John) are much younger. The shifting perspectives and eight bit video game motif commences with a trip to Yosemite, featuring Franco in a role based on his father, but on its return to civilization, Yosemite becomes a moving coming of age story, with threats of the human and animal variety, a brilliantly-shot, perfect conclusion to the festival.
Slamdance runs from January 23rd to January 29th at the Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City, Utah.