By Sean Boelman
It’s January, and in the film industry that means two things: film festivals and lackluster mainstream releases. In the snowy paradise that is Park City, Utah, the annual tradition of coming together to watch as many films as possible has begun. However, what is unique about Park City this time of year is that there are two film festivals taking place concurrently! The Sundance Film Festival features higher profile releases and the Slamdance Film Festival showcases some wonderful up-and-coming or underground talents.
Although disappointment media won’t have any staff writers on the ground this year, we are providing remote coverage to help guide you through some of the most interesting films coming out of both festivals. In this article, we highlight four films (two from each festival) that we have already gotten to see from this year’s lineups and explain why we think that you should give them a shot too!
After making waves at its debut at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and subsequent showings at TIFF and the London Film Festival (among others), director Pablo Larraín’s (Jackie, Neruda) eighth feature Ema was selected to screen as a part of Sundance’s Spotlight program. Telling the story of a family in crisis after a tragedy forces them to make a controversial decision, Ema shows Larraín at his best, blending intricate character work with the hypnotic artistry of a dance film. Almost like the even more gut-wrenching and emotional cousin of Gaspar Noé’s Climax, Larraín’s film is a visual feast, but it also contains plenty of substance in the script. And to top it off, actors Gael García Bernal and Mariana Di Girolamo both give phenomenal performances. This is the film not to miss at this year’s festival.
Jasper Mall (Slamdance)
Although a film about a dying mall might not immediately strike one as essential viewing, the feature documentary by Bradford Thomason (in his directorial debut) and Brett Whitcomb is arguably one of the most successful fly-on-the-wall documentaries to come out in a very long time. Exploring the demise of a shopping center in small town Alabama as a representation of the greater issues faced in the modern American economy, the Slamdance Documentary Competition entry Jasper Mall is an admittedly simple film, but it is an effective one at that. With their minimalistic and character-driven approach, Thomason and Whitcomb take this story even further, crafting an eye-opening tale of the struggle of the middle class. Anyone who grew up going to the mall will leave this film heartbroken about the death of small business in America.
Having gotten a lot of attention upon its announcement in the lineup for Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition for its bizarre premise, Zoé Wittock’s film Jumbo is a brilliant, surreal, and unforgettable romantic fantasy. Telling the story of an amusement park worker who falls in love with a tilt-a-whirl ride, this is the type of weird vision that film festivals are meant to discover. While the premise may be off-putting to mainstream audiences, Wittock handles the absurd story in a way that feels both witty and heartfelt. Additionally, lead actress Noémie Merlant (of Portrait of a Lady on Fire fame) gives a wonderful performance and will likely be the main draw of the film. This film will satisfy any festival goer’s craving for weird and whimsy.
Animation Outlaws (Slamdance)
Featuring many high-profile interviewees, the Slamdance special screening Animation Outlaws is tailor-made for any fan of animation. Detailing the history of Spike & Mike’s Festival of Animation, a roadshow of animated shorts that originated before the internet made the medium more widely available, the film includes clips from many of the films that played in the showcase, along with interviews with some recognizable faces from the industry including Pete Docter (Inside Out), Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit), and Weird Al Yankovic. Also notable about the film is director Kat Aloshin’s unique style, using an animated background behind the talking head interviews and many animated sequences to bridge the gap. This is truly a crowd-pleasing treat.
That is just a sampling of the many wonderful offerings held at the 2020 Sundance and Slamdance film festivals. If you are in Park City experiencing either festival, it is worth the time checking out the other one too, as each features plenty of unique films that you may not get to see anywhere else, or at least not in the same way.
The 2020 Slamdance Film Festival runs January 24-30 in Park City, UT. The 2020 Sundance Film Festival runs January 23 through February 2 in Park City, UT.
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