Thankfully, not everything that plays the Sundance Film Festival is soaked in drama. Plenty of comedies can whet our appetite — even if some of them can’t help but keep the dramatic flare. There are also those that hold the potential to be watched through “Sundance Goggles,” meaning sometimes when watched after their festival run, they just don’t hold up. I don’t think any of these will fall victim to that this year.
The Lobster may seem the most out of place, considering it’s being released in the U.K. on home video next month and has been playing other festivals since last May. So it makes sense that it’s playing as part of the Spotlight section, which focuses on films that have been getting lots of play around the world. Colin Farrell stars as David in co-writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurd comedy. In the future, there’s a hotel for single people where they have the chance to either find love within a few weeks, or wind up getting turned into the animal of their choice. For David, he’s chosen the titular animal and has brought along his brother who previously didn’t make it and was turned into a dog.
Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou keep the gags flying at a rapid pace and even throw in some gallows humor. The Lobster is a fantastic dark comedy, something we don’t see as often as we used to. It almost feels like it could have originally been a Monty Python bit, but Lanthimos never breaks his own rules. Some may be put off by the ambiguous ending — just remember the opening scene of the film and you should be able to put the pieces together. It’s not as strange as you might think. Bound to play art houses stateside, it’s worth checking out if it happens to be playing nearby.
What would Sundance be without a good dramedy, right? This year, writer/director Chris Kelly wrings the laughter and the tears from even the most hardened viewer with the cancer-comedy Other People. While not your typical leading man, Jesse Plemons pulls away from character actor and carries the film admirably. It helps that he’s surrounded by such a fantastic cast. With Molly Shannon as his dying mother, Bradley Whitford as his homophobic father, and Maude (daughter of Judd) Apatow as one of his neglected sisters, everyone gets a chance to shine.
While some may not appreciate the film careening from hilarity to saccharin at the drop of a hat, that’s life. Kelly brings his comic sensibilities from the small screen (Saturday Night Live, Broad City) to the big screen in a fantastic debut. Shannon may steal the show as we slowly watch her slip away over the course of a year, but Plemons plays off her beautifully — showing a real mother/son relationship as he watches his best friend wither away. Packed full of laughs and tears, Other People will go down as one of the year’s best dramedies, and could even earn Shannon at least a Golden Globe nomination next year, if not maybe an Oscar nom. She’s come a long way from SNL and just keeps getting better.
The funniest and best of the bunch — not to mention my favorite of the whole festival — is writer/director Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Returning to Sundance for the fourth time, including 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi makes another stellar solo outing that fits more in line with his first two Sundance films Boy and Eagle vs Shark. Quirky, heartfelt, hilarious, visually grand, and a just plain joy to watch, this will stand as not just one of the festival’s best films, but as one of the year’s best as well.
Julian Dennison makes an auspicious debut as Ricky — a real bad egg — who keeps getting shuffled around from home to home, finally landing in the care of Bella (Rima Te Wiata). At first he’s not so fond of living so far out in the bush, but soon learns to love it, even while dealing with the curmudgeonly Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). After Bella dies, Ricky decides he’s running away from it all and Uncle Hec heads out to look for him. After Hec fractures his ankle, a manhunt ensues after the local authorities think that Hec may have taken Ricky out into the wildlands to get rid of him.
The cast all work splendidly together creating real rapport. It certainly helps that Waititi has crafted such a fantastic screenplay giving everyone plenty of chances to bowl you over with laughter. Not to give anything anyway, but there are at least two films playing the festival this year with a dog winding up dead and only this one will manage to make you actually cry about it. Waititi even gets his own chance to shine as a hilarious priest. Considering Waititi’s films just keep getting better, I can only imagine the stamp he’s going to make on the third Thor film. Ragnarok can’t come fast enough at this point. Keep your eyes peeled for this one as it’s bound to find its way to a theater sooner rather than later.
While not exactly an outright comedy, Operation Avalanche features plenty of spark to classify it as such. Even if it gets caught up in some high stakes thrills as the film dives into its finale. Mockumentaries are nothing new to Sundance — The Blair Witch Project, anyone? — so it comes as a shock when we’re graced with a good one. Let alone a really good one. Matt Johnson gets to show off as a jack of all trades as he takes the reigns as director/co-writer and star. Along with a motley crew of undercover CIA agents, they stumble upon one of the biggest conspiracies in American history. Was the moon landing faked?
Thankfully, Johnson — along with co-writer/co-star Josh Boles — give us another inconclusive ending, but treat us to one that actually works. The laughs and thrills are paced to a fantastic conclusion and there is plenty to love along the way. With a cast of characters engaging enough to make the story work, it even keeps you guessing right up to the last shot. Johnson was on hand after the screening for a lively Q&A where he explained how they managed to shoot the film on a minuscule budget inside NASA itself by basically lying through their teeth and getting the most out of 20 minute windows. Operation Avalanche has already been picked up by Lionsgate but doesn’t have a release date announced yet. Hopefully the film finds its audience when it finally goes wide, and I have no doubt it will. Smart and fun mockumentaries are hard to come by so make sure you give the attention it deserves when it finally hits theaters.
Photos courtesy Sundance Institute