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Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet Leads Eric Lavallee’s 2017 Sundance Film Fest Top Ten

With no shortage of first rate items from the likes of Campos, Reichardt, Stillman and Lonergan, Sundance’s 2017 edition would comparably fall short in terms of prestige items from known auteurs, but nonetheless, there were plenty of quality sophomore film offerings and solid directorial debuts to go around. While I missed out on hyped films such as Call Me By Your Name and Menashe, I managed to rank at least one item with a four star stamp while picks 2 to 10 all tied with 3.5/5 score. Time will tell if these films become interchangeable in terms of rank, but for the time being, here are my top 10 films of Sundance 2017.

10. Strong Island – Dir. Yance Ford (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Part of a broader discourse witnessed in quality offerings O.J. Made in America and Ava DuVernay’s 13th, the old adage that good things come to those who wait is proportionally true here. Ford’s subtle, highly precise effort took close to a decade to complete and in theory, while time does indeed help heal wounds, sometimes it makes for a lengthier introspective/filmic process. One of the most intensely therapeutic, analytically-tinged self reflections in recent memory, Strong Island is singular, investigative-like docu that avoids overt, cathartic sweeping emotions and instead offers a case study that exemplifies the injustices that thousands others have or will face. It’s also the best utilization of hand flip motion gesture since Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad.

9. Thoroughbred – Dir. Cory Finley (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
A major showcase for the likes of Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy and solid break-out material for writer-director Cory Finley, playing like upper crust Cruel Intentions, the venus flytrap set-up is embedded with a devilish quality and the back in forth banter between female co-leads is delish. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent continues his ascension as a solid craftsman here, the handsome indie production is visually engaging and includes a maze-like quality (you could feel the presence of the big wheel), Thoroughbred counts as Cooke’s best work to date and confirms that The Witch’s Taylor will have a long life on the silverscreen. Just a couple of notches from instant cult like status, this noir-humored film is a great pick-up for the Focus Features folks.

8. Mudbound – Dir. Dee Rees (Premieres)
If Dee Rees’ third feature film had been included in the U.S Dramatic comp, then Macon Blair’s debut might have placed second for the Grand Jury prize. On paper, a multiple narrator set-up, dual timelines and a PSTD shared bromance wrapped in period pic setting sounds like a disaster, but under the guise of a poised, non heavy-handed moralistic template and a rich, earthy vintage look and textured feel is premium quality fare. Accompanied by a less is more perf from Garrett Hedlund, Mudbound is legit awards season consideration and deserving of Park City accolades. Mary J. Blige’s acting is legit. Rees delivers on the promise of Pariah.

7. Brigsby Bear – Dir. Dave McCary (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
An unassuming Sundance offering that essentially charms the dickens from the getgo, there is a lot to admire in this surprise directorial debut standout. Notably absent is vague sense of familiarity, tidy narrative pinnings and safe landings, instead SNL creative collab director Dave McCary and actor Kyle Mooney play with the form a la Gondry, insert cooky ideas and re-organize the deck of cards. Brigsby Bear is instantly likeable, and master craftsman David Wingo composes a tonally teddy-bear friendly score. SPC have a winner on their hands.

6. Roxanne Roxanne – Dir. Michael Larnell (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
In the rap-battling films to play in Park City, it’s not the Little Miss Sunshine-esque Patti Cake$ but the portrait on Roxanne Shanté that stands the tallest and rings truest. He broke out from Park City two editions ago with the micro-budgeted Cronies, and the confidence exuded in his sophomore film is especially noteworthy due to how he reappropriates and repackages your typical rags to riches / recording artist biopic. Sans the extra trimmings and avoiding the trappings of miserablism poverty projects a la Precious, Roxanne Roxanne is school of hard knocks realism with a dash of hopefulness and it’s charismatically led by the perfectly cast first-timer Chanté Adams. She the real deal, and so is this second effort.

5. Beach Rats – Dir. Eliza Hittman (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
America’s answer to Andrea Arnold hardly doesn’t fall victim to what are sophomore film blues with this in your face, socio-cultural anthropologic slice of summer life. Neither coming-of-age nor addiction drama, Beach Rats is an loaded gun interpretation and amalgamation of complicated issues and necessary accompanying boredom you find in the most honest, and accurate youth portraits. Harris Dickinson’s screen debut is more than brave, it’s arresting and while Hittman’s It Felt Like Love was remarkable in it’s visual exploration, this is pushes the envelope and sets itself on an abrasive journey that will appease those who want to go beyond PC and PG cinema. This is My Own Private Idaho for the millennials. Deservingly picking up the Best Director award, Hittman works with her own alchemy, and kudos to new distrib outfitter Neon for landing this edgy material.

4. Golden Exits – Dir. Alex Ross Perry (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
It might come across as a man’s world, but the delicate neurosis that is spread between Brooklyn based families is further enhanced by the characterizations offered by the likes of Emily Browning, Chloë Sevigny, Analeigh Tipton, Mary-Louise Parker and Lily Rabe. I’ve heard Ozu, you could cite Bergman, and he personally referenced Rohmer, but I was comparatively thinking of the gaze and sense of yearning found in Visconti’s Death in Venice. Composed, distilled, restrained and a tonally mature fifth feature filled with the immature, in my books, Alex Ross Perry offers his career best in this non-battle of the sexes.

3. Lemon – Dir. Janicza Bravo (NEXT section)
Effectively weighed down by a sourness and a dash of sweetness,  pretty much each sequence offered in Janicza Bravo’s assertively distinct directorial debut adheres to what we’ve already come to discover in her short work. In subversive comedic terrain, muse Brett Gelman becomes the human pinata and sacrificial lamb for 40 is naughty club, and not unlike how Todd Solondz has his bruised character sets interact, future auds will end up cheering for society’s reject-worthy protag. Selected for Rotterdam, Lemon is refreshingly relentless and inventive from beginning to end.

2. Dina – Dir. Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Two docu features into their filmography, we could state that filmmaker duo Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ offer a fresh perspective into the lives of people who aren’t all that different from our own. The real life portrait of an autistic couple who are moments away from a proper union, the titular Dina and Scott are screen heroes offered in Ulrich Seidl-like, fly on the wall bliss where life within and outside the frame is rich in anecdotally mundane and trivial life details. Both warm and funny, this Grand Jury prize winning docu uses the edit and the frame to comedic purposes, and it’s the sound and serene approach to their heroine’s past with two inclusions that makes this portrait worldly.

1. Casting JonBenet – Dir. Kitty Green (U.S. Documentary Competition)
A banner Sundance year for the Cinereach folk, I certainly had no clue that a docu film on a subject matter that has been reported on at ad nauseam would be the crowning jewel of my Sundance 2017 experience. Netflix landed the film prior to the fest and with good reason, Kitty Green’s sophomore formally inventive item works with a brilliantly creative and playful idea, and yet becomes a poignant essay film on the human condition, and how normal folk appropriate a torrid tale and provide their own hearsay. Arriving on the fest’s footsteps at the exact time where the American president playfully subjugates the truth, somewhere hidden in all the presented theories there is probable truth and murder motive explanation, but it’s the ingenuity of the casting process that is far more revelatory. Reminding me of last year’s other difficult to classify docu Kate Plays Christine, Green (who previously tackled dark matter in Venice Film Festival’s 2013 preemed Ukraine Is Not a Brothel) is in a class of her own.

Films Viewed: A Ghost Story, Beach Rats, Beatriz at Dinner, Brigsby Bear, Burning Sands, Casting JonBenet, City of Ghosts, Crown Heights, Dayveon, Dina, The Force, Golden Exits, Gook, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Ingrid Goes West, L.A. Times, Landline, Lemon, Mudbound, PATTI CAKE$, Person to Person, Roxanne Roxanne, Sidney Hall, Strong Island, Thoroughbred, To the Bone, Trophy, Where is Kyra?, Wind River, XX.

Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist and critic at (founded in 2000). Eric is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson's This Teacher (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022 he served as a New Flesh Comp for Best First Feature at the 2022 Fantasia Intl. Film Festival. Current top films for 2022 include Tár (Todd Field), All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen), Aftersun (Charlotte Wells).

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