My alma mater, the University of Texas, has produced some talented filmmakers that have become household names in the international cinema scene (Wes Anderson, Robert Rodriguez, etc.). There’s also plenty of relative “unknowns” from the scores of UT alumni, trying to make the big crossover. Today, I had the thrill of witnessing a moment when one respected, acclaimed filmmaker went from a fest-circuit, critical darling to potential power-player. His name is George Ratliff, and his new film at Sundance is called Joshua. It’s highly entertaining, scary, and incredibly well-constructed. Paying homage to subtle domestic horror classics like The Bad Seed and Rosemary’s Baby, the film stars Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga as parents of a nine-year old boy named Joshua and a newborn baby girl. In their Central Park West apartment, things become mysteriously troublesome when Joshua begins to enact a series of events to undo his picture-perfect family. This includes deception, murder, and a lot of genius.
Ratliff has been one of the several names in the Sundance press this year, as a primarily doc-focused filmmaker who has crafted an impressive fictional work (Jeffrey Blitz and Chris Smith being two others). At Sunday’s midnight screening, the audience jumped and squealed with each tense and suspenseful moment. Nearly all the elements of Joshua execute themselves in a masterful way, from the performances to the music to the cinematography. Now, of course you could say I’m biased. Afterall, I did attend the same film school. And yes, SXSW did screen all three of Ratliff’s previous feature films. But, really truly, this is a fantastic horror film. And for longtime fans of Ratliff’s work, not too far a departure in content but certainly a remarkable launching pad to Hollywood embrace. Plus, in a vote of confidence, Fox Searchlight is closing a deal to distribute the film. Keep your eyes open for it. It’s not to be missed.
Before Joshua, I hit a troika of parties for: the Gersh Agency, A&E IndieFilms, and Discovery. The A&E party was in honor of Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That (alternate title for Joshua might be: My Kid Could Kill That). Amir’s film is one of my favorite docs at Sundance that I’ve seen. It’s wholly compelling and engaging and, rightfully so, has theatrical distributors beating down the door for release rights. Don’t be surprised if the film announces a theatrical deal within days. It would join Austin-produced feature Teeth, which just closed a distribution deal with The Weinstein Company.
The Discovery party was fun, as it usually is. In honor of the NASA doc, In the Shadow of the Moon, the team from the film brought out a birthday cake for moon-landing astronaut Buzz Aldrin. It was a really charming moment, when a room full of jaded indie film folks hushed themselves to sing “Happy Birthday” to the elder spaceman. Aldrin, and his wife (complete with zero-gravity cheekbones) by his side, gave a long speech about the need for more space travel to mark the 40th anniversary of what he and his team accomplished.
Before all of this, I saw a couple of films. The big standout of the early part of the day, was Robinson Devor’s Zoo. Where Ratliff/Blitz/Smith are doc-heavy filmmakers making fiction, Devor is a narrative feature filmmaker experimenting in the world of nonfiction. Already in the THINKFilm catalog, Zoo is the disturbing and fascinating re-telling of the events surrounding the controversial death of a Seattle man after a zoophilia party with a horse. For fear of spoiling or offending, let’s just say the Seattle man of this 2005 episode took more than he could handle from the horse. The film utilizes audio interviews with those involved in all aspects of the event, including members of this club of horse-lovers. Devor artfully weaves amazing cinematography, and some recreations, underneath the eye-opening interviews. Zoo is technically beautiful and conceptually horrifying. The provocative film is frightening, shocking, and 100% hypnotic. I would not be surprised if the film, which is in the Documentary Competition, walked away with a technical award.
Sunday was a heavy day at Sundance, but Monday promises some comic relief and a very busy schedule. And, by the way, I’m seeing films I don’t like as well. I’m just choosing not to write about them. More soon.
Biggest Buzz Films of the Day: Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, George Ratliff’s Joshua, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s The Devil Came on Horseback
Films I’m Most Curious About Tomorrow: Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow, Mike White’s Year of the Dog and Chris Smith’s The Pool (which I’ve seen, I just wanna know if people love it as much as I do)
Party of the Day: A&E IndieFilms shindig
Best Swag: Moon-shaped birthday cake for Buzz Aldrin and the rest of us