Sure, the Sundance Film Festival may primarily be about movies, but it’s also a time where tens of thousands of people from across the world get together in a quiet, snowy mountain town with limited accessibility, a ton of virtual reality gear, and a host of brands trying to capitalize. That means things can just get downright strange at times. From gross-out muppets and art installations, to adult babies and VR cats, this year’s festival was a bazaar of the bizarre. These were our “favorites.”
I’ve mentioned Chocolate before, but again, here is director Tyler Hurd’s description of his latest virtual reality experience:
"The story behind it is, you are their robot god and they are doing a ritual dance for you, to provide them with their precious resource, which is the cute cats. And then the cats go into the landscape, which replenishes their ecosystem. And then the big cat that comes out is like their idol, or their chief. I call him a god cat. [...] This is part of his ritual, so he has the champagne bottle — so he's pretty excited to contribute to the ritual, as you provide more cats."
This is entirely accurate, but does not include the fact that everything is made of glittery chrome, and that people apparently describe it to Hurd as “Lisa Frank on acid.” Or that in order to replenish the cat resources you wave around your virtual hands until kittens shoot out of them, pulsing to the music. No, seriously, it’s kind of great. —Adi Robertson
Circa 2345 is a virtual reality companion piece to artist Daniel Arsham’s gallery show of the same name, which ran last year in New York City. The show is full of crystalline sports equipment and clothing that suggests fossilization — as if we’re looking back on these accidentally preserved relics from the far future. And that’s exactly what the VR piece’s voiceover confirms: it’s an archaeologist musing over a lost civilization that he knows only through its detritus, preserved in what looks like a dark cave made of purple volleyballs. Turns out we’ll still remember “fake news” in the future, but only in reference to devastating truths about climate change!
To some extent Circa 2345 is just your standard “our generation destroyed the Earth, and the far future looks back on our luxurious lives in wonderment at what we took for granted while cursing our stupidity for letting it go” science fiction. But the naive, mournful deadpan of its narrator, combined with the hypnotic sensory deprivation of 360-degree video, makes it feel appropriately creepy. Circa 2345 isn’t weird because it’s wacky or unexpected, but because it reminds us how completely bizarre reality is right now. —Adi Robertson
The St. Regis Funicular
You know those video game sections where the developers want to give you the impression of physical motion and a finite goal, while still making you feel walled-in and vulnerable while things attack you? Well, the perfect vehicle for that is the funicular, a kind of diagonal elevator that usually signifies you’re either entering a secret lair or about to get jumped by a horde of enemies. And Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival, has one. It’s at a mountainside hotel called the St. Regis, and I’m almost embarrassed about how strange I find it.
Look, I know funiculars are a real thing, not that functionally different from a gondola or trolley. That doesn’t change the experience of walking up to what looks like an ordinary hotel, then seeing that it’s just a few rooms and a big platform, and the only way to reach the main lobby is a little brown box that slooooooowly creeps up a snowy hillside on a metal track to the real lodge. It makes you feel like you’re being summoned by a shadowy nordic overlord instead of going to talk to some fellow nerds about the latest VR experience. I’ve managed to have reason to go to the St. Regis both years I’ve covered Sundance, and I would happily make funicular rides an annual tradition for the rest of my life. —Adi Robertson
Kuso’s sex torso
I could recount the entirety of Kuso, the first film from Flying Lotus, but I don’t think we have the time, space, or tummies for such abundance of grossness. So what do I choose? The penis stabbing scene? A woman crawling from a giant, anthropomorphic turd that the voice-of-God claims is her baby? I think I will go with the scene in which a pregnant woman (rapper The Buttress) walks in on the would-be father (Tim Heidecker) aggressively humping what looks like a human torso composed of mutated sex organs. Interdimensional muppets enter the room, and zap Heidecker into a human turkey, with a red boil hemorrhaging from his butthole. It might not be the weirdest scene in Kuso, but it’s an image I will never forget. —Chris Plante
The dropped call in Lemon
Lemon is a cringe-comedy about Isaac (Brett Gelman), a failing actor who get dumped by his blind girlfriend (Judy Greer) and enters a midlife tailspin. Everything goes wrong for Isaac, largely because Isaac is despicable, self-interested, and absent-minded. Near the end of the film, he rushes home to use the toilet, which is shown in an extended bathroom sequence that’s set to a score of squeaky farts and percussive poops. After Isaac has fully evacuated his bowels, he gets a phone call and accidentally drops the device into the full crapper. He reaches in, removes the phone — and with it globules of feces, which flop into the air and splatter onto the floor. —Chris Plante
Mom’s a feces-smeared dog, so happy birthday
It’s hard to pick out a single weirdest moment in Bitch, Marianna Palka’s startling horror-drama about a woman who’s so stressed and depressed by her absentee husband and four demanding children that she suffers a psychotic break and decides she’s a vicious, feral dog. Throughout most of the film, Jill (played by Palka herself) is naked in her own basement, barking and snarling and covered with her own feces. (It’s unclear why Jill thinks dogs routinely smear poop on the walls, their skin, and anyone who tries to talk to them.) But things probably get strangest when her awful husband Bill (Jason Ritter), trying to be supportive, takes Jill to the dog park and tries to teach her how to play with other dogs by barking, rolling around on his back, carrying a stick around in his teeth, and assuming a play-crouch posture with his butt in the air. Throughout the sequence, dog-Jill just stares at him bemusedly, which is about all the audience can do, too. —Tasha Robinson
Your dying daughter is an adult baby, so happy re-birthday
Late in To The Bone, Marti Noxon’s staggeringly intense film about anorexia, 20-year-old Eli (Lily Collins) has clearly hit a turning point with the disease. Cynicism and anger have kept her from fully embracing therapy, and she’s near death. When she runs away from her unconventional inpatient therapy and travels to see her semi-estranged mother, Judy (Lili Taylor), Judy blames herself for Eli’s illness. She says they never bonded properly when Eli was an infant, and that her therapist suggested holding Judy and feeding her like a baby, to give them the connection they never had. It’s a strange, off-putting idea. And the clumsy reality, as Eli tries to adjust her bony, adult-size body to fit in Judy’s lap so she can drink from a baby bottle, is embarrassing to the point of being ludicrous. But it’s a testament to both women’s performances — and to the emotional resonance of Noxon’s dark, uncompromising script, based on her own life with anorexia — that it’s emotionally moving and horrifying as well. It’s a deeply bizarre image, but it also shows just how completely Eli has to collapse before she can escape her own cynicism and completely surrender herself in the name of getting well. —Tasha Robinson
A Ghost Story (redux)
I already mentioned this film from director David Lowery in the round-up of our favorite films, but there’s no way around it: weird is weird. Casey Affleck plays a man who dies, comes back as a ghost wearing a white sheet (complete with eye holes), and stares on silently as his wife (Rooney Mara) moves on with her life. Yes, you read that correctly. Affleck. Ghost. Sheet. Eye holes.
Perhaps the only thing weirder about A Ghost Story is the fact that Lowery got to make A Ghost Story in the first place. Or maybe it’s how emotionally affecting the whole thing is, despite being unconventional on almost every level. But when you go to a festival like Sundance, part of what you’re hoping for is an unexpected discovery or surprise, and A Ghost Story was it. —Bryan Bishop
Heartcorps: Riders of the Storyboard
The New Frontier program is where Sundance likes to think outside the box, and while that’s meant an increasing focus on virtual reality, it’s also home to surprising art installations, performance pieces, projection mapping showcases — or in the case of Heartcorps, projects that combine all three. The brainchild of lead artist dandypunk, the project in an immersive theater dance piece: a small number of audience members enter a room that is covered on every surface by hand-drawn illustrations, scraps of phrases, and primitive black-and-white imagery. Once inside, they’re asked to stand in a circle while someone named The Alchemist steps forward and conjures up a creature called “Particle.” But Particle isn’t an actor; it’s an animated character that exists only as a light projection, and as the actors in the room dance, move, and play off the projected imagery, Particle travels throughout the room in a breathtaking combination of art, play, and technical wizardry.
The magic in Heartcorps is the way in which the dancers and the projection mapping work with one another, creating the illusion of a reality that is equal parts light and physical matter. As a simple visual display, it’s gorgeous. But dandypunk and his collaborators are able to create something deeper, using their full set of skills and the intimacy of the small space to create an experience this was truly moving on an emotional level. —Bryan Bishop
The Strange Case of Kuso
There’s never enough time to see all the movies at a festival like Sundance, and every night we’d trade notes to know what to check out, and what to avoid. But throughout all of those conversations, nothing was more memorable than hearing my colleague Chris Plante discuss the film Kuso. Was he yanking our chain? Was this real? Did someone, as Tasha Robinson suggested, spray LSD in the face of everyone that attended Kuso screenings, resulting in some crazed mass delusion? I didn’t know then, and now that I’m back in Los Angeles, I still don’t know.
But one thing is for certain: there wasn’t a single conversation I had at Sundance that contained more moments of sheer, mind-blowing WTF-edness than the times Chris would try to explain this movie. Seriously, just look at his recap above, or read his review. Whatever you do, the strange case of Kuso will haunt you forever. —Bryan Bishop