The annual Sundance Film Festival, currently underway in Park City, Utah, has long been relied upon to be point-A for at least some of the year's most innovative and interesting films.
While there are always plenty of titles that pique my interest, this year a particularly promising bounty of films has emerged, and the festival isn't even finished yet.
The film that has me most excited at this stage is simply called Frank. Please allow me to explain why I am so eagerly anticipating this work.
As a little boy in the mid '80s, I was totally obsessed with British humour comics like Buster; Whizzer & Chips and to a lesser extent, Beano.
My whole worldview changed, however, when a subversive porcine-themed piss-take of these sorts of comics called Oink! came along in 1986. It was from all the same writers and artists, yet it mercilessly ripped 'traditional' British comics with a self-aware mixture of toilet humour; coy irony and utter absurdism.
The more widely-known Viz would later tread similar territory, but Oink! got there first and was a thousand-times funnier while being kid-friendly. It only ran for three years but in my mind it remains a benchmark for ground-breaking humour that has only been matched by The Simpsons.
Anyway, it was via Oink! that I was introduced to a uniquely compelling character named Frank Sidebottom. Dressed in a cheap suit and claiming to be a pop star, Sidebottom's defining feature was his giant papier maché head. 'franks fantastic OINK! Page' was a mixture of weird tips; photos and mini-strips. Frank also appeared in full-page strips and sometimes on the cover of the awesomely weird magazine.
He was always cluelessly going on about his celebrity lifestyle, and he hung out with a small puppet replica of himself named Little Frank. It was all very strange and my 9-year-old self lapped it up.
I didn't know it in 1987, but Frank Sidebottom had a life outside of Oink!. He was the creation of a musician named Chris Sievy who performed live concerts as Frank, and also brought the character to British radio and television with some sustained success. There was even a video game at one point.
Frank Sidebottom remains a cult figure in the U.K., and could perhaps be crudely described as a mixture of Mr. Blobby; Austin Powers and Peewee Herman. He haunted my childhood in the pages of Oink! and he still cracks he up when I revisit my tattered old issues. Everything was always written in lower-case. I don't know why that remains funny, but it does.
Sievy sadly died of Cancer in 2010, and Frank is a film inspired by what he did with Frank Sidebottom. Domhnall Gleeson plays a young muso who joins a band headed by the enigmatic Frank, played in the film by Michael Fassbender, papier maché head and all.
The film is clearly trying to capture the spirit of Frank Sidebottom, as opposed to merely chronicling Sievy's journey with the character, which feels entirely appropriate. I can't wait to see how this plays out, and it is incredibly gratifying to me that Frank Sidebottom still has a role to play in the cultural landscape.
Anyone emotionally invested in the international success of Kiwi films must be excited about Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement's new collaboration What We Do In The Shadows, which is receiving very positive reviews and has already secured a big name endorsement.
When I first heard about the project I must admit wondering if there was really anywhere left to go with vampires, and as this interview shows, it was apparently a concern for Jemaine and Taika aswell. But I should've had more faith in these guys - I love how low-fi and New Zealand-y this is all sounding. I also love how they call into question the American term 'roommates' in that interview.
The film takes the form of a documentary about a bunch of undead Wellington flatmates who all became vampires in different eras. It's a set-up that seems perfectly suited to Clement's semi-gothic deadpan style. Here's hoping this breaks out.
1994's Dazed and Confused engendeared a lifetime of goodwill in me for writer/director Richard Linklater, but even if we weren't involved, it would be difficult not to be curious about his new project, Boyhood.
In the manifestation of an ambitious idea that Stanley Kubrick was rumoured to be considering at one point, Linklater shot a few days of Boyhood ever year over a twelve year period, during which his lead actor grew from the ages of 6 to 18. The film chronicles the boy's growth into adulthood in the context of his family - his sister is played by Linklater's own daughter Lorelai, and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play his parents.
How could you resist that set-up?
No other writer has influenced me more as a film critic than the late Roger Ebert - I read his review collections cover to cover as a teenager, and he was the first 'serious' critic (the guy won a Pulitzer) to approach genre films in a way I related to. He lacked the snobbery that coloured Pauline Kael's work; and he wasn't beholden to the Golden Age of cinema like Leonard Maltin.
While his egalitarian approach to popcorn cinema has arguably been too influential on modern film criticism, I still revere his intelligent take on the burgeoning genre masterworks of the '80s.
I stopped reading his reviews about a decade ago as I found they became a little too ponderous (and by then I was busy writing my own), but I'm still extremely excited to Life Itself, a documentary about Ebert from Hoop Dreams director Steve James.
Finally, there's just something about The Guest that really intrigues me, in addition to the stellar talent involved both in front and behind the camera. Former Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens plays a soldier who visits the parents of a dead comrade and proceeds to weird them out. With You're Next's writer and director team - Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard - pulling the strings, the tension is sure to be felt.
Which Sundance films are getting you excited? Did anyone else out there read Oink!? All hail Frank Sidebottom! Comment below!