Mark Duplass continues to be a Sundance fixture, this year starring in two very unlikely romantic comedies. The first, Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister, is technically a Toronto movie, since it premiered there, and, although I enjoyed the performances, I was hoping for a little more from it. Very much in the style of her last film, the excellent Humpday, this is a film about three people and an awkward situation. Duplass plays Jack, who is packed off by his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) to stay in her father's vacation house, unaware that her lesbian sister Hannah (Rosemarie Dewitt) is staying there too, having broken up with her partner. Jack and Hannah have a drunken fling, which not only results in red faces in the morning but causes more embarrassment when Iris makes a surprise visit. Though the performances are excellent, the material isn't quite as rich as Humpday, in which two straight best friends resolve to make a gay porn film together. Your Sister's Sister looks at a similar bond, this time between two sisters, but even at a brisk 90 minutes it feels a little stretched and what starts as an intimate drama quickly runs out of places to go. More satisfying was Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed, in which Duplass plays Kenneth, a mysterious supermarket worker who places an ad in a Seattle newspaper's lonely hearts column, looking for a partner to go time-travelling with. The paper commissions a story about it, so flaky reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) ropes in two interns – including acerbic hipster Darius (Aubrey Plaza) – to go with him on the assignment. Darius is what might have happened to Thora Birch's character in Ghost World, and the oddball relationship that develops between her and Kenneth is surprisingly fresh. The central conceit – has Kenneth made a time machine or not? – is kept wonderfully vague until the end, and screenwriter Derek Connolly sidewinds into some very dark territory along the way, as Kenneth reveals his reasons for his obsession and Darius explains why she'd like to join him. It's not a feelgood movie as such, but this a very likeable film, especially in the way it brings together two uncommon characters and gives them the keys to a happy ending they seem to want to deny themselves. I've seen James Marsh's BBC Films production Shadow Dancer (pictured) described as “moving”, which is absolutely something it is not. Some words they can definitely have for the poster are “powerful”, “tense” and “mesmerising”, but its absence of sentiment is what keeps it ticking. And that is no idle remark; after a 70s prologue in which a young boy is shot dead on the streets of Belfast, the film literally begins with a bomb, some 20 years later, as Irish girl Colette (Andrea Riseborough), the murdered boy's big sister, rides the London tube with a leather bag on her lap. Nothing is said, but Marsh creates an ominous tension as Colette first drops the bag then makes her escape through the labyrinthine tunnels of the station. Her mission aborted, Colette is pulled up by MI5, who inform her that he brother was killed by an IRA bullet, not a British one as her family believes. Her handler, Mac (Clive Owen), convinces her that there is a way out for her if she wants to leave, as he believes she does. All she has to do is inform on her elder brother, who is bitterly opposed to the ongoing peace process. Interestingly, Marsh keeps things bleached out and simple; there's little dialogue and even less in the way of exposition. The only character we really understand is Mac, caught in a no man's land between two amoral subcultures and trying to play by the rules when the game is being changed all around him. It's also, unusually for this kind of story, a film about women, whether it's the scared, unhappy Colette, or the film's confident, composed M figure (Gillian Anderson), who makes harsh life or death decisions while leading a normal family-oriented life in the suburbs. Marsh's entry in the Red Riding trilogy easily proved he could handle fiction, but what stands out here is just how separate the director keeps his equally excellent documentary work. There's nothing arch or tricksy here, and hopefully there'll be rewards for this movie at the end of the year. It is, in every category, exceptional, with an edge-of-the-seat ending that practically demands a second viewing. (Which I gave it two days later...)
My Brother The Devil was another gritty British film about family loyalties, this time from Sally El-Hosaini. The film won a deserved cinematography award for DoP David Raedeker, who creates an astonishing sense of space and grace in some unexpected parts of East London. The seeds of urban drama may seem grimly familiar – the young Mo (Fady Elsayed) desperately wants to follow his badass brother Rashid (James Floyd) into a life of crime – but the USP here as the boys are second-generation Arab-British. I wanted to like this more than I did, but to explain why would rob the film of one it big surprises, which in some ways separates it from the countless ’hood movies that have proliferated in the UK over the years. It takes the film in an interesting direction, but, for me it seemed a little jarring. Still, there are some excellent moments and insights here, especially in the young supporting cast playing street thugs and vicious, pint-sized gangsters. Still coming soon: Searching For Sugar Man, Room 237, Big Boys Go Bananas, The Imposter, Two Days In New York, Compliance, Goats, Wrong – and John Dies At The End.