“Hard Eight,” “Velvet Buzzsaw,” and More Celebrate Anniversaries in February

Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal star in Dan Gilroy’s darkly comic “Velvet Buzzsaw.”

By Lucy Spicer

February may be the shortest month (though we do get an extra day this leap year), but it’s got a lot to offer. February invites us to explore Black history, remember presidential birthdays, and celebrate Lunar New Year, Mardi Gras, and Valentine’s Day just to name a few. And if you find yourself with any free days, we’ve got some Sundance-supported anniversaries to round out your celebration schedule.

A diverse bunch of films have received February releases over the years, including the five titles plucked from the Sundance archives featured below. Among them are Paul Thomas Anderson’s neo-noir feature debut, a documentary exposing inequitable labor practices, a charming animated tale of unlikely friendship, a comedy-drama set against the backdrop of German reunification, and a blood-soaked satirical glimpse into the art world.

H-2 Worker (1991) — Winner of a Grand Jury Prize and an Excellence in Cinematography Award in the documentary category at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, director Stephanie Black’s H-2 Worker serves as an exposé of labor practices in the U.S. under the government’s H-2A visa program. Through interviews with laborers and voice-over narration of candid letters home to their families, the film documents the daily lives of Jamaican seasonal workers who are flown to Florida to work on sugar plantations on temporary visas. The men leave home to take on the grueling and hazardous task of harvesting sugar cane because they hope to collect better wages, but inadequate living arrangements and unscrupulous practices that allow employers to skirt federal minimum wage laws result in conditions that feel akin to imprisonment or even slavery. Check here for viewing options.

Hard Eight (1997) — When sophisticated gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) meets John (John C. Reilly) outside a diner on the outskirts of Reno, the latter is at a low point in his life. One conversation over coffee and a trip to a Las Vegas casino later, the two have formed a friendship. Sydney teaches John everything he knows about gambling, but the younger man still lacks Sydney’s tact years later. When a tangled situation involving John, cocktail waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), and John’s new friend Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) arises, Sydney has to take matters into his own hands. Supported by the 1993 Sundance Institute Directors Lab and originally titled Sydney, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature debut is a continuation of his short film Cigarettes & Coffee, which screened at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. Check here for viewing options.

Good Bye, Lenin! (2004) — When Alex’s mother, Christiane, awakens from a coma after a recent heart attack, her doctor advises Alex (Daniel Brühl) to shield her from any shocking news, lest she experience another, potentially fatal, attack. Alex agrees, but there’s just one problem — while Christiane (Katrin Sass) was comatose, communism collapsed in East Germany and the Berlin wall came down. With the help of his sister (Maria Simon) and his new girlfriend (Chulpan Khamatova), Alex returns his mother’s house to its exact East German state and goes to great lengths to hide the vastly changed world just outside her window. Directed by Wolfgang Becker, this German comedy-drama about societal upheaval screened at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. Check here for viewing options.

Ernest & Celestine (2014) — Celestine, a young mouse living in an orphanage, has been told to accept certain rules of underground rodent society. One is that she is destined for dentistry when she grows up, like all rodents are. Another is that mice and bears can never be friends. When an above-ground assignment goes sideways for Celestine, she meets — and is almost eaten by — Ernest, a bear who turns out to be a kindred spirit. The pair of misfits’ unlikely friendship threatens to upend the established social order both under and above ground. Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner, this charming animated feature is based on the children’s book series by Gabrielle Vincent. The English-language version of the film, featuring the voice talents of Lauren Bacall, Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Paul Giamatti, and more, screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Check here for viewing options.

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) — The world of art representation and acquisition is at its most vicious in this darkly comic spoof by writer-director Dan Gilroy, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. When Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an up-and-coming agent, finds a cache of paintings left behind by an artist who recently passed away in her apartment building, she ignores his posthumous instructions to destroy his works and instead brings them to the attention of gallery owner Rhodora (Rene Russo). The paintings catch the eye of art critic Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) and curator Gretchen (Toni Colette) among others, but their sudden popularity proves to have supernatural — and deadly — consequences. Check here for viewing options.

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