It was nicer in Park City – bright sunshine, temperatures just at freezing or above – than in New York, where an impending winter storm caused Delta to cancel our outbound flight, which was scheduled to take off just after a pretty big snow dump. (We wound up getting a foot and our later flight put us into Park City almost half a day late, so we missed our first two movies; our hosts donated the tickets to the needy.) It’s probably foolish to suggest trends when you see barely a tenth of what’s offered, but foolishness has never gotten in my way before, so here’s what I noticed this year:
There Was Lots Of Music. In five of the 17 flicks I caught, and at least six that I missed, music was the central binding thread: the whole raison, not just a scene or two. Since indies take a while to make it to the screen – you have to grub for money first, which is arduous and debilitating (Kickstarter is actually helping!) – it’s too early to call it a reaction to the sensational success of Sundance-preemed SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN and 20 FEET FROM STARDOM. Maybe it’s something more basic. Maybe the struggles to realize a musical vision and a cinematic one are natural artistic soulmates. <pause to let the pretension sink in> Naaah.
These “Cheapos” Look Like US$1MM. Digital technology has transformed indieland. It looks like film once it’s bumped up for the big screen, and you can goose the image in so many ways before you even get there, but consider. No schlepping dailies to the lab and waiting till the next day to see them. No wasteful hours-long breaks for lighting and setup, plus, all that equipment is more portable. This isn’t digital assist, this is full digital: with a good camera operator and dependable talent, you can tear through a script. The clichéd queries at festival post-screening “q&a”s are, how much did it cost, and what was the shooting schedule? By now, directors are bragging about the latter without even being asked. “22 days.” “15 days.” Are you kidding me? The way they do it is simple: preparation. Know your objective and you’ll know when it’s achieved, and you can even allow for happy accidents on set, tight schedule and all. A well-managed digital shoot may be fleet of foot, but when all is said and done the image quality – particularly given digital projection – is indistinguishable by us amateurs from that of a much larger production. (Times are indeed changing, my dear cineastes. One end-credit roll read, “Captured in <wherever it was shot>.” Not “filmed.” Captured.)
Anna Kendrick Was Everywhere. She was the second “romantic” lead in the first two flicks I saw (see below for why I chose quote marks), and the star of one I missed because of the cancelled flight. Her specialty is cute: the girl the lead overlooks, but you’d hack through a pack of hyenas to get next to. Indieland uses the same talent pool as everybody else, so even here, movie “wallflowers” would all stop traffic in real life. How can one actor do so much work? “22 days.” “15 days.” Think about it.
Standing Os Are Getting Cheaper At Sundance. I’ve written before about this creeping virulence, which has long infected the New York stage, but if you’re there in person and your movie was at all enjoyable, these days you get more than just enthusiastic applause. (Every flick, quality aside, is greeted with polite hands-together as the end credits roll — after all, the filmmaker and/or his gramma might be sitting next to you!) Nope, nowadays you also receive a standing fricking ovation. It was ten years between my first and second Sundance standing Os (I participated in both), now they’re everywhere. I wasn’t there when Mark Ruffalo got his for INFINITELY POLAR BEAR – I might have leaped to my feet as well, he was that good – but we remained seated for others when most everybody had jumped up. It might appear as if we didn’t like the film. Not so. We just didn’t think it deserved a standing ovation. Few works of art do.
Enough navel-gazin, hoss: let’s go to the movies! Here are the 17 I saw, in order of screening, rated on a five-star scale:
THE VOICES**** (World Premiere) It opens in one of those hyper-realities that you see in Quentin Dupieux or David Lynch flicks. There’s Ryan Reynolds, working away in the packing & shipping department of some company: who cares what it packs & ships? Everybody wears hot-pink jumpsuits, the boxes are stacked unnaturally perfectly, Reynolds is a tad too jazzed when the boss asks him to serve on the company-picnic committee. You’re soaking up lots of these little Lynchian details that subliminally make you nervous waiting for the other shoe to drop. Don’t worry, pal, it’s going to, not long after Reynolds gets home and his dog and cat start talking to him. This is a classic “genre-bender,” and I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a horror-comedy. It has actual nail-biting suspense and actual gruesomeness, though like PSYCHO it draws a line and never steps over. It’s transgressive, but it remains a comedy throughout. You would never guess the director: Marjane Satrapi, who gave us the sublime PERSEPOLIS a few years back. Before the screening, she warned us, “This has nothing to do with my previous work.” Afterward, she elaborated: I smoke a lot, I figure I only have so many years on earth, so I want to try something different every time. Brava. Not for everybody, but if you are at all intrigued by the above tidbits, this is one wild-ass ride.
LIFE AFTER BETH*** The latest entry in a surprisingly burgeoning sub-genre, the “zomedy.” A teen has lost the love of his life to a snake bite in the woods, and he’s beside himself with grief – but she shows up at her parents’ house the next day. Beth is back from the dead, and she’s not the only one! At first the amazing reunion is wonderful – in this movie zombies look just fine when they’re fresh – but soon Beth begins to exhibit more troublesome behavior…and we’re off. There’s actually a serious subtext among the antics of such doting fathers as Paul Reiser (his) and John C. Reilly (hers): this goofy story calmly illustrates how hard it can be for any of us to let go. Aubrey Plaza literally chews the scenery in the title role, and the savvy script is full of fun stuff: for example, the only way to calm down zombies is to play them “smooth jazz” — Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” figures prominently. This minor but entertaining film never takes its eye off the jokes, yet the cast is so serious and sincere (like all effective farceurs) that you can’t help but play along.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE** (Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent) At posh Winchester University, one of the residence-and-dining halls, “Parker/Armstrong,” is predominantly black, but the school has adopted a diversity program and some whites have sneaked in. This infuriates a popular broadcaster whose “Dear White People:” aphorisms are all the rage and who runs for Head Of House – and wins. Their ardent opponents are the lads from “Pastiche,” the house of the humor publication – wait, I’m stopping right here. What is this fantastical place? Yes, Ivy League, Lampoon, I understand. But this manned-up attempt to depict the many colors of color – and I do appreciate the varied points of view – devolves into so many in-jokes that it flew over the overwhelmingly white Sundance audience’s heads, including mine own. (A black couple behind me signaled whenever some arcane but hilarious shit had just transpired. They loved it, suggesting that you might not want to pay attention to me on this one.) The climax is an awful white-thrown but black-themed Halloween party which the end credits reveal has actually happened, multiple times, at colleges over the last few years. I did admire the view into certain vagaries of ethnic-but-erudite culture, even as it applies to whites (our chief rabble-rouser has a white boyfriend), but I’m just not hip enough for this particular room.
LAMBERT & STAMP**** (World Premiere) A last-minute festival entry, a lovely documentary on two budding London filmmakers who decide to manage a rock band and document the process as their first film. After a long search, they find four guys playing as the “High Numbers.” The filmmakers are Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, they rechristen those rocking lads The Who, and the rest is sociology. Kit, the posh one, is long gone, but there’s plenty of his multilingual archival footage (even some early sync-sound of the High Numbers!). Chris, the bloke, who passed away in November 2012, is all over this film with fresh interviews, as is his elder brother, some actor called Terence. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey also participate, even together in a searing b&w passage. Kit and Chris were the mortar which bound The Who, and though all six people became angry with every possible different combination of each other at one time or another, this is still a love story. The High Numbers were originally Roger’s band; Kit took it away from him in favor of Pete and Keith Moon in exchange for worldwide superstardom, and not until TOMMY did Roger regain his artistic dignity. That’s just one poignant through-line you discover in this wonderful, if occasionally table-knocking, flick. Spoiler Alert: Kit and Chris never got around to making their film.
FISHING WITHOUT NETS*** (Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic) CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, shot through the looking glass. An American director – bolstered by the Sundance Institute after his short version won a jury prize in 2002 – depicts Somali piracy from the pirates’ point of view. The largely improvised dialogue is mostly in Somali, a language which director Cutter Hodierne does not speak, and it is uttered by East African non-actors, so this is to some extent a stunt, albeit a colossal one. The moral heart of the film is Abdikani Muktar, who plays a poor fisherman unable to make ends meet for his new family. Beside himself with desperation, he is seduced into a gang which plans to hijack a cargo ship and hold its crew hostage; the captain and first mate speak almost all the English dialogue. “Abdi”’s sweet, honest face becomes our anchor in a sea of wide-eyed, khat-chewing near-psychotics as the outlaws grow weary of waiting for their ransom but remain jacked up to the very edge of carnage. The directing effort itself probably couldn’t have been made more difficult, but the story’s long middle section feels too familiar: the setup and beautiful dénouement are the most gripping parts.
SONG ONE*** A kind, gentle piece featuring pretty romantic leads, easy on both the eyes and ears. Anne Hathaway returns to Williamsburg, Brooklyn from Ph.D. work in Morocco to help care for her musician brother, who lies comatose after an auto accident; they’d had words the last time they saw each other. Looking through his journal, which contains song lyrics and other creative snippets, she finds a ticket to a concert by his idol, James Forester, a British acoustic singer-songwriter. She attends, has a quick backstage chat to deliver a demo CD of her brother’s songs, and the next day the singer shows up at the hospital room. Thus begins a warm, gradual romance in which each lost soul finds redemption with the other. Johnny Flynn is wonderful as the (offstage) bashful, retiring Forester, and the character’s original songs are worth hearing (he doubles on violin!), with lyrics just this side of precious. An IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT-ish climax makes all good again, so there’s really nothing new here, but it’ll play just fine to the ONCE crowd.
INFINITELY POLAR BEAR***** An unmitigated triumph for star Mark Ruffalo as a bipolar, manic-depressive Boston father in 1978 who is forced to get a grip on his mental illness and take care of his two daughters while his wife (a long-suffering Zoe Saldana) spends weekdays earning an MBA in New York. His recent nervous breakdown has rendered him unemployable, thus the family’s desperate plan of action. Ruffalo never falters for a second in depicting the difficulties he and the girls face despite their obvious mutual love: sometimes his behavior is so wacky it’s funny, sometimes so threatening it’s terrifying. There’s no pandering for the audience’s love whatsoever, only Ruffalo’s for his snooty, aristocratic relatives, one of whom offers to chip in by making him the ludicrous gift of the family Bentley. The film is based on the real-life childhood of writer/director Maya Forbes (her sister, vocalist China Forbes of Pink Martini fame, sings us out under the end credits), and I can’t imagine being able to call up such authentic-looking color without having lived through it yourself. It’s a near-impossible situation that everyone nevertheless faces down with grunting emotional effort, and that determination gives the rest of us a little boost as we confront our own far more easily surmountable problems.
RUDDERLESS**** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) Again with the music. Billy Crudup begins as a buttoned-down advertising exec in his father’s shop (best pitch line I’ve ever heard in the movies: “Four bigger agencies are laughing right now because we’re here presenting to you. <pause, leans in> We are not laughing.”). Something bad happens to his son. (It will take us a few more moments to understand just how bad this something was.) Time passes. Now the slick adman has turned into a house-painting boat bum, urinating off the side of his lakebound Oklahoma vessel and sad-sack home. Also a musician, he discovers some of his boy’s demo discs (again with the demo CDs!) and learns one of the songs, sings it at an open-mike night without explanation, and attracts a kid (Anton Yelchin) who’s blown away by what he thinks is Crudup’s music. They form a band, and there are several more great songs in the son’s stash. They get popular locally. Something has to give, and it does. This is the directorial debut of William H. Macy, and he does a splendid job: the storytelling is confident and comfortable, you’re swept away technically without any of the tyro’s “Look, mom! I’m directing!” tells, and the performances are sublime. You were in good hands all along. At the q&a afterward, somebody asked Macy which he preferred: acting or directing. He grinned and said, “I want to do this again.” Judging from this piece, of which he can justifiably be proud, he has a great directing career ahead of him. Most actors don’t.
THE SKELETON TWINS**** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) Like his SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE colleague Will Forte in NEBRASKA, Bill Hader is carving out a path as a dramatic actor. It’s a natural fit for sketch comedians (as opposed to stand-up comics), because sketches and improv, where most SNL cast members have trained over the years, are all about establishing character quickly. In this film he co-stars with another great SNL sketch comedian, Kristen Wiig. They are brother and sister, but they are, to put it mildly, screwed-up siblings. He’s gay, a failed actor and failed suicide (it’s the opening scene, so I’m not spoiling anything). She’s married to a sweet, well-meaning All-American doofus (Luke Wilson), who just isn’t the right fit for her, and deep down she knows it, which makes her terrified at the thought of having a baby, which is his fondest wish. Again, this is not a comedy, though there are comic moments (a scene where Hader lip-synchs to a famous Starship song to cheer up his sister is a highlight). It’s a non-sexual love story, both raw and tender, with a satisfying sense of redemption. Nice job all around.
GOD’S POCKET** Another actor-turned-director, John Slattery of MAD MEN, chooses a Pete Dexter novel for his first feature. In a blue-collar Philadelphia neighborhood, a psychotic young man who likes to trash-talk and flash a straight razor gets too close to one particular neck on a construction site and is battered to death – but all the other workers, who hate the kid’s guts (as do we, after only five minutes with him) pretend it was an accident. His mom, who is loosely connected to Some People, decides to get a few hulking toughs to investigate. She also enlists the deceased’s stepfather, a lowlife meat distributor who owes too much money to the wrong guy, and an alcoholic newspaper columnist from the tonier part of town who is fascinated by her, ah, upper carriage. This is one of those street-smart stories filled with great character actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman (I learned of his passing while writing this post), Richard Jenkins, John Turturro, Eddie Marsan playing American, MAD MEN’s Christina Hendricks as the top-heavy mom, Caleb Landry Jones as the meanest punk alive, and more. But it just doesn’t catch fire, and unlike in RUDDERLESS, you can see the effort on screen. I’m not saying it’s easy to direct a movie, but it does take a rare and nimble hand to make it look easy.
THE ONE I LOVE*** (World Premiere) I hate to sound coy, but I can’t go into too much detail about the plot without spoiling it for you, and I’d definitely suggest seeking this one out. It may take some detective work, because one thing this isn’t is a big summer popcorn movie. (It was sold to IFC Films.) A couple whose marriage is faltering goes to a therapist, who sends them to an idyllic spot to help them reconnect. There’s a guest house on the property. I have to shut up here, but you can try to guess all day and will never come up with the actual story. Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss do amazing work as the couple, as required by Justin Leder’s bizarre, brainy script. Once you spend some time rolling with the wild & wooly premise, you may suspect that this movie might not be quite as smart as it thinks it is, but provocative? Absolutely. Director Charlie McDowell (it’s everybody’s first feature!) keeps the drollery floating as these two people deal with existential questions about their relationship – ah, I’m babbling to keep from spilling. Far from perfect, but original and, most important, fun.
BOYHOOD***** (World Premiere) A masterwork; a miracle; Richard Linklater’s crowning achievement. It’s more than just the best film I saw at this fest; it’s one of the best ones I’ve ever seen anywhere. It’s a drama about a Texas family, but here’s the thing: it was shot in bits and pieces over a twelve-year span beginning in 2002. So we meet the lead actor, Ellar Coltrane, at age six, and follow him all the way to college. The same kid. Time breaks aren’t indicated by title cards: a simple cut, just like all the others, may jump ahead a few years (to preempt your q&a query, only 39 total shooting days), but you know time has passed because you can see the actors age. Not only does Ellar grow up before your eyes, but also his sister, played by the director’s daughter Lorelei; his estranged parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette; and various members of the supporting cast of this majestic piece of art. Once or twice you may find yourself thinking about age makeup on the adults because you’re conditioned to receive such fakery, but that’s not the technique used here: it’s the actual passage of time. Just to be clear, this is not a documentary, like Michael Apted’s British “Up” series. It’s a drama (with tons of laughs, a la real life), in which we follow the fascinating, tumultuous saga of a single family over twelve years. The running time is longish for Sundance (2:41), but the last film I’ll discuss below, nearly half its length, felt far longer. By the end, it’s as if you’ve known these people for years – BECAUSE YOU HAVE. Rick Linklater, whose career was lit at Sundance, returned a conquering hero this year. Imagine the cojones required to even conceive of such a thing, much less depend on your prodigious dialogue-writing skills to guide it to fruition! Man, see this movie by any means necessary. Try to minimize your bathroom breaks. And find a friend who can replace your jawbone after it’s dropped to the floor.
WHIPLASH**** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic, Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic) For the second year in a row, both the jury and the audience agreed on the outstanding U.S. dramatic entry. (This particular agreement creates some scheduling awkwardness on the final day: Sundance’s largest venue, a high-school auditorium seating more than 1200 people, is forced to screen the same movie twice in a row. Last year’s double winner was FRUITVALE STATION. The movie released as PRECIOUS also did it in 2009.) A talented kid (indie fave Miles Teller) who wants nothing less than to be the next Buddy Rich gets into a storied music school and thus must face one of the great Awful Authority Figures in cinema history: a sadistic, imperious teacher/conductor played by J. K. Simmons in the role of a lifetime. He combines the worst qualities of the PAPER CHASE law professor, the FULL METAL JACKET DI, and the Great Santini. Simmons mops the floor with this part: you hate him, but you can’t take your eyes off him and you can’t wait to see that terminally-hip skin-tight black T-shirt literally burst through the rehearsal-studio door one more time. Not only is this flick a crowd pleaser (hence the Audience Award, proving that you don’t have to be a musician to love it) but it also contains the best frickin drum solo I have ever seen in a movie. (Which piece? Hint: remember your Frank Zappa!) I subtract one star for the ultimate inevitability of the story – albeit after some interesting turns – but don’t miss this one, even if it’s only to watch J. K. Simmons play a human T.rex.
I ORIGINS**** (Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize) I admired Mike Cahill’s ANOTHER EARTH three years ago, but my host, a surgeon, couldn’t get past the scientific anomalies it utterly ignored – and then when it won the Sloan Prize for “addressing ideas or characters central to science or technology,” he was scandalized, and it’s been a kind of rueful joke between us ever since. Cahill has really grown as a filmmaker, and this year we agreed that his second Sloan Prize, for a far more sophisticated piece, was much better awarded. A scientist is trying to establish evolutionary traits in the eyeball; as we hear a speaker explain in the background, this is the voila for “intelligent design” adherents – formerly known as “creationists” – who say it’s an organ so complex that it couldn’t possibly have evolved naturally. His hobby is photographing and recording iris patterns, which are as distinctive as snowflakes. He meets and woos a mysterious woman who is more spirit- than science-based; then, years later, he seems to be on the brink of an earthshaking discovery. To really accept this film, even as entertainment, you have to get over beautiful people Michael Pitt and Brit Marling as “lab nerds,” and meditate in order to ignore a middle section of too much key-tapping and screen-gazing, endemic to tech-based dramas. But there’s a powerful climax ahead, and this one really takes on some big issues.
RICH HILL*** (U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary) I thought I might actually get out of Park City this year without seeing the kind of bleak, depressing film that makes you want to blow your brains out. Ah, Sundance. This film follows three young lads – they appear to be junior-high age, but here grade-levels are malleable – in the most inaptly-named burg in Missouri. They all come from hardscrabble families, but instantly one boy, Andrew, becomes the audience’s moral way out. He loves his (sub-attentive) parents, he listens in school, he lifts weights to better himself (he’s nearly always shirtless but hasn’t quite arrived at Six-Pack Station), he can actually envision a brighter future: the liberal role model. Not so for Appachey, a rage-engorged ADD patient whose brows are always furrowed to movie-villain angles, even when playing ball with other kids; or Harley, a knife-wielding mountain of repressed anger whose mother sits in prison because she tried to kill the slimeball who diddled her son. These are all, I repeat, kids in Missouri. There are blessed moments of pleasure, particularly a July 4th celebration, that unite these boys in happiness, but all else is squalor. One of them turns to the documentarians’ camera and addresses it directly, and the indictment passes all the way through to the audience.
IMPERIAL DREAMS*** (Audience Award: Best of NEXT) A very nice job (another first feature), again boosted by the Sundance Institute, about an ex-con trying to protect his young son from life in Watts after returning from prison. The forces urging “Bambi” (John Boyega) to return to thug life, despite his being responsible for a youngster who can still be picked up in his arms, are powerful enough that most of us would probably capitulate. This father figure has more fortitude than that. I’ve seen a lot of inner-city melodrama before, though for a change the harassing cops here are not white. It’s based on a real person; the director is smart and well-spoken. But I still felt I’d seen it before, probably here at Sundance.
20,000 DAYS ON EARTH** (Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary, Editing Award: World Cinema Documentary) First, I have to bow to the tremendous creativity employed in realizing this movie. It’s a “documentary” only because they say it is. Most of the footage is staged, lit, shot and cut just like a Major Motion Picture: in the artist’s bedroom, bathroom, writing room, auto (clearly pulled by a camera car), interlocutor’s (therapist’s?) office, etc. The subject and co-writer, Nick Cave, leader of the legendary Bad Seeds, ruminates, ruminates, and ruminates some more, reserving yet more rumination for you yobbos who didn’t get it the third time. There are two kinds of people in this world: Bad Seed fans, and everybody else. Bad Seed fans will be frustrated because they only get loud in the final :15. Everybody else will find this film impossibly turgid, a real ordeal. I actually looked over at my wife in shame once or twice to see if her eyes were still open, because the audience were restless: during a rehearsal of the complete “Higgs Boson Blues,” in which nothing much was seen but Nick and the mike, there were walkouts, pee breaks, etc., galore. (Once the Bad Seeds took the stage in Sydney for the climax, nobody moved.) I would call bullshit on self-indulgence grounds if Nick hadn’t actually done some great things over his long career, and I repeat: this is an inventive way to tell a man’s life story (to depict the young Nick, they simply unpack Mum’s box of photos on camera). I’m gonna start with two stars, which is what I saw. Add your own stars depending on how much you like the Bad Seeds. And if Nick Cave is your FAVORITE POP STAR EVER, then that’s your five, luv.
WISH I’D SEEN: COOTIES, FRANK, FREEDOM SUMMER, GOD HELP THE GIRL (chatted with one of its producers while waiting for SKELETON TWINS; they’d just learned they won a jury award), HAPPY CHRISTMAS, HELLION, HITS, LOVE IS STRANGE, MR LEOS CARAX, NO NO: A DOCKUMENTARY, PING PONG SUMMER, THEY CAME TOGETHER, TO BE TAKEI, WE COME AS FRIENDS, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
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