My Sundance 2011

2011-sundance-festivalI can’t remember a nicer setting than the latter few days of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, our eighth: crisp, bright, sunny days; enough snow on the ground to make it pretty but not enough to be hazardous; clear sidewalks and roads; temperatures wintry but far from bitter – you could almost use the word “warm” in the early afternoons! But actually seeing movies was more difficult than ever. Park City’s second largest venue, the 602-seat Racquet Club, was being renovated, so there were about 3000 fewer seats available every day – and attendance was up an estimated 12% from last year. So nearly every screening I attended was completely full, and the smaller auditoriums had to turn away actual ticket holders (they got refunds instead); forget about the poor waitlisters, who can enter the theater only if there are still unoccupied seats just before showtime. Fortunately, one perk of our weekend passes (whenever we’re lucky enough to snag ’em the previous fall) is the right to go to the head of the line, provided we’re prompt: that’s why Sundance screenings are frequently oversold, because they never know how many pass holders (as opposed to ticket holders) are going to wander in.

The movies were good too, all in all. Even if you’re there the entire time, you still can‘t see everything. This year, the ones that got away included Kevin Smith’s horror movie RED STATE, which he plans to take on a tour in March and DIY-distribute nationally in October; what I hear was a fabulous documentary on Harry Belafonte; ABRAXAS, which one guy told me was the best film he’d ever seen, and there were walkouts!; Lee Tamahori’s drama about the body double of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday; and Morgan Spurlock’s new one, on product placement in movies. But I can’t complain: once again this year, due to either general quality or blind luck, I didn’t see a single one that reeked – and trust me, such flicks exist even at Sundance. The following is my knee-jerk take on the 19 films I saw, using a five-point rating system, “in order of appearance.”

TYRANNOSAUR**** (World Cinema Directing Award–Dramatic, World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Breakout Performances–Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman) The first feature by actor Paddy Considine is wrenching, both in its brutality and its depiction of seared human souls. A rage-filled widower stumbles upon a mousy Christian thrift-store clerk with issues of her own; any redemption will have to be hard-won. The two superb leads get most of the screen time and attention, but the very dependable Eddie Marsan is also chillingly effective. Rough stuff at times, but it pays off.

BEING ELMO***** (Special Jury Prize, U.S. Documentary) Some kids are fascinated with cowboys or astronauts or athletes. When he was growing up in Baltimore, Kevin Clash was fascinated with puppetry, and the passion never, ever left him. A natural with hand movements and voices, and a creative puppet designer and seamster, Kevin was on local television while still a teenager, and eventually got to meet and work with his idol, Jim Henson. But when he took on a certain SESAME STREET puppet from a frustrated colleague, his life was transformed – for Kevin Clash performs “Elmo,” one of the best-loved characters in the world. Whether or not you know Clash’s creation, this is a wonderfully inspirational “follow-your-dream” story that begins with loyal and supportive parents. The nature of his art makes Clash himself fairly anonymous – in Times Square, he walks past a guy in an Elmo costume to no reaction – and you soon decide that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. The only person who might take slight umbrage is Clash’s daughter, whose dad is very loving but also very busy; his deepest regret is the time he wasn’t able to spend with her as she grew up. For the rest of the festival, all you had to do was mention this movie to get someone’s eyes to light up.

THE MILL AND THE CROSS*** A film based on a painting – and I mean that literally. Lech Majewski (BASQUIAT) and a team of CGI artists have created a kind of chamber piece based on Pieter Bruegel’s majestic The Procession to Calvary, which brings Jesus’ laden march to crucifixion into 16th century Flanders and depicts it as but one event among many others. The central visual effect is astonishing: actors appear to be frozen in Bruegel’s frame, then you notice that the breeze is rustling a skirt ever so slightly, and there’s obvious movement way off in the distance. The faces are fascinating, Felliniesque. You’ve never seen anything like this; you’re inside the painting. Majewski concocts a backstory contemporary with Bruegel and even includes the artist himself. A haunting sound design, both musical and otherwise, underlines the menace of sadistic Spanish soldiers who loom over everything. Bits of dialogue are uttered by Michael York, Charlotte Rampling, and Rutger Hauer as Bruegel, but the film is mostly nonverbal. This slow, deliberate piece is not for everybody; it was screened as part of Sundance’s “New Frontier” program, and as the late movie on my first night in Utah, it suffered because of my physical exhaustion. It wasn’t the movie’s fault, and I intend to see it again when I’m better rested because it’s that sumptuous.

TERRI*** An overweight adolescent orphan tries to deal with those three strikes, and others of his own making: for example, he wears pajamas to high school because “they’re comfortable on me.” He lives with his uncle (affectingly played by THE OFFICE’s Creed Bratton), who slips in and out of dementia, and the only ray of sunshine in his sallow life is reflected off the school’s most beautiful girl, whom he worships from afar. When she suddenly becomes an outcast too, an unlikely relationship is formed. It sounds pat, and partly is, but the screenplay stays one step ahead of you. John C. Reilly is hilarious as an overly earnest assistant principal.

LOST KISSES*** A sly, appealing Italian satire about faith and honesty. The town of Librino in Sicily is very proud of its new statue of the Virgin Mary. But when its head mysteriously disappears (it’s no mystery to the audience), a bored 13-year-old girl claims the Madonna told her its whereabouts in a dream! Before long, everybody in town is asking Manuela for the Madonna’s intercession in one matter or another, and the lucrative potential of this new avocation is not lost on her mother. It reminded me a little of the Jesus-in-a-water-stain commotion in HENRY POOLE IS HERE, which we saw three fests ago, but this one never loses the twinkle in its eye, and just when you think it has nothing more to tell you, it holds a big surprise in store.

TAKE SHELTER**** A psychological thriller that had me on the edge of my seat, thanks to another superb performance by the brilliant Michael Shannon, who specializes in creeps but here plays an upstanding family man who thinks he may be losing his mind. He sees disturbing formations in the Ohio sky and is tortured by horrific nightmares. He becomes convinced that something is coming, some murky apocalypse, and fortifying the rickety storm shelter in his back yard becomes his obsession, to the dismay and eventual horror of his wife. Unlike most films where we suspect insanity, in this one the character does too: he reads up on paranoid schizophrenia (which runs in his family) and maintains the kind of rational through-sense you or I might expect to have, even as his world begins to crumble around him. The ominous, unrelenting sense of dread is abetted by a wildly creative sound design. This picture’s very last shot will either delight or infuriate, and will inspire lots of apres-film conversation.

WE WERE HERE**** A personal, individual view of the 80s AIDS pandemic in San Francisco. Five articulate interviewees recount the disaster and their divergent methods of survival. Another survivor, director David Weissman, intersperses archival footage and stills to give his audience a ground-level view of the heartbreaking carnage: at one point, an estimated 50% of San Francisco’s gay men were infected at a time when the medical community offered no hope whatsoever of recovery from what was then termed “gay cancer.” This is definitely not a comprehensive look at the AIDS issue – Weissman is no Randy Shilts, nor does he try to be — but that’s one of its strengths: you get to know the five speakers, even laugh with them, and that connection puts human faces onto a true medical holocaust.

BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD**** The tumultuous story of the man many regard as the greatest chess player who ever lived. It’s the flip side of Elmo’s Kevin Clash: Fischer never really had a “normal” childhood or guidance from his highly intelligent parents (he didn’t learn who his probable biological father was until age ten), and chess provided his only escape – he was consumed by the game. A prodigy of almost unimaginable depth while still in his teens, Fischer finally played a legendary World Championship match in 1972 against Boris Spassky of the USSR, a country where chess talent was routinely nurtured by the state. I noticed laughter during the film when contemporary network anchormen would lead with the chess story rather than other somber world news, but in 1972 the match represented nothing less than the Cold War itself; no chess tournament, before or since, has drawn so much attention. Fischer’s tragic slide into what I believe was madness (there is ample correlation between world-class chess mastery and insanity, as the film points out) particularly anguishes the experts who can appreciate his rare gift: imagine the loss, one of them says, if Picasso had only painted for five years.

HIGHER GROUND**** The sure-handed directorial debut of Vera Farmiga, who blew us away in DOWN TO THE BONE at the 2004 festival and went on to become a real live movie star. This one takes place in a small fundamentalist community and maps the struggle of the central character, played by Farmiga, to reconcile the strict tenets of the sect with her own evolving values. The screenplay, based on a real-life memoir, doesn’t sneer at or make fun of the worshippers; their lifestyle seems livable on its own terms, but when a believer begins to feel constricted, trouble can’t be far behind. There’s beautiful, sensitive work from some terrific actors, including Bill Irwin, John Hawkes, Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy, and Joshua Leonard (he’s come a long way from the Blair Witch woods); and great heartland hymns actually performed by the actors themselves. Wouldn’t you know it, the radiant Farmiga has a wonderful singing voice to go along with her prodigious acting skills: life just isn’t fair, is it? I thought the casting director had found a brilliant choice to play Farmiga’s character as a teenager – there even seemed to be a family resemblance! Settle down, Tom: it’s her sister.

THE GUARD***** (Festival Opening Film – World Dramatic) A film by Quentin O’Tarantino. Just a joke, Q: I kid because I love. Brendan Gleeson is a village cop in rural Ireland, where a big drug shipment is about to go down, and the FBI has sent agent Don Cheadle to try and work with the local constabulary. It’s a fish-out-of-water plus buddy-cop story, but director/screenwriter John Michael McDonagh has undoubtedly gone to school on Tarantino’s work and gives us the same mixture of conversations so banal that they’re funny, punctuated by bursts of sudden, brutal violence. (We even hear Ennio Morricone-style trumpets at the climax!) Gleeson and Cheadle are a beautiful team, and the former’s character is one of those locals who’s either so smart or so stupid – as Cheadle remarks in the picture – that you can’t really tell. It’s an action comedy, heavy on the comedy, and a real crowd pleaser. Don’t miss it. (Sony Pictures Classics plans to re-loop this picture so Americans don’t have to wade through the thick Irish brogue. P.S.: You would have understood it just fine anyway.)

ANOTHER EARTH**** (Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, Special Jury Prize—U.S. Dramatic) A quiet, provocative fantasy that employs science fictional concepts but is really about people, not gadgets (despite its Sloan Prize, which is given each year to an outstanding film dealing with science and technology). A tenth planet (or, given Pluto’s recent demotion, I guess I should say ninth) is discovered in our solar system – a mirror planet containing every living thing on our own “Earth 1.” Straining to see it in the night sky while driving, an astrophysics student smashes into a minivan, killing a music professor’s wife and son and leaving him in a coma. After serving four years in prison, still nearly comatose with guilt, she begins cleaning house for the man, now a miserable, squalid hermit who has no idea who she is, and gradually forges a bond. William Mapother is excellent as the tortured professor, but the real star is the gorgeous, talented Brit Marling, who also co-wrote and co-produced and was represented by a second multi-hyphenated film which we didn’t get to see. She became the “it girl” of Sundance 2011 – the Parker Posey Chair, if you will – and has a bright future ahead, if this movie is any indication. The “science” gets a tad hinky, but that is not the point of this nifty little piece.

TROUBADOURS**** In the early Seventies, rock & roll took a breather. The Beatles broke up, the Stones were inactive, and louder was no longer necessarily better. Into this breach stepped Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Carole King, and especially James Taylor: the era of the mellow singer-songwriter had arrived. As one interviewee says in this movie, the scene’s bedroom was Laurel Canyon, its church was marijuana, and its living room was Doug Weston’s Troubadour club in West Hollywood. This film employs a 50th anniversary Troubadour celebration and a nationwide tour by Taylor and King to commemorate that moment in time. For anybody who grew up on this music, nostalgia oozes from every frame. There are new interviews with Taylor, King and Browne, as well as Steve Martin, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Bonnie Raitt, Cheech & Chong, Kris Kristofferson, and Elton John, whose spectacular Troubadour debut quickly became the stuff of music-biz legend. And there’s great new concert footage of King and Taylor (which will eventually be released on its own, according to the director, whom I was lucky enough to be sitting just in front of at the next screening and was thus able to turn around and tell him how much I enjoyed his pic; that’s Sundance!). Most observers blame the demise of the L.A. scene on harder drugs than pot, and it was certainly given a final boot with the rude arrivals of the Clash and the Sex Pistols later in the decade. But for a precious few years, the Troubadour was ground zero for pop music, and this is how it is affectionately remembered.

WIN WIN**** Another beauty from writer/director Tom McCarthy, whose first feature, THE STATION AGENT, is one of our fondest memories from the first Sundance we attended, back in 2003. Paul Giamatti is a small-town, small-time lawyer who also coaches high school wrestling. The practice isn’t going well, so in desperation he takes guardianship of an elderly client and, in a rare moment of immorality, dumps the guy in an assisted living facility so he can pocket the monthly commission. But soon the man’s grandson, a morose, taciturn teenager, shows up. Oh yeah: he’s also the best high-school wrestler Giamatti’s ever seen. McCarthy has a knack for making unusual people thoroughly recognizable: you understand their whole lives based on just a few words. He gets great support from Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, and especially Bobby Cannavale as the best friend and assistant-coach-wannabe, who steals every scene he’s in. Alex Shaffer, who plays the kid, won the New Jersey state wrestling championship three weeks after he was cast in his first film. Not a bad month.

PERFECT SENSE***** One of those rare movies you just can’t quit thinking about. A Glasgow epidemiologist (Eva Green) discovers a puzzling new malady which plunges its victims into spasms of agonized sobbing, then removes their sense of smell – and it is spreading at an alarming rate. Ewan McGregor, a chef at a restaurant in her neighborhood, lives by this sense, but that’s just too bad: evidently no one is immune. The virus, or whatever it is, will mutate and transform during the course of the story, sometimes in frightening ways; I don’t want to say much more in order to preserve some surprises. But this picture gives careful, sometimes even satiric thought to how life might go on if, say, we all lost the ability to smell. The most haunting thing about the mysterious epidemic is that it affects not only sense, but also emotion. Director David Mackenzie does a wonderful job of depicting its global nature with just a few shots: that’s indie filmmaking at its finest. I know I’m pussyfooting around the story, but you’ll be happier not knowing what to expect. This one just sticks with you, and every other audience member I talked to had the same reaction.

LIKE CRAZY*** (Grand Jury Prize — U.S. Dramatic, Special Jury Prize – Felicity Jones) The passion and peril of a long-distance love affair. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones are the cutest couple you ever saw, and they fall in L-U-V in college. But he’s an Angeleno and she’s a Brit, and she disobeyed her visa rules to enjoy a snoggin’ summer before beginning the rest of her life. He has a great design business, and she’s moving up in the U.K. magazine industry. What will bend, what will break? There’s enough adorableness to last till next year, but this is a romdram, not a romcom, and that means metaphorical warts. I didn’t like it as much as the jury did, but the two lead characters don’t seem fantasized for the movies; the things they do for and to each other feel authentic and real. By the way, his L.A. temptation is none other than Jennifer Lawrence of WINTER’S BONE: she cleans up real nice!

HAPPY HAPPY**** (World Cinema Jury Prize – Dramatic) A little gem that I probably wouldn’t have seen had it not won this award. In the Middle Of Nowhere, Norway, a repressed housewife gets a new lease on life when what seems to be the perfect couple move in next door. Attractive and sophisticated, they are everything she wants to be. But they have their own reasons for adopting the rural life, and there are enough secrets among this quartet to heat up the Norwegian winter. Agnes Kittelsen is delightful as the naïve rube who finds physical as well as social delights in her new neighbors. Also wonderful are the cutaways to a male gospel quartet, singing in English to comment on the story. A real pleasure, the kind that seems to be reserved for Sundance.

HOW TO DIE IN OREGON***** (Grand Jury Prize – U.S. Documentary) The single most powerful thing I saw. In 1994, Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide: if two doctors diagnose a patient with six months or less to live, s/he may legally buy and self-administer a lethal dose of barbiturates. This film follows several people who have purchased the drugs for the deadly cocktail; not all will follow through. Not only is “death with dignity” a hot-button political issue which is explored here in depth, it also posits difficult moral questions for the prescribing doctors: are they violating their Hippocratic oath, or sparing their patients unnecessary pain and suffering? This is not the easiest film to watch: in the opening scene, a man takes his own life on camera. But he was a total stranger to us; later, after we’ve come to know other terminal patients, one charming wife and mother in particular, the issue becomes personal. Though I suspect the dice are loaded by virtue of the selection of subjects, each of whom allowed filmmaker Peter D. Richardson to observe them in their most vulnerable moments, we do get to hear the other side, from a minister at an anti-euthanasia rally and from a terminal patient who doesn’t care for the law. We also watch a bereaved widow observe her husband’s dying wish by struggling to get a similar law passed in Washington state. This unflinching film forces you to think about the most basic human issues, literal life and death, and it fully deserves your consideration. I was shaken by the time it was over, but I’m very glad I saw it and I commend it to you as well.

BUCK***** (Audience Award – U.S. Documentary) Boy, did we need this one after OREGON. It’s a bio of Buck Brannaman, the inspiration for THE HORSE WHISPERER. First of all, Buck has a rapport with horses (he doesn’t whisper to them!) that astonishes even the most grizzled cowhands, let alone tenderfoot audience members like me. Second, he survived one of the worst childhoods I’ve ever heard of and still turned out OK – sweet, considerate, empathetic, instead of the serial killer his upbringing might suggest. Third, he is so full of droll cornpone humor that you just want to hug him. (Be sure and stick around for the end credits, when his adopted mom tells you Buck’s favorite joke.) There is a sequence in which a colt, which had a rough oxygen-deprived birth, exhibits all the nastiness that makes its owner want to put him down: the horse charges, bites, slams against its fences, draws human blood. Buck calmly walks this rogue beast back into its trailer without ever touching it, and later diagnoses the problem for what it probably is: in humans, we would call it a a learning disorder. So what’s the difference in an animal? In scenes from several of the clinics he conducts nine months out of the year, Buck explains how to treat a horse with respect and firmness, but without employing fear, as had been the norm, even among show riders (as he demonstrates). Uplifting, funny, inspirational, it’s worth seeing even if you don’t give a damn about horses.

CIRCUMSTANCE** (Audience Award – U.S. Dramatic) I don’t always agree with the audience. The jury, either. For example, I’m one of the few people on earth who think PRECIOUS (known as PUSH when we saw it at Sundance two years ago) is vastly overrated. This is a story about Iran, spoken in Persian, but I didn’t make a typo up there: it’s an American film, out of the NYU film school and the Sundance Institute, and was largely shot in Lebanon. A wealthy, liberal Tehran family is roiled by the burgeoning womanhood of its daughter, and the return from drug rehab of its son, who has basically become a fundamentalist. You do get an interesting look at the repressive lot of Iranian women (the strictures hanging heaviest on younger girls), but the plot contrivances contain huge holes. The dashing young son – an Adrian Grenier when he’s sporting stubble, a Michael Nouri when he’s not – stays ahead of the audience and the story. I liked the depiction of modern Iranian life (at first the choice of incidental pop music made me suspect we were back in 1979), but I just don’t think this one merits a special trip.

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