Quality of competition high even if more commercial

PETER DEBRUGE: On the opening night of Sundance, festival director John Cooper reminded crowds that this was the place where “Beast of the Southern Wild” was born, suggesting that if we only looked hard enough, we might find such a treasure again this year. But breakouts like “Beasts” are few and far between, and none of the 16 films in dramatic competition — half of which were directed by women and all of which I saw — embodied that sort of rousing new vision.

Instead, the lineup included an overall high quality of work shaped more to the proven commercial and artistic standards of the indie film scene. For example, unvarnished coming-of-ager “The Spectacular Now” and highly varnished chick-lit comedy “Austenland” could pass as studio pics, while Lake Bell’s “In a World …” (set in the world of Hollywood voice coaching) and Cherien Dabis’ “May in the Summer” are limited only by the hyper-specific contexts in which they are set. If it were only funnier, “May” could have become a breakout “My Tall, Skinny Jordanian Wedding.”

JUSTIN CHANG: I’d say the quality of the dramatic lineup announced itself most impressively in the level of formal sophistication displayed by certain filmmakers. Coming-of-age stories and navel-gazing sex comedies are par for the course at Sundance; what you don’t always get is a movie as ravishing as Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George,” which heightens classic meller material to a point of stunning visual abstraction — the latest testament to the genius of d.p. Bradford Young. Or perhaps that would be the other Young-lensed film in competition, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (the dramatic jury saw fit to award the films a shared cinematography prize).

But I don’t mean to knock the more conventionally shot films you cited: “In a World … ” and “Austenland” afforded many welcome laughs. As for “The Spectacular Now,” it’s simply the freshest, most touching high-school movie I’ve seen in years, and the latest proof that director James Ponsoldt excels at breathing new life into exhausted genres.

PD: “The Spectacular Now” owes much of its appeal to its outstanding central couple, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, who seem refreshingly real compared with the countless teen lovers we’ve seen at Sundance. I love how personal so many of these stories are, though the majority seem to reveal the limits of the filmmakers’ life experience. I’m surprised “The Way, Way Back” directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are still dwelling on their teen years, for example, and found Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “Toy’s House” to be the funnier teen summer tale.

But the material gets more interesting as the storytellers (or their subjects, at least) get older. I’m thinking specifically of Stacie Passon’s complex look at modern commitment, “Concussion,” in which a lesbian housewife faces her mid-life crisis by what she euphemistically calls “breathing” (renting herself out as a female prostitute), and Drake Doremus’ admirably grown-up “Breathe In,” which stars Guy Pearce as a failed rock musician who falls for the foreign-exchange student he’s hosting. And, of course, 18 years after “Before Sunrise” played Sundance, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy re-examine their love story from a more mature place in “Before Midnight,” though that one disappointingly skims more than plumbs where the pair’s minds are now.

JC: We’ll have to agree to disagree on “Before Midnight” — if Hawke, Delpy and Richard Linklater had plunged any deeper into those characters’ psyches, we might have had a slasher movie on our hands. I typically come to Park City expecting discoveries, not masterpieces, and so it was a shock of the happiest kind to encounter a truly world-class piece of filmmaking, Cannes competition-caliber stuff, from a director who seems to have absorbed the various influences of Rossellini, Rohmer, Bergman and even Kiarostami into his very being.

Will the filmmakers from this year’s promising pack have aged so well 20 years hence? When Linklater first showed up at Sundance with “Slacker” and “Before Sunrise” in the early ’90s, he was helping to pioneer a filmmaking movement that clearly informs the mumblecore movies and low-budget two-handers that make up part of today’s American indie landscape. Yet the way Linklater’s work has deepened — gaining in craft and assurance without sacrificing that searching, spontaneous quality — strikes me as both remarkable and rare.

One talent who gives me hope: Andrew Bujalski, whose hilarious black-and-white oddity “Computer Chess” was the deserving winner of this year’s Alfred P. Sloan prize. Here’s hoping Bujalski puts that $20,000 to good use. Among its many virtues, this uncategorizable whatsit offers a considerably more interesting look back at the days of old-school computer technology than this year’s slick closing-night entry, “Jobs.”

PD: “Computer Chess” was one of the more exciting discoveries for me as well — like a Christopher Guest movie made by geeks. But while Linklater ranks among my favorite filmmakers, I think you may be romanticizing the past. The bar of entry for Sundance is much higher now than it was in the days of “Slacker,” and I’m confident that there are big things ahead for David Lowery (“Saints” is his third feature), Kyle Patrick Alvarez (on film No. 2 with “C.O.G.”) and John Krokidas (“Kill Your Darlings” is his debut).

Seeing these movies gathered together in Park City gives me hope for indie cinema, while cramming them one after the other creates all sorts of enlightening parallels. I caught only three docs this fest but was struck by a connection between nonfiction entry “Valentine Road” and Daniel Radcliffe starrer “Darlings,” both powerful examinations of homophobia in films sure to appeal to a wide audience.

“Valentine Road” investigates the fatal shooting of gay California teen Larry King by a high-school classmate — an unconscionable killing the jury saw differently, explaining on camera how the cross-dressing victim had been “asking for it.” It’s the same defense that allows an early friend of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg to get away with murder in “Darlings.” So, while the quality of Sundance films has been getting better — as these two terrific films show — institutionalized hate crime still has a long way to go.

JC: Festivals indeed have a way of putting different films in intimate dialogue with one another. Which brings us to this year’s big jury/audience winner, Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale,” about the victim of a tragic 2009 police shooting, and Alexandre Moors’ much less heralded Next entry “Blue Caprice,” which unfolds from the perspective of the infamous Beltway snipers. Both of these debut features tell tense, ripped-from-the-headlines stories that try to make sense of senseless acts of brutality. And both play in subtle, provocative ways with our perceptions of their black male protagonists and their possibly violent inclinations.

So why did one ring so true, while the other felt somewhat forced by comparison? Perhaps because “Fruitvale,” though it boasts stellar performances and builds to a climax of undeniable emotional force, spends an hour rigging a series of implausibly neat contrivances intended to maximize the poignancy of what’s to come. “Blue Caprice,” by contrast, is a serious, psychologically grounded attempt to contend with the nature of human evil, and it begs our understanding rather than our sympathy. “Fruitvale” insists on its protagonist’s humanity, but it’s “Blue Caprice” that leaves you pondering what it means to be human.

PD: Personally, I’m encouraged by what “Fruitvale” represents: namely, that when the institution fails, storytellers can now hold them accountable as never before. Coogler may have calibrated the elements for maximum emotional impact, but his approach feels nothing like the usual, patronizing social-issue filmmaking. I just wish he’d given us more of a story instead of glimpses into the day that preceded this tragedy.

That said, my two favorite films in the festival barely have plots at all. David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche” simply hangs out with a two-man road stripe-painting crew (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch), but the film is so rich in texture and perfectly chosen character detail, I was completely drawn into their lives. Top of the list for me was “C.O.G.,” which uses a slender yet amusing David Sedaris story as a departure point for an incredibly personal journey of self-discovery, as a privileged Ivy League grad engages with people well outside his (and our) comfort zone. The only other film that came close in pushing my buttons was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s great make-love-not-porn romancer “Don Jon’s Addiction.”

JC: I share your enthusiasm for “Don Jon’s Addiction,” which deserves to be a robust hit once it clears the ratings board. Frankly, I’m tickled by the idea of (chiefly male) audiences going to see the film, lured by its racy hook, only to be confronted with a funny, perceptive and completely sincere relationship movie that doesn’t shy away from the toxic or titillating aspects of pornography.

I invoked Cannes earlier, and frankly, the only Sundance dramatic entry that I could see holding its own on the Croisette is “Upstream Color,” Shane Carruth’s long-anticipated follow-up to 2004’s “Primer.” This is a brilliant, bewildering experiment that places its trust in the purest, most expressive tools of cinema — sound and image — to tell a beautiful and moving story of human fragility. It may be another nine years before Carruth’s next movie, but then, we’ll probably have to wait just as long for the next Linklater-Hawke-Delpy joint. “Before Retirement,” anyone?

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