The film industry and cinephiles alike descended upon Park City, UT last week to take part in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. As expected, the selection committee chose some great films to include in their mix of U.S. and world documentaries, short films, and dramatic features.
Yet, despite this being the best of independent film from the past year, the overall consensus from those leaving Sundance was less impressed than in previous years.
While there may not have been a Beasts of the Southern Wild or Little Miss Sunshine amongst the ranks, I found myself pleased with many of the titles I came across. A few standout selections:
Two retired brothers-in-law take an impromptu vacation to Iceland, where they road trip through an unknown land, complete with adventures to night clubs, hot springs, and their fair share of soul searching through beautiful Icelandic landscapes. Despite experiencing the raucous behavior they’ve been missing in their lives since their relationships and work lives have since deteriorated, the two men find a kinship they never knew existed all while learning to appreciate to live life to its fullest. This film came out of nowhere but ended up being one of the funniest, touching films from the festival. The two main actors (Paul Eenhoorn and newcomer Earl Lynn Nelson) have a fantastic chemistry, directed with confidence by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, two auteurs who are no newbies to the festival scene with films previously at SXSW. Land Ho! is also first film to be financed by Gamechanger Films, a new fund dedicated to financing narrative featured directed by women. They must have great taste, as Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film immediately following it premiere at the festival. A-
Miles Teller is quickly becoming a Sundance darling. Following his award winning performance in last year’s The Spectacular Now with the opening night film at this year’s Sundance is pretty remarkable. To have that film go on to win both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards is simply astounding. While Teller is extraordinary as an aspiring drummer who’s given the chance to join his conservatory’s top jazz band, the film really belongs to his nemesis, a demonic band director played by the perfect J.K. Simmons. Simmons adds a level of depth to his deplorable character’s menace, sucking the soul from Teller’s character’s very being. Writer/director Damien Chazelle is definitely one to watch, having adapted his short of the same name last year to a winning feature this year. I mean, how often do you get to cheer for a musician? Now’s your chance. A-
Fishing Without Nets
This follow-up to last year’s Sundance short film winner returns again with director Cutter Hodierne and producer Raphael Swann at the helm. This heart wrenching film looks into the depths of the human condition. When a peaceful fisherman hoping to provide for his family is persuaded by a group of pirates to join them raiding a ship off the coast of Somalia, he learns the hard way that money and greed can truly take over someone’s soul. The film is a mesmerizing and breathtaking feat, truly deserving of the Best Director award it received this year. B+
Dead Snow: Red vs Dead
A sequel was definitely in store for Tommy Wirkola’s Nazi zombie classic Dead Snow, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Since Norway blessed the world with Dead Snow in 2009, the zombie genre has taken over. Shows like The Walking Dead and not-so-funny films like Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies seem to emerge every couple weeks. It’s great when a genre can be turned on its side, and with “Red vs. Dead” we’re treated to a whole new level of zombie comedy. Our hero Martin is back, immediately following his escape from Nazi zombies in the first movie. After passing out at the wheel of his car from blood loss due to amputated his own arm, he awakens in a hospital to find that the doctor’s have attached the zombie arm they found in his car to his body. Now part man, part zombie, Martin must find a way to control his evil appendage while also stopping the impending Nazi zombie invasion with the help of The Zombie Squad, headed by Martin Starr. Fans of the original will not be disappointed, as the filmmakers have ramped up the stunts, mutilations, gore, and rampant lack of concern for human life. Want a sneak peak? Check out the trailer.
Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford introduced the film to the crowd for the premiere, a strong testament to the support he has for first time filmmaker Sydney Freeland’s film. Drunktown’s Finest revolves are three Native Americans who are struggling to find their identity in a Navajo community that is struggling to find its place in America. We follow a college-bound young woman doing community service as a means to ascertain the whereabouts of her real family, a father-to-be who can’t seem to stay out of trouble the weekend before his enrollment in the military, and a transsexual prostitute who aspires to be a featured model on a Navajo women calendar. Freeland does a good job at writing a film with three very different characters in three very different situations, and placing them in a world in which they are all interconnected (and sometimes biologically related). However, the film shows us these characters’ plights without much emotional impact or resonance. The acting is not strong enough to support the amateur directing, the story is not deep enough to make up for those shortfalls. Despite each character’s act of defiance to their current life situations, the resolution seems a little too convenient. While the film’s uniqueness and importance to the public’s understanding of the Navajo situation in America is worthy mentioning, I don’t feel like this film did it justice. C