The Sundance Film Festival 2013 was filled with the usual this year as filmophiles and entertainment industry professionals met a plethora of brands looking to capitalize on the influx of Hollywood tastemakers flocking into Park City, Utah for a week of celebrating the art of film. As Sundance has grown during the past three decades, so has its ability to attract more people than the festival itself can sustain.
That applies to not only its overstocked programming schedule, but also its massive party scene. It’s growth has proven that there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind: Sundance Film Festival is one of the year’s most exciting events when it comes to the motion picture industry.
As a member of the working press, I was invited to attend any of the press and industry screenings. But despite my credentials, some of the festival’s most talked about films were impossible to get into once Sundance buzz began (Daniel Radcliffe’s KILL YOUR DARLINGS, Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller’s SPECTACULAR NOW, and Jury and Audience Prize winner FRUITVALE). Yet again, Sundance Director John Cooper and Director of Programming Trevor Groth put together a fantastic slate of films to showcase this year. Amongst those I saw were:
IN A WORLD…
Lake Bell (HOW TO MAKE IT IN AMERICA) wrote, directed, and cast herself in this charming little comedy about a female voice coach who’s given the chance to compete for a once in a lifetime voice-over trailer spot. It won’t be easy though, as she’ll have to compete with her father, the king of voice-over talent, Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed), and the rising star of the business Gustav (Ken Marino). And excellent supporting cast includes Michaela Watkins, Rob Corddry, and Demetri Martin. Not to mention Geena Davis! This film won the screenwriting prize at the festival and for good reason – it’s touching, hilarious, and entertaining. And my favorite from the festival.
Matthew McConaughey plays the title character Mud, a fugitive living on a small island who coaxes to young boys to help him communicate and reunite with his true love, played by Reese Witherspoon. Director Jeff Nichols (TAKE SHELTER) has crafted a film that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat the whole way, putting two innocent children in the path of a maelstrom putting their lives, and emotional fragility, at risk. An “anti-romance” where hearts are consistently broken,MUD explores love from a unique angle, and packs enough of a punch that it stuck with me for the whole fest.
Writer/director Andrew Bujalski became an indie film darling in 2002 for the distinctive voice and style of his debut filmFUNNY HA HA. Bujalski is a founder of the mumblecore movement made popular recently by directors like Lynn Shelton, Joe Swanberg the Duplass brothers. These low budget, often improvised feature films with relatively unknown casts have come to define a generation. COMPUTER CHESS is set in the early 1980s at a competition where computer programmers square off their computers one-on-one for a chess tournament. The film is authentic in its recreation of early 80s fashion, hairdos, technology, and sheer absurdity of the concept of there being any real excitement in watching two computers spew out Chess move coordinates. The quirkiness and goofiness of the film and its oddball characters are often hilarious, and the intentionally low quality shooting style (some scenes left intentionally out of focus) paired with the 4:3 aspect ratio make it feel like a videotape pulled out of a grandparent’s basement closet. The easiest way I can describe it is BEST IN SHOW meets PI. Checkmate.
I’d also recommend Zal Batmanglij’s THE EAST, his follow-up to 2011’s SOUND OF MY VOICE, starring Brit Marling, Ellen Page, and Alexander Skarsgard, about a rogue group of anarchist revolutionaries executing covert attacks upon major corporations. This is an important film people should see to get an understanding of why groups like this exist for the betterment of mankind. Fox Searchlight is releasing the film on January 20 so check it out.
Grade : B-
Every festival has their fair share of duds. One of which was in competition this time around. THE LIFEGUARD stars Kristen Bell as a woman who is tired of her unpredictable life in the city and decides to move back to her suburban home and take up her high school job of being a lifeguard at the community pool. She starts a relationship with a seventeen-year-old and the shit hits the film. Liz Garcia (known for her writing on COLD CASE and DAWSON’S CREEK) is at the helm for the first time here, and it shows. I know people who left after the first 15 minutes. As abysmal as the opening act was, I enjoyed the film as it progressed. It grew more likeable and was actually a fairly moving finale. The highlights are certainly Mamie Gummer’s performance as Bell’s best friend, the assistant principal begrudgingly brought along on Bell’s illegal exploits. Bell gives it her all, but the film itself struggles to stay afloat.
My least favorite film of the festival would have to be STOKER, directed by Korean maestro Chan-wook Park (OLDBOY). I was so excited for this film, I actually purchased a ticket in advance to ensure I would be able to see it at Sundance. And boy was I disappointed. Mia Wasikowska stars as India Stoker who is left forlorn after the unexpected passing of her father. Nicole Kidman plays her mother Evie, and Matthew Goode plays her uncle, who comes to spend time at their remote mansion after the funeral. Creepy, but not scary, and violent, yet not affecting, STOKER fails to deliver on many levels. There is no doubt that Park is a visionary filmmaker who stamps this film with his signature. But it drags on and feels like a mystery with no motivation, taking every opportunity it can to provide little context to its random moments of dark obscurity. It’s strong final ten minutes didn’t fool me: Bram Stoker this is not.
If there’s anything I learned from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s that the bigger ticket, star-driven vehicles do not necessarily make for quality films. The smaller, lesser-known passion projects looking to breakthrough the abundance of films at the festival are where you’ll find the true diamonds in the ruff. And when Sundance gets too big for its own good, there’s always Slamdance right up the street.
For a complete list of winners, check out Sundance.org