The Best and Worst of Sundance 2013


This time last year, the out-of-nowhere indie Beasts of the Southern Wild emerged at the Sundance Film Festival, knocked out everyone who saw it, and embarked on a thrilling year-long ride to become a critical fave, indie smash, and multiple Oscar nominee. Of course, when you have a big hit, everyone’s looking for a sequel — and most of the press out of Park City has been eager to buzzkill, assuring us that no, there’s not another Beasts in this year’s bunch. And who knows, maybe they’re right; Beasts was an indie phenomenon, an alignment of style, backstory, and heart that proved irresistible. But the fact that this particular lighting hasn’t struck twice is somehow being taken as proof that this was a lesser festival than last, which (as far as this viewer could see) was simply untrue; in fact, I probably saw more out-and-out great films at this year’s ‘dance. After the jump, a look at the two dozen films I managed to take in over six days in Park City, and how they all stack up.

THE ANTICLIMACTIC OPENER MAY IN THE SUMMER: For the second year in a row, Sundance’s opening night selection was a bit of a puzzler; maybe they were saving the good stuff for after the jet lag subsided. This culture clash comedy/drama from writer/director/star Cherien Dabis starts off well, mostly because we’re not used to seeing so many multi-dimensional Middle Eastern women onscreen. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of ruse; once the novelty wears off, this is a film of crushing predictability, filled with overdone situations and age-old dialogue, before degenerating into (of all things) a Jordanian riff on It’s Complicated. Bill Pullman, Alia Shawkat, and Hiam Abbass occasionally rise above the material, but this is pretty unexceptional stuff.

THE ONE I WASN’T SMART ENOUGH FOR UPSTREAM COLOR: Shane Carruth’s puzzle movie is proving one of the more divisive at Sundance; some are all-in on its wildly experimental approach, while others find it baffling and unapproachable. As a fan of his Primer, I wanted to love it, and while it’s admirably ambitious and never less than fascinating to look at, it’s the kind of film where the viewer must grapple with the urge to “figure it out” (and ultimately dismiss that inclination). All of this is a roundabout way of saying that it was too abstract for this viewer, but those who like this kinda thing are really gonna like this one. You know who you are.

THE ONE I WAS TOO SMART FOR LOVELACE: This is not a case of patting myself on the back; if you’ve seen more than a couple of dozen films, you’re too smart for Lovelace too. The great documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 2011 Howl was a promising crossover to nonfiction narrative filmmaking, but they’re hamstrung by a bone-headed, paint-by-numbers screenplay that leaves out giant chunks of pertinent information (though the film itself runs barely 90 minutes, and smells of editing-room shenanigans). Too bad, since star Amanda Seyfried bares her body and soul in a performance far better than this Lifetime-movie claptrap deserves.

THE ONE THAT’S KIND OF A MESS, BUT IN A GOOD WAY CRYSTAL FAIRY: Sebastian Silva put this one together in two weeks when his other Sundance-screening Michael Cera movie Magic Magic went on hold; the actors worked from an outline, improvising their dialogue, and the picture is better for it. It’s got an off-the-cuff feel and hanging-out wit, which helps distract from the meager plot (basically, a bunch of guys and a girl go “to the north” for a mescaline trip). It’s droll and strange, and the audience isn’t always in the on the gag, but it arrives, strangely enough, at a place of genuine warmth and humanity.

THE BAD ONE I ALREADY FORGOT I SAW THE LOOK OF LOVE: Michael Winterbottom’s latest collaboration with Steve Coogan is a biographical look at Soho theatrical legend Paul Raymond — but it has the misfortune of inevitable comparison with their 24 Hour Party People, which cleverly subverted the very biopic tropes that this one is all too eager to embrace. Coogan has his moments, and Winterbottom directs in a snazzy Swinging London style, which helps distract from the film’s essentially episodic nature (and thrift-store shoplifts from Citizen Kane). Not a terrible movie, just a slight and unmemorable one.

THE GOOD ONES I ALREADY FORGOT I SAW PRINCE AVALANCHE: David Gordon Green’s filmmaking choices have been so utterly inexplicable lately, you’re not always sure which Green you’re gonna get. Thankfully, his latest is a throwback to the low-key, lyrical mode of his early works, though with a bit of disarming buddy comedy (typical of more recent efforts) thrown in for good measure. It’s a minor work, and overlong even at barely 90 minutes, but it’s got a lovely homemade feel and a wry sense of conversational humor, and if it’s slight, it’s still satisfying.

TOY’S HOUSE: There’s a wonderful, wistful way about Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s coming-of-age-in-the-woods story, which is an awfully likable movie — eager to please, even. It captures the irresistible appeal of making one’s own way, and the apocalyptic feeling of one’s first heartache, and the photography is lovely (even if there are a couple too many frolicking-to-music montages). But it’s all over the place, tonally — though the sidebars (like Nick Offerman and Alison Brie’s encounter with a food delivery man) are some of the best stuff in it, and if the whole thing is a bit unruly and undisciplined, well, that’s part of its charm.

HOPE YOU’VE GOT A STRONG STOMACH SIGHTSEERS: Ben Wheatley’s Kill List follow-up isn’t the easy, chuckle-headed black comedy you might expect from its trailers — this tale of two drab thirty-somethings, newly in love, whose pastoral holiday becomes a killing spree works in unexpected ways. Wheatley instills a feeling of uncertainty and discomfort as their crimes escalate; it initially appeals to our buried, murderous impulses, but as the offenses become more petty and slight, the film doesn’t shy away from the implications of the material. And the way Tina (the wonderful Alice Lowe) becomes our object of sympathy by acting — by anyone’s standards — less sympathetic is a thrilling subversion of audience assumption and expectation.

S-VHS: The lo-fi V/H/S, which premiered at Sundance only a year ago, was a genuinely scary bit of business somewhat hampered by a couple of less than stellar segments. This follow-up is tighter, shorter (only four segments, plus wraparounds), and more effective — there’s not a bad bit in the lot, all of them creepy and unnerving, with moments of intentional (and gleeful) silliness. The “no one gets out of here alive” nihilism is a bit much, but the filmmakers’ experiments in point-of-view are consistently absorbing, and the best continue to toy with our expectations of how much visual information can be revealed and withheld. Graphic, grim, and bloody, but boy does it get the job done.

VERY GOOD DOCUMENTARIES GOD LOVES UGANDA: Engrossing documentary by Roger Ross Williams is as fair and even-handed as you could ask for an examination of an infuriating subject to be. Williams cleanly sets up the movement of American evangelicals to sway the entire country of Uganda to their faith before moving, roughly a third of the way in, to the film’s real topic: the country’s persecution of its gay citizens, culminating in the notorious “kill the gays” bill. The film’s access is remarkable, allowing us to see that the missionaries on the ground are often not bad people, not really, but they’re part of a larger movement that is very scary indeed.

AFTER TILLER: The term “pro-choice” has been bandied about for so long that it’s more of a placeholder than anything, but this extraordinarily compassionate and thought-provoking documentary by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson gives the second half of the term its full due. The ostensible subjects are the four remaining doctors who perform third-trimester abortions after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, but it’s really about what goes on in those clinics — the difficult and often gut-wrenching choices made not only by the patients, but the doctors. The deck occasionally feels stacked, but no matter; this is an important film that looks unblinkingly at an important subject.

STORIES WE TELL: Sarah Polley’s first feature documentary doesn’t quite achieve the precision of her narrative efforts, but its experimental nature is one of its virtues; she’s telling the story of the mother she barely knew, and the remarkable things she found out about her in recent years, via testimony (less documentary than “an interrogation process” she says, only half joking) from family and friends. It’s an intriguing story with the turns of good fiction, and if she has trouble pulling it out in the clutch (there seems to be a real issue with how to properly end it), the genuine emotion and first-person insight into the slippery nature of objective truth ultimately win the day.

MANHUNT: The raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound took 40 minutes, the opening text of Gregg Barker’s Manhunt informs us, but “the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden took two decades.” Barker’s meticulous film, well-timed as a kind of documentary companion to Zero Dark Thirty, traces the agency’s pursuit of the al-Qaeda leader via interviews with CIA analysts, case officers, journalists, FBI agents, and such marquee names as Mullen, McCrystal, and Hayden. It’s an important and informative film, well organized (with clever visualizations of agency whiteboards), crisply cut, and fast-moving.

PRETTY GOOD DOCUMENTARIES GOOGLE AND THE WORLD BRAIN: Documentarian Ben Lewis examines the Google book-scanning project — on the surface, a high-minded attempt to gather all of the world’s knowledge — seemingly free of an agenda, which allows him to approach the material from all sides. You can see it as a vital democratization of information (and it could well be); you can also see it as a blatant violation of copyright, an instrument for monopolization, and a gateway for data mining and privacy violations. Some of the flourishes are a bit much (see: unnecessary animations), but overall it’s a through, clear, and detailed look at a landmark project, and the implications within it.

SOUND CITY: Foo Fighter-turned-filmmaker Dave Grohl’s loving tribute to analog is a two part story: a history of the legendary Van Nuys studio of the title (where everyone from Tom Petty to Fleetwood Mac to Johnny Cash to his own Nirvana recorded), and a chronicle of the project he undertook when it shuttered, grabbing the site’s beloved Neve Console and using it to put together an all-star album. Some of Grohl’s voice-over is strained, and it’s got that awkward director/narrator/interview subject hybridization (who’s interviewing him, exactly?), but there’s a wonderful musicality to the structure and editing, and the footage, both archival and new, is endlessly entertaining. (Grohl, razzing producer Butch Vig when Paul McCartney comes in to record: “Yeah, Butch, tell Paul McCartney what to do.”)

THE BAIT-AND-SWITCH INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR.: Travis Matthews and James Franco’s much-hyped “imagining” of the 40 explicit minutes cut from William Friedkin’s controversial gay serial killer thriller Cruising isn’t quite as advertised; there is some restaged/reimagined footage (and some of it is graphic), but nowhere near the 40 minutes we’re being slyly led to expect. Most of Interior‘s running time is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of that re-creation, in a pseudo-documentary style, with ever-expanding questions of the degree to which it has all been scripted. A little bit of that stuff goes a long way, and it puts stress on our trust of the filmmakers, but this is nowhere near the insufferable navel-gaze of Franco’s last faux-doc, Francophrenia. And there are some genuine and provocative conversations here about sex on screen, and how we relate to it. Or, as his leading man notes, “I think I’ve learned something. I don’t know what it is…”

THE ONE I LIKED THAT PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE ELSE HATED BREATHE IN: Drake Doremous again takes Felicity Jones as his muse for this Like Crazy follow-up, in which she plays a kind-hearted exchange student who proves irresistible to her host family’s father (Guy Pearce). It’s not the freshet story in the book, and the melodrama of the third act nearly sinks the ship. But it’s got a wonderfully intimate quality, where conversations seem overheard and slights are unintentional, and every performance in it is a winner.

THE FLAWED ONE THAT I’LL ALMOST CERTAINLY SEE AGAIN DON JON’S ADDICTION: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s feature directorial debut is a smart, funny, and shockingly candid tale of sexual objectification and porn addiction, wittily deconstructing the wild variations between sexual reality and fantasy. His Jersey Shore-styled performance is a terrific comic creation; Scarlett Johannson matches beautifully, having a ball as a hard-partying Jersey girl who knows she’s got it like that. Some of the tropes are overdone (Julianne Moore’s wise soul who knows all the angles, the “Silent Bob” character who is mute until a truth is to be told), but the direction is energetic and the playing is inspired.

THE RUNNER-UP C.O.G.: At long last, the peculiar wit of David Sedaris makes it to the screen with this absorbing adaptation of an essay from his collection Naked. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez gets the tone of Sedaris’ work just right, and his visual sense is appropriately droll; the shifts between comic and considerably more dramatic beats are nimbly executed. And, thankfully, there’s an anything-goes air to it — you don’t know where they’re going, and that raises our interest considerably.

THE 5 BEST (THAT I SAW, SO TAKE THEM WITH A GRAIN OF SALT) 5. THE EAST: Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice follow-up begins working from the same thematic playbook, exploring the dynamics of leaders and followers, this time within an anarchist group engaging in acts of “eco-terrorism,” again penetrated by an outside observer (Brit Marling as an agent for a private security firm lousy with corporate clients). But if the pictures are superficially similar, it’s more like comparing Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door with Mean Streets — a case of a filmmaker returning to a theme of interest, but on a bigger canvas and with more sophistication and precision. This is a gripping, challenging, wicked smart film.

4. MUD: Jeff Nichols’ previous effort, the overwhelming Take Shelter, was one of the more intense experiences of my recent movie-going life. His latest, a free-wheeling coming-of-age story with a dash of Southern Gothic, is much looser and (at first glance) laid-back, in what seems a deliberate attempt to avoid repetition. He assembles the story subtly, gingerly, and leisurely, soaking in the small-town details, and enjoying yet another masterful Matthew McConaughey performance, here engaged as a cagey character and fascinating enigma. But it’s all tremendously absorbing, in its own particular way, and in its remarkable third act, the seemingly disparate secondary elements fold in, tightly, and become the primary focus. Everything adds up, which is perhaps the nicest surprise about this very fine film.

THE 5 BEST (THAT I SAW, SO TAKE THEM WITH A GRAIN OF SALT) (continued) 3. TOUCHY FEELY: A sweet and rather vulnerable picture from Lynn Shelton, writer/director of Your Sister’s Sister, this time working up a narratively slight but emotionally overwhelming story of a family’s difficulty communicating and interacting with themselves, and everyone else. Rosemarie Dewitt is particularly poignant as a massage therapist seized by a sudden, inexplicable feeling of disconnected helplessness. Moving and surprisingly visceral, Touchy Feely confirms Lynn Shelton is one of our most reliably compelling indie filmmakers.

2. THE SPECTACULAR NOW: James Ponsoldt’s tender comedy/drama captures the milestones of adolescence (first kiss, first sex, first drink, first disappointment) in a manner so honest and true, it’s dizzying. It’s helped by the fact that they’ve cast the roles with actors who actually look and sound like teenagers: Miles Teller perfectly captures the misplaced cockiness of the handsome-enough joker, while Shailene Woodley disappears into the role of the shy wallflower who can only see the goodness in her flawed beau. Emotionally raw, indescribably moving, and one of the best of the fest.

1. BEFORE MIDNIGHT: We’ve arrived at part three of Richard Linklater’s ongoing romantic chronicle, whose second chapter was a rare instance of a sequel topping its original — deeper, richer, more fully felt. It would seem impossible that Before Midnight could follow that upward trajectory, but somehow, it does; it expands and enriches the world of the series, and is also its own wonderful, perfect thing. It’s (as expected) sweet and charming, but with an edge this time, a view of romance that has evolved into something more realistic, and worthy of closer consideration. Or, as Jesse notes near its end, “It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”