The Best and Worst of Sundance 2014

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The 2014 Sundance Film Festival came to a close over the weekend, with more screenings and more parties and more name-dropping and more deals and, oh yes, the end-of-festival awards. Your correspondent, who spent five days in Park City, has a kind of remarkable ability to totally miss the films that end up winning these awards, and that streak continued this time around; of the 25 features that took prizes this year, I saw exactly two (2). But I sampled a lot of other stuff — 22 movies in total, and while this is only a fraction of the 118 that screened there, we can only do so much. Here are some brief thoughts on each of those films:

These documentaries were terrible: I love nonfiction filmmaking, and many of the Sundance docs were excellent. Not all of them, though.

Fed Up Stephanie Soechtig’s anti-Big Food activist documentary is stuffed with information and good intentions, but as filmmaking, it’s a nauseatingly by-the-numbers affair. All your greatest hits are here: the pre-title sequence whose voice-over functions as thesis statement (recited by a strangely stilted Katie Couric, who co-produced), statistics presented as over-produced graphics and animations (so we don’t get bored by all them fancy numbers), and, worst of all, the end credit instructions for all the Things We Can Do To Make A Difference now that we’ve been shown the light and the truth. It’s an infantile, vaguely condescending way to end a movie (and one that documentary filmmakers keep inexplicably replicating), and while the film itself has insights, it certainly doesn’t tell us anything we couldn’t get from a good magazine article.

This May Be the Last Time The true test for good documentary filmmaking is when it makes you interested in a subject you’re otherwise indifferent about, and that’s not a test that This May Be the Last Time passes. An earnest history and celebration of Muskogee hymns, Sterlin Harjo’s documentary has a few interesting stories and sidebars (the history of the title song, for example), but its running time is primarily taken up by close-ups of solemn a cappella singing, and suffice it to say that a little of that goes a long way.

These documentaries were not terrible:

To Be Takei Director Jennifer M. Kroot’s bio-doc is a bit on the fluffy side, but it’s an entertainingly good time, capturing the unlikely rise of George Takei from sci-fi has-been to ubiquitous professional celeb and Facebook presence. Along the way, she hopscotches through his fascinating story and captures, with little varnish, the slightly dysfunctional relationship between Takei and his husband Brad. A little fleeting, but a lot of fun.

Last Days in Vietnam Rory Kennedy’s American Experience-funded documentary is highly conventional in its approach: talking heads, archival footage, graphic animations, etc. But it’s the right choice for this material, which exhaustively chronicles the strangely forgotten coda to the Vietnam conflict, full of fascinating details (the 24-hour evacuation was officially signaled by a specific weather report and the playing of “White Christmas” on Armed Forces Radio), harrowing stories, and heartbreaking images. A workmanlike doc, but undeniably intriguing.

These documentaries were really very good, actually:

Whitey: The United States of America V. James J. Bulger Joe Berlinger (co-director of the Paradise Lost trilogy) crafts this engrossing look at the trial of notorious South Boston gangster “Whitey” Bulger (who partially inspired Nicholson’s character in The Departed). In 2013, after years on the run, Bulger stood trial on 39 counts of extortion, gambling, and murder — but the case is far more complex than its surface suggests, the questions of Bulger’s status as an FBI informant leading to larger revelations about corruption and responsibility for his crimes at the Bureau and the DOJ. As usual, Berlinger’s filmmaking is exhaustively detailed, urgent, and persuasive; this is a riveting documentary, doing its level best to jam together the pieces of a story whose real truth may never be known.

Life Itself Hoop Dreams director Steve James constructs this documentary profile of film critic Roger Ebert in much the same spirit as the memoir whose title it shares — as a series of good stories, warm memories, and cinematic valentines. He’s covering a lot of ground here, but the picture never feels rushed or superficial; it’s full of tributes, dialectics, fascinating archival material, and remarkable footage shot by James during Ebert’s final months. A treat for cinephiles, but they’re not the only audience; it is the moving story of a bright man who found fame, and love, and, in the face of illness, tremendous bravery.

The Overnighters Jesse Moss’s quiet, thoughtful documentary tells the story of Pastor Jay Reinke, whose Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota becomes a way station for waves of men flooding into their town looking for work in the flourishing oil industry. The church offers them help and temporary housing — but their presence causes tension with neighbors and the community, who are wary of these out-of-towners (particularly when a local newspaper uncovers a worrisome number of sex offenders in their midst). Moss’ camera captures some extraordinarily candid moments, up to and including a closing bombshell that reframes much of what’s come before. But it’s not just voyeurism; the picture carefully considers, in a way that’s seldom seen in American film, exactly what it is to be a Christian — not just to say it, but to be it — and the implications of living one’s life accordingly.

Good performances in “meh” movies: In which fine acting (even by Kristen Stewart, in one case!) can’t quite save messy filmmaking.

Camp X-Ray Writer/director Peter Sattler’s Gitmo drama starts promisingly, his framing and cutting viscerally capturing the scary intensity of the immediate days after 9/11, the expositional sequences evoking the logistics of the compound’s day-to-day operation. But it’s mostly a two-hander, dramatizing the relationship between a guard soldier (Kristen Stewart) and a bright prisoner (Payman Maadi). Both are quite good, and the frequently dull Stewart seems to find a personal connection to her character, a tough woman with something to prove. But the script is too schematic by half, its characters becoming mouthpieces for debates on obedience, authority, and power, and its final scene is such a miscalculation, you want to go trim it out yourself.

John Slattery’s feature directorial debut wears its influences a bit too heavily: a dash of Mean Streets, a cup of American Buffalo, simmered in a broth of Dennis Lehane. And its tonal shifts, from downbeat drama to broad, almost surreal comedy, are often jarring. But Slattery has, unsurprisingly, a sure hand with his actors, and while his storytelling (he co-wrote the script, adapted from Pete Dexter’s novel) is undisciplined, you certainly never know quite where he’s going next.

Good performances that elevated what could have been “meh” movies:

The Skeleton Twins If you created a computer program designed specifically to create movies that would play at Sundance, it’d probably spit out something like this: seriocomic family drama with against-type turns by well-known names. Said names are Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, both very good as twin siblings, estranged for years, brought back together by their mutual suicidal tendencies; they’re incapable of being anything but honest with each other, which is both helpful and damaging. The former SNL castmates have a mumbly shorthand and a genuine sense of closeness, and each gets plenty of opportunity to shine (as does Luke Wilson, who’s just about perfect as the likably dim vanilla nice-guy — on purpose, for once). And the Starship lip-sync sequence (I know how it sounds) is a YouTube sensation waiting to happen. But it gets pretty turgid by the third act, with several fine scenes that never quite merge into a cohesive whole.

Two Sundances ago, Safety Not Guaranteed showed a warmth and vulnerability behind Aubrey Plaza’s deadpan persona; her new zombie comedy/romance indicates that she’s pretty much equipped to take over the world. Writer/director Jeff Baena fumbles the landing a bit, but for the most part, he intermingles comedy, tragedy, blood, and sweetness with real panache. John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon are terrific as parents doing their best under very difficult circumstances, while Anna Kendrick shines in a brief but vital role. It’s a bananas little picture with a cockeyed sense of humor — a genuine original.

The one that everyone else liked more than I did:

Land Ho! Writer/directors Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens craft a buddy road comedy/drama that’s a bit of a mixed bag. It’s episodic and charming enough, focusing on two ex-brothers-in-law on a trip to Iceland, keying its comic beats off their well-defined types (the sophisticate vs. the vulgarian, the intellectual vs. the plain-talker, etc) and bathing in their interactions. But it’s a tad stilted, with several awkward dialogue scenes overstaying their welcome, ultimately trapped in a sprung comic rhythm that this viewer couldn’t quite get in time with.

The one that I liked more than everyone else did:

Writer/director David Cross cooks up a timely and frequently effective satire on celebrity, internet culture, and Tea Party “citizenry.” It’s a wildly uneven movie, often stumbling in its search for the proper tone, and the filmmaking is downright pedestrian. But Cross’ rage is real (and well distributed), and even the actors playing the most obvious types ground them in some kind of truth. By the time the pieces fall together in the film’s big climax — far and away the most successful sequence — Cross’s sneering cynicism achieves a kind of transcendence; it’s not a great movie (or even a great satire), but it’s surly and nasty and it gets the job done.

There’s depressing, and then there’s…

Calvary Any illusions that John Michael McDonagh is following up The Guard with another wise-cracking action/comedy are quickly laid to rest in Calvary‘s opening scene, where a goodhearted priest (Brendan Gleeson, excellent) is informed by the sexual abuse victim in his confessional that he’s going to be killed in a week — not because he’s guilty of the crime, but because he’s innocent. McDonagh then follows his protagonist for that week, employing a vignette structure where scenes vary wildly in tone, yet somehow fit together. Though occasionally funny, it’s a bleak and difficult picture, yet McDonagh’s sharp, vernacular dialogue and multi-leveled writing keep it from turning into a slog.

Zach Braff had a movie there; you might’ve heard about it:

Though wildly undisciplined and tonally screwy, there’s a lot to like in Zach Braff’s sophomore feature: the laugh lines of the first act pop like little corkscrews, the strained marriage element is handled with refreshing honesty and candor, and Mandy Patinkin can simply do no wrong in his stern-father role. It covers some well-trod ground, the back half gets bogged down in far too many detours, and Braff again lets his mixtape soundtrack do far too much of the heavy lifting. But there’s some moving stuff here, and its closing scenes are genuinely heartfelt and lovely.

I liked all of those movies Variety thought made the fest “too Brooklyn.” The trade publication insisted that the low-sales atmosphere was a result of the fact that “Park City suffered from looking like Park Slope,” because analysis is hard. But these were all solid, enjoyable little indies, even if they did have the setting (or, in Happy Christmas’ case, the vibe) of the borough.

Obvious Child Jenny Slate proves herself one helluva likable big-screen presence, playing a Sarah Silverman-ish Brooklyn stand-up in this wise, witty, and unexpectedly bold comedy from writer/director Gillian Robespierre. Her dialogue is consistently funny, with a nicely conversational rhythm (it feels improvised, but in the good way), and her direction captures a specific New York flavor; Slate is confident, funny, and convincing. But it’s the picture’s clear-eyed view of casual sex and accidental pregnancy that makes it memorable — and, in its own quiet way, kind of revolutionary.

Listen Up Philip “Misanthrope” seems too polite a description for the protagonist of Alex Ross Perry’s comedy/drama; this guy makes Roger Greenberg look like George Bailey. Self-centered, smug, and selfish, he’s a young New York novelist, and is doing his best to play the part. The influences are clear (the tone is Deconstructing Harry Jr., while even the title font echoes Philip Roth), but they’re not just window dressing; Ross adopts a refreshingly bold novelistic structure, spinning off with supporting characters for long stretches and allowing supporting players like Elizabeth Moss (quietly great), Krysten Ritter, and Jonathan Pryce to flex. The pace is a little punchy and the rough, in-tight photography is occasionally too, too much. But it’s got a rough grace, wickedly smart and entertainingly nasty.

Happy Christmas Joe Swanberg’s latest sneaks up on you — its early passages seem to go nowhere in particular, but he and his actors (who improvise their dialogue from an outline) are taking characters and relationships in vibrant and interesting directions, and the picture has a lived-in warmth that seems almost secondhand. Anna Kendrick shines, as usual, but the film’s real star is Melanie Lynskey, who beautifully captures the complexities and contradictions of motherhood.

The best of the fest, part 1: These are the four best movies I saw, and that hopefully you’ll soon get to see too.

4. The Trip to Italy Director Michael Winterbottom and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite for the follow-up to their uproariously funny travelogue comedy The Trip, and deliver more of the same: hilarious (and mostly improvised) riffs on history, food, travel, and pop culture; mouth-watering cuisine; gorgeous scenery; and a portrait of a love/hate relationship between two comics who are as much rivals as friends. As before, the result is off-the-cuff, witty, playful, and occasionally uncomfortable — the template worked before, so if sunnier locations are the only real alteration, there’s an argument to be made for not fixing what isn’t broken.

3. Blue Ruin “I’m not used to talking this much,” explains Dwight (Macon Blair) in Jeremy Saulnier’s dramatic thriller, and the film lives by that same principle — it’s sort of remarkable, particularly early on, how little of the story is told in dialogue. Saulnier instead traffics in haunting, arresting images to tell the story of a drifter who goes after the newly released man who killed his parents. But this is no mindless revenge tale; it’s a gripping, tightly wound picture, inviting the viewer to watch with helplessness and dread as a bad situation spins further and further out of control. Sharp, riveting, visceral filmmaking.

The best of the fest, part 2:

2. Laggies Last year at Sundance, Kristen Bell starred in the seemingly promising misfire The Lifeguard, as a young woman in a life crisis who starts hanging out with a bunch of teenagers to dodge her Real Life. Lynn Shelton’s gets so much right which that film got wrong, it almost feels like a response. Keira Knightley strikes up an unlikely friendship with teenager Chloe Grace Moretz, and it’s a tricky relationship, but you believe the characters (and how they would come to value each other). And Sam Rockwell brings his signature funkiness to a familiar type, giving an odd spark to the character of Moretz’s dad, and pretty much stealing the picture in the process. It’s the first film Shelton’s directed and not written, but it’s inhabited by the warmth and intelligence of her best work, and this may well be the loosest and most enjoyable performance we’ve yet seen from Ms. Knightley.

1. Boyhood Richard Linklater and his cast shot this chronicle of a young man’s life in bits and pieces over 12 years, a narrative feat all but unparalleled in modern cinema. But the great pleasure of Boyhood is how its tremendous ambition is belied by the picture’s charming modesty; in its pacing and approach, it is very much in the shambling vein of the Before trilogy and Slacker. It also shares those films’ verbosity, its characters frequently engaging in searching conversations about the meaning of life (particularly once its protagonist reaches pot-smoking age). Yet Linklater punctures such surface philosophical navel-gazing by leaving much unsaid about maturity and the passage of time — themes that are, in fact, organic to his unique approach. A rich, warm, lovely film.