After consuming and writing about 26 films over the past ten days, I’m a bit fatigued. Alas, below is a full roundup of every film I caught at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Full reviews of each movie will be published adjacent to their release in theaters.
Before Midnight (A)
“Once again infusing existential crises, philosophical discourse, and love at its purest form into an air of authenticity, Linklater has designed a modern masterpiece (a word I seldom use, but is earned in this case). Before Midnight may very well go onto be this generation’s Annie Hall.” (Sundance coverage)
Stories We Tell (A-)
“With the transcendent Stories We Tell, Canadian-born and -raised filmmaker Sarah Polley is essentially telling the story of every family through her own. In an attempt to understand where (and who) she comes from, Polley interviews members of her family and close friends who knew her mother Diana, a vibrant and charismatic woman who passed away when Sarah was 11.” (Sundance coverage)
“Jeff Nichols takes an unexpected detour from the psychological horrors of Take Shelter with his latest film entitled Mud: a thoughtful coming-of-age drama driven by the limitless power of love – and the great lengths many of us go to find it, obtain it, and keep it. Gorgeously shot, perfectly cast, and astutely realized, Nichols has solidified himself as an auteur that won’t be restrained to a specific genre.” (Sundance coverage)
The Spectacular Now (B+)
Bound to be compared to Say Anything and American Graffiti, James Ponsoldt’s third feature film is a tender, affectionate, and very honest look at young love between two soon-to-be graduating seniors, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley). The Spectacular Now does a wonderful job encapsulating the worries and fears teenagers have of the future, and falling in love. Keely, after a series of sex-driven relationships, is terrified of commitment. Then again, at that age, aren’t we all? Aimee comes around and changes everything. For some, I imagine the film will have a similar affect. The Spectacular Now is, quite simply, a beautiful little gem.
Don Jon’s Addiction (B) — “Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), purveyor of misogyny and hilarity, is devoted to eight things in his life: his family, his boys, his church, his women, his pad, his car, his body, and most importantly, his porn. Levitt’s career-making movie – analyzing how men and women alike objectify one another – manages to be funny and heartfelt at once.” (Sundance coverage)
In A World (B) – “Lake Bell’s charming In A World may be the first film to explore the occupation of voice-over artists (otherwise known as the folks with soothing and booming voices narrating trailers and commercials). Equally endearing and lighthearted, In a World may end up being a game-changer for Lake Bell — which highlights not only her flare for the hilarious, but her creativity behind the helm.” (Sundance coverage)
The Way, Way Back (B) – Coming into yourself and maturing is not something one plans; it simply happens. For Duncan (a reclusive teenager played by Liam James), his enlightenment arrives at a waterpark run by Owen (a juvenile, aimless adult played by Sam Rockwell). The two form an unexpected friendship – something Duncan has perhaps never had before. Jim Rash’s impressive directorial debut also wrote the script here (alongside Nick Faxox), painting real characters with real issues. No one is altruistic or purely evil. The Way, Way Back does stumble into some cliched plot lines, but this is a crowd-pleaser worth being pleased about.
Fruitvale (B) — On New Year’s Day 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was murdered by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, Cali., leaving behind his longterm girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter. While Grant has perished, his story and spirit lives on in Fruitvale – a devastating dramatization chronicling the final hours before his tragic death. Captured on two separate cellular devices, this infuriating event immediately sparked a cultural uprising across America. Nevertheless, freshman director Ryan Coogler doesn’t attempt to sensationalize this story or its characters.”
The Gatekeepers (B) — “Illustrated beautifully in Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary is the idea that wars can only be solved by words, not guns. While that may seem like a fairly elementary concept, The Gatekeepers is a deeply disturbing documentary that brings all our worst terrorism fears to fruition.”
The East (B-) — “Serving as an engaging antithesis to last year’s Sound of My Voice (a cryptic piece of filmmaking that left a myriad of questions unanswered), Zal Batmanglij’s second feature The East leaves little to the imagination.” (Sundance coverage)
Kill Your Darlings (B-) – While the writing that came out of the Beat generation is far more fascinating and thought-provoking than the group’s personal lives presented on screen, Kill Your Darlings is an occasionally brilliant, occasionally horrendous movie featuring a candid look at sexuality and lust. The three main writers examined in John Krokidas’ film are Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs. Despite the film being initially driven by the New Vision (a revolutionary movement of writing that defies rules, boundaries, and authority), Kill Your Darlings looses track, falling into this bizarre, incongruous murder mystery. A mixed recommendation.
Breathe In (B-) – Tired of his monotonous job as a high school music teacher, Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce) longs for the past. A past where he and his wife Megan (Amy Ryan) were – albeit financially strapped – creative, blissful, and living in New York City. While Doremus’ fourth film occasionally falls into the trappings of narrative contrivances (smart characters acting idiotically for the sake of the plot), Breathe In manages to be a moving portrait of a discontent man struggling to live in the present. Which I imagine is difficult to do when you’re actively living in the past.” (Sundance coverage)
Hell Baby (C+) — A goofy spoof on the horror genre obsessed with possessed infants, Hell Baby is a remedial exercise in satire hilariously enlivened by Keegan Michael Key. Key (who stars on the hit Comedy Central program Key and Peele) makes this disjointed and ineptly paced film worth a viewing. As for the plot … I urge you to read the title. Yep, that’s it.
After Tiller (C+) — “In Kansas 2009 Dr. George Tiller, one of only five doctors who performed third-trimester abortions in the United States, was assassinated outside at his local Lutheran church. Following his death, the remaining four doctors continue his legacy, chronicled in After Tiller – a multi-dimensional documentary that offers an intimate (though achingly repetitive) perspective on abortion, and the people that have and perform them.” (Sundance coverage)
Stoker (C+) — “Park Chan-wook’s first crossover into American cinema is logic-bending madness. This should come to no surprise considering the Park’s bizarre filmography (Oldboy and Lady Vengeance). But the setup of Stoker, in which India’s father dies and then her conspicuous Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she never knew existed, moves into the house, is deceivingly conventional and straightforward. What is to come, though, is anything but.” (Sundance coverage)
Touchy Feely (C) — “Of the 26 films I saw at Sundance this year, Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely was far and away the most disappointing effort. Contrary to the raw emotion conveyed in Your Sister’s Sister and Humpday, Shelton’s fourth film – about a massage therapist who grows an unexpected aversion to touch – rings awfully false. Admittedly, Shelton appears to be evolving as a visual stylist, but at what cost? In the case of Touchy Feely, it’s the price of a worthwhile script.” (Sundance coverage)
Prince Avalanche (C) — “David Gordon Green’s return to independent cinema, after a string of achingly awful films (Pineapple Express, Your Highness,and The Sitter), may very well be the definition of mediocrity.” (Sundance coverage)
Sound City (C) – A full review of this film will be published adjacent to the film’s release later this week (it opens in Los Angeles and New York City on Friday). For now, I’ll just tell you that David Grohl’s self-satisfied directorial debut is essentially musical porn.
Sightseers (C) — “Before Sightseers began director Ben Wheatley addressed the audience, pronouncing all you need to make a movie – at least in the context of this film – is “sex, a dog, and a pencil.” Those three incongruous elements are indeed in Sightseers. It’s a pity there’s not much else.” (Sundance coverage)
Crystal Fairy (C-) — “The hoopla surrounding Crystal Fairy is probably a bit more fascinating than the actual film itself. It has been reported that Chilean writer and director Sebastian Silva filmed Crystal Fairy adjacent to another film (with a similar cast and location) entitled Magic Magic (which also played at Sundance). Perhaps this is why Silva’s wacky witty comedy about an obnoxious and impatient American traveling around Chile snorting cocaine and longing for the infamous San Pedro (a drug produced from cacti), feels horribly aimless.” (Sundance coverage)
jOBS (C-) — Steve Jobs was a revolutionary thinker, a cultivator of progress, and an engineer of creativity. This is nothing new. Aside from hammering home the idea that Jobs was a demanding ass consumed by his work (also not news), jOBS doesn’t provide us with any deeper insight into one of the most enigmatic entrepreneurs in the 20th century. It’s a banal by the numbers biopic boasting a mediocre performance from Ashton Kutcher (he simply can’t hit a dramatic note). More thoughts upon the film’s release in April.
Upstream Color (D+) — “While it may prove to be more satisfying upon repeated viewings, Carruth’s return to the movies is not a welcomed one. Coincidentally, neither is his film. Unwelcoming and inaccessible, Carruth inexplicably insists on throwing a myriad of disparate images at you in the hopes that you’ll grasp onto something. Upstream Color is tantamount to a series of non sequiturs – frustrating, agonizing, and incongruous to the bitter end.” (Sundance coverage)
What Is Dayani Cristal? (D+) — “Oozing with self-importance from top to bottom, Who Is Dayani Cristal? has one goal in mind: to convince audiences all around the world that any attempt the U.S. makes to keep illegal immigrants out of their country is a heartless act deserving of stern condemnation. Whether you agree with freshman documentarian Marc Silver’s stance on immigration is rather irrelevant. This tiring, sluggish, and frustratingly one-sided depiction of immigration gives the viewer no breathing room – or rather, no room to think for yourself.” (Sundance coverage)
Escape From Tomorrow (D+) — “Employing guerrilla-style filmmaking (filming on location without permission), Randy Moore’s audacious debut film chronicles the last day of the White’s vacation at the serene Disney World. The legalities surrounding the picture made Escape from Tomorrow the most talked about film at Sundance. Unfortunately, this exercise in faux-surrealism attempts to channel Fellini without actually understanding the need for substance underneath stylish subterfuge. (Sundance coverage)
Austenland (D) — Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) has an obsession. An uncommon obsession, but a deeply damaging one. You see, Jane is infatuated with the opulent worlds created by author Jane Austen. Nuance is apparently lost on the entire production of this endless, painful train-wreck. Moreover, it’s a pity seeing the wonderful Keri Russell squandered in such a trite exercise in romantic-comedy filmmaking.” (Sundance coverage)
Magic Magic (D-) — Between Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva has crafted a not-so-impressive pair of obnoxious duds. Set against the hauntingly beautiful landscapes of Chile, Magic Magic stars Juno Temple as an annoying American tourist traveling abroad to visit her cousin Sarah. The film begins banally and continues to slide even further downhill until eventually crashing and burning into pure awfulness.
What films from the Sundance Film Festival are you looking forward to?