The Best and Worst of What I Saw at Sundance
By Valerie Temple, BMFI Programming Manager
This year I went to Sundance, saw 24 films in six days, and somehow lived to tell the tale. I tried my hardest to see everything that sounded intriguing but, with more than a hundred films screening, it was inevitable that I would miss out on some good ones. I’m still upset that I got shut out of Bachelorette, for example.
But I did get to see some fantastic films and here I've helpfully broken down the movies I saw into nine handy categories that illustrate the running themes I noticed at the festival. Enjoy!
Best of the Fest:
Beasts of the Southern Wild (d. Benh Zeitlin)
The most-buzzed about film at Sundance this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a remarkable achievement and totally deserving of its Grand Jury Award. This allegorical film about an intrepid six-year-old girl (played by incredible nonactor Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her mysteriously ailing father in a remote Delta community known only as “The Bathtub.” As they prepare for the apopcalyptic day when The Bathtub will be destroyed by rising waters, the film mixes in folkloric elements to create a truly unique work. Many of the films I saw this year skewed mainstream, but this film is a perfect example of why Sundance exists: To showcase important work made with an independent spirit.
These were terrible:
I arrived at the festival with the naïve belief that any film screened at Sundance would at least be watchable. Boy, was I wrong.
Filly Brown (d. Youssef Delara, Michael D. Olmos)
Gina Rodriguez is likable as would-be rapper Filly Brown, but this movie is just too cheesy to take seriously. With more melodramatic subplots than a telenovela, the film relies on stock characters (Drug-addicted Mom in Jail! Sleazy Record Producer! Mean White Lady!) and clichés instead of introducing us to any humans with anything resembling realistic motivations. The clunky dialogue also made for some unintentional laughs (“Why are you so insensitive, homes?”). The movie seems well intentioned, but it just didn’t work. Also, the music isn't any good.
The First Time (d. Jon Kasdan)
Ugh. I could not stop rolling my eyes at the dialogue in this treacly mess about two teenagers who meet, talk, and then (spoiler alert!) get together. That’s it. That’s all that happens. Playing out like a boring one-act play, the two leads endlessly jaw on about their problems with the opposite sex but they are far too attractive for any of this to ever make sense. I’ve never, ever met any teens who were so annoyingly wistful as the ones in this movie. It came as no surprise to find out that writer/director Jon Kasdan has a few episodes of Dawson’s Creek to his credit because the film takes the hyper-articulate nattering from that show and crams it into an artlessly framed John Hughes imitation. Given that the filmmaker’s dad is director Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill) and his brother is TV producer/director Jake Kasdan (Freaks and Geeks, New Girl), I’m thinking nepotism had a hand in getting this subpar film into Sundance.
Middle of the Road:
These two movies were solid, well-made films. They just weren’t favorites.
Middle of Nowhere (d. Ava DuVernay)
Tyler Perry should watch this movie before he attempts something like For Colored Girls again. This is how to tell a serious story for the African-American community without embarrassing yourself. Perry instinctually shoots for the lowest common denominator while this story of a loyal wife biding her time as her husband serves out a prison sentence aimed for something much more—and mostly succeeded.
2 Days in New York d. Julie Delpy)
Fans of Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris should be excited because this is essentially the same movie, except Chris Rock is now playing the boyfriend instead of Adam Goldberg. Delpy’s brand of quirky humor sometimes works, but the scenes (and there are more than one!) of Chris Rock talking/doing stand-up to a cardboard cutout of Obama are cringe worthy and already dated.
Excellent Foreign Films:
Wish You Were Here (d. Kieran Darcy-Smith)
Four beautiful Australians take a holiday to Cambodia and one doesn’t come back in this film, my first of the festival, that could be best described as a dramatic take of The Hangover. The stunning location cinematography impressed and the complex narrative structure ensured a powerfully shocking climax scene.
Where Do We Go Now? (d. Nadine Labaki)
I never thought I would describe a musical comedy about Lebanese religious in-fighting as “crowd pleasing,” but Where Do We Go Now? was one of the most enjoyable films I saw at the festival. Although the concept was unusual, the disparate elements (light comedy, tender romance, political drama) blended well into a unique whole.
Madrid, 1987 (d. David Trueba)
A luscious young student and her gnarly old professor get stuck in a bathroom overnight – naked! What follows is boring, erotic, then boring AND erotic. Although solidly made, this film was just too heavy on dialogue and light on action to hold my attention.
Teddy Bear (d. Mads Matthiesen)
I loved this weird Danish drama about a 38-year-old bodybuilder who is so dominated by his tiny, scary mother that he lacks any ability to talk to the opposite sex. That is, until he takes a trip to Thailand because love seems easier to find there. Like Wish You Were Here, this film exposes the seedy underbelly of vacationing in a foreign country.
Good movies about thirtysomethings:
Hello I Must Be Going (d. Todd Louiso)
Since debuting opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, Melanie Lynskey has had a tougher time breaking through in Hollywood than her ridiculously famous co-star. She’s a recognizable face, but mainly for filling the Joan Cusack, best-friend role in middling movies (Coyote Ugly, Sweet Home Alabama) and being the best part of a crappy television show ("Two and a Half Men"). But that may change once people see her fantastic work as the lead in Hello I Must Be Going, a great film about a 35-year-old woman who is completely directionless after a divorce and has to move in with her parents. She spends her days wandering around the house in the same t-shirt and no pants and seems adrift since leaving her cozy life with her husband. When she starts an unexpected relationship with a 19 year old, it’s somehow sweet and not creepy. Blythe Danner is just perfect as her mother.
Celeste and Jesse Forever (d. Lee Toland Krieger)
Rashida Jones co-wrote and stars in Celeste and Jesse Forever, another favorite of mine from the festival. The story about a divorcing couple who want to stay best friends even as they pursue other people made me think about every breakup I’ve ever had, but in a good way. Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, it's a sharply written movie that shows off Jones' comedic range. Also, it's nice to see Andy Samberg actually act.
Smashed (d. James Ponsoldt)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul are a young, married couple who love being drunk because it’s so much fun. But after a series of embarrassing and scary drunk escapades, Winstead decides to sober up, which puts a strain on the relationship. The film is refreshingly accessible, especially when compared to other films in the addiction canon, such as the bleak Leaving Las Vegas or preachy 28 Days. This is a couple you know and a story that might hit close to home. Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman have small but memorable roles.
Keep the Lights On (d. Ira Sachs)
Documentary filmmaker Erik and closeted lawyer Paul meet-cute through a casual encounter phone line (it was 1998, folks!) and what follows is an intensely personal, super-honest film that chronicles the dizzying high-highs and depressing low-lows of a decade-long relationship, one additionally complicated by crack addiction. I wish I could have seen the entire film, but I left early in order to catch a screening of The Comedy. As you’ll read below, that was an error in judgement.
Say No to Hipsters:
I didn’t see I Am Not a Hipster (because the title alone makes my skin crawl), but I got my fill of stylish disaffection with these two bile-inducing films.
The Comedy (d. Rick Alverson)
Tim Heidecker’s fat, aging hipster is possibly the most hateful character ever committed to celluloid. He’s an entitled jerk who doesn’t take anything seriously and acts like a giant asshole to everyone except his friends, who are also doughy, unshaven layabouts. Instead of a plot there are loose, unconnected scenes that feel more like sketch ideas (“Tim Bullies a Cab Driver Into Letting Him Drive,” “Tim Talks to Some Black People,” “Tim and Friends Go to a Catholic Church and Mess Around with the Holy Water and Climb on the Pews,” etc. etc.), all of which contain at least one good joke, but then drag on for excruciating lengths of time. It was a brutal viewing experience, and a lot of people couldn’t take it. At least a third of the audience walked out of my screening—the most walk-outs I saw during the entire festival. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it's probably destined to be one of those films that everyone will see just to talk about it.
Nobody Walks (d. Ry Russo-Young)
Apparently, nobody is walking in this film because they're all too busy having sex with Olivia Thirlby. She comes to town, sporting that disfiguring haircut that every beautiful girl seems to get post-college, and tries to work on the sound design for her art film about bugs (oh brother!), but can’t get any work done because every guy she encounters wants to have her and she always goes for it because there are no consequences in this world. There’s even a vaguely unsettling nighttime scene where a six-year-old boy in a sleep t-shirt takes her by the hand and makes her walk him back to his bedroom. I wanted to like this film—mostly because I feel bad that John Krasinski has never been in a good movie—but, save for the beautiful cinematography, I hated everything from the characters names (Kolt and Martine being the worst offenders) to the film’s subtly offensive attitude about women and sex. Lena Dunham co-wrote the screenplay, but she left out the heart and humor that I enjoyed in Tiny Furniture.
Searching for Sugar Man (d. Malik Bendjelloul)
After releasing two do-nothing albums in the U.S. in the 1970s, enigmatic singer-songwriter Rodriguez went on to become bigger than Elvis in South Africa. This musical detective story about the search for the mysterious musician is fascinating, but mostly what I enjoyed about this worthy doc is Rodriguez's amazing music. If you're not familiar with it, think of a pleasing blend of Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson—do yourself a favor and download his songs “Sugar Man” and “I Wonder” right now.
West of Memphis (d. Amy Berg)
Although I haven’t seen any of the Paradise Lost movies, this look at the West Memphis 3’s fight for freedom, produced by husband-and-wife team Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, seems comprehensive and zips along, despite its bulky two-hour-plus length. However, WM3-er Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis were also producers, so don’t expect a completely unbiased account. But Amy Berg’s adroit direction makes great use of the many interviews they scored with key players in the case.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (d. Matthew Akers)
This beautifully shot documentary offers a thorough history of the famous performance artist, as well as a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at her recent retrospective and much talked about new piece at MOMA last spring. I wish the filmmakers would have opted against including the scene where James Franco sat for the artist, but it was gratifying when an oblivious spectator asked him, “So, are you an actor?”
Finding North (d. Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush)
This Tom Colicchio-produced documentary about hunger in America is in the slickly competent vein of Waiting for Superman and Food, Inc.--it’s well-researched and well-produced, but fails to leave a lasting impression.
Sundance It-Boy, Mark Webber:
Move over Michael Cera, there’s a new non-threatening boy in town! With three movies at Sundance this year, it looks like Snow Day's Mark Webber will be playing the guy you root for in every movie you want to see next year.
Save the Date (d. Michael Mohan)
Lizzy Caplan plays a commitment-phobe artist (her drawings in the movie were done by Jeffrey Brown) who hooks up with Mark Webber immediately after dumping Geoffrey Arend (y’know, that lucky guy who married Christina Hendricks). Alison Brie of Community plays her sister, who tries to be supportive, but is distracted by her upcoming wedding to Martin Starr. Since I adore everyone in this cast, it’s almost guaranteed that I would like this movie. But I must admit that Lizzy Caplan’s near-constant mugging and silly-talk did eventually wear thin.
For a Good Time, Call… (d. Jamie Travis)
Perpetual scene-stealer Ari Gaynor (remember her from when she was hilarious in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist?) finally gets a lead role in this playfully raunchy film about two former enemies, now roommates, who start a phone-sex operation out of their NYC apartment. Lauren Miller, who co-wrote the film and is Seth Rogen's wife, is fine as the prissy girl who (literally) finds her voice in phone sex, but it's Gaynor’s big, brassy performance that makes this lady-centric flick a real must-see. Mark Webber and his scruff play Gaynor’s love interest, a dude she met during an, ahem, business call. Aww!
The End of Love (d. Mark Webber)
This Mark Webber fellow has quite the work ethic. In addition to Save the Date and For a Good Time, Call…, he also wrote, directed and starred in The End of Love, one of my favorite movies at Sundance this year. It's a poignant, semi-autobiographical drama about an aspiring actor living in Hollywood and grappling with single fatherhood, and Webber has added a dose of realism to it by casting his own infant son as his co-star. The two year old’s performance is revelatory (no joke) and unlike any I have ever seen before, probably because he’s not really acting. The way the camera captures these secret moments between a father and son is truly affecting.
Rock stars are depressing:
This Must Be the Place (d. Paolo Sorrentino)
Predictably, a movie in which Sean Penn hunts for Nazis while wearing Robert Smith drag is a big old mess. Penn’s falsetto performance quickly becomes grating and nothing quite gels in this quirk-filled collection of missteps.
For Ellen (d. So Yong Kim)
Paul Dano’s aspiring rock star is of the unpopular variety, all silver rings and heavy metal posturing. While initially interesting, Dano’s character is given a thinly developed story about his feeble attempts to get to know his young daughter before he loses parental rights once his divorce is finalized. What follows is a litany of long takes where nothing much happens, including an excruciating scene where the below-average child actor very slowly picks out a new toy at a store. Trust me, it’s boring. This is the most disappointing movie I saw.
Valerie Temple is the Programming Manager at Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She has an M.F.A. in Film Production from Boston University and thinks she's very funny. (Her words.)