The 30th edition of the Sundance Film Festival started not with a celebration but its absence: an Oscar snub for festival figurehead Robert Redford, in “All Is Lost,” with a similar lack of support for its writer-director, J.C. Chandor.
The movie didn’t play at Sundance, like Chandor’s previous feature “Margin Call,” but the nearly wordless tale of the iconic actor alone at sea was wrapped up in the Sundance narrative over the course of gathering acclaim throughout last year. Chandor’s earlier Sundance experience suggested a logical connectivity in his ability to land one of America’s great performers — and one of last year’s great performances, period — in his followup.
So what does it mean when this rather extreme illustration of the alleged Sundance ability to propel emerging filmmakers to greater heights gets promptly shut out?
To purists wholly focused on the art form, of course, it means nothing. But Sundance has always straddled a line between its stated purpose of singling out strong new voices and driving the independent film marketplace. However, Redford’s snub might be the best illustration of why Sundance’s latest edition looks especially promising despite the near-complete absence of hype. It indicates, like Sundance should, that there are far more criteria for judging cinematic achievements than pure industrial endorsements.
Redford allowed himself to become the underdog of the best actor race, remaining virtually absent from the campaign trail in its wilder moments. Along the same lines, the Sundance program has yet to spark for one or two movies destined to become central talking points over the course of the next year — a rather uncommon occurrence when compared with the impact of hype in recent years. The last two Grand Jury Prize winners from the festival’s narrative competition, “Fruitvale Station” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” practically had their awards locked down by the first day. But there’s no clear-cut popular favorite among the main competition this time around.
That’s not to say certain titles don’t stand out. “The Skeleton Twins,” from “True Adolescents” director Craig Johnson, could provide a strong showcase for the dramatic potential of funny people Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, who play estranged twins. “Dear White People” promises an African American satire of the “School Daze” variety at a moment when virtually every successful black film has been gravely serious. I’m holding out hope for “Camp X-Ray,” a bizarre-sounding two-hander featuring Kristen Stewart as a Guantanamo Bay guard who forms a friendship with a detainee. In the post-“Twilight” era, people tend to forget that Stewart was once an indie face that audiences took seriously, and “Camp X-Ray” could provide just the opportunity to deliver a reminder.
It’s exactly that sort of alternative process of playing against expectations that tends to make Sundance into an energizing start to the year in cinema, so the general absence of any major expectations at all is exactly what infuses this year’s lineup with an aura of excitement. The Zellner brothers have long been enjoyed by festivalgoers hip to their irreverent, surreal comedies “Goliath” and “Kid-Thing,” but their competition title “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” — starring Rinko Kikuchi as a woman inspired by “Fargo” to search for buried treasure — may wake up more audiences to the Zellners’ appeal. The Norwegian-American production “Sleepwalkers,” co-written by “Simon Killer” star Brady Corbet, looks poised to introduce a European aesthetic to the typically Americanized section. The heavy presence of genre films in competition — Jim Mickle’s pulp tale “Cold in July,” the teen supernatural drama “Jamie Marks Is Dead,” and the zombie comedy “Life After Beth,” starring Aubrey Plaza — should provide a welcome counterpoint to the usual domination of quirky narratives. And then there’s Joe Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas,” the first of the prolific DIY filmmaker’s projects to land a major Sundance slot (“Uncle Kent” screened out of competition), which should at least validate Swanberg’s scrappy approach by showing its progress to the big leagues.
But what’s even more promising is that there aren’t any real big leagues at Sundance 2014. The promise has been spread throughout the lineup. While last year’s NEXT section contained far greater quality than the competition, it still remained in the shadows; this time, audiences are certain to react well to a number of NEXT films, including Alex Ross Perry’s dark comedy “Listen Up Philip” and “Land Ho!,” a road trip comedy set in Iceland about two old men directed by Martha Stevens and Aaron Katz. Meanwhile, the majority of more widely known quantities have been relegated to the premieres section — Lynn Shelton’s “Laggies,” a dramedy starring Keira Knightley, may attract buyers but isn’t heading towards becoming a breakout, nor is Mike Cahill’s sci-fi thriller “I Origins,” the director’s followup to “Another Earth.” Both filmmakers had their moments to shine in the Sundance spotlight, but that tendency to focus on the value of a single quantity might this year become a dated concept.
Among the documentaries, it’s especially hard to single out the grandest accomplishments, though that problem has more to do with the struggles of the form to gain mainstream recognition. That being said, the rural America portrait “Rich Hill” looks especially promising, as does “The Overnighters,” a look at men who work in North Carolina oil fields, while Swedish director Goran Hugo Ollson’s anti-colonialist essay film “Concerning Violence” may outdo his similar found footage project “The Black Power Mixtape” for historical significance.
However, one title does loom above all else for the sheer authority of its maker: Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” which the director shot for over a decade as he chronicled the experiences of an adolescent growing into his teen years, was a last minute addition to the lineup in a preview screening slot. Linklater, whose “Slacker” was a Sundance breakout story before the concept became a cliché, has yet to stop producing brilliantly introspective work, and not once have his successes turned him into a gratuitous indie cliché. He typifies the better tendencies of the festival machine, and with a movie that stretches back to the past, perhaps he can help resurrect some of its appeal. At this juncture, we can only hope.