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Critic's Notebook: Ignore the Naysayers. This Year's Sundance Film Festival Transcended Clichés

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 25, 2014 at 1:11PM

It's safe to say that a lot of the journalists attending this year's festival didn't see enough movies to assess the overall artistic lineup of the program; furthermore, they turned to buyers with narrow goals to provide the voice of authority.
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An image from Sundance opening night selection "Whiplash."

Several days before the conclusion of the Sundance Film Festival's 30th year, many reporters struck a dour note. After recent years in which specific movies in the lineup became the breakout stories of the year — the one-two punch of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Fruitvale Station," to be exact —  no single movie in Sundance's 2014 selection has generated similar heat. Buyers once eager to open their wallets wide, as Fox Searchlight did last year with its much-ballyhooed $10 million deal for "The Way, Way Back," aimed for lower price tags. It was an active marketplace, but noticeably conservative by recent standards.

But the extraction of a disappointing picture from this phenomenon points to a blatant lack of sophistication in the understanding of both the festival's overall function and the nature of this year's selection. It's safe to say that a lot of the journalists attending the festival didn't see enough movies to assess the overall artistic value of the program; furthermore, they turned to buyers with narrow goals to provide a questionable voice of authority.

READ MORE: Indiewire's 2014 Sundance Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival

With nearly 100 world premieres over the course of 10 days, it's a mistake to assume that anyone seeking only ostensibly commercial titles can assess Sundance's quality. I saw about 40 movies in this year's program; Indiewire itself reviewed upwards of 60. My own perception of this year's lineup has been overwhelmingly positive precisely because its programmatic components have been so widespread.

"The Babadook."

Here's a snapshot of the rich layers hidden in plain sight: From the beautifully allegorical Iranian vampire movie "Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" and the supremely eerie Australian storybook-comes-to-life horror entry "The Babadook," this has been a remarkable edition for international representations of imagination run wild. 

The dangers of subjectivity also crop up in Alex Ross Perry's cleverly novelistic black comedy "Listen Up Philip," featuring a ferocious Jason Schwartzman as the neurotic writer at its center. Through caustic dialogue and overlapping perspectives, the movie celebrates bitterness as a vessel for understanding life's complexities with genuine insight. 

Mark Jackson's "War Story," a tense and thoughtful portrait of a traumatized war photographer (Catherine Keener, in one of her finest roles in quite some time) provides a complicated look at isolation and catharsis; the same description applies to the phenomenal documentary "The Overnighters," about a North Dakota priest whose life crumbles around him. And let's not forget Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," a masterstroke of experimental storytelling produced over the course of 12 years. It screened out of competition, but won the festival in other ways.

In the highly scrutinized U.S. competition, in lieu of a single movie dominating everything else, virtually every entry had little in common with the rest. The Zellner brothers' "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" expertly combined a subdued, character-driven narrative with absurdist storytelling and fascinating mixture of poetry and melodrama. "Dear White People" offered a consistently funny satire of race relations in modern America -- no easy trick to land. Opening selection "Whiplash" magnified the violent power of music to represent personal drive, its images of bloody drumsticks threatening to take the material in a horrific direction at any moment; it's a striking ode to music's visceral nature. None of these movies will remain stuck in a vacuum; instead, they point to a diverse set of possibilities for audiences increasingly keen on customization. It was a thoroughly contemporary lineup for our fragmented times.

Sony Pictures Classics "Land Ho!"

Even so, Sundance veterans will attest that short-sighted analysis of the program is nothing new. "Every Sundance is as good as the selection of films you choose to sample," my colleague Anne Thompson (whose own Sundance wrap-up can be found here) wrote on Facebook. "Pick well and you did fine this year. It is not Sundance programmers' jobs to guess what buyers want, nor should that be a measure of its success. The advance guarantees have been going down for years."

Of course, there's an inherent value in Sundance providing a platform for companies able to bring its selections to more people, but the characterization of the festival's weak marketplace also misses the fairly healthy amount of activity that did take place. One distributor who had purchased several titles at the festival, and unveiled one universally acclaimed entry purchased much earlier, confessed to being "so annoyed" with doom-and-gloom reports, asserting that "this was a strong festival." 

Sales agent Jason Ishikawa, whose Film Sales Company sold the entrancing Iceland-set buddy movie "Land Ho!" to no less than Sony Pictures Classics, struck a sober note. "I'm sort of relieved there isn't 'the one' film everyone had to see this year, like 'Beasts or 'Fruitvale,'" he said. "It allowed critics to spend a good deal of time talking and championing a wide variety of films."

It's not just the media that has the freedom to explore beyond the next big thing at Sundance. Rooftop Films programmer Dan Nuxoll often seeks out the opposite, searching for under-the-radar discoveries worthy of the screening series' DIY brand. "This year's Sundance slate probably won't produce many big earners," Nuxoll wrote me, "but the films were still consistently smart, well-made, genuine and — yes — entertaining. I think the audience reactions and even the reviews reflect that, even if some of the click-baiting industry editorials will continue to harp on the lack of dumb buzz and big dollar figures."

The irony of the pessimistic Sundance reports is that the festival has been reprimanded for consciously playing against crass expectations -- but when the quirky and obviously marketable "Little Miss Sunshine" paradigm dominates instead, the rest of the world claims that they've sold out.

Robert Redford at Sundance.

While the festival's marketplace drives perceptions of the program, Sundance has made constant attempts to complicate that narrative. At my first Sundance experience in 2007, Robert Redford told an audience at the opening press conference that the festival was not a marketplace in any respect; journalists in the room could barely contain their guffaws. He may have overstated the point, but this year's festival program at least pushed that perception to a complex and ambiguous state, satiating the needs of many audiences while meeting its hungriest acquisitions executives in the middle. 

Meanwhile, Sundance has also managed to overcome clichés surrounding the its uber-chic crowdpleasers. While an entertaining video spoofing stereotypes from Sundance titles of recent vintage surfaced just in time for this year's lineup, it didn't echo current realities. Two movies in competition that best resembled the whimsical storytelling of Sundance yore didn't drown in it. "The Skeleton Twins," about warring siblings played by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, owed much to the nuanced performances by its leads. "Infinitely Polar Bear" similarly benefited from an astounding turn by Mark Ruffalo as a downbeat father battling bipolar disorder. The uplifting ingredients in both entries never fell to gratingly simplistic lows.

In short, the jokes about obvious Sundance entries have started to grow stale. The latest program was an advanced mixture of the old and new, some great entries and a fair amount of duds, weird innovations and traditional entries alike. As festival director John Cooper, celebrating his 25th year at the festival, told journalists on the first day: "There aren't any trends. We just make them up afterward."

Yet the perception of a movie wasteland at Sundance 2014 led one outlet to describe the market as a haven for "'meh' movies." If that one-note takeaway aptly reflected a comprehensive reporting strategy, it says more about the sensibilities and wavering confidence of the industry than the strength of the program, which is a lot bigger than its starriest ingredients. If anything, the festival's Premieres section — which included some of its biggest deals, as Fox Searchlight picked up both "I Origins" and "Cavalry," while A24 nabbed Lynn Shelton's "Laggies" — gives eager buyers a focal point so the rest of us can cast a wider net.

"Appropriate Behavior."

Finally coming into its own last year, Sundance's NEXT section remains its epicenter for true sophistication and diversity. Taking the makings of a flimsy romcom and energizing it with welcome vulgarities, "Obvious Child" provided an endearing showcase for comedian Jenny Slate, just as Brooklyn tale of a Persian-American bisexual, "Appropriate Behavior," unveiled the promising voice of filmmaker-star Desiree Akhavan. The aforementioned "Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" and "War Story" are wonderful experiments with film form as a means of conveying profound isolation. "Land Ho!" funnels minimalist storytelling into a charmingly accessible mold. It's here that a true cinematic mélange comes into view.

Which hardly means that Sundance should escape without scrutiny of its less enthralling aspects. I could have done without Zach Braff's obnoxious suburban comedy "Wish I Was Here" or Gregg Araki's disappointingly bland "White Bird in a Blizzard." Above all, the documentary selection felt noticeably weaker than other years — although "The Overnighters," "Concerning Violence" and "The Case Against 8" all generated positive notices. Perhaps the paucity of compelling documentaries was simply the result of the titles available at a specific moment in time. This year, the lack of strong non-fiction entries also reflects the tendency of so many naysayers to obscure the truth.

This article is related to: Festivals, Reviews, Sundance Film Festival, Sundance 2014, The Overnighters, Listen Up Philip, Whiplash, The Babadook, John Cooper, Robert Redford, Land Ho!