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by Eric Kohn
January 25, 2014 1:11 PM
19 Comments
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Critic's Notebook: Ignore the Naysayers. This Year's Sundance Film Festival Transcended Clichés

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.

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19 Comments

  • Chris | January 27, 2014 2:49 PMReply

    I'd rather watch a great cable series at home on Netflix any day than go to Sundance!!! A bunch of pretentious untalented people who have friends and/or family that run the festival and select their films so they feel like they are important and talented. Great parties though….

  • Indie Film Minute | January 26, 2014 2:29 PMReply

    Having attended the festival associated with films, and for the simply joys of the festival experience, I simply want to share my thought that Sundance is a truly special place, where the celebration of the importance of film is pure and exalted. Every time the lights dim there is creation to behold, and we all hold our breaths for that feeling of magic that unfolds when that very special film comes along. It is that joyous anticipation, and the openness to allow art to flourish, that makes all fests special, and in my experience, especially Sundance.

    Sure there is the commercial element. We in the independent community should celebrate that as well for the wider our audience the greater opportunity to create. Sure the commercial element corrupts. But for sure it could totally corrupt, which has definitely not happened at Sundance. There were artistic and challenging films to be found this year as with every year.

    Bravo to the artists that persevere and bravo to Sundance, for continuing to push the pure joy of creation through film to the forefront. Criticize if you will, but celebrate what is at the core - a deep and abiding love of great storytelling through film.

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  • OLP | January 26, 2014 12:21 AMReply

    Linklater's film is better than anything that's played at Sundance for the past 15, maybe 20 years. That alone makes this one a success.

  • fourty eight | January 26, 2014 12:54 AM

    Maybe next year, they'll debut Quentin Tarantino's new one.

  • Kristy | January 25, 2014 9:41 PMReply

    This is my fourth year to attend Sundance and I agree that your festival experience is only as good as your film choices. I feel like there were so many great choices this year and my short list was longer than previous years. I will see ten movies by tomorrow evening and to varying degrees I am pleased with every film so far. I've seen The Voices, Low Down, Whiplash, I Origins, Hellion, They Came Together, Wish I Was Here and still have Young Ones, American Ham and The One I Love to see. I haven't hated anything and there are at least 5 more films I would love to see.

  • Bb | January 25, 2014 9:35 PMReply

    Hated this years lineup, nothing felt like a discovered gem- I sincerely hope sxsw and tribeca show sundance how it's done. -

  • bob hawk | January 26, 2014 2:26 AM

    Saying you hated "this year's lineup" is absurd. How many films could you have possibly seen? A mere fraction of said lineup, I'm sure. Your sweeping generality is meaningless unless you provide more specificity by giving examples of what you hated so much, and why. In addition, I'd like to suggest that there is not a festival on earth that "shows...how it's done." All festivals are fallible, all have shown dog shit, and all have provided moments of surprise, inspiration, magic and healthy provocation. Acknowledging that (as Kristy says above) "your festival experience is only as good as your film choices" this has been one of the most satisfying years I've had in 28 years of attending. And to be specific myself, Linklater's almost three hour BOYHOOD was for me worth the trip to Park City alone. I also appreciated -- to one degree or another, and for various reasons -- ALIVE INSIDE, INTERNET'S OWN BOY, MR. LEOS CARAX, LAMBERT AND STAMP, LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM, LOVE IS STRANGE, RICH HILL and YOUNG ONES, among others. I saw not one stinker -- and that's just the luck of the draw. This is NOT a science!

  • Tom quinn | January 25, 2014 7:46 PMReply

    This is an awesome write up, Eric. There are so many great voices bubbling up that I'm pretty excited. Well done!

  • BJ | January 25, 2014 7:44 PMReply

    Aren't Infinitely Polar Bear, Skeleton Twins, Wish I Was Here, Song One, Life After Beth, etc. more of the same mainstream-disguised-as-indie twee bullshit Sundance has supported for years? Disappointing.

  • GREG | January 25, 2014 3:56 PMReply

    WHAT A BUNCH OF BULLSHIT, type in SUNDANCE CORRUPTION OR SUNDANCE CORRUPT LAWSUITS, AND FIND OUT THE TRUTH, YOU PEOPLE ARE ON THE TAKE LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, THESE FILMS SUCK AND ANYONE WITH A BRAIN KNOWS IT

  • jean vigo | January 25, 2014 3:04 PMReply

    Didn't make Park City this year, but I certainly hope what you're reflecting on is going to bear fruit. It certainly is encouraging to hear that there is a tilt towards distinct visions again, rather than films masquerading as "Sundance Brands" of the past. I also hope it's a sign that American indie filmmakers will push the envelope of form and content - much like the international scene which has been doing it for decades - and move away from safe, cutesy, indie cliches.

    I've always believed - maybe naively - that truly unique, great films will find their audiences and make money. A step away from "Little Miss Sunshine" rip offs is what's needed. The rest of the world IS interested in what US filmmakers have to say about the world they live in - it's time for some "cojones."

  • Casey | January 25, 2014 2:43 PMReply

    Bravo on a really great article, Eric. I couldn't agree with you more! Tonight, with "Life Itself", I will have seen 12 films this year at Sundance. I have laughed, cried, been challenged, and even a little appalled (shorts program 3, cringe) I believe you totally have to ignore the naysayers.

  • Film Major, Esq. | January 25, 2014 2:33 PMReply

    I agree that Sundance is only as good as the films you see, and I saw less this year than I usually like to. However, of your examples of what was good, I saw a few. And while I also agree that the Next category is where it's at usually, War Story and Listen Up Philip were failures at what they tried.

    These films are in the category that is about new, upcoming filmmakers. They tried something new and different, but they didn't work. War Story was barely a story. Almost 20 minutes in you still don't know what is going on. I think the first act was an hour long. Not good. And Philip, there really was no protagonist. Or I wasn't sure who it was. Let's not forget the insane closeups. No, just no. These weren't gems in a mostly ignored category. They were nonsense in a usually decent and fun category.

  • T | January 25, 2014 3:12 PM

    It's your very biased opinion that they failed. The reasons you listed for not liking them suggests you don't like or understand original and progressive storytelling.

  • titanic | January 25, 2014 1:51 PMReply

    While I support having a positive outlook, "ignoring the naysayers" may not always be the smartest thing to do.

  • What, NO? | January 25, 2014 7:33 PM

    "NO" ... a first act can be an hour long. That's not a failure of filmmaking by any standard. Same applies to a film with no protagonist or extreme close ups throughout. Unless you think John Cassavettes and Godard, etc. "failed" at filmmaking...

  • No | January 25, 2014 4:08 PM

    Excuse me, but aren't opinions by their very nature "biased"? Film Major, Esq. gave his or her reasons for not liking the films cited .

    You, on the other hand, rather than offering a counterargument about the strengthens of "original and and progressive storytelling" chose basically to attack his/her opinion as "biased" or as not understanding something. This doesn't add to criticism of film.

    Why is this person's opinion about these films less valid than yours? What is it about these films that advance "original and and progressive storytelling"?

  • Eric | January 25, 2014 2:21 PM

    While that's often true, I'd argue differently in this case, because the naysayers in question are so ill-informed.