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.
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.
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.