"All These Sleepless Nights"
During a festival that saw multiple titles blur the lines of the traditional documentary, Michal Marczak's "All These Sleepless Nights" made the strongest case for foregoing those genre distinctions altogether. Following a handful of Warsaw youth on their search for stability and meaning in city life, Marczak threads a fluid and assured narrative that's almost hyper-real. Along the way, his subjects cycle through angst, intimacy and uncertainty, all against a shifting array of gorgeous backdrops. Sparsely furnished apartments, rain-drenched parks, moonlit beaches and even the middle of a busy street all serve as the canvases for its characters' tales of youthful indecision. And there's some joy amidst those struggles, particularly in the film's musical moments (it's amazing what one simple Disney song singalong or spontaneous, Drake-backed choreography can add to a story about coming of age in a metropolitan area). Marczak's perpetually moving camera captures the tiniest nonverbal conversations and the broadest cityscapes with equal intuitiveness, making for a storytelling experience perfectly suited for the medium. —SG
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Kelly Reichardt's slow-burn approach to exploring the alienated state of American lives blossoms into a wondrous anthology film with this tender adaptation of Maile Meloy's book. From its opening sequence, with Laura Dern as a stone-faced attorney facing a despondent client who might go postal, "Certain Women" establishes a spellbinding atmosphere in which its eponymous characters face alienating forces in the intersection of their personal and professional lives. Reichardt regular Michelle Williams surfaces in the second movement as a determined homebuilder seeking to purchase ancient materials from an unwitting owner, but it's Kristen Stewart's remarkable turn in the climactic sequence as a law instructor who does some of her best work to date. While each story contains astute observations about small-town America, "Certain Women" stands out more for its immersive landscapes than plot. At the same time, Stewart fans steadily growing aware of her acting chops in a post-"Twilight" era — the support for her "Clouds of Sils Maria" turn continues to percolate — will find an even deeper sense of her subtle instincts here. But the movie is much bigger than a single performance, as it journeys from drab offices spaces to expansive farmland. American audiences from all walks of life will find that "Certain Women" offers a perceptive mirror of this country's isolating spaces. —EK
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Loosely based on the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado during a multiplex screening of "The Dark Knight," Tim Sutton's elegantly designed "Dark Night" contains a fascinating, enigmatic agenda. In its opening moments, Maica Armata's mournful score plays out as we watch a traumatized face lit up by the red-blue glow of a nearby police car. Mirroring the media image of tragedy divorced from the lives affected by it, the ensuing movie fills in those details. Like Gus Van Sant's "Elephant," Sutton's ambitious project dissects the moments surrounding the infamous event with a perceptive eye that avoids passing judgement. While some viewers may find this disaffected approach infuriating — the divisive Sundance reaction suggested as much — there's no doubting the topicality of Sutton's technique, which delves into the malaise of daily lives that surrounds every horrific event of this type with a keen eye. It may not change the gun control debate, but it adds a gorgeous and provocative footnote to the conversation. —EK
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"The Eyes of My Mother"
There was no greater discovery at this year's festival than Nicolas Pesce's black-and-white horror film, which conveys a nightmarish world that's equal parts David Lynch and Tobe Hooper. Peace's studied compositions and eerie atmosphere convey a surprisingly intimate perspective on the life of a disturbed young woman raised in the countryside, where she forged a peculiar bond with the murderous lunatic locked in her barn. Oddly touching and terrifying in equal measures, "The Eyes of My Mother" conveys a sharp directorial vision that nods to the past while building an entirely fresh experience. Like last year's "The Witch," Pesce's bracing debut has the makings of a cult phenomenon bound to leave an impression on audiences even if it traumatizes them. Of course, that's assuming there's a buyer out there not too scared to tackle it. —EK
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Israeli director Elite Zexer's perceptive debut, set almost entirely in the confines of a Bedouin village, won Sundance's grand jury prize out of the World Cinema section for good reason: Zexer's superbly acted tale (headed by Lamis Ammar in the lead role) provides a detailed window in a world familiar to few. Bound by tradition, Layla (Ammar) struggles to maintain her relationship to a guy she meets at the local university, even as her parents insist she follow the local ritual of a pre-arranged marriage. In a series of studied exchanges, Zexer delves into this generational tension without overstating the drama. Instead, Layla's struggle is largely internal one that defies her ability to explain her personal desires. While her mother tries to lend a sympathetic ear, Layla's biggest foe is the value system she's been raised to embrace. A terrific showcase for a new woman director, "Sand Storm" is the kind of female-centric movie — like last year's "Mustang" — that could find support around the world, and even land in next year's foreign language Oscar conversation. —EK
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"Southside With You"
The story of Barack and Michelle Obama's first date may not sound like the best material for a serious drama, but writer-director Richard Tanne's perceptive first feature frequently goes beyond its cutesy premise to offer a serious look at the First Family's origin story. Aping the style of "Before Sunrise" and its sequels, Tanne follows Harvard wunderkind Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and trenchant lawyer Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) over the course of a single day, as they discuss racial politics, the American workforce and their own personal family issues while wandering through the Chicago scenery. Sometimes too precious for its own good, "Southside With You" nevertheless manages to charm its way to providing a window into the freshness of Obama's personality when he first emerged on the national stage. As his time runs out in the White House, "Southside With You" will soon provide the ideal nostalgia trip for anyone enamored of the most eloquent leader in modern history. —EK
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