By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 30, 2014 at 10:00AM
While many industry reports coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival struck a dour note, few bothered to contact the distributors actually buying up a storm, obscuring a relatively healthy marketplace and securing a future for many of the stronger films in the lineup. But even as IFC, Magnolia, Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics readily opened their wallets, many of the stronger titles wound up without a home as the festival drew to a close. This is nothing new — there are a lot of new movies at Sundance, and not every deal gets hammered out with conclusive results in the wee hours of the morning in Park City.
Many of the breakout hits of the festival will certainly find homes in the coming weeks. But those of us who make the effort to sort out the good from the bad want to make sure that the right movies get out there. It’s a given that certain by-the-numbers festival premieres with some name cast will at least land a home on VOD platforms.
But what about the real gems? At the time of this writing, no theatrical distribution deals have been announced for the following 10 highlights from this year’s festival. And if this business does any good for raising awareness around the best that movies have to offer, that needs to change soon.
The latest entrant in an emerging subgenre of character-driven comedies about neurotic young New Yorkers (epitomized by the success of HBO’s “Girls”), Desiree Akhavan’s “Appropriate Behavior” provides an enjoyably shrewd update to a potentially grating formula. The first-timer writes, directs and stars this blatantly autobiographical tale of a bisexual Brooklynite still in the closet to her strict Persian parents. That lingering dilemma forms only one piece of the equation in this sophisticated and persistently witty look at urban youth culture and arrested development. While hardly groundbreaking, Akhavan’s blend of cultural insights and sweetly relatable, self-deprecating humor provide a charming showcase for a new filmmaker worthy of discovery. Read the full review here.
Norwegian director Joaquin Trier’s “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st” owed at least some of his successes to co-writer Eskil Vogt, whose directorial debut in Sundance’s world cinema category was one of the 2014 festival’s great discoveries: The story of a woman writer who loses her sight and begins to imagine various events happening around her, “Blind” inhabits its protagonist’s confused version of the world, constantly shifting perspectives. At one point, she imagines her husband launching an affair with the girl next door and embellishes on the porn addictions and isolation of another shy neighbor. While Vogt constantly changes things up, the narrative disorientation never compromises the movie’s tender, emotional core. A fascinating, layered storytelling achievement, “Blind” represents a wholly unique vision — more than anything else, that Vogt is a talent to watch.
"Dear White People"
A bonafide satire of the Obama age, writer-director Justin Simien's
persistently funny "Dear White People" perceptively skewers virtually
every facet of racial confusion in modern American society. While black
comedians like Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock have provided searing
insight into the absurdities of lingering racial tensions, Simien
consolidates much about the paradoxes explored in those acts and many
others into a wildly enjoyable and scathing farce. By exploring the
heated debates between white and black students at an upscale college,
Simmien both mocks and provokes the nature of our seemingly progressive
times by illuminating misguided assumptions and fears embedded in
forward-thinking discourse. But Simien's relentless screenplay is never
too self-serious or didactic, instead pairing culturally-savvy brains
with a goofy grin. Read full review here.
"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"
For centuries, vampires have provided handy metaphors for social and physical dilemma, but in the stylishly muted deadpan romance "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," the threat is personal. Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour's stunning debut, produced by Elijah Wood, follows the experiences of a small Iranian town haunted by a vampiric presence who's just as lonely as the other locals. Shot in gorgeously expressionistic black-and-white and fusing multiple genres into a thoroughly original whole, Amirpour has crafted a beguiling, cryptic and often surprisingly funny look at personal desire that creeps up on you with the nimble powers of its supernatural focus. The director combines elements of film noir and the restraint of Iranian New Wave cinema with the subdued depictions of a bored youth culture found in early Jim Jarmusch…the comparisons go on and on, but the result is wholly original. A hip new discovery in desperate need of the cult attention it deserves. Read the full review here.
"Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter"
Austin-based sibling directors David and Nathan Zellner have been cranking out offbeat, surrealist comedy features and shorts that have gained a minor cult following on the film festival circuit for over a decade, but the profoundly engaging "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" successfully broadens their sensibilities. Anchored by the remarkably sensitive presence of lead actress Rinko Kikuchi in every scene, the Zellners' elegant portrait of an alienated Japanese woman intent on discovering the fictional buried treasure from "Fargo" elevates its zany premise to poetic heights. But make no mistake: This weirdly touching and ultimately quite sad character study echoes previous Zellner outings "Goliath" and "Kid-Thing" with its focus on interminably solitary individuals led down the rabbit hole of their absurd quests — only in this case, the outlandish aspects of the plot have been carefully embedded in the entirely believable pathos of its delusional star. The brothers' strongest emotional achievement, "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" pushes their style up to a new level of sophistication. Co-produced by Alexander Payne and featuring an undeniably appealing hook, "Kumiko" is one of those nutty achievements operating under a more accessible surface that could very well bring the Zellners the largest audience of their career. And they deserve it. Read the full review here.
While a documentary on late film critic Roger Ebert might sound like a fans-only affair, “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James goes beyond the call of duty with this powerful look at the last four months of his life, culminating his death from cancer in early 2013. “Life Itself,” which pulls its title and focus from Ebert’s memoir, efficiently tracks the writer’s burgeoning success as an old-fashioned newspaper reporter, his influence on film culture through the mainstream popularity of “Siskel & Ebert,” and his willingness to constantly maintain his relevance under the evolution of media in the twenty-first century. James’ insightful portrait manages to position Ebert’s influence as both a natural manifestation of his passion for cinema and his ceaseless work ethic, while personalizing the narrative through intimate testimonies and remarkably candid footage from the writer’s hospital bed. While he lost his capacity to speak in his final years, Ebert found his voice in other ways, and “Life Itself” finds a credible emotional arc in the triumph of that last act in its subject’s life. While CNN produced the film and has broadcast rights, a theatrical distributor has yet to be announced. Having committed his life to the big screen, Ebert deserves to be seen on as many of them as possible.
"Listen Up Philip"
Employing voice-over narration and an episodic structure that recalls the chapters of a book, Alex Ross Perry’s third directorial effort marries the best of showing and telling,” wrote Emma Myers in her Indiewire review. "Its titular character is a cantankerous novelist played by a hirsute and well-styled Jason Schwartzman. Petty, self-obsessed, and fixated on a very recognizable form of success, Philip’s increasing solipsism is defined by his relationships with those around him. Importantly, the protagonist disappears for a sizeable chunk of the film’s mid section (a device Perry borrowed from William Gaddis’ novel, ‘Recognitions’) and we learn as much about him in absentia as we do from being in his overwhelming presence. A languorous yet methodical comedy, ‘Listen Up Phillip’ unfolds like a sociological proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity.” (Read the full review here.) With a cast that also includes “Mad Men” star Elisabeth Moss, it’s easy to assume “Philip” will get out there, somehow, but lost in the conversation is its potential for broader appreciation — yes, it’s a movie about an asshole, but he’s weirdly lovable all the same, and it’s been a long time since American cinema received a movie willing to dance that delicate line. Schwartzman is an ideal access for point for a form of subversive literary humor that's simultaneously chic and unsettling, a combination bound to alienate some viewers even as others find it transcendent. In other words, it's a genuine conversation-starter.
Tim Sutton’s directorial debut “Pavilion” offered a stunning vision of alienated young with virtually no plot but tremendous visual prowess. “Memphis” is only slightly more narrative-based in its meandering but never less than fascinating portrait of Tennessee-based singer Willis Earl Beal, loosely playing himself while supplying the moody, bluesy soundtrack. While drifting from place to place, talking to old friends, lovers and a priest as he tries to reconcile his former successes with a world that has seemingly abandoned him, Beal remains a persistently insightful presence — and the film follows suit. Similar in tone to Matthew Porterfield’s breakout sophomore feature “Putty Hill,” Sutton’s second effort is filled with soul while foregrounding its inventive formalism. “Life is artifice,” Beal says in a television interview at the beginning. By retaining an otherworldly quality while also tapping into the nuances of everyday life, “Memphis” proves he’s right. Though it's something of an experimental film, with Beal's existing fan base, the movie may have broader appeal than it appears on the surface.
At first galvanizing in its depiction of survival amid dire circumstances, "The Overnighters" transforms into a devastating portrait of communal unrest. Jesse Moss' verite documentary about the impact of the oil boom in Williston, North Dakota on the local job market, and the controversial priest supporting the lives of the newcomers it attracts, contains one of the most remarkable examples of layered non-fiction storytelling to come along in some time. Though well-made throughout, "The Overnighters" builds from a warm, traditional portrait of the American dream in action to arrive at a shocking finale that redefines its focus. Far from simply giving its subject a hearty pat on the back, "The Overnighters" digs beneath the surface of the idealism he strives to embody and arrives at disturbing truths. Tackling a personal issue through lens of a much broader one, "The Overnighters" should speak to audiences that can relate to its characters' working class struggles -- as well as those just fascinated by them. Read the full review here.
"Return to Homs"
To anyone outside of Syria, the battle ranging on between President Bashar Al-Assad's armed forces and various rebel factions is mainly an abstraction. That makes director Talal Derki's "Return to Homs," which opened the 25th edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam before winning Sundance’s world cinema documentary competition, something of a revelation: It portrays the struggle from the inside, from about as far from the filter of mainstream media as one can get, capturing tense shootouts and the extremes of revolutionary spirit in unnerving detail. Centered on a handful of fighters in the largely abandoned city of Homs, with footage smuggled out of the country, Derki's angry, fragmented portrait constitutes a lonely shout in the darkness. Read the full review here.