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January 28, 2014 12:48 PM
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66 Reviews From the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

With the Sundance Film Festival concluding another 10-day edition Sunday, Indiewire's review coverage of the lineup came to an end as well. Of the nearly 100 world premieres that screened in Park City this year, Indiewire reviewed 66 titles, including films from every section of the festival. Links to all of them can be found below, divided by Sundance's categories.

U.S. Dramatic Competition:

"Camp X-Ray"

Before her gig in the "Twilight" franchise turned Kristen Stewart into a global celebrity, she had already established herself as a noteworthy screen presence in much smaller projects, with her serious, distant gaze making her ideally positioned to play lost and frustrated young women. There's a glimmer of that subdued talent in "Camp X-Ray," the debut feature of writer-director Peter Sattler that finds Stewart in the excessively unglamorous role of a Guantanamo Bay guard. Unfortunately, Sattler's frustratingly on-the-nose screenplay — which finds Stewart's character forming an unlikely bond with an uncooperative detainee (Peyman Moadi) — only succeeds at emphasizing her talent in an otherwise half-baked drama. Read more here.

"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 more here.

"God's Pocket"

John Slattery, best known for his role as the debonair "Mad Men" star Roger Sterling, makes the shift from actor to director with his feature length debut "God’s Pocket," adapting (with co-writer Alex Metcalf) the novel by Peter Dexter (whose work was most recently brought to the screen as Lee Daniels’ deliriously gonzo "The Paperboy"). This isn’t Slattery's first time sitting in the director’s chair, as the silver-haired star cut his teeth by handling five episodes of “Mad Men." The results hinted at the presence of a confident storyteller capable of maintaining a delicate mood. Yet the promise shown in those entries makes it all the more disappointing that Slattery's first feature is a disjointed mixture of screwball comedy and urban strife that never coalesce into a satisfying whole. Read more here.

"Happy Christmas"

From the first frame of Joe Swanberg's "Happy Christmas," there's an immediate sense of change afoot. The director's first feature shot on 16mm film has the look of a far more polished narrative than of the countless features he has produced over the past decade. That perception is validated by the ensuing story, a cohesive dramatic comedy about the strain of married life and its absence, with the best performances in Swanberg's ever-expanding oeuvre. Sweetly funny and relatable, "Happy Christmas" builds on the director's previous work by channeling its strong aspects — naturalism and self-effacing, true-to-life humor — into a relatively straightforward but utterly enjoyable character study. Read more here.

"Infinitely Polar Bear"

Plowing through the boy-meets-girl-makes-family exposition before the opening credits are through, the super-8 home movie that opens Maya Forbes' directorial debut, "Infinitely Polar Bear," sets the tone for her highly personal if slightly romanticized portrait of familial love and mental illness. As the glowing faces of a particularly handsome couple (Marc Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana) and their pair of adorable young girls (Imogen Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) flicker across the screen, the voice-over of the elder daughter informs us that the rugged paterfamilias we're looking at is a diagnosed manic-depressive. Drawing from the wellspring of her own life, Forbes' agile tone allows the film to indulge in heartbreak and humor with equal measure. Read more here.

"Jamie Marks is Dead"

Carter Smith's "Jamie Marks is Dead" is a spooky rendition of teenage passion and shame. It has requisite angst and melodrama, but they’re guided by the film's immersive atmosphere and sense of place. It's a gothic romance—a sort of coming out, bullying story that projects onto its world the moods and emotions of its characters. Read more here.

"The Skeleton Twins"

Outside of their "Saturday Night Live" work, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig have delivered some of their best performances onscreen together, in "Adventureland" and "Paul" (they even both scored scene-stealing voice cameos in Spike Jonze's "Her"). Even so, their chemistry  in Craig  Johnson's "The Skeleton Twins" is something altogether different: These are serious dramatic roles with dark comedic ingredients that take them out of the farcical realm and allow them to craft fully realized characters. Johnson's script (co-written by by Mark Heyman), which finds the duo playing estranged twins coping with mutual depressive tendencies, assembles a fairly traditional dramedy that can't keep pace with the actors' investment in the material. Nevertheless, "The Skeleton Twins" sticks to its routine by taking an inoffensively gentle look at coping with hard times that gives Hader and Wiig plenty of room to act around the material. Read more here.

"Song One"

For a first-time filmmaker, getting an A-list actor as major as Anne Hathaway to produce and star in your movie is unquestionably a big win; that shouldn’t mean, however, that the movie should work for its star, rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, such is the case with writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland's well-intentioned debut, "Song One," a gentle, music-themed movie that's practically a love letter to its Oscar-winning headliner. Read more here

"Whiplash"

Legend has it that Charlie Parker only became Bird because Jo Jones furiously threw a cymbal at his head when he choked on stage. At least that's the story Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the barbarous band conductor in Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash," uses to justify the emotional and physical abuse he subjects his students to during rehearsal. A feature-length reprise of Chazelle's award-winning short of the same name, the film also stars Miles Teller ("The Spectacular Now") as Andrew, a budding young drummer at the country's top music school who thinks he's the next Buddy Rich. This high-energy tale of blood, toil, tears and sweat feels especially apt given this year's inclusion of the "Free Fail" panel at the festival, which, like the film itself, explores the notion of failure as integral to the creative process. Read more here.

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1 Comment

  • Don Franken | January 28, 2014 1:55 PMReply

    I really enjoyed your 66 reviews of the Sundance films. However, I didn't see two of my favorite Sundance films reviewed. These were the beautifully shot, drama, "Low Down," which started slow but by the end of the film it became the Sundance film I thought about the most after seeing it. Loved the character development, and the overall jazz infused mood created by the talented director. Plus the performances of John Hawkes, Glenn Close, and of Elle Fanning (Elle's was my favorite female performance of the festival) were outstanding. Also, the film Locke. The gripping story and the performance by Tom Hardy is something I will never forget. If it was a bigger film he would be nominated for an oscar for it. Don