By Indiewire | Indiewire January 28, 2014 at 12:48PM
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Twelve years ago, Richard Linklater started production on a movie following the development of a child from the age of seven through the end of his teenage years. If there was ever project that demanded to be informed by the history of its making, "Boyhood" is it. Epic in scope yet unassuming throughout, Linklater's incredibly involving chronicle marks an unprecedented achievement in fictional storytelling — the closest point of comparison, Michael Apted's "Up" documentaries, don't represent the same singularity of vision. Shot over the course of 39 days spread across more than a decade, "Boyhood" is an entirely fluid work that puts the process of maturity under the microscope and analyzes its nuances with remarkable detail. Read more here.
“I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues," Father James says in director John Michael McDonagh’s second film “Calvary,” an Irish mystery-comedy hybrid. Echoing Montgomery Clift's Father Logan in Alfred Hitchcock's 1953 thriller "I Confess," the vested protagonist exists in a fine tradition. Played with a serious face by sophomore McDonagh collaborator Brendan Gleeson, the virtuous Father James represents a dramatic shift not only from the paradigm of leading men in current cinema; his story also diverges from the pigeonhole dug for the director by the smashing success of McDonagh’s first film "The Guard," which premiered at Sundance in 2011 to great fanfare. Read more here.
Michael Fassbender spends the majority of Lenny Abrahamson's irreverent comedy "Frank" buried underneath a giant plastic head, but the honesty of his performance is on full display. As the titular musician at odds with his real identity, Fassbender's Frank faces a legitimate creative crisis in a world as bafflingly offbeat as his prevalent mask. Abramson's risky decision to keep his main character covered up provides an ideal metaphor for a movie that hides its real ideas within a superficially quirky exterior. Though more in love with its silliness than the insights buried inside them, "Frank" works to amusingly irreverent effect when combining the two. Read more here.
"Based on a true story that hasn’t happened yet." These words preface David Cross's directorial debut, “Hits,” a savage film of pungent humor forecasting a grim trajectory for the state of fame-addled American society. Cross, the comedian best known for his role on “Arrested Development,” throws his cast of uniformly unlikeable characters into a chaotic whirlwind of YouTube-fueled scandal and ugly fame. Timely as it is, the movie's critique of Brooklyn hipsters and ultra-conservative Middle America can't obscure the superficial treatment that “Hits” affords to its characters. Read more here.
Writer-director Mike Cahill's 2012 science fiction debut "Another Earth" was a breakout Sundance hit that ultimately irked nearly as many people as it thrilled. Cahill's sappy narrative of soul-searching conundrums revolved around the sudden appearance of a planet identical to our own hanging in the sky, leading to gratingly self-serious conversations about identity and aspirations that held back an undeniably intriguing premise from reaching its full potential. But at its best, "Another Earth" had the appeal of a "Twilight Zone" episode, infusing its ridiculous premise with allegorical depth. Read more here.
Since making her Sundance debut with "Humpday" in 2009, writer-director Lynn Shelton's steady output of work has accumulated into a distinctive brand. Always set in and around Seattle and starring either Mark Duplass ("Humpday") or Rosemary Dewitt ("Touchy Feely")—or, at her best, both of them ("Your Sister's Sister")—Shelton's films are distinguished by their improvisational style and a tone that lies somewhere between laid back and extremely uncomfortable. Her latest film, "Laggies," marks the first time she’s directed a film whose script she didn't personally pen. Although the story by Andrea Seigel is more tightly constructed (and much more neatly wrapped up) than Shelton's own improvised scripts, the story of arrested development in extremis fits neatly into the director's oeuvre. Read more here.
“Little Accidents" takes its time, but Holbrook’s confident performance makes his story riveting throughout, reflecting both the gravity of his situation and the enormous consequences his choice will have on the entire town — certain individuals in particular. Colangelo conveys to great effect the sense that everyone in the town is holding their breath ,watching Amos’s every move, and Holbrook has such a powerful presence that the audience is compelled to do the same. Read more here.
"Love Is Strange"
New York filmmaker Ira Sachs' best work is steeped in understatement and introspective characters, from the disgruntled music producer played by Rip Torn in "Forty Shades of Blue" to the troubled gay couple in "Keep the Lights On." In between those two projects, Sachs took an uneasy step into more traditional big budget filmmaking with the quasi-Hitchcockian "Married Life." Like that movie, Sachs' new work "Love Is Strange" features name actors and a polished look, but it remains remarkably faithful to the strongest ingredients in his other work: Featuring extraordinarily sensitive turns by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an aging married couple forced to vacate their Manhattan apartment, "Love Is Strange" is a sophisticated take on contemporary urbanity infused with romantic ideals and the tragedy of their dissolution. Read more here.
"Nick Offerman: American Ham"
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose “Kings of Summer” played at last year’s Sundance, filmed “Nick Offerman: American Ham” over two shows during the same night. Each time, Offerman entered New York’s historic Town Hall Theater shirtless, his American flag button-down trailing like John Wayne’s do-rag. He promised minor nudity, but didn’t clarify it’d be of the hairy, plumpy midriff sort. “You didn’t know life could be this delicious,” he seduced the crowd. At first glance, Offerman might look as though he's auditioning for a spot on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. But as "American Ham" makes clear, Offerman contains more Stephen Colbert in his comedic DNA than Larry the Cable Guy. Read more here.
"The Raid 2"
When the Indonesian martial arts movie "The Raid: Redemption" began making the rounds at film festivals back in 2011, it gained instant popularity for its frenetic choreography, becoming an impressive calling card for Welsh director Gareth Evans. Simultaneously bruising and taut, it was always going to be a tough act to follow — making it all the more beguiling that its sequel, "The Raid 2" (internationally titled "Berandal"), is grander and superior in every conceivable way. While its predecessor used John Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13" as a reference point, "The Raid 2" pulsates with countless other influences — "Yojimbo," "The Godfather," "Infernal Affairs" – and contains a finale that not so much mirrors but perfects Bruce Lee's unfinished masterpiece "Game of Death." This is a feat that raises the bar for modern action filmmaking, and while claims of its stature as greatest action film of all time might sound premature, they aren't unwarranted. Read more here.
"They Came Together"
David Wayne's goofy, playful filmmaking approach was first successful with "Hot American Summer," but despite solid work on television ("Childrens Hospital"), he hasn’t made a film that hits that sweet spot of mirthful humor since "Role Models." Fortunately, he more or less returns to form with "They Came Together," a takedown of romantic comedy traditions of chaotic, irreverent proportions. Reuniting with "Wet Hot American Summer" alums Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd along with co-writer Michael Showalter, Wain has shot a comedy that hits the ceiling of silliness and bursts through the plaster for a view of the upper floor. Every romantic comedy trope is roasted here, mocked and emulated with a wink; the only thing they’re missing to complete this maniacal medley is Kate Hudson. Read more here.
"The Voices," the new horroresque dark comedy from celebrated "Persepolis" director Marjane Satrapi, ought to be a major career moment for star Ryan Reynolds. He plays Jerry Hickfang, an apparently normal man who works in a bathtub factory in a charming little town called Milton. Jerry lives in an apartment over a bowling alley with his cat, Mr. Whiskers, and his dog, Bosco. He’s got a crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton), the pretty British girl who works in accounting, and he meets regularly with a sweet and understanding therapist (Jacki Weaver). In other words, he seems like an average guy. Read more here.
"White Bird in a Blizzard"
By now, devoted cinephiles likely know what to expect going into a Gregg Araki movie: sex-crazed teens, an overabundance of nudity (sometimes pretty, sometimes not), a dream-like story wrapped snugly in a nightmare and a killer soundtrack. However, it would be lazy for someone to call it trash cinema—there’s a lot of feeling in his films (please watch "Mysterious Skin" now). Araki is a brilliant director who finds a great deal of meaning in stories of teenage angst and sexual desire, and is perhaps the finest example of coming-of-rage cinema. His latest film, "White Bird in a Blizzard," is his most grownup film to date, but never deviates far from his comfort zone. Read more here.
"Wish I Was Here"
"Garden State" instigated immediate cult-like worship followed by the inevitable backlash to its capricious humor in the ensuing years. Yet while that movie was an easy target for cynical takedowns, "Wish I Was Here" is begging for it in a different way: While it generated several months' worth of headlines about Braff's crowdfunding approach, the resulting movie is far more forgettable than its production history. Littered with delicate pop songs, goofy one-liners and broad caricatures, "Wish I Was Here" stars Braff as struggling actor and deadbeat dad Aidan Bloom, a one-note Woody Allen knock-off adrift in a sea of sitcom clichés: While his good-natured wife (Kate Hudson) urges him to find a real job and struggles with her own soulless office job, Aiden copes with the news that smarmy father (Mandy Patinkin) has cancer and can no longer afford to pay his grandkids' Jewish school tuition. Read more here.
Not as much concerned with the specifics of what created this bleak landscape (filmed on location in South Africa), “Young Ones” is a post-apocalyptic movie where the biggest featured destruction is the dissolution of a family. The way it reaches to find the humanity in a place devoid of hope shows admirable attempt at a singular vision. But Paltrow overestimates the timeless nature of the story. Nathan Johnson’s stirring, sweeping, string-laden score is the ideal soundtrack for the epic tale the film strives to be, but ultimately falls short of. Read more here.
"We Are the Giant" (Doc Premieres)
"'We Are the Giant' is both vital and devastating, with raw material conveyed through elegant construction. Barker asks the hard questions, issuing the frightening possibly of necessary violence when pacifism yields no results." Read more here.
"To Be Takei" (Doc Premieres)
"Now almost as popular for his amusing Facebook posts as his original 'Star Trek' performances, Takei makes for a genial screen presence as Kroot's movie capably acknowledges his contemporary appeal even while adding nothing new." Read more here.
"The Overnighters" (U.S. Documentary)
"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." Read more here.
"Fed Up" (U.S. Documentary)
"Utilizing visual effects to deliver an infographic whiz-bang, 'Fed Up' is a slick presentation. However, Couric's narration suffers from a stilted quality not unlike the mechanical patter of the evening news." Read more here.
"Dinosaur 13" (U.S. Documentary)
"A subset of the recent scientific-documentary-as-thriller tradition epitomized by 'The Cove' and 'Blackfish,' Todd Douglas Miller's 'Dinosaur 13' is both awe-inspiring and tragic. Conventionally made but featuring an undeniably compelling story at its core, Miller's debut benefits greatly from the combination of passion and sadness embedded in its subjects' tale." Read more here.
"Return to Homs" (World Documentary)
"'Return to Homs' prioritizes such closeness with the insurgency over any journalistic analysis of their situation. On the outskirts of town with his family, Saroot displays a tenderness that belies his militant energy, showing the essence of the conflict between pushing ahead and attempting to flee." Read more here.
"Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory" (U.S. Documentary)
"The film's biggest shortcoming is its inability to trust the enormous power of its subjects. The magic that comes out of watching patients' rediscoveries works best when shown uninterrupted. Too often, however, these moments get relegated to part of a longer montage or used merely to enforce an industry professional's point." Read more here.
"Last Days in Vietnam" (Doc Premieres)
"While the documentary hardly breaks any new creative ground, its powerful content speaks for itself by revealing a harrowing episode of the Vietnam War — already a troubling chapter of American history. In interviews with subjects ranging from Henry Kissinger to a Vietnamese student who survived the ordeal, 'Last Days in Vietnam' is deeply compelling in its episodes, if a bit dry in its moments of straight historical narrative." Read more here.
"Mitt" (Doc Premieres)
"Even if you care little about him as a politician -- and I'll confess to that myself -- 'Mitt' offers up a fascinating divide between the private man and the public image. It's a divide the film is unable to account for on screen, which is understandable and frustrating." Read more here.
"Concerning Violence" (World Documentary)
"Olsson’s follow-up [to 'The Black Power Mixtape'], the bracingly unconventional 'Concerning Violence,' contains a radically different focus and tone. However, Olsson’s non-linear, found footage snapshot of African colonialism mirrors 'Black Power' for its similar use of preexisting material repurposed to strengthen its modern significance. Viewed together, the two movies offer a wholly unique process of interrogating history." Read more here.
"The Case Against 8" (U.S. Documentary)
"The first directorial partnership and Sundance debut of former Hollywood executive Ben Cotner and director Ryan White (2013's 'Good Ol' Freda') refuses to capitulate its compassionate treatment of all players in the five-year same-sex battle Hollingsworth v. Perry in the interest of greater purpose. Their emotionally-wrought take on the case takes it out of landmark territory and into the terrain of momentous historic significance." Read more here.
"Whitey" (Doc Premieres)
There's a telling moment in Joe Berlinger's latest documentary, "Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger," when a member of the defense team for the legendary Boston crime boss explains to one of his witnesses, "You're a better storyteller than I am." Although Berlinger’s latest work is a dense, unsparing look at the offenses and trial of Whitey Bulger, it's equally concerned with capturing how the many members of Bulger's expansive web -- criminals and innocent citizens alike -- use their experiences to control their version of the man. Read more here.
"The Internet's Own Boy" (U.S. Documentary)
"If you had magical powers, would you use them to for good, or would you use them to make mountains of cash?" Aaron Swartz's brother asks in Brian Knappenberger's documentary "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz." The question of whether this generation's programming magicians will choose to use their power for purpose or profit reverberates throughout this film's portrait of the eponymous late social activist. We often see stories of slight, sloppy-looking young coders like Swartz transformed into national icons by the tech industry, but rarely with such close attention to ethics. Knappenberger has delivered a film brimming with outrage, whose zeal becomes persuasive once Swartz takes on his activist mantle. Read more here.
"Cesar's Last Fast" (U.S. Documentary)
Leader of the most vulnerable sector of American workers, Cesar Chavez was a relentless activist whose pioneering advocacy earned him a place among the great figures in world history. His battle against the tyrannical wealthy growers to better the conditions of thousands of Mexican Americans farm workers is chronicled in Richard Ray Perez's competent documentary "Cesar’s Last Fast." Read more here.
"Finding Fela" (Doc Premieres)
"Finding Fela," prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest work, faces the challenge of depicting a contradictory artist. But that's not to say it isn't entertaining. On the contrary, the film — about the life, times and music of Afrobeat superstar and Nigerian revolutionary Fela Kuti — is exceptionally watchable. Kuti's wild life never loses its surprise ingredients: from the time he married 27 girls in one ceremony to his involvement with a "spiritual guru" who slit throats for party demonstrations. The film's challenge lays in its difficult hero, an enormously talented and charismatic man who was also troubled, stubborn, unpredictable, and probably not entirely sane. Read more here.
"Mr. leos caraX" (World Documentary)
Tessa Louise-Salomé’s “Mr. leos caraX” doesn’t evade the self-congratulatory aspect of exploring an artist at work, but it remains a mesmerizing experience thanks to the appeal of modern cinema's most enigmatic auteur. Blatantly pitched at an audience already enamored of Carax’s mystique, Louise-Salomé's documentary doesn’t try to unpack Carax's films—practically an impossible task—and also leaves aside his personal life. Carax regular Denis Lavant, one of several interviewees in the movie, commenting on the strangeness of playing the lover of his director's "ex-girlfriend, soon-to-be girlfriend, or soon-to-be ex-girlfriend" is as personal an insight as we get. But since the director hardly speaks on set, it's hard to get a sense for what we're supposed to get out of the experience — a portrait of the director or his filmmaking? Read more here.
"The Battered Bastards of Baseball" (Doc Premieres)
"The Battered Bastards of Baseball," a documentary by siblings Chapman and Maclain Way, manages to be many things at once: an affectionate ode to their grandfather, a distinctive snapshot of a noble sports experiment and a bittersweet glimpse at the possibilities of the many ways in which the game of baseball can be experienced. Read more here.
"Happy Valley" (Doc Premieres)
No stranger to movies about scandal, documentarian Amir Bar-Lev has explored the fallout of private misdeeds made public in "My Kid Could Paint That" and "The Tillman Story." With "Happy Valley," Bar-Lev turns his camera on the outcome of disgraced Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky in the wake of his incarceration on sexual abuse charges. But this time, the project indicates few attempts at revealing new information. Instead, "Happy Valley" magnifies the impact of Sandusky's downfall on the various members of the Penn State community, aiming less to extend the public narrative than to broaden its scope. The result is a frequently riveting, if fairly straightforward, portrait of a university town grappling with its disgraced reputation. Read more here.
"No No: A Dockumentary" (U.S. Documentary)
Sundance's timeline annually clashes with the NFL playoffs', but it was a life spent partly in baseball that gave this year’s festival one of its most captivating stories. The curious case of Dock Ellis’ now-infamous no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the San Diego Padres on June 12, 1970, thrown under the influence of LSD, is no stranger to Sundance audiences. James Blagden’s 2010 short “Dock Ellis & The LSD No No” is an amusing and concise encapsulation of the feat, featuring animation set to a public radio interview with Ellis. While Jeffrey Radice’s “No No: A Dockumentary” uses some of those same clips to illustrate the events surrounding that day nearly a half-century ago, those expecting a feature-length breakdown of a single athletic achievement will be pleasantly surprised to instead find a much deeper, fulfilling examination of the life that surrounded it. Read more here.
"Watchers of the Sky" (U.S. Documentary)
"We can’t try everybody who’s guilty of wrongdoing," admits Ben Ferencz at one point during Edet Belzberg's "Watchers of the Sky," a sobering statement from one of the Chief Prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. A reminder of the scope of humanity's flaws, it also concisely encapsulates the enormous task faced by anyone trying to come up with a comprehensive look at genocide. By bringing in perspectives from the media, activists, historians and the refugees themselves, Belzberg presents a view of modern challenges in combating genocide that, while not entirely thorough, is a sobering reminder of the difficulty of those efforts. Read more here.
Beautiful, haunting elegies for American poverty have gradually developed into a subgenre of modern documentary filmmaking: "October Country" captured the struggles of a dysfunctional family in upstate New York, while "Oxyana" found echoes of desperation among drug-addled residents a West Virginian mining town, and the newly released "12 O'Clock Boys" presents a lyrical view of daring teen street bikers from low income regions of Baltimore. Directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palmero's "Rich Hill," which won the Sundance Film Festival's grand jury prize for documentary over the weekend, epitomizes the best and worst aspects of this non-fiction storytelling tendencies. Read more here.
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 more here.
"The Foxy Merkins"
In 2011, Madeleine Olnek’s debut feature, "Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same," premiered at Sundance to positive (if ultimately limited) reception. Made on a shoestring budget, (think space ships made out of tin foil), the warm and witty spoof on sci-fi B-movies firmly established the writer-director’s singular comedic sensibility. In her follow-up, “The Foxy Merkins,” Olnek turns the male hustler genre on its head to imagine what a lesbian prostitution ring in might look like. Re-casting the previous movie's charmingly deadpan duo Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan, on paper, "The Foxy Merkins" has all the right ingredients to please Olnek's niche audience. Unfortunately, after a truly hilarious and fresh first act, the film can no longer sustain its premise as superfluous subplots and extraneous episodes slow the overall momentum almost to a halt. Read more 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. Read more here.
Indie road trip comedies are perhaps the worst cliché of low budget American filmmaking, but "Land Ho!," the story of two aging men on a meandering vacation in Iceland, provides a notable exception. This unassuming, elegantly shot collaboration by directors Aaron Katz ("Cold Weather," "Quiet City") and Martha Stephens ("Pilgrim Song," "Passenger Pigeons") actively avoids any melodramatic confrontations or cheesy subplots. A gentle meditation on growing old and bored, "Land Ho!" never rises to the level of narrative engagement found in the filmmakers' previous efforts, but it doesn't take much to make it sufficiently insightful, carried along by a pair of actors so inherently likable from the outset that "Land Ho!" hardly requires a lot of story to set their adventure in motion. Read more here.
"Listen Up Philip"
“Hopefully by the end of this you’ll feel like you’ve just read a novel,” director Alex Ross Perry said before the premiere of his film, “Listen Up Philip.” Employing voice-over narration and an episodic structure that recalls the chapters of a book, Perry’s third directorial effort marries the best of showing and telling. 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 more here.
"Ping Pong Summer"
With “Ping Pong Summer,” director Michael Tully (“Cocaine Angel,” “Septien”) gives us a film about the childhood he remembers: summers in Ocean City, Maryland (where the film was shot), cheesy arcade games, pastels, Nike, and hip hop. Caught up in it all, Radford Miracle (Marcello Conte) searches for the confidence that promises adulthood. It’s the 1980s: These are harsh times in bland, touristy coast towns. With an exuberant eye for period details, Tully presents an ode to a time many recall fondly or its flare and schlock alike. Read more here.
World Dramatic Competition
"God Help the Girl"
Glasgow-based indie pop band Belle & Sebastian may very well enjoy one of the most devoted followings on the indie pop scene, with a new album that emerges about every two years hardly satiating the constant anticipation from the Pitchfork set. Well, there’s a lot of Belle & Sebastian in frontman Stuart Murdoch's directorial debut "God Help the Girl," and a lot that's just pure Murdoch — but god help the viewer who doesn't have the taste for B&S beats, because that distinct style is the honey coating that could either make this movie musical go down sweet or stick in your throat. Read more here.
Set in a chaotic period in 2008 when a disrupting layer of smoke covered the city of Buenos Aires, Natalia Smirnoff’s sophomore directing effort "Lock Charmer” is a subdued character study about a locksmith’s newfound gift to see hidden aspects of people around him. Heavily marked by superstition and his unwilling journey into self-discovery, the film’s protagonist exhibits an absorbing complexity, which is central to making this uncanny mix of credible performances and magic realism work. Read more here.
"To Kill a Man"
Opening with a deliberately unsettling static forest landscape and adorned with an equally intriguing score, Chilean director Alejandro Fernandez Almendras' third feature "To Kill a Man" is a quietly powerful character study that meditates on the ramifications of a family man's choice to defend his kind. Read more here.
The first Bulgarian film ever to screen at Sundance, Maya Vitkova’s “Viktoria” manages to say a lot in very few words. “I think words are useless,” the director offered following the film’s premiere, “the emotion is in the image.” Unfolding against the backdrop of the fall of communism, Vitkova’s lyrical imagery elevates her semi-autobiographical debut to poetic heights. Born without an umbilical chord, baby Viktoria’s relationship with her mother (Irmena Chichikova) is severed before it even begins. Hailed as a living symbol of the communist party, the love Viktoria knows growing up is more gubernatorial than it is maternal. Acerbic and absurdist in equal measure, the film forges a powerful metaphorical link between the physical body and the body politic. Read more here.
The first words to appear onscreen in “Wetlands,” director David Wnendt’s cheerfully profane adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s German-language bestseller, immediately engage with its controversy. "This book shouldn’t be adapted to a film," reads a quote from a letter to the editor. Wnendt not only proceeds to run against that advice but makes a solid case against it. Anchored by a believable performance by Carla Juri, "Wetlands" has the agreeable rhythms of a sleekly made teen angst dramedy…except that this one involves a young woman with an anal fissure. Read more here.
"The Double" is based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but there's a lot more than the sensibilities of the Russian literary giant hanging over this grimly amusing picture. British director and comedian Richard Ayoade's follow-up to his stylized coming-of-age tale "Submarine," the abstract drama owes an obvious debt to "Brazil," but also borrows liberally from the likes of "1984," the labyrinthine plotting of a Kafka story and the outmoded aesthetics eighties computer commercials, while maintaining a deadpan stillness that calls to mind Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. Yet the familiar elements of "The Double," which Ayoade co-wrote with Avi Korine, coalesce into a unique whole that turns the material into a contemplative nightmare. Read more here.
"Only Lovers Left Alive"
If the fashionable bloodsuckers of the "Twilight" movies traded their frantic stares for expressions of ennui, they might have something in common with Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), the retro cool vampires at the heart of Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive." But that could never happen. Jarmusch's characters are always too hip for the mainstream, which he reminds viewers by making a welcome return to the realm of deadpan comedies that put his work on the map in the first place. Not that he ever drifted too far from it. Read more here.
With his fourth feature, "R100," Matsumoto merges his outlandish wit with a satiric take on the Japanese ratings system and disorienting tangents that's second only to the impermeable "Symbol" in its riotous absurdity. Yet despite its head-scratching moments, "R100" also maintains an elevated cult movie consistency that's par for the course with Matsumoto, by combining its playful irrationality with an emotional and philosophical core. Read more here.
If horror movies were somehow constructed via a sports-style draft, imagine what visual and storytelling elements would be top picks. Flickering lightbulbs? Sure thing. Mysterious basement? You bet. Shrieking children? Most definitely. So it’s a testament to Australian director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut "The Babadook" that it manages to incorporate so many of these ingredients from lesser films to create something that's compelling even when it's not disturbing on a primordial level. Read more here.
"Under the Electric Sky"
To the untrained eye, the Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas (known as EDC to the initiated) looks like a gigantic theme park. It features rides, ferris wheels, giant artwork sets and, most notably, a near-impossible volume of people. But in place of roller coasters, EDC has a different kind of entertainment based on ups and downs: Eight stages house some of the biggest electronic dance music acts in the world. Through the experiences of six different groups of festival-goers, Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz' "Under the Electric Sky" combines personal stories with an overarching sense of what it might be like to spend a weekend in the desert with hundreds of thousands of spiritual allies. Read more here.
"Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead"
There’s something unappetizing about a genre that derives its comical foundation from viscera in the most absurd, graphic, and repetitive sense. Like its predecessor, “Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead” heaps entrails and endless liters of blood onto the screen as straight-faced actors combat a Nazi zombie uprising. There are those who want nothing more, but the excesses of this sequel are resoundingly empty. Read more here.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where does William Eubank’s "The Signal" goes from being an alluring and contained science fiction thriller into a full blown parade of slow-motion-driven visual effects. Its irreverent stylistic choices range from found footage to romance tropes and a heavy dose of high-tech alien robotics. The director's sophomore film, following his debut "Love," is defined by immeasurable ambition. While that previous effort reached for existentially profound ideas, here the narrative and its numerous components suffer from a gratuitous, empty feel. Read more here.
Gore can only go so far in the service of humor. Fortunately, the team behind "Cooties"—which includes "Saw" creator Leigh Whannell" and "Glee" creator Ian Brennan—manage to pit comedy and horror together in a satisfying package. Whannell and Brennan's unapologetically absurd script pairs nicely with Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s terse direction in this solid midnight movie, where the laughs outnumber the body count tenfold. Yet, when Milott and Murnion dial it up, we forget we spent the last ten minutes cracking up. Read more here.
How Sundance's New Frontier Section Confronts Age-Old Ideas and New Questions
Now in its eighth year, New Frontier is the Sundance Film Festival's series highlighting innovation and experimentation in modern storytelling. Read more here.
"Through a Lens Darkly"
Mainly tailed to function for educational purposes, Thomas Allen Harris' “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People” contains a collage of images that tell the story of African Americans’ photographic representation within the context of the country's broader history. Extremely ambitious in scope and meticulously assembled, the movie is undeniably a passion project sporting the filmmaker's investment in its themes. Read more here.