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Sundance 2013: 30 Reviews From the Festival

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 28, 2013 at 9:38AM

Among the 115 features that screened in Park City this year, Indiewire reviewed 30 titles, including films from every section of the festival. Links to all of them can be found here in alphabetical order.
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"Before Midnight."

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 115 features that screened in Park City this year, Indiewire reviewed 30 titles, including films from every section of the festival. Links to all of them can be found below in alphabetical order.

"Ain't Them Bodies Saints"

Long before its title credit comes up, writer-director David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" establishes a gorgeously elegiac tone. From the opening shot, in which outlaw Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) engages in a scuffle with fellow robber and wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) before learning that she's pregnant, Lowery conveys a hauntingly antiquated world that transcends its routine plot. As beautifully shot as it is performed by its two leads, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" channels genre expectations into sheer poetry. Read more here.

"After Tiller"

"Everything has a risk to it," says the late Dr. George Tiller in the opening moments of "After Tiller." It's a prophetic statement that defines the movie's stance. In 2009, Tiller, one of only five licensed physicians performing third-trimester abortions, was shot to death by an extremist while the doctor was attending church. Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson follow the experiences of the remaining four doctors in the wake of his death, emphasizing the nobility of their practice even as they face mounting pressure from the far right. The documentary compellingly illustrates how the regular perils of their profession make them martyrs for a tragic need. Read more here.

"Before Midnight"

With "Before Midnight," Richard Linklater has completed one of the finest movie trilogies of all time. Nearly 20 years have passed since Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) met on a train in Vienna and spent a passionate night together in "Before Sunrise," then abruptly parted ways, only to tentatively pick up where they left off nine years later with "Before Sunset." That movie ended without resolving a tantalizing possibility: Would Jesse, now a successful writer stuck in a dead-end marriage, truly miss his flight back home and spend more quality time with Céline? "Before Midnight" answers that question while asking many more as it consolidates the full power of the earlier movies into a masterful treatise on the evolution of romance. Read more here.

"Blackfish"

Nobody from SeaWorld agreed to an interview for "Blackfish," Gabriela Cowperthwaite's searing take on the theme park's mistreatment of killer whales and the dozens of deaths that have resulted from it. Instead, the majority of its subjects are ex-SeaWorld trainers frustrated by the negligence they witnessed up close and willing to speak out. Nevertheless, based on the evidence on display in "Blackfish," Cowperthwaite's case against SeaWorld would change little even with an opposing point of view. The movie makes a strong case against the captivity of killer whales under sub-circus conditions, but the stance is made even more horrifying because so little has changed in the history of the organization. "Blackfish" is less balanced investigation than full-on takedown of a broken system. Read more here.

"Blue Caprice"

From the outset, "Blue Caprice" reaches for authenticity. An opening compilation draws from news reports of the infamous Beltway sniper attacks in which a pair of men picked off random victims for several weeks before authorities finally caught up to them. In spite of this foundation, however, French director Alexandre Moors makes no grand claims to veracity, and includes neither the typical "based on a true story" title card that so often implies authority nor an end credit summing up the fates of everyone involved. Instead, Moors isolates a well-known drama with the fleeting nonfiction prologue and explores it from the inside out: It's not an attempted reenactment, but it does aim to get at certain truths. Read more here

"The Capsule"

Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari's terrific coming-of-age drama "Attenberg" was largely about a young woman coming to terms with her body. While playfully irreverent and sometimes borderline surreal, "Attenberg" nevertheless rooted its exploration in a conventional storyline made fresh. Tsangari's 35-minute avant-garde follow-up "The Capsule," one piece of an installation work commissioned by the DesteFashionCollection, advances similar ideas in lively, shocking abstractions. It is truly a capsule of the filmmaker's vision boiled down to radical expressivity. Read more here.

"Computer Chess"

There is an immediate sense of change afoot in "Computer Chess," Andrew Bujalski's fourth feature as writer-director, visible to anyone familiar with his previous work. While Bujalski's influential "Funny Ha Ha" -- along with follow-ups "Mutual Appreciation" and "Beeswax" -- were almost defiantly shot on 16mm film and focused on the interpersonal relationships of chic young adults, "Computer Chess" is a period piece set 30 years in the past and shot on low-grade analog video. Experientially, however, "Computer Chess" falls in line with its precedents while achieving much funnier, offbeat results. Read more here.

"Crystal Fairy"

The comedic stylings of Chilean director Sebastián Silva and Michael Cera couldn't have less in common. Silva, whose talent for dark humor became evident with 2009's Sundance award winner "The Maid" and further solidified with 2010's "Old Cats," probes the shadowy regions of domestic life and elevates them to absurd heights. For Cera, whose understated delivery has been ingrained in American pop culture since the advent of "Arrested Development," every aside comes across like a punchline. Silva unearths humor where appearances would suggest none exist; Cera always seems on the brink of delivering a neurotic joke. Read more here.

"Cutie and the Boxer"

"Art is a demon that drags you along," says 80-year-old visionary painter Ushio Shinohara in first-time director Zachary Heinzerling's delicate portrait "Cutie and the Boxer," but neither Shinohara nor his supportive wife and fellow artist Noriko are looking for a cure. Heinzerling's beautifully shot, painfully intimate look at the aging couple's struggle to survive amid personal and financial strain is both heartbreaking and intricately profound. This is a story about creative desire so strong it hurts. Read more here.

"C.O.G"

Touted as the first feature-length adaptation of comic writer David Sedaris' work, Kyle Patrick Alvarez's "C.O.G" arrived at the Sundance Film Festival with plenty of hype generated by fans of the original. A short story from the author's anthology "Naked," it's the kind of low-key, reflective story that opens up well to the written word: The plot, fairly thin and random, comes secondary to the internal journey of the main character. But movies rely on images, sounds and real experience that don't necessarily imitate the written word. Some reviews of "C.O.G" have singled out the way that Alvarez (with his sophomore effort, following the sleeper hit "Easier With Practice") has nailed Sedaris' tone. But does make it a good movie? Read more here.

"The East"

Suspenseful, ludicrous, fascinating, and utterly unsubtle, Zal Batmanglij's "The East" plays like an unholy mash-up of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Alias." The film builds on the themes of cult and identity that Batmanglij and his star Brit Marling explored artfully in their breakout debut "Sound of My Voice." But here, that psychology is in the service of a fast-paced espionage potboiler. As Sarah, Brit Marling plays a former FBI agent turned private security consultant who is paid to infiltrate a radical environmental group called The East. She more than confirms buzz that she will be one of film's next major leading women, and she's working with a strong set-up for a thriller in a community that couldn't be more relevant in the age of Occupy Wall Street, and which has led to very mixed results on American screens (See: "Battle in Seattle"). There's plenty to admire, but ultimately this thriller is as overheated as a radical's rhetoric. Read more here.

"Escape From Tomorrow."
"Escape From Tomorrow"

A labyrinthine descent into the grotesque extremes of a Disneyfied society, "Escape From Tomorrow" is surreal for many reasons and wholly original because of them. It's also a daring attempt to literally assail Disney World from the inside out. This loosely constructed, starkly black-and-white directorial debut of Randy Moore, which follows a family on their twisted final day of vacation in Disney World, takes place throughout the theme park behemoth and appears to have come together without an iota of permission. Moore portrays Disney World as the ultimate horror show -- and gets the point across in nearly every scene. Read more here.

"Fruitvale"

Moments after New Years Day 2009, 22-year-old Bay Area resident Oscar Grant was shot by a police officer at the Fruitvale BART station in an altercation that didn't call for it. The officer, whose actions were captured on numerous cell phone videos, claimed he mistook his gun for his taser and eventually went to jail -- but the damage was done. Grant, the father of a four-year-old attempting to get his life together, died the next morning. His death led to protests in the area and national discussion, but the particulars of the life lost in the scuffle received less scrutiny. Read more here.

"The Gatekeepers"

"The Gatekeepers," a startling exposé of Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet, delivers an unequivocal indictment. The handful of former Shin Bet heads who deliver candid accounts of their reasoning for various destructive assaults in the constant horn-locking with their Palestinian neighbors initially come across as unsympathetic war-mongerers. However, director Dror Moreh allows the movie to exclusively unfold through their voices, humanizing them to the point where their logic and humanity fall into distinct categories. For every shocking justification of murder, there's another moment where they confess frustration and regret, resulting in a refreshingly even-handed portrait. Read more here.

"The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete"

Director George Tillman Jr.'s filmography includes star-studded studio projects like "Men of Honor" and "Notorious," but you wouldn't guess it from the ultra-sincere "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete," an earnest tale of two lower class kids spending the summer on their own in the Brooklyn projects. The movie hails from a tradition of sentimental, character-driven indies largely based around the strengths of a handful of performances not typically represented in current cinema. To that end, it succeeds, and owes much to the investment of its young leads. But while it contains many earnest ingredients, "Mister and Pete" never obtains the tidy balance of its rhyming title. Read more here.

"Interior. Leather Bar"

William Friedkin's 1980 East Village crime drama "Cruising," in which Al Pacino memorably goes undercover as a gay leather enthusiast to apprehend a killer, remains as divisive and controversial as it was upon its initial release. "Interior. Leather Bar," a 60-minute collaboration between queer filmmaker Travis Mathews ("I Want Your Love") and James Franco, aims to reenact the 40 minutes Friedkin cut from the film in order to secure an R rating, footage that was subsequently lost. In doing so, it also attempts to provoke strong reactions from the audience, but with far greater intellectual finesse. Instead of merely presenting imagery bound to titillate and create unease in equal measures, "Interior. Leather Bar" takes the form of a behind-the-scenes peek at the production to question the societal forces that engender the material's contentious nature. As a fleeting essay on sexual biases, it encourages a thoughtful debate, but leaves too many questions dangling to solidify into much beyond a dashed experiment. Read more here.

"I Used To Be Darker"

Matthew Porterfield's sleeper hit "Putty Hill" was heralded for its keen melding of documentary and narrative traditions into a poetic exploration of a small Baltimore community impacted by a young man's sudden death. The movie drifted effortlessly from one environment to another, constructing a sense of place through a collage of emotions, offhand exchanges and occasionally breaking the fourth wall. Porterfield's follow-up "I Used to Be Darker" similarly weaves realism and a rigid storytelling structure together with affecting results, even though it adheres more closely to familiar patterns in its perceptive examination of a deteriorating American family. Not your typical divorce drama, "I Used to Be Darker" stings harder than most. Read more here.

"jOBS"

The first scene of "jOBS" plays like an Apple commercial. Set in 2001 at an Apple town hall meeting, the introductory sequence finds company visionary Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) addressing staffers by revealing the first edition of the iPod. With John Debney's symphonic score emboldening Jobs' optimistic delivery, the man describes the iPod as "a tool for the heart" and the room applauds. The lack of irony borders on the creepy. Read more here.

RADiUS-TWC "Lovelace"

"Lovelace"

Linda Boreman, née Linda Lovelace, took the porn world by the storm with her breakthrough performance in 1972's seminal blue movie "Deep Throat," but few audience members cared about her life offscreen. That's technically the focus of "Lovelace," a tame look at the actress' rise and the abuse she faced from husband Charlie Traynor behind the camera. The very existence of the project suggests most people don't know the whole story. But many do, thanks to Lovelace's tell-all memoir "Ordeal," the publication of which arrives at the climax. Like the public narrative of Linda Lovelace at the height of her fame, the movie lives in a fantasy where it has something important to say. Read more here.

"Magic Magic"

It's always something of a gamble when filmmakers operate outside of their safety nets, but Sebastián Silva's movies have never played it safe. Both "Old Cats" and "The Maid" took the mold of family dramas and transcended them with a mixture of dark humor, physical violence and miscommunication. The tricky balance paid off, but with "Magic Magic," Silva hits a wall. More formally ambitious than "Crystal Fairy," one of two movies directed by Silva and co-starring Cera that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, "Magic Magic" takes the form of a serious-minded thriller but lacks a reason to care for any of its characters. Cera, playing against type in a stony-faced role, sends this project further out of whack, a shame given the caliber of talent associated with its creators. Read more here.

"May in the Summer"

Cherien Dabis' 2009 directorial debut "Amreeka" followed a family of Palestinian immigrants trying to make do with life in suburban America. Her follow-up, the substantially more polished and enjoyable "May in the Summer," tackles the inverse premise: A high-minded New Yorker dealing with a vastly different world while visiting her family in Jordan. Unlike "Amreeka," however, "May in the Summer" focuses less on culture clashes than the universal cycles of familiar problems that transcend cultural specifics. With its pre-wedding jitters plot, the movie hails from a well-worn tradition, but Dabis manages to shake up conventions with her fresh setting while sticking to familiar ground. Read more here.

Mia Wasikowska in "Stoker."
"No"

With his last two features, "Tony Manero" and "Post Mortem," Chilean director Pablo Larraín quickly established himself as the preeminent chronicler of his country's lingering demons from its years of oppression under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. For his third and most accomplished work, "No," Larraín has traded the allegorical track for the real thing, delivering a lively, mesmerizing drama about a national call to action during the 1988 referendum on Pinochet's presidency. With a full-bodied turn by Gael Garcia Bernal as its anchor, "No" broadens Larraín's range by replicating historical events in engrossing detail. Read more here.

"Prince Avalanche"

David Gordon Green's career since his acclaimed 2000 debut "George Washington" has taken one of the more bizarre paths of contemporary American filmmakers. At first heralded as an emerging Malickian poet of southern life -- a quality that continued with follow-ups "All the Real Girls," "Undertow" and the stirring "Snow Angels" -- he then took a sharp turn into studio comedies. While Green's take on the vulgar man-child stories popularized by Judd Apatow were more naughtily unhinged than most, only "Pineapple Express" generated some appreciative fans. "Your Highness" and "The Sitter" left many wondering if the elegant craftsman behind Green's first four movies was gone for good. Read more here.

"Sightseers"

British filmmaker Ben Wheatley has earned a following on the genre film festival circuit for a pair of distinctive movies with two very different moods. His 2009 debut "Down Terrace" followed a family of criminals through a series of amusing misadventures, suggesting Wheatley's proclivity for enlivening dreary circumstances with an odd sense of play. However, 2010's grave "Kill List," in which a jaded hit man struggles with marriage problems, went great lengths to expand his range. With the arrival of "Sightseers," Wheatley's aesthetic strengths finally start to fall into place. This hugely entertaining tale of serial killers in love neatly merges the neurotic black comedy of "Down Terrace" with the morbid twists of "Kill List," inching close to defining the director's overall style. Read more here.

"Stoker"

South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook's filmmaking always dances a fine line between sublime and absurd genre ingredients. "Stoker," his first American-set, English language picture, is no exception. It's tempting to resist describing the movie in terms of the cinematic traditions it calls to mind: Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" meets "Heathers," Park's creepy tale of a peculiar family wrapped up in murderous antics continues the twisted pleasures that define the director's filmography. Read more here.


"Stories We Tell"

Sarah Polley's efforts behind the camera have showcased tender performances attuned to nuanced fluctuations in shared screen chemistry. Both her Oscar-nominated 2006 directorial debut "Away from Her" and the recent "Take This Waltz" explore the deterioration of relationships in minute detail. While her third feature, "Stories We Tell," marks a shift to nonfiction for the filmmaker, it similarly foregrounds the subtleties of human expression and the secrets embedded within it. A blatantly personal account of her Toronto-based family's rocky developments, "Stories We Tell" marks the finest of Polley's filmmaking skills by blending intimacy and intrigue to remarkable effect. Read more here.

"S-VHS"

Last year's anthology horror production "V/H/S" was a revelation mainly because it took the overly familiar found-footage genre and exploited it to the fullest extent. The sequel, "S-VHS," achieves a similar goal with more frightening extremes. Containing only four spectacularly gory shorts directed by emerging genre filmmakers, along with an equally unsettling wraparound tale, "S-VHS" lacks some of the original's subtleties but delivers a nearly unbroken series of visceral shocks. The last movie was a wild ride with several stops along the way; "S-VHS," once again produced by the Bloody Disgusting production team known as The Collective, pushes full throttle ahead the whole way through. Read more here.

"Upstream Color"

Shane Carruth's 2004 time travel drama "Primer" provoked endless scrutiny for its heavy reliance on tech speak that the director refused to dumb down. His long-awaited followup, "Upstream Color," also maintains a seriously cryptic progression that's nearly impossible to comprehend in precise terms, but its confounding ingredients take on more abstract dimensions. An advanced cinematic collage of ideas involving the slipperiness of human experience, Carruth's polished, highly expressionistic work bears little comparison to his previous feature aside from the constant mental stimulation it provides for its audience. This stunningly labyrinthine assortment of murky events amount to a riddle with no firm solution. Read more here.

"The Way, Way Back"

If there's one positive result from distributor Fox Searchlight's decision at the Sundance Film Festival to pay nearly $10 million for "The Way, Way Back," it should be this: It will remind people about "Adventureland," a far superior movie about an awkward, frustrated teen spending his summer working at an amusement park. Read more here.

"We Are What We Are"

Writer-director Jim Mickle has steadily established himself as a horror filmmaker that treats the art of shock value with rare maturity. In his feature-length debut "Mulberry Street," he funneled a cheesy monster movie into a metaphor for gentrification and urban decay; in his follow-up, "Stake Land," he imagined a B-movie universe of vampires versus humans with soft-spoken exchanges and lyrical imagery that instantly called to mind Terrence Malick. "We Are What We Are," Mickle's loose remake of Jorge Michel Grau's 2009 Mexican cannibal tale, brings the filmmaker's distinct blend of the elegant and the macabre to its ultimate realization. Outdoing the original by a long shot, Mickle's slow-burn take on the story is poetic, creepy and, finally, satisfyingly gross. Read more here.

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Reviews, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, After Tiller, Before Midnight, Blackfish, Blue Caprice, The Capsule, Computer Chess, Crystal Fairy, Cutie and the Boxer, C.O.G., The East, Escape from Tomorrow, Fruitvale Station, The Gatekeepers, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, Interior. Leather Bar., I Used to Be Darker, jOBS, Lovelace, Magic Magic, May in the Summer, Prince Avalanche, Sightseers, Stoker, Stories We Tell, V/H/S/2, Upstream Color , The Way, Way Back, We Are What We Are