Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter" and James Marsh's "Project Nim" were selected as the best narrative and documentary films at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in a poll of film critics and bloggers conducted over the weekend by indieWIRE. The choices were in considerable contrast to the awards themselves, which saw "Like Crazy" and "How To Die In Oregon" take the top jury prizes in U.S. competition. Though both of those films factored in here, they received nowhere near as many votes as "Shelter," "Nim" or "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times," which were runners-up in each category.
"Take Shelter," which follows a working-class husband and father (Michael Shannon) who questions whether his terrifying dreams of an apocalyptic storm signal something real to come or the onset of an inherited mental illness, also received the most votes in the best performance category for Shannon's work. Jessica Chastain, who plays Shannon's wife, also received a few votes of her own. Read indieWIRE's review of the film here.
Michael Shannon's performance was followed by quartet of newcomers: Elizabeth Olsen ("Martha Marcy May Marlene"), Brit Marling ("Another Earth"), Adepero Odye ("Pariah") and Jacob Wysocki ("Terri"), all of whom indieWIRE profiled during the festival.
On the documentary side, James Marsh's followup to "Man on Wire," "Project Nim," was the top choice. The story of Nim, a chimpanzee who was taught to communicate with language as he was raised and nurtured like a human child, the film took the directing award at Sundance (but lost the World Doc top prize to "Hell and Back Again," which also did well in this poll). Read indieWIRE's review of "Nim" here.
Over 20 writers were surveyed to determine the results; they also offered anonymous comments on their festival experiences. In general, they seemed to be quite pleased.
"On the whole, it was a very good year," one wrote. "I could easily give you a top 10 of narrative films without including any filler -- even though I'm not as crazy as others regarding many of the 'it girl' projects. In another year, 'Kaboom,' 'The Woods,' 'The Mill and the Cross,' 'Septien,' 'Sound of My Voice,' 'Martha Marcy May Marlene,' 'Take Shelter,' 'The Catechism Cataclysm,' 'Uncle Kent' and 'Higher Ground' could have seemed like the cream of the crop."
"For me, this was a strong festival, with a diverse range of interesting movies that broke new ground ('Another Earth,' 'The Mill and the Cross') and enlivened familiar territory ('Terri' -- Azazel Jacobs' unique take on high school)," another writer said. "There are, of course, lots of movies -- including most of the award winners -- that I flat out missed. So much screens at Sundance, and so much time is spent commuting between some far-flung venues, that it's entirely possible to have spent the week-and-a-half in Park City and had a completely different experience. Still, the fest's 2011 edition offers real promise for the year ahead."
"It's been a couple years since I've attended and I thought that the selection this year was exceptional," added another. "Out of the 41 movies I saw (including a number of pre-screenings), I saw 25 that I would recommend. I also thought that the festival was working like a well-oiled machine in terms of getting people in and out of the large venues and starting screenings on time, something I was impressed by. Generally, I was happy with the amount of variety the festival offered, and I would definitely push my editor to allow me to attend next year."
"Very strong year," agreed another. "Only complete bomb I saw was Kevin Smith's delusional rant following the Red State premiere at the Eccles."
But not everyone was entirely impressed, warning that the intense surge of sales that occurred may have been unwarranted.
"After the rash of commercial and critical hits that emerged from Sundance 2010, 2011 was always going to be tough," one said. "This year felt very modest in terms of the films, but the market for buying and selling seems to contradict that feeling. Is it market speculation or a recognition of real commercial quality? A little of both? Time will tell."
"Far, far too many poor films," another writer added. "The festival demands a revolutionary shakeup of its programming staff, which sadly won't happen. Their collective lack of a sense of cinema continues to be truly dismaying. As well, many filmmakers with whom Sundance is most closely identified--Miranda July, Mark Pellington among others--delivered disastrous films which generally failed on every level. That Jeff Nichols, whose 'Take Shelter' stood far and wide as the best new film I saw, received nothing on awards night is a scandal. Sadly, I observed that most North American visitors to Sundance seem to have no sense what a dreadful state the festival is actually in; they appear more into the vibe of actually being there rather than standing back and determining if any of these are any good. This also applies to the crazy buyers, who decided to spend money (once again) like drunken sailors. Months from now, most will deeply regret their terrible business decisions. But because of the feverish interest in the daily deals, Sundance has now for all intents and purposes become more of a market than a genuine festival. Perhaps this is by design; perhaps not. Nevertheless, this is in fact what it's become."
Nonetheless, each writer was able to offer their choices for the best of the fest, and the complete results of that poll is below.
SUNDANCE '11 SURVEY RESULTS:
BEST NARRATIVE FILM
1. "Take Shelter," directed by Jeff Nichols (46 points)
2. "Martha Marcy May Marlene," directed by Sean Durkin (40)
3. "The Future," directed by Miranda July (29)
4. "Terri," directed by Azazel Jacobs (26)
5. "Pariah," directed by Dee Rees (20)
6. "Another Earth," directed by Mike Cahill (18)
7. "Incendies," directed by Denis Villeneuve (17)
7. "Circumstance," directed by Maryam Keshavarz (17)
9. "Like Crazy," directed by Drake Doremus (14)
10. "Higher Ground," directed by Vera Farmiga (10)
BEST DOCUMENTARY FILM
1. "Project Nim," directed by James Marsh (43 points)
2. "Page One," directed by Andrew Rossi (32)
3. "How To Die In Oregon," directed by Peter D. Richardson (23)
3. "The Interrupters," directed by Steve James (23)
5. "Hell and Back Again," directed by Danfung Dennis (19)
6. "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975," directed by Göran Olsson (16)
7. "We Were Here," directed by David Weissman (13)
8. "Life in a Day," directed by Kevin MacDonald (10)
9. "The Greatest Story Ever Sold," directed by Morgan Spurlock (9)
10. "Senna," directed by Asif Kapadia (8)
1. Michael Shannon, "Take Shelter" (46 points)
2. Elizabeth Olsen, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (39)
3. Brit Marling, "Another Earth" (19)
4. Adepero Odye, "Pariah" (18)
5. Jacob Wysocki, "Terri" (16)
6. Jessica Chastain, "Take Shelter" (12)
7. Peter Mullan, "Tyrannosaur" (11)
7. Felicity Jones, "Like Crazy" (11)
9. Brendan Gleeson, "The Guard" (9)
9. Miranda July, "The Future" (9)
9. Ben Foster, "HERE" (9)
CRITERIA: Critics and bloggers were asked to list their top five choices for best narrative film, best documentary, and best performance,. First choice selections were given five points, second choice received four or two, and so on.
Sean P. Means
Nigel M. Smith
Get the latest coverage of Sundance 2011 in indieWIRE's special section.