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Criticwire at Sundance: What Films Have the Highest Ratings?

Criticwire at Sundance: What Films Have the Highest Ratings?

Dozens upon dozens of reviews have flowed out of the Sundance Film Festival this year, but we still have between now and Sunday to gobble up the initial feedback from all of the premieres. However, with a full week in the books, there’s plenty to sort through from the first wave of critical response from various critics in our Criticwire network attending the festival. Here’s a look at some of the average grades and reviews for a dozen films at this year’s festival.

Remakes and Reimaginings

Whether remakes, sequels, or reimaginings, Sundance 2013 has featured a few returns to pre-existing cinematic universes.

First, back we return to the land of William Friedkin’s “Cruising” for “Interior. Leather Bar.” Time Out New York’s David Fear writes of James Franco’s involvement, “No, the creatively restless star/co-director does not don dead-animal hides and make out with dudes. Yes, he does prove that a life of perpetually treating stardom as a performance-art piece can belch out some interesting food for thought, even if said meals tend to be somewhat undercooked and overflavored.” A common word in many of the reviews has been “deconstruction.” In a way, reactions to the movie echo those for “Room 237” last year — both are exercises about the process of drawing meaning from cinema.

Jim Mickle’s “We Are What We Are” not only translates the title from Jorge Michel Grau’s “Somos lo que hay,” but moves the tale of a disturbing, ritualistic family from Mexico to upstate New York. The response to the film seems tied to an individual critic’s opinion of how the film’s deliberately paced middle section is handled. Eric Kohn, in his Indiewire review, describes how Mickle’s “penchant for soft, picturesque visuals deepens the audience’s morbid expectations,” all the way until the big reveal that fans of the original know is coming. Drawing connections to 2011’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Raffi Asdourian writes at the Film Stage that “part of what makes the film so effective is its unsettling mood, made more distressing by Mickle’s intense use of sound design and cinematography to heighten tension.”

In no time at all, the collective behind last year’s hit “V/H/S” has returned with “S-VHS,” albeit with some tonal and participatory changes along the way. Due to the overall anthology structure, it’s more difficult than usual to give the entire film a single grade. The Playlist’s Drew Taylor tackles his review of “S-VHS” in sections, evaluating the individual pieces on a case-by-case basis. The standout from this installment? A short from Gareth Huw Evans, who made more than his own share of ripples last year with “The Raid: Redemption.” Here, Taylor explains, Evans “expands the ‘V/H/S’ framework in a way that doesn’t feel like a cheat, but [by] giving it some international scope and deepening the narrative elements within the segment.” Joe Bendel echoes the praise for Evans’ contributions (titled “Safe Haven”), but also points out that the overall film has a slightly different lasting emotional impact. “Like its predecessor, S-VHS is pretty scary stuff, but by offering more humor and gleeful gore, it happens to be more fun. A rare case of a sequel surpassing the original, S-VHS is enthusiastically recommended for midnight movie veterans,” he writes at Libertas Film Magazine.

CRITICWIRE AVERAGES (Click the film titles to see individual grades and reviews)

Interior. Leather Bar.: C+

We Are What We Are: B


Next page: Critics respond to first features, documentaries and more.The First Features

After a decade of TV/film acting, Lake Bell’s first feature film “In a World…” may not be as widely reviewed as other festival entries, but a large majority of those who have written about it are enthusiastic supporters.

Less successful in the overall humor/satire department is the adaptation of Shannon Hale’s “Austenland,” the first film from “Napoleon Dynamite”/”Nacho Libre” scribe Jerusha Hess. Following a woman through her cathartic exploits amidst a Jane Austen fantasy camp of sorts, most reviews center on the inconsistency of the humor intended to give the story momentum. Eric Snider takes issue with the presentation of Jane, our heroine (Keri Russell) in his Twitch review, explaining that “Hess stripped the book of its characterization and exposition, which were rudimentary but serviceable, and instead gives us an inscrutable protagonist who can’t be said to achieve or not achieve her goals because we don’t know what they were.” Nevertheless, Kyle Smith of the New York Post explains that despite its cohesion problems, there are those who will find an undeniable appeal in the fluffiness of “Austenland.” Smith writes that Hess “could have made the movie weirder on the one hand or more believable on the other, but as it is this is a light, forgettable offering with a good heart and a smattering of laughs.”

But the feature in this category that graced more than a few Most Anticipated lists over the past weeks is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon’s Addiction,” a look at modern relationships to pornography that is one of this year’s most polarizing entries. Many reviewers seized on Gordon-Levitt’s willingness to try to depict his titular central character as representative of 21st male psyches. Writing at Cinema Blend, Katey Rich decries the film’s overall attitudes, explaining that it “doesn’t do nearly enough to walk away from Jon’s rampant misogyny, suggesting that the only thing he needs to do to enjoy real sex is to look a woman in the eyes– not value her pleasure or wisdom or personality.”  (For a bonus, check out Movies.com for Erik Davis’ audio review of the film, imagining what Don Jon would think of his own depiction.)

CRITICWIRE AVERAGES (Click the film titles to see individual grades and reviews)

In a World…: A-

Austenland: B-

Don Jon’s Addiction: B

Reliving History

Critics dig the cast of John Krokidas’ Beat Generation picture “Kill Your Darlings,” singling out Dane DeHaan and Daniel Radcliffe, who play young versions of Lucien Carr and Allen Ginsberg. “DeHaan’s Bowie-esque stare would have set the Warhol factory ablaze, and Radcliffe’s developed a strong sense of confidence. [Ben] Foster’s [William] Burroughs gets a lot of the laughs, but there is a sadness behind his crisp suits and otherworldly poise,” Jordan Hoffman explains in his Film.com review, crediting much of their success to Krokidas’ direction. Hollywood.com’s Matt Patches hammers home the effectiveness of Krokidas’ stylistic choices.

Another movie based on a true story, “Blue Caprice,” involves the Washington DC sniper attacks of late 2002. Variety’s Justin Chang describes how the film is “responsibly handled” and that “the filmmakers’ aim is transparently to illuminate rather than to exploit, to bring a measure of sobering clarity to the question of human evil.” Like Chang, Eric Kohn also gives credit to Isaiah Washington’s central role as John Allen Muhammed. “An unexpectedly eerie Washington constructs an authentic movie monster made all the more menacing by the mounting tension as his plan comes together,” Kohn writes.

In a different vein, Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale,” a profile of the last day of Oscar Grant, the victim of a BART station shooting in the early moments of New Year’s Day 2009. Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter salutes Coogler’s handling of the real-life drama, writing that the first-time filmmaker “stages the chaos with a breath-shortening combination of frenzy and ambiguity…it’s an awful tale, fraught with political, social and moral weight symbolic of numerous contemporary ills, and one with an unshown ugly aftermath of violent protests that further sullied Oakland’s reputation.”

CRITICWIRE AVERAGES (Click the film titles to see individual grades and reviews)

Kill Your Darlings: B

Blue Caprice: B+

Fruitvale: A-

The Notable Docs

The non-fiction arena proved to be a fertile ground at last year’s festival, with “The Imposter,” “Searching for Sugar Man,” “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and “5 Broken Cameras” all sustaining an overall positive critical response and a significant place in the film world discussion all the way through the end of the year. With a trio of entries already holding strong with “A-” averages, it’s looking like another high quality year.

Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s “After Tiller,” about doctors who perform third trimster abortions, has become one of the most well-received of the festival. Reviews are quick to point out that the film isn’t attempting to give all sides of the issue a voice. Brian Tallerico admits in his overall positive write-up that “‘After Tiller’ allows for no alternate arguments. In fact, the pro-life movement is seen almost entirely in news footage and on the sidewalks in front of the clinic.”  Ray Pride at Movie City News concludes his thoughts on the film with this: “The position of the filmmakers is never in doubt, but in detailing the daily choices, acts, and emotions, Shane and Wilson have made an assured, incisive humanistic nonfiction film to admire.” 

Morgan Neville’s documentary “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” profiling the overlooked lives of studio backup singers, is gaining some strong endorsements. Peter Debruge at Variety salutes the director’s ability to give each of his subjects a distinctive quality. “Neville’s approach establishes a real intimacy with the half dozen singers he follows most closely, varying the camerawork and editing just enough among them to capture the distinct personality of each,” Debruge writes. Film Threat’s Michael Nordine is less enthusiastic about the overall film. Regardless, with the Weinstein Company’s backing, this will be one crowd-pleaser that audiences around the country will likely have the chance to catch before the year is over.

Another entry in the music doc field is “Sound City” the directorial debut of Foo Fighters frontman (and occasional Satan portrayer) Dave Grohl. A Park City concert helped to increase the good vibes around the film’s premiere, but the film itself has been well-received. Erik Davis gives credit to Grohl’s approach, describing that “while there’s definitely a conversation running throughout the film about the digital age and how it hurt the art of recording live music, Grohl never gets preachy about it…and ultimately serves up a film that’s more about the importance of preserving history for the next generation of musicians than anything else.” =

CRITICWIRE AVERAGES (Click the film titles to see individual grades and reviews)

After Tiller: A-

Twenty Feet From Stardom: A-

Sound City: A-

For additional coverage of Sundance on Criticwire, featuring more reviews and social media feedback, check out our daily Sundance Review Reports. Curious about the stories behind the filmmakers who’ve brought their creations to Park City? Indiewire’s list of Filmmaker Interviews can be found here. And, as always, to keep apprised of when these films might make it to your city, be sure to browse Jay Fernandez and Anne Thompson’s reports on all of the festival acquisitions.

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