First festival of the year? Done and dusted. Every year, the movie industry heads en masse to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford‘s celebration of independent cinema, which has become increasingly important over the years, in the hope of uncovering the next big thing. Last year’s festival brought “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which went on to be one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and a Best Picture nominee at the Academy Awards, and while there wasn’t a singular breakout in the same way, the festival was certainly in good form.
With a buyers’ market that seems to be showing the signs of an economic comeback (deals for “The Way Way Back” and “Don Jon’s Addiction” number among the biggest in the history of the festival), there was a lot of buzz, and while there few consensus titles or outright raves, there seemed to plenty to see that was worthwhile. Below, our Sundance team have picked out their five favorites of the festival (although we couldn’t see everything; Grand Jury and Audience Award winner “Fruitvale” was one that fell between the cracks), and you can also find links to every review and interview we ran during the festival. Many thanks to our team who contributed coverage, which included Rodrigo Perez, Cory Everett, William Goss, Chase Whale, Kristin McCracken, Katie Walsh and Drew Taylor.
Few films in Park City were more anticipated than this one, the first picture in nine years from Shane Carruth, who made a stellar debut in 2004 with his impossibly complex, mind-bending microbudget sci-fi “Primer.” After a few false starts, he was back at the festival this year with his latest, “Upstream Color,” and while it’s as difficult as its predecessor, few films made such an impression on our Sundance team. “Almost like a sci-fi thriller without posessing either genre trait,” according to Rodrigo Perez’s review, the film is “an exploration of themes and abstractions rather than a concrete narrative, but also a like a puzzle box with all the pieces laying at your feet.” A love story that involves plant essence, parasitic worms, award winning sound design and Henry David Thoreau, the film is “a social and cinematic experiment with a voyage of spiritual discovery, a surreal meditation on self,” one that “not easy to process,” but also “breathtaking and brilliant.” Carruth is self-releasing the film on April 5th.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”
Thanks to its Oscar-nominated stars and a growing reputation on the festival circuit for filmmaker David Lowery, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” was one that was eagerly awaited at Sundance, and not just because it has one of the best titles we’ve heard in ages. A 1970s Texas-set crime tale that follows Bob (Casey Affleck), who breaks out of prison in order to reunite with his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara), an accomplice in a crime spree four years earlier, and the daughter he’s never met, the film has drawn comparisons to Terrence Malick, but according to Rodrigo’s review, “it would be far too simple and reductive to just pass this film off as nothing more.” With visuals from rising DoP Bradford Young that are “hickory smoked and sunstroked” and a “sublime, haunting and moody” score from Daniel Hart, the film looks and sounds terrific, while “the entire cast delivers pitch-perfect turns such that there’s not a false note within.” It’s a little long, but ultimately, the film “is a wholly engrossing and impressive piece of work that the movie world will be talking about all year.” IFC picked it up, so we should be seeing it later in 2013.
It’s been a rough few years to be a David Gordon Green fan. We didn’t begrudge him his shift into commercial comedy with “Pineapple Express,” partly because the film was so much fun, but subsequent excursions, in “Your Highness” and “The Sitter” tested the patience of fans who fell in love with his early pictures like “George Washington” and “All The Real Girls.” But the director was back on form in a big way at Sundance this year with the “meditative, funny and sublime” “Prince Avalanche.” A remake of the Icelandic film “Either Way,” it’s essentially a two-hander starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as a pair of highway road repairmen — Alvin (Rudd) and his dim-witted brother-in-law Lance (Hirsch) — that according to Rodrigo Perez’s review, serves as “an affecting meditation on men, relationships, nature and rebirth that might be Green’s most vital film to date.” The two actors “have chemistry to spare,” while the film’s also aided by gorgeous cinematography and a “wistful and sonorously beautiful” score, making it a combination of Green’s recent comic work and his more lyrical early pictures that feels like “the logical, next-phase direction for the filmmaker.” Ultimately, Rodrigo’s review concluded by saying that the film is “a deeply enjoyable, wondrous delight that you shoudl give yourself over to when it eventually hits theaters,” which will come courtesy of Magnolia.
“Escape From Tomorrow”
Playing in the NEXT section with almost no fanfare, “Escape From Tomorrow” quickly became one of the word-of-mouth buzz titles of the festival, in part because people were unsure if the film would ever be screened outside of Park City. The feature debut of writer/director Randy Moore, the film follows a father on vacation with his family at a theme park, who discovers he’s been fired from his job, and starts to lose his grip on reality. The twist? The film was shot surreptitiously (in black-and-white, no less) entirely at Walt Disney World in Florida, without the approval of the Mouse House suits. It may yet cause legal headaches down the line, but aside from the conceptual talking point, the film was deemed an impressive debut, not least by our correspondent William Goss in his review. He acknowledges that the film is “bugnuts,” but “clearly stems from some of the very real frustrations that families are met with in the face of overwhelming corporate homogeneity.” And while it’s “a bit on the sloppy side,” there’s some impressive craft involved, not least from composer Abel Korzeniowksi (“A Single Man,”) who contributes ” a score of unlikely grandeur”, and from leading man Roy Abramsohn, who “handles the story’s unlikely demands with aplomb.” The legal issues are looking up, according to some experts, so hopefully “this potential cult classic” will be able to be seen by all before too long, though it currently doesn’t have distribution.
Three years back, the short “Successful Alcoholics” premiered at Sundance, and became something of a Playlist favorite. This year, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, fresh off his Comedy Central series “Mash Up,” returned with his first feature, and the results were just as pleasing. Following a trio of kids on the cusp of adolescence, who avoid their strained relationships with their parents by escaping into the woods to build a house, the film blends Amblin Entertainment, Terrence Malick and Michael Bay into “a crockpot of comedy and coming-of-age film without a trace of irony.” According to Cory Everett’s review, the young, mostly unknown cast (excepting TV favorites like Nick Offerman, Alison Brie and Hannibal Burress) “are excellent,” especially the “completely unpredictable” Moises Arias, and while the film has an out-there premise, “the feelings are all real… and the film treats them seriously.” The director and first-time writer Chris Galletta “are in perfect unison, harmonizing to create what feels like a fresh comic voice,” and while there are obvious comparison points, “the film firmly carves out its own identity.” “Beautiful and dark and also funny,” it has a good chance of becoming a crossover success when CBS Films release it into theaters.
“Upstream Color” [A]
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” [A-]
“Prince Avalanche” [A-]
“It Felt Like Love” [A-]
“Escape From Tomorrow” [B+]
“Toy’s House” [B+]
“Breathe In” [B+]
“Narco Cultura” [B+]
“Afternoon Delight” [B+]
“Don Jon’s Addiction” [B+/B]
“Before Midnight” [B]
“The Spectacular Now” [B]
“In A World” [B]
“Crystal Fairy” [B]
“The Way Way Back” [B]
“The East” [B-]
“Touchy Feely” [B-]
“Kill Your Darlings” [C+]
“Emanuel & The Truth About Fishes” [C-]
“The Look of Love” [D+]
“The Necessary Death Of Charlie Countryman” [D+]
Preview: “Top Of The Lake”
– Oliver Lyttelton & Rodrigo Perez