Sundance has once again proved to be the most fun you can have in Utah. Between seeing a whole ton of movies, hanging with friends, shredding Rocky Mountain powder, and meeting new cool people, there was simply no time for sleep. I caught 25 Fest Films as well as a very cool short film directed by Lou Reed who ended up sitting right in front of me for the Q&A (photo). My full festival wrap is up at Twitch, but here is the list of everything I saw (in order viewed) with my twitter blurb and a few quick thoughts:
THE OFF HOURS – Next – Rating: 4 out of 10
I wasn’t a huge fan of Megan Griffith’s truck stop romance filmed in Burien, WA. Amy Seimetz is likable enough as bored waitress Francine, but her story just isn’t interesting enough to get too invested in. This super indie will find its fans in people who appreciate the honest script – but ultimately it falls just a bit too flat.
THE LIE – Next – Rating: 5 out of 10
“The Lie is a superbly edited performance driven indie, steeped in Silverlake love.”
The premise of Blair Witch and Humpday star Joshua Leonard’s feature directorial debut is that a dude (Leonard) tells his co-workers that his child has died in order to get out of work. Not a bad concept but it seemed the writers were afraid to ever really commit to it. Instead this very indie dramedy becomes a little too caught up in the dude’s general malaise. It isn’t bad movie, it just never quite went where I wanted it to. That being said, I was a huge fan of all the Silverlake love it shows.
PROJECT NIM – World Docu Comp – Rating: 6 out of 10
“Project Nim is not a feel good movie – but it is an inciteful doc with as many revelations about humans as about chimps.”
James Marsh’s 2008 doc Man on Wire managed the impressive feat of being both a documentary and a heist movie. It was an incredible story and most importantly, it was fun. While Project Nim is a very accomplished doc, it is not very fun. The story centers around a researcher who tries to determine if chimpanzees learn to communicate the same way humans do (but with sign language). To do this, he places a baby chimp in a human home and basically treats it like a human. Where the story takes a rough turn is when the chimp turns five and the project ends, starting the odyssey that is the reintroduction of a chimp that thinks he’s a human to chimp society. It is interesting, no doubt, but at times just too terribly depressing.
THE NINE MUSES – New Frontiers – Rating: 3 out of 10
I’m sure there are some people who will really appreciate John Akomfrah’s lyrical imagery and experimental editing – but the complete lack of narrative was just too difficult for me to get on board with and I couldn’t connect to the film at all. This is more art than movie.
MARGIN CALL – Premieres – Rating: 7 of 10
“Margin Call is a very contained financial thriller buoyed by extremely strong performances by the entire cast.”
I didn’t expect a whole lot from J.C. Chandor’s financial thriller, mostly due to Kevin Spacey’s weak performance in Casino Jack and my assumption that this film would be pretty similar. I was wrong – this is Spacey’s best role in years. The film takes place in the roughly 24 hours right before an investment bank brings down Wall Street and is meant to be a fictionalization of the 2008 crisis. How much of the story is accurate is anyone’s guess, but the film does an excellent job of dramatizing such an event. The key to the film’s success is in the performances by Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, and even Demi Moore. While it threatens to get a bit claustrophobic at times, the cast and topical subject matter should equal some box office and potentially awards season success.
MAGIC TRIP – Docu Premieres – Rating: 8 out of 10
“Magic Trip is a must see for fans of Kesey, Cassady, and all merry pranksters. Gibney masterfully docus the birth of 60s counter culture.”
Alex Gibney has made some of the best docs of the last decade (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, etc. etc.). Here he turns his attention to the incredible story of Ken Kesey and his magical, LSD-infused bus trip across the US in 1964. The film is made almost entirely of footage shot by the Merry Pranksters on their trip and then never edited into anything sensible (I guess they were busy). This is a treasure trove of footage of a cranked up Neal Cassady driving the bus and jabbering away, a 22 year old Jerry Garcia strumming his guitar on top of the bus, and Kesey – one of the most brilliant men of his generation. This is the origin story of the 1960s counter culture and a MUST SEE for anyone remotely interested in the subject.
SUBMARINE – Spotlight – Rating: 7 out of 10
“Submarine is a very funny British coming-of-ager at its best during its extremely clever self-referential moments.”
With a charming cast led by Craig Roberts as young Oliver Tate, Submarine is very smart and fun coming-of-age story. Oliver lives in Wales with his neurotic parents played by Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor. The return of an old boyfriend of his mother’s (Paddy Considine) coincides with Oliver snagging his first girlfriend of his own and the challenge of balancing all the new aspects of his life provide the ample subject matter for laughs. Wacky and clever writing and hilarious self referential moments as subtle as Oliver flicking his eyes at the audience make this a really enjoyable discovery.
ON THE ICE – US Dramatic Comp – Rating: 7 out of 10
“On The Ice is an engaging crime thriller, similar to Winters Bone the way it takes u deep into a world you’ve never experienced.”
Andrew Okphea MacLean’s directorial debut is a very impressive look inside the world of Alaskan native teens living way above the arctic circle. Shot in MacLean’s hometown of Barrow, Alaska, the film succeeds because the lives of these self styled “arctic thugs” are really interesting. I got a chance to spend a good amount of time with the two stars Josiah Patkotak and Frank Qutuq Irelan. They were very cool guys and it was great to see how much they were appreciating the experience (although true to character 16-year old Josiah had to head back early to his grandma). When I asked Frank if he had hopes of continuing acting, his answer was a very pragmatic, “Maybe – it depends if I get paid.”
Read my full review of On the Ice @ Twitch
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN – Park City at Midnight – Rating 7 of 10
“Hobo With a Shotgun more than delivers on everything it promises. Blood, guts, gore, & ridiculous laughs. Full commitment.”
I’ve been a big fan of the grindhouse resurgence. Planet Terror, Hell Ride and Machete proved you could make great movies by taking a ridiculous premise and hamming it out – as long as you had good acting. Hobo with a Shotgun is this turned up to 11. If you are a fan of restraint, then do not go near this film. But if you enjoy cheesy technicolor blood and guts squirting from every conceivable orifice, you’ll surely love this movie.
Read my full review of Hobo with a Shotgun @ Twitch
WIN WIN – Premieres – Rating: 9 out of 10
“Win Win is a superbly acted family/sports drama. Another huge success for T. McCarthy – one of the best directors working today.”
Tom McCarthy’s previous films The Station Agent and The Visitor were such successes due to his extraordinary ability to reveal the heartwarming humanity of his characters. This is very much the case in his third film about a small town lawyer-slash-high school wrestling coach who takes in a troubled teen, just as his own life is hitting a difficult patch. McCarthy gets the very best out of his actors – and when you’ve got pros like Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan in the lead roles, that is saying a lot. Bobby Canavale and Jeffrey Tambor co-star and turn in hilarious performances as well. This is a little movie with a big heart, executed to perfection by one of the best directors in the biz.
KNUCKLE – World Docu Comp – Rating: 5 out of 10
“Knuckle explores feuding families in Ireland. While entertaining at times, the story ultimately isn’t all that interesting.”
I was very surprised to hear that the remake rights to this feuding family doc had been picked up at the festival. The problem with the film is that the story of the two families – who have settled their differences over the generations by engaging in highly regulated fights – is really pretty boring. There is nothing to remake. You would be better off just taking that premise and writing your own original story about people who fight each other. Throw in some infidelity and some crime and you might get something worth watching. Unfortunately, as a documentary, Ian Palmer’s film simply has nothing to say. It is unclear if we are supposed to think this is a barbaric way to settle long running problems or to applaud the families for not letting things get violent outside the ring. I frankly didn’t care.
LIKE CRAZY – US Dramatic Comp – Rating: 9 out of 10
“Like Crazy is a more hopeful Blue Valentine – an incredibly honest look at love and distance. It is a MUST SEE.”
Drake Doremus’s love story cemented itself as the most buzzworthy film of the fest when it took home the top dog Dramatic Grand Jury Prize (last two winners: Winter’s Bone & Precious). But Park City was going nuts for this film long before last Saturday’s awards and its sale to big distributor Paramount for $4M was the first sign that things were looking very good on the biz side of the festival. The film is worth all the hype. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones turn in very mature performances as the young lovers separated by an ocean of bureaucracy (and a real ocean). It tugs at your heart strings but you never felt manipulated. Admittedly, I am a sucker for a love story done well and this one is done very well. You’ll be hearing plenty more about this one soon.
THE CATECHISM CATACLYSM – Park City at Midnight – Rating 5 out of 10
“The Catechism Cataclysm is a surreal adventure down a wacky winding river that has very little to do with Jesus. Bravo!”
Todd Rohal’s bizarre comedy is basically a showcase for Steve Little (Eastbound & Down) to do his thing. If you are into his thing, there is a lot to like here. I wasn’t completely on board but I did have a few healthy chuckles. What I didn’t understand was why Little’s character was a Catholic priest. This and a few other odd decisions made it tough for me to become a real fan.
MY IDIOT BROTHER – Premieres – Rating: 7 out of 10
“My Idiot Brother is a very commercial comedy with some pretty funny moments. The impressive ensemble should get butts in seats.”
Paul Rudd stars as the very likable Ned in Jesse Peretz’s well executed commercial comedy. Ned is just trying to keep on L-I-V-I-N (and get his dog back) but every interaction with his sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer) seems to get him in trouble. The cast is excellent and co-stars Steve Coogan, Rashida Jones, and Adam “Are we having fun yet?” Scott all hit it out of the park. There is a lot to like about the movie (although I can see why some critics have suggested it is rooted in a bit of misogyny) and it will surely be rewarded at the box office.
THE INTERRUPTERS – Docu Premieres – Rating: 9 out of 10
“The Interrupters’ is a brilliant & incredibly inspirational doc about people doing good. The only way to stop violence is to try.”
Clocking in at over 2 and 1/2 hours, some moviegoers weren’t willing to commit the time to Steve James’s (Hoop Dreams) doc about crime interrupters on the South Side of Chicago. That is too bad as the film was surely one of the best docs of the fest. The subjects, all ex-criminals who have devoted their lives to trying to stop young kids from killing each other, are some of the most compelling characters I’ve ever seen. It is easy to see why the kids on the street pay so much respect to people like the particularly charismatic Ameena. There is no answer in this film other than try to keep doing your best – but the end result is a very emotional journey along with some people doing just that.
CEDAR RAPIDS – Premieres – Rating: 7 out of 10
“Cedar Rapids is very funny once it finally hits its stride about halfway thru & commits to its wackiness.”
Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, and Anne Heche star as insurance agents gone wild at the big annual convention in this broad comedy from Miguel Arteta. There is a somewhat necessary plot about Ed Helms (playing Ed Helms) trying to win an award to keep his insurance agency open or something but it really isn’t important. The movie gets really enjoyable once Arteta gets away from the plot about half way through and really let’s things go off the rails. Ed Helms smoking crack and getting in fights is much funnier than Ed Helms nervous about getting ketchup on his pocket protector.
THE SON OF NO ONE – Premieres – Rating: 2 out of 10
“Son of No One is a real mess. Baffling character motivations & one of the worst endings I’ve seen. Big slump for Dito.”
One of my favorite parts of this year’s Sundance was following the drama over the Press & Industry screening of The Son of No One. The movie is awful and I’ve spent enough time talking about how bad it is and how little sense it makes and how amazing the awful ending is. But the controversy over exactly how many people walked out of the screening (a lot – but a lot of people walk out of decent movies too) and the ridiculously defensive reaction by the sales agent who said the lights turned on ten minutes before the film ended (they didn’t) has been hilarious. When the film finally premiered to the public on Friday, it found a bit more positive response – but it will be very interesting to see if the movie ever makes it to release. Maybe Katie Holmes will buy it and distribute it herself.
VAMPIRE – World Dramatic Comp – Rating: 6 out of 10
“Vampire is an obscure & original love story. A few very odd artistic decisions – some work, some don’t – but certainly bold.”
I am a big fan of Shunji Iwai’s Japanese films Swallowtail Butterfly and All About Lily Chou-Chou and therefore was looking forward to his English language debut with a fair amount of anticipation. The result is a very different horror movie about a compassionate killer who helps people end their lives and then drinks their blood. It starts out slow and makes some awful missteps (turning the camera on its side sent people out of the theater a full row at a time) but the final product is a very artistic and interesting film with some truly beautiful moments.
Read my full review of Vampire @ Twitch
I MELT WITH YOU – Premieres – Rating: 6 out of 10
“I Melt With You is the most intense midlife crisis ever. Great cast. Beautiful photography. Amazing music. Weird movie.”
I wasn’t exaggerating when I called this a weird movie and I wasn’t at all expecting the experience I got when I walked into the theater. Mark Pellington has a very impressive resume between his features (Arlington Road) and his music videos (U2, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains) but he was hopped up on some crazy pills for this one. Crazy pills are actually a big part of the plot in this movie which is basically about Thomas Jane, Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, and Christian McKay on a crazy drug-fueled mid life crisis gone terribly wrong. The movie takes a big twist about two-thirds through and at the time I was very against it – but looking back, I am kinda glad it took me where it did. It’s a tough one, but ultimately it is pretty impressive.
THE DETAILS – Premieres – Rating 6 out of 10
“The Details is a black comedy. Like black as night. Tobey Maguire just didn’t work for me but Laura Linney is an absolute riot!”
Tobey Maguire stars in Jacob Aaron Estes (Mean Creek) super black comedy about a dude who keeps making bad decisions. This movie goes just as wacky as I Melt With You, but it does so with enough humor to save you from a brain aneurysm. Unfortunately Tobey Maguire just isn’t a good enough actor to pull it off – though Laura Linney as the neurotic neighbor who blackmails him into oral sex is funny enough to almost save it.
ANOTHER EARTH – US Dramatic Comp – Rating: 4 out of 10
“Another Earth is an uneven redemption story with too many plot problems to overlook.”
Sundance it-girl Brit Marling co-wrote, produced and stars in one of the most buzzed over films of the fest (it won the Special Jury Prize, Alfred P. Sloan science award, and scored a major deal with Fox Searchlight). I know I’m in the minority on this one but I was horribly unimpressed with the film. Marling is obviously a talent but the plot has more problems than the middle east and the attempt at a scientific explanation for the second earth is laughable. I am still waiting for someone to explain to me why we have so much trouble talking to the other planet. We had radio contact with astronauts on the moon in the 1960s – are you really telling me with all our satellites and communications technology we can’t just pull up FaceTime on our iPhones with another planet that’s right over there (they have all the same technology afterall). I hear you saying, “but it isn’t about the science, it’s about the love story.” Yeah, fine, but the love story sucked too.
HOMEWORK – US Dramatic Comp – Rating: 6 out of 10
“Homework treads familiar territory of the outcast kid who the pretty girl falls for. However it avoids cliches and is enjoyable.”
We’ve all seen the story about the loser kid that no one likes that inexplicably hooks up with the prettiest girl in school. There are obviously a lot of directors and screenwriters living out adolescent fantasies in Hollywood. Gavin Wiesen’s directorial debut is pretty much that exactly – but it is that done pretty damn well. A big part of the success is due to young British actor Freddie Highmore who plays a vulnerable yet somehow confident outcast. Emma Roberts is okay as the object of his affection – but she is short of memorable. Wiesen does manage to avoid a lot of cliches and it is kind of fun to see all these high school kids drinking at bars in Manhattan. It’s a decent movie that is worth a watch but won’t likely make much noise – and it is definitely no The Wackness.
PERFECT SENSE – Premieres – Rating: 8 out of 10
“Perfect Sense is a love story that completely commits to its very high concept. A lot to like – though maybe not for everyone.”
Ewan McGregor and Eva Green star in David Mackenzie’s romantic thriller about a world where everyone is losing their senses. It is a very bold concept but Mackenzie commits fully and what results is a highly polished and excellent film. This was one of my surprise faves of the fest.
Read my full review of Perfect Sense @ Twitch
ELITE SQUAD 2 – Spotlight – Rating: 8 of 10
“Elite Squad 2 is a truly awesome Brazilian actioner. Padilha went more political than the 1st = less action – but def a success.”
Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad showed that you could make a very smart shooter without giving up any of the action. His follow-up focuses more on the political side of things in the Rio police force – but it is every bit as impressive. The fact he was able to pull off such a polished product for under $9M is even more of a feat. I’ll be shocked if Hollywood doesn’t shell out some big bucks to get Padilha behind the camera of a big studio picture soon.
Read my full review of Elite Squad 2 @ Twitch
PAGE ONE: A YEAR INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES – US Docu Comp – Rating: 8 out of 10
“Page One is a captivating doc about why journalism will always be important, even in the changing face of the media landscape.”
Andrew Rossi originally set out to make a doc about NY Times media reporter and all around distinctive character David Carr. What resulted was a fascinating exploration of news and journalism in the face of a rapidly changing media landscape. From WikiLeaks to an NBC sponsored media event declaring the end of combat in Iraq, Rossi’s cameras capture the the deliberation the editors at the NYT go to to consider the distinction between reporting the news and creating the news. Carr remains an important figure in the film and an enigmatic force – but the people around him are just as interesting. For those interested in issues of media and you know, the world, this doc is another must see.
Of course there were just as many films that I wanted to see but didn’t get a chance to. One film with a ton of buzz I hope to catch soon is Martha Marcy May Marlene with festival sweetheart Elizabeth Olsen – younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley. Brit Marling’s other fest film Sound of my Voice had people raving. Kevin Smith was at the fest with his political horror Red State, but the lack of P&I screening made it impossible to score a ticket. I spoke to a number of people who had very good things to say about Terri with John C. Reilly and Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground was also rumored to be well worth a watch. The Paddy Considine directed Tyrannosaur and Take Shelter with Michael Shannon both had people saying great things as well.
On the unseen docu side of things, the film with the most positive buzz was Morgan Spurlock’s product placement expose The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It sounds like everyone who saw it loved Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. Euthanasia doc How to Die in Oregon, Afghan war doc Hell and Back Again and the story of the real life horse whisperer Buck all received top prizes as well.
My Top 10 of 2010 included a stunning 7 films at Sundance 2010 (though I only caught 4 of them at the fest). I can’t help but wonder how many of this year’s batch will be included on my list a year from now. Like Crazy will very likely stick around and it won’t surprise me if The Interrupters and Win Win do as well. It’s exciting to think about all the great movies that are still to be seen.