Sundance’10 is all wrapped up and I’m back home in balmy Los Angeles. What a blast! A lot of great flicks, a bit of powder, and an overwhelmingly friendly and fun atmosphere. I’ve collected a few words about each of the 21 films I saw, including links to my 10 Twitch reviews. After the film write-ups, I’ve said a few words about the flicks I wasn’t able to catch. I’m looking forward to seeing many more as they trickle out into theaters and other fests throughout the year. On to the movies – in order of viewing:
7 DAYS – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 4 out of 10
As one friend told me, “It’s not torture porn, it’s torture erotica.” That may be true but more than anything, this suspense-thriller is torture. I was more turned off by the protagonist than by the visuals and wished the filmmaker had focused his attention on the detective. Unfortunately I just couldn’t get into this one.
Read my full review of 7 Days on Twitch
THE SHOCK DOCTRINE – Premieres – Rating: 5 out of 10
Michael Winterbottom’s econ-doc is basically the film version of Naomi Klein’s thesis about the ability to create radical change in a nation when the people are too focused on emergency (shocked) to notice. It focuses a lot on Milton Friedman and the Chicago School’s theory of free markets and the US and Britain’s exploitation (and creation) of crises to implement these theories. The film systematically recounts atrocities from Chile to Iraq on the road to the creation of the “disaster capitalism complex.” While this is some pretty interesting (and often depressing) stuff, the film is, unfortunately, a pretty bland and academic presentation of the material. I was left wondering what happened to the style of Winterbottom’s great Road to Guantanamo. While you might learn something, you won’t have much fun doing it and the vague conclusion won’t give you much in the way of paths of action either.
FOUR LIONS – World Dramatic Competition – Rating: 6 of 10
This terrorist version of The Office really shines when its hilarious actors are engaging in physical humor. These guys are real idiots and their ideas about blowing up the internet and shaking their heads when they go outside to elude surveillance are pretty damn funny. The film had a fair bit of buzz around Park City, although in the end it went home empty handed.
Read my full review of Four Lions on Twitch
LAST TRAIN HOME – World Documentary Competition – Rating: 7 out of 10
Lixin Fan’s tale of the largest human migration on Earth (130 million Chinese who return home from cities across the country every New Years Holiday) is a touching and interesting look at the “Chinese dream.” Its vivid cinematography and sparse dialog made me forget at times that this Canadian co-production was a documentary. This is a very powerful story of family and society and Fan executes it stunningly.
HOLY ROLLERS – US Dramatic Competition – Rating: 7 out of 10
I seem to be in the minority of people who enjoyed Kevin Asch’s debut feature about drug smuggling Hasidic Jews. I thought Eisenberg did a fine job but was most impressed by Justin Bartha (the guy they lost in The Hangover). With its great cast and subject matter, I think this one has just as much, if not more, commercial prospects as anything at the fest.
Read my full review of Holy Rollers at Twitch
BURIED – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 6 out of 10
Buzz was pretty positive about the Rodrigo Cortes’s Ryan Reynolds stuck in a box movie. The movie literally has nothing other than Reynolds in the box (nothing before, no flashbacks, etc). There were some pretty cool shots but there were also a few pretty lame developments. Reynolds is certainly a good actor. Overall I was impressed – this is probably the best movie you can make about someone stuck in a box. But when it comes down to it, this is still a movie about someone stuck in a box.
THE KILLER INSIDE ME – Premieres – Rating: 7 out of 10
Winterbottom’s dramatic inclusion at this year’s fest stirred up a whole lot of controversy because of its extreme depiction of violence against women. “How dare you Sundance?” one woman is reported to have asked at a Q&A. But I was okay with Winterbottom’s explanation that this is a fiction film – and particularly a fiction film from the viewpoint of a deranged killer. I was won over by the cinematography and performances – especially the strong supporting cast that includes Bill Pullman, Elias Koteas, and Tom Bower. This is a tough movie, but a stylish one and I enjoyed it.
Read my full review of The Killer Inside Me at Twitch
CYRUS – Premieres – Rating: 6 out of 10
Sundance sweethearts the Duplass bros. are back with their first real studio film (to be released by Fox Searchlight). The film stars John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei as a new couple whose relationship runs into a stumbling block when Reilly meets Tomei’s adult son Cyrus (played by Jonah Hill). The cast is good (Catherine Keener also puts in a predictably excellent performance as Reilly’s ex), but I found it a bit hard to believe a babe like Tomei would swoon over a herb like Reilly. Whatever. The movie is funny but nothing incredible. I kept hoping the Duplai would push it to the next raunchy level (thanks Judd). Instead they play it safe and we’re left with a nice but not extremely memorable comedy.
FROZEN – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 3 of 10
My expectations were low and my suspension of disbelief was set to high for this horror about what happens when you get caught on a ski lift after everyone leaves. It didn’t matter, the movie sucked. All the comments I heard were along the lines of, that would never happen because… I say who cares to those. The movie sucked because most of it is these idiots just yackin’ it up – and the dialog is amateur and boring (to be fair, what else are they gonna do when they are caught on a chair lift?). I liked the hilarious gore and wanted more ridiculously hungry wolves. There wasn’t enough of the fun stuff. As I said before, this would make a great short – but there just isn’t enough to sustain the feature.
Read my full review of Frozen at Twitch
BLUE VALENTINE – US Dramatic Competition – Rating: 9 out of 10
Derek Cianfrance’s relationship drama was probably my favorite film at Sundance. This is in large part due to the performances by Ryan Gossling and Michelle Williams – but the writing is also excellent (Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne also share the screenwriting credit). The film intercuts the beginning of the couple’s relationship with its end in a method that I found intriguing and successful. This combination of heartache and heart-melt paints an emotionally realistic portrait that really worked for me. The film was picked up at the fest by The Weinstein Co. and should find an early fall release with Oscar hopes for both the leads.
TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 8 out of 10
I loved this script by Eli Craig and his execution did not disappoint! This movie turns the hillbilly horror on its head – and then it grinds that head up in a wood chipper. I was cracking up from the very beginning – even though I knew what was about to happen. The casting was great and I have always wanted to see the cutie from 30 Rock get more than a couple minutes a week of screen time. This film is a blast and I’m pretty confident that if people see it, they will like it.
Read my full review of Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil at Twitch
THE VIOLENT KIND – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 7 out of 10
It seems this Sons of Anarchy meets The Outer Limit tripped out horror movie has been pretty much panned across the board. Bah! I liked it. Yes it is way, wayyy out there. No it doesn’t have much of a cohesive narrative. Yes the sound work is truly atrocious. But overall it is sexy, bloody, kooky and pretty damn fun. All good qualities for a midnight movie and I would be surprised if this one doesn’t win some fans on its trip through the horror fest circuit.
Read my full review of The Violent Kind at Twitch
HIGH SCHOOL – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 6 out of 10
HIGH school was the only midnight movie I managed to actually catch at midnight (at the Egyptian of course). It is really, really funny right out of the gate. Matt Bush (Frigo from Adventureland) plays a smart kid who gets talked into smoking weed for the first time right before the school institutes a mandatory drug testing policy. So his buddy and he decide to ruin the testing by stealing some super weed from a cracked out Adrian Brody (who is awesome) and bake it up into super brownies. Everyone in the school eats the brownies and gets super high. Hilarious. However at this point the film takes a nose dive into plot problemsville. Why are they only in class when it is convenient? Why does he steal the truck instead of just pushing the cart? Why didn’t Mr. Smartest-kid-in-school think of using his own invention? I thought of it 30 seconds after the problem was presented. No doubt there is some really hilarious stuff here and Brody deserves an Oscar, hands down. But the script simply needed another pass or two to take it from problematic stoner movie with some pretty funny scenes to stoner classic glory.
LUCKY – US Documentary Competition – Rating: 6 out of 10
Jeffrey Blitz had a base hit with his documentary Spellbound and then knocked it out of the park with his comedy Rocket Science. His latest docu about lottery winners is more like a sac fly. It tells some interesting stories and we learn winning the lottery isn’t always what its cracked up to be. But it feels a bit long and there isn’t much in the way of excitement. The best line of the film is when one of the lottery winners friends calls winning the lottery, “like sprinkling miracle grow on your character defects.” The animation by Walter Robot is also quite cool. Look for this one to find a TV audience sometime soon.
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP – Spotlight Surprise – Rating: 8 out of 10
My favorite docu of the fest was this street art character piece, directed by Banksy. I have A LOT to say about this one so check out my Twitch review – but suffice to say it is a really interesting exploration of art, the artist, commercialization, and the authenticity of documentary. I had the pleasure of being at both of the exhibitions spotlighted in the film (Banksy’s 2006 Barely Legal and Mr. Brainwash’s 2008 Life is Beautiful), so it was particularly interesting for me to learn the fascinating back story behind the characters. There’s way more going on here.
Read my full review of Exit Through The Gift Shop at Twitch
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT – Premieres – Rating: 6 of 10
Lisa Cholodenko’s family dramedy has been pretty heavily praised for its spin on the family dramedy genre (they’re lesbians). I found it pretty mediocre. It is pretty sweet and pretty safe and the kids aren’t really that good. Ruffalo is okay and Julianne Moore is okay and Annette Bening is a butch bitch – but overall I just didn’t really care that much. Maybe I am not the target audience but I just couldn’t help but feel like I was watching an ABC family drama.
ANIMAL KINGDOM – World Dramatic Competition – Rating: 7 out of 10
David Michôd’s Australian family crime drama is a taut and atmospheric thriller. The performances are great across the board. This film is really dark and at times maybe a bit too cerebral – but the final act when the grandma shows her true colors is cinematic gold.
Read my full review of Animal Kingdom at Twitch
TEENAGE PAPARAZZO – Spotlight – Rating: 7 out of 10
Adrian Grenier’s documentary about young Austin Visschedyk, a 14 year old celeb photographer, starts out as an interesting insider look at the world of the paparazzi. Grenier’s celebrity status allows us the fun of getting the scoop not just from the guys behind the lenses, but also from the celebs themselves. But the docu really gets going when Visschedyk himself starts attracting celebrity and Grenier has to deal with the fact that he is partly to blame. Grenier shows surprising maturity in his directing. Those who are interested in the subject matter should really enjoy this.
CATFISH – Spotlight – Rating: 8 out of 10
This internet love story documentary had by far the most buzz at the fest. It isn’t some amazing feat of film making, but it is a fantastically interesting story. It hits a bit of a slow patch towards the end, but the film had me sitting on my hands with excitement for its majority.
Read my full review of Catfish at Twitch
ENTER THE VOID – Spotlight – Rating: 7 out of 10
Whoa! As one colleague put it, “Enter the Void will rape your brain!” It is worth the price of admission just for the epilepsy inducing opening credits – but those who get a bit squeamish might want to high tail it after that. The film is a spirit’s slow drug addled trip into the afterlife that takes place after a drug deal heads south in a seedy Tokyo night club. There is a surprising amount of narrative cohesion but the film is more about emotion and visuals than story. It is really tripped out and really interesting and, at a few points, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen on screen. I could say more, but this one really has to be experienced.
BOY – World Dramatic Competition – Rating: 9 out of 10
Taika Waititi’s follow up to Eagle Vs. Shark (after his multiple directed eps of Flight of the Conchords) is loosely based on his Oscar nom’d short Two Girls, One Cup… wait no wrong short. It is loosely based on his Oscar nom’d short Two Cars, One Night. Boy is the coming-of-age story of a young Maori boy named Boy who dreams about his father coming home and taking him away to life filled with father-son excitement. When his pops does show up (played wonderfully by Waititi), he proves to be even more of a little kid than boy. Like Eagle Vs. Shark, Taika infuses every shot with a visual whimsy that makes the film just as much fun to watch. All the characters are likable and the film just exudes charm. There are some wonderful fantasy sequences and the credits dance number is almost as much fun as Slumdog’s. All in all, this is a very special film. Do what you have to do to catch it.
Those were the 21 films I caught but there were another 80-something I didn’t see. The most notable of those is a movie called Winter’s Bone that won both the screenwriting prize and the big daddy US Dramatic Grand Jury prize (won last year by Precious). Everyone was talking about this Debra Granik deep Ozark woods family drama – but I just couldn’t make it fit. The other film that was buzzing was the war docu The Tillman Story about the friendly fire killed ex-NFL star. Another war docu, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo picked up the US Documentary Grand Jury prize. Other docus I would have liked to squeeze in were Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, Space Tourists, and Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack. I didn’t hear much about any of the three.
My early prediction was that Jake (son of Ridley) Scott’s James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart starring Welcome to the Rileys would be the biggest buzzing film at the fest. I was wrong – but Kristen Stewart did stir up some buzz with co-star Dakota Fanning in Floria Sigismondi’s punk rock biopic The Runaways (though not all of it good). I saw neither. I was pretty damned excited for my chance to see (Oscar nom’d) Cannes holdover A Prophet – but I guess I’ll have to wait until it comes out in theaters on Feb 12. Both Hesher and Howl had critics in meh mode but both are likely to find their way to limited releases in the next awards cycle. The scientific horror Splice looked like it had some cool visuals but the word in the tent was that things got pretty corny when the love story started up. I also would have liked to have seen Nuumioq. Unfortunately my first chance to see a movie from Greenland was a miss. Finally, the only movie in the Next section that raised any eyebrows was Katie Aselton’s Duplass produced The Freebie. Like many of the films in Park City, I’m sure I’ll have another chance to catch this one as it makes its way across the festival circuit.
Thanks to Todd and Dan for making it all possible. Thanks to Alex for the big hosing assist. Thanks to Carly for the editorial notes. And thanks to all of you for reading. I look forward to your comments.