Sunday, January 26, 2014

2014 Sundance Film Festival Aftermath

Unlike my overview of the 2013 Cannes, this early retrospective of this year's Sundance Film Festival will not be focusing chiefly on the big award winners, because let's face it, the Sundance jury and audiences never truly pick out the best in the pack all the time (True Love and The Spitfire Grill, anyone?). Luckily, they both did single out the most buzzed about film as their top pick this time around.

But you see, when it comes to Sundance every year, it's not always the films in the competition who stand out solely, but the various selections all over Park City that had every fortunate film critic, cinephile or normal audience member talking about throughout the ten day run. Scrapping through all of the usually generic indie tripes of coming of age comedies and miserable message pieces, there were a pile of unique visions that provided much substance to festival viewers and could later be the best (or worst) films of the year, once released to the general public. That is, if they are blessed enough with a distributor before the tents started to crumble down.

The U.S. Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Dramatic were both given to the film that opened the festival and seemingly dominated all discussion: Whiplash. The music thriller tells of an aspiring drummer (Miles Teller) who's selected to join his conservatory's school band and be placed under the cruel thumb of its verbally-abusive instructor (J.K. Simmons). Many who saw it said that this truly will be Teller's star-making performance and that Simmons returned to his Oz roots to shine as a dark father figure. However, the truly big winner is Sony Pictures Classics, who picked up the film rights for distribution.

The most anticipated film of the entire festival, nearly able to take away all of the focus from the competition, was Richard Linklater's Boyhood, his mysterious project that was shockingly revealed late last year. Why all of the hubbub? Because the movie has one of the most astonishing gimmicks ever to be successfully accomplished: Linklater, along with his cast and crew, worked on it in spurts over twelve years, in order to accurately show a kid growing into a man and his family aging in "real-time". According to reports, the movie is more focused on those childhood moments not typically presented in tales, eschewing dramatics and pre-manufactured nostalgia for the milieu and the uneven flow of one boy's life. It's going to make some more stops at other film festivals (including the upcoming Berlin) before we may be able to glance at the second-coming of The Tree of Life.

Now to talk about the third most talked about feature and the gigantic elephant in the room: Frank, a.k.a. the rock music movie where Michael Fassbender wears a papier-mâché head the entire time. From many accounts, the comedy is too bleak to be funny and too monotonous with its story structure to be compelling. So, does that mean it's a sequel to Inside Llewyn Davis?

Early Oscar, Spirit, and other award buzz has already started generated for many films, most notably The Skeleton Twins, a dramedy where former SNL co-workers Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play two suicidal siblings. Critics have said that the two are excellent (Hader getting more hype though) and work well as believable family members. Some have even stuped to calling it the successor to You Can Count on Me. Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions acquired it and are sure to put their marketing into it until March 2015. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, an oddity where Rinko Kikuchi obsesses over Fargo and heads to the town to find the money Steve Buscemi buried in the film, is said to be peculiar and engaging in its mood and music. God Help the Girl, the debut feature of indie pop band Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch, drew much applause, at least as a first entry into film. Several indie comedies proved that women can hold down the fort: Joe Swanberg's Happy Christmas had raves for Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey, while Laggies and Obvious Child had material for Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Jenny Slate; the latter two were both picked up by A24. Laggies also has been said to feature another great performance by Sam Rockwell.

Horror came out in full force, with some delectable offerings. The Babadook, an Australian gothic tale of a boogeyman and the most disturbing pop-up book ever assembled, has hyperbolically been proclaimed to be extra scary. People said the same thing about The Conjuring last year and I came away from that mostly stable. Still, I'll give it a view at night. What We Do in the Shadows is said to be a riotous mockumentary of vampires living in New Zealand. Marjane Satrapi, most well-known for her graphic novel Persepolis, let loose The Voices, a horror-comedy where Ryan Reynolds is instructed to be a serial killer by his talking cat. It also stars Anna Kendrick, who also appears in a supporting role in Life After Beth, a Dane DeHaan-Audrey Plaza romp that reworks the Frankenstein formula. Cooties puts a zombie spin on the turmoil of elementary school, with Elijah Wood and Alison Pill as teachers, while Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead tries to repeat the cult success of the original Nazi zombie flick.

There were some more genre fare at the festival that didn't relay strictly on spooks. The Raid 2 has been said to feature a severe uptick in the violence and carnage, as the story moves away from a tower takedown to Infernal Affairs. Blue Ruin was a simply brutal thriller involving a man looking for blood vengeance. Cold in July at first seems to be a retread of A History of Violence but was praised for turning into a pulpy, twisty neo-noir in the vein of John Dahl. Adam Wingard moves away from his usual horror exploits to make The Guest, a cold action flick where Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens plays a dead soldier's friend who's ready to follow up on a promise he made. The Double had Jesse Eisenberg pull double duty as two dead ringers with different social skills in the office environment. This is the second time actor/comedian Richard Ayoade sat in the director's seat, the first being the indie favorite Submarine. Young Ones is a mixture of The Road and The Road Warrior, as a farmer tries to defend his land from those seeking to steal his water supply. To end with a weird note, R100 is a gonzo action-sex film about a generic bureaucrat who fights off dominatrixes in public.

As for the festival misfires and other weird movies that premiered: Wish I Was Here, surprise surprise, was just another melancholic drivel from Zach Braff. Those who were stupid enough to back his Kickstarter were up in arms when Focus Features paid $2.75 million for the film, none of which will be going back to the "investors". Camp X-Ray was a pretty forgettable piece about a female prison guard working at Guantanamo Bay but Kristen Stewart was called out for her miscasting. God's Pocket, the feature film debut for actor/television director John Slattery, unexpectedly got blasted by many critics. That didn't stop IFC Films from picking the crime feature up. Dear White People has been said to be a throwback to the early angry racial movies of Spike Lee, but was too much of a mess to take seriously. Gregg Araki crashed, burned, and then frozen solid with White Bird in a Blizzard, though Shailene Woodley has been said to be the sole redeeming element. Actor/comedian David Cross soured his latest film Hits, so much so that it apparently gets unbearable to laugh at anything. Ping Pong Summer and Little Accidents were both the types of Sundance tripes I mocked in my second paragraph. Then, there's Wetlands, a strange little ditty from Germany involving a teenager who sees herself as "a living pussy hygiene experiment."

The documentary field was extremely strong this year, both in and out of competition. Many entries hinged on bigger-than-life people, such as Life Itself, an adaptation of the memoir penned by prominent film critic Roger Ebert. The film, which puts an objective view of the most loved film critic of all time, comes courtesy of Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams and one of many who will forever be thankfully to Ebert for jump-starting their careers. One of the most surprisingly good receptions was for Mitt, an account of the life and experiences of Mitt Romney and his family through his attempts to win the seat of U.S. President. Netflix certainly was one of its fans, as the company picked it up and have already included into its streaming services. To Be Takei takes a wide glance at George Takei, from his depressing origins inside an Japanese-American interment camp, to his star-making role on a certain cult sci-fi show, to his current position as an Asian-American and gay activist. Finding Fela, directed by the documentary machine that is Alex Gibney, is said to be an interesting overview of the controversial Nigerian musician and activist (most have already known of him through the Broadway musical Fela!) but many have said it's a hard sit-through, particularly when the darker and disgusting aspects of the man are discussed.

Of course, there were also docs that explored interesting American stories and social cases. The Case Against 8 follows the trials and tribulations surrounding California's Prop 8 and walked away with acclaim and an award for Directing. Another top recent story also made waves, that being the fall of Penn State University and its football program in Happy Valley. Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart seemingly pulls a Paradise Lost look at one of the juiciest tabloid news-stories of the 90's, so juicy that it helped spawn the cult classic To Die For. CNN and Lionsgate acquired one of the first films of the festival, Dinosaur 13, which explores the controversial discovery of a dinosaur in North Dakota and the fight over the land that nested it. Speaking of fossils and North Dakota, one of the most enduring documentaries was The Overnighters, which shows how a town becomes divided when a wave of poor people looking for work invade a small town after fracking is made legal and the Christian pastor who gives them rest at his church, much to the chagrin of his fellow locals. Web Junkie and Love Child both focus on the growing concern of online gaming addiction in China and South Korea respectively. If you don't fancy anything hard-hitting, there's always baseball, namely No No: A Documentary, a biopic of pitcher Dock Ellis that features a score crafted by Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, and the richly titled The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a rip-rolling look at a Portland minor league team run by Kurt Russell's dad. The latter film proved so popular that talks of an feature-film adaptation are being devised by Justin Lin.

Finally, there was a major surprise film set to makes its premiere at Sundance but it proved to be as anti-climatic as a calendar. That's because everyone's first guess was correct; Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 was it. Just like Harry Potter and sure to come true once Mockingjay is released, critics have all said it feels incomplete to judge right now. However, the curious thing about it is that it often plays like a comedy, which is pretty shocking once you remember that this is from the mind of Lars von Trier.

As seen by the wide range of interesting fare, this year's Sundance ended up being a major success, though it wasn't as earth-shattering as the last couple, both in critical merit and big paychecks being handed out. Of course, there's some films I haven't mentioned fully here that you might be more interested to look into, such as the acclaimed Listen Up Philip and Blind, John McDonaugh's follow-up feature Calvary, Anton Corbijn's latest A Most Wanted Man, Mark Cahill's latest I Origins, the Nick Cave doc 20,000 Days on Earth, the comedy concert film Nick Offerman: American Ham, the generic-sounding gay indie Love is Strange, Steve Coogan and Michael Winterbottom's comedy sequel The Trip to Italy, and David Wain's second spin of rom-com tropes They Came Together.

But it's not nice to walk away without mentioning the Slamdance Film Festival, which had some standouts of its own, namely Kidnapped for Christ, a distressing documentary about a cruel Christian gay conversion camp in the Dominic Republic, and Elliot, which looks to be the karate version of American Movie.

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