Wrapping Sundance. 1. Dramatic Competitions

Jamie Stuart spent much of his time in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival shooting interviews for Filmmaker and has now edited his "Masterpiece" (Quicktime here). As for who you'll be looking at — and it is strongly advised that you do watch — Scott Macaulay has the role call: "Miguel Arteta, Alrick Brown, David Carr, Paddy Considine, Nekisa Cooper, Phife Dawg, Danfung Dennis, Andrew Dosunmu, Sean Durkin, Liz Garbus, Paul Giamatti, Megan Griffiths, Colin Goddard, Rutger Hauer, John Hawkes, Azazel Jacobs, Miranda July, Tom McCarthy, Peter Mullan, Adepero Oduye, Elizabeth Olsen, Jessica Oreck, Lindsay Pulsipher, Michael Rapaport, Calvin Reeder, Dee Rees, Amy Seimetz, Kim Wayans, Vilmos Zsigmond." If you're at work, put on the headphones.

So during this brief lull between Rotterdam and the Berlinale, we're going to be spending the next four days wrapping coverage of the coverage of Sundance. If it's any consolation, the general consensus among critics and industry types seems to be that it was a pretty damn fine year in Park City.

Might as well begin with the most enthusiastic assessment: "As a member of the US dramatic competition jury in my 26th year attending the Sundance Film Festival, I can happily report that the experience was satisfying on more than one level," writes the Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy. "Not only did the five of us — America Ferrera, Tim Orr, Kimberly Peirce and Jason Reitman were my cohorts — fundamentally agree 95 percent of the time, but also we enjoyed the benefit of judging a group of 16 films that was one of the best since independent cinema began displaying its wares here three decades ago. However you parse it, 2011 was a banner year creatively as well as business-wise, which can only bode well for indie cinema's near future."

At the very least, Manohla Dargis would agree on one point: "Now in its 27th year, the festival has had its share of oversights and triumphs, but despite the economic hard times and myriad uncertainties — is theatrical dying, and if not now, when? — it feels as urgent as ever." Her piece in the New York Times maps the current state of distribution and finds that "the line between the studios and the independents, has become, in a climate in which everyone is just trying to get work seen, increasingly moot." What's more, "It's easy to mock Sundance and its pretensions to purity, but it's also hard not to be moved when these filmmakers find communion with their audiences."

In the Voice, Karina Longworth notes that "studios and their subsidiaries threw big money at small movies with a velocity not seen in half a decade. A cause for celebration? Sure. But the thing about bubbles is that they burst." Noting the Sundance 2010 alumni who've just scored Oscar nominations (Blue Valentine, The Kids Are All Right, Winter's Bone), she adds that "buyers may have wanted to hitch their wagons to the next arthouse-hit-turned-Oscar-nominee — or, at least, snap up the next Jennifer Lawrence. Ingenue Fever seemed to motivate the acquisition of a number of long, slow, serious films with high-art aspirations, evidently made for very little money, and all built around the siren call of a gorgeous, previously unknown starlet."

Looking back on the festival for Cinema Scope, Robert Koehler objects to the very notion of Sundance as "a platform for advancing cinema." He finds a lot else to object to as well, but "most emphatically, the jury awards, which insanely ignored the likes of Take Shelter (not even some kind of prizes for the brilliance of co-stars Michael Shannon, in his greatest role to date, and Jessica Chastain, upcoming in Malick's The Tree of Life), or a few other films that reliable sources had strongly praised, such as Azazel Jacobs's Terri and Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground, for half-baked romances such as the perfectly titled Like Crazy."

As always, mileage varies. We've covered a lot of agreement and disagreement in entries on individual films so far (and those entries are indexed here). Today, we'll look at much of the rest of what's been said about the other films that screened in the US and World Cinema Dramatic Competitions.

 

US DRAMATIC COMPETITION


"Benavides Born is very typical of Sundance competition movies and then again it's not," writes the Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt. "In such films over the years, high-school girls, especially ethnic girls, have strived to succeed in sports (Girlfight), in their desire for higher education (Real Women Have Curves) and in any number of other conflicts with family, boyfriends and teachers. Amy Wendel's Benavides Born seems headed down that familiar path only to open up into a much more complex and penetrating look at a small Mexican-American community near the Mexican border." Interviews with Wendel: indieWIRE, Filmmaker and Sundance (video, 3'06").

 



"Despite the predictable by-the-numbers plotting, Gun Hill Road ultimately is a real joy," finds Mike S Ryan at Hammer to Nail. "A macho father is released from prison, where in the opening scene it is implied that he was a bigger man's 'bitch.' He returns home to the Bronx where he slowly comes to discover that his wife has a boyfriend and his only son has a dresser full of panties and bras and no longer likes sports… Gun Hill Road is both a coming of age story for the young transgender high school boy, and for the simple man father who was raised in another era." But for THR's Kirk Honeycutt, "the story itself is too shopworn especially at Sundance where countless films have presented dysfunctional families where parents and offspring are at odds over the young people's unwillingness to yield to parental oversight of their lives." Interviews with writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green: indieWIRE and Filmmaker.

 



For the Voice and LA Weekly's Karina Longworth, "no film at Sundance explored the tension between old and new media, fixed history and the uncertain future wired life is hurtling toward as powerfully as Braden King's highly experimental romance HERE. Will (Ben Foster) is an American cartographer contracted to gather ground data for satellite maps in rural Armenia; he meets native Armenian photographer Gadarine (Lubna Azabal) by chance when she returns from travels abroad. As King alternates between naturalistic but sensual snapshots of their ensuing road trip and non-narrative, pure-cinematic montages, HERE encompasses themes of distance and intimacy and the moral gradients of recording fact and creating art/fiction. The couple's common obsession with the lonely road brings them together (as does their physical chemistry), but it doesn't change who they are or their complicated engagement with both the romantic nature of travel and its darker side — namely, conquest."

James Ponsoldt introduces his interview with King for Filmmaker (indieWIRE has another and ioncinema's Eric Lavallee has video from the premiere): "HERE concerns itself with the way we see — both each other and the landscape. The film aims to unpack the subconscious life of our photographic records — be they color-saturated Polaroids or views of Earth from outer space. We all have personal histories that are both literal and emotional, and HERE is the story of a romance told in vibrant images. The tiny, dreamy moments spent gazing at the rushing world from a car window, or drinking and laughing with new and old friends — these are the memories that HERE burns into your brain."

More from David D'Arcy (Screen), Mali Elfman (Screen Crave) and David Rooney (THR).

 



"In Vera Farmiga's solid feature debut Higher Ground, the Up in the Air actress brings a refreshingly light approach to the story of a woman's life long relationship with God," writes Anthony Kaufman in Screen. "If Farmiga may be known at Sundance for her gritty breakout performance as a drug-addicted mother in Debra Granik's Down to the Bone, as a director, she's crafted a more accessible film that deftly balances humour and drama."

For the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris, "the movie, which Carolyn S Briggs co-adapted from her memoir, This Dark World, chugs along, first as a coming-of-age movie, then as a film about how tough young marriage can be. Finally, a portrait emerges of the limitations of a tight-knit spiritual community. But it's all episodic, like watching the highlights from a life mis-lived — or a movie mis-made. None of the characters quite makes sense. Farmiga and the rest of the cast — Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz — play emotions but not complete characters… Even as it feels unfinished, Higher Ground also feels like it's up to something about feminism and freedom and equal spiritual access to God. Farmiga just seems to nervous to tap into the power and clarity necessary to dramatize it."

More from Kirk Honeycutt (THR), Jenni Miller (Cinematical) and Andy Motz (Alternative Chronicle). Interviews: indieWIRE and Filmmaker.

 



"If you've never seen an angsty high school romance before, you may well enjoy Homework," suggests Noel Murray at the AV Club. "It's set in a swanky Manhattan prep school, populated by good-looking rich kids who hang out in lovely parks, fine museums, and sweaty nightclubs — so the movie's always nice to look at. It also sports a snappy alt-rock soundtrack, and a relatable premise that sees a dogged slacker failing to find the nerve to tell the girl he likes that he wants to be more than her friend. But one unifying factor of the best teen movies is that within minutes, an audience can pick up a sense of the whole history of the characters, while in Homework, no one seems to have had much of a life prior to the opening credits."

For Eric D Snider, writing at Cinematical, Homework is "like a Cliff's Notes version of every teen-centered Sundance comedy of the last decade." More from Ethan Anderton (FirstShowing), David D'Arcy (Screen) and David Rooney (THR). Interviews with director Gavin Wiesen: indieWIRE, Filmmaker, David Poland (video, 27'26"; actors Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts are in on this one as well) and Sundance (video, 2'33").

"A jumper and a cop occupy the ledge of a tall building for 100 minutes so writer-director Matthew Chapman can sort out issues concerning God, man and humanism in The Ledge," writes the Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt. "The gimmick is an awkward one but at least it gives the film a ticking clock. Meanwhile Charlie Hunnam and Terrence Howard put enough actors' oomph into these ledge mates to make them authentic characters even though the film fails to achieve anything like the same level of authenticity."

"Atheism, Christianity, Catholicism, homosexuality and adultery all find their way into this poorly-made, heavy-handed film that resembles a daytime soap," writes Andy Motz in the Alternative Chronicle. More from Daniel Fienberg (HitFix) and Noel Murray (AV Club, B-). Interviews with Chapman: indieWIRE and Sundance (video, 2'20"). Here's a clip.





In Little Birds, Juno Temple plays Lily, who "lives in white-trash-land, California, on the edges of the Salton Sea," blogs the Boston Globe's Ty Burr, "but she books it to Los Angeles after she meets a sensitive young skate-punk (Kyle Gallner) and his less charming friends, bringing her wary best friend Alison (Kay Panabaker) along. There's a touch of Thirteen to Elgin James's debut feature (not for nothing is that film's director, Catherine Hardwicke, thanked in the end credits), but Birds is pitched less on the verge of hysterics and much of the cautionary wringer its characters get put through feels honest and real. True, my bogosity antenna does go up for any movie that casts two Hollywood hotties, Leslie Mann and Kate Bosworth, as trailer-park mamas, and the film's climax is as contrived as they come. But, hey, it's the director's first movie, and the flaws are less notable than the fact that there are so few of them. Overall, James's skill and assurance, his empathy with his characters, and his ability to build mood and tension are striking."

"Little Birds doesn't reinvent the entropic teen escape story, but its cinematography by Reed Morano captures the lithe bodies and empty faces of aimless youth," writes David D'Arcy in Screen. More from Ethan Anderton (FirstShowing) and John DeFore (THR). Ioncinema's Eric Lavallee has video from the premiere, Sundance has a "Meet the Artists" video (2'51"), Bing profiles James (3'45") and indieWIRE and Filmmaker have interviews with James, too.

 



"Andrew Okpeaha Maclean's feature debut On the Ice doesn't quite live up to the promise of his great short film Sikumi, which won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize for short films in 2008," finds Brandon Harris at Filmmaker. "The story of a pair of Inupiaq teenagers in the vast tundras of Barrow, Alaska who unintentionally kill a drunken, crack-smoking friend during a seal hunt and struggle with the moral implications of a hastily but successfully executed cover up, On the Ice is a thoughtful and honorable story that allows us to glimpse a community not often depicted in mainstream media, but its cast of non-actors are simply not up to the task of conveying the complex emotional landscape that the story explores."

Still, for Ryland Aldrich, writing for Twitch, the film "tells a captivating story in a fascinating new setting and points to very promising things to come from MacLean." More from David D'Arcy (Screen), John DeFore (THR), keelsetter (TCM), Christie Ko (Screen Crave) and Andy Motz (Alternative Chronicle). Eric Lavallee has more video, as does Sundance (2'14") and indieWIRE and Filmmaker have more interviews.

 

WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION


"When a Buddhist monk (played by rock star Suneohair) freaks out during a speech at a local school and starts ranting about molting shrimp, his superior at the temple suggests that he may have some unresolved issues to work out from the formative years of his spirituality, and agrees to Suneohair's request to pick up his guitar and play punk rock again, as he did before he altered his path. That's the starting point for Abraxas, an unevenly paced, tonally scattered half-comedy that takes a promising premise in unpromising directions." The AV Club's Noel Murray gives the film a C+. More from David D'Arcy (Screen) and James Greenberg (Hollywood Reporter). IndieWIRE interviews director Naoki Katô.

 



"A neo-realist caper film for today, The Cinema Hold Up tracks the lives of four disaffected adolescents in a gritty Mexico City neighborhood," writes James Greenberg in the Hollywood Reporter. "With no direction to their days and nothing to fill their time except smoking pot and roaming the streets, four young friends hatch a pipe dream to rob the local multiplex. First time director Iria Gómez Concheiro, working with mostly non-professional actors, takes a very deliberate pace getting inside the daily rhythms of the kids, their familes and their community leading up to the heist."

The AV Club's Noel Murray notes that "when the heist itself begins, Concheiro emphasizes the amount of time the anti-heroes spend waiting for signals from each other, so that they can proceed with their highly detailed plan. It's a well-executed sequence, and the scenes of the heist's aftermath contrast well with what came before, but the pacing of the movie's first half isn't really justified, given that Concheiro's hip-hop-loving, graffiti-spraying criminal dreamers aren't exactly the most original characters in the history of the genre. In a tighter movie, the sketchiness of the leads wouldn't be as noticeable — and that excitingly staged cinema hold-up would pop even more."

For Screen's Mark Adams, this "engaging and impressively structured heist movie is a cinematic pleasure."





"A crusty jewel of a performance by Brendan Gleeson goes a long way toward enlivening an otherwise routine tale of murder, blackmail, drug trafficking and rural police corruption in The Guard," writes Variety's Justin Chang. "Rudely funny and faintly melancholic, both qualities stemming from the atmospheric backdrop of Ireland's west coast, screenwriter John Michael McDonagh's directorial debut is a stylish lark whose many disparate elements somehow manage to go down as smoothly as Guinness."

"Of all the potential comic pairings in the world of thespiandom, who would've guessed that Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle would be such a winning combination?" asks the AV Club's Noel Murray. "Gleeson plays a small-town Irish police sergeant who's been known to sample the drugs he confiscates, and to dally with prostitutes that he brings up from Dublin. Cheadle plays an FBI agent who arrives in pursuit of four international druglords, one of whom has just turned up dead near Galway, in Gleeson's little burg. In classic buddy-cop fashion, Cheadle gets irritated by Gleeson's slack police-work and casual racism, while Gleeson is bemused at the problems Cheadle has getting any info from the locals." Final grade: B+.

"Gleeson's character has something of a long-suffering, unsung hero streak to him, and what could easily have been a routine cop comedy, even in indie form, becomes something more poignant and affecting," finds John Lopez in Vanity Fair. "This is in no small part thanks to Gleeson's sharp yet gentle performance — he's three fingers of whiskey in your morning coffee — which could very well earn the beloved actor some kudos if a wider swath of America gets to see this film."

The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy: "Perhaps not unexpectedly coming from the screenwriter of the recent Ned Kelly, The Guard clearly has its roots in the Western, which is underlined by McDonagh's choice of a Mexican-flavored trumpet-and-guitar score by Calexico that immediately conveys a heightened Leone-Morricone vibe. Further promoting the sense of exaggerated non-realism are the bright hues — green, purple and so on — with which some interiors are backed and bathed, all setting the stage for displays of florid rhetoric and elocution that are magnificently grandiose and obscene even by high Irish standards."

"As a director, McDonagh avoids the grand gesture and focuses on his web of odd characters that call to mind the comedies of Preston Sturges," suggests David D'Arcy in Screen. More from Christopher Campbell (Cinematical), Daniel Fienberg (HitFix), Christie Ko (Screen Crave) and Eric Kohn (indieWIRE). Interviews: James Rocchi with Cheadle and Gleeson; indieWIRE and Filmmaker with McDonagh. And the Sundance Channel interviews all three (4'03").





Justin Lowe in the Hollywood Reporter on A Few Days of Respite: "Amor Hakkar's admirably humanist melodrama strains for impact almost as much as it does to gain momentum against a tide of narrative inertia… Mohsen (Hakkar) and Hassan (Samir Guesmi) have recently fled Iran, where their gay relationship could mean a death sentence. Human traffickers have dropped them at the forested Italian-French border so they can eventually make their way to Paris… Hakkar's script is problematic practically from the outset, barely disclosing the scope of the men's relationship, introducing story points that are left unresolved and ignoring obvious lapses in logic. A few moments of awkward humor mark a welcome respite from all the dour drama, but the performances are so underplayed as to leave very little impression — stylistically the film is strictly serviceable." Interviews with Hakker: Filmmaker and indieWIRE.

"Lost Kisses (I baci mai dati) is a charming little Italian film with an interesting mix of pro and anti-religious ideas," finds Blake Griffin at We Got This Covered. Filmmaker interviews writer-director Roberta Torre.

"Proceeding from the thinnest of premises — a ne'er-do-well travels across Australia to meet his son, and is stymied by a local lawman — writer-director Brendan Fletcher's Mad Bastards is more concerned with piling on the local color than with developing much a story." The AV Club's Noel Murray gives it a B-. David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter: "Set in the spectacular Kimberley region of Western Australia and reaping huge visual benefits from its rugged locations and pristine light, Mad Bastards departs in tone from recent screen forays into this world. It has neither the composed lyricism of Samson and Delilah nor the strained ebullience of Bran Nue Dae. Instead it goes for and achieves unembellished realism, remarkably so considering most of the unselfconscious actors are untrained locals." IndieWIRE and Filmmaker interview Fletcher.

 



"A film of hushed intensity, The Salesman casts the great Gilbert Sicotte as a 68-year-old car salesman in a French-speaking Canadian town crippled by the imminent closing of the paper plant that drives its economy." Nathan Rabin at the AV Club: "To Sicotte, being a salesman isn't a job; it's an existential destiny, his true calling. Sicotte's avuncular ways, photographic memory and decades of experience make him his lot's most successful salesmen year after year but as the local economy plunges into a black hole even Sicotte's charm can lure customers onto the lot. In true Sundance form The Salesman begins as a melancholy, downbeat mood piece/character study, then becomes sad and ultimately heartbreaking during a shattering climax where Sicotte, a good man trying to make the most of an impossible situation, loses all he loves."

This is "is a delightfully observed and impressively assured debut film from Sébastien Pilote," finds Screen's Mark Adams; for THR's John DeFore, "Sicotte is eloquent in his projection of grief, and Pilote captures the performance tenderly. But watching the actor work isn't quite enough reward here." Interviews with Pilote: indieWIRE and Filmmaker.

"Based on actual events following the dissolution of the USSR and ensuing economic chaos in Cuba, Gerardo Chijona Valdes's feature Ticket to Paradise is anything but, depicting the often harrowing struggles of neglected teens trying to survive on the streets amidst of a faltering economy," writes Justin Lowe in the Hollywood Reporter of this "perceptive and sensitive portrayal of a runaway country girl's coming of age."





"Popular culture has brought us teen vampires, preadolescent vampires, drug-addled vampires, and Western vampires," begins Anthony Kaufman for Screen. "Now, in his first English-language feature, idiosyncratic Japanese filmmaker Iwai Shunji offers us vampire as enabler of suicides… While uneven and overlong (an added coda feels particularly unnecessary), Vampire addresses some engaging notions about the value of life, and human connectedness, with a profound sense of sympathy."

Iwai Shunji's films "such as Swallowtail Butterfly and All About Lily Chou-Chou succeeded in marrying music video aesthetics with darkly whimsical narratives that won him plaudits from art house and genre fans alike," notes Ryland Aldrich at Twitch (where you can also watch three clips). "Vampire continues Iwai's tradition of eschewing typical filmmaking restraints and telling his story, his way. While some will find the film too dark, too graphic, too weird — fans will surely find much to love in the artistry, the intricacy, the magic."

The AV Club's Noel Murray "bailed, after 30 minutes. Because unlike the characters in this film, I do value my life." More from John DeFore (THR), keelsetter (TCM) and Christie Ko (Screen Crave). IndieWIRE interviewz Shunji. Next stop for Vampire: the Panorama program of this year's Berlinale.

For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow The Daily Notebook on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

Your opinion

Please login to add a new comment.