Sundance 2013:
Movies, Movies, and more Movies

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
Thirty-something encounters at the Sundance Film Festival.

There’s no easy way to critically absorb 32 movies into a cogent thesis. I saw more than a quarter of the festival programme. Sundance, having been established as a hip place for big Hollywood vehicles to premiere, is not immune from pap. But let’s take it brick, by brick, with a few awards for the high achievers and moving systematically outwards from there.

Gold medal: Fruitvale

Fruitvale won both the critical and audience choice awards at the festival. It was the hot ticket. It took me three tries to make it into a screening. Audience and critical consensus coalesced correctly around this film. I imagine the Hollywood “industry” has myriad ways to ruin Fruitvale in its path to audiences, but this is a movie you should be hearing a lot about this year.

Fruitvale tackles the final day on earth of Oscar Grant, fatally shot early on New Year’s Day 2009 by a police officer at a subway station in Oakland, California. It is a close recreation of his last day, based off text messages and the recollections of the people he spent it with. The movie tackles a big subject with simple aims and wins out because it creates a convincing outline of a real, doomed person. Grant is presented flaws and all; he’s a father, trying to make good with his daughter and girlfriend, an ex-con, trying to put the drugs and crime behind him, he’s quick-tempered and juvenile, he’s a friend, a son and loved by many. It’s vivid, personal, intimate, and devastating. The thousand-person cinema was deathly silent throughout the film’s final 20 minutes, with the calm broken only by an occasional, audible sob. Michael B. Jordan, of The Wire and Friday Night Lights fame, anchors the movie with his performance as Grant. He is going to be a star.

That first-time director Ryan Coogler gets a little saccharine in the parts of the day where he couldn’t confirm what Grant was doing and that the film focuses only on Grant’s last day, at the expense of making any comment about police brutality, guns and accountability, might count against Fruitvale making headlines upon release. But it’s a near perfectly rendered, emotionally devastating gem of a film.

Silver: We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks

When I finished watching We Steal Secrets I had the Two Face line from The Dark Knight stuck in my head, about how we either die a hero or live long enough to see ourselves become the villain.

I expected to like this. Alex Gibney is drawing universal plaudits as one of the best and most important documentarians around today. He doesn’t flatten story like Michael Moore. The Smartest Guys in the Room, his 2005 documentary about the Enron fiasco, was a searing, detailed, and complex moral account of the company’s demise. Gibney doesn’t buy into angles, he tells stories with dedication and patience. We Steal Secrets is as brilliant as you’d expect. It’s a movie that will divide people this year.

Namely, because Gibney puts forward a version of the story that is as hard on the New York Times as it is on Assange and his supporters. He traces the birth of Wikileaks carefully, Assange’s hacker past, his slightly unusual air, his motivations and goals of transparency and setting the Internet up to be a huge check on power. We see how unprepared Wikileaks was, essentially a small volunteer organisation, when they stepped into the spotlight, teaming up with major global newspapers to publish the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs. We get to see Assange execute his own demise. He’s too glib in failing to protect and redact the names of informants in the documents, allowing opponents to change the story and poke holes in Wikileaks’ own actions. He becomes paranoid and believes in his own hype, then when the sexual misconduct charges are made against him we see Assange lose the plot entirely; encouraging his supporters to conflate the charges with an alleged CIA smear campaign concocted in his own imagination, motivating his supporters to commit mass slander, siphoning off Wikileaks donations into his legal defense fund and then slapping his own staff with over-the-top confidentiality clauses complete with massive legal penalties for leaking information.

Gibney also turns the story on to Bradley Manning and explores how he was the forgotten victim of Wikileaks, a moralist who wanted people to be informed about the disgraces of war and instead became a sideshow to the Assange circus.

It’s a hypnotic, absurd human drama and Gibney turns it over expertly and from all sides. No one has put this story together in such a complete fashion.

Bronze (tie): Prince Avalanche / Before Midnight

I think that what unites my three favourite (fictional) films from Sundance was that they’re all smaller, well-actualised stories that develop and move character in a way that is poignant and made sense. Less at Sundance this year was definitely more.

If you’d been paying attention to one-time indie-darling David Gordon Green through big-budget misses Pineapple Express and Your Highness, you could be excused for taking a wide berth around Prince Avalanche. The movie was one of my biggest surprises of the festival as well as one of the festival’s best films. Stowed away in the Texas woods in the late-1980s following a major forest fire, Paul Rudd’s uptight Alvin (one of Rudd’s best performances to date) and Emile Hirsch’s party boy Lance (a slightly fatter Hirsch looks alarmingly a lot like a young Jack Black) draw up new markings on damaged roads. They talk, they bicker, they fight, Rudd gets dumped via letter from his girlfriend, they brood and they get drunk. As the two navigate their own frustrations they hit a truce and an understanding. The film is a bruised take on the human condition. It bathes in the countryside and the cinematography is topnotch. The film leaves space around the beats of the movie to give it all a weird tenderness. It has no huge aim but to study its characters and it is all the more endearing for it.

It is kind of amazing that Before Midnight is a thing, right? Before Sunrise was good, but hasn’t aged that well. Alongside Reality Bites, it let Ethan Hawke lay down a memorable prototype for the mid-90s-Gen-X-too-smart-for-his-own-good-burnout role that he’ll always be most remembered for. Before Sunset was startlingly good, given the glibness of its predecessor and allowed the audiences the chance to sit for a while with Hawke and Delpy’s two memorable characters and see how they’d aged. Before Midnight closes the loop and if you take the three now as a unit it creates something much greater than the sum of its parts. The now trilogy (as Linklater spelled out in the Q&A after the screening, in the future, who knows?) gives us a chance to track Hawke’s Jesse and Delpy’s Celine on three days, nine or so years apart. It’s become a meditation on youth, maturity, commitment, love, lust, disappointment, and all of the frustrations that exist in the union of two people. Linklater’s ear for dialogue and his capacity to keep us engaged and interested through long, continuous shots gets sharper and keener with age. This new addition adds some new ingredients to the pot, but the new window dressings mostly amount to a long setup for a satisfying payoff in the last half of the film. If the first two ‘Before’ movies weren’t for you, stay well clear of this. If they were, you’re in for a treat. Before Midnight may be the best of the bunch.

The loser’s circle

The offences of my least favourite movies were myriad. Jobs suffered mostly from being completely unspectacular. Kutcher’s performance never rises above the level of open-mic night impersonation. The script itself is TV-movie bad (“You’re good Jobs, real good. But you’re an asshole!”). The movie falls into the biopic trap by pacing itself like an infomercial for Jobs’s achievements, skipping shallowly across all of the key moments we’ve already read too much about to be surprised by what we see here.

The Lifeguard made me think one thing only: I’m done with watching self-important, whiny indie-movies about upper class, more-successful-than-me late 20-somethings having quarter-life crises. The less said about this movie the better. Even the appeal of watching Veronica Mars (aka. Kristen Bell) smoke weed, swear, and screw around with a 16-year old wears thin about 30 minutes in.

Escape From Tomorrow garnered buzz at Sundance for being shot at Disney World in Orlando without permission from Disney. It’s a good thing it had something to get it attention, because the gimmick of its shooting aside it’s a crass, offensive, gross joke of a film.

I loved The September Issue. R.J. Cutler is one of a few name-brand filmmakers who can bring audiences to the documentary format. But The World According to Dick Cheney is a huge miss. It’s the documentary equivalent of Jobs, except with Dick Cheney playing himself. It has about as much depth as a Wikipedia page and it is more than a bit galling to have Cheney in front of you for two hours, agreeing to an exclusive, all on the table interview only to see Cutler let him give puff answers on all of his most contentious actions.

Points of order!

The story of Sundance 2013 for me was the documentaries. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, than maybe what was on offer at Sundance was a second, more polished effort covering off the last decade. A raft of modern anxieties and considerations were on display here: the covert wars of the American Government and their global reach, the Mexican drug trade, Wikileaks, Dick Cheney, social media, illegal immigration, the hunt for Bin Laden, the Arab Spring and gun control. Most were excellent, too.

Aside from those already discussed: Who is Dayani Cristal?, semi-starring Gael Garcia Bernal, was a moving, part-acted docu-drama giving face to the thousands of people each year who die trying to cross through the American Desert into Arizona; Sebastian Junger’s Tim Hetherington documentary Which Way is the Front Line From Here? is a lovingly rendered document of Hetherington’s life and his search for meaning in his work, it is set in the context of his untimely end during the Arab Spring, but also spurs interesting questions about how war reporting creates models of behaviour that in turn influence the soldiers they’re depicting in the first place; Manhunt is a documentary about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, free from the histrionics of Zero Dark Thirty; Google and the World Brain probes provokingly the terrifying ins and outs for Google’s quest to pool all of the world’s information into a single user interface.

But Sundance also showed that documentaries could be happy movies too. Evan Jackson Leong’s Linsanity spends years going around the emotional rollercoaster with America’s pre-eminent Asian American basketball star Jeremy Lin before he blew up out of nowhere last year into a global brand in the space of a week. Twenty Feet From Stardom comes from music documentary veteran Morgan Neville, plunging into the fascinating world of back up singers and definitely playing the “I can’t believe no one thought to make a movie about this until now” card; the movie breaks up its narrative with superb, audience pleasing interviews with Mick Jagger, Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, and many other huge names.

New Zealand was well represented. Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, from the two episodes I got to see, is a swampy, simmering mystery that absolutely swims in stunning Queenstown scenery. It might take you a couple of episodes to adjust to Elisabeth Moss with a slightly misplaced generic-brand Antipodean accent, while Robyn Malcolm hams it up in an overly theatrical American tongue. You might also have to ignore also just how much the international ring-ins, Peter Mullan and Holly Hunter, each in fine form, leave some of the local filler in the cast for dead acting wise. But this I suspect will stand the test of time as damn good TV.

Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland’s Shopping is not an easy movie. The 1980s Kapiti Coast-set coming-of-age story invites comparisons to that other 1980s coming-of-age Sundance hit, Boy, but it’s a much braver film. Shopping has some big laughs, like Boy, but it doesn’t wallpaper over its raw-core with broad, basic humour. It’s also rich, dark, bracing and unsettling. The movie focuses on two half-Samoan brothers, Willie and Solomon and the implications of Willie’s dalliance with a band of criminals as he looks to rebel against the influence of his overbearing, violent father. It is powerful and doesn’t pull a punch. Its depiction of domestic violence, set against the Dawn Raids—rarely referenced in New Zealand popular culture—might be a bit heavy for some, but either way this movie should get a strong reaction from domestic audiences.

The Rest

A.C.O.D., Adam Scott’s new funny, is a regulation indie-comedy with a standard amount of laughs. It’s fairly throwaway and serves as proof that the new crop of alternative comedy stars need to choose their material a little better or they’ll end up in five years in a similar boat as the Vaughn-Wilson-Black axis.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is the third feature-film from veteran editor and screenwriter David Lowery (who wrote Pitstop and edited Upstream Color, two other movies on the Sundance schedule). In a Fruitvale-less year, this could have been the sleeper hit of the festival. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play Bonnie and Clyde vigilantes who are captured at the start of the movie. Affleck takes the fall for his lover and years later escapes from prison to try to see her and the daughter he’s never met. Searing, rich, lyrical, and mournful.

Austenland features Keri Russell as a 30-something, unmarried Jane Austen nut who empties her savings account to head to England for a few weeks at a full emersion Austen-themed hotel. It is enjoyably standard rom-com fare with a twist in the concept, but formulaic nonetheless. New Zealanders will enjoy seeing Bret McKenzie in a role as the romantic villain of sorts.

Circles probably won’t crack onto a UK/USA/NZ-centric film compass, but Srdan Golubovic’s movie pays further testament to the power of a simple idea, done well. The film begins with the killing of a soldier who intervenes in an altercation to protect a Muslim man. The story picks up twelve-years on and examines the consequences of this one act of heroism from several angles. Well acted, beautifully shot and paced.

C.O.G. is a film adaptation of a David Sedaris story from Naked, adapted by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, with Glee’s Jonathan Groff in the role of the Sedaris-esque lead. The film gets the Sedaris tone way wrong, ends up much too dark and misses on a lot of the jokes. After a promising first act, the last half is a grind.

Concussion garnered a little festival buzz, an achievement with a no name cast and debut-director. It is the tale of a Lesbian housewife, searching for meaning and substance in her life following a concussion by becoming a call girl. It is raunchy—and hey, no one likes packing into a cinema before noon to watch explicit sexual material with strangers more than me—but this ultimately goes nowhere.

Don Jon’s Addiction, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s directorial debut about a porn-addicted man looking for more meaning in his life, has an interesting message about objectification and romantic comedy, but is a bit too satisfied with simply making the point and being done with it. But it’s still good fun, anchored by some decent performances from Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, and Julianne Moore.

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete reminded me of a more uplifting version of the schoolyard material in Season Four of The Wire. Jennifer Hudson’s role as a fellatio-givin’, prostitutin’, drug takin’ mother is the sort of radical reinvention of a safe pop cultural figure that people love to rave about… including The Academy.

Kill Your Darlings is an unbearably earnest film. It’s like the Beat Generation meets The Carrie Diaries, as we get to see all our favourite 1950s writers before they were really, really famous. We’re treated to lots of shots of Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg writing at his keyboard in drug fuelled frenzies, complete with the soundtrack of a metronome ticking away (because it’s a beat, get it?). Daniel Radcliffe’s casting and the Harry Potter-crowd will make sure this movie makes money and it is not terrible, per se, it is just trying a bit too hard. If there were an Oscar for most acting, Radcliffe would be a lock.

Lovelace is Rob Friedman and Jeffrey Epstein’s follow to Howl, which featured James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. Lovelace is spread too thin, confusingly structured, and suffers from a needless infatuation with stunt casting: James Franco as Hugh Hefner, Sharon Stone as Lovelace’s mother, Chloe Sevigny, Wes Bentley, Hank Azaria and many others show up in bit roles. Amanda Seyfried puts forward a vulnerable and bruised Linda Lovelace. Her performance carries the film and should be enough to find this movie an audience, deflecting from its (many) faults.

Sound City will make headlines, because hey, it’s Dave Grohl and he’s interviewing Neil Young, Rick Springfield and all sorts of big names, and it has a killer finish with Paul McCartney showing up to jam. But for how endearing Grohl’s enthusiasm is, his treatment of the story of rock music’s most unlikely studio is thin and the rest of the movie has too much of a musical gear head focus to have broad appeal.

Sweetwater, a Western, has a Tarantino air to it minus the indulgences, and is the most fun I’ve seen Ed Harris have in years, with a nice part for January Jones and her bare chest. This is gleeful, hammed up fun.

The Way, Way Back comes from the same Oscar-winning writing team as The Descendants, and this time Jim Rash and Nat Faxon have co-directed as well as penning the screenplay. It hits all the right notes and it’s one of the best uses of Sam Rockwell’s abundant charms I’ve seen. It is, however, going to suffer from a bad case of comparison syndrome, being about half as memorable as The Descendants.

Touchy Feely: I find Lynn Shelton’s movies (Humpday, My Sister’s Sister) puzzling. They’re off-kilter films, stacked with quirky performances and interesting rhythms. She writes and directs with a cerebral ear and eye and her films, including Touchy Feely, have all stuck with me long after the fact. Touchy Feely tracks Rosemarie DeWitt’s massage therapist and her dentist brother (Josh Pais) as they battle wildly contrasting changes in fate. Like Shelton’s other efforts, this is interesting cinema, a strange comment on how we connect in these odd modern times, but I never felt it hung together as a movie. 

Upstream Color: For those of you who were fans of Shane Carruth’s cult-smash Primer, which like Upstream Color, he wrote, directed, starred in and produced, as well as serving as cinematographer, editor, composer, casting director, production and sound designer, you’re going to see this whatever I think. The film is a kidnap story that morphs into a man and a woman’s strange struggle with an ageless organism, and it deals, I think, with the fluidity of identity. But I’m not entirely sure. Plot is irrelevant. This is a surreal, abstract, head-scratching movie. I kind of hated it. It is startlingly pretentious, but at moments the stars align and it has a wordless, visceral punch.

James Robinson is a freelance investigative journalist, feature writer, and blogger based in San Francisco. He attended the Sundance Film Festival for The Lumière Reader in January.