There are three things to know about going to the Sundance Film Festival:
One – it’s very cold and there is a lot of snow.
Two – you will not see all the films you want to see, no matter how well you plan ahead.
Three – even if you’ve been before your brain will re-set itself so when you arrive back you will have forgotten how everything works, from accessing movie tickets to using the shuttle route.
But it’s also one of the best festival experiences you will ever be lucky enough to have. In between, passing beanie-clad actors on the bustling Main Street, to chatting to complete strangers in the line about why you loved the movie you just saw so much, it really is a film-fan’s paradise – all set against the backdrop of Utah’s gorgeous mountains.
I doubt when Robert Redford co-founded the festival 30 years ago – as a place for independent filmmakers to show their work to each other – he imagined that it would attract the likes of Harry Styles and Mitt Romney. But both the pop-star and the politician made appearances at this year’s festival.
I missed seeing the former US presidential candidate at the premiere for a documentary about his failed campaign to win the White House, called Mitt, but I did witness a smidgeon of the pandemonium created by Mr Styles, who came to town to support his BFF Zach Braff (who knew) and his new film, Wish I Was Here. As I watched a group of girls run alongside the SUV he was travelling in, I wondered if this is what it was like for the Beatles back in the day, when girls would literally scream their lungs out and chase – yes, there was chasing involved – the car carrying the singer down the street, while the rest of us stood by with our jaws agape.
It was an unusual sight to see. In the 3 years I’ve come to Sundance, it’s been a quiet affair, with very little fanfare on the streets of Park City. It’s a casual vibe. You’ll walk past an actor you may like, but you’ll probably not realize it’s them – thanks to scarves and beanies – until afterwards. That’s what happened to me on Sunday when I missed the opportunity to tell Sam Rockwell how much I loved him in The Way Way Back, which I saw at Sundance last year, because he was wearing a crazy-coloured beanie.
And even if a celeb is recognized, it’s quite a low-key exchange of a photo or handshake that takes place. Not at all like the scene created by the One Direction singer. But the times, they change. And with them, film festivals, it seems.
This year I spent 5 days at the festival, with 4 full days of film-watching. In that time, I saw:
This film set a great tone for this year’s festival, and went on to win both audience and jury prizes for American dramatic films. A frenetic, incredibly well-edited story about a drummer and his obsessive desire to please the conductor of his college studio jazz band. JK Simmons and Miles Teller make a fantastic duo – as teacher and student. At first I thought the film would veer off into Black Swan territory, with the very physical and bloodied approach to practicing that Teller’s character takes, but it ended up being a play on how far one should be pushed to achieve greatness. One of my favourite lines from the film: “The two most harmful words of the 21st Century are ‘good job.’ “ really sums it up. With this film, both Teller and Simmons deserve more attention, and perhaps 2014 may be the year of ‘the Teller’. It would be about time – after his turn in The Spectacular Now (which we all dubbed The Spectacular Wow after seeing it last year), he deserves more than the 21 And Over fare he gets.
A Most Wanted Man.
This was one of the two Philip Seymour Hoffman films I saw at Sundance. I am a huge fan of the actor and was looking forward to seeing his latest work. A Most Wanted Man is directed by Anton Corbijn, music video director and the man behind Control, the story about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’ troubled life. He brings his measured hand to this slow-burner of a film, based on the John Le Carre novel, which follows a German spy, played by Hoffman, who tries to keep his US affiliates from ruining his long-brewing attempts at thwarting terrorism, post-9/11. If you like the style of Le Carre’s spy novels, in which things take a long time to happen, you’ll enjoy this. Hoffman’s surly German is a treat, even through all the smoke of the many, many cigarettes he lights up in the film.
John Slattery is an actor who is most known for Mad Men, but he’s also directed a few episodes of the hit show, so it was only a matter of time before he made his first feature. Based on a story he read, God’s Pocket takes place in small town, one where no-one ever seems to leave. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a man who isn’t from God’s Pocket, but he’s married to a woman who is, so he’ll do anything to make her happy – including going to great lengths to bury her good-for-nothing son who is killed while making racist remarks to a black man. It has moments of the absurd and some real laughs, but in the end, it is too depressing and bleak to offer anything else other than questions as to what the director was trying to say with this film.
Camp X Ray.
Kristen Stewart’s first film since wrapping up the Twilight series allows her to channel the unease and discontent she seems to always display around her fame and celebrity status. She plays a soldier who is sent to Guantanamo Bay, and develops a friendship with a detainee (played superbly by Peyman Moaadi, from the excellent Iranian film A Separation). The film has some touching moments, as it forgoes exploring the greater issues at hand and delves into a character study between the two, which begins with a library cart and the final Harry Potter book. The ending doesn’t offer much to hold on to, but Stewart and Moaadi make a great pair onscreen.
The documentary-maker Alex Gibney has achieved great success with his story-telling abilities. Here he gives those who know the story of one of Africa’s greatest artists, Nigerian singer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, another layer. Using archive footage and switching back and forth between the story of Fela’s life and the story of how it came to be a musical, Gibney gives us a new dimension to the singer’s tale. Hearing from the show’s writer Jim Lewis, director Bill T Jones and others, we see them grapple with the questions we as viewers have about the musician’s crazy but revolutionary life. Just as Jones’ firm hand is revealed in the documentary, so too are the parts of Fela’s life that weren’t as pleasing as his revolutionary rhetoric – his public disavowing of condoms, his denigration of women. But the full picture created of Fela and of the musical, which it was feared would simplify his life story, is a great testimony to the talent of an artist who deserves to be remembered.
I don’t even want to bother with this documentary, which I felt was a waste of time. I only went to it because I was too late for Fishing Without Nets. The subject matter is interesting and topical, as it looks at how bad Internet addiction really is and if it can be classified as serious as having an addiction to alcohol or drugs. Built around the case study of a set of parents whose 3-month old daughter died of starvation because they were too busy playing video games to feed her, the doccie could have done a lot more than just repeat the same points over and over for the 75-minute duration.
Infinitely Polar Bear.
Although Mark Ruffalo plays a manic-depressive bi-polar father in this film, he also plays the kind of father every girl deserves to have: loving, kind, imaginative and caring. Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana play a couple who are married with two young daughters, trying to deal with his mental condition and a dire lack of money. Zoe’s character goes off to New York to study further so she can make a better living for their family, while Ruffalo’s has to look after the two daughters. It’s funny, moving, and, although it doesn’t offer any real solution to the problems created by mental conditions, the love between Ruffalo and his on-screen daughters shines through.
The Skeleton Twins.
Words cannot express how much I loved this film. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are great comedians, this much I know, like many other SNL and Bridesmaids fans. But they are so good at drama too. In this film, they play siblings who haven’t spoken to each other in a decade, since their father’s death. It opens with them both contemplating suicide, and as the story continues we learn why. It will touch anyone who has a sibling they love – one who also knows exactly which buttons to push. But it will also make you laugh too – as you see the two acting goofy like brothers and sisters should (the lip-singing of Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now alone is already a top film moment of my year). Definitely a highlight of my Sundance 2014.
Difret is a drama directed by Ethiopian filmmaker Zeresenay Meron Getnet and it has the honour of being the first film from that country to be accepted at Sundance. It is based on a true story, about the practice of abducting girls for marriage, and follows two women whose lives are directly affected by a kidnapping, in which a 14-year-old girl shoots her captor. Meron Getnet plays the co-founder of a legal nonprofit in Addis Ababa, offering free counsel for women and advocates for their rights, and she comes to help the teenager who faces death, according to traditional law. The film attracted the attention of Angelina Jolie, who came on board as executive producer a few days ago, and even though it could have been a little more dynamic, it’s an important story to see.
Dear White People.
What started life as a Twitter feed has since become a crowd-funded film, exploring some of the race-related headlines that dominated the news over the past year. Directed by former publicist Justin Simien, the film follows the lives of four main characters, who attend a fictional Ivy League university. One of them, Samantha White (played by Tessa Thompson), hosts a radio show called ‘Dear White People’, where she calls out her fellow college-mates with pronouncements like, “Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two.” The sassy satire culminates in a party where white people dress up as a black people, based on real events. The young cast is vibrant and it’s worth keeping an eye on each of them. The subject matter will spark some interesting conversations afterwards – at least I hope so, as we move forward towards a really “post-racial” society.
Love is Strange.
Ah, yes it is. But this ode to love between two men in the late bloom of their lives is a beautiful tribute to all the ways love has to bend and shift when life gets in the way. Stage and screen veterans, and long-time friends, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are paired brilliantly as a couple, who – after 39 years together – are finally able to marry, thanks to the new same-sex marriage laws in New York. Ira Sachs’ film follows what comes after, the repercussions and toll taken on their love in the next phase of their lives together. It’s an intimate portrait – set in a city that isn’t easy to love, but is worthy and deserving of it.
Certainly one of the most anticipated movies at Sundance, Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making film does not disappoint. From every song and pop culture reference to the unfolding story of a boy growing up in a broken family, this film is a fully realized experience. So much so, that after watching actor Ellar Coltrane age from 6 to 18 in the film and then seeing him take to the stage after the screening, I felt like I truly knew him – like he was a cousin or some other relative. Linklater’s singular vision – filmed in intervals over 12 years – allows us to get inside his lead character’s head and understand his feelings so we experience the story of his life in a nuanced and resonating way. The rest of the cast – Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and the director’s daughter Lorelei – round out that experience in one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve had the pleasure of watching.
Anna Kendrick stars opposite Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg and his adorable 2-year-old, who, if there was an award for breakthrough baby-actor-of-the-year, would surely win it. The film is in a similar vein to Swanberg’s breakthrough hit last year, Drinking Buddies, and riffs on the themes of responsibility and adulthood, as Kendrick plays Swanberg’s sister who, having broken up with her boyfriend, comes to stay with them. The film is in the style of Swanberg’s other low-budget films, and it also stars Lena Dunham as Kendrick’s buddy. The shifts in story focus – from Kendrick to Lynskey – made this a little bit of an uneven watch for me.
I ended my Sundance 2014 with a screening of Life Itself, a movie about the critic Roger Ebert, whose death last year left me wondering if it’s possible to leave the kind of legacy behind that he has, in this day and age. His essays and TV work made him one of the most recognisable voices in film criticism. This doccie looks at that legacy and, intricately linked to it, the cancer that physically took away that voice. It explores how social media and his website helped him build a new part to his legacy. But the documentary doesn’t gloss over his faults, and that makes Life Itself even more of a rewarding watch.
I was also recommended these titles:
Frank, The Lunchbox, 52 Tuesdays, Stranger by the Lake, Blue Ruin, Wish I Was Here and White Shadow
‘Til next year!
[Pics courtesy Sundance Film Festival]