“A filmmaker is nothing without his audience, so thank you.”
Ryan Coogler, director of Fruitvale, said these words even before his movie was given the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic competition portion of the Sundance Film Festival awards this past weekend. Although I was only able to attend this year’s fest for a short while (due to another engagement involving the US President), I’m so glad to have been able to travel to Park City, Utah, and been part of the audience for more than a dozen films that premiered there. Coogler’s Fruitvale seemed to be the biggest stand-out at this year’s event, although many people I spoke to felt there wasn’t that one film that captured everyone’s imagination, with cries of “you MUST see this”, as was the case with Beasts of the Southern Wild last year.
Nonetheless, having seen Fruitvale and a handful of other highlights, I once again found the fest to be a valuable experience, beyond just the pretty snow-watching, free Morningstar veggie burgers, and the very relevant points on gun violence in entertainment made by founder Robert Redford.
Out of the 14 films I saw over the 4 days, a few really stood out for me, including one or two that I wasn’t able to see but I trust the opinions of those who did manage to, and so have added them to the list of films you should keep an eye out for, as they begin to secure distribution dates over the next couple of months.
The films I saw:
The Way Way Back
The Spectacular Now
Mother of George
Which Way is the Front Line from Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington
The films I recommend, starting with my top 3 favourites:
1. Fruitvale – This film, based on the real events of what happened to 22-year-old Bay Area resident Oscar Grant, is an important one to see given the headlines that still seem to abound when it comes to what’s been termed “urban violence,” made more public by the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Michael B Jordan takes on the lead role, alongside Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer, who plays his mother in this film that pieces together the last day of Grant’s life before he was shot by a policeman on New Year’s Eve. It was picked up by The Weinstein Company, but even before that deal was struck, it seemed to have all the makings of a little-film-that-could, come Oscar time.
2. The Spectacular Now – My friend said he heard someone refer to this as The Spectacular Wow. And for good reason. This film takes you on a journey with lead character Miles Teller, as he develops a relationship with Shailene Woodley (oh-so-good in this role) and tries to deal with his “existential crisis” by drinking way too much for an 18-year old. The pair picked up acting awards at the Sundance Awards ceremony in this story, directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed) that will tear your heart up and then put it back together, with beautiful music to help ease the ugly feelings (no surprise there, since the writers were behind 500 Days of Summer too) .
3. Blood Brother – The one thing I’ve learnt about attending film festivals is that you will never see all the films on the line-up so there’s no use in stressing out about what you don’t get to see on your schedule. I had planned to see Toy’s House, but was too late to get into the wait-list for this popular film. While drowning my sorrows over a cocktail at the Sundance Channel HQ, I met a guy who told me I should see Blood Brother, a film his friend made about his best friend. I was a little skeptical: how do you make a documentary about your best friend without being too subjective? Especially on the subject of HIV/Aids. But I’m so glad I took the chance and went to see this film. It received a much-deserved standing ovation, and then went on to win the Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary category. Rocky Braat will win your heart as his friend, director Steven Hoover tells the story of his move to India to look after children at an HIV/Aids home. It’s deeply personal – from all sides – and there’s a scene that has the power to change the way you think of HIV/Aids and what love truly means.
4. Sound City – There’s no better way to see this rocking documentary than in a cinema where the volume is turned up loud and the images are displayed in full resolution. Foo Fighters frontman and Nirvana drummer, Dave Grohl steps into the director’s chair to tell the story of how the now-defunct Van Nuys studios in Hollywood came to be one of the most-sought after recording spaces for bands like Fleetwood Mac and Grohl’s own Nirvana. Along the way, with memories and much reminiscing from the likes of Neil Young, Tom Petty and Rick Rubin, you get treasured insight into the opinions and perspectives these artists have on making music and how the changing times have impacted the artform. The jam session at the end with Sir Paul McCartney is a top off treat. As are Grohl’s thought bubbles when the engineer behind the Neve mixing board – Van Nys’ star attraction – explains how it all works. Muscle Shoals tells a similar story – of the studios in Alabama, albeit in a more restrained, less passionate way.
5. The Way Way Back – This is the film that made headlines at Sundance, for securing the biggest deal since Litte Miss Sunshine sold for $10.5 in 2006. Snapped up by Fox Searchlight for a reported $10 million, the film is written by the Oscar-winning team that brought us The Descendants, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and it deals in the coming-of-age realm, set against the backdrop of a summer vacation, complete with divorce and dysfunctional families. All themes that, in the past, have been the stuff of most Sundance hits. Toni Collette and Steve Carrell star, but you’ll hardly recognize Carrell as he plays against type here to be a real jerk of a guy. I liked Sam Rockwell in the fatherly-like-friend figure he plays to the young protagonist, Liam James, and I hope he starts to get the recognition he deserves after flying under the radar for far too long now.
5. Mother of George – Andrew Dosunmu returned to Sundance after 2009’s Restless City, with this tale that illustrates the struggles that comes with being an African living in America; how tradition and the desire to push forward sometimes clash, and what one woman does to try find her balance. Danai Gurira, the talented Zimbabwe-raised actress, known for her role as Michonne in The Walking Dead, is so good in this film, dressed in her resplendent Nigerian outfits, a symbol of all that she holds onto, while living in Brooklyn, trying to get pregnant to fulfill the destiny of her marriage. Dosunmu’s style of shooting through reflective surfaces has a way of calling to mind the constant introspection the subject of one’s identity raises.
6. Which Way is the Front Line from Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington: We know Tim Hetherington’s work. We know he was a talented photojournalist with a knack for showing us the personal stories and humanity behind times of war and crisis. We know that he was killed while in Libya in 2010. What this documentary, made by Sebastien Junger, Hetherington’s co-director of the Oscar-nominated Restrepo, does is tell us what we didn’t know about him – the person he was, the family he left behind, the unrealized hopes and dreams he had. A worthy and moving tribute to a journalist of the highest calibre.
Bonus: Richard Linklater’s final part in the romantic drama featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Before Midnight and Kill Your Darlings starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg, both got the thumbs-up from people I respect in the industry, so they’re top of my list of the next films I need to see.
Oh, and if you want to cut Ashton Kutcher some slack, go see jOBS when it releases in April, for the decent “job” the actor does of playing the late Apple co-founder in a film that lacks any of the inspiration one would expect from a story about the man who doggedly stuck to his guns to develop the game-changing company we know today.
For the complete list of Sundance award winners, go here.