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Sundance Film Festival

During my 6 days at Sundance, I saw 20 films, so my Top 6:
6️. Trophy: a doc that uses incredible cinematography to flesh out issues around how to look after the animals of our world. Urgent, compelling & fascinating.
5️. Patti Cake$: a feel-good film with a breakout star. Get ready to know the name Danielle Macdonald – and also to have the catchy PBNJ song stuck in your head for days after seeing the film about a Jersey girl who spits rhymes & owns her sass through tough times.
4️. Wind River: from the man who wrote the Sicario & Hell or High Water scripts comes his directorial debut. Jeremy Renner, in his best role to date, at least IMHO, plays a hunter who is roped in to help solve a murder crime on a Native American reservation.
3️. Mudbound: Dee Rees’ follow-up to Pariah, in which she gives us Garrett Hedlund & Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton‘s Eazy E) as 2 men who served in WW2 returning to racist Mississippi in a brutal film, but a necessary testimony to times gone by. Also starring the fantastic Mary J Blige.
2️. A Ghost Story: the premise is simple – a man dies and becomes a ghost that haunts the house where he & his wife lived. He even looks like the simple ghost a child would dress up as – a sheet with 2 eyes cut out. But the depth of emotion I felt watching this film belies all of that. It’s a beautiful meditation on time, love and life, and the last scene will absolutely take your breathe away – if you fall into this film and let it.
1️. Call Me By Your Name: yes, this is a queer story but love is love is love is love is love, and so it’ll move you no matter your sexual orientation. It’s a wonderful, sensual, engaging film that I wanted to wrap myself up in for longer than its running time. Armie Hammer & Timothee Chalamet star in Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s masterpiece. The music, the cinematography, the dialogue make it the best kind of film experience – where you walk out the cinema and feel like something inside you has shifted and you’ll never be the same again.
*Special mention: John Trengove’s brave film about masculinity & male initiation, The Wound, and Jordan Peele’s clever & funny-til-it-turns-scary horror, Get Out.
Pic: Bennett Slater’s 33 Years of Sundance from the Morgan Spurlock-curated exhibition.

sundance

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:

Whiplash.

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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.

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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.

God’s Pocket.

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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.

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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.

Finding Fela.

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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.

Love Child.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Boyhood.

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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.

Happy Christmas.

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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.

Life Itself.

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

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]

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The Sundance Film Festival kicks off today! It’s the festival’s 30th anniversary, and my third time here. Even though I feel like I know a bit about how to do things, it still takes some time to figure out the film timetable, and how to juggle movie screenings, with Q-and-As and the odd concert/party. It still tickles me pink to think I get to come to the fest now, after years of just watching from afar.

Last year Fruitvale Station and Blood Brother were two of my top films out of the batch that I managed to see. Unfortunately, Fruitvale didn’t manage to ride the buzz it started receiving here all the way into the Oscar nominations that were announced earlier today.

It’s at festivals like this one that smaller, indie films have the chance to try grab some much-needed word-of-mouth attention. I have many films on my list of ones to see – a lot of them are echoed here and here.

I’ll be updating from Park City as regularly as I can – so do keep coming back.

boyhood

Originally titled Growing Up, Richard Linklater’s ambitious project that’s been filming, quietly, each year for the past decade, will finally be shown to the public at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s one of those movies that has many fans eager to see what comes of this latest venture from the man who gave us the Before… series. We’re told it’s shot in documentary style, and it’s a drama about a couple, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who are raising a young boy – only we get to see the characters really age, unaided by Benjamin-Button theatrics. Ellar Salmon, pictured above, plays the boy who ages from 6 to 18 in the film. This one goes into the Curious Must-See file. Sundance kicks off this Thursday, and I’ll be there reporting on the new films that are being screened there.

Pic: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance

“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:

jOBS
Breathe In
C.O.G
A.C.O.D
Sound City
Muscle Shoals
Austenland
The Way Way Back
The Spectacular Now
Blood Brother
Mother of George
Lovelace
Which Way is the Front Line from Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington
Fruitvale

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.

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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) .

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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.

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4. Sound CityThere’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.

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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 HetheringtonWe 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