The Berlinale is at the halfway mark, but I am still thinking about Sundance (illness and other personal factors prevented this piece from arriving earlier). This year's edition, my twenty-third foray there, had a free form and circular structure given the opening night film, Whiplash, swept the festival's most coveted prizes, the grand jury prize, awarded by a professional jury, and the audience award, selected by the public.
All festivals are intensely subjective and peculiarly idiosyncratic private experiences. You create your own rhythm. By the time my own festival ended, I saw thirty-three films across a range of programs. Yet, I wonder, how could I begin to accurately get inside a festival that resists easy assimilation.
No matter how hard I tried, I left with some deep regrets, like missing Ira Sachs' Love is Strange, or the grand jury prize-winning documentary Rich Hill, by the filmmakers Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo. I saw a lot, and yet I saw not nearly enough, considering I failed to see a single documentary in the main competition or the erudite and typically rich New Frontier section, by most learned accounts the defining work of which, The Better Angels, by A.J. Edwards, occasioned a British critic to ponder, after seeing it in Berlin, why it did not gather more critical excitement.
That is just one example of how dispersed the festival is. Perhaps another reason why is that unlike Cannes, Venice or Toronto, critics at Sundance are segmented and separated from each other in way not terribly open to framing the critical discourse (more and more the sole province of social media platforms).
The only true program I feel qualified to talk about is the (strangely) named US dramatic competition slot, where I saw fourteen of the sixteen titles. I saw six films in the Next program and five Premieres. This year’s festival echoed last year’s: a new film by Richard Linklater, the extraordinary Boyhood, proved without equal. (Boyhood has its international premiere later this week at the Berlinale, and I will be writing about it then.)
For the purposes of this piece, by "competition," I mean the main body competition. It had one great film, Whiplash, by the very gifted Franco-American independent filmmaker Damien Chazelle. I'm much more guarded about the rest of the competition. I liked enough films, but few had the range and ambition and insight that one hopes to find in a major competition, especially one predicated on discoveries.
I think the festival director, John Cooper, and his top lieutenant, Trevor Groth, have an extraordinarily difficult job parceling the thousands of submissions they receive in a very tight window in choosing the program. To their credit, they are much more open about acknowledging past mistakes than their predecessor.
For instance, I thought last year's program was solid, better at the top than the present, but then you find out about the glaring mistakes and omissions, like passing on Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 (even though the director's previous feature was here and a short version also won a prize here). Too many films, you get the sense, get a free pass or at least at unfair advantage because the scripts or directors have a connection to the festival through the workshop or institute.
As much as Cooper and Groth have opened up the process, I still think it needs more transparency. Films that were workshopped in the labs get into the main competition and rather than assert the artistic achievement, it serves to legitimize the workshop. That strikes me as an holy union.
Sundance is getting a lot like Berlin, in that the best films turn up in the furtive corners, the equivalent of the Forum or Panorama, like Next or New Frontier or world cinema. I said it before, the festival made a major error in not slotting Alex Ross Perry's superb New York literary movie Listen Up Philip and Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz's terrific Land Ho! in the main competition.
Sometimes the glare of the spotlight is too much, unsupportive of the work at hand, but Damien Chazelle, I'm happy to report, is a legitimate artist. This new film and his low-budget debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, beautifully play off his complex cultural background. His twined French and American cultural identities overlap, conjuring a beauty and tender grace echoing the early, plaintive wonder of the nouvelle vague with a volatile energy and madcap tempo much more specific to an American vernacular.
Both films are musicals. Guy and Madeline was quiet, tender and handmade in the best sense; this work is more unruly, disruptive and volcanic. Chazelle deftly poaches American and French film history: the grammar and style suggest Martin Scorsese, with a direct allusion to Raging Bull, but the interior moods and themes strongly evoke Robert Bresson, with its study of a young ascetic attempting to achieve his own grace and salvation through his art, a mélange of Pickpocket and A Man Escaped.
As the first-year student at an elite Manhattan music school, Miles Teller is also stripped down: pure, direct and elemental, and the act of creating music and art is inseparable from self-annihilation. As the martinet instructor, J.K. Simmons is spectral and terrifying. From the opening shot, a marble slab of darkness in long shot that links the two warring antagonists, Whipsaw is both precise and thrillingly alive to possibility.
Nothing else is the competition really came close to the energy, vitality and startling conviction of Whiplash. Still, two I quite liked were: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, by the Zellner Brothers, David and Nathan; and Low Down, a first feature by the exceptionally gifted cinematographer and experimental filmmaker Jeff Preiss (his best known credit was photographing Bruce Weber's lyrical Chet Baker documentary, Let's Get Lost).
Kumiko is another serious work of cinephilia, in that it directly addresses the works of the dominant figures of American independent filmmaking: the Coen Brothers and Jim Jarmusch, its two-part structure sharply moving East to West, from the urban to pastoral, touching on themes of madness and severe cultural dislocation, about the steadfast quest of a quietly resolute Japanese woman (the fantastic Rinko Kikuchi) to locate a buried treasure.
This is the first film of the Zellners I've seen, and they combine a keen eye for detail, landscapes and social observation with a marvelous off-balanced humor and subtlety of expression. The portraiture (Japanese cultural conformity, American parochialism) is hardly original, but the subdued rhythm and tone becomes fairly intoxicating. The humor is observant without being condescending and their imagery, like the lone, frightened figure walking through a snowbound landscape in an inventively improvised personal covering is a knockout.
Preiss is also a natural and intuitive imagist. His first film, like Let's Get Lost, is a potent, lyrical lament about art, creativity and breakdown, captured from the open, vivid perspective of a beautiful young girl (Elle Fanning) coming of age as her father, the great bebop pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes, impressive as ever) struggles with his own private demons. The movie divided most people, between those who found the material unshaped and dramatically uninvolving to a more sympathetic coterie who were entranced by the mood and evocation of early seventies Hollywood skid row bohemia. Fanning is, of course, Amy-Jo Albany, upon whose memoir the film is adapted from.
It's an allusive, even subversive film much more concerned with an aching vulnerability and loneliness than a psychologically complex portrait of addiction. With the wonderful Fanning, it collapses the thin veneer marking young female consciousness and adult behavior. Her brief, startling emotional exchange with another adult inhabitant (played by Peter Dinklage) of the hotel is breathtaking. Shot in super-16mm (by the excellent cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt), the movie is colored and given expressive energy from its tentative, wounding tone braiding together memory, regret and wonder.
Carter Smith (The Ruins) is another director whose work is new to me. He has talent, especially visually. Jamie Marks is Dead has an eerie assurance that elevates the grungy, monotonous tone of the material, adapted from a novel, Christopher Barzak's One for Sorrow, a great many people were thrilled and excited by. The ghost of the eponymous dead child who was tormented and ignored by his peers haunts the tense, vulnerable girl (Morgan Saylor) who discovered his corpse and the guilt-ridden track star (Cameron Monaghan) who was indifferent or too weak to intercede on his behalf.
The movie never quite achieves its early promise (further marred by a subplot involving the protagonist's lower class, desultory home life), but it showcased a tonal and formal control worth getting exciting about.
I didn't believe a single moment in it, but for sheer pleasure and bravado, Jim Mickle's Cold in July held together with a sinister wit and some outrageously mannered but lively performances by the underrated Don Johnson and for once uninhibited and expressive Sam Shepard. As unfussy, clean and unpretentious genre filmmaking, the movie tore apart a lot of a the gentile preoccupations of the Sundance movie. At the same time, this movie belonged in Park City at Midnight, not the main competition.
Justin Simien’s Dear White People is more fascinating in its conception than its execution (I wanted to play faster, with a kinetic, screwball tone). Still, the dialogue is witty, the situations clever and the interpolated, flashback structure both unpredictable and clever. Like early Spike Lee, or even Robert Townsend, Simien has more ideas than possible to fully articulate into a single work. It has more wit than insouciance, which is not always such a bad thing.
This is how I’d rate the competition:
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (A-)
Low Down (B+)
Dear White People (B)
Cold in July (B)
Jamie Marks is Dead (B)
Camp X-Ray (B-)
God's Pocket (B-)
Fishing without Nets (B-)
The Skeleton Twins (B-)
The Sleepwalker (C)
Song One (C)
Life After Beth (C-)
Images, from top, of Whiplash, Jamie Marks is Dead and Dear White People, courtesy of Sundance Film festival. All images copyrighted by owner.