More thoughts about some new films, directors and performers not previously covered in this space.
Looking over my grades, my assessment of the festival is largely positive. I caught thirteen of the sixteen dramatic narrative features. (Holy Rollers, Lovers of Hate and Welcome to the Rileys were the ones I missed. But they're all on my radar, and I'm sure I'll catch up with them somewhere down the line.)
Every Sundance creates its own narrative; but you can’t help feel sometimes it’s written on autopilot, because the same thing tends to happen again and again. Two years ago, I thought Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Sugar was with Lance Hammer’s Ballast the best film in the competition. Ballast was honored with a couple of prizes though Sugar was inexplicably shut out.
Now, I’m still unable to declare the best narrative competition title, either Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone or Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. Granik’s film won a couple of major prizes, including the grand dramatic jury prize; Cianfrance’s assured, hypnotic feature was shut out.
(I agree with Karina Longworth and others that this bodes poorly for the film’s theatrical release, since it was acquired by the Weinsteins and their notorious tendency of acquiring Sundance films and then months, years later, giving them negligible to nonexistent releases. For all those people lamenting the loss of Miramax, I wonder about all those Asian and foreign directors whose movies the Weinsteins bought and never released.)
My top tier dramatic competition titles were Winter’s Bone, Blue Valentine and Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us.
The second level: Eric Mendelsohn’s 3 Backyards, Zeina Durra’s The Imperialists Are Still Alive, Howl and Spencer Susser’s Hesher.
Probably an indication of how out of touch my taste is with the Sundance public, their choice for the audience favorite, Josh Radnor’s happythankyoumoreplease, was my candidate for the the low point of the competition.
Some of the films I found myself resistant to or deeply ambivalent about, like Mark Ruffalo’s directing debut, Sympathy for Delicious, Ryan Piers Williams’ The Dry Land or Anthony Burns’ Skateland, I didn’t find completely without value or interest.
Diane Bell’s Obselidia, winner of the cinematography prize and the special science award, and Sympathy for Vengeance, awarded a special jury prize, are both symptomatic of a distinctly Sundance brand of “magic realism”: Ruffalo’s film about a paraplegic skid row habitué (played by the film’s writer, Christopher Thornton ) who discovers he has the power to heal has a thoroughly berserk internal logic that combines a self-lacerating social consciousness intertwined with some perverse stabs at satire at religion, self-promoters and the rot of reality television.
Ruffalo’s a terrific actor, but the very things that make him interesting to watch, a willingness to go too far, make him somewhat unwieldy and undisciplined as a director. He said after the screening I attended at the Racquet Club that the deeply personal project took some ten years to get made. Passion projects, especially an actor’s, are often lost in the translation and vicissitudes of completing them. I was ready to allow myself the leap of imagination, but the story becomes too mannered and overburdened by plot. Juliette Lewis has always been a guilty pleasure of mine but her doomed acid Janis rock star turn feels like the outtakes from Strange Days.
Hesher, for instance, a kind of low-rent, skuzzy intertwining of Ponette and Teorema, is another film I felt deeply conflicted about. For long stretches of the movie, the abrasiveness of the title character made it a very maddening, intensely unpleasant piece. There was a lot of laughter at the press screening I attended, but the humor escaped me. In my twenty years of going to festivals, I’ve only walked out on a handful of titles, and I’m glad I stayed through the end.
The story of a young boy at an already difficult and awkward age who’s trying to cope with the emotional damage of his mother’s death, the kid is “saved,” by two warring angels, an attractive working class market cashier (Natalie Portman) and the title figure (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt). There’s not a single emotionally authentic movement in the entire film. The first half, I played with the notion the entire film unfolded in the kid’s imagination and this was his “Harvey.”
It’s underwritten and overacted a great deal of the time; yet because the movie was so daft and unafraid of being mocked and ridiculed, I ended up developing a strange fascination toward the movie, even feeling protective of it. On a lot of traditional levels, it’s not that good. Something nagged at me, and the movie continues to stay with me commanded and hold my attention, even though the more rational side of me knows there's something fundamentally off about the movie.
I’ve been a huge fan of Elodie Bouchez ever since I saw Andre Techine’s Wild Reeds sixteen years ago. She’s the star and dominates almost every frame of Durra’s strange, beguiling Godard riff, Imperialists (the title is taken from La chinoise and there’s another scene involving guns that appears inspired by the early scene in the apartment from Pierrot le fou). The movie certainly opens provocatively with the intoxicating Bouchez, playing a Manhattan artist, staged full frontal, wearing only a head covering, and directly addressing the camera for an installation piece.
It was another of the festival’s half-good titles. The imagery, shot by Magela Crosignani in blow up, highly textured Super 16, has a transient, time capsule quality that was absolutely rapturous. For all of the film’s stunts and provocations, it was the quiet, tender moments I liked, the soundtrack off, shots of the Manhattan skyline, fractured, flash-forwards of an attractive couple fucking.
Tanya Hamilton’s gorgeous, beguiling Night Catches Us marked a far more interesting and successful merging of the political and personal. Her film, her first feature, is set in Philadelphia in the summer of 1976 (Jimmy Carter’s populist national campaign is one of the many cultural signposts). Her story is a great subject, about a group of interlinked people trying to make sense of the tumult and revolutionary zeal of the Sixties, now tasked with raising families or staking out a living and all trying desperately to build and sustain something valuable and important for the neighborhood at the same they are deeply cognizant of the past.
In a career performance, Kerry Washington plays Patricia, a survivor of the movement who’s now an activist lawyer trying desperately to keep her extended family together. Her daughter, Iris (Jamara Griffin), inquisitive, whip smart, is eager to learn about her father, Patricia’s husband. Now, Marcus (Anthony Mackie), her husband’s best friend and now reputed street turncoat, returns to the neighborhood following the death of his father.
The reconciliation punctures any semblance of normalcy or regular life. The events of the past, and the participation Patricia, Marcus and Patricia’s dead husband and their connection to the Black Panthers, is superimposed over their lives. The black and white interpolation of the archival Panthers’ footage with the proper narrative is spellbinding. Some of the standard issue plotting in the second half is a bit unfortunate. Fortunately, Hamilton recovers through a sinewy visual style, a grace and subtlety with actors and a forceful dramatic revelation that made this, with Winter’s Bone and Blue Valentine, one of the three truly standout titles of the dramatic competition.
Hers is a second feature I want to see. Hopefully a lot sooner than later.