(Two vivacious and incandescent young women testing the limits in Maryam Keshavarz's prize-winning Circumstance. Photo by Brian Rigney Hubbard, the film's superb cinematographer. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.)
Sundance 2011 is over, as is Rotterdam. Berlin started yesterday. As always, I’m playing catch up.
In this week’s Time Out Chicago, I write about the festival, mostly in the form of its greatest film, Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s The Interrupters. One downside was given the nature of my assignments and professional responsibilities that was the only documentary I ended up seeing.
I realize I am depriving myself of something seeing just a single documentary, but every festival is an abject lesson in decision and privilege, what you long to cover and what is realistically possible.
This was my twentieth year of covering Sundance. (That year, 1992, was later valorized as the edition that premiered Reservoir Dogs and helped give rise to the New Queer Cinema, like Gregg Araki’s The Living End. Araki’s most recent film, Kaboom, had its belated North American premiere. The movie that actually won the grand jury prize my first year here was Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup. That director’s new film opened the insurrectionist Slamdance.)
I also had a fun time with Joe Swanberg and his cast from Uncle Kent for this article.
I saw fifteen of the sixteen dramatic competition entries. The only one I missed, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s On the Ice, was just a quirk in scheduling. One of the best parts about festivals is that even if you miss a film, it floats in your own consciousness. So, that’s a film on my own register.
As my grades attest, it was a strong festival. I didn’t grade any films as high as I did Deborah Granik’s Winter’s Bone last year. After that film, Blue Valentine and Night Catches Us, last year’s competition suffered a precipitous drop. By contrast, this year’s edition offered no incontrovertible masterpieces, but the quality and depth was something to reckon with.
Here are grades, with comments and where available, my longer form reviews. I’m listing them chronologically, that is by the order I saw them.
Like Crazy B+
As it happened, the first competition film I saw, Drake Doremus’s third feature, was the one that captured the grand jury prize. A nouvelle vague-inflected drama about romantic surrender and release, Doremus makes a huge leap forward. He captures the tender, crazy and tumultuous rhythms of a complicated relationship involving a good looking, solitary artisan (Anton Yelchin) and an aspiring British writer (Felicity Jones).
The Ledge F
I don’t like giving out a grade like this, but this mannered, abrasive work about a love triangle gone dangerously wrong is wrongheaded in pretty much every way imaginable, from conception through execution. Most galling is the closing image of a woman (Liv Tyler) violently gagged and bound, suggesting with the movie’s other echoing story, it exists to lacerate supposedly unfaithful women.
Benavides Born B-
Amy Wendel’s debut feature, about an ambitious young woman (very sharply played by the striking newcomer Corina Calderon) trying to escape her very constricting experience, has some awkward, flat passages, but it’s redeemed by a fairly involving, nervy plot and how it makes concrete and palpable (life for assimilated Mexican-Americans at a Texas border town) something that exists outside and largely, dare I say, undocumented.
Little Birds B
Elgin James’ feature debut strikes sometimes a fairly unhealthy balance between exploitation and behavioral observer. The story, about two attractive young women (well played by Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker) who flee the Salton Sea and turn up with some teenage ruffians in Los Angeles, is a bit too familiar and studied. James has a probing, electric eye and his cutting and composition make him a natural filmmaker.
Take Shelter A-
Jeff Nichols’ second feature overreaches a bit, but I prefer that to another talented young director who simply deliver what is expected of them. I have more to say about in depth here. Michael Shannon, we know, is great. The revelation is Jessica Chastain, who also turns up in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.
Gun Hill Road C+
Rashaad Ernesto Green’s work is a classic in between movie. It tells two stories, one beautiful, emphatic and tender about the furtive, sexually fluid identity and representation of a teenager (beautifully played by Harmony Santana). The other brutish and unsubtle, the personal humiliation and disgrace visited upon his father (Esai Morales), just out of the joint after a three year bit, by his son's betrayal. I could have done with a lot more complex and tender emotional interactions of the first and without the predictable, familiar terrain of the second.
I probably was a little easy on this movie, but it looks great and parts of the dialogue really sing. Hopefully, the next time, director Gavin Wiesen, tries something outside of his comfort zone.
A probing, sensual and deeply alive work about subjects and ideas that resist easy categorization, I was certainly impressed by the formal rigor and lovely texture. The movie is a lovely and searing work of the imagination. My only real complaint is the film, fairly or not, borrows a bit too extensively from Atom Egoyan’s 1993 Calendar. Braden King is another talent worth following.
Unfairly ignored by the jury, Vera Farmiga’s narrative feature debut is observant, colorful and beautifully made. I agree the tone wavers, especially in the opening third, but the final half hour, moving from mourning to disappointment to serene contemplation, is exceptional.
Maryam Keshavarz, Tehran-born, American-raised and educated, has made a sharp and adroit movie about female sexual rebellion, grounded in the spirited and beautiful movements of its two intoxicating and beautiful leads, Nikohl Boosheri and (especially) Sarah Kazemy. The colors are saturated, dreamy and continuously alive. Reza Sixo Safai also stands out as the prodigal son.
The movie limns a suggestive, poetic and haunting alternative world, but the central story of redemption and sacrifice, I think, is far less evocative and interesting. Still, I understand the excitement about director Mike Cahill and the very beautiful and accomplished writer and actress, Brit Marling. I share that.
It shares with several of the other competition titles the powerful concern of how sexuality impacts the most sacred of relationships. Adepero Oduye is sensational, but I wish the mother (Kim Wayans) were softened and given a little more complexity and daring. It's also very attuned to how class, more than race or sex, establishes social hierarchies and friendships.
Azazel Jacobs’s fourth feature is probably seen as a bid to open up and make accessible his sensibility. He brings grace, style and poignancy to the rare bird, one all too easily mangled, the teenage outcast movie. The young actors and John C. Reilly are all quite fine.
Sean Durkin’s debut was the most formally audacious of the festival (aided in great measure by the great cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes). I was especially blown away by his use of water imagery and the fluid cutting between past and present. Elizabeth Olsen is mesmerizing.
Another Happy Day C+
It’s probably unfair and unrealistic to expect Sam Levinson to make something as well as Margot at the Wedding or Rachel Getting Married his first time out. He won the Waldo Salt prize for best script. He has a very bright and promising future. I had a lot of fun with the movie, but I was also exhausted and punished by it, thinking by the end it was simply too much of too much. Still, Ellen Barkin’s been cast as a gargoyle in too many recent films. It was a welcome return to playing somebody human scaled. The kid in the movie, Ezra Miller, is exceptional.
Here are the rest of the grades of films I saw in different sections.
The Future A-
Perfect Sense C
Margin Call B-
The Convincer C+
The Details D
World cinema dramatic
The Guard B-
The Interrupters A
Elite Squad 2 B-
In A Better World B+
Uncle Kent B
The Lie B-