Sundance is over now (except for the satellite festivals happening around the country tomorrow night). This year was the twenty-second festival I’ve covered. Because of one great film and a number of impressive, demanding and intriguing possibilities, this year’s edition was a largely satisfying one.
My first year, the moment of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and the crystallization of the New Queer Movement, augured a giddy and propulsive time. The genie was never going back in that bottle. In the early nineties, just a few years after Steven Soderberg’s sex, lies and videotape made acute the market possibilities of the festival, Sundance both drove and was the beneficiary of telling historical, cultural and technological changes in how new movies and more importantly, emerging directors, entered the marketplace.
Ever since John Cooper and Trevor Groth took over the running of the programming, the focus has been sharper and interestingly I think, more eclectic. The festival has used its institutional cache to open new avenues for women and gay filmmakers; it is still struggling with improving access for black, Latino or simply unconnected filmmakers.
Whether they have made changes to their review and application process that previously occasioned some egregious oversights, passing on David Gordon Green’s George Washington or Antonio Campos’s Afterschool, that now appears far less likely to happen. The advent of the insurgent sidebar Next, like the original Directors’ Fortnight, at Cannes, sharply illustrated the imbalance and artistic reach between this and the Dramatic Competition.
This year’s main competition was better than average, though it was also fairly safe and predictable. Had Cooper and Groth slotted some of the Next titles, especially Matthew Porterfield’s superb third feature, I Used to Be Darker there, the competition takes on a more electrifying, even destabilizing feel that brazenly breaks open the festival’s innate caution.
With my work and personal needs, I focused on the following sections: dramatic competition, premieres and Next. I saw only two documentaries and couple of other miscellany titles.
I saw eleven of the sixteen titles in the main competition (Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely screens tomorrow night in Chicago). Ryan Coogler’s bracing, mournful and exceptionally well-acted Fruitvale, drawn from a harrowing and deeply unnecessary incident of four years ago, won the dramatic grand prize and the audience award. In an alert, cagey and sharply expressive lead turn, Michael B. Jordan is the charismatic and deeply conflicted twenty-two year old named Oscar Grant. Coogler’s great virtue, cinematically and emotionally, is not turning him into a martyr or sentimentalizing him.
Jordan’s Grant is a multidimensional man, smart, willful and occasionally foolish, chastened by his experiences and desperate to reach a common decency and do right for his girlfriend (an excellent Melonie Diaz) and magnetic young daughter. Fruitvale is a sharp and sorrowful work about race, class and social inequality. Coogler’s great talent is for subverting expectation and cultural presuppositions (especially about young black men), coloring feeling and emotion in an unforced and natural manner that only intensifies the unspeakable anguish and loss by the movie’s powerful and wounding climax.
Upstream Color is the long-awaited second feature of uncompromising independent Shane Carruth. His low-budget science-fiction Primer won the festival’s top prize nine years ago. The new film is a brazen and formidable work of the imagination that combines a Cronenberg-like horror dread of the body with something far more difficult and elusive to capture, a soulful and sometimes strikingly poetic moral discovery in the contrasted fates of two lost souls.
I admired the film more than I liked it, in part because the first third, though ravishing to look at, is often exceptionally difficult to watch as Carruth outlines an elaborate swindle perpetuated against Chris (a wonderful Amy Seitz), involving a biologically contaminated worm that in its psychological implications becomes a horrifying form of sexual violation.
Like early Alain Resnais, Upstream Color is deliberately confounding, filled with oblique, terrifying characters, explained behavior and mystifying action that refuses to cohere in the traditional sense. It is explicitly not a film to defend but one to luxuriate in, the better to disentangle its meanings and find its internal rhythm. I still don’t understand it. As a succession of splintered and hypnotic images, the movie stands alone.
The Texas-independent filmmaker David Lowery worked with Carruth as an editor. He is a very good director in his own right. His third film as director, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, is a lyrical sixties-set outlaw movie that, having sufficiently established its influences (Badlands, Thieves Like Us and Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night) at the start creates a haunting and realistic idiom that proves both impressionistic and exhilarating.
The young lovers, Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara, pictured above), are separated after a failed robbery results in a police shootout, the death of his accomplice and the solitary young dreamer sentenced to prison and tremulous young woman living with their young daughter on the property of a local merchant and benefactor (Robert Altman regular Keith Carradine). The wildcard is a young deputy (Ben Foster) who shadows her.
Suffused with a dark romantic pessimism, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a mood piece punctuated with flares of violence and pungent soloquies. Affleck’s low-burn, laconic delivery is both his most relaxed and involving performance since his great work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The feline, angular Mara continues to astonishing with a raptness that is quick and revealing. Lowery is not always able to capable transcend the limitations of the form. What a look.
The movie is shot by Bradford Young, and what is most striking is not just how supple and tactile the movie looks, though more impressively, how fluidly the director and cinematographer connect color and light to character and behavior. I especially liked how they shifted from landscape to interiors, and the gorgeous palette, the way a juke joint is lit up or the shadowy terrain of an open killing field. It is lucid and beguiling moviemaking.
Young was awarded a special jury prize for his work on Saints and Andrew Dosunmu’s second feature Mother of George. If Saints worked in a heightened though fairly naturalistic vein, Dosunmu’s film belongs to the otherworldly, like the dazzling and free-form ethnographic works of the Armenian master Sergei Parajanov. Shot in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the movie is at once immersive and strange, captured from the inside-out though sharply refusing to offer an easy point of access.
The story has personal meaning and resonance by exploring the particular difficulties and confusions that ensue, when eighteen months after their wedding, the beautiful and vibrant Adenike (Danai Gurira) remains unable to conceive. Isaach De Bankole, the charismatic regular in the films of Jim Jarmusch and Claire Denis, plays her husband.
What’s breathtaking is the shooting style supports the movie’s inner dynamics. Young’s deep color saturation and off-center compositions ground the material, continuously reinforcing the idea of estrangement from landscape and communities. Strikingly movie is emphatically not a fable of assimilation about the difficulties of Yoruba Nigerians living in New York, but a sure and gripping dissection of the ethnic and sexual stratification ensnaring its central characters.
The visually astounding wedding ceremony that opens the film underlines the beauty and wonder while sharply commenting on the same restrictions and enclosures. Those discrepancies make Mother of George strange, unsettling and real.
John Krokidas’s debut feature Kill Your Darlings is the most successful of the recent Beat films at animating the literary aspirations, inner conflict and peculiar emotional needs of the holy trinity that was Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Foster, again). Krokidas very shrewdly narrows his area of interest to their earliest time together at Columbia University, during the Second World War, his story orbiting around the romantic obsession the older David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) developed for the beautiful though frail and deeply vulnerable Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).
Reed Morano’s cinematography is bracing and jaunty, and is steadfastly observational and sardonic rather than judgmental and puritanical. The movie’s theme is betrayal, witnessed in the rather cavalier and cruel manner young Allen watched his father treat his emotionally damaged mother.
Stacie Passon’s Concussion is steeped in movie history, especially the great European standards of the late sixties and early seventies, like Belle de jour, Daisies and Celine and Julie Go Boating. In a great and lively performance, Robin Weigert is jolted out of her upper-middle class complacency by a traumatic episode and quickly adopts a transgressive, empowering alternate personae as a high-end prostitute who exclusively services women. (The reversal here is the bored suburban housewife is part of a lesbian power couple.)
I could have done without all the near pornographic accumulation of personal wealth. Despite that, Passon has a terrific compositional eye with a sharp feel for point of view. Putting a woman of pure id at the center is fresh and exciting, granting the material a charged and intense feeling of both escape and surrender. Concussion is less a story of sexual awakening than the corresponding instruments of power and control. Beautiful and formidable, the commanding Weigert is tough, emphatic and melancholy.
For the second straight year, James Ponsoldt had a film in the main competition. I didn’t much care for Smashed last year, other than the performances of the two leads. The Spectacular Now is very much of a piece with that film, presenting another harsh and unbending analysis of a young man’s alcohol addiction. The difference is the director refuses to sentimentalize Sutter (Miles Teller), the preposterously gilded, affable high school senior who becomes smitten with a straight arrow classmate (Shailene Woodley).
The story inverts that of Smashed, where rather than document the necessary break up of the central couple shows how the charming, self-deprecating Sutter thoroughly corrupts the vulnerable and introverted Aimee. As the bulk of teen films go soft in the head. The Spectacular Now floats away in its own giddy cynicism. It is harsh but far closer to actual behavior than most films of its kind are ever willing to admit.
The other films I saw in the competition verged from the agreeable (Lake Bell’s script-winning In a World...) to the deplorably awful (Jerusha Hess’s tone-deaf Austenland, the “Mormon Midnight in Paris,” a critic associate remarked).
These are my rankings and grades:
1. Fruitvale (A-)
2. Upstream Color (A-)
3. Kill Your Darlings (A-)
4. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (B+)
5. Mother of George (B+)
6. Concussion (B+)
7. The Spectacular Now (B+)
8. In a World (C+)
9. Toy’s House (C)
10. The Lifeguard (C-)
11. Austenland (D)