For the second year in a row I had the good fortune of attending the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT. It was another incredible year. Through the good films and the bad, a lot was learned. Tears were shed. Notes were taken. Lines were stood in. Free yoghurt was eaten. (Thanks, Chobani!)
I saw 9 films in 10 days — which is a lot more than some and a lot less than others. I met a few people who were seeing 4-5 films a day 10 days in a row. I’m really not sure how these people are still alive, to be honest. I had tickets to 10 films, but skipped one because I was so tired that night and heard the film wasn’t great (The Visit).
It’s very difficult to make the initial selection of what you’re going to see, for a few reasons. The first is there are almost 200 films, and the only thing that helps you distinguish one from another is the category they are in (US Dramatic, US Documentary, World Dramatic, World Documentary, New Frontier, etc) the title of the movie, the marketing image, and a short summary. No trailer. No reviews. All the films that show at Sundance are premiers, so the Sundance audience is the very first public audience. Later on during the festival, word starts to spread amongst festival attendees which films are the best and which you should trade your tickets in for.
That being said, I heard nothing about Me, Earl & the Dying Girl (The film that won the Grand Jury & Audience US Dramatic Award) while at Sundance. It wasn’t a “buzz” movie. Even though I didn’t see it, I’m shocked that it won and Brooklyn didn’t. Everyone I spoke with said Brooklyn was one of the best films they had ever seen at Sundance. I’m looking forward to it’s distribution with Fox Searchlight and also to seeing Me, Earl & the Dying Girl when it’s released, to see if it truly deserved it’s win.
Without further ado… here are my film reviews, from best to worst, of the films I screened at Sundance:
Set between Ireland and Brooklyn in the early 1950’s, the story follows an Irish immigrant named Eilis (pronounced Ay-lish) played by Saoirse Ronan. It’s a fresh, realistic take on the classic tale of seeking a better life in the new world. It’s a story of love, loss, perseverance and finding yourself. The cinematography is breathtaking and the effortless transitions between heartbreak and laughter, depression and triumph leave you feeling like you truly glimpsed into the life of a 1950’s immigrant. During the Q&A with Saoirse and the director at the end, more than one person used their question to instead tearfully thank the filmmakers for creating the story of their mother, or grandmother, or them. Saoirse herself started crying and accounted how she herself just moved from Ireland to England and has also lived in America, so she connects with the immigration story as well. It’s a story connected to so many of our lives — the tale of our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents that took an enormous leap of faith and left everything behind for the chance of a better life in a different country. And finally, there is a historically accurate film to experience it.
2. Umrika (Winner of the World Dramatic Audience Award)
Going into this film I admit I didn’t make the connection that “Umrika” is the Indian word for “America”. This was a foreign language Indian film, starring Suraj Sharma (who starred in “Life of Pi”). Set in the 1970’s, a village boy in rural India named Ramakant has a much older brother who is the favorite of their mother, to the point that she tells her younger son that he will never amount to anything compared to his brother. When the eldest son moves to America, for years the entire village becomes obsessed with the letters he sends back, detailing his adventures, where he lives, the size of the bathrooms, American customs and holidays, and everything about the far away land, seemingly forever out of grasp for all of the villagers. One day when tragedy strikes, Ramakant decides to go find his brother in America, and his journey to get there uncovers shocking revelations and strength he didn’t know he had.
*Sidenote: I found it amusing that my 2 favorite Sundance films this year starred Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) & Tony Revolori (Umrika), who starred together in the wonderful Grand Budapest Hotel.
3. Advantageous (Winner of the Special Jury Prize for Dramatic Collaborative Vision)
I give this film lots of credit for it’s ambition and use of concepts stemming from future tech & medical predictions, including some dialogue that I swear was borrowed verbatim from Ray Kurzweil’s lectures. Also there was strong character development of the main character and her daughter. It needs a lot more work to be a successful wide-release though. There were some very rough moments and iffy CGI (no doubt an issue because this film was converted from a low-budget short) and the future world the filmmakers created at times felt like 2010 and other times felt like 2150. It was all over the map. The premise was a mother that works as a high-profile spokeswoman for a controversial advanced cosmetic technology company that has developed a medical procedure where they can transfer your memories, personality, likes & dislikes and basically everything about your conscience into a genetically engineered body — thereby introducing the possibility of not only customizing your body and appearance to your exact specifications — but jumping back however many years you desire in age as well. A 90 year old could wake up as an 18 year old, after a painless 1 hour procedure. In this future world, jobs are incredibly difficult to get, and when facing the possibility of being replaced by a younger woman, the main character fears for the future of her gifted young daughter if she were to have to pull her out of the best academy in the city, which is the only guarantee her daughter has to get a job and have a good life as an adult. Because of this dilema, she contemplates undergoing the procedure she has long been the spokeswoman of, but is secretly warned by the scientist behind the procedure that there are worse side-effects than what they let on.
Set in a remote desert town in modern-day Australia, Nicole Kidman stars in this bizarre epic about a family torn apart by the quirks and mental instability of the parents and children which ultimately leads to the disappearance of their young son and teenage daughter right before a major dust storm rolls through the town. Worried their kids were out in it, the parents start to unravel as days pass without the kids being found, and the darker puzzle pieces that led to their disappearances are slowly uncovered. I really enjoyed this film despite it being a bit too long and seeing it at 8am.
This film had amazing potential, but not enough substantial character development to make it truly enjoyable. The director took a huge risk switching from a normal film narrative to a self-aware narrative, where at many points in the film the main character looks directly into the camera and talks to the audience about himself. There was also an awkward 5 minute sequence where illustration was used in place of the set for a house, but it just didn’t work at all and felt incredibly out of whack. Diary of a Teenage Girl also employed a lot of illustration blended with the live action, and it worked well because the context of the film is based on the inter workings of a teenage girl’s mind… Experimenter was based on the important historical biography of Stanley Milgram, who created one of the most important psychological experiments of the 20th century. Too much time was spent on the experiments, whilst too little time was spent on really getting to know Stanley and feeling the pain of the backlash from his seminal work. Also, the fake beard that Peter Sarsgaard wore for 1/2 the film looked like it was rented from a discount halloween store.
6. Most Likely to Succeed
At times brilliant, but a mostly contrived and under-researched documentary about drastically changing the education system in America. They only focus on one school in San Diego that has abolished standardized testing and textbook learning, and repeatedly claim that there is no way to prove that this method won’t be a total disaster until the “graduates” of this school make it to the workforce and we can then study how well they perform and if they are more likely to succeed than children educated the traditional way. This movie needs to be re-made 10 years from now with real facts and data.
7. Last Days in the Desert
If you like “Biblical” stories that don’t even remotely adhere to the actual story in the Bible but instead just borrow the names of the characters and the settings, and you also like movies that are compromised of at least 20 minutes of nothing but footage of the desert, and you also like Ewan McGregor playing Jesus with his full Scottish accent intact, you might actually enjoy this film. I didn’t dislike it. I just wish I had watched it with friends, in my living room, on Netflix. That way I could of fast-forwarded through the long, drawn out nature sequences and just watched the 10 minutes of actual action the film had instead. It’s an interesting film, but it’s hard to get past Jesus with a Scottish accent.
8. Things of the Aimless Wanderer
I’m not sure what to say about this film besides it was incredibly thought provoking. It was part of the “New Frontier” category which I’d like Sundance to rename to the “what the actual hell is going on in these films” category. I guess New Frontier has a better ring to it. The Q&A after this movie really helped me out a lot. I was totally lost. Then the actor and producer really helped clear it up for me and make all the connections for me. I even asked a question during this Q&A I was so confused. I never ask questions at Sundance Q&A’s! I think my question was about one of the editing techniques used in the film that was wonderfully jarring and creative.
9. Diary of a Teenage Girl
This was one of the most hyped films of the festival, and the most disappointing, to me. Kristin Wiig was incredible, all the actors were… but the content and the premise of this film just left me feeling so disgusted it negated all other good qualities. You’d have to be a special kind of person to highly enjoy a film about a 15 year-old sex addict who seduces her mom’s boyfriend and then gets into prostitution, all while whimsically doodling away her fantasies in her diary to the cute backdrop of 1970s San Francisco. I understand the desire to tell stories with dark undertones and content, but in my opinion, they need to be done in a way that puts crime, sexual abuse, drug use, prostitution, underage relationships, etc in a negative light — not in a positive, or laissez-faire “thats the way it was” light.