By Amy Taubin
This year’s edition revived the Sundance spirit of old
Suddenly it seemed premature to be talking about the end of the movies. Why waste time worrying about the glut of bad digital work, the chaos of exhibition and distribution, and the short attention spans of anyone born after 1990? All that ceased to matter in the face of two unique, personal, transfixing, and transforming American movies that premiered at Sundance 2014: Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.
Chazelle’s passion for the movie musical was evident in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, his no-budget, 16mm, black-and-white, Harvard-film-student ode to the French New Wave and its love for postwar song ’n’ dance flicks. A leap up the ladder of professionalism, Whiplash shows Chazelle in command of every aspect of directing and writing, with a pure and uncompromised vision of what movies can and should be. Much more complex than the logline bestowed by Sundance fans—“Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard”—the film is indeed a musical, its live jazz core fused with an ambient score by Justin Hurwitz that keeps your pulse rate elevated from beginning to end. Chazelle’s influences here are less Kubrick than Scorsese (especially the performance-anxiety-driven After Hours) and Fincher (especially The Social Network). A pedagogical thriller and an emotional S&M two-hander, Whiplash is brilliantly acted by Miles Teller as an eager jazz drummer at a highly competitive music academy and J.K. Simmons as the teacher whose method of terrorizing his students is beyond questionable even when it gets results. (Cannily, Sony Pictures Classics acquired Whiplash even before it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.)
It’s been 23 years since that archetypal indie, Richard Linklater’s Slacker, played in competition in Sundance. Notwithstanding a few forays into the mainstream, Linklater has continued to run variations on what he wrote about that first feature: “A film locked in with the moment and place of its making.” His signature works, from Slacker through his romantic relationship trilogy—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight—to Boyhood, have allowed time to shape the fiction. Time-lapse cinema on an epic scale, as delicate in its execution as it is grand in concept, Boyhood follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) for nearly three hours of screen time as he develops from a 7-year-old boy into an 18-year-old young man. Unlike Michael Apted’s documentary Up series, Boyhood is fiction, its scenario written in advance of the entire shooting, which took place over a three- or four-day period once a year for 12 years beginning in 2002. The pleasure of seeing not only characters but the actors who play them aging on screen is one of the attractions of long-running episodic television. We get older as they get older, season by season. Here, however, the development, not only of Mason/Coltrane but of his parents (played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) who are already divorced when the film begins, and of his older sister (played by the director’s daughter Lorelei), took place during its 12-year production, i.e., before the film premiered as a late-addition screening at Sundance. In a vastly different context, Dziga Vertov described his cinema as “a victory over time.” Magical and quotidian, Boyhood is just such a victory, which is why the Sundance audience, some of whom remembered seeing Slacker when we and Linklater were more than two decades younger, laughed and cried and clapped like crazy when he took his bow.
Three terrific road movies—Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s Land Ho!, Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, and David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter—were proof of the genre’s resilience and expansiveness. In Land Ho!, two ex-brothers-in-law—one blustering (Earl Lynn Nelson), the other withdrawn (Paul Eenhoorn)—take a vacation in Iceland in an attempt to ward off incipient geezerhood. The scenery is spectacular, the women they encounter are all marvelously independent, and Eenhoorn and Nelson make a hilarious, endearingly ribald odd couple. A serious film about loneliness, loss, and aging, it is also filled with joie de vivre from beginning to end (and a very cheeky ending it is). I’m not sure if I laughed more during Land Ho! or The Trip to Italy, which should give you an idea of how wildly witty Stephens and Katz’s film is, since Winterbottom’s sequel to his 2010 The Trip is as funny as the original. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return on another assignment as food critics, this time careening around Italy from North to South. Is it possible to see the coast of Capri without remembering Bardot in JLG’s Contempt? Eating aside, what these guys have a taste for is movies. No laughing matter, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter stars Rinko Kikuchi as a Tokyo office worker suffering from undiagnosed young-adult-onset schizophrenia, who undertakes a journey to Minnesota to find the money she saw buried in the snow in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. Intense, often ravishingly beautiful, Kumiko is unique in its combination of myth and madness.
More realistic in its framing of mental illness, Maya Forbes’s Infinitely Polar Bear is a bit of a reverse-gender Woman Under the Influence with Mark Ruffalo in the Gena Rowlands role as a bipolar parent. The ensemble cast is terrific, with Zoe Saldana as the wife who needs to become a breadwinner and therefore entrusts her two daughters to the charge of their father, who may be crazy but truly loves them, while she goes back to graduate school; and Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide as kids who take up the challenge of caring for their father as he cares for them. But it’s Ruffalo who sustains the film by refusing to showboat in a role that gives him every opportunity to do so. Would that Cassavetes were still here to take advantage of one of America’s most talented actors. Another family drama, in this case based on a true story, Jeff Preiss’s Low Down is sensitively acted by Elle Fanning as a daughter devoted to her drug-addicted, jazz-musician dad, and John Hawkes as the father who adores her but can’t kick his habit. Beautifully shot on celluloid, the film is an homage to the fading L.A. bohemia of the Seventies, but the narrative lacks energy, or maybe it’s too honest in its representation of heroin-colored subjectivity for its own good.
Listen Up Phillip
When faced with a movie like Listen Up Philip, a clever, nasty piece of work, I have to wonder if Hollywood’s insistence on likeable characters doesn’t have some merit. Alex Ross Perry’s movie is about two male literary narcissists, a young novelist named Philip (Jason Schwartzman) and an acclaimed, formerly prolific novelist named Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a transparent fictionalization of Philip Roth. That adroit “Freudian” displacement of the actual name of the model for the older character onto the supposedly purely fictional younger character allows Perry to aim his finger-wagging title at the living, breathing Roth while pretending he is addressing the film’s callow protagonist. Is such a slippage the subject of the film’s critique or simply its stock in trade, or a facile bit of both? At the end of the narrative’s first act, Philip walks out on his girlfriend (without giving up the keys to her Brooklyn apartment) to spend the summer upstate with his mentor Ike, whereupon Perry seems to lose interest in him and refocuses the film on the abandoned girlfriend, played by the marvelous Elisabeth Moss. But just when I was convinced that this audacious move was for real, Philip takes over the film again. Was the extended, although much too brief, focus on Moss’s character a way to get around a classic second-act problem when your central character has worn out his welcome in the first? Or was it a way to entice Moss into the film by beefing up her role? Or did Perry confirm that he can’t write or direct female characters and just give up? Dear reader, you can see that this film so rubs me the wrong way that I can’t give Perry the benefit of the doubt. Or rather, my only response is doubt. Yes, film criticism is subjective, and in the interest of good journalism, I must report that many critics I respect are entertained by this movie, and I even believe that Perry will have a successful directing career.
If this edition of Sundance seemed like a return to its early years, it might have been because there were movies, like all of those above, with enough substance and style to engender conversations long into the night. Among the other fiction films to look for in theaters or on VOD: John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, in which Brendan Gleeson gives a beautifully modulated performance as a dedicated priest who is no match for the disillusionment of his parishioners and the rage of another inhabitant of his Irish seaside village, determined to take revenge against the priesthood for the sexual abuse he suffered as a child; the desultory God Help the Girl, the debut feature by Stuart Murdoch (of Belle and Sebastian), all the more charming for its refusal to sell its musical numbers; Tim Sutton’s delicate, impressionistic Memphis, a blues tone poem that trails contemporary recording artist Willis Earl Beal, playing a character close to himself who’s looking for inspiration in a legendary city that’s as much mirage as actuality; and two horror films, Jennifer Kent’s uncanny, driving psychodrama The Babadook, with a remarkable performance by child actor Noah Wiseman, and Ana Lily Amirpour’s less sustained A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which nonetheless generates some powerful political metaphors.
Indeed, there were so many promising fiction selections that I ended up seeing only a handful of documentaries. In E-Team, veteran filmmakers Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman follow four members of the Human Rights Watch Emergencies Team as they investigate atrocities around the world. They are as much war correspondents as they are humanitarian aid workers, and much of what the world knows about crimes against humanity is due to their reporting. Tightly edited by David Teague, E-Team finds time not only for these courageous, dedicated, best-possible humans—three men and a woman—but also for the survivors who bear witness to personal tragedy. Reaching back into 20th-century history, Edet Belzberg’s Watchers of the Sky traverses similarly blood-drenched terrain to tell the astonishing and dismaying story of Raphael Lemkin, born in 1900, a Polish Jew who became obsessed as a young man with the mass slaughter of the Armenians by the Turks and coined the word genocide (which combines Latin and Greek roots) to describe that horrific event unaware that the same thing would soon happen to the Jews of Europe, including his entire family, under the Nazi regime. Lemkin was nominated more than half a dozen times for the Nobel Peace Prize, never won, and died in New York in poverty, attempting almost daily to convince the U.N. to formulate a world judicial system to bring to trial and punish those who commit genocide both within and outside the borders of their own countries. The film was inspired by Samantha Power’s book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Power, along with Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court; former Nuremberg Trials prosecutor, Ben Ferencz; and Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a survivor of the massacres in Rwanda who now oversees U.N. camps for refugees from the genocide in Sudan, are all shown in the film, continuing Lemkin’s struggle for justice.
Mr leos caraX
More intimately, Thomas Balmès’ Happiness is a portrait of an 8-year-old Bhutanese boy given away to a Buddhist monastery by his mother because she can’t afford to raise him. And in Tessa Louise-Salomé’s cinephiliac romance Mr leos caraX (since retitled Mr. X), the titular director talks about his work, mostly in voiceover, with brilliance and surprising openness while ravishing clips dissolve in and out of each other, making us hungry to see the films in their entirety again. But let’s give the last word to Jean-Luc Godard, who, when asked to comment about Carax after the media-plagued release of The Lovers on the Bridge, succinctly replies: “I wish him courage.”