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Shock Value: Laura Kern at Sundance 2012

By Laura Kern on February 23, 2012

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Last year's stellar edition of the festival was indeed a tough act to follow. The passing of the enduring indie fixture and lovable goofball Bingham Ray four days into the festival set a tone of melancholy. And even if you wanted to try to drown your sorrows in the magic of movies, that magic wasn’t all that easy to come by. There were plenty of perfectly adequate offerings but very little to get excited about—few of the kind of films Ray himself would have championed.

Sundance Top 10


1. V/H/S – David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Ti West & Adam Wingard, U.S.

2. Room 237 – Rodney Ascher, U.S.

3. Safety Not Guaranteed – Colin Trevorrow, U.S.

4. Wish You Were Here – Kieran Darcy-Smith, Australia

5. Compliance – Craig Zobel, U.S.

6. Wrong – Quentin Dupieux, France/U.S.

7. Simon Killer – Antonio Campos, U.S.

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild – Benh Zeitlin, U.S.

9. The Ambassador – Mads Brügger, Denmark

10. Teddy Bear Mads Matthiesen, Denmark

Without festival darling Beasts of the Southern Wild, buzz would have been nearly inaudible this year. And although it’s undeniably an impressively textured debut feature, with an assured visual flair usually reserved for seasoned directors, Benh Zeitlin’s story of an adorable, wise little girl whose circumstances deny her the blissful simplicities of childhood felt rather calculated. It’s the kind of movie, grandiose and over-scored, that’s primed to win awards—and so it did: the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) and the cinematography award. (It also made my Top 10 list, which speaks volumes about this year’s shortfall.) The only other film that came close in terms of generating heat was Rodney Ascher’s tremendously entertaining Room 237.

It’s a bit disheartening that a documentary detailing the inner meanings of a horror film made 32 years ago (The Shining) was more compelling than all but one of the brand-new selections screening in the usually robust Midnight section. The exception was V/H/S, which manages to transfuse some much-needed new blood into both the anthology and found-footage formats. It’s also the scariest movie to come along in quite some time. The action starts off a little shaky (and not just in terms of the camerawork, which is appropriately unsteady throughout), dwelling for too long on the wraparound segment (directed by Adam Wingard) as it establishes the central device of a group of petty thieves who stumble across a collection of old videotapes—whose skin-crawling contents of course provides the body of the film. The first segment by David Bruckner, about a trio of infantile college students who get more than they bargained for after picking up two girls, is a slow build, but once it kicks in, the film doesn’t hold back. The other segments include new spins on the vacationing-couple-in-peril and slasher-in-the-woods staples by Ti West and Glenn McQuaid respectively. Plus, directing duo Radio Silence presents the freakiest Halloween party in history, and Joe Swanberg takes us to a haunted apartment via Skype (recorded on VHS? Well, never mind…). I’ve never looked over my shoulder so many times while walking home alone in the dark.



Quentin Dupieux’s 2010 Rubber, starring a killer tire, was an enjoyably bonkers visual feast—for about 10 minutes. His follow-up, Wrong, is equally absurd, but manages to sustain its running time. Jack Plotnick plays a sort of contemporary Bartleby, who every day goes to the office—where, for no apparent reason, it’s permanently pouring rain—even though he was fired months earlier and does absolutely no work. One morning his beloved dog disappears, and Dupieux’s protagonist spends the rest of the movie trying to get him back. But there’s little point in talking plot—the pleasures of Wrong are to be found in the small details. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it film to be sure, but those equipped with the appropriate sensibility will find it hilarious. I did.



Without a doubt, Craig Zobel’s Compliance was the most polarizing film of the fest. Purely in terms of subject matter—a prank phone call to a fast-food joint sets off a chain of increasingly ugly events—it’s one squirm-inducing viewing experience. Witnessing people dig themselves deeper and deeper into a hole is not meant to be fun. But Zobel’s sophomore feature is expertly crafted, with solid performances that help overcome the constrictions of transpiring mostly in one room and over the course of a single phone call. And every time you think there’s no way this could ever happen—and that thought most certainly pops up a lot—just remind yourself that a similar incident actually did take place (more than once!).



Also ripped from the headlines was Safety Not Guaranteed. Well, from a want ad, to be precise—one that advertised for a time-travel companion. In Colin Trevorrow’s screwball comedy with a sci-fi edge, Seattle newspaper reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) takes two interns (Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni) on a search for the person responsible for placing the ad. What they find—in addition to a little piece of themselves—is a lovable eccentric and potential nutjob played by Mark Duplass. The performances by Johnson, Plaza, and Soni are all nuanced, and their characters well drawn. And as painful as it is to admit, Duplass is a good actor. There, I said it. Supporting evidence could even be found in Your Sister’s Sister, Lynn Shelton’s solid follow-up to Humpday. (His writing efforts were less praiseworthy: Black Rock, the midnight movie he scripted for his wife, Katie Aselton, was strictly routine.)

Your Sister’s Sister, with its injurious sexual-orientation-disregarding quickie, was just one of the many films this year that went the extra mile to shock and thrill with sexual frankness. Marialy Rivas’s inventive but ultimately tiresome Young & Wild centers on a racy clandestine blogger who gets expelled from her religiously rigid school in Chile for not being a virgin, gets a job at a TV station, and strikes up heated affairs with both a male and a female co-worker. (Appropriately, the acceptance speech by Camila Gutíerrez, the film’s real-life inspiration and co-writer, after receiving the best screenplay award, was succinct: “Have more sex.”) And in Jamie Travis’s grating For a Good Time, Call… two roommates who previously despised each other bond by launching a successful phone-sex business (surprise: the cruder of the two is also the more sexually naïve).



The best of a provocative bunch however was Antonio Campos’s Simon Killer, a cruel, hopeless film that depicts the early stages in the transformation of a sociopath into a potential serial killer (this story was also drawn from real events). Recently out of a long-term relationship, Simon (Brady Corbet) takes off to Paris and, unfortunately for her, gets hot and heavy with hooker. The film will be off-putting to many, but it’s still compulsive viewing, in no small part due to Corbet’s fearless performance.

And finally, mention must be made yet again of Blue-Tongue Films, the bursting-with-talent Australian collective responsible for three recent highlights of Sundance past: Hesher, The Square, and, most memorably, the World Grand Jury Prize–winning Animal Kingdom. Representing this year was Kieran Darcy-Smith’s feature debut, Wish You Were Here, a calmly devastating exploration of how one misjudged moment in life has the potential to cause everything to fall to pieces. Dave (Joel Edgerton) should have trusted his instincts when initially reluctant to travel to Cambodia with his pregnant wife (co-writer Felicity Price) and her younger sister and new boyfriend, because fun and games quickly turn nasty when a night of intense partying ends in a haze. The sister-in-law’s boyfriend disappears without a trace, leaving the others to return to their lives, each bearing differing degrees of knowledge about what happened. Delivering doses of information bit by bit, the film’s meticulously edited, nonlinear disclosure of events is transfixing—as are the superb performances, especially by Edgerton, one of the finest actors working today. His brother Nash’s latest short, Bear, also on display, was another of the director’s amusingly jarring tales of a practical joke gone horribly wrong. Like all things bearing the Blue-Tongue logo, it’s a textbook demonstration of expert storytelling. Now if only more people would follow their lead…

© 2012 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center

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