The weather was frigid. the movies kept us warm. They were sexier than usual and generous to their characters as well as to us, the viewers who could decide their fates, slumped in our seats, the many outer layers of clothing we’d donned against the cold filling our laps or scattered about our feet. If you want comfortable, the Sundance Film Festival has never been the place. But now, with John Cooper and Trevor Groth in their fifth outings as, respectively, festival director and programming director, Sundance has found a groove, and while it would be easy to call it progressive, it seemed this year a bit of a throwback to the Sundance of the early Nineties, before the Tarantino wannabes took over with their testosterone-fueled genre movies and their smug hetero entitlement.
Twenty Feet from Stardom
Of course, any festival that self-identifies as inclusive will have its lineup determined almost as much by the current film culture at large as by its own tastemakers. At Sundance 2013, there was something for everyone and also a feeling of come-one-come-all to movies that in a more stratified environment would have been classified in either/or terms: queer or het, art or pop. This year for the first time, half of the movies in the U.S. Competition were directed by women, but even more satisfying were the numerous entries in all sections in which women were at the center of the action. Setting the pluralistic tone for me were Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet from Stardom (one of four opening-night selections, and immediately scooped up by The Weinstein Company in what became a very active 10 days for buyers) and Travis Mathews and James Franco’s Interior. Leather Bar. The former is an exhilarating music doc that spotlights a largely unknown bevy of mostly African-American, female backup singers—Darlene Love and Merry Clayton among them—for pop groups and rock legends. The movie pays a long-overdue tribute to their glorious pipes, but also engages with the disconnection between talent and stardom, and while it isn’t exactly an exposé of the music industry, infuriating details emerge. Interior. Leather Bar. is the least forced of the “deconstructed” film projects with which Franco has been involved. A movie about the making of an imaginative re-creation of “lost” footage—specifically the hardcore leather-bar scenes cut from William Friedkin’s 1980 Cruising—Mathews and Franco’s collaboration is notable for an almost complete absence of the homophobia in which Cruising is saturated. As a cinematic footnote to the Frank Ocean moment, it is a pleasurable gender-fuck as much for the audience as the putatively gay and straight participants on the screen.
Interior. Leather Bar.
The most stunning event of the festival was the single screening of Jane Campion’s television series Top of the Lake, which will be cablecast on the Sundance Channel in seven 50-minute weekly episodes beginning March 18. The entire series was projected in the Egyptian Theater (the old movie palace that once was Sundance’s premiere venue) to a sold-out crowd, most of whom sat mesmerized throughout its 353 minutes plus the hour-long Q&A that followed with Campion, her co-writer, Gerard Lee, and the actors (Elisabeth Moss, Holly Hunter, and Peter Mullan among them). Top of the Lake is epic in its scale, the drama and performances a match for the New Zealand wilderness in which it is set. I fear that something of its visual power will be lost on the small screen. (Read the review of the series here.)
If the gender wars are inscribed in Top of the Lake as rape, murder, and melodrama, they are played for comedy with just a touch of despair in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third but hopefully not the last in his series of romantic comedy “talkies” starring Julie Delpy as Céline and Ethan Hawke as Jesse. The characters are now near-middle-aged and the demands of Jesse and, surprise, their two daughters, have plunged the irrepressible Céline into an existential crisis that volcanically erupts during what was intended as an intimate getaway. Unleashing a stream of feminist consciousness that is both outraged and outrageous—and cathartic because we are laughing with her, not at her—Céline emerges as a 21st-century hero and Delpy as the Carole Lombard of our time.
Mother of George
A very different portrait of a marriage, Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George is set in Brooklyn’s traditional but not entirely insular Yoruba community. As a married couple who have difficulty conceiving the child that the husband’s mother has demanded they produce to ensure the continuity of the patriarchal line, Danai Gurira and Isaach De Bankolé deliver performances of remarkable emotional power and subtlety. Directing his second feature, Nigerian-born Dosunmu entices us with a world of abundant sensory riches, while making us aware that we are outsiders who have difficulty grasping the complete picture. Perhaps some of the characters, who are living between two worlds, have a similar problem. Using the RED Epic, cinematographer Bradford Young employs a scope ratio format, very little depth of field, and (I’m pretty sure) a diopter to insure that large portions of the image are almost always out of focus, to the point that they register as near abstract soft swirls of color. Mother of George’s unique visuals are not only ravishing, they are the keys to the movie’s meaning.
Dosunmu was not alone in exploring new forms for narrative movies. With nods to Stanley Kubrick and George Landow, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is bracingly idiosyncratic—and close to perfect. Set in 1980 in a nowheresville hotel hosting an annual artificial-intelligence chess competition (software programs operated by computer nerds compete at chess) the movie is part faux documentary and part hallucinatory coming-of-age sexual fantasy. Bujalski sidestepped the question of when he would set aside his beloved 16mm and embrace digital technology by opting for black-and-white analog video, using the camera that succeeded the Portapak but would have been relegated to the garage by the year of this chess meet. Patrick Riester is a pitch-perfect Bujalski non-actor and what he sees in the final scene rivals the Surrealists’ erotic depictions of the “New Eve.” Computer Chess won the Sloan Prize for best science-based narrative. It was the only major prizewinner I saw, apart from three shorts—Grzegorz Zariczny’s The Whistle, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, and Michael Almereyda’s Skinningrove—all of them beautifully structured and deserving of their festival recognition. For the record, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale won both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic narrative, and Steve Hoover’s Blood Brother took the corresponding prizes for documentary, the first time in Sundance history there was complete accord between juries and the public.
If Computer Chess’s comedy is based on what was not so long ago naïve optimism about artificial intelligence, Shane Carruth’s evocation of cutting-edge science in Upstream Color may be darker to some— although not necessarily to its director/ writer/cinematographer and co-editor. Nine years ago, Primer, Carruth’s debut feature, won multiple Sundance awards including the Grand Jury Prize, and went on to achieve cult status. The long-awaited Upstream Color, its sci-fi edge aside (the basis here is bio-mechanics rather than Primer’s quantum physics), is a very different movie—a huge step forward in its technical accomplishment, scale, and narrative density. From beginning to end, it is an immersive experience, overwhelming visually and sonically. The narrative—delivered in shards of images, actions, and dialogue—begs to be interpreted, and judging from conversations on shuttle buses throughout the week, festivalgoers were eager to oblige. In my case the movie produced a classic paranoia about boundaries too easily breached. In preparation for its April release, consider reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and googling “upstream DNA sequence,” as used in experiments where DNA is combined across species lines. Upstream Color is a gorgeous movie—the play of sunlight in the visuals is exquisite—but its images of intestinal parasites are, well, off-putting. You might not want to get close to any other living creature for a long time.
Kill Your Darlings
More traditional narratives, John Krokidas’s Kill Your Darlings and Alexandre Moors’s Blue Caprice are both impressive debut features—haunting, noir-derived depictions of male bonding and psychosexual obsession. Both are based on true stories. With a brilliant script co-written by the director and Austin Bunn, Kill Your Darlings is a literary romance and origin story of the Beat aesthetic. The film is set during World War II at Columbia University, where Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), William Burroughs (Ben Foster), and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) met for the first time. Radcliffe and Foster are remarkably convincing, as is Dane DeHaan as the spoiled, narcissistic Lucien Carr, whose lethal combination of beauty, panache, and psychological confusion wrecked many lives including his own. Krokidas’s romantic sense of the characters and the moment corresponds precisely to the way those young men saw themselves—at once closeted and defiant, making up the rules of art and sexuality as they went along. Darker and more harrowing, Blue Caprice depicts the symbiotic relationship between John Allen Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and the teenaged Lee Malvo (Tequan Richmond), the notorious Beltway Snipers, who in 2002 terrorized the D.C area, gunning down 13 randomly chosen victims before being apprehended. Made with great restraint (we see almost nothing of the victims), the movie is an investigation of the making of a sociopath—how an abandoned child is molded by a psychotically vengeful father figure and a casually violent culture into a killing machine. Blue Caprice is an elegy, perhaps even a tragedy.
The Way, Way Back
Sundance would not be Sundance without a few unbelievably stupid, clichéd, graceless movies in the mix. The worst that I saw was Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s tweener comedy, The Way, Way Back, which sold to Fox Searchlight for just under $10 million, most likely because it would have cost a studio $25 million to make a Steve Carell picture this bad on its own. And then there was the inexplicable closing night choice, Joshua Michael Stern’s jOBS, a Steve Jobs biopic steeped in the mediocrity its subject despised. On the other hand, while there was nothing as amazing as 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, one movie boasted a production story almost as audacious. Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow is a psychological horror mystery about a middle-aged man who’s been fired from his job, and who spirals downward on a visit to Disney World. The kicker is that Moore stole his Magic Kingdom locations, using inconspicuous Canon 5D cameras (set to record in black and white) and tiny Olympus audio recorders which the actors stuck in their pockets. The movie is a mess, but Moore’s loathing for the corporatization of all things Mickey is as admirable as it is palpable in every image. Don’t look for this one at a theater near you.
Google and the World Brain
Fittingly, two of the festival’s most compelling documentaries focused directly on the issues of intellectual property rights and definitions of privacy and secrecy in the digital age. Brainy, hilarious, and very scary, Ben Lewis’s Google and the World Brain deals with the attempt of the titular company to claim ownership of every book ever printed (copyright be damned) by digitally scanning them into a database that would be the equivalent of what H.G. Wells in 1938 prophesized as the “world brain.” Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks details with exceptional clarity the moral, legal, and journalistic issues involved in the rise and fall of the Internet hacker and publisher Julian Assange, and his major source—a far more sympathetic figure—the whistleblower, U.S. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning.
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Women were just as prominent on screen in documentaries as they were in fictional narratives. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller, and Freida Mock’s ANITA (at least its first hour) are rousing portraits of courage and re-silience. But no other documentary was as cinematically compelling as Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, which follows the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for nearly two years, focusing on the grassroots democratic movement that played a major role in overthrowing Mubarak only to be betrayed by the Army and the victorious Muslim Brotherhood. Brilliantly shot by Muhammad Hamdy, filled with passionate, articulate young activists, The Square was barely finished in time for Sundance—its jagged structure and provisional conclusion determined by a struggle that continues.