A film festival can be a wild environment of free-ranging hustlers, wheelers, dealers, erstwhile filmmakers, publicists, and various two-legged creatures with phones apparently permanently attached to their faces. It can also be a gathering place for cinephiles and other mad people so crazed about cinema that they may fly halfway around the globe to catch the first possible viewing of a Sokurov, Apichatpong, or Ceylan. It can be a zone of nationalist zeal—the host country’s movie business and artists finally given a chance to be heard above the perpetual, worldwide din of Hollywood. It can be a safe haven for audiences and critics both, the former with a chance to be the first on their block to see a future Oscar-winner, the latter with an opportunity for (fingers crossed) a genuine discovery. It can be a mess, a royal waste of time, and just as bad, money. It can be wonderful, cathartic, life-altering, fundamental.

This is the first in a series of festival dispatches on the Film Comment blog that will try to convey what festivals are doing today, and particularly glean meaning and worth from the films these festivals have selected. Since it’s long been established that festivals now provide films with a means of public distribution entirely separate from a theatrical release (and now, the VOD and various video platforms), they can be the exclusive means for connecting with significant young filmmakers and generally with work too daring or dangerous for the conventional marketplace but that must be seen. 

Since these dispatches come from a critic’s perspective (but also the perspective of one who has programmed for and worked for several festivals), the attitude won’t be one of a festival tourist (there won’t be carping about having to trudge through snowdrifts in Park City, or the sunburn one inevitably gets in Cannes) but of a film lover and explorer. That’s who I am, and who I say I am, when asked. Festivals, at their best, demand and reward the visitor with a sense of adventure, risk. The films that follow that same course tend to be the ones remembered long after a festival’s circus tent is deflated, folded up, and trucked away.

That’s certainly the case with the 2012 edition of Sundance. Of the 40 premiering features I saw, six (or 15%) emerged as films that will matter over the long run, and even flirt with greatness. There are many years at Sundance when you’re lucky to hit 15% with good films, so 2012 might be an above-average year at Park City. (That’s the thing about festivals, and it’s pretty unavoidable: failure rates are high.) What’s curious in this, and maybe even perverse, is that these six were generally found outside of the high-profile competition sections, and sometimes in sections that, due to scheduling, were relatively hard to access, such as the recently invented alt section titled “Next.”

The most beautiful and saddest film was certainly Denis Côté’s Bestiaire, filmed with extraordinary instinct and sense for compositional drama by Côté at a wild animal park on the Quebec–New York State border. (It also screened at the Berlin Film Festival, in its Forum section.) All of Côté’s films are concerned to one degree or another with the ways in which people work within (Carcasses) or coexist with (Curling) nature; a near-obsession with forests is only one of their dominant visual tropes. Oddly, given that this is Côté’s most explicit film yet about aspects of the natural world, the forest here becomes part of the background, since it surrounds the park. More central, as established in a concise and clever opening montage, is the idea that we, as viewers, play an important role as observers of images and of renderings of the natural world. A group of student artists drawing a taxidermically stuffed creature serves as the film’s visual introduction to such observation, and for the role that Côté consciously plays as an image-maker. This preamble frames everything that follows, as a montage of images reveals a massive compound holding a vast array of exotic animals, including giraffe, hippos, and lions, first seen in containment and then later in an ersatz kind of “freedom” as they’re released to their predetermined zones of the park. Without words on the soundtrack, or text and graphics on screen, the film conveys its sense of melancholy—not anger, really—over the state of relations between humans and animals, and the ways in which a park simulating nature creates its own kind of fiction, with the animals as characters in a preordained scenario of entertainment. Côté’s camera framing is always sharp, but it’s never been this precise, this attuned to the sense of visual limits and borders, and so assertively full-frontal—we stare at the animals, and they stare back. (And what movie, we wonder, are they watching?) The camera is deliberately, and ironically, a tool in hemming in the animals, while at the same time the HD video cinematography is pushed to extreme levels of definition, rendering the creatures almost 3D in 2D. Just as the frame reinforces the park’s sense of enclosure, the film’s sense of light gives the animals even greater life.

Much like audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance audiences tend to be extremely nice toward the films and filmmakers. It’s rare to see mass walkouts, or post-screening debates. But when word trickled along the Park City grapevine that Craig Zobel, writer-director of the extraordinary Compliance, faced some kind of hostile reaction after the film’s first screening (with reported cries of “Exploitation!” and the like), it instantly made the film even more of a must-see than it already was. After all, Zobel’s previous film, Great World of Sound, indicated a real filmmaker with a distinctive point of view and style and an uncommon perception for the ways people actually work and make ends meet. But it didn’t suggest the skill at dramatic compression that is on display in Zobel’s new film, which was inspired by a chain of incredible-but-true accounts of crank-callers posing as police and convincing staffers at fast-food restaurants to restrain, strip, and rape fellow employees. Zobel applies a rigorous procedural narrative tack, presenting a typical chain fast-food joint but with specifically drawn characters, led by an officious manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd, in the great performance of the festival), who goes by the book. Seemingly inconsequential interpersonal details about Sandra and her staff prove to be the catalyst for the terrifying sexual-emotional earthquakes that follow, but from such specificity flows the kind of big ideas that are all too rarely addressed in American cinema, starting with this one: could the compliant, “good” German that ushered in Hitler happen in America?

The only misstep in Laurence Thrush’s second feature, Pursuit of Loneliness, is its tendentious, thudding title. Nothing in the film itself is remotely as obvious, and Thrush has made something as nuanced as it is important. Filming in black and white, his fly-on-the-wall camera observes a few days in the lives of people in Los Angeles, from an isolated limited-income retiree and a convalescent patient, to the various hospital and government agency workers who become involved in these lonely lives as the need dictates. The retiree’s life is actually seen in a Cubist perspective (in two separate time periods, intercut), but this isn’t apparent for quite a while, since Thrush makes his film with an extreme sense of docudrama: scenes transpire with dialogue, but they’re so de-dramatized and uninflected that they never sound written, let alone acted. (The cast is entirely nonprofessional, consisting of local Angelinos.) The narrative structure gradually emerges, the course of which is to track the outcomes of these two people who become “cases”: their fates are in the hands of diligent, caring bureaucrats who take their jobs seriously, and more to the point, stand in for the family members who are notably absent. I can think of no fiction film in recent years so resistant to the easy notion of demonizing government and institutional workers that so accurately captures the ways in which key agencies in American society—hospitals, social welfare departments, public and private entities managing the well-being of the poor and the elderly—actually look, feel, and sound like. On top of this, Thrush has made a key contribution to the most interesting tendency in contemporary cinema—the in-between film that blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, drama and documentary.

It’s fair to wonder, given that Compliance and Pursuit of Loneliness were among the most accomplished films anywhere in Sundance and absolutely worthy of placement in the high-profile dramatic competition, why they were relegated to the Next sidebar of supposedly “oddball” films. (Next was actually created after Cinevegas, the terrific festival run by Sundance’s programming director, Trevor Groth, and New Frontier programmer Mike Plante, collapsed along with the Vegas economy. Cinevegas typically screened American premieres that didn’t get into Sundance, and Next is intended to fill the vacuum.) There’s nothing oddball about these films, unless films pointing to new possibilities for American indie filmmakers can be considered oddball. The films by Zobel and Thrush are the sort that will pop up in competitions at significant international festivals—they may even be seen, when the smoke clears after 2012, as two of the year’s key films—which is why their positioning in Sundance became, for me, the overwhelming takeaway question of the festival. At least Compliance became a talking point due to its reputedly anger-filled initial screening (although, by the fourth public screening, when I saw it, the audience was firmly with Zobel); Pursuit’s screening schedule ensured that it eluded all but the most attentive audiences. The film, in other words, had zero buzz. Some observers charitably reckoned that these remarkable films’ positioning was a way for the festival to draw attention to the Next program. Maybe, maybe not, but this illustrates the critical value of festival program architecture, the program structure by which a festival builds itself, and how that architecture tells the festivalgoer what the festival is actually trying to do—or not doing.           

When it comes to lonely America, So Yong Kim seems to know it in her bones. For proof, look at her highly effective and accomplished For Ellen (correctly positioned in competition) about the futile efforts of a struggling rocker, played with adventurousness and animal ferocity by Paul Dano, trying to secure shared custody of his young daughter in a testy divorce settlement. Kim’s company, soandbrad, with her husband and filmmaking partner, Bradley Rust Gray, has delivered a fascinating roster of work, including Kim’s previous features, In Between Days (06) and Treeless Mountain (08), alongside Gray’s Salt (03) and The Exploding Girl (09), and the upcoming Jack and Diane, which Kim produced (just as Gray produced the films Kim directed). All contain a highly acute sense of cinema sound and image, interiority, quietude, and grace, as well as a sensitive attachment to younger people living on or experiencing the sensations of being on society’s fringes. While Kim’s first two films often expressed her characters’ inner and outer states with few words and an impressionist approach, the surprise in For Ellen is its bursts of speech, layered in deep, almost boundless frustration over life’s dreams falling so short of the mark. Gray’s Exploding Girl saw Zoe Kazan achieve a sublime acting state in front of his highly receptive camera, and Kim now has Dano in her sights, and he taps his resources in a way he’s never done before, and it recalls the raw, exposed and cinematic performances that Robert Altman frequently drew out of his actors in a number of his films in the 1970s, from Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye to Keith Carradine in Thieves Like Us.

More than just a film artist, Stanley Kubrick is a world. Perhaps no film in Sundance gained the kind of impassioned following that Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 managed to do, and it did it in the quasi-experimental section, New Frontier, which now often includes the kind of films that played in competition when Sundance was a younger, wilder festival. Room 237, by all rights, should have been in the American doc competition, since it runs rings around anything else seen in this year’s lineup, and underlines the idea that Kubrick is, indeed, a world. Built on the arguments of a wide swathe of thinkers, writers and maybe a few crackpots about their working theories of meanings in Kubrick’s The Shining, Ascher’s project becomes a giddy funhouse of possibilities, an Overlook Hotel of cinema readings. Perhaps the most substantial one comes from Prof. Geoffrey Cocks, author of “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust,” who convincingly argues that Kubrick used Stephen King’s novel as a means to consider the Holocaust, while journalist Bill Blakemore (a man who’s spent an unhealthy but possibly productive amount of time watching Kubrick’s endlessly rewarding deconstruction of the horror genre) observes a vast set of signs and signifiers on another Holocaust, the U.S. genocide of Native Americans. John Fell Ryan, a respected blogger, has staged a screening of the movie with two prints, one projected forward, the other in reverse, with the superimposed images of both producing some incredibly creepy effects. And at the heart, Room 237, the Overlook’s forbidden hotel room, a room of dreams and nightmares and sex and decay. Given the liberal use of film clips, Room 237 probably will never be seen outside of festivals, where it can screen the copyrighted material under “fair use” practice. The only surprise here is that no one brings up one of the first interesting readings I heard about The Shining, not long after its 1980 premiere, that it’s Kubrick’s treatise on the artist revolting against the bourgeois family unit. Both funhouses—Ascher’s and Kubrick’s films—you simply don’t want to see end.    

Ascher can hope to get the kind of cult that Quentin Dupieux already has, based on his succès de Cannes, the absurdist Pirandello-esque Rubber, about a killer tire running loose in the Southern California high desert. Wrong, also set in Southern California, but now in Los Angeles, is slightly more grounded in reality—it depicts what happens when a man loses his dog, and tries to get it back—but it’s possibly even more purely absurdist than Rubber, since it doesn’t share any of that film’s genre gestures. Dolph, played with perfectly serious conviction by Jack Plotnick, finds that the pine tree in his backyard has become a tiny palm, and continues to go to his job in a travel agency office (where it rains, nonstop) though he was let go months prior. Like Eugene Ionesco, who is clearly the French Dupieux’s spiritual godfather and—like Dupieux—an artist working outside of his native land, the director crafts a world with meticulous detail that’s recognizable (and even banal in its outer normalcy) and at the same time distinctly not—an upside-down Lewis Carroll realm with rules of its own, rules that are strange to our eyes, but rules nevertheless. In both Rubber and Wrong, the rules matter: strong authority figures (this time, a choice William Fichtner as “Master Chang,” an Anglo, would-be “Chinese” figure who kidnaps pets to renew owners’ desire for them) operate like film directors inside the film itself. Dupieux, who’s also an extremely fine and original film composer and musician, reflexively considers what he’s doing and, even though he may be becoming a master in his own right, is more than willing to laugh at it all.