FILM The snowiest Sundance Film Festival in recent memory was also perhaps the best. Despite continued economic woes (which peaked exactly when most of this year’s films were in or entering production), somehow the general caliber of work seemed to be on an uptick.
Of course that didn’t mean distributors were snapping up titles à la days of yore — the festival was practically at midpoint before a first deal was made — and like last year, the general level of hype and hysteria was comparatively muted. (No complaints there.) A weekday walk up Main Street was almost like an ordinary day, without the usual crush of slow-moving industry types in inappropriate footwear shrilling “Omigod it’s SO COLD!!”
Trying out multiple opening night programs for the first time, Sundance started with a big dose of SF talent: peerless veteran documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s first narrative feature Howl, which is not so much a biographical drama about Allen Ginsberg (played by James Franco) as a complex meditation on the history, content, and significance of his legendary, taboo-breaking 1955 poem. Opinions were all over the map about a movie with extensive interpretive animation as well as more conventional elements, but I found its ambition and imagination energizing.
Otherwise, the dramatic competition was a very mixed bag. Probably most praised was Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a working-class couple seen at the beginning and dead-end of their relationship. Yes, it was finely observed and performed — but I couldn’t get into spending two hours with two people who obviously never should have gotten together in the first place.
Among high-profile, noncompeting premieres, the starry likes of fun but uninspired rock biopic The Runaways and The Romantics — Galt Niederhoffer unnecessarily filling the Trust Fund Ensemble Dramedy gap left by Whit Stillman’s evaporation — paled against the much stronger meat of festival flashpoint The Killer Inside Me.
Michael Winterbottom’s first real American feature, the latest version of Jim Thompson’s classic pulp noir, starred Casey Affleck as a 1950s Texas deputy who no one (at first) realizes is a class-A sociopath and psychotic. The violence against women (like Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson) appalled many — but why don’t people protest movies that turn carnage into a cartooned family entertainment (like last year’s 2012), then get all bent when one makes brutality genuinely upsetting?
As usual, the strongest category overall was U.S. documentaries, with outstanding entries including My Kid Could Paint That (2007), director Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story — about the shocking propagandic distortion of a NFL player-turned-Army enlistee’s friendly-fire death. Equally strong on related themes were Restrepo, which embeds us with an Army unit in a remote Afghan Taliban stronghold; and The Oath, Al-Qaeda viewed through the prism of Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and driver.
An overlooked gem was Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika, about the last generation to get full Soviet indoctrination, only to reach adulthood just as the entire republic collapsed. By contrast, there was a stampede to Catfish, a creepy, hilarious, finally poignant illustration of people who need to create deceptive alternative identities via such fib-friendly forums as Facebook. Another pleasing surprise was Entourage star Adrien Grenier’s Teenage Paparazzo, which transcends the cute-disturbing portraiture of its 13-year-old title figure to explore the deeper societal meanings of celebrity culture.
Some international highlights were the Polish punk-youth-meets-Solidarity flashback All That I Love; U.K. bad-taste comedy (i.e. terrorism for laughs) Four Lions; and Danish documentary The Red Chapel, in which “cultural exchange” stand-up comics get behind North Korea’s still-thick Iron Curtain.
Last but not least, the midnight section offered pleasures guilty and otherwise, as well as some celluloid pain we won’t identify here. Bill Craig’s uneven but frequently hilarious Tucker and Dale vs. Evil reversed the usual horror formula — here, nubile vacationing college kids terrorize the local rednecks.
Not very funny at all (or quite apt for the genre-oriented midnight category) was Rodrigo Cortez’s Buried, 94 minutes of Ryan Reynolds in a box — playing a non-security civilian contract worker in Iraq who’s kidnapped, buried in a coffin, and given a low-battery cellphone and two hours to raise a huge ransom. Starting in total darkness, this movie sets your nerves jangling even before there’s an actual image. It is scary, surprisingly cinematic, and doesn’t lack for sharp political commentary.