Sundance Film Festival 2013

Sundance 2013: a local tragedy, an ongoing romance, and top picks


Ryan Coogler’s Bay Area story Fruitvale picked up the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize; it is, of course, based on the life and death of Oakland’s Oscar Grant, a young man gunned down by a BART cop on New Year’s Day 2009. I emerged from this important, wonderfully-made debut like everyone around me in the sold-out theater — in devastated tears.

Lead actor Michael B. Jordan is absolutely gripping as Oscar — no surprise for anyone who saw him as Wallace on the first season of HBO’s The Wire, or as one of Josh Trank’s accidental superheroes in 2012’s surprisingly gritty Chronicle. Coogler is a skilled director; the way he slowly builds toward his story’s inevitable conclusion is worthy of praise.

But as I thought about it in the days after the screening, I realized I had some reservations about Fruitvale‘s script, despite all of its good intentions. Its characters, including the BART policemen and Oscar, tend to be one-dimensional, which drains the story of nuance. Instead of guiding the viewer though the situation, it ends up telling us what its point of view is.

Rounding out this year’s Sundance picks is the latest film in Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s Before series, Before Midnight. I heard multiple critics complaining that they were annoyed with “yet another entry;” frankly, that made me wonder if they themselves are tired of their own lives. The random-yet-precise-ness that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have allowed these two characters to explore over 18 years has to be experienced to be understood.

Before Sunrise
(1995) is perhaps the series’ most relatable, since it embodies the excitement of traveling around in one’s carefree early 20s. Hawke and Delpy embodied their characters’ journey so well that I have actually plotted my own travels over the years with that film in mind.

Then came Before Sunset (2004), with the characters in their mid-30s, and their lives haven’t necessarily gone the way they’d hoped. If you revisit Sunset you may find how spot-on Linklater and company are in capturing the progressive pitfalls of the know-it-all generation.

Heartbreaking and somehow still romantic, neither film can prepare you for what Before Midnight has to offer. Now in their 40s, both Hawke and Delpy have said in interviews that they developed the characters of Jesse and Céline alongside their own hopes and dreams, and use these alter-egos to help understand their own limitations in life.

As for Linklater — who emerged on the Sundance scene with 1991’s Slacker, losing the Grand Jury prize to Todd Haynes’ Poison — even if you don’t have a mini-breakdown as each Before film ends (every time … sniff), there’s no denying his spontaneous yet meticulous Before series has produced magic over 18 years, and is on its way to being the narrative equivalent of Michael Apted’s monumental Up series.


1. Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (UK/New Zealand)
2. Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (USA/Greece)
3. Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (USA)
4. Sebastián Silva’s Magic Magic (Chile)
5. Matt Johnson’s The Dirties (Canada)
6. Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Waaseypur (India)
7. Sebastián Silva’s Crystal Fairy (Peru/USA)
8. Nicole Teeny’s Bible Quiz (USA)
9. Alexandre Moors’ Blue Caprice (USA)
10. James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (USA)
11. Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie & the Boxer (USA)
12. Sean Ellis’ Metro Manila (UK/Philippines)
13. Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love (UK)

Sundance 2013: love and confusion


I only got to experience half of this year’s US Dramatic Competition films (unfortunately, missing David Lowery’s buzzed-about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which shared the Best Cinematography Award with Andrew Dosunmu’s breathtaking Mother of George).

Still, among the films I saw, I was pleasantly surprised by James Ponsoldt’s brutally poignant coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now. With a straight-ahead script that avoids clichés, the film benefits greatly from a pair of standout performances by its young stars. Miles Teller, from John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole (2010) and Craig Brewer’s underrated remake of Footloose (2011), perfectly embodies a high-school asshole, while Shailene Woodley (so good in Alexander Payne’s 2011 The Descendants) is spot-on as the class loner.

The Spectacular Now offers a reminder that high school sucks just as much as it did when you were a teenager. Along with last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it’s John Hughes, 21st-century style.

Elsewhere, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (following his much-praised, much-debated 2004 Primer) put me into an Inception-like trance, to the point of me probably needing to see it again before I can speak logically about it. Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight won the Best Directing award and featured noteworthy performances by Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple, but its bafflingly regressive conclusion has left me wondering if a studio forced the director to change it at the last minute. (That said, I enjoyed it immensely.)

Lynn Shelton’s latest entry Touchy Feely was only superficially engaging; it seemed to lack the bold direction and poignancy of Humpday (2009) and Your Sister’s Sister (2011). Jordon Vogt-Roberts’ Toy’s House sent the audience into hysterical laughter (supposedly at every screening) due to a memorable performance by Disney Channel star Moises Arias as the creepy third wheel in what’s more or less a suburban Lord of the Flies. (Fans of NBC’s Parks and Rec won’t want to miss Nick Offerman in this, either.) Could Toy’s House be this year’s Little Miss Sunshine?

Sundance and Slamdance 2013: powerful docs


Scroll on up Pixel Vision for Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ previous Utah festival reports.

In recent years, Sundance has become well-known for its strong documentary offerings — to the point of overshadowing its dramatic films. And with good reason, when docs like Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller are among the selections.

The film follows the four remaining doctors in the United States who continue to perform third-trimester abortions; it’s a decidedly direct character study that uncovers the complex and difficult choices these physicians go through on a daily basis. (Not to mention the element of danger they face, as the title’s reference to the murder of Dr. George Tiller suggests. With that in mind, there was a protective police presence at all of After Tiller’s Sundance screenings.) The doc’s impact didn’t end when the lights came up; for days after the screening, I found myself drawn into fascinating conversations with folks who were eager to discuss their feelings about the film and the issues it explores.

Roger Ross Williams’s God Loves Uganda has the same type of power to ignite discussion. It follows the misguided and even diabolical misrepresentation of homosexuality that’s been perpetuated by American missionaries in Uganda — an Evangelical Christian crusade that has encouraged the African country to impose the death penalty on gay people. An indictment of how religion can lead to hate crimes, God Loves Uganda uncomfortably uncovers a modern-day witch hunt that’s brought tragic results.

On a happier note, Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer shares the 40-year love story between Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, married artists who have been through everything together and yet still keep their passion alive. The look and feel of this film is just as artistic as the subjects themselves (which is saying a lot — I was lucky enough to see their work first hand at the J GO Gallery in Park City). Don’t miss this feel-good film — winner of the US Documentary Directing Award — when it’s released by Radius/TWC later this year. The closing credits alone are one of the most exhilarating moments of 2013!

Down the road at Slamdance, Nicole Teeny’s sensitive Bible Quiz, which won the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Feature Documentary, stuck with me like no other film this year. It’s a quiet, moving look at a Tacoma, Wash. team of teens deeply involved in the titular competition, which involves memorizing and reciting verses and even entire books of the Bible.

But while the film achieves the same kind of drama that earned Jeffrey Blitz an Oscar nod for his spelling-bee tale Spellbound (2002), director Teeny has much more up her sleeve here. The real subject of the film is 17-year-old Mikayla, whose heartbreaking honesty is a reminder that every new generation has to learn things the hard way to survive high school and beyond. Programming Bible Quiz was a major coup for Slamdance — it was the best documentary at the fest and topped any at Sundance, too. It has the potential to be a film that people will remember for years to come.

Sundance 2013: championing Campion


For more Sundance 2013 reports, go here, here, here, and here.

Easily the greatest screening event at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Jane Campion’s multi-part miniseries Top of the Lake, a co-production of the Sundance Channel, BBC Two, and UKTV in Australia and New Zealand.

Though it was made for TV, this 353-minute, Twin Peaks (1990) meets Silence of the Lambs (1991) extravaganza was shown on the big screen, which gave it even more impact. Not that it needed much help: when intermission came at the end of the third episode, audience members filed out for lunch with similar (stunned, shocked, obliterated) expressions on their faces.

When the series concluded, it was clear that Top of the Lake was one of those Sundance experiences that bonds people together for the rest of their lives. (It happens. Trust.) The cast of this haunting psychological thriller is headed up by a stunning Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men); also of note are supporting turns by Holly Hunter (re-teaming with Campion 20 years after her Oscar-winning turn in 1993’s The Piano), Peter Mullan, and Michelle Ang.

Luscious New Zealand landscapes provide the backdrop for a tangled web of dark and troubling things — hence the thematic comparisons to David Lynch (there’s a bit of 1986’s Blue Velvet in there too). Campion uses her usual finesse to explore Top of the Lake‘s uncompromising subjects — though unlike her two most recent films, the underrated Bright Star (2009) and In the Cut (2003), she has the luxury of six hours to flesh them all out. (You can catch Top of the Lake on the Sundance Channel in March, but don’t read too much about it, since most reviews seem to unnecessarily spoil some major key points.)

The epic screening concluded with a nearly 75-minute Q&A complete with the full cast and crew, and we’d all probably still be in that theater if they hadn’t kicked us out. Hopefully people will stop categorizing Campion as merely a great female filmmaker and start recognizing her as one of the greatest living directors, because Top of the Lake proves just that.

Sundance 2013: what’s NEXT?


Earlier fest reports here, here, and here.

At Sundance 2013, no other category could compete with the NEXT programming. NEXT was initiated in 2010; its aim is to highlight “pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling. Digital technology paired with unfettered creativity proves the films selected in this section will inform a ‘greater’ next wave in American cinema.”

Matthew Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker showcases Ned Oldham (brother of indie fave Will Oldham) as a father-husband-musician whose teenage daughter starts to drift away as his marriage dissolves. Wonderfully awkward and trying moments arise from every suburban-hipster angle, making Darker not only a disturbing blueprint of divorce among the indie-rock generation, but — with three fully performed songs — a reminder of why so much music from this time period remains utterly relatable. (Clearly, not everyone agrees; I overheard a group of SLC locals calling Darker their “least favorite movie of all time.”)

Yen Tan’s surprisingly powerful Pit Stop and “Best of NEXT” winner Chad Hartigan’s This is Martin Bonner both showcase quiet and emotionally implosive relationships; both also have such well-earned conclusions that I was confused as to why they weren’t in the Dramatic Competition category instead. Tan’s interwoven structure reminded me of Megan Griffiths’ overlooked gem The Off Hours (2010), while Hartigan’s slow burner was excitingly reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (1998). Remember their names, because these filmmakers are about to have major breakthroughs.

But the two NEXT entries that have already achieved “major” status in my mind already are Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (USA) and Alexandre Moors’s Blue Caprice (discussed in Thu/7’s post). Oddly enough both films inspired extremely aggressive Q&As, in which an audience member attacked the film and filmmaker with the very first question.

Mumblecore master Bujalski, who studied under minimalist Chantal Akerman (1975’s Jeanne Dielman), walked up onto the stage after his mind-numbing, purposefully janky, addictively hilarious, and ultimately transcendental psychedelic mind-fuck. First question right out of the gate: “Would you explain three or four concepts from your film, so I know what I just watched?” Though some audience members groaned, Bujalski made a valiant effort to respond. (After a few moments, he asked, “Is it okay if I come back to that one?” “No!” was the angry response.)

Bujalski shot the film on old Portapak video cameras from the late 1970s he’d purchased on eBay; he meticulously edited the video to look and feel as if it had been made on a linear editing system though it was done on Final Cut Pro. By trading in his beloved 16mm cameras from his previous three films — Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005), and Beeswax (2008) — he has captured the look and feel of the early video era.

Computer Chess not only gets its techie vocab right, it also captures the spirit of the entire era (aging hippies and emerging New Agers mingling with proto-nerds), and does so without being mean-spirited. In fact, it was so scientifically spot-on it won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at this year’s festival — an award given to the best feature film that focuses on science or technology as a theme, or depicts a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character. Computer Chess was also my favorite feature at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I wanted to watch the film again as soon as it was over.

Sundance 2013: the way of the gun


Festival veteran Jesse Hawthorne Ficks files his third report from the 2013 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals. Read his first two reports here and here.

British filmmaker Sean Ellis’ Philippines-set Metro Manila took home the Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic at Sundance. It’s a gritty, neo-realist journey into Manila’s Catch 22‘d slums that’s every bit as shocking as it is hypnotic. When I saw it, the entire audience (myself included) was left gasping for air while wiping their tears — it’s ruthlessly realistic, insanely inspired, and a taut thriller to boot.

Metro Manila is a perfect precursor to Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, a 320-minute exploration of 70 years of corruption in the small town of Wasseypur — the coal capital of India — that has to be one of the most monumental political action films ever made. I’ve now seen it twice, and its attention to detail is so precise that in certain scenes, if you can recognize the Hindi movie posters on the alley walls, you’ll be able to pinpoint what month and year the film has splintered into.

Given Gangs‘ brutal violence and slang-filled dialogue, Kashyap admitted he was surprised that it was not banned in India, since his previous films had been. (More props for the director: he showed up for a 1am festival Q&A.) This towering achievement will no doubt excite fans of Ram Gopal Varma’s gangster films; it’s a jaw-dropping, Godfather-esque odyssey that’s both historical allegory and unstoppable action flick.

Shifting focus to urban America: Alexandre Moors’ Blue Caprice (part of Sundance’s NEXT programming, highlighting “impactful” indies screening out of competition; more on the NEXT films in an upcoming post) is inspired by Washington DC’s 2002 sniper attacks, specifically focusing on the two shooters as they meet, diabolically prepare, and eventually execute their plan. The first post-film question, vehemently asked, was “Why didn’t you make a film about the victims?” But its point of view is what makes Blue Caprice so profound; it encourages the audience to attempt to understand the attackers, much like Fritz Lang’s classic murder tale M (1931).

Director Moors and lead actor Isaiah Washington (as John Allen Muhammad) do an astounding job leading us through an absolutely terrifying story, and they are able to do so without resorting to broad strokes. Interestingly, with both the US Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and the Audience Award: US Dramatic going to Oakland filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s wonderfully executed yet disappointingly one-dimensional Fruitvale, it seems that many audiences are not prepared for such a brave and complex film as Blue Caprice. It’s a film based on a real-life tragedy that asks a lot of questions, pushes a lot of buttons, and offers no answers.        

Sundance (and Slamdance) 2013: ‘Dirties’ talk


Festival veteran Jesse Hawthorne Ficks files his second report from the 2013 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals. Check out his first report here.

The most controversial and inspired film amid this year’s Utah fests actually screened at the Slamdance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Sparky Award for a Narrative Feature. The Dirties, by 28-year-old Canadian writer-director-star Matthew Johnson, is an utterly brilliant, unstoppably hilarious found footage entry that follows two high school cinephiles as they try and make a documentary about “bullying,” while they themselves continue to get uncomfortably bullied at their own school.

Both characters use their real names in the film and have bedrooms filled to the brim with movie posters, comic books, and Magic: The Gathering cards. Johnson and co-star Owen Williams are such self-aware and self-referential movie geeks that you might feel as if you are watching a documentary about your own high-school experiences.

While I could tag the film nicely as Dawson’s Creek meets Man Bites Dog (1992), I’m betting Johnson’s already thought of that one. So what I want to stress is the level of honesty, originality, and terrifyingly timely subject matter this filmmaker brings to this incredibly contemporary story. His 10-episode Canadian web series, Nirvana: The Band The Show (2008), showed his knack for frenetically exposing a teenage boy’s passion. The Dirties digs a whole lot darker and deeper. Could he be the male counterpart to Lena Dunham? Make sure to watch the Red Band teaser trailer (above); it’s as chilling and funny as the film itself.

Sundance 2013: Viva Silva!


Festival veteran Jesse Hawthorne Ficks files his first report from the 2013 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals.

This year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals were both outstanding, so I did my best to pack my schedule as full as humanly possible (sacrificing sleep in the process). With close to 50 programs achieved, I can assure you it’s gonna be one helluva year for cinema. Make sure to mark some of these titles down for 2013.

Filmmaker Sebastián Silva brought two new entries to Sundance, and they both happened to be two of my most cherished experiences. Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic were filmed in Chile at the same time, and showcase the almighty Michael Cera — who learned Spanish just for these projects. If you are able to avoid the countless spoiler-heavy reviews (this isn’t one of them) and enter these films at your own risk, you will be treated to Silva’s masterful, even transcendental, slow burn.

As he did in The Maid (2009) and Old Cats (2010), Silva allows his “unlikable” characters to reach some surprising conclusions — meaning audiences should leave any snap judgments at the door. Delivering a pair of typically charismatic performances, Cera is the ideal choice to guide viewers into Silva’s bold and often profound terrain. (Audiences who continue to dismiss Cera as playing the same character over and over need to get over themselves. Should we also ridicule Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, and Woody Allen for not being Daniel Day-Lewis caliber? Cera knows how to use his strengths, and perhaps is even able to use them against us.)

Cera’s co-stars are also worthy of note: Gaby Hoffman (in Crystal Fairy) and Juno Temple (in Magic Magic). Both give stunning and heartfelt performances that may downright mystify many modern misanthropic maniacs. Crystal Fairy, in particular, perfectly explores the side effects of the modern drug scene, though quite a few critics around me seemed to misunderstand the protagonists’ motives. These responses baffled me, since both movies feel like updated versions of late 1960s counterculture flicks like Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969).

Yep, you read that right: Jesse saw nearly 50 programs this year. Stay tuned for his next report!