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Sundance: Variety Critics Name Their Mid-Festival Faves

Scott Foundas

Variety

5:30 PM EST, January 23, 2014

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SCOTT FOUNDAS: Well, it's officially past the midpoint of Sundance 2014. The opening-weekend revelers have begun to dissipate, the shuttle buses are more easily navigating their way through Park City's streets, and those of us who are left can more easily get down to the business of watching movies. As of this writing, the general takeaway from Sundance's opening days seems to be slower-than-usual sales traffic and a feeling that few films have really knocked it out of the park for critics and audiences alike.

SEE VIDEO: Variety Critics' Best and Worst Films at Sundance So Far

Two notable exceptions, of course, were the wonderful opening-night film, "Whiplash," by the gifted young writer-director Damien Chazelle, and Richard Linklater's 12-years-in-the-making "Boyhood," and I keep hearing strong things about any number of films that I've missed and will try to catch up with later in the week (like "Frank," "Love Is Strange" and "The Skeleton Twins"). But so far, my own viewing experiences suggest that this year's Sundance lineup is batting around .300 -- a good number for baseball, but somewhat disappointing where the state of American independent cinema is concerned. What about you guys?

JUSTIN CHANG: Baseball metaphors couldn't be more appropriate in a festival that's screening no fewer than two films on the subject of America's greatest pastime, "The Battered Bastards of Baseball" and "No No: A Dockumentary" -- neither of which I've managed to see, I hasten to add, having once again managed to miss far too many docs at a festival whose nonfiction programming is consistently its strong suit. Happily, I did manage to catch Jesse Moss' "The Overnighters" and Amir Bar-Lev's "Happy Valley," two exceptionally thoughtful, layered and surprising films that do one of the most valuable things a documentary can do, which is to simply revel in the complexities of its subject.

Scott, I share in the near-unanimous admiration for "Whiplash" and especially "Boyhood," which, coming on the heels of last year's Park City-premiered "Before Midnight," bracingly reconfirms Richard Linklater as one of the most vital and genuinely independent voices on the American scene. And as desperately as we need bold, relatively new voices like Chazelle and John Michael McDonagh (whose second feature, "Calvary," reps a massive step forward in maturity from "The Guard"), it's no less thrilling to see Sundance showcase the work of an established master in peak form. To wit, as our colleague Guy Lodge noted, two of the best films in this year's festival were directed by none other than Linklater and Lars von Trier, whose "Nymphomaniac: Volume 1" popped up as a secret screening -- undoubtedly the richest disquisition on female sexuality in a festival that also showcased David Wnendt's exuberantly disgusting "Wetlands" and Gregg Araki's considerably tamer "White Bird in a Blizzard."

PETER DEBRUGE: The town may be emptying out, but it still feels early in a fest where I haven't had time to see anything I wasn't also reviewing. My favorite so far has been Ira Sachs' "Love Is Strange," another example of a returning Sundance filmmaker (like Linklater and Araki, and to a lesser extent, "Laggies" director Lynn Shelton) choosing to premiere his latest work at a festival where the emphasis is so intently focused on The Next Hot Thing.

"Love Is Strange" stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as lifelong lovers forced to split up and couch-surf at the mercy of friends and families after getting gay-married costs one his teaching job. That setup may sound political, but the subsequent 90 minutes couldn't be more warm-hearted and gentle. As in "Boyhood," it's a delight just to spend time with these characters -- and everyone around them -- so much so that I didn't want either film to end.

As for Next Hot Things, my vote goes to "Whiplash" director Damien Chazelle, a musically-inclined Harvard grad whose previous film, "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," went virtually unseen. He's ready for the big time, as is Kate Barker-Froyland. The powers who greenlight Nicholas Sparks movies would do well to see "Song One," a cheese sandwich seasoned with a necessary dose of naturalism.

FOUNDAS: It's true that not many people saw "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," but it's worth noting that it was very well received by critics (it has a 90% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and made a lot of top 10 lists that year) and was nominated for a Gotham Award in that wonderfully named category "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You." So, it's fair to say that the people who did seek that movie out saw a promising talent, and came to Sundance this year eagerly hoping to see him take the next step in his career. It's also a reminder that Sundance, even with its newly-instituted "Next" section -- ostensibly a showcase for younger directors and lower-budget films, not unlike the Un Certain Regard or Directors Fortnight sections at Cannes -- isn't the only festival that can lay claim to discovering the next wave of important indie directors.

"Guy and Madeline" premiered at Tribeca in 2009 -- interestingly, the same year former Sundance head Geoff Gilmore joined the team over there -- and there are a number of other filmmakers making their Sundance debuts in 2014 who first emerged with promising features at other fests. Mark Jackson, whose "War Story" starring Catherine Keener and Ben Kingsley is screening in the Next section this year, premiered his excellent debut feature, "Without" at Slamdance, Park City's 20-year-old in-town rival festival that also counts Christopher Nolan and the Russo Brothers (directors of the forthcoming "Captain America: The Winter Soldier") among its alumni. Alex Ross Perry, whose "Listen Up Philip" is also in Next, premiered his "The Color Wheel" at the Wisconsin Film Festival. And one of the very best films I've seen at Sundance, "Land Ho!," is a collaboration between two directors, Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, who have five previous features between them, all of which first screened at South By Southwest. Indeed, Sundance, what took you so long?

As the celebrated generation of filmmakers who emerged out of Sundance in the late 1980s and early '90s -- Gregg Araki, Alexander Payne, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, et al. -- now start to feel like the eminence grises of American film, I think you can look to those filmmakers mentioned above, plus the Zellner Brothers (who are here at Sundance for the third time, but the first time in competition, with "Kumiko the Treasure Hunter"), and find something close to a new generational portrait. If you want to know what American indie cinema is going to be about in the next 20 years, these are the names to remember.

CHANG: It's good to be reminded that while it remains our most significant launchpad for American independent talent, Sundance is not and should not be some monolithic, be-all-end-all showcase for our best and brightest. Certainly there's no better reminder of the festival's fallibility than its decision not to place "Short Term 12" in competition last year (it's no "Austenland," after all), which worked out to the advantage of SXSW, where Destin Daniel Cretton's film won the grand prize en route to becoming one of the year's most deservedly acclaimed indies. No doubt Sundance is often late to the party, the same way I would say that, on a grander international scale, Cannes is often late to the party, withholding its official endorsement initially before inevitably snatching up those filmmakers who have drawn awards and critical plaudits at other, smaller festivals.

That's not to discount the fact that Sundance certainly has bragging rights on any number of legitimate, right-out-of-the-gate discoveries in recent years: Benh Zeitlin and Shane Carruth come immediately to mind, as do Kelly Reichardt, Sean Durkin, James Ponsoldt and Debra Granik. And also, as Peter mentioned, Ira Sachs, whose 1997 debut, "The Delta," premiered at Toronto but went on to play Sundance a few months later, won the 2005 grand jury prize for "Forty Shades of Blue," and enjoyed possibly the warmest Park City reception of his career with this year's "Love Is Strange."

It remains to be seen which of this year's newbie roster, if any, will join this elite company. For now, though, I'll note that while Sundance can't lay claim to having discovered the Zellner Brothers, I'm grateful to the festival for finding a home for this gifted duo's latest work, "Kumiko the Treasure Hunter," which is indeed one of the treasures of the dramatic competition -- an infinitely sad, tender and beguiling study of delusion and alienation that, as carried on the brilliant shoulders of Rinko Kikuchi, builds to a final stretch as strange and gripping as anything I've seen at the festival this year.


DEBRUGE: I'm so relieved to hear the love for "Kumiko," which I plan to catch up with in the coming days. I was nervous, seeing as how it tracks a young Japanese woman searching for the cash abandoned in my all-time favorite movie, "Fargo." Add the Coen brothers to that list of Sundance discoveries, having screened their debut, "Blood Simple," back when the festival wasn't so insistent on world premieres.

There are still a couple categories where that remains true. Two excellent documentaries, "Return to Homs" and "Happiness," launched at the Intl. Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam last November, and one of the best films in the festival, Steven Knight's "Locke," debuted in Venice. Starring Tom Hardy as you've never seen him before (the rage replaced by an almost unseemly calm in the face of extreme pressure), this audacious one-man show takes place almost in real time as his character speaks to himself and juggles phone conversations from behind the wheel of his SUV. Like Noud Heerkens' similarly conceptual, single-take "Last Conversation," it defies our notion of what's "cinematic," while raising the ceiling on "dramatic." I can't wait to see what other discoveries Sundance has in store!

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