Sundance 2013, by Matt Warren
The Sundance Film Festival is eleven days long, running from the third Thursday of January through Sunday of the following week. But really, opening weekend is all anyone cares about. That’s when all the charcoal-wardrobe Industry types are in town, the biggest deals are made, and the best parties happen. But by the time Wednesday rolls around, Park City is a ghost town—a zombie-apocalypse wasteland where debris blows across the street and disheveled orphans in sooty white tunics trudge through the blood-choked gutters dragging ashy teddy bears, clutching gratis copies of festival sponsor Entertainment Weekly. It’s an eerie, nightmarish hellscape.
Except: movies! Conventional wisdom says that re: Sundance, opening weekend is for hype, starfucking, and tacky sponsor giveaways. Second week is for movie lovers. I don’t know if I totally buy that—there’s something to be said for the energy and excitement of SFF’s first half. But it’s true: if you don’t care about the “festival experience” and only want to catch as many screenings as you can, 2nd week is aces.
If you plan ahead, that is. Truth be told, I’ve always gotten Sundance tickets by either working as a volunteer at the festival, or through my well-connected townie parents. However, my policy regarding volunteer work this year was “Fuck That Shit,” and the ‘rents came up curiously empty-handed (thanks for nothing, losers.) Ergo, I was forced, for the first time ever, to navigate Sundance’s labyrinthine, buggy, and counterintuitive online ticketing system like a regular-ass peasant. Results were mixed, to say the least. I wasn’t able to get into as many films as I’d hoped, but of the movies I did see I pretty much liked them all.
Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker’s Crash Reel recounts the harrowing story of freestyle snowboarder Kevin Pearce. Pearce’s pro career came to an abrupt end when he suffered a massive brain injury during a practice half-pipe run in 2009. Attempting an elaborate new trick, Pearce fell face-first onto the side of the pipe—the equivalent of a five-story drop onto solid cement. His orbital socket was crushed and his brain was nearly obliterated. Pearce survived and eventually recovered most of his cognitive and motor functions, but the incident effectively erased everything the bright, articulate 22-year-old had defined himself by: tournament wins, endorsement deals, his decade-long rivalry with frenemy/peer Shaun White, etc.
Walker (Waste Land) traces Pearce’s early career up through the injury, shown briefly but tastefully. She then follows Pearce and his family during an uneasy recovery period—ominously underscored by the neurosurgeon’s dire warning to his parents that “The Kevin coming home to you will not be the Kevin you knew.”
As someone who suffered a major-ish ski injury a couple years ago (a multi-fracture broken shoulder), I certainly found a lot to relate to in Crash Reel. But even if you’ve never seen even snow, Walker’s film works as a powerful character study. Sure, the narrative of Kevin’s recovery is plenty dramatic, but the real story is his struggle to accept the limitations of his new post-injury life. Crash Reel is a fantastic movie, and a persuasive argument for staying indoors.
When talking to my girlfriend about why I was so excited for Upstream Color, I explained that director Shane Carruth was sort of like a indie sci-fi Jeff Mangum: a genius auteur who’d burst out of nowhere with a singular work of iconic brilliance and then disappeared just as quickly. Sure, the analogy isn’t airtight, but the comparison between Carruth’s 2004 debut Primer and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea at least illustrates the esteem in which each project is held by their cult of fans. But while we’re still waiting for Mangum’s comeback, at least now we have Carruth’s Uptream Color, a bold new work that should satisfy fans of Primer (to the extent that fans of Primer can reasonably expect to be satisfied.)
Color is difficult to both summarize and categorize. Most people will tag it as science fiction, but it doesn’t feel like any science fiction movie that I’ve ever seen. It’s one part Cronenbergian body horror, and one part pure Terrence Malick poeticism. It’s wistful, dreamlike, and melancholic, obsessed with biology, lifecycles, and closed ecosystems—both in terms of its plot and its structure. It also contains some of the best sound design I’ve ever heard, with sound recording even being a major plot element.
What’s it about? I dunno, it’s weird. Two lonely people (Carruth and Amy Seimetz) meet, fall in love, and discover that their pasts may share the same formative trauma. This leads to the revelation that their lives are just a small part of a much larger whole, and that their individual existences may be even more interconnected than they think. Also: pigs. Upstream Color definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if Carruth’s second feature is something you’re already anticipating, you won’t be let down.
Since its beginning, Sundance has made it its mission to feature films with strong LGBT content—from artsy Queer Studies experiments like Todd Haynes’ Poison, to kitschy comedies like But I’m a Cheerleader. But if there’s one thing Sundance programmers love even more than two dudes smoochin’, it’s low-key domestic dramas about life in small-town America. No surprise then that room was made for Yen Tan’s Pit Stop, a tasteful, low-key domestic drama about two dudes smoochin’ in small-town America. It’s the kind of movie that seems to comprise about 60% of Sundance’s programming slate each year, but which rarely—if ever—breaks out big the way populist hits like Little Miss Sunshine or Beasts of the Wild do. Nevertheless, there they are year after year: the rusty tractors, the decrepit farmhouses, the stoic homosexuals trading furtive glances while nervously picking at the labels on their beer bottles. That shit’s Robert Redford’s bread and butter.
The film follows the lives of two gay men in rural West Texas, Gabe (Bill Heck) and Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda). Gabe still lives with his ex-wife (Amy Seimetz, again) and their young daughter; Ernesto is in the middle of a messy break-up with a much younger man (Alfredo Maduro). They haven’t met, but the film follows their parallel stories as they slowly inch toward their eventual intersection. Neither Gabe nor Ernesto is in the closet, per se, but they don’t broadcast their sexuality, either.
The acting is understated; Tan’s direction is crisp and conservative. Thankfully, this isn’t a movie about gay characters struggling to accept themselves and be honest about who they are. There have been plenty of those, especially at Sundance. Any coming-out struggles Gabe and Ernesto experienced seem to be over with before the film starts. Pit Stop didn’t blow my socks off as a movie, but it gave me hope that maybe there are more confident, self-assured gay people out there than we give Middle America credit for.
In A World…
Lake Bell is probably best known for her comedic acting work on TV shows like How To Make It in America and Childrens Hospital. In a World…, Bell’s first feature, is a deeply funny, lightly absurdist comedy that doesn’t skimp on character or story. It tells the story of an aspiring female voiceover announcer (Bell) competing for a high-profile trailer narration gig against her industry-legend father (Fred Melamed, A Serious Man‘s Sy Ableman) and buffoonish rival (Ken Marino). The film borrows the best elements of the past 30 years in film comedy and synthesizes it into an effective crowd-pleaser. You’ll find it all here: the shared-obsession community of Christopher Guest, the stark humanism of Judd Apatow, the goofy feminine charm of Tina Fey, etc.
Unlike today’s omnipresent “turn the camera on and riff” school of comedy movie-making, In A World… feels tightly constructed and considered. Bell expertly juggles several different characters and multiple subplots, managing to pay off every element in ways both clever and satisfying. No small feat with an expansive cast of comedy all-stars including Nick Offerman, Dimetri Martin, Tig Notaro, Michaela Watkins, and Rob Corddry.
Bell won Sundance’s Waldo Salt Award for Screenwriting—somewhat surprising for a comedy, though well deserved. Hopefully it finds an audience.
First-time feature filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s docudrama Fruitvale pulled off the unlikely feat of winning both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. It’s the first time I can remember one film winning both awards, and I’ve been going to Sundance since literally before puberty. Fruitvale is the depressing-as-shit recounting of the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African American Bay Area resident who was shot to death by transit police on New Years’ Day 2010 when officers detained Grant and several friends after a minor scuffle aboard a BART train. Grant protested his arrest and was shot point blank in the back when a police officer mistook his service weapon for his Taser. The incident was captured by about 7-billion cellphone cameras, and sparked race riots across Northern California.
Coogler’s austere, doom-laden character study follows the repentant ex-con Grant (Michael B. Jordan) as he hurls toward his appointed hour, struggling to be a respectable, mature adult for his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal.) It’s an effective film, though difficult to watch
Fruitvale is the product of the Sundance Labs, a Sundance Institute-supported program that helps nurture and develop selected film projects, grooming them for an eventual slot at the Festival. Too often, Labs have the adverse effect of draining films of their energy and spontaneity, leaving them stale and sterile. But while Fruitvale definitely feels like a product of the Sundance system, the movie’s grim, tightly wound austerity works in its favor. But mainly this is a showcase for the actors. If Fruitvale breaks out, Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights) is all but assured to get some awards attention next fall, as is Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother. Fruitvale is an excellent portrait of a senseless tragedy. It’s to Coogler’s credit that I hope to never see it again.
In addition to the above, I was also able to check out a mostly-excellent Shorts Program as well as the New Frontier, Sundance’s regular pop-up gallery space dedicated to innovative and/or interactive video art.
As both a film lover and modern art fan, New Frontier is always one of my favorite parts of Sundance. My only complaint is that there’s never enough of it. Also, it’s an extremely relaxing place to be, perpetually basked in dim light with plenty of ambient drone music and dry, comfy chairs. New Frontier exhibits are always tough to describe, but this year my favorites were E.m-Bed.De/D, a multi-platform music video from rapper Yung Jake featured a dazzlingly dense patchwork of pop-up windows satirizing today’s oppressive social media landscape, and Ricardo Rivera’s What’s He Building in There? a life-sized 3-D video diorama projected onto the exterior of the New Frontier building. Inspired by the Tom Waits song of the same name, the projection turned the outside of New Frontier into a macabre doll-house-cutaway virtual stage where a strange Buster Keaton-esque comedy played out amid rusty churning gears and pulsated lumps of sentient biomaterial being stamped out on a conveyor belt. Like I said—hard to explain.
The shorts program, a mix of narrative and nonfiction, was solid throughout. But the real standout was Catnip: Egress to Oblivion, director Jason Willis’ psychedelic, Reefer Madness-style parody of sensationalistic anti-drug filmstrips. If you love cats and overwrought grindhouse fearmongering, this short’s for you. You can watch it on YouTube. I also enjoyed Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, starring J.K. Simmons as a psychotically demanding band conductor, and Michael Almereyda’s Skinningrove, a haunting mini-doc about life in the titular remote English fishing village, as told through the photographs of Chris Killip.
I can say without hesitation that Sundance remains one of my favorite things in the entire world. It’s my natural habitat—as a film enthusiast, as a Park City native, and as someone trying to forge a career in the Arts in desperate need of inspiration. I don’t truck with cynicism where Sundance is concerned. Not a truck in sight.