Sundance 2014 Part One, by Matt Warren
Except for one interminable, soul-murdering six-year gap in the mid-‘aughts, I’ve pretty much been to every Sundance Film Festival since 1997. That’s like fifteen or so total SFFs—spanning high school to adulthood. Which is why it’s somewhat surprising that this only my second year (and second in a row) attending the Festival as a civilian.
Growing up a dyed-in-the-wool Park City townie, my parents scored more comps and freebies than they knew what to do with, and I happily availed myself of the spoils. Years later, I worked as a Festival volunteer, taking advantage of the employee waitlist and cozying up to the easily-corruptible box office staffers.
But here I am today: just another shnook in dark glasses flying in for the weekend, buying tickets with actual cash money. Pathtic. Also for the second year, ticket-availability issues forced me to catch up with SFF during its dying final few days. So at a time when my Twitter feed is chockablock full of “see ya next year, #Sundance!” -type missives from all of the internet’s top film writers I’m just barely stepping off the plane into Utah’s cold, crisp air.
But whatever. I’m not trying to impress anyone here or be Johnny FirstOpinion McScoopsalot. I’m just a flawed man with above-average shoulders hankering to chow down on some artisanal, flaxseed-rolled middlebrow filmmaking. So let’s get to it already.
If Sundance is a vampire, its lifeblood is new talent. One of SFF’s priorities has always been to function as the debut stage for the movers-and-shakers of tomorrow’s Hollywood. And 29-year-old writer/director Desiree Akhavan certainly seems to be readymade as a potential Next Big Thing. And not without reason. Appropriate Behavior—her first feature—is a solid-ass little movie.
It’s no wonder Akhavan’s colorful pedigree proved irresistible to Sundance’s diversity-ravenous pleasure nodes. She’s young, female; a 2nd-generation Iranian-American; a hip, queer Brooklynite. And although it’s true we haven’t seen this exact combination of adjectives before, the elements of her movie will definitely feel familiar to anyone recently acquainted with HBO’s Girls or caught Frances Ha on Netflix.
Behavior is your basic, modern-day slacker narrative. Shirin (Akhavan) is a 20-something Iranian-American bisexual reeling from the end of a long-term relationship. She struggles to come out to her immigrant parents, find a tolerable career, date, and to generally figure her shit out—all set against the warehouse parties and artists’ lofts of trendy Park Slope. It’s basically Tiny Furniture with a few more boxes ticked—not a criticism.
Like its predecessors in the Gynocentric Quarterlife-Crisis microgenre, Appropriate Behavior is an effective, well acted, and keenly observed social comedy, featuring a strong, likable, and recognizably flawed female protagonist at its center. And there’s always room for another one of those. So here’s your pull-quote: “Don’t curb this Behavior!!!”
The Internet’s Own Boy
The Internet’s Own Boy is an illuminating documentary about the life and tragic death of web activist Aaron Swartz—who, facing lengthy jail time for his hacktivist activities, committed suicide in January of 2013 at age 26.
And unsurprisingly, director Brian Knappenberger’s film is one of the festival’s most buzzed-about nonfiction films. This kind of slick, outrage-stoking social issues movie usually goes over pretty big here at SFF, especially when the built-in narrative is as cinematic as Swartz’s short, sad, immensely influential rise-and-fall.
An early co-founder of Reddit, Creative Commons, and numerous other web projects, Swartz initially made a name for himself as a pioneering tech prodigy very much in the Mark Zuckerberg mold. But rather than pursue a life of wealth and fame as a tech entrepreneur, Swartz turned his focus towards politics and social justice, his chief hobbyhorse being the liberation of academic journals and legal records from behind the pay walls of for-profit gatekeepers—a cause that eventually landed him in big, big trouble with law enforcement agencies looking to assert their authority against perceived hacker threats.
Overzealous prosecution is believed to be the chief motivation behind Swartz’s suicide, and The Internet’s Own Boy does an excellent job of lucidly explaining to dum-dums like myself exactly what Swartz was doing, why it was—and is—important, and just how things went so badly off the rails. Don’t ask me to explain it to you now, but it made complete sense in the moment while watching the film.
Biased but not hysterical, The Internet’s Own Boy makes a convincing case for Swartz as a tragic figure who could and should have gone on to much bigger things, and succeeds in making the felt as deeply as it deserves. Boy is a must-watch for anyone interested in the future of information.
A Most Wanted Man
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, movies have strained to find a suitable geopolitical Big Bad to fill the roll of villain in our action thrillers, spy sagas, and autistic Philadelphian pugilist narratives. Like the Nazis before them, Communist Russia was easy shorthand for evil.
But ever since David Hasselhoff single-handedly toppled the Berlin Wall through the Ragnarok of lip-synched adult contemporary power ballads, the Bonds and Balboas of the world have been without a bête noire. (For a while there in the ‘90s, the culture tried to making Ruthless Capitalism into our go-to bad guy in pop entertainment. But hahaha, no. Who were we kidding? This is America.) But then: 9/11.
A Most Wanted Man, former music video director Anton Corbijn’s star-studded John le Carrê adaptation, illuminates just how slippery issues surrounding Radical Islam are, and why it may be ill-suited to playing to role of our new mutually agreed-upon global foe, fictional or otherwise— indeed, much of the plot revolves around the question of whether or not anything criminal is even happening at all.
The film follows a rumpled-even-by-his-own-elevated-standards Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a mid-level German counterterrorism administrator tasked with tracking the movements and motives of a young Islamic Chechen refugee, whose sudden appearance in Hamburg has set off alarm bells for everyone from the CIA to rival German authorities.
At first glance, Wanted seems like lightweight genre fare dressed up in Corbijn’s signature art house austerity. But gradually the tight plot spools out sideways in unexpected directions, and the cumulative effect of the espionage hijinks are surprisingly profound. It’s Corbijn’s finest film as a director, and guaranteed genre catnip for sophisticated film fans.
That’s all for today. Check back for tomorrow for more reviews, more solipsism, and more Sundance!