The 25th Sundance Film Festival Wrap-Up

It’s shocking how the best-laid plans of even the most prolific writer can immediately get sidelined, especially when it comes to film festival coverage. When ComingSoon.net’s Edward Douglas flew out to Park City ten days ago, the plan was to see as many movies as humanly possible and write reviews for each and every one of them. Unfortunately, spending long days running or shuttling between Main Street and the Marriot Headquarters, from the Eccles to the Egyptian, can take a lot out of a guy, and we decided our time would best be served spending it seeing as many movies as humanly possible and talking to as many filmmakers and actors we could fit in, rather than locking ourselves in a hotel room writing. That’s not to say that we don’t have a lot of reviews and interviews on the way, but we decided to give CS readers a taste of the nearly 30 movies we saw at this year’s festival with brief write-ups of the ones that stood out, as well as laments for those that faltered.

The Best of the Fest:

1. 500 Days of Summer (Fox Searchlight) – Clearly the biggest crowd-pleaser at this year’s festival was this romantic comedy from first-time director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Webber, which covers a year and a half in the relationship between Tom Hanson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Bishl (Zooey Deschanel), the latter a flighty woman who breaks the former’s heart. While some of the ground covered is stuff we’ve seen before, the film is told in an innovative and clever narrative style, jumping around in time from the height of their developing love affair to the months that follow their break-up. Gordon-Levitt creates an infinitely likeable character that both guys and women can relate to, much like John Cusack in his heyday. The film also includes some great comic turns from Geoffrey Arend and Clark Gregg. What could easily be seen as a “…Say Anything” for the younger generation, the film’s Sundance premiere received a standing ovation from the audience, and one can expect that when it opens in July, it will be another Searchlight hit in the vein of Garden State and Once.

2. We Live in Public – Ondi Timoner’s profile of internet pioneer Josh Harris was a more than worthy follow-up to her Sundance Jury Prize winner Dig!, and this one took even longer to make, over ten years, as Timoner culled through over 500 hours of footage from Harris’ career. Harris’ early “art projects” included the World Wide Web’s first streaming video television station Pseudo.com, followed by the experimental community of “Quiet” where thirty volunteers were holed in a secret underground bunker in New York’s Village with every moment captured on a series of surveillance cameras. You’ll find yourself amazed by the foresight of Harris’ achievements, as well as his inevitable implosion, as the dot.com bubble bursts and Harris goes into hiding from his creditors. Timoner successfully contrasts what Harris was trying to achieve with the rise of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, and anyone who spends even a few minutes online–which one would assume is most ComingSoon.net readers–will want to see this movie whenever it becomes available. Look for our interview with Timoner and Harris soon.

3. Paper Heart – Fans of the Judd Apatow crew might not have known what to expect when they went to see Charlyne Yi’s mockumentary about her cynical search for true love, interviewing people from around the country in various backgrounds, but it ends up being the ultimate in META, because you’re never sure what is real and what is being staged for the cameras. (For instance, the documentary’s director Nicholas Jasenovec is actually played by an actor himself.) Not since My Date with Drew has what is essentially a documentary warmed your heart so much, as you can’t help but smile at Yi’s adorable antics and expressive reactions, not to mention the way Yi’s real-life boyfriend Michael Cera continues to prove why so many young women gush over his every move.

4. I Love You Phillip Morris – It’s not often you’d have a movie starring Jim Carrey playing at the Sundance Film Festival, let alone being one of the best movies there, but there’s something about the way Bad Santa writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa were able to turn the true crime story of conman Steven Russell into a comedy vehicle for Carrey that makes it work far better than his recent dog Yes Man. While most of Carrey’s strongest films have been dramas like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Man on the Moon, Ficarra and Renqua have found a way to bring an edgier approach to Carrey’s usual comic delivery to make this one of his stronger comedies. Despite being a very funny situational comedy, it’s also a surprisingly touching romance involving Russell’s gay relationship with his fellow inmate Phillip Morris, played by Ewan McGregor. This was easily one of the most commercially viable films of the festival, so it’s somewhat surprising it hasn’t yet picked up for U.S. distribution.

5. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men – Jon Krasinski makes his directorial debut with the difficult subject material of David Foster Wallace’s novel which explores how men perceive women, sex and relationships. It stars Julianne Nicholson as Sara Quinn, a post-grad doing a study on the way men think by doing interviews with a variety of subjects, from the classic “God’s Gift to Women” to the wallflower to everything in between. The film is constructed of a series of vignettes and monologues by an impressive array of television and character actors including the likes of Will Arnett, Christopher Meloni, Will Forte, Bobby Canavale and more. Besides being an impressive directorial debut, Krasinski also delivers one of the film’s most powerful moments as Sara’s boyfriend, a charming fellow who doesn’t mince words when confronted by an affair. It’s a film that leaves you in a cold sweat.

6. When You’re Strange – Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion) was given carte blanche with hundreds of hours of Doors footage, some never seen before, to tell the story of how Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore became one of the more influential bands of the ’60s despite Morrison’s chronic problems with drugs and alcohol. It’s a highly artistic first attempt at a doc from the indie filmmaker that’s certain to bring a newfound appreciation for the band from anyone who might not have cared for them in the past. We had a chance to sit down with DiCillo and Densmore early in the festival, so look for that soon.

7. Mary and Max – The quirky Claymation dramedy about two mismatched pen pals who help each other get through their difficult lives, was a strange choice to open this year’s festival, but it was also a heart-warming effort from the Oscar-winning Australian animator Adam Elliot that set the tone for the rest of the fest. Voiced by Toni Collette, Mary is an excitable Australian girl while Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a 44-year-old Jewish New Yorker with Asperger’s Syndrome, yet the two of them find common ground to bond over. Told in a very unique style, using different monochromatic color schemes for each character’s environment, the film really captures your attention and tugs at your heartstrings.

Review

8. Black Dynamite (Sony) – Scott Sanders’ spoof of ’70s blacksploitation films found many a fan during the festival’s Park City at Midnight program, which is no surprise, since it’s probably one of the outright funniest movies at the festival being that it’s not as much a straight spoof as a serious attempt at recreating the bad acting, writing and the wild funk soundtracks of the genre with Michael Jai White playing the ass-kicking title character with the likes of Arsenio Hill and Tommy Davison playing typical stereotypes. (Ironically, black filmmaking pioneer Robert Townsend was at the festival this year with his new doc Why We Laugh.)

9. The Girlfriend Experience (Magnolia) – Not really a film festival entry as much as a sneak preview of Steven Soderbergh’s follow-up to Bubble, this was a far looser affair starring porn actress Sasha Grey as a $10,000 New York escort trying to broaden her business while trying to maintain a relationship with her physical trainer boyfriend. You can read more about what quickly became one of the highlights of this year’s festival here.

10. Cold Souls – Sophie Barthes’ sci-fi film has been compared ad nauseum to the work of Charlie Kaufman due to its quirky premise and clever humor. Most of the latter comes from its star Paul Giamatti, playing himself, who turns to a groundbreaking soul storage company during an emotional crisis, leading to all sorts of unexpected results. Giamatti is as funny as always, essentially creating a comic incarnation of his own personality and lifestyle, while David Strathairn plays the quack Dr. Finkelstein whose troubles begin due to his dealings with mules who transport Russian souls into the country. It’s certainly one of the most innovative debuts from a director we also had a chance to talk to before leaving Park City.

11. Brooklyn’s Finest (Senator/Sony) – Antoine Fuqua’s return to police work jumped coasts for a three-pronged story about disgruntled police officers working in various aspects of law enforcement in the fight against crime and drugs in Brooklyn. Don Cheadle is great as always as Tango, an undercover officer embedded within the city’s toughest drugdealing gang, while Richard Gere and Ethan Hawke give equally strong performances as two very different police officers trying to get their way around the system that has made their personal lies difficult. Even so, the most surprising performance comes in the form of a nearly unrecognizable Wesley Snipes as a criminal released from jail and trying to fly right despite the bad influence of Cheadle’s character. This might not only be Fuqua’s finest movie, but it could also be the movie that gets him taken far more seriously as a filmmaker.

Interview with Antoine Fuqua

12. Grace (Anchor Bay) – Paul Solet’s supernatural thriller stars Jordan Ladd as a first-time mother who chooses to bring her stillborn baby to term, leading to seriously disturbing consequences when she realizes that the seemingly alive baby has certain cravings that the loving mother feels the need to provide. As creepy as the catalog description might have been, the results have a seriously deep psychological impact in the way Solet mixes the visceral gore inherent with the birthing process with edgy suspense. Any woman who isn’t sure whether they want to go through childbirth will probably want to stay away, but this was clearly this year’s Joshua, a great thriller in the vein of ’70s greats that hopefully will find its audience.

Look for our interview with Solet over on ShockTillYouDrop.com sometime next week.

13. In the Loop (IFC Films) – Spinning off from the television show “The Thick of It,” director Armando Iannucci took a hilarious look at British and American politics from the inside of the bumbling government agencies whose personal squabbles and egos build up to a controversial decision to go to war. With hilarious performances by Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini and Peter Capaldi and a surprising cameo by Iannuci’s frequent collaborator Steve Coogan, the comparisons that have been made to “The Office” and Christopher Guest’s improvised mockumentaries are sound. This may be one of the first post-9/11 political comedies that works unequivocally, and here’s hoping IFC Films can get this to wide audience of British humor fans. You can read our interview with Iannucci sometime next week.

14. Tyson (Sony Pictures Classics) – James Toback’s portrait of his friend, boxer Mike Tyson, was the second movie we saw at the festival, and whether or not you want to spend an entire film watching Tyson talk about himself, there’s no question that it’s one of the most fascinating and comprehensive looks at a controversial sports figure ever captured on film.

Review

15. Bronson – The latest from “Pusher Trilogy” director Nicolas Winding Refn was an artsy masterpiece showcasing an amazing transformative performance by Tom Hardy as “Britain’s most violent criminal” whose only motivation in life was to remain in prison by starting as many fights as possible. If you dug Viggo Mortensen’s nude sauna fight in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, you get a lot of that in Refn’s film, which had such a unique look and tone one might have a hard time finding comparisons. (Best I could come up with was Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.) Look for our interview with director Nicolas Winding Refn sometime next week.

Also Worth Checking Out:

Adventureland (Miramax) – Greg (Superbad) Motolla’s coming-of-age period dramedy stars Jesse Eisenberg as studious college graduate James Brennan, who is forced to work at a Pennsylvania amusement park during the summer to earn money for graduate school in New York. While working there, he meets and falls for Kristen Stewart’s Em, a troubled young woman having an affair with an older co-worker played by Ryan Reynolds. Though marketed as a comedy, the film ended up being far more dramatic than we expected, but the many great scene-stealing moments by Martin Starr (Knocked Up) and SNL’s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig made it worth it.

An Education (Sony Pictures Classics) – The combination of Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig and British author Nick Hornby seemed like it could only deliver greatness. Even so, while this ’60s coming of age tale based on Lynn Barber’s memoir might not have been as strong as some of their previous material, it was notable for the performance by Carey Mulligan as a 16-year-old girl who begins spending time with a significantly older man, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who is not quite what he seems. This was quickly scooped up by Sony Pictures Classics, who is likely to have yet another Oscar contender this time next year thanks to Mulligan’s breakthrough performance.

Rudo y Cursi (Sony Pictures Classics) – Y Tu Mama Tambien screenwriter Carlos Cuarón’s directorial debut, which reunited that film’s Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, used a similar storytelling style to follow the journey of two competitive brothers from obscurity to the height of fame in the world of football (a.ka. Soccer) as their careers would align and conflict in interesting ways.

Sadly, I missed Lynn Shelton’s Humpday and Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad, both which I heard great things about, but these are both likely to get distribution and hopefully, we’ll have another chance to see them.

The Worst:

The Informers – On paper, this certainly seemed like it could be one of the festival’s grandslams, as Gregor Jordan (Buffalo Soldiers) directed Brett Easton Ellis’ adaptation of his own novel about a group of young L.A. hipsters in the early ’80s, and while it was filled with all the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll we’ve seen Ellis’ past work, none of the stories really had much of an impact. The characters weren’t very interesting or likeable, and much of it seemed like ground Ellis covered far more effectively in Less Than Zero, which actually came out in the ’80s. At this point, it’s doubtful that Ellis can do very much to shock us, and the movie is only notable for the fact that Amber Heard spends most of it topless.

Spread – Ashton Kutcher plays a gigolo who sleeps his way around Los Angeles in order to get what he wants, but his relationship with cougar sugar mamma Anne Heche runs aground due to his attempt at having a relationship with his female counterpart, played by Margarita Lavieva (who is equally hot in Greg Mottola’s Adventureland.) As the second movie of the festival to fulfill the obligatory “L.A. insider” slot that seems to permeate the festival every year–last year, it was The Deal, out on DVD next week, and What Just Happened–it was a complete mess that seemed to serve little purpose except to get Kutcher out of his shirt and into bed with lots of hot naked women of varying ages. The most disappointing part of the movie was that it was directed by Scottish filmmaker Dave McKenzie, who has made so many great films set in the United Kingdom over the years, and this was a career low for him.

Adam (Fox Searchlight) – Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne star in Max Mayer’s romantic drama, which was quickly scooped up by Searchlight before many people saw it. Dancy is a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, trying to get over the death of his father and the loss of his job with help from the pretty new tenant of the building, and the two highly unlikely lovers must deal with many obstacles to make the relationship work. As much as the movie tried to be funny with the title character’s complex creating all sorts of misunderstandings, the movie alternates between being sappy, dull and dreary with very little credibility in the central relationship. Good luck to Searchlight with a movie that’s ultimately unmarketable.

The Missing Person – Noah Buchel’s noir drama had such a great cast, particularly its star Michael Shannon, who has been amazing in so many movies over the last few years—including his Oscar-nominated role in Revolutionary Road–so who knows why this stylish film faltered so badly, as Shannon’s detective follows a man across the country. By the time Buchel tries to tie that storyline into 9/11, I was ready to start throwing things at the screen and the stale performance by Amy Ryan as the assistant of the lawyer who first hires Shannon was also disappointing.

And then there were the walkouts, movies so intolerably awful that it wasn’t even worth sticking around long enough to be able to review them properly. Sure, one can argue that it’s a critic’s bane to have to endure all of the bad with the good, well when there are so many good movies at a film festival, you don’t want to spend any more time than you have to with the bad.

Toe to Toe – Emily Abt’s story of two field hockey players, one black, one white, quickly became grating due to the performance by Louisa Krause as an annoying young slut who sleeps with whomever is available. Screened at 9:45pm after a long day of far-better movies, this one seemed like a pass after just 23 minutes. From what I’ve heard from colleagues, it never got better and in fact, got much MUCH worse.

Motherhood – Katherine Dieckmann’s romantic comedy starred Uma Thurman as the mother of two who blogs about her experiences raising kids in New York, but Dieckmann tried too hard to be commercial while telling a clearly personal story that the whole thing felt false. Uma’s performance was so awful that it made the film nearly unwatchable. I gave it about an hour but when her character started pogoing to Pylon with a tanned intellectual messenger, it was just too much to endure. The film was pretty much an embarrassment to everyone involved.

Look for full reviews of many of the above movies before their theatrical releases.

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