ComingSoon.net’s Sundance 2011 Wrap-Up

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The 2011 Sundance Film Festival is officially over and done with, and while we still have a bunch more interviews to share with you (and maybe a couple more reviews), we want to give a brief recap of this year’s most promising films and performances we’re confident we’ll all be talking about for the rest of the year.

This really was a great year for Sundance, not just due to the quality of films with roughly 25 of the movies we saw warranting a 7 out of 10 or better (a passing grade in our book) but also what must have been a record number of movies being sold for distribution within the course of the festival. We imagine many of these films will be released this year so you won’t have to wait too long to be able to see them for yourselves. (Where applicable, we’ve included the distributor who will be releasing the movie.)

This year, we were able to watch 41 movies including a number that played before the fest even started. We caught 11 of the 16 movies in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, 11 of the 16 Premieres, a bunch of the Spotlight movies as well as a handful of docs and foreign films.

The best way to answer the question on most lips whenever we mention being at the festival, “Did you see anything good at Sundance?,” that can be answered simply with our rundown of…

The Best of the Fest!

1. Incendies (Sony Pictures Classics, pictured top left) – The French-Canadian Oscar nominee by Dennis Villeneuve is one of the most powerful films I’ve seen in quite some time, but to go into too much details about its plot would greatly take away from the experience of watching some of the big reveals unfold. Essentially, it involves a twin brother and sister who are sent on a quest to the Middle East to find their missing father they thought dead and a brother they never knew existed by their dead mother’s will and all the new things they learn about her and themselves in the process. I not only expect this to win the Oscar, but I also feel this will probably end up in my Top 10 for the year, and I can say that knowing full well there are 11 more months of movies to come!

Review

2. Another Happy Day – Sam Levinson’s directorial debut about a family reuniting for a wedding is the type of quality ensemble dramedy that effectively makes us laugh and cry, often in the same scene. It’s a triumphant coup on many levels by actress/producer Ellen Barkin to deliver on Levinson’s script along with Ezra Miller, a talented youngster who has a way of making material of his own. Add to that another terrific performance by Ellen Burstyn, the perfect casting of Thomas Haden Church and Demi Moore as Barkin’s nemeses, the return of George Kennedy and an incandescent performance by an almost unrecognizable Kate Bosworth as a troubled young woman trying to find closure. We’re shocked this movie hasn’t been bought/sold yet.

Review

3. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox Searchlight) – Sean Durkin’s character drama starring hot newcomer Elizabeth Owens as a young woman trying to escape mentally from the cult-like commune where she was brainwashed for years by its leader, played by Oscar-nominee John Hawkes. While the film’s dual storylines isn’t new, the way it cuts between Owens as Martha trying to reconnect with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband with the experience of being part of the cult is what makes the film so unique with an atmosphere that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Haneke film.

Review (Interview Coming Soon!)

4. Higher Ground – Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut is quite a tour de force in showing the course of a woman’s life and how faith and religion play into it, as Farmiga and her niece play Corinne Walker, an imaginative young woman who fights to keep her independence after joining a commune-like church with her husband. The contrasts between the way this material is handled compared to “Martha Marcy May” is quite stark, because there’s a lot more humor in this, but Farmiga not only delivers a terrific performance herself but pulls great performances out of her entire cast including Sundance regular Joshua Leonard (whose own movie The Lie also premiered this year). Like Another Happy Day, we’re puzzled why this movie hasn’t sold yet.

Review

5. POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Sony Pictures Classics) – An absolutely hilarious film by Spurlock about product placement and advertising that might in fact supercede Super Size Me as the film he’s best known for especially as he goes on the campaign trail for the movie, pumping all of the products who helped pay for the movie in the bargain. It’s not only funny but it’s also a rather revealing look at how movie marketing works and how the corporations are getting involved in all aspects of our lives. Director Brett Ratner steals the movie with one of the funniest lines he may have ever uttered in an interview ever.

Interview with Morgan Spurlock

6. Circumstance – Maryam Keshavarz’s Iran-based drama is the story of two teen girls who are constantly trying to have fun within the limitations of their moral-conscious government, which eventually develops into a sexual relationship, one that hits a curveball when one of them is forced to marry the brother of the other in order to escape from serving a jail sentence. Kesharvarz is quite an amazing director, but it’s the performances by the two young actresses that helped make “Circumstance” one of this year’s Audience Award winners.

7. Like Crazy (Paramount) – Drake Doremus’ striking sophomore feature follows the long-distance relationship between young lovers, played by Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, who need to overcome the obstacles of being separated by immigration policies that prevent them from being reunited for years. It sounds like a simple premise but the way Doremus shows the passage of time, and how each of them deals with the problem of being thousands of miles from the one you love is what makes the film so fascinating, and both actors are terrific. (Doremus even has last year’s Sundance darling Jennifer Lawrence in a supporting role, which is quite ballsy.)

(Review Coming Soon!)

8. My Idiot Brother (The Weinstein Company) – Jesse Peretz’s hilarious comedy starring Paul Rudd as a somewhat clueless organic farmer who has to rely on the hospitality of his three sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer) for a place to live, but proceeds to completely screw up their lives in the process.

Review (Interview Coming Soon!)

9. Project Nim (Roadside Attractions) – James Marsh’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning doc Man on Wire follows the life of the chimpanzee that took part in a ’70s experiment to see if an ape could be raised like a human child and taught to communicate with sign language. What starts out as a warm and cuddly movie with lots of cute animal antics turns into something far darker and more poignant, and even if you think you know the story of Nim, Marsh’s film really gets far deeper into the chimp’s story with interviews with many of the key players.

Interview with James Marsh

10. Tyrannosaur – Actor Paddy Considine’s feature film directorial debut was an astonishingly dark slice-of-life drama set in suburban England where a constantly-angry character played by Peter Mullan tried to connect with a meek God-loving woman running a local shop, played by Olivia Coleman, both actors deservedly receiving a Special Jury Prize for their performances. (And Considine also being honored for his direction.) It’s a film that pays homage to Considine’s frequent collaborator Shane Meadows and countrymate Mike Leigh in its portrait of British lifestyles and how domestic abuse plays a part in it. (That’s a rather simplified and compressed version of a complex plot that mixes equal parts humor, drama and romance.)

Review (Interviews Coming Soon!)

Honorable Mentions:

Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (Sony Pictures Classics) is a psychological thriller in the true sense of the word with Michael Shannon playing an Ohio man who starts having harrowing nightmares about a coming storm and becomes obsessed with building a shelter that can protect himself and his family. It’s one of Shannon’s best performances and a must-see for his fans.

(Review Coming Soon!)

Thomas McCarthy’s Win Win (Fox Searchlight) was a terrific dramedy vehicle for Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, but mostly for Bobby Cannavale, who stole every scene as an overzealous pal of Giamatti’s high school wrestling coach.

Review

Richard Aoyanade’s Welsh coming-of-age comedy Submarine (The Weinstein Company) introduced some fantastic talent in Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige, as well as the fantastically creative filmmaking mind of Aoyanade who puts a unique twist on an overused genre.

Interview

Dee Rees’ Pariah (Focus Features), which like many Sundance feature debuts was expanded from a previous Sundance short is a stirring film about a 17-year-old New York lesbian named Alike, who is still living in the closet from her strict parents, but who is also trying to gain her freedom by having sex. It features an astonishing performance by Adepero Oduye, who is an actress we could see going places if she can deliver in other roles/films as well as she does in this one.

The Most Impressive Performances of Sundance ’11

1. Adepero Oduye in Pariah

2. Elisabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House

3. Nikohi Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy in Circumstance

4. Olivia Coleman and Peter Mullan in Tyrannosaur

5. Ellen Barkin, Ezra Miller, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Bosworth et al in Another Happy Day

6. Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter

7. Vera Famiga et al in Higher Ground

8. Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige in Submarine

9. Brit Marling and William Mapother in Another Earth

10. Paul Rudd et al in My Idiot Brother

The Most Impressive New Directors

1. Sean Durkin – Martha Marcy May Marlene

2. Paddy Considine – Tyrannosaur

3. Vera Farmiga – Higher Ground

4. Maryam Keshavarz – Circumstance

5. Sam Levinson – Another Happy Day

And now…

The Worst of Sundance 2011!

We’re not going to waste a lot of time talking about these as we have plenty of time to trash them later this year but the three worst movies we saw at Sundance (that we didn’t walk out of) were…

Matthew Chapman’s The Ledge (IFC Films) about a guy on a ledge (Charlie Hunnam) and the police officer assigned to talk him down (Terrence Howard) as well as the former’s relationship with a religious couple (Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler) that eventually put him on that ledge, which failed to deliver on what sounded like it could be a strong premise.

Michael Tully’s absolutely ridiculous Septien played in the Park City at Midnight track for some reason, and one can only imagine it had a lot of angry customers when it ended at 1:19 AM, as it half-heartedly tried to tell the story of three disparate brothers and a secret from their past. Although Tully has impressive sports abilities and executive producer Robert Longstreet’s portrayal of the brothers’ effeminate leader is good, we hope he didn’t put too much of his own money into this.

Mark Pellington’s I Melt with You (Magnolia Pictures) involved Jeremy Piven, Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe and Christian McKay as four friends who reunite at a beach house every year for a week of binge drinking and drug-taking and talking about all sorts of nonsense. Just when you’re ready to kill yourself out of frustration with how annoying they are, they all start dying, which might have felt more original if we hadn’t seen the exact same thing with the equally bad to.get.her. At least, that one had hot young women in that situation rather than middle-aged actors, and we walked out of that one! When Carla Gugino shows up as a local sheriff who suspects foul play at the house roughly an hour and fifteen minutes into this, things spiral even further out of control. Every year Sundance has one movie with a decent cast and a respected director that ends up being so abhorrently bad that we try hard to forget our time wasted watching it and this year, that movie was indeed I Melt with You.

That’s all for now, but look for more interviews and reviews from Sundance as we’re able to get to them.