The Sundance Film Festival has been over for a few days, and it’s been another exciting week and a half for filmmakers, movie lovers and film writers alike as we get a taste of what’s in store for the coming year. This year seemed to be much better for movies arriving at the festival looking for buyers, as according to our math, twenty-four movies were picked up for distribution during the festival proper and things certainly seemed far more positive and optimistic about the state of the industry.
That said, we saw roughly 32 films during the festival and nothing really affected us as much as last year’s Incendies or Martha Marcy May Marlene, both which ended up in the Weekend Warrior’s Top 10. Then again, maybe we were a bit warier of lavishing praise on the films we liked until we had a second chance to see them outside the normally-overenthusiastic festival environment.
However you slice it, women ruled at this year’s Sundance whether it’s doc filmmakers like Amy Berg and Lauren Greenfield, first-time filmmakers like Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) or films that were vehicles for underrated comic actresses like Rashida Jones (Celeste and Jesse Forever) and Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed) or bringing great supporting actresses like Lizzy Kaplan (Save the Date and Bachelorette), Melanie Lynskey (Hello I Must Be Going) and Felicity Price (wish you were here.) to the forefront. The Freebie director Katie Aselton also proved horror didn’t necessarily have to be a boy’s club with her midnight movie Black Rock, co-starring Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell. Although we didn’t love all the movies mentioned above, there’s no denying that many of the women above will be seen through new eyes after Sundance.
Like previous years, we’ve assembled a list of 12 of our favorite movies or what we consider “The Best of the Fest,” and maybe it’s no surprise that the strongest movie we saw this year was a doc:
1. West of Memphis – Amy (Deliver Us from Evil) Berg tackles the tale of the West Memphis Three, who were wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of three boys. With the help of producers/financers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh on board, the film goes heavily into investigating the new evidence discovered including talking to many people who have never spoken on camera outside the trial – from jurors to Judge Burnett and the prosecutors and even some of those who testified against the three guys who now denounce their own claims made on the stand. The biggest revelation is the amount of DNA evidence and testimony that further backs up claims that Terry Hobbs, one of the boys’ stepfathers, may have been responsible. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for those guys, particularly Eccols being in solitary for so much time, but the film is incredibly powerful and moving, and you’re not likely to leave it not outraged that the real killer (or killers) are still out and about.
2. Liberal Arts (IFC Films) Josh Radnor’s clever take on the romantic comedy genre pairs him with Lizzy Olsen, playing a very different role from the ones she played at Sundance last year, but it’s more than a story of a 30-something year-old who befriends a 19-year-old on returning to his alma mater, as much as an exploration of how attending college affects different people. It’s brilliantly written with a number of great supporting roles from Allison Janney and Richard Jenkins, but more than anything, it proves that Radnor is incredibly talented and we’re excited to see what he does next. IFC Films really has a movie with a lot of potential and here’s hoping they really get behind the movie and try to get it out to a wide audience.
3. The Surrogate (Fox Searchlight) Ben Lewin adapts the moving story of polio-stricken San Francisco poet Mark O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) and his attempt to lose his virginity with a sex surrogate (played by Helen Hunt). With great supporting roles by William H. Macy and Moon Bloodgood, the film was surprisingly entertaining despite the subject matter, Hawkes delivering on O’Brien’s trademark wit and the film being poignant and romantic, leaving nary a dry eye in the house at the screening I saw. Searchlight have their work cut out for them convincing people to see the movie–see how little foreign language films like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Sea Inside made domestically–but if they can convince audiences to see the movie, word-of-mouth will be huge.
4. Smashed – James Ponsoldt’s look at alcoholism featured an absolutely fantastic performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a school teacher whose fun-loving alcohol-fueled life style with her husband (Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad”) leads to her guiltily joining AA. There’s lots of drama but it’s also a movie with lots of humor especially in some of the things Winstead gets into while drunk, and Ponsoldt’s ability to mix humor and drama is rounded out by great supporting roles by Megan Mullaly, Octavia Spencer and especially Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation”) who is fantastic in a role that mixes the two. We’re shocked this hasn’t been picked up for distribution yet because it has a cool indie tone that could appeal to a wider audience similar to last year’s 50/50.
5. Save the Date – Also not yet picked up for distribution is Michael Mohan’s look at relationships among 20-somethings starring Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie as very different sisters whose relationships with a pair of musicians lead to all sorts of misunderstandings and issues. It’s a poignant and funny film that really caught me by surprise because Mohan really brings out great things from actors like Mark Webber, Martin Starr and Geoffrey Arend who often play smaller supporting roles. Caplan is fantastic though, and between this and her performance in Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette, we think the Mean Girls co-star is someone to watch in 2012.
6. The Queen of Versailles (Magnolia) – Our second favorite doc at Sundance–we only saw four, mind you–is this early hyped-up doc about timeshare mogul David Siegel and his wife Jacqueline and their attempt to build one of the largest single-family homes in Orlando while at the same time opening an ambitious time-share resort in Las Vegas, both which come to a grinding halt when the economic crash hits in September 2008 affecting Siegel’s primary source of income. It’s a funny and entertaining film at first–Jacqueline Siegel is quite a character–but it turns quite sad as you realize that there’s a certain level of wealth that’s hard to adjust to not having anymore. A great life lesson for sure.
7. The Raid (Sony Pictures Classics) – Gareth Evans’ Indonesian martial arts flick has been kicking ass on the festival circuit and we got a taste for its fantastic, visually stylistic action scenes at this year’s Sundance and we left wanting to see more both from Evans and his kick-ass star Iko Uwais. (If this movie came out a year earlier, we’re convinced Evans would have been the frontrunner to direct the next “Die Hard” movie.)
8. Arbitrage (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions) – Nicholas Jareckie’s drama features a terrific performance by Richard Gere as the head of a financial company who has been cooking with the books to make his company look more enticing to a potential buyer. At the same time, he’s having an affair with an artist but an incident threatens to endanger the deal, so he has to figure out ways of covering things up. Gere is surrounded by a great cast including Susan Sarandon as his wife, Brit Marling (Another Earth) as his daughter, Nate Parker as a poor guy from Harlem who gets involved with the cover-up and Tim Roth as the detective trying to solve the case. Part crime-thriller and part financial drama, the film really proves Jareckie, whose previous film was the doc The Outsider about James Toback, has what it takes to write and direct drama as the results are on par with Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton.
9. The Words (CBS Films) – Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s star-studded literary drama takes some time to get going as it follows Bradley Cooper as a struggling writer who finds an unpublished manuscript and passes it off as his own. Once Jeremy Irons shows up and tells the story of the manuscript, it’s a film that’s pulled you into its web with that story as well as an intriguing framing device with Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde that guarantees this as a film that has to be seen more than once. Klugman and Sternthal are decent writers but it’s their directing choices that allows the film to create such an emotional impact.
10. Shadow Dancer (ATO Pictures) James Marsh’s striking political thriller set in 1993 Northern Ireland features a performance by Andrea Riseborough as a woman from Belfast converted into an informant mole by a crafty MI5 agent (played by Clive Owen). Riseborough’s silent almost dialogue-free performance is one that’s likely to be cited as one of the year’s best once this film is seen, and Marsh has created an intense and rich film that we feel needs to be seen again before we try to write a full review.
11. Shut Up and Play the Hits – James Murphy’s band LCD Soundsystem called it quits last year and filmmakers Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace (No Distance Left to Run) were there to capture the final party at Madison Square Garden as well as the day after as Murphy closes up shop. As someone who attended that last show, the film really captures the energy and while we don’t learn anything that new or revelatory about Murphy (or the rest of the band who are never interviewed), we really had fun seeing this. Who knows if and when it will get a theatrical release but if you’re a fan of the band, it’s a great movie to see with an audience of fellow fans. Look for our interview with Murphy and the filmmakers soon.
12. Wish You Were Here (Entertainment One) – Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Australian dramatic thriller starring Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer is another film that takes you by surprise because it isn’t your typical thriller about someone disappearing during a holiday but instead deals with the drama of the survivors trying to get over what happened. Edgerton and Palmer are both great, but it’s co-writer Felicity Price who really blew us away as Edgerton’s pregnant wife whose family life is thrown into turmoil by revelations from the night in question.
Antonio Campos’ Simon Killer (IFC Films) was incredibly affecting with a great performance by Brady Corbet, but it was difficult to really love LOVE it. Same can be said for Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, a cute and quirky comedy that gives Aubrey Plaza a chance to shine, but doesn’t really deliver until the very end.
Sadly, we missed Mark Webber’s second movie as a director The End of Love and his other film For a Good Time Call , as we’ve heard good things about the former and the latter was picked up by Focus Features.
That’s it for this year. We may still have a couple more interviews and reviews to share.