Sundance 2011 - All Wrapped Up
Sundance 2011 is bound to go down as the year that indie sales came roaring back. With thirty sales during the festival and more still likely to come, distributors were hungry to find this year's box office hit. Time will tell which films are able to break through to a mass audience, but we will surely be talking about at least a handful of this Sundance batch this time next year during awards season. Here is a brief look at a few of the movies that had people talking (whether good or bad) at this year's fest:
No doubt one of the big winners of the festival was Drake Doremus's (Douchebag) Like Crazy. Not only did fans pretty much universally melt over the honest look at love and distance (it was my fave as well), but it also netted a mega $4M sale to unlikely big studio distributor Paramount. Starring Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin as lovers separated by bureaucratic circumstances, the film succeeds because of the heartfelt and mainly improvisational performances by the pair. You've never seen so many heart wrenching goodbyes in one film. The populist jury led by director Jason Reitman agreed, calling it the movie that stuck with them and broke their hearts. Aside from awarding the film the top dog Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, they also awarded a Special Grand Jury Prize for acting to Felicity Jones.
Another award winner and buzz maker was Sean Durkin's feature debut Martha Marcy May Marlene which took home the Dramatic Jury's Directing Award and was scooped up by Fox Searchlight. The film centers on a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) haunted by paranoia after escaping an abusive cult. Sundance was buzzing over Olsen who also starred in Chris Kentis and Laura Lau's (Open Water) continuous shot thriller Silent House (bought for $3M by Liddell Entertainment with plans to resell).
The other breakout star of the fest was the multi-talented Brit Marling who co-wrote, produced and starred in two big hits. The first, Mike Cahill's Another Earth (also bought by Fox Searchlight), is the story of a woman trying to make amends after accidentally killing a man's family by falling in love with the man. The whole film is set to an odd sci-fi background story about a second earth that is inexplicably moving dangerously close to our earth - yet we have all kinds of trouble making basic radio contact with it. While I was very disappointed by the illogical science, swiss cheese plot, and unrealistic love story, the film most certainly had more fans than detractors - winning both the Dramatic Special Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Award for a film that focuses on science or technology. Marling's other film, Zal Batmanglij's psychological thriller Sound of my Voice, had a bit smaller but no less vocal group of fans who are still pondering how the film has so far evaded a big sale.
Other fest faves included Jeff Nichols's (Shotgun Stories) Michael Shannon starrer Take Shelter, Vera Farmiga's bold directorial debut Higher Ground, and heartfelt John C. Reilly starrer Terri. Critics have gone particularly wild for Shannon who plays a husband and father haunted by apocalyptic dreams. Take Shelter sold at the fest to Sony Classics while Terri pre-sold last September to ATO Pictures and Higher Ground remains unsold.
Of course even Sundance has a few misses to go along with all the hits. Most notably was the complete bomb of Dito Montiel's The Son of No One - the fest's closing night film. Starring Channing Tatum as Officer White, a cop tormented by crimes he committed as a child, the plot bounces back and forth wildly between the past and present. Ray Liotta plays White's boss and his completely baffling character motivations are emblematic of the shockingly poor quality of the script. Is Liotta's character trying to help White or scare him - and most importantly, why? The film is actually almost worth sitting through for the hilarious final rooftop shoot out. Montiel decided to employ a technique of continuously fading the action in and out to white, ostensibly because it didn't make any sense when cut together normally. This decision had the already delirious press & industry crowd laughing out loud - those who were left anyway. The screening was so bad that THR's report on the screening ignited a war of words with the film's well respected sales agent Cassian Elwes. Sorry Mr. Elwes, but no lights turned on ten minutes before the credits. People left because the film is just plain awful.
More less than stellar buzz prevailed over Matthew Chapman's directorial debut The Ledge. The film, which stars Charlie Hunnam and Terrence Howard, was said to be a dismal and middling melodrama. That notwithstanding, the film sold to IFC for low-seven figures. That's considerably more than the $20 that Kevin Smith paid himself in a nutty publicity stunt auction to distribute his own film Red State. While the film found itself swamped in plenty of negative reviews, a number of positive notices sprinkled in give hope that Kevin Smith fans will find something in the movie to love.
Twitch fans have plenty to be excited about looking forward to some wacky and weird genre offerings coming out of the fest. The undisputed (and uncrowned) champion of the midnight section has to be Jason Eisener's hold nothing back Hobo with a Shotgun (full review) which proves once and for all that you can lift a manhole cover with your protruding humerus. Todd Rohal's The Catechism Cataclysm (full review) may not be quite as wild as Hobo, but this comedy starring Steve Little and Robert Longstreet does get pretty wacky.
Eschewing wackiness for a more poetic spin on horror is Shunji Iwai's Vampire (full review). While the film can be a bit challenging, Iwai fans will find a lot to like in his artistry and unique storytelling. A much more traditional genre offering is the Brazilian actioner Elite Squad 2 (full review). Shot on a modest budget, director Jose Padilha shows extreme skill in crafting a complex, engaging and action-packed shooter.
On the true to life side of things, the fest featured more documentaries with the added Documentary Premieres category, however there was a bit less buzz than last year which featured the premieres of four of this year's five Oscar nominees - including the high profile secret screenings of Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop. The Documentary Grand Jury Prize went to physician-assisted suicide doc How to Die in Oregon while the World Cinema Documentary Jury Prize was awarded to Afghan War doc Hell and Back Again.
The doc that had everyone talking was Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, Andrew Rossi's very insightful look at why journalism is still important, even in the face of today's quickly altering media landscape. Anyone interested in issues of new and traditional media will find this film fascinating. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey was a sweet piece that found a very positive response. Morgan Spurlock's The Greatest Movie Ever Sold about product placement was another crowd pleaser that is sure to find an audience. And also Steve James's (Hoop Dreams) latest doc, The Interrupters, about ex-gang members turned crime preventers in violent Chicago deserves a mention for its brilliant depiction of people trying their best to do good for the world.
Sundance may be all about the films but there was plenty going on outside the theaters as well. ASCAP was back with their Music Café which featured artists such as Guster, The Chapin Sisters, and Manchester Orchestra. I was lucky enough to catch an incredible set by Rapper/Singer K'naan who played a few songs to a very adoring crowd. As he told the audience, Sundance had been an incredible experience for him, although he hadn't gotten to see any films. I asked him afterwards if he had a desire to work in any kind of dramatic form - be it as an actor or a filmmaker. His response was both humble and confident, "If I felt that there was something I could do within that world that no one else could do, then I would do it - but I'm not sure what that is." His answer to whether he'd be returning to Sundance next year showed his enthusiasm for the fest. "I might just buy a ticket to come to Sundance and just see films. Instead of having to play - although this was an amazing experience - I'd rather be irresponsible."
For my two cents, Sundance is just about as much fun as you can have. Between the films, parties, concerts and hitting the mountains, everyone there is having a blast. I'm with K'naan. I know I'll be back next year - responsibilities or not.