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Sundance Film Festival 2014

Jack's Notes From Park City

Jack Nyblom, owner/founder of the Camera Cinemas, has frequented the Sundance Film Festival -- as well as other major fests worldwide -- for many years in search of quality films to play at Camera 3, Camera 7 and Camera 12

A film festival with as many titles in play as Sundance, Cannes or Toronto is only as good as the movie choices. I saw 25 films and most were good and/or lucky picks, even though I missed two of the big buzz titles that everyone seemed to love – Whiplash, which won the Audience Choice Award as well as the Jury Award, and Calvary with Brendan Gleeson. I rate this year as one of THE best festivals in recent memory.

Unquestionably, the highlight for me was Richard Linklater’s remarkable Boyhood, shot every year like a chapter over a period of 12 years about a boy who ages from 7 to 19. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the boy’s estranged parents are exceptional as is almost the entire cast. At nearly three hours long I found myself looking at my watch throughout the last third because I was hoping it was not nearing the end.

Two weeks later, I am still thinking about this deeply moving film and feel it is the one masterpiece of the festival and a movie that will resonate for years to come. Kudos to Linklater, to all of the talent and to IFC distributor/financier Joanthan Sehring, who all stuck with this experimental project year after year. (I imagine conversations like, "What?!". “I need $200,000 next month for a chapter, but it’ll be worth it when we get it onscreen in ten years”…). Boyhood opens at Camera Cinemas this summer.

Some other highlights include Craig Johnson’s beautifully realized The Skeleton Twins starring Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig and Luke Wilson. Hader and Wiig are estranged twins who after a crisis reunites them move in together. Their roles are dramatic, nuanced and funny – and it is by far the best work they yet have done on film; destined to be a hit!

Other festival comedy/dramas that really worked were Lynn Shelton’s follow up to Your Sister’s SisterLaggies with Kiera Knightly (giving a very loose, charming performance), Sam Rockwell and Chloe Grace Moretz. In addition, The One I love with Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss as a troubled couple in therapy who are sent for a weekend to a special retreat to try to save their marriage. What happens should not be spoiled but it makes for a most bizarre, delightful and unexpected exploration of modern relationships. Another smaller, relatable relationship comedy was Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas starring Anna Kendrick, Swanberg and indie darling Lena Dunham.

Music as muse or healer seemed to be a prevalent theme at this year’s event with five very different films dealing with the subject – William Macy’s Rudderless, Michael Fassbender as you’ve never seen him before in the offbeat Frank, Anne Hathaway in the subtle, sweet Song One, Stuart Murdoch’s (of Belle and Sebastian) Glascow-set God Help the Girl and the most moving doc I’ve seen in ages – Alive Inside about how personal music dramatically affects the lives of Alzheimers’ patients and the elderly.

The latter film may scare away some because of it’s subject matter but hopefully that won’t be the case because it is amazing and genuinely uplifting. Some of the scenes where we watch the introduction of personal music to people who have shut down are incredible as these people visibly transform and come alive before our eyes. The audience was laughing and drying off tears at the same time. (This is a must-see film for our Cinema Club to help spread the word).

A couple of other films brought out the handkerchiefs in a big way – Steve (Hoop Dreams) James’ doc, Life Itself, a heartfelt look at Roger Ebert’s career and his final brave months, and Maya Forbes’ tender and funny Infintely Polar Bear starring Marc Ruffalo as a bi-polar dad who cares for his two young daughters. Polar Bear might be a touch romanticized but it’s a memoir that really works.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final film, A Most Wanted Man is a dark gem. Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) adapted John Le Carre’s psychological thriller and cast a never better Hoffman as a tired, complicated, ethical German spy in a post-911 world. A remarkable cast includes Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright. Another kind of thriller that had a lot of Sundance buzz was Mike Cahill’s sci-fi follow up to Another EarthI Origins. It’s an altogether original and stimulating exploration of the connections between love and science, and deserves the buzz. Make sure to stay until after the credits roll!

The laugh-out-loud funniest movie of the festival has to be Michael Winterbottom’s improvisational Trip to Italy, a sequel to The Trip starring comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Retracing the Romantic poet’s grand tour of Italy and also on a food quest, they philosophize and banter, and try to out-impersonate one another in various restaurants and idyllic landscapes. It makes for some of the best laughs of any movie in recent years. See clip from their Q&A attached.

Two contemporary dramas that took us to new worlds were Winner for the U.S. Narrative Best Director Award, Curtis Hodiern’s very accomplished Fishing Without Nets about a young Somali fisherman who joins a band of high seas pirates and “Camp X-Ray” with a very good Kristen Stewart as a new Guantanamo Bay guard. Nets ambitiously shows the other side of Captain Phillips with a cast of Somali non-actors and Camp X-Ray sometimes unconvincingly tells the story of a female guard bonding with an angry detainee.

In another part of the world Milt Jackson’s War Story stars Catherine Keener as a traumatized war photographer who travels to Italy. An intense study of grief and isolation this disturbing and very slow paced drama is highlighted by an encounter between Keener and Ben Kingsley that is like a master class in acting. A day before, I saw another kind of war story, Rory Kennedy’s Last Days of Vietnam a fascinating documentary about the final frightening and chaotic days of the Vietnam War as the North Vietnamese close in on Saigon and as the South Vietnamese attempt to flee. It is not the story we have come to expect but a little known tale about courage and heroism from a small group of Americans who acted against orders and made a difference by trying to save as many lives as possible.

There were a couple other good documentaries that I managed to see – the Best Documentary Winner, Rich Hill focusing on three adolescent boys struggling to cope on the wrong side of the tracks in Rich Hill, Missouri. The other, Lambert & Stamp, largely set in swinging 60’s London, is the tale of two British promoters who decided that the best way to break into movie-making was to discover, manage and then to film their rock band. The band became The Who and their lives took some amazing turns in this stranger than fiction doc.

Listen Up Philip stars Jason Schwartzman as a not very likeable novelist who juggles relationships with the suddenly very hot Elizabeth Moss (also in The One I Love), Krysten Ritter and Jonathan Pryce as a famous, angry Philip Roth type novelist. Though it is a witty, literary depiction of self-obsessed New Yorkers, it is hard to care much about most of them. Still, this movie had its fans.

Writer, actor, stand-up comedian David Cross makes his directorial debut with Hits, an over-the-top comedy about a blue collar worker, Dave, who finds unwanted fame when his video-taped City Hall rants go viral. A wild, uneven, satirical look at contemporary fame, media and the ridiculous extremes we’ll go to be seen.

Speaking of extremes, I caught only one movie from the Park City at Midnight series and it’s a doozey: The Mo Brothers’ Killers about two competing serial killers – one in Tokyo, the other in Jakarta. When one posts videos of his violent acts online the other responds on the internet and a gruesome duel begins. Stylishly shot this brutal, blood-soaked, edgy thriller is not for the squeamish.

Another chilling film, from the Dramatic Competition, is Mona Fastbold’s The Sleepwalker about two disturbed sisters along with their boyfriends who reunite for a weekend in their secluded, childhood estate home. Unsettling, erotic, dreamy and intelligent this slow-burn thriller keeps us guessing and never lets us quite distinguish between what is real or fantasy.

Finally, and for no particular reason, the last movie mentioned here is award-winning director Pawel Pawlikowsi’s (My Summer of Love) Ida. Set in 1960’s Poland, this beautifully shot and composed black and white film is the story of a young woman raised in a convent who is sent away to meet her world-weary aunt before taking her vows, and who learns about her Jewish parents murdered during the Nazi Occupation. A subtle, powerful portrait of contrasting values and women.

As I ran across fellow festival-goers throughout Sundance and occasionally heard that they thought this year had a weak line-up. I would ask if they saw Boyhood, Alive Inside, A Most Wanted Man, or The Skeleton Twins. When I would find out they missed these or some of the other titles mentioned here I could only wonder what festival they had been to. I will argue with anyone that says this was a disappointing festival - it was clearly the best Sundance in quite some time and bodes well for 2014 as being a strong year at the movies.


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