It’s that time – time for my recap of the Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah which, having just turned thirty this year, remains the premiere mecca for independent film-making in the U.S. Many of the films I’m citing here will be viewable in your cineplex this summer.
The themes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival seemed to be music – and madness. Sometimes both in one film, as witnessed by the interactions of genius-musician-hidden-inside a large cartoon face mask in Frank, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s story of an exceedingly ill-fated band’s attempt to record a new album and perform at a music festival; or the rampaging shooter behind the blissful love songs of Rudderless, a heart-rending story of the power of talent and the love of a father, starring the quite brilliant Billy Cruddup.
But mostly these themes were separate, if large players in the 2014 fest. I had the pleasure of screening 28 films in 6.5 days, consuming Greek yogurt and Boom Chick A Pop’s organic, fat free popcorn, and the occasional spiked hot chocolate as physical sustenance along the way. You might call that crazy, too, but I look at it as Nirvana.
On the madness-only side, the highlight was Kumiko, Treasure Hunter, a beautiful, dream-like film, about a Japanese “office lady,” who discovers an old VHS tape of the Coen Brothers’ classic film Fargo, takes it is as truth, and goes on a search to for the treasure shown buried by Steve Buscemi. Depressed and disheveled, Kumiko’s tragi-comic search is leavened with brilliant supporting performances in Japan and the States, her obsessive plight pulling the viewer along for the ride. Always poetic, sometimes silly, sometimes sad, Kumiko’s quest is entirely believable through the performance of gifted star Rinko Kikuchi. Stunning visuals and a deep and abiding sense of loss, hope, and regret make this a film to seek out.
Another crazy lady of an entirely different stripe attempts to hold horror at bay in the Australian import The Babadook, starring powerhouse actress Essie Davis. She plays Amelia, mother of a seven year old boy, nursing home worker, and keeper of a dark secret – she lost her husband, Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), in a car accident as he was speeding her to hospital to give birth. Her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is anathema to her, and the fact that his boyish acting out is often violent and volatile doesn’t exactly make him endearing. But is he right about the monster introduced through an alarming children’s story, The Babadook? Is he inside? Who is mad, mother or child? Jump in your seat scary, this neat, claustrophobic horror flick is intelligent and horrifying, both.
Whether it’s self-defeating madness or mere egotism eating away at Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Phillip, it’s hard to tell. Voice over narration and sardonic, Woody Allen-ish wit tell the tale of a self-serving novelist who is impossible to live with, interacting with his genius slash narcissist mentor. And PTSD is the name of the game for Catherine Keener’s distressed, close to panicked war correspondent in War Story, wandering the streets of Sicily after she’s held hostage in Libya and a beloved friend killed. The vibrant laugh with them, cry with them comedy The Skeleton Twins also touches on madness, as Bill Hader and Krisin Wiig do a suicidal brother and sister act that’s both laugh out loud hilarious and heartbreaking. The Skeleton Twins ranked high in my festival favorites list. Far less effective was the dysfunctional family – manic mother, killer dad – envisioned in Shailene Woodley starrer White Bird in a Blizzard, whose surrealist images didn’t compensate for a weirdly conventional script.
Back on the music front, Anne Hathaway supports her injured musician brother by meeting and bedding his folk singer idol, in Song One, a slow out of the gate but poignant rumination on the meaning of life, music, love, and creativity. Things get a little bit crazy for depressed but recovering anorexic Eve, played by the delightful Emily Browning, in God Help the Girl. The very definition of quirky, this film is another of my favorites from the festival, an actual musical from Stuart Murdoch, front man of indie folk artists Belle & Sebastian. Yes, people actually sing, and the color pallette here is technicolor pop, and it works. The jubilant sound track can’t help but snap you out of any depression of your own. The winner of this year’s Sundance Festival U.S. Dramatic competition, Whiplash, told the harrowing drama about an aspiring drummer (Miles Teller) encouraged and abused by his professor (J.K. Simmons). Somewhere in this award winner’s genetic mix of music, passion, and anything-for-art is a coming of age story. Music was also present in Hits, an acerbic comedy riff on what lengths people will go to achieve fame, in which Katelyn (Meredith Hagner) seeks musical fame despite a lack of discernable talent, while her father gains unasked for fame by taking on his small New York town’s city council.
Of course there were standout films that played with neither music or madness, too. From the charming Iceland-set travels of the buddy film Land Ho to the pretty amazing, twelve years of filming that went into the creation of an actual Boyhood through the lens of Richard Linklater, and the awe-inspiring science and faith love story that was iOrigins, provocative and enormously entertaining films were everywhere you looked. I saw a lot of great films this festival, and will be singing the praises of many of these films with in-depth reviews still to come.