Mike Flanagan's evil-mirror flick Oculus (US) received first runner-up for "Best Midnight Movie," which now seems appropriate since James Wan's recent Insidious: Chapter 2 basically uses the same flashback structure (to much stronger effect.) Still, Flanagan (2011's Absentia) is a young director worth keeping an eye on.
Eli Roth's latest direct-to-streaming effort The Green Inferno (US) pays homage to Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1980) with some of the most deliciously disgusting violence seen onscreen in quite some time. Like Nicolás López's Aftershock (2012), which Roth wrote, produced, and starred in, Inferno has a wonderful B-movie quality that will probably prevent it from achieving mainstream success. (Splatter fiends, however, are in for a treat.)
A Touch of Sin (China/Japan) is the latest thoughtful triumph for Jia Zhangke, the king of China's sixth-generation filmmaking. This time around, his suffering, disaffected characters are entangled in an even more violent environment than in previous outings Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004), and Still Life (2006).
All Cheerleaders Die (USA) is the follow up to Lucky McKee's attention-grabbing The Woman (2011), which stunned Sundance audiences with both its subversive take on gender issues and its violent brutality.
Taking a much lighter tone with co-director Chris Sivertson, Cheerleaders (an expanded remake of his 2001 short by the same name) nicely echoes the ironic horror-comedy vibe of Joss Whedon's Cabin in the Woods (2012) while still managing to deliver a genre entry for text-crazed teenyboppers. Goths, jocks, some faux feminism, and a bevy of ass and crotch shots should make fans of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers quite satisfied.
While many of the following films might not receive major releases, I have compiled a spoiler-free overview of films — presented here as a series of blog posts — to keep your eyes and ears out for in the coming months (and perhaps years) at your local theaters and online resources.
I will say it and I will say it loudly: Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger is perhaps the most subversive Hollywood film since Paul Verhoeven's still misunderstood sci-fi masterpiece, Starship Troopers (1997).
Not only does this sneaky, revisionist epic attempt to recontextualize the history of Western films, screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio — working directly from Zane Grey's 1915 novel The Lone Star Ranger — have designed an ambitious journey through America's tainted, tattered history. And like Starship Troopers, the combination of ruthless "all-American" violence, ironic historical references, and off-beat slapstick comedy give The Lone Ranger legs that audiences will get to uncover for decades to come. (Sadly it will have to happen after the film leaves US theaters this week.) Read more »
Ryan Coogler's Bay Area story Fruitvale picked up the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize; it is, of course, based on the life and death of Oakland's Oscar Grant, a young man gunned down by a BART cop on New Year's Day 2009. I emerged from this important, wonderfully-made debut like everyone around me in the sold-out theater — in devastated tears.
Lead actor Michael B. Jordan is absolutely gripping as Oscar — no surprise for anyone who saw him as Wallace on the first season of HBO's The Wire, or as one of Josh Trank's accidental superheroes in 2012's surprisingly gritty Chronicle. Coogler is a skilled director; the way he slowly builds toward his story's inevitable conclusion is worthy of praise.
I only got to experience half of this year's US Dramatic Competition films (unfortunately, missing David Lowery's buzzed-about Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which shared the Best Cinematography Award with Andrew Dosunmu's breathtaking Mother of George).
Still, among the films I saw, I was pleasantly surprised by James Ponsoldt's brutally poignant coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now. With a straight-ahead script that avoids clichés, the film benefits greatly from a pair of standout performances by its young stars. Miles Teller, from John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole (2010) and Craig Brewer's underrated remake of Footloose (2011), perfectly embodies a high-school asshole, while Shailene Woodley (so good in Alexander Payne's 2011 The Descendants) is spot-on as the class loner.
Scroll on up Pixel Vision for Jesse Hawthorne Ficks' previous Utah festival reports.
In recent years, Sundance has become well-known for its strong documentary offerings — to the point of overshadowing its dramatic films. And with good reason, when docs like Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's After Tiller are among the selections.
The film follows the four remaining doctors in the United States who continue to perform third-trimester abortions; it's a decidedly direct character study that uncovers the complex and difficult choices these physicians go through on a daily basis. (Not to mention the element of danger they face, as the title's reference to the murder of Dr. George Tiller suggests. With that in mind, there was a protective police presence at all of After Tiller's Sundance screenings.) The doc's impact didn't end when the lights came up; for days after the screening, I found myself drawn into fascinating conversations with folks who were eager to discuss their feelings about the film and the issues it explores. Read more »
Easily the greatest screening event at this year's Sundance Film Festival was Jane Campion's multi-part miniseries Top of the Lake, a co-production of the Sundance Channel, BBC Two, and UKTV in Australia and New Zealand.
Though it was made for TV, this 353-minute, Twin Peaks (1990) meets Silence of the Lambs (1991) extravaganza was shown on the big screen, which gave it even more impact. Not that it needed much help: when intermission came at the end of the third episode, audience members filed out for lunch with similar (stunned, shocked, obliterated) expressions on their faces.
At Sundance 2013, no other category could compete with the NEXT programming. NEXT was initiated in 2010; its aim is to highlight "pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling. Digital technology paired with unfettered creativity proves the films selected in this section will inform a 'greater' next wave in American cinema."
Matthew Porterfield's I Used to Be Darkershowcases Ned Oldham (brother of indie fave Will Oldham) as a father-husband-musician whose teenage daughter starts to drift away as his marriage dissolves. Wonderfully awkward and trying moments arise from every suburban-hipster angle, making Darker not only a disturbing blueprint of divorce among the indie-rock generation, but — with three fully performed songs — a reminder of why so much music from this time period remains utterly relatable. (Clearly, not everyone agrees; I overheard a group of SLC locals calling Darker their "least favorite movie of all time.")