A look back at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (part two)

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Scene from CYRUS

For part one of Jesse's Sundance report, click here.

Rounding out the mumblecore minions was Cyrus from the genre-defining Duplass Brothers. Even while having name actors (John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, and Jonah Hill) as well as a seven million dollar budget to play around with (by comparison, their first film, 2005's The Puffy Chair, cost $15,000), the siblings have not lost one iota of their charm or sincere humor. And most importantly, these characters and situations (no matter how complicated things get) are explored with depth and honesty. Jonah Hill is still the Jonah Hill from Judd Apatow films, but here he's finally been allowed to explore his creepy-sad side, enabling a viewer to truly relate to his character, a son who's a little too overprotective of his single mom. During what was one of Sundance's greatest 9 a.m. Q&As, the hung-over directors and cast laughed about how they have no clue how to market this film. My suggestion: don't miss Cyrus, sure to be one of the funniest, and most unexpectedly poignant, films of 2010. Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine features a John Cassavetes-esque relationship that places a couple in the defining moments of their six-year marriage, including flashbacks to their initial meeting. The near-bipolar fluctuations that occur during fights are perfectly captured in this entirely improvised accomplishment. In a New York Times article about the film, star Ryan Gosling said, "It was really important to [Cianfrance] that we build an archive of home video of actual memories, and that we not really discuss or rehearse the scenes. We had fighting days where we just fought all day, and then we’d have to go have family fun day, and just pretend like we hadn’t been fighting all day, trying to have a good time." Brooklyn folk-rockers Grizzly Bear provide a pitch-perfect soundtrack to the film. Make all efforts to experience Gosling and co-star Michelle Williams at the top of their games, allowed the freedom to dig down deep. Just be prepared for the experience to pull some serious hurt from your heart.

Debra Granik's Winter Bone is a jaw-dropping study of backwoods meth-makers in the Ozark Mountains (between Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas). The film has the feel of the Dardenne Brothers (2005's L'enfant): a young girl attempts to locate her missing father, while her (literally) extended family seem to be hiding something much darker than their meth labs. Genuinely gripping, Winter Bone offered more suspense than I've felt in years. I didn't want this film to end. No wonder it won the Grand Jury Prize and screenwriting award (with co-writer Anne Rosellini), furthering the trend of female filmmakers being recognized for their work (see also: Kathryn Bigelow). The film is an astounding way to kick off a new decade of American independant cinema.

Nothing can prepare you for the ADD insanity of Daddy Longlegs, directed by another team of brothers, fraternal twins Benny and Josh Safdie. This hyper clusterfuck contains an array of randoms, from Abel Ferrara to the children of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo. The film follows a NYC father who's taking care of his kids for two weeks. Ronnie Bronstein (who directed the equally obsessive and uncomfortable 2007 triumph Frownland) encapsulates everything that our contemporary psychotic and distracted nervous systems are experiencing these days. I can't think of a more disturbing film that also made me laugh so hard. 

When I heard Juan Carlos Valdivia's Southern District being compared to the work of Argentinian master Lucretia Martel (2008's The Headless Woman), I rearranged my entire schedule to see it -- most thankfully, as it turned out to be the best film of Sundance 2010. This quiet study of an upper-class Bolivian family and their day-to-day interactions with their butler is captured gorgeously by a hypnotic rotating camera. While making some audience members dizzy (indeed, the film is not for everyone; walkouts ensued), Valdivia and cameraman Paul de Lumen's brilliance allows the viewer to feel as if they are actually living in the house, feeling the minutes and hours slip by. How they were able to construct such complex camerawork, working within a house filled with so many reflective surfaces, combined with all of the actors improvising, is beyond comprehension. Winner of Sundance's awards for excellence in world cinema for dramatic directing and screenwriting, Southern District may well be this year's minimalist cinematic treasure..

And, for good measure, some honorable mentions (and misses):

Spencer Susser's Hesher was one of the festival's most-anticipated films. Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a performance so memorable that it may kick start a whole new generation of headbangers. His surprisingly crass dialogue sent many older audiences heading for the snowy outdoors, while that only made things all the more intriguing for those who stayed. The film does have some awkward shifts in tone from one scene to the next; at times, Hesher feels like it's caught in between a pissed-off teenager and the baffled parent who's trying to teach him a lesson.

Diane Bell's Obselidia won not only Sundance's award for best cinematography (for lensman Zak Mulligan), but also the Alfred P. Sloan award, which goes to films that focus on themes of science or technology. Previous awards have gone to Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005) and Shane Carruth's Primer (2004). The film explores our ever-changing realtionship with "stuff." As we throw out perfectly good items for whatever the newest model or invention is, what will happen to these old things that not only are still working but may even be better in quality and usefulness, like LPs, rotary phones, VHS videos, pens and paper? Ironically the film is shot using a Red Camera system which brings a level of High Definition so striking that you may have already thrown away your Canon GL-2 miniDV cameras and Sony HDCAMs to get one. This quirk-fest poses wonderful questions on the turn of a new decade, but unfortunately, the film slips into that dreaded, curmudgeony-elitist blabber ("Kids today just don't understand Robert Bresson!") that often comes from older generations who cling to ye olden times -- as if their "walking uphill both ways" methods are somehow better than anything new.   

Adam Green's low-budget Frozen hypnotized midnight audiences. The horror film strands three snowboarders on a ski lift and forces the audience to watch them die slowly. The truly screamworthy surprises balance out the awkward mistakes of discontinuity, including some irregular frozen-face ice (and the the lack of seeing the characters' breath throughout the film). In any case, Green has proven he can freak an audience out. Can't wait to see what comes next from him.
And lastly, Danny Perez's hourlong music video for psych-folksters Animal Collective, Oddsac, felt like an amalgamation of images that play behind the band while they play live. As it happens, Perez is the tour manager for Black Dice and has gone on tour as the image designer for Animal Collective's tours.

Stay tuned for Jesse Hawthorne Ficks' take on Sundance 2010's documentaries, coming soon!

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