After a foot of snow on opening weekend, it was been nothing but blue skies in Park City last week. But enough about the weather, here’s the word on the shuttle buses.
Worth the hype: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s follow-up to his Sundance short Glory at Sea, was a favorite for the Grand Jury Prize, which it won. The Surrogate, directed by veteran Ben Lewin, earned an audience award and had the biggest acquisition price tag this year, around $6 million, and its ensemble cast won a Special Jury Prize. I Am Not a Hipster, by Destin Daniel Cretton, who won an award in 2009 for his Sundance short Short Term 12, is another release I’m anxiously awaiting. Robot and Frank, Celeste and Jesse, Detropia, and How to Survive a Plague are all attracting folks as well.
What failed to impress: Your Sister’s Sister, Lynn Shelton’s follow up to her 2009 official selection Humpday. Again it sees a trio of lead characters embroiled in an awkward sexual triangle between two sisters, played by Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, and their would-be liaison (Mark Duplass). Though very well shot and acted, Shelton leaves out the entire resolution of the film and places a heavy-handed and overly melodramatic montage sequence in its place. What a way to ruin this unique and fun setup. So Yong Kim’s latest, For Ellen, has very little of the harmonic beauty of her previous films (Treeless Mountain, In Between Days), and instead has empty and needlessly slow scenes about the pain a rock musician (Paul Dano) goes through in fighting for custody of his daughter. There are a few beautiful, transcendent, and serene Kim-esque moments, but ultimately the film is lacking in story. The Comedy, directed by Rick Alverson, stars Tim Heidecker from TV’s Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job! as a flailing ne’er-do-well in hipster Brooklyn generally going around behaving like a jackass and wasting time with his snarky friends, played by a host of real-life hipsters, which include Tim’s comedy partner Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem’s ultra-in James Murphy. The film somehow takes itself and its borderline experimental comedy too seriously (an amazing feat of irony).
Favorites: Keep the Lights On, the third Sundance feature for writer-director Ira Sachs, is excellent. His lead, Thure Lindhart, is magnetic and heartbreaking as he negotiates a decade-long relationship with meth-addicted Paul (Zachary Booth). This beautiful, subtle, and bold narrative will leave you in tears. The mercurial relationship hinges on recognizable real-life moments, and Sachs’s careful depiction of this abused but loyal boyfriend is tremendous. Oslo, August 31st is also a film about a relapse. Norwegian director Joachim Trier takes us through a day in the life of Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) as he leaves rehab for a job interview and suddenly encounters the pressures of his former life. Trier has a keen sense of storytelling, and provides an intimate setting as we learn about what it feels to be a recovering addict.
Compliance is turning heads this year, and the Q & As have been intense. Irate audience members have been asked to leave (or maybe that was during Simon Killer, Antonio Campos’s dark but well-made and beautifully shot second feature about an abusive sexual predator that stars Brady Corbet—neither would surprise me). Craig Zobel’s film, based on a true story about a prank caller who impersonates a police officer and convinces a fast-food chain manager to strip search her cashier, will stick in your head for a long, long time. Zobel is careful to toe the line between believability and outrage as the terrible events unfold. By the end, the audience walks out feeling practically complicit in the assault. It’s an intense experience, and it will surprise you in how well it keeps you engaged. Simon Killer is not quite the story I was hoping for; it’s a major downer, and feels more like a therapy session for its heady director than it does a character exploration. The filmmaking is remarkably accomplished though. Campos’s camera placement is interesting, the cinematography is excellent, and the soundtrack is unbelievable.
Nice surprises: Josh Radnor’s second feature, Liberal Arts, will sneak up on you. Elizabeth Olsen is beautiful and infectious as Zibby, a college student enamored with Radnor’s returning alumnus Jesse. The two begin a cute but doomed romance (because of a 10-plus age difference), and this lighthearted flick does everything a fun romantic comedy should, like make you laugh and cry—sometimes at the same time. Radnor, bucking a trend when prominent actors become directors, is smart not to let his actors wander too much in their roles. He is a remarkably disciplined director, and only Richard Jenkins overacts out of this entire star-speckled cast. You might even like Zac Efron, I swear.
Corpo Celeste is an incredible first feature that premiered at Cannes 2011. Kudos to head of programming Trevor Groth and festival director John Cooper for their insight in including films like this. This bold and amazing Italian coming-of-age piece by Alice Rohrwacher, about a puberty-age Catholic girl learning about her changing body, adds just the kind of richness that continues to keep this festival at the forefront of programming.