It’s my final night here at the Sundance Film Festival and I have to say, the second half of the festival really redeemed my stay here. I saw some amazing films that really impressed and moved me. The first few days were a bit rough, where I saw some highly anticipated films that ultimately were big letdowns. If “doing business” is any indication, 2013 was a record year for film sales, with several titles getting seven-figure payouts. EW has a great running list of what films have been bought and for how much.
All in all, I would have seen 23 films this year. Some good, some bad, some excellent. Therefore, here is my first film wrap-up with more to follow this coming weekend, and I will also comment on the award winners, which will be announced this Saturday night as well.
FRUITVALE — Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who loved his friends, was generous to strangers, and had a hard time telling the truth to the mother of his beautiful daughter. He was scared and courageous and charming and raw, and as human as the community he was part of. That community paid attention to him, shouted on his behalf, and filmed him with their cell phones when BART officers, who were strong, intimidated, and acting in the way they thought they were supposed to behave around people like Oscar, shot him in cold blood at the Fruitvale subway stop on New Year’s Day in 2009.
The best film out of Sundance, FRUITVALE, directed by first-time director Ryan Coogler does a fine job chronicling the final day of Oscar Grant, played with charisma, vulnerability and machismo from actor Michael B. Jordan. The film doesn’t sugarcoat or provide a myopic view of the tragic events that transpired. Instead, it celebrates the life of a dynamic young man, and also delves into the ethno-cultural strata and skewed pre-conceptions that frame our worldviews everyday. The film also was authentic in capturing everyday life of Oakland. Powerful, but not didactic, FRUITVALE is going to make awards seasons headlines at the end of the year.
S-VHS — The pseudo-sequel to last year’s horror anthology VHS, this new anthology consists of 4 horror shorts, and is far superior to the first anthology. Why? Because the films are scarier, for one thing, especially the third one, set in Indonesia, and co-directed by Gareth Ewans (THE RAID) and Timo Tjahjanto (MACABRE) is so disturbing and frightening, it still gives me nightmares. But what is ingenious about these 4 new tales is the constant that they are all, essentially, found footage POV films. I know, that may sound lame, but employing the hot camera of the moment, the Go-Pro HD, really gives the viewer an immediacy that makes horror lend so well to this type of filming.
Plus, each story is so ingenious when it comes to updating age-old horror tropes — from being able to see ghosts, to becoming a zombie, to an alien abduction, each film is able to scare up, well, scares in different, and fun ways.
UPSTREAM COLOR — “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.”
That’s the official synopsis for the highly anticipated sophomore film from Sundance wunderkind Shane Carruth (he of the sci-fi film PRIMER, which famously won the festival’s grand prize in 2004). He’s back, almost 9 years later, and this sure to be divisive film continues Carruth’s high concepts that are rooted in science fiction and at the same time, test the boundaries of film language. Essentially, UPSTREAM COLOR has three very distinct acts — Act One is a brooding sci-fi story rooted with dark and sometimes horror overtones; Act Two switches gears and focuses on Kris and Jeff, a lifeless couple who for some reason, stay together; Act Three then goes into Terence Malick territory (beautiful moody visuals, philosophical imagery) and almost zero dialogue.
Carruth has crafted a masterful film that has elements of Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and the aforementioned Malick. It’s not going to win over droves of new fans, but it will probably strengthen the power of this cult of Carruth. This is a film geek’s film and I can’t wait to see it again when it rolls out in theaters this April (select cities).
LINSANITY — One of the best and most uplifting sports docs I have seen in awhile. LINSANITY, directed by Evan Jackson Leong (an alumnus of Justin Lin’s BLT) captures lightning in a bottle for he and producer Brian Yang, started filming Jeremy during his final Harvard days and the beginning of his NBA career with the Golden State Warriors. This allowed the filmmaking team to have full access during his ascension during those two weeks in New York that became Linsanity.
If the filmmakers actually started producing the doc during or after Linsanity, then it would’ve been far inferior. Chronicling the ups and downs of Jeremy Lin’s career, and to actually film him hours later that he learned he was dropped from the Warriors, show a resilient, hardworking, and goofy character. And you find out that Jeremy is a complete goofball with his friends, which makes LINSANITY, a true Rocky story.
ANITA — On October 11, 1991, a poised young law professor sent shock waves through the nation as she sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee intrepidly testifying to the lewd behavior of a Supreme Court nominee. Twenty years later, Academy Award winner and Sundance veteran Freida Lee Mock (Oscar winner for MAYA LIN) brings us ANITA, which crystallizes the sexist power dynamics in the room that day and unravels the impact of that lightning-rod moment on Anita Hill’s life and the broader discussion of gender inequality in America.
The film opens with the now infamous and out of the woodwork voicemail left by Virginia Thomas (Clarence Thomas’ wife) on Anita Hill’s office phone in 2010. What unspools is amazing archive footage from the 1991 hearings, and updated interviews with Anita Hill and her contemporaries, and how sex and politics are still framed today in Washington and mass media. A solid, well made doc that will infuriate many because of the rampant sexism in today’s Washington DC, but also give a sense of hope, as the much older Anita imbues modern values to her daughter and beyond.
This ends Part 1 of my Sundance Film Wrap-Up Report. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted this weekend.