Sundance 2011

Over the last 5 years, Film School Rejects has become your destination for the most timely, honest and insightful coverage of the Sundance Film Festival. This year, we’re taking it up a notch. Instead of one chubby, bearded blogger, we’re sending three svelte, agile reviewers to the mountain oasis of Park City. Senior Critic Robert Levin, newcomer Benji Carver and special guest blogger Marco Cerritos will be hitting the ground in Utah to bring you yet another year of industry-leading coverage. So bookmark this page and check back, as we’ll be live from Sundance January 20th through the 31st.

You can also follow them on Twitter via these links: Robert Levin | Benji Carver | Marco Cerritos

Incendies is a film of considerable scope and ambition, an epic that follows young French Canadian siblings on a search for their mother’s Middle Eastern roots. Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, it’s a feast of sweeping hillsides and vast villages, high-end melodramatic set pieces and restrained, quieter moments. Infused with mystery, tragedy and humor, serving as a genealogical study and Greek tragedy wrapped in one, it’s a fine achievement of bold, deeply felt cinema. The picture commands your attention from its opening frames, commencing with the slow-motion and ominously dreamlike image of an anonymous Middle Eastern boy’s head being shaved by a gun-toting elder. Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates” plays. From there, the picture gingerly segues into what’s, in simplest terms, a multigenerational detective story. After the death of Canadian immigrant Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), her children (daughter Jeanne and son Simon) are shocked when the executor reveals letters, penned by their mother, which she wants delivered to their thought-to-be-dead father and a previously unknown brother.

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After getting locked out of the press screening for this year’s Grand Jury Prize Dramatic Winner, Like Crazy, I skipped over to the next theater, which sadly played the worse film I saw at the festival this year, The Ledge. Despite that mishap, there were a lot of great films at Sundance. Here are my top 5 in no particular order, alongside the best film I saw at this year’s festival (which may surprise you). I felt that each film had the most impact during my stay at the festival and introduced us to some fantastic new voices that will be coming to a cinema near you.

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Editor’s Note: In a fevered rush to get straight to the movies he loved, intrepid reviewer Robert Levin didn’t write an intro. In fact, he might not even believe in them. Maybe he believes you’d rather dig into the movies than read one. So without any ado, here’s Robert’s list of the best movies he saw at Sundance. Look out for a few of them coming to a theater near New York and LA and On Demand throughout the year.

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It’s not surprising that Little Birds, the feature film debut of writer-director Elgin James, was one of the most buzzed-about films at the Sundance Film Festival. The story of teenage girls drifting through life set against the awesome, shriveled up landscape of Salton Sea, California, the picture packs in the Amer-indie cliches. There are aimless youths, helpless parents, dreamy evocations of the unattainable world outside a car window and an engulfing sense of the worn down detritus of small town American life, past its peak. Yet the whole enterprise is an exercise in wheel-spinning, a plodding picture rife with familiar characters and situations, rendered with a nasty edge. It’s a brutish experience that puts star Juno Temple through an emotional and physical ringer, without the sort of larger, unifying purpose that justifies such turmoil.

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To step out of one’s comfort zone can be a wonderful thing, or a gesture fraught with peril. For evidence of the dangers, look no further than the desperate Salvation Boulevard. A comedy with a religious fundamentalist bent, from a director accustomed to serious fare and starring actors not generally known for their comic chops, the film tries so hard to reach heights of absurdist mania that it falls flat.

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Want to feel insignificant? Stop reading this review and take a second to contemplate 6.8 billion. It’s an extraordinarily vast, staggering sum, almost unfathomable. And yet, throughout the world, every day, 6.8 billion people laugh and cry, love and fight, experiencing the joys and heartbreaks that are fundamental to life, as their own stories are written. Last summer, YouTube put out a global call for user-generated submissions of home movies depicting life on July 24, 2010. Life in a Day, the resulting film (assembled by director Kevin MacDonald, with an assist from producer Ridley Scott), culled into an hour-and-a-half from 90,000 entrants, is an extended montage of select clips drawn from the submissions.

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Bryan King did something that, by my estimation, is unprecedented in the world of movie fandom. He paid $1,000 for tickets to see Kevin Smith show off his latest effort Red State at Sundance for the first time. The opportunity came when the director decided to auction off two of his personal tickets to Sunday night’s world premiere. When all was said and done, King was in for a cool grand, earning him tickets and a ride on Smith’s tour bus post-screening. In a classy move, Smith donated the money to support the Sundance Institute Labs, which provides a learning environment for future filmmakers. When we heard about all of this, we were immediately interested. Why would someone pay $1,000 for two seats to a movie, even a world premiere? And does that change the experience? Does it give one even higher expectations for the movie? I was genuinely curious as to how the entire ordeal worked out for someone who invested so much into seeing a single film. No matter what the outcome, this would be an interesting side of a story that everyone seems to be talking about. So I reached out to Bryan King and asked if he’d be game for a little post-screening Q&A. Much to my delight, he was ready and willing to tell his story. The following is a brief, but interesting interview with the man who paid $1,000 to watch Kevin Smith’s Red State…

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There is perhaps no more fertile storytelling ground than high school. Countless movies have mined the depths of awkward despair to which interesting, offbeat teens descend during those trying years. One could program an entire satellite Sundance Film Festival comprised entirely of offbeat, whimsical films centered on secondary school dysfunction that have premiered in Park City. So, it’s reasonable to wonder whether there’s anything left to say, and why Azazel Jacobs – director of the acclaimed, innovative Momma’s Man and son of avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs – turned to the proverbial setting for his new film Terri.

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In this ambitious but failed departure from the guru of fanboys, Kevin Smith meditates on the current philosophical extremism in fundamentalist Christianity and government. What starts out as a possible teen titty movie about three Midwestern kids trying to get laid quickly turns into an American Gothic tale about an extreme right-wing church lead by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks in a fearless and ferrous performance) and their biblical battle with portly ATF officer Keane (John Goodman in a hero of the day moment). With recent tragedy in Arizona, the film does take on a timely quality, but never fully develops into the balls-out horror movie Smith promises.

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And on the 3rd day, the Movie Gods of Sundance said there are still more movies to see… So here we go, I watch 3 hour documentary on Chicago gang violence, a cinema hold up by some cool Latino kids, and stayed up way late to watch the bumpin’ documentary about those midnight marauder’s A Tribe Called Quest. Also, Robert Levin checks in with his first review, taking on Vera Farmiga’s first work as a director.

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A young man and woman fall in love while at college, but since the girl is British, she gets legally removed from her love and the two have to make due with a long distance version of their heated partnership. This is the story that just got by Paramount for $4 million.Director Drake Doremus’s Like Crazy features this storied plot and performances from Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones that are being hailed for their strength, familiarity and truth to life. The Hollywood Reported said the movie was “bruisingly bittersweet and made with the kind of tenderness that suggests a deep personal significance,” and Erik Davis at Cinematical claimed, “It’s a powerful film, to say the least, and it will most likely destroy those who’ve had experience with a long distance relationship,” while also praising the humor and sweetness of the movie. Absolutely be on the lookout for this film to show up in theaters sometime in 2011. [IndieWire]

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I found myself in the muggy, violent, and male world of Great Britain today at Sundance with my first two films being the documentary Knuckle and the dramatic feature Tyrannosaur. Press lines can be brutal at times – they fill up fast even when you get there early, so unfortunately I only got into 3 out the 5 I wanted to see this first Saturday of the festival. That’s the nature of the beast. In addition to the two films mentioned above, I also witnessed the travesty of The Ledge, featuring talented actors like Terrence Howard, Patrick Wilson, and Liv Tyler, who find themselves in an earnest melodramatic thriller that would be bad even for a Lifetime movie.

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Sundance ground trooper Benji Carver checks in for the first time from Park City with a very busy day, including reviews of Kevin Spacey’s latest political drama, Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, a potential award winner about being black and gay in America, a movie with a lot of ladies whose names start with M and the highly anticipated film Hobo with a Shotgun…

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Normally around this time of year, Neil would have written 5 separate posts about the journey from Reject HQ to the airport to board a plane to Sundance, but sadly this will be the first year Neil hasn’t gone to the festival in 5 years. He has big shoes to fill. For those who kept up with our canvassing of Sundance in years past, you’ll know that Neil was a machine with the strange ability to see 7 or 8 movies a day, crank out reviews for them all and use bad Chinese food for fuel. Luckily we’ve got it covered.

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published: 12.23.2014
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published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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