By the time you reach the end of 12 days at the Sundance Film Festival, nothing seems right anymore. After seeing something in the neighborhood of 35 films, everything starts to blur together. Your notes don’t make sense, the narratives start to run together and the names of directors all start to sound the same. What do you mean the Duplass Brothers didn’t direct all five of those films?!
Alas, it makes reviewing the last batch of films quite difficult. Which is why I’m putting them all here — in capsule form. These are the final five films that I saw at this year’s Sundance. Well, five of the final six. The last film that I saw at Sundance this year was the Grand Jury Prize winning Winter’s Bone. But Robert Levin already reviewed that, so there’s no reason for me to tell you what I thought. If you must know, I question why such a story would ever be committed to film. It was incredibly well-acted and deeply affecting, but it was also incredibly depressing. Like Precious last year, but with poor white people in the hills of Missouri, and less incest.
And now, on with the final five reviews, followed by my official Sundance 2010 scorecard. This year, I decided to do something a little different and not grade any of my Sundance reviews. The intended effect was to get you, dear reader, to read the review rather than just skip to the grade. And now that I’ve made you sit through all of that, I will give you the grades. It works out for those of you who weren’t reading my reviews anyway.
The Imperialists Are Still Alive
Newcomer Zeina Durra is one smart cookie. In one fell swoop — and in her directorial debut, no less — she’s created a stylish, layered drama that brings new perspective to the war on terror. With Imperialists, she centers her story on Asya (Elodie Bouchez), a visual artist living in a post-9/11 Manhattan. A child of several worlds, including a few in the middle east, Asya is constantly being made aware of a looming Big Brother, even as she pushes her art deeper into the realm of activism. While out partying one night — and meeting a Mexican PhD student named Javier — she learns that a close friend might have been the victim of rendition at the hands of the CIA.
Colored with conspiracy theories and high fashion, Durra paints Asya’s world with a sure-handed brush. There’s something delightfully offbeat and colorful about the way that Asya moves through her own world, one that is ever-changing and wrought with paranoia. It is also wrought with comedy, as a diverse cast elevates the subtle nature of the story, which is at times is very funny — even when serious issues are being dealt with. If it accomplishes one thing, it is that Durra shows herself to be an exciting young director. She has a sense of style and a sense of character. And her film has a lot of character because of it. I’m encouraged enough to keep an eye on her future endeavors.
If you find it difficult to root for a group of spoiled rich kids who have everything, but move through their lives believing that they missed out on that one great love that is everything, then you might just actively hate Galt Niederhoffer’s indulgent melodrama. It tells the story of seven close friends, members of a tight-knit college clique that, as Katie Holmes’ character (a member of the group) says, dated “incestuously” during their school days. For the first time in years, these “romantics” have come back together for the marriage of two of their own — Lila (Anna Paquin) and Tom (Josh Duhamel). The problem is that Laura (Holmes) is still in love with Tom, and everybody knows it.
In a more fleshed out novel version of this story, from which Niederhoffer has adapted her own story, I can see this being a layered generational love story with characters that are interesting. Unfortunately, the film feels like a much hipper version of The Big Chill, taking oddball notes from Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. The characters are unlikable, whinny and flat. The story takes predictable turns toward an emotionally hollow climax, and only finds energy early on. At one point, Tom points out to his friends something that is indicative of the entire affair. “We are so uninspired,” he says. And he’s right.
Night Catches Us
With a fantastic score from The Roots and a story of revolution headlined by Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, two of the best young actors working today, director Tanya Hamilton’s debut Night Catches Us had me at hello. Set in 1976 against Jimmy Carter’s push for election with the promise to give the government back to the people, it tells the story of a former Black Panther named Marcus (Mackie) who returns to his old neighborhood to find that he’s still public enemy number one, blamed for a great betrayal against his brothers. The only person who will give him the time of day is Patricia (Washington), the widow of his best friend. Together, they navigate the turbulent neighborhood, where tensions are high and history is dangerously close to coming full circle again.
As any good period piece does, Night Catches Us accurately captures the spirit of 1976 Philadelphia with vivid authenticity. Through the performances of Mackie and Washington — and a haunting supporting performance from Amari Cheatom as Patricia’s dangerously idealistic cousin Jimmy –we see the complexity of revolution, desire and the danger in both. More importantly, it is a well-articulated tale of a community struggling to find balance, a struggle that is mirrored in the plight of the film’s prime subjects. With a sure vision and a knack for bringing the little moments to life, Hamilton sets herself apart from most young directors, delivering a story that is complex and moving, and an environment that is oozing with soul and authenticity.
Jack Goes Boating
In a meandering sort of way, the directorial debut of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a charming story. It is essentially centered around two working-class limo drivers in New York City, played by Hoffman and John Ortiz. Together, these two men navigate their way through a world of love and betrayal at different points relationships. For Jack (Hoffman), it is about the awkward first moments of a relationship with Connie (Amy Ryan). There’s is an offbeat, but sweet relationship that serves as a way for Jack to grow as a person while finding someone with whom he is comfortable (something that doesn’t come easy). For Clyde (Ortiz), it’s about the turbulence of a marriage that has had its ups and downs, and is ever in danger of some major downs.
Hoffman shows in his debut a knack for the offbeat and simultaneously charming, something he’s mastered with his work in front of the camera. Dread-locked and downright weird at times, his main character is a lovable oaf whose world seems to be crashing down around him. Contrast that with the quirked-up, but alluring Amy Ryan and you have a blossoming relationship worth watching. The whole affair is made even more interesting by the intensely explosive relationship between Clyde and his wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). This four-piece dramedy is the perfect example of a movie that goes everywhere and nowhere all at once. It’s a clunky, sweet, messed up story that takes imaginative risks. And even though it isn’t always winning, it is certainly charming.
Building out a compelling tale about any point in the life of John Lennon doesn’t sound like a tough task. The man was interesting, infinitely. We know this to be true. But doing it with style and raw energy that makes the life of young John really pop in a way that is captivating and vibrant is something altogether different. That’s what makes Sam Taylor-Wood’s film Nowhere Boy special, as she’s crafted a story that is not just about John Lennon’s youth, but a universally compelling story of growing up.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s got Aaron Johnson in Lennon’s glasses. Johnson doesn’t present us with a caricature of Lennon, but embodies the essence of what we’d believe little John Lennon to be. Is he an authentic representation of what Lennon was like at 17? I have no idea. Ask someone who was there. What I do know is that in Aaron Johnson’s Lennon, we see the greatness ahead. The furiously cool genius that would later go on to write and sing some of the most enduring music in the history of man. And the success of this film rides on just that, Johnson’s ability to make us believe… or more appropriately, imagine. His performance combined with the intense and fantastic performance of Kristin Scott Thomas as Lennon’s aunt Mimi take Nowhere Boy to a level all its own. It is a handily delivered story that is imaginative and fun, but does not shy away from delivering several heart-stopping moments.
Below you will find my official grades for all of the movies I saw at Sundance (in alphabetical order). All of those with reviews include links to the reviews, with the exception of the five films reviewed above. The link to those should be easy to find.