Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on January 27, 2013
Sundance wraps up its 10-day-long festival today. The films that garnered awards were announced last night in an awards ceremony that clocked in at under two hours and during which over 30 prizes were handed out. Having seen 27 films myself, with only a few clunkers to moan about, I thought I’d be familiar with at least a third of the award-winners but, no, only five of the titles that I screened made the cut. In a moment of (admittedly not atypical) hubris, I thought all those sleepless nights I racked up watching as many films as possible might have made a significant dent in the cinematic offerings. Instead, last night’s awards ceremony made me feel like a high school student who shows up for an exam in relatively good humor, only to realize he’s not wearing any pants. How’d that happen? I blame the disorienting mountain of movies to be found there in the hills of Park City, year after year. Anyway, here are the five films that I saw that were feted with a coveted Sundance prize:
Upstream Color (Special Jury Award: U.S. Dramatic for Sound Design)
Director Shane Carruth won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004 with his debut film: Primer (a brilliant film about time-travel that was shot on a shoe-string budget). As with Primer, Carruth writes, shoots, scores, edits, produces, and stars in his second feature. Add one more job-title to his resume: distributor. Carruth told me that one of the reasons he wants to self-distribute is because he wants to control how the look and feel of everything down to the trailer, which you can see here:
So what’s the story about? Let’s just say that between a very strange plant and the grubs that come with it also come some strange opportunities. Some people use it to control others. Some people use it to psychically connect with others. And some even use it to introduce new beauty into the world. At the heart of it, a woman and a man get linked together on a wild and unpredictable ride with reference points that get moved around like in a shell game. Plot points won’t do it justice because Upstream Color transcends normal narrative structures with dialogue-heavy exposition and focuses instead on a visual and aural experience to convey a sense of things – and the soundtrack really is exceptional and worthy of the Sound Design award.
Inequality for All (Special Jury Award: U.S. Documentary For Achievement in Filmmaking)
I’ll have to admit to developing a bit of a man-crush on former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich after watching this film. It’s hard not to admire someone who works so tirelessly on behalf of the (rapidly vanishing) middle-class. Other critics have been quick to anoint this documentary “An Inconvenient Truth for the economy,” but that’s a comparison that might alienate potential viewers when, in fact, the many economic issues that get dissected by Reich are tackled with a humor and optimism that side-step the dire tone that were unavoidable in Gore’s doc about climate change. By way of example, here’s a little gem that was brought to my attention thanks to Inequality for All that still makes me laugh on repeat viewings:
Speaking of repeats, the next three titles were ones I mentioned in my previous post when I was looking over films that I wanted to see as I prepared to attend the festival. Now that they are in the rear-view mirror, I can add a few personal notes.
Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus (Best Director, World Cinema Competition)
At first, I’ll confess to thinking it a bit odd that Michael Cera was starring in the latest film by Sebastián Silva, the Chilean director behind The Maid (which won both a Grand Jury Prize and Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 2009). Don’t get me wrong, I liked Superbad – but was Silva going to mine the same terrain one expects from Seth Rogen or Judd Apatow? The answer is: a little bit, yeah, but the Chilean backdrop and landscapes anchor the proceedings with a refreshing cultural context. Also, this story of twenty-somethings obsessed with tripping on a hallucinogenic cactus will surely resonate with anyone who has ever had a psychedelic trip (the trip itself carried with enough authenticity as to possibly give viewers a contact high). Blessedly, the film softens the sharper edges with humanistic touches. What starts out as a bitter pill becomes palatable and the end-result is a believable stoner-comedy that straddles the divide between jaded laughs and genuine arthouse credibility. The whole endeavor was shot on the fly in two weeks without a proper script, which could have been a nightmare had the cast not clicked into place, but the loose and ambling energy here feels right. For a contact high, click here:
Computer Chess (Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize)
Andrew Bujalski’s directorial debut, Funny Ha Ha (2002) earned him the moniker as “the Godfather of Mumblecore.” Some have also said he’s the Slackavetes of our time, and I’m not sure if that would make John Cassavetes turn in his grave, or smile with approval. There is certainly an impish playfulness to Computer Chess, a story about computer programmers meeting over a few days in a hotel circa 1980, that I think would make Lars von Trier giggle – especially when things start to get weird in the hotel. After all, the Danish director knew how to mine the television aesthetic to create an unusual space for the haunted hospital of The Kingdom, and Bujalski does him one better by going back to a black-and-white VideoPak aesthetic that should give any middle-age viewers serious PONG flashbacks.
Here’s a two-minute clip that interviews the director while simultaneously giving one a taste for the VideoPak look of Bujalski’s “period piece”:
Dirty Wars (Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary)
The Joint Special Operations Command (J.S.O.C.) got a lot of press when they took out Osama bin Laden, but they’ve been around for a while. Journalist and author Jeremy Scahill (who wrote the international best-seller: Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army) is followed around by director Richard Rowley as they uncover some of the secrets behind a growing U.S. government kill-list that sidesteps all due process in favor of quick and bloody results. In a way, this is doc feels like a film noir, with Scahill a troubled character straight out of some Dashiell Hammett novel. He’s a Sam Spade character with more questions than answers and a habit of walking into dangerous places and making enemies. Only Scahill’s enemies aren’t two-bit thugs armed with Tommy Guns, but rather politicians and J.S.O.C. operatives armed with a fleet of drones at their command. It’s a miracle he’s alive to tell the tale.
A full recap of the Sundance Film Festival Awards Ceremony can be found here:
Before signing off, I’d like to give a shout-out for two favorites of mine, and I’ll make up my own awards for ‘em. Escape From Tomorrow, the surreal and B&W film that was surreptitiously shot in Disney World, deserves an award for chutzpah. It was also the only film I saw at Sundance that was projected on 35mm – everything else I saw was digitally projected. On another interesting note, although it was shot digitally, Escape From Tomorrow was transferred to film in Korea – in part, I’m guessing, to avoid detection and confiscation by Disney‘s legal team but, mainly, because first-time director Randall Moore wanted to have the organic emulsion feel that celluloid provides. The film is a scattered joy to behold, matching intelligence and ambition with some sloppy moments that aren’t afraid to get full on Goofy. For more info:
I’d like to also single-out Before Midnight, Richard Linklater’s ongoing look at the romantic characters played by July Delpy and Ethan Hawke, as deserving of a cupid-shaped trophy for keeping such compelling lovers together for so many years. It’s a dream vehicle for two talented actors who were allowed to bring a lot of their own ideas to the table, and the film strings together enough long and fluid takes to make Béla Tarr proud.
Lest I forget: there was one other award winner that I saw. Catnip: Egress To Oblivion? is a seven-minute short that won Shorts Audience Award, Presented by YouTube. It can be seen here:
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