Sundance ended a couple of weeks ago but many of the films have stayed with me. As apart of the press corp for this year’s festival, I screened much of the feature film slate which I can say represented one of Sundance to date.
Below are six feature films I considered the best from the festival, progressing to my two very favorites. Sundance 2014 was the year of the first-time filmmaker, with many of these films mentioned below being the debut of some amazingly talented artists. Keep an eye out for this films as they make their way to theaters and VoD in the coming year.
An unhappy married couple – Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) – visits a therapist (Ted Dansen) with the hopes of working on what they have lost in their relationship. Sophie thinks Ethan’s best self was in the past; she has since lost the trust she once had in him. Ethan is defensive in the comical way that men can get defensive. At the urging of their therapist, they drive to a nearby vacation home he recommends, swearing that couples just like them have found their way back to each other there. This turns out to be no ordinary vacation.
What first presents itself as a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy is so much more for The One I Love. Twists abound, playing up an inventive concept for how these two people confront their shortcomings, marital expectations, and often conflicting ideas on how they see each other. Moss is stellar as a conflicted wife; Duplass is funny as usual as an emotionally inept husband. Both give multi-faceted performances complete with natural improvisations that often called for each to delve into the other’s genre. This film is best watched without any prior knowledge of the story as the main strength of the film is not knowing what you’re in but knowing you’re in for a ride. Pay special attention to the last few quiet, reflective moments of the film, when Duplass conveys with his face a gambit of emotions unlike anything I expected from him.
Picture this. The lives of a small number of black students unfold on the campus of the fictitious, prominently white Ivy League college Winchester University, paralleling the present-day sampling of the current black to white US population, if you will. They are different in their views of post-civil rights era of black identity. There are the new generation of budding proud black militants, the black conformists to their white surroundings, the self-hating black students, and the black student comfortable in their own skin. Even though they all have in common the influence, intelligence and opportunity to exist in this place as their white counterparts, they must contend racial presumptions and attitudes that blacks must contend with everyday other races. This is all dealt with in a smart and statical way, a valiant first offering from writer-director Justin Simien.
One of the most clever contemporary black films to day, akin to 90s Spike Lee with a modern hipster edge Dear White People offers a visual perspective into the inner and outer struggles of the black Y generation. It touches on the new ways they define themselves but also the threads of similarities to older generations regarding issues that continue to plague the community. While it doesn’t alienate its white audience and gives them permission to laugh, the film humorously speaks more to its young black audience to say “you are more complex than that Tyler Perry movie makes you out to be”. At times, you’ll have to excuse some of its self-importance but its worth the experience and messages it provides.
This is definitely a film for anyone who sees music as a life line to the world. Song One is a transformative film, a story of the journal of a young woman named Franny (Anne Hathaway) through her recently comatose younger brother’s life and love of music using his journal as her guide.
You see, Franny is the epitome of pragmatic. When her brother (Ben Rosenfield) wrote her to say he was dropping out of college to pursue music while she was doing field work for her PhD in Morocco, she distances herself from him to show her lack of support for his decision. His accident brings her back to her home in New York where her mother reminds her of her musical past and progressively romantic encounters with her brother’s favorite musician James Forester (Johnny Flynn) surrounds her with her brother’s musical passions. Because of this Song One is less about her brother’s aspirations and more about how music awakens a part of Fanny that has been dormant within her. It reminds me a lot of the genre of movies that films that Before Sunrise have come to represent, this opening up from just a brief connection with a special person. The music truly sustains the life of the film, spotlighting folk through the gambit of soul, all capturing the beauty of the indie music scene.
Infinitely Polar Bear is a highly personal, intimate narrative, the childhood story of first-time feature film writer-director Maya Forbes that delves into the both amusement and strain of her firsthand experience of having a loving but bipolar father. The films focuses on a period of time in the late 70s, when sisters Ameila and Faith (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) are keenly aware of the difficulties that prevents their father (Mark Ruffalo) from leading an ordinary life, sustaining a healthy marriage, being able to properly take care of them when their mother (Zoe Saldana) leaves them with their father in Boston to go off to further her education to better than future in New York. What comes from it is a very tender yet playful family drama, that offers one of the best performances from Mark Ruffalo to date.
Along with the great narrative, a peek into the lives of these four people that make a family, there are very strong performances. Ruffalo’s portrayal of Cam, with a mixture of silliness, belligerence, and childlike wonder, is a little disarming at first but charms you along the way. Cam is not a perfect person; he exists with his own set of problems – borderline alcoholism, a propensity of F-bombs in from his kids, . But he is not a bad man, only a man , evidenced by the love he has for his children. Ruffalo reminds us of that time and time again Saldana plays her part well, the dramatic center that must at times bend to the will of Cam while pushing him in order to reveal his potential. When at this point in her life she is forced to be without her kids, we feel the emotional weight of her decisions with her. The child actors are superbly natural, strong-willed in their desires, loving with their affections, and embarrassed in front of their friends by their father’s antics. And with that, Infinitely Polar Bear is a beautiful film that is as resilient as the people is portrays.
Prepare yourself Brit Marling fans, or even just anyone who is a sci-fi thriller genre fan, her latest film I Origins is a grand feat, an epic examination of the very real opposition between science and faith, evolution and intelligent design, and reincarnation and finite existence with an indie film spirit.
Michael Pitt is one to watch in this film, playing the sullen and pensive Ian, a molecular biology PhD with an obsession with the eye. Ian’s life goal is to prove that the human eye has evolved over the centuries. You see, the lack of evidence on eye evolution is one of the main arguments religious theorists use to debunk evolution. Ian is the stereotypical scientist, a skeptic of all things unexplainable. His new research assistant (Marling) shares his passion solving the mystery of the eye. However, when Ian meets and begins a passionate relationship with the younger, mysterious, free spirited Sofi, he is put on a path that extends nearly a decade that causes his rigid ideology to bend every so slightly and forces him to confront painful matters he had long since buried.
As with other films Marling has co-writtern, Another Earth (her first film with director Mike Cahill) and Sound of My Voice, I Origins asks its audience to remember that there is something grander than ourselves, not necessarily in the religious view but in the way that we are insignificant to the grand scheme of things. The beauty of the film is that it does not ask of the audience to choose a side; it just opens doors to possibilities through the journey of one person. The power in these films comes that both the skeptic and the believer have something more to think about.
The only thing that sustains music conservatory school student Andrew (Miles Teller) is his determination to be one among the biggest jazz greats who have ever lived, to be in the company of men like Charlie Parker. His instrument of choice? The drums. Andrew feels that to make it one step closer to his goal, he has to get a seat in the jazz studio band of Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), a tyrannical conductor who is known to verbally terrorize and emasculate his pupils all in the name of finding the greatness within.
A male Black Swan story set in the jazz music world, Whiplash is ultimately a story of a guy with a destructive ambition to be a great artist. It’s a well laid out tragedy of a young man who slowly sheds all his love ones in the quest for the mythos of notoriety and what he foolishly perceives as his best self. How it goes beyond a film like Black Swan or other musical prodigy stories is that it spends more time with the psychology behind the antagonism between Andrew and Terence, finding ways to justify their actions toward each other.
Whiplash is very much Miles Teller and JK Simmons feeding off of each other for the entire film. I was both unsure and sure Teller would ever top his stellar performance in The Spectacular Now; here Teller showcases such an unrelenting savage intensity one minute and a reserved, distant quality the next that it is amazing to watch. JK Simmons intimidates every time he walks into a camera shot, carrying with him the fear of his words. Writer-director Damien Chazelle, a musician himself, crafts scene after scene to perfection, drawing attention to angles of the instruments doing play and modulating the pace of the films as only a person personally aquatinted with music could.