January 28, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY 2014 Sundance Film Festival Capsule Reviews


The consensus is that the 2014 Sundance Film Festival was a solid but unexciting one.  To an extent that’s a business judgment: whatever its leaders may say publicly, Sundance gave itself up long ago to being as much an acquisition showcase as an artistic one, and this year, while quite a few films at Park City were sold for domestic distribution, many left town unsold, and none of the deals exceeded a $3M guarantee (some also included undisclosed marketing commitments that may eventually take them past that amount), a far cry from the $10M+ acquisitions of the past.  The distributors clearly didn’t see mainstream audiences embracing the product on display, and in a way this may simply have been a long-overdue correction from the years when millions were spent for box office disappointments like Hamlet 2 and The Kings of Summer.  Breakout hits like Little Miss Sunshine or Precious are few and far between, and the studios seem to be collectively accepting that.

In terms of the Festival itself, the big news was the overhaul of the Wait List system, which now distributes numbers electronically 2 hours before a screening.  Feelings were mixed at Sundance about the new rules.  Some felt, not without justification, that a system which had previously rewarded time and effort–people who were willing to get into cold, sometimes snowy lines 3+ hours early had a better chance of getting in than those who showed up later–had been turned essentially into a lottery, with the hundreds of spots for high-profile films gone literally within seconds.  On the other hand, there was some relief to be found in the relative painlessness of the new process; knowing in less than a minute whether you were in or out was sort of a mercy, freeing more of your day for other screenings.  (One thing that didn’t change and never will:  having a Wait List number was no guarantee of actually seeing the movie, as sometimes not a single person with a number made it inside.)  Personally I went 5 for 8 on Wait Lists, which was at least as well as I’ve ever done under the old system, so I had no complaints.

Here are capsule reviews of all 22 films I saw.  SHOWBUZZDAILY has been running full reviews as well, and there are links to those below, but seeing films at a pace of 5 or even 6 per day didn’t leave much time for writing at the festival, so the long-form reviews will continue to trickle in through the course of the week.  The titles below are listed in rough order of preference, although I’d say that only the very last on the list would really qualify as “bad.”  US distributors are noted where applicable:

I ORIGINS (Fox Searchlight):  Mike Cahill’s risky drama mixes science and fantasy, a rom-com and a medical detective story, with no less a goal than exploring the possible existence of God.  That it’s all those things and also richly entertaining, appealing to both the intellect and the emotions, is a remarkable achievement.  Michael Pitt is a man of science who doesn’t believe in faith, Brit Marling (who worked with Cahill on his Sundance debut Another Earth) is his lab partner, and Astrid Berges-Frisbey is the key to it all.  Gorgeously filmed, scored and edited. (Full Review)

THE ONE I LOVE (Weinstein/Radius):  Charlie McDowell’s film, written by Justin Lader, takes the “dysfunctional relationship” genre and turns it into an emotional and structural Rubik’s Cube that’s often as hilarious as it is provocative.  A couple (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) go away for a weekend to a rented estate to work on their marriage, and that’s really all I can say without massive spoilers.  Except that McDowell, directing his first feature, shows remarkable control of a project that could have gone wrong in about a hundred ways, and that Duplass and Moss, with incredibly tricky roles, outdo themselves.  (Full Review)

WHIPLASH (Sony Pictures Classics):  The powerhouse entertainment of the festival, and the deserving winner of both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards (I Origins and The One I Love both screened in the “Premieres” section, ineligible for prizes).  Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons give titanic performances that may well be talked about a year from now when the 2015 Oscars are in play, as an aspiring jazz drummer and his cruel, manipulative, endlessly demanding teacher.  Damien Chazelle’s film is absolutely riveting, with a Mamet-like level of invective and spectacular use of music, and although it wasn’t the most innovative project at Sundance, it’s almost certainly the one most likely to thrill general audiences.  (Full Review)

BOYHOOD (IFC):  The effects of time and life itself projected onto a screen.  Not just the most unique film of the festival, but an unparalleled twist in narrative filmmaking:  Richard Linklater gathered together a core cast every year since 2002 to film a new sequence about Mason (Ellar Coltrane), as he grew from 6 years old to a college freshman.  Watching him and his sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) literally become adults before our eyes, and also a dozen years of the progression of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as their parents, gives Boyhood a perspective that’s literally never been seen before in a scripted feature.  Even at 164 minutes, it’s endlessly fascinating, a film about often mundane events that can genuinely call itself profound.  (Full Review)

THE SKELETON TWINS (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions):  Stories about adult siblings struggling with old conflicts and their current lives aren’t anything new for Sundance (Skeleton Twins wasn’t even the only one this year), but credit director Craig Johnson (whose script, co-written with Mark Heyman, won the Sundance screenplay prize) for sparking this one to surprising life by casting Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as the sister and brother.  Both give beautifully realized, fully-formed performances, funny when the script calls for it but always staying completely within their ultimately serious characters, and they’re thoroughly convincing and likable from start to finish.  (Full Review)

THE SLEEPWALKER (no distrib):  Mona Fastvold’s feature directing debut might have scored higher if she and co-writer Brady Corbet (who also co-stars) had only steered clear of the indie “non-ending ending” cliche.  The central situation is suspensefully laid out, as a young couple (Gitte Witt and Christopher Abbott) restoring her father’s house is more or less invaded by her pregnant half-sister (Stephanie Ellis) and the sister’s fiancee (Corbet).  Tensions from the past and present threaten to erupt at any time, and the sister mysteriously stalks the house and grounds at night, doing more than just walking in her sleep.  Extremely well shot, scored and edited, The Sleepwalker sets things up for a climax that will pay all of this off–and then just stops.  I blame Antonioni and L’Avventura.

CAMP X-RAY (no distrib):  Politics play a part in Peter Sattler’s story about a new guard (Kristen Stewart) at Guantanamo Bay and the relationship she builds with an inmate (Payman Maadi), but less so than you’d think.  Mostly it’s about these two people who are trapped and frustrated on either side of the bars, and it’s a showcase for a pair of superb performances.  Stewart’s eternal aura of evident discomfort suits this role perfectly, and Maadi, who played the husband in A Separation, masterfully creates a character who may or may not be the innocent he claims to be.

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE (no distrib):  Justin Simien’s provocation of a film claims to be a satire, and that’s a bit of a problem, since it’s simply not all that funny.  But that isn’t to discount Simien’s incisive, smart handling of the third-rail American subject of race (it takes off from the real-life “plantation parties” that have been thrown by white fraternities on several campuses), and what racism means in 2014.  Simien’s script traces the breadth of the ideological continuum, and lead actors Tessa Thompson, Brandon P. Bell, Teyonah Parris, and Tyler James Williams are excellent as they occupy multiple and contrasting spaces on it.  (The film won a special jury prize for “Breakthrough Talent”.)  Although there are glitches in plotting and with some of the minor characters, Simien has ideas and opinions to spare.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS (Magnolia):  Joe Swanberg’s latest exercise in mumblecore is another entry about a dysfunctional but loving family, with himself as the married and more settled-down brother of flaky Anna Kendrick.  Kendrick and Melanie Lynsky, as Swanberg’s wife, are marvelous, with Kendrick in particular seeming to revel in getting to play the kind of unreliable troublemaker role Hollywood doesn’t give her, and the scenes between the two women as they gradually bond give the otherwise thin, semi-improvised movie a dramatic spine that makes it worthwhile.  (Full Review)

OBVIOUS CHILD (A24)  Like a paycable pilot, but not in a bad way:  Gillian Robespierre’s rom-com-dram is very appealing, with Jenny Slate, playing a character far more multi-dimensional than the ones she actually gets to play on TV, as a stand-up comic (Jewish, complete with BFFs both female and gay, and loving but unhelpful parents) who finds herself pregnant by a maybe-or-maybe-not one-night stand.  Apart from the frank and non-melodramatic treatment of abortion, there’s nothing particularly new here, but Robespierre and Slate give their protagonist a fresh, strong, funny voice.  (Full Review)

YOUNG ONES (no distrib):  Jake Paltrow’s neo-post-apocalyptic western, set in a midwest that’s now divided between desert and futuristic city, wants to be about 12 classic stories at once, from the one about the lone rancher (Michael Shannon) who has to defend his land, to the one about the sociopathic villain (Nicholas Hoult) who’ll stop at no nefarious deed to get that land, to the one about the seemingly soft teen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who finds his resolve when his family is threatened.  It doesn’t all come together, but it’s arrestingly shot and designed, and all 3 of the lead actors are extremely good.

LOW DOWN (no distrib):  Amy-Jo Albany co-wrote (from her own memoir) and co-produced this story of her teen years in the 1970s with her father Joe, a brilliant jazz pianist who never got out from under his heroin and other addictions, and no one can accuse her of prettifying the tale in any way.  Elle Fanning and John Hawkes play daughter and father, and are inspired as they always are (Lena Headey is equally masterful in the smaller role of Fanning’s mother, with one particularly knockout scene between them), and director Jeff Preiss gives the film a completely believable look that belies what had to have been a low budget, especially for a period piece.  (Preiss had been an acclaimed cinematographer before moving to directing, and Low Down‘s Christopher Blauvelt won the Sundance cinematography award).  It’s all rather unrelievedly bleak, though, and doesn’t find a way to transform that into a truly involving story.  (Full Review)

A MOST WANTED MAN (Lionsgate):  Anton Corbijn’s film (screenplay by Andrew Bovell) of John LeCarre’s thriller is accomplished but cold in an ultimately predictable way, in a pop culture that’s inundated these days with stories about spies.  Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright and Daniel Bruhl give skilled performances as agents and innocents caught within the espionage web, and as one would expect of Corbijn, the film’s look is impeccable (Benoit Delhomme was behind the camera).  None of it elevates the material (not one of LeCarre’s best novels) beyond a moderate level of excitement.

WISH I WAS HERE (Focus/Universal):  Zach Braff’s follow-up to Garden State is a frustrating mixture of genuine, affecting emotion and gratingly fake sit-com contrivance.  Braff stars as an actor, husband (to Kate Hudson) and father who’s struggling with the grave illness of his father (Mandy Patinkin) and his inability to find work, but it may say something about Braff (who wrote the script with his brother) that almost all the best scenes are the ones where he’s off-screen.  Hudson and Patinkin, in particular, are wonderful, but Josh Gad, as Braff’s slovenly brother, badly needs to retire the Josh Gad Part.  It’s too bad Braff’s thousands of Kickstarter financiers didn’t get a chance to give notes on his uneven script.  (Full Review)

HELLION (no distrib):  The Sundance entry this year that came closest to fulfilling the festival’s classic–which is to say its most cliched–template:  shaky handheld camerawork capturing a rebellious teen in a dysfunctional, grief-stricken, alcoholic small-town family, all of it culminating in violence.  It was all very, very familiar, although Josh Wiggins as the boy, Aaron Paul as his father, and Juliette Lewis as his levelheaded aunt give it their all.

THE GUEST (no distrib):  Sundance’s midnight movies are mostly genre pieces, and Adam Wingard’s violent thriller is fun but not groundbreaking.  It’s mostly notable because its protagonist, a seemingly heroic ex-soldier who shows up at the house of the family of a fallen comrade, is played by Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens, who clearly wasn’t kidding around when he said that he left Downton because he wanted to do different things.  He’s very good, as is Maika Monroe as the family’s daughter who becomes his biggest threat, and Wingard pumps it all up with some pulp vitality, yet it still seems more appropriate for VOD than theaters.

FISHING WITHOUT NETS (no distrib):  AKA the indie version of Captain Phillips.  Cutter Hodierne’s film (co-written with John Hibey and David Burkman), which won the Directing award, concentrates on the Somalian pirates of an oil tanker, and especially on Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), who reluctantly joins the pirates as a way out of his family’s extreme poverty.  Although it has a more gritty aesthetic than Paul Greenglass’s big-studio film, it can hardly compare as a matter of craft, and ironically, Fishing has more melodramatic plot contrivances than Hollywood added to its tale, along with a fashionably unsettled ending.

LIFE AFTER BETH (A24):  It’s not all that far a leap from deadpan to dead, and that’s the journey Aubrey Plaza makes in Jeff Baena’s zombie comedy, as a suburbanite who has a fight with her boyfriend (Dane DeHaan), goes out for a jog, gets fatally bitten by a snake–and then is one of many who return from the dead, to the confusion of the family and beau she’d just left behind.  There are some clever gags here (the zombies can be calmed by smooth jazz, at least for a while), but after Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland and Warm Bodies, not to mention the hordes of more serious undead who clog our airwaves and multiplex screens these days, this is not new territory, and it would take real inspiration to stand out.  Life After Beth never quite does.

SONG ONE (no distrib):  A sweetly emotional micro-musical a la Once is clearly first-time writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland’s goal here, with the story of an anthropology grad student (Anne Hathaway) who flies home to Brooklyn when she finds out that her aspiring musician brother has been hit by a car and is in a coma.  She contacts her brother’s favorite singer (Johnny Flynn), who happens not just to have plenty of time on his hands between concerts to visit the hospital, but also to be a sensitive dreamboat.  Everything that happens after that is obvious and self-consciously lyrical, and Hathaway may never have been so bland, even when she’s been in movies that were worse.  (Full Review)

GOD’S POCKET (IFC):  John Slattery’s feature directing debut doesn’t lack ambition.  It’s based on a novel by Pete Dexter, and the cast includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Christina Hendricks, Eddie Marsan, and the great Richard Jenkins as inhabitants of a dying, grimly insular mill town. Slattery and his co-writer Alex Metcalf never nail down the story’s tone, though, and the movie lurches from realism to farce, from romantic to bloody, from dark comedy to just plain dark.  The result is atmospheric but slow even at a mere 88 minutes.

THEY CAME TOGETHER (Lionsgate):  Look, there are clearly going to be laughs in a rom-com parody by director David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter (of Wet Hot American Summer fame, among others) that stars Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd as the neo-Ephron leads, alongside plenty of fun cameos.  With that kind of talent and that massive a target, They Came Together can’t entirely miss.  But the movie is only a fraction as hilarious as it should be, with no real point of view on the material and no comic rhythm.  It wants to be Airplane! or Blazing Saddles, but it barely manages to equal Scary Movie, and that’s not good enough.  (Full Review)

JAMIE MARKS IS DEAD (no distrib):  And so we reach bottom, a pretentious ghost story about teenage angst from Carter Smith, who last directed the bigger-budget horror The Ruins.  Cameron Monaghan, as an unhappy high school student haunted by a dead classmate, and Morgan Saylor (Brody’s daughter from Homeland) as the girl who can also see the ghost, are fine, but Smith’s film doesn’t work as thriller or metaphor, and even the rules of its mythology don’t make sense.  Jamie ends up being the lucky one.

I had to leave Marjane Satrapi’s THE VOICES before it ended to get to another film, but the extremely weird, candy-colored horror comedy about a nice guy (played by Ryan Reynolds) who has conversations with his (evil) cat and (goodhearted) dog and who, partly at the cat’s instigation, starts brutally murdering people, eventually adding a severed head to his conversational partners–well, I can’t review it because I didn’t see it all, but it was certainly distinctive.

The two movies I most wish I hadn’t missed:  Lynn Shelton’s LAGGIES and Maya Forbes’s INFINITELY POLAR BEAR.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."