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Sundance Film Festival 2014: Final Thoughts on the Festival & Films

Sundance Logo 2014

Unlike past years, when Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Fruitvale Station captivated press, industry, and public audiences alike, the 2014 Sundance Film Festival has concluded without a clear standout film.

The one film that comes close is Whiplash, the winner of the festival’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic and its Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic. Such a consensus would normally catapult a film to Oscar-chatter (as it did for Precious and Beasts), but the film premiered on the festival’s opening night and, while obviously not forgotten, there seems to be an inescapable “wait-and-see” feeling for this film, which was quickly acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for a relatively small $3 million. (By contrast, Fox Searchlight acquired The Way, Way Back at the 2013 festival for nearly $10 million).

The low-level acquisition for the festival’s closest thing to a standout film, however, seems appropriate this year; talking with other perennial festival-goers elicited a “this year seems different” response, a “return to true independent film as opposed to the commercialized festivals of recent years.”

Having attended the festival for several years now, I can attest that this year does, in fact, feel different. The ticket and package prices for attending the festival increased 33%, and almost every screening I attended in Salt Lake City (preferred by Utah locals) had at least a few empty seats; this has not been the case – not by a long shot – in recent years.

The festival’s program also seems to unify around one or two themes each year, but this year there seemed to be no discernible pattern. Despite these developments, the festival was enjoyable and offered a few other films that you should watch out for – and avoid.

 

MUST-SEE FILMS

I, Origins (Premieres), starring Michael Pitt and festival favorite Brit Marling, is my number one film recommendation from this year’s festival. It features the return of director Mike Cahill (Another Earth) who, once again, took home the festival’s Alfred P. Sloan Prize for films that feature science as a major theme. You can check out my review of the film here. The film has been acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures for $3 million.

Infinitely Polar Bear (U.S. Dramatic Competition), starring Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana, is another festival selection that I highly recommend. In her autobiographical screenplay, director Maya Forbes pays a heartwarming tribute to her manic-depressive father, who took care of her and her sister as a single parent while their mother obtained her MBA in an out-of-state school. The child stars (including Imogen Wolodarsky, the director’s daughter) sometimes steal the film – which says a lot given Mark Ruffalo’s Oscar-worthy performance. The locals audience in Salt Lake City absolutely loved this film, which has been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for an undisclosed seven-figure amount.

The Case Against 8 (U.S. Documentary Competition) follows the two couples and unlikely legal team that successfully took on California’s Proposition 8, which banned marriage equality, in federal court. Filmed over the course of five years, the film gives viewers an inside look at the process and details the court arguments made by both sides of the case (viewers’ jaws drop when the defendants’ star witness states that his assertions are true because “[he] read them on the internet”).  The film’s directors won the festival’s Directing Award: U.S. Documentary. A post-film Q&A can be found here. You may need tissues when this film premieres on HBO in June 2014.

To Kill a Man (World Cinema Dramatic Competition), from Chile, showcases the true story of an emasculated husband and father who takes matters into his own hands when a gang of men taunt and torture his family, resulting in the death of his teenage son. The film’s cinematography and original score are brilliant and succeed in constructing a fully-envisioned film that stylistically resembles There Will Be Blood. The humble director admitted in a pre-film introduction that he had just finished post production on the film a week before its premiere at Sundance. A short post-film Q&A can be found here. The film took home the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and was acquired by Film Movement for a fall 2014 theatrical release.

 

BETTER THAN AVERAGE

The Babadook (Park City at Midnight), starring Essie Davis, is a surprisingly good horror film from Australian director Jennifer Kent. The film follows a mother and son who battle a supernatural presence in their home after the death of their respective husband and father. Given the film’s low budget, its special effects are shockingly excellent, and Davis’ performance as a mother slowly going mad is subtle and believable. A post-film Q&A can be found here. The film has been acquired by IFC Midnight for an undisclosed amount.

Little Accidents (U.S. Dramatic Competition), starring Elizabeth Banks, Josh Lucas, and Chloe Sevigny, was a thoughtful, painful portrait of a small town divided by class, ripped apart by a recent mining incident and the disappearance of one of the mine operators’ sons. The film was based on a short film that Colangelo screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and the film was developed with the help of the Sundance Screenwriters’ and Directors’ Labs. In a post-film Q&A, the director, Sara Colangelo, expressed her desire to continue filming stories that explore America’s relationship with industry. Unfortunately, the film has yet to be acquired.

Young Ones (Premieres), directed by Jake Paltrow and starring Michael Shannon, Elle Fanning, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Nicholas Hoult, is a stylistic hybrid that escapes categorization. The film’s story blends classic themes of family with futuristic droids and a global shortage of water. Its premiere was famously attended by Steven Spielberg, Paltrow’s godfather, in only his second appearance at the Sundance Film Festival. One can’t help but imagine what the film would have been had Spielberg been at the helm: the film is very Spielberg-esque, but it doesn’t quite match what he could have offered. It is, however, a sign of a very promising filmmaker in Paltrow. An informative post-film Q&A can be found here and features a discussion of the film’s special effects. As of this writing, the film has yet to be acquired.

 

DECENT

The Signal (Park City at Midnight), starring Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne, and Lin Shaye, blends horror, sci-fi, and superhero elements for a satisfying result. Not much can be said for fear of spoiling the film. Teenage audiences ought to devour it when it is released. My review of the film can be found here. A post-film Q&A can be found here. The film has been acquired by Focus Features for an undisclosed amount.

White Bird in a Blizzard (Premieres), starring Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Angela Bassett, Thomas Jane, and Gabourey Sidibe, and based on the novel of the same name by Laura Kasischke, features satisfying performances but suffers from a screenplay that doesn’t feel fully developed. The film centers on Kat Connor (Woodley), whose mother, Eve (Eva Green), has disappeared. Woodley’s narration is welcome and makes the film worth your time. As of this writing, the film has yet to be acquired.

 

NOT THE BEST BET

Blind (World Cinema Dramatic Competition), from Norway, explores the unraveling world of a blind woman as she spends long moments of time alone inside her apartment. The film requires a keen eye to piece together exactly what is going on and is reminiscent of the more straightforward (and more enjoyable) Black Swan. Festival-goers seemed to either love or hate this film. Information about the film’s distribution is elusive.

CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart (U.S. Documentary Competition) explores the media’s portrayal of America’s first fully-televised murder trial. The premise is promising, but the film tries to tackle too many issues and ends up succeeding at only a few. The biggest lesson its viewers take away – to be wary of manufactured media narratives – can be acquired more easily by other means. The film was produced by HBO and will premiere on the network later this year.

Cold in July (U.S. Dramatic Competition), starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, and Vinessa Shaw, and based on the novel of the same name by Joe R. Lansdale, starts off very promising but suffers about halfway through from a jarring shift in tone. The film centers on the chain of events that are put into motion when Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) kills a home intruder. The film’s latter half may remind viewers of the disturbing Snake Eyes. A post-film Q&A can be found here. The film has been acquired by IFC for $2 million.

AVOID AT ALL COSTS

Low Down (U.S. Dramatic Competition), starring John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, and Tim Daly, was a film I loathed from the first frame to the last excruciatingly pointless scene. Based on a memoir by Amy Albany, the film details the career of her drug-addicted, jazz-pianist father, Joe, in 1970’s California. The extreme talents of its cast are wasted beyond understanding on a meandering script that does nothing to help the audience relate to the characters or develop sympathy for Joe. Fortunately, the film has yet to be acquired.

The Sleepwalker (U.S. Dramatic Competition), starring Brady Corbet, is another film where literally nothing happens despite its 90-minute runtime. The film centers on the “happenings” at a secluded cabin between two sisters and their respective romantic partners. Elusive plot developments with no payoff render this film utterly unwatchable. One wonders how the film not only was accepted into the U.S. Documentary Competition but accepted into the festival at all. Fortunately, the film has yet to be acquired.

 

NICHE AUDIENCES ONLY

Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) (Spotlight) is a French film that premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where its director took home the Best Directing Prize in the Un Certain Regarde category. Given the film’s hardcore exploration of homosexuality, its appeal will likely be limited to LGBT and niche audiences. Those who enjoy foreign films may also be interested. You can read my review of the film here. The film was acquired by Strand Releasing following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

You can view the full list of this year’s Sundance Film Festival winners here.

 

About the author

Drew Stelter

Drew is a 26-year-old film buff. A native Utahan, he attends the Sundance Film Festival annually. He is a member of the Salt Lake Film Society. In a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he attended the Oscars Red Carpet on March 2, 2014, after winning an essay contest through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. At any given time he can be expected to be conversing via movie quote GIFs.

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