The Best And Worst Of What I Saw At Sundance

This year I went to Sundance, saw 24 films in six days, and whew! somehow lived to tell the tale. I tried my hardest to see everything that sounded intriguing but, with more than a hundred films screening, it was inevitable that I would miss out on some good ones. I’m still upset that I got shut out of Bachelorette, for example.

But I did get to see some fantastic films, which was a nice consolation for my complete failure on the celeb-sighting-at-Sundance front. What I would have given to spot Robert DeNiro in the wintry climes of Park City! Instead, I got cut in line at a nightclub by Emma Roberts and her entourage of five people. Girl, you are not that famous.

Here I’ve helpfully broken down the movies I saw into nine handy categories to help you decide which movies to see when they play near you, which ones you can skip, and for which ones it will suffice to watch and mock the trailer (Sean Penn in a Robert Smith wig, I’m looking at you).

1. I DIDN’T FULLY UNDERSTAND THIS SO IT MUST BE BRILLIANT

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The most-buzzed about film at Sundance this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a remarkable achievement and totally deserving of its Grand Jury Award. This allegorical film about an intrepid six-year-old girl (played by incredible nonactor Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her mysteriously ailing father in a remote Delta community known only as “The Bathtub.” As they prepare for the apopcalyptic day when The Bathtub is destroyed by rising waters, the film mixes in folkloric element to create a truly unique work. Many of the films I saw this year skewed mainstream, but this film is a perfect example of why Sundance exists: To showcase important work made with an independent spirit.


2. THESE WERE TERRIBLE
I arrived at the festival with the naïve belief that any film screened at Sundance would at least be watchable. Boy, was I wrong.

Filly Brown

Gina Rodriguez is likable as would-be rapper Filly Brown, but this movie is just too cheesy to take seriously. With more melodramatic subplots than a telenovela, the film relies on stock characters (Drug-addicted Mom in Jail! Sleazy Record Producer! Mean White Lady!) and clichés instead of introducing us to any humans with anything resembling realistic motivations. The clunky dialogue also made for some unintentional laughs (“Why are you so insensitive, homes?”). The movie seems well intentioned, but it just didn’t work. Also, the music isn’t any good.

The First Time

Ugh. I could not stop rolling my eyes at the dialogue in this treacly mess about two teenagers who meet, talk and then (spoiler alert!) get together. That’s it. That’s all that happens. Playing out like a boring one-act play, the two leads endlessly jaw on about their problems with the opposite sex but they are far too attractive for any of this to ever make sense. I’ve never, ever met any teens who were so annoyingly wistful as the ones in this movie. It came as no surprise to find out that writer/director Jon Kasdan has a few episodes of “Dawson’s Creek” to his credit because the film takes the hyper-articulate nattering from that show and crams it into an artlessly framed John Hughes imitation. Given that the filmmaker’s dad is director Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill) and his brother is TV producer/director Jake Kasdan (Freaks and Geeks, New Girl), I’m thinking nepotism had a hand in getting this turd into Sundance.


3. SURE, FINE
These two movies were solid, well-made films. They just weren’t favorites.

Middle of Nowhere

Tyler Perry should watch this movie before he attempts something like For Colored Girls again. This is how to tell a serious story for the African-American community without embarrassing yourself. Perry instinctually shoots for the lowest common denominator while this story of a loyal wife biding her time as her husband serves out a prison sentence aimed for something much more—and mostly succeeded.

2 Days in New York
Fans of Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris should be excited because this is essentially the same movie, except Chris Rock is now playing the boyfriend instead of Adam Goldberg. Delpy’s brand of quirky humor sometimes works, but the scenes (and there are more than one!) of Chris Rock talking/doing stand-up to a cardboard cutout of Obama are cringe worthy and already dated.


4. IT’S WEIRD IN OTHER COUNTRIES

Wish You Were Here
Four beautiful Australians take a holiday to Cambodia and one doesn’t come back. This one could have been titled The Hangover 3: Shit Gets Real.

Where Do We Go Now?

If you think a musical comedy about Lebanese religious in-fighting sounds like fun, then this movie is for you!

Madrid, 1987
A luscious young student and her gnarly old professor get stuck in a bathroom overnight – naked! What follows is boring, erotic, then boring and erotic. So, this movie is kinda like dating a Women’s Studies major.

Teddy Bear
I loved this weird Danish drama about a 38-year-old bodybuilder who is so dominated by his tiny, scary mother that he lacks any ability to talk to the opposite sex. That is, until he takes a trip to Thailand because love seems easier to find there. Like Wish You Were Here, this film exposes the seedy underbelly of vacationing in a foreign country.


5. GOOD MOVIES ABOUT THIRTYSOMETHINGS

Hello I Must Be Going

Since debuting opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, Melanie Lynskey has had a tougher time breaking through in Hollywood than her ridiculously famous co-star. She’s a recognizable face but mainly for filling the Joan Cusack, best-friend role in middling movies (Coyote Ugly, Sweet Home Alabama) and being the best part of a crappy television show (“Two and a Half Men”). But that may change once people see her fantastic work as the lead in Hello I Must Be Going, a great film about a 35-year-old woman who is completely directionless after a divorce and has to move in with her parents. She spends her days wandering around the house in the same t-shirt and no pants, sort of like I did the summer after I graduated from college. When she starts an unexpected relationship with a 19 year old, it’s somehow sweet and not creepy. Blythe Danner is just perfect as her mother. Which brings us to the age-old question: How is it that she is so cool and Gwyneth Paltrow is so lame?

Celeste and Jesse Forever
Rashida Jones co-wrote and stars in Celeste and Jesse Forever, another favorite of mine from the festival. The story about a divorcing couple who want to stay best friends even as they pursue other people made me think about every breakup I’ve ever had, but in a good way. Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, it’s a sharply written movie that shows off Jones’ comedic range. Also, it’s nice to see Andy Samberg actually act.

Smashed

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul are a young, married couple who love being drunk because it’s so much fun. But after a series of embarrassing and scary drunk escapades, Winstead decides to sober up, which puts a strain on the relationship. The film is refreshingly accessible, especially when compared to other films in the addiction canon, such as the bleak Leaving Las Vegas or preachy 28 Days. This is a couple you know and story that might hit close to home. Oh, and Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman have small roles, so that’s cool.

Keep the Lights On
Documentary filmmaker Erik and closeted lawyer Paul meet-cute through a casual encounter phone line (it was 1998, folks!) and what follows is an intensely personal, super-honest film that chronicles the dizzying high-highs and depressing low-lows of a decade-long relationship, one additionally complicated by crack addiction. I wish I could have seen the entire film but I left early in order to catch a screening of The Comedy. As you’ll read below, that was an err in judgement.


6. FUCK YOU, HIPSTERS
No seriously, fuck you. I didn’t see I Am Not A Hipster (because the title alone makes my skin crawl) but I got my fill of stylish disaffection with these two bile-inducing films.

The Comedy

Tim Heidecker’s fat, aging hipster is possibly the most hateful character ever committed to celluloid. He’s an entitled prick who doesn’t take anything seriously and acts like a giant asshole to everyone except his friends, who are also doughy, unshaven jerks. Instead of a plot there are loose, unconnected scenes that feel more like sketch ideas (“Tim Bullies a Cab Driver Into Letting Him Drive,” “Tim Talks to Some Black People,” “Tim and Friends Go to a Catholic Church and Mess Around with the Holy Water and Climb on the Pews,” etc. etc.), all of which contain at least one good joke but then drag on for excruciating lengths of time. It was a brutal viewing experience, and a lot of people couldn’t take it. At least a third of the audience walked out of my screening—the most walk-outs I saw during the entire festival. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s probably destined to be one of those films that everyone will see just to talk about it. (Greenberg, anyone?)

Nobody Walks

Apparently, nobody is walking in this film because they’re all too busy fucking Olivia Thirlby. She comes to town, sporting that disfiguring haircut that every beautiful girl seems to get post-college, and tries to work on the sound design for her art film about bugs (oh brother!), but can’t get any work done because every guy she encounters wants to do her and she always goes for it because what are consequences? There’s even a vaguely unsettling nighttime scene where a six-year-old boy in a sleep t-shirt takes her by the hand and makes her walk him back to his bedroom. It’s like he wants to fuck her too and he doesn’t even know what fucking is yet. I wanted to like this film—mostly because I feel bad that John Krasinski has never been in a good movie—but, save for the stunning cinematography, I hated everything from the characters names (Kolt and Martine being the worst offenders) to the film’s subtly offensive attitude about women and sex. Lena Dunham co-wrote the screenplay but she left out the heart and humor that I enjoyed in Tiny Furniture.


7. THE DOCUMENTARIES WERE ALL PRETTY DECENT

Searching for Sugar Man

After releasing two do-nothing albums in the U.S. in the 1970s, enigmatic singer-songwriter Rodriguez went on to become bigger than Elvis in South Africa. This musical detective story about the search for the mysterious musician is fascinating, but mostly what I enjoyed about this worthy doc is Rodriguez’s amazing music. If you’re not familiar with it, think of a pleasing blend of Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson—do yourself a favor and download his songs “Sugar Man” and “I Wonder” right now.

West of Memphis
Although I haven’t seen any of the Paradise Lost movies, this look at the West Memphis 3’s fight for freedom, produced by husband-and-wife team Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, seems comprehensive and zips along, despite it’s bulky two-hour-plus length. However, WM3-er Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis were also producers, so don’t expect a completely unbiased account. But Amy Berg’s adroit direction makes great use of the many interviews they scored with key players in the case. I just wish I didn’t have to see so much of Eddie Vedder.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

This beautifully shot documentary offers a thorough history of the famous performance artist, as well as a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at her recent retrospective and much talked about new piece at MOMA last spring. I wish the filmmakers would have opted against including the scene where James Franco sat for the artist, but it was gratifying when an oblivious spectator asked him, “So, are you an actor?” Tiny victories.

Finding North
This Tom Colicchio-produced documentary about hunger in America is sort of like reading a well-researched New York Times article while listening to the music of The Civil Wars. So, like a lazy Sunday afternoon that is sometimes interrupted by Jeff Bridges urging you to do something. I’m downplaying the seriousness of this issue but I’m also a little fatigued with “issue” docs of the Waiting for Superman and Food, Inc. variety—the kind that are competent yet too slick to really make an impression.


8. REMEMBER THAT CUTE BOY FROM SNOW DAY?!
Move over Michael Cera, there’s a new non-threatening boy in town! With three movies at Sundance this year, it looks like Snow Day’s Mark Webber will be playing the guy you root for in every movie you want to see next year.

Save the Date

Lizzy Caplan plays a commitment-phobe artist (her drawings in the movie were done by Jeffrey Brown) who hooks up with Mark Webber immediately after dumping Geoffrey Arend (y’know, that lucky guy who married Christina Hendricks). Alison Brie of “Community” plays her sister, who tries to be supportive but is distracted by her upcoming wedding to Martin Starr. Since I adore everyone in this cast, it’s almost guaranteed that I would like this movie. But I must admit that Lizzy Caplan’s near-constant mugging and silly-talk did eventually wear thin.

For a Good Time, Call…
Perpetual scene-stealer Ari Gaynor (remember her from when she was hilarious in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist?) finally gets a lead role in this playfully raunchy film about two former enemies, now roommates, who start a phone-sex operation out of their NYC apartment. Lauren Miller, who co-wrote the film and co-owns Seth Rogen’s dong IRL, is fine as the prissy girl who (literally) finds her voice in phone sex, but it’s Gaynor’s big, brassy performance that makes this lady-centric flick a real must-see. Mark Webber and his scruff play Gaynor’s love interest, a dude she met during an, ahem, business call. Aww!

The End of Love
This Mark Webber fellow has quite the work ethic. In addition to Save the Date and For a Good Time, Call…, he also wrote, directed and starred in The End of Love, one of my favorite movies at Sundance this year. It’s a poignant, semi-autobiographical drama about an aspiring actor living in Hollywood and grappling with single fatherhood, and Webber has added a dose of realism to it by casting his own infant son as his co-star. The two year old’s performance is revelatory (no joke) and unlike any I have ever seen before, probably because he’s not really acting. The way the camera captures these secret moments between a father and son is truly affecting.


9. ROCK STARS ARE DEPRESSING

This Must Be The Place

Predictably, a movie in which Sean Penn hunts for Nazis while wearing Robert Smith drag is a big old mess. Penn’s falsetto performance quickly becomes grating and nothing quite gels in this quirk-filled collection of missteps.

For Ellen
Paul Dano’s aspiring rock star is of the unpopular variety, all silver rings and heavy metal posturing. While initially interesting, Dano’s character is given a thinly developed story about his feeble attempts to get to know his young daughter before he loses parental rights once his divorce is finalized. What follows is a litany of long takes where nothing much happens, including an excruciating scene where the below-average child actor very slowly picks out a new toy at a store. Trust me, it’s boring.



Valerie Temple, former Cooking the Books auteur, programs the movies at an arthouse movie theater in PA. She also dabbles in comedy and likes to dress up like Paula Poundstone in her free time. She’s on Twitter!