Call them the twin peaks of American Film Festivals. The high altitude buzz that comes out of Sundance and Telluride can carry a movie aloft straight through to Oscar Night. While Sasha is on the scene as Telluride gets underway, Jordan Ruimy reflects on some of the highlights that debuted in Park City 7 months ago. – Ryan
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The best movies that come out of Sundance are the ones that, on second viewing, maintain the exhilarating high you had when you first saw them high atop the thin rocky mountain air of the resort town. Remember when in 2002 Tadpole was bought for a ton of money then made 3 million dollars worldwide? Yeah, it’s just that kind of festival. People get high off the movies, then months later forget they ever existed. There must be something in that air. However, the fest’s rich history with discovering small, indie gems has not been lost the last few years. In fact, if an indie movie does become a breakout hit at the box office, chances are it most certainly debuted at Robert Redford’s three decade old film festival. If we look back on Sundance history we will also find another trend: Best Picture nominees. Since 2009, when new rules for the number of Best Picture nominees were instated, there were only two years in which no Sundance movie was nominated. In the past 6 years, 7 films that premiered at Sundance have made it on the Academy’s Best Picture slot.
2012 Beasts of the Southern Wild
2010 Winter’s Bone
2010 The Kids Are All Right
2009 An Education
As we stand now, here are the films that came out of the 2015 fest with the most buzz and critical chance:
Me, and Earl and the Dying Girl
Diary of a Teenage Girl
The End of the Tour
Of these, it would seem that Brooklyn is most likely to get Best Picture attention although there are opportunities for others in various categories. One of the best of the bunch is The Witch, which sadly is only slated for release next year! A real shame if you ask me. Robert Eggers’ haunting and spooky film was far and away the best movie I saw from Sundance 2015 and the one with the most potential to be a critical darling. Brooklyn is already being talked about as a contender, but it’s going to need a steadfast critical push. Quite a few of these “class of 2015” films have already been released this summer. All are worth checking out as counter-programming to many mindless and mind-numbing summer releases. The creative work that emerges from Sundance is the reaso I hope that this festival will always exist.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was bought for more than 8 million dollars back in January, collecting the Grand Jury Prize and Sundance Audience prize in the process. As mentioned, recent Jury Prize winners include past Oscar nominees Whiplash, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone, and Precious.Sadly, its one of those outstanding films that didn’t find its audience, racking up only 6 million dollars at the box office and puzzling the industry as a whole. The film may not be as great as the aforementioned past prize winners, but it’s still undeserving of the neglect that has emerged i the wake of its June release. The film, a sort of indie take on The Fault in our Stars but better, had high expectations laid upon its post-Sundance shoulders that were unwarranted, but it deserved a better fate. I wish we had more movies that dealt with friendship, adolescence, and illness with such visually aesthetic wonder and a heart as vast as the sky. I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a visually gifted filmmaker.
Tangerine, an ultra-low budget film shot on an iPhone for chump change and directed by Sean Baker, comes at you like an exhilarating force of nature. It doesn’t care if it shocks you or riles up your senses. It’s a fervent product of Sundance and one of many indie summer releases that first premiered over there this past January. It’s an imperfect movie but one filled with abundant energy in its every frame. Groundbreaking is the right word, for it is ultimately the first of its kind: a film shot on an iPhone with transgender actors taking on leading roles. Witness how evolving awareness of transgender issues has sparked a wealth of fresh cultural expressions. Jeffery Tambor is gut wrenchingly great in TV’s best show Transparent (with Fargo not too far behind if you must know) and if you haven’t heard of Caitlin Jenner then you’ve clearly been living under a rock. The film takes place on Christmas Eve in California and deals with a transgender sex worker who just finished serving a short sentence in prison and finds out her pimp/boyfriend cheated on her. She obviously doesn’t take the news very well and sets out to find the “fish” he cheated on her with. What ensues is a screwball comedy that never winces; in fact, it bites. It’s a hell of a good time, but more importantly it’s incredibly stylish filmmaking . Of course the fact that it was shot on an iPhone already makes it an important milestone film, but the L.A subculture that it introduces makes it all the more fresh and happening.
Tangerine is only the latest example of a Sundance movie that is as relevant as ever. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a formulaic title for a startling movie, deals with adolescence, but more importantly growing up female in the 21st century. Directed by tough as nails filmmaker Marielle Heller, the film is not afraid to showcase the awkward bits of pains that come with growing up. It also features a great performance from Brit newcomer Bel Powley, whose first words of dialogue in the movie are “I just had sex”. She’s 15, and the guy is her mom’s 40-year-old boyfriend. The images that Heller crafts, sometimes painted on, are from her own pure imagination and she’s definitely a talent to watch. The pacing can sometimes be a little shaky, but the fearlessness of it all is what makes the movie worth a look. Heller is trying to show us how it feels to be a teenage girl coming to grips with adolescence in the midst of chaos that adults can sometimes inflict. It’s not easy. Earlier this year the 35-year-old director was chosen as one of Variety’s 10 directors to watch, and they are right. The most awkward phase a girl will go through in life has been told countless times in cinematic terms, most notably in Todd Solondz’ great “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” but never this way and never with such blunt truthfulness.
Another new release that deals with politically relevant issues is Dope. The film exceeded expectations by racking up $17 million at the summer box office — on a micro budget of $700,000. It is a smart and bewildering film. It aims to break past racial stereotypes that are ingrained in us all by playing with our ability to predict what’s going to happen next. With a title like “Dope” and an all-black cast, what the movie wants you to expect and what it actually delivers are complete opposites. Its main character Malcom is a smart, articulate high schooler who happens to be living in the Los Angeles “hood” Inglewood. His love for the ’90s and un-hip past trends make him the ideal target for high school bullies. He wants to go to university and the movie is narrated as he reads his college application letter. When he’s “forced” to deal drugs in unexpected circumstances, he makes sure to break the fourth wall and tell the audience not to judge because of his color. Director Rick Famuyiwa who directed the ill-received Brown Sugar and Our Family Wedding seems to want to reinvent his style and make more meaningful fare. Dope is an occaissionally messy movie that has some pacing issues, but it nevertheless is a good start.
Jason Segel’s potential Best Actor nomination has been talked about at great length the past few weeks with the release of The End of the Tour, a talky almost existential movie based on David Lipsky’s best-selling memoir “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”. It is an account of Lipsky’s five-day touring interview with “Infinite Jest” author David Foster Wallace. The film was made by people drunk on words. Taking clear inspiration from Linklater, director James Ponsoldt who directed the lovely Sundance hit Spectacular Now, lends his film an organic vibe that translates into an admirably well-intentioned and resonant effort. Jesse Eisenberg compliments Segel by playing Lipsky in a very Eisenberg-esque way: full of neurotic twitches and quickly delivered dialogue. Segel, a 35 year old whose high points have come in goofball comedies such as I Love You Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall pulls a Jonah Hill by completely transforming himself into a seriously great actor. The chemistry he and Eiseinberg have is great and the conversations never less than smartly written and concisely thought out.