The Sundance Film Festival is over, and we've got the frostbitten fingers and black ice knee bruises to prove it. We spent what feels like a month in the high altitude of Park City, Utah, quenching our thirst with near beer and getting lost on their byzantine albeit complimentary bus system. Most importantly, though, we saw movies movies movies and most (but not all) were great.
Sundance is frequently the launching pad for the year's worth of quality cinema, oftentimes represented at the Academy Awards (c.f. "Beasts of the Southern Wild," Helen Hunt in "The Sessions" and four of the five nominated for Best Documentary.) Therefore, dear cineaste, you can't just keep your head in the sand and call sour grapes because you weren't there. (And it was so, so awesome! The parties! The glitz! The stars! How come you didn't go? Why do you suck so, so much?)
Luckily, we're here with a handy cheat sheet, giving you the info on an arbitrarily selected number of movies you need to know about to sound hip at your next film society social.
The Buzz: Festival veteran David Lowery returned to Sundance with the film that will launch him to the high echelon of arthouse adoration. "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is a Texas crime saga that is seemingly out of time, ethereal and dreamlike. More brooding than action packed, it stars Rooney Mara as the homebound "Bonnie" to Casey Affleck's incarcerated "Clyde." After he breaks out of prison, ostensibly to come rescue her, she has to decide if she wants to continue the socially integrated life she's created with her young daughter or return to her previous path. Police officer Ben Foster, a potential love interest, just makes things more difficult. This is a film that focuses on the moments between big events, leaving plenty of space of ambivalence and tone. And Keith Carradine in a sterling supporting role.
Awards: Bradford Young deservedly won a cinematography award for this and for a second Sundance film, "Mother of George."
Distribution: IFC Films beat out three other distributors, reportedly paying over $1 million.
The Buzz: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke re-team for the third (and hopefully not final) film in which two people talk to each other for long stretches of time in a gorgeous setting. This go-round is in southern Greece and Celine and Jesse are, indeed, a couple. It's been nine years since "Before Sunset," and they've got two kids, but no depletion of passion or yearning and sliver-tongued banter. These movies just keep getting better because everyone involved just keeps getting older and wiser. Bring the hankies.
Awards: None. Philistines.
Distribution: After a few days of "Hey, why hasn't anyone bought this movie yet?" Sony Pictures Classics picked it up. Prediction: critics are going to lose their mind for this flick, and it will make seventy five cents at the box office.
The Buzz: A double shot of unrelated movies from Chilean director Sebastian Silva ("The Maid") that both feature, oddly enough, Michael Cera. The rumor is that while dealing with a financing setback on the heavier "Magic, Magic," they sprang up and made the more comic "Crystal Fairy" to pass the time. Both movies are remarkable, with "CF" focusing on hidden identity and group dynamics (and a drug-fueled road trip to find the San Pedro cactus to cook up into a psychoactive soup), and "MM" affording Juno Temple the best "young girl going nuts" knuckle-cracker this side of Roman Polanski.
Awards: "Crystal Fairy" won Sebastian Silva a best directing prize in the World Cinema Dramatic competition.
Distribution: As of right now, none. This will change. These movies are too good to just evaporate.
The Buzz: Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes his directorial debut as a New Jersey alpha male who loves the gym, the club and the Roman Catholic church. He also loves the ladies (and the ladies love him) but the truth is he prefers computer-enhanced onanism more. When Scarlett Johansson (remarkable both in her clothing and North Jersey accent) comes into his life, it is the first in a series of changes on the path to healing ... but not quite how you expect. Tony Danza and his undershirt co-star.
Distribution: Relativity Media grabbed onto this one for $4 million and a reported $25 million promotional commitment. Money shot, indeed.
The Buzz: The ultimate guerrilla film exploiting technology that did not exist as recently as three years ago. "Escape From Tomorrow" tells the tale of a middle-aged man losing his mind at Walt Disney World, shot at Walt Disney World, without any awareness of Walt Disney World. (Believe me, they would not have said yes, what with all the pedophilia jokes.) The production used season passes, those movie cameras that look like still cameras, smartphones to communicate and distribute script pages and apps to track the placement of the sun because they couldn't set up lights in front of Space Mountain. In addition to being a giant middle finger to The Man, it is also a funny and engaging film.
Awards: None. Cowards, all of them.
Distribution: Nothing yet, or maybe ever. This movie is a legal nightmare for whomever dares pick it up. Its sales agent, however, is a team led by legendary indie lawyer John Sloss, and if you scrutinize the film, you'll discover there is much smoke and mirror to skirt the edge of fair use. Fact is, though, if you want to see this any time soon your best bet is another film festival. Book those tickets to SXSW or Sarasota now!
The Buzz: The true story of the last day in Oscar Grant's life, the innocent man shot by BART transit police in Oakland, California. Michael B. Jordan, already a respected character actor, is officially catapulted to the A-list with this haunting, nuanced and mesmerizing tale. For those who thought the issue of racial profiling had been all talked-out, you can think again.
Awards: Double trouble. Won the Grand Jury Prize for Domestic Drama as well as the Audience Award.
Distribution: The Weinstein Company picked up Ryan Coogler's first feature film for a reported $2 million. Expect a major awards campaign and Oscar talk around this time next year.
The Buzz: Lake Bell wrote, directed and stars in this crowd-pleaser about the daughter of a thunder-throated voice-over artist trying to gain a foothold in this traditionally male-dominated field. Demetri Martin co-stars as the guy you get when you can't get Jason Schwartzman. While not a bad film, more discerning audiences will recognize this as a glamorized sitcom – slightly amusing, but predictable and bland.
Awards: Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, though how this happened is a bit of a mystery.
Distribution: Not yet. It'll pop up on VOD eventually, where it belongs.
The Buzz: Daniel Radcliffe rips off that damned sorting hat and tosses it into the fire. A fully-formed thespian, Radcliffe is remarkable as a young Allen Ginsberg opposite Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr in a tale of amour fou. While another movie about the Beat Generation is just about as welcome as a glass of ash and gravel in the desert, "Kill Your Darlings" transcends mere name-dropping and is a striking coming of age story, elegantly told with some fascinating characters.
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics picked it up.
The Buzz: Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd co-star as two road crew philosophers camping in the woods by night and painting yellow lines by day. Alternately funny and melancholy, director David Gordon Green finally finds a film that perfectly marries his "bro comedy" voice from "Eastbound and Down" and "Pineapple Express" with his artier, more poetic films like "George Washington." A great achievement.
Awards: None. This movie is way, way too cool for awards.
Distribution: Magnolia Films picked this up, no doubt for a simultaneous limited theatrical/VOD release.
The Buzz: Less pants-soilingly scary than the first "V/H/S" but more creative and funny, "S-VHS" is another anthology of horror shorts. This go-round the directors include the creators of "Hobo With a Shotgun," "The Raid" and "The Blair Witch Project," as well as "V/H/S" and "ABCs of Death" alum Adam Wingard, making him the Amelia Earhart of the 21st century theatrically released horror short. There's a part with a zombie at a kiddie birthday party that's just fantastic.
Awards: None, don't be ridiculous.
Distribution: Magnolia, which also had "V/H/S."
The Buzz: The writers of "(500) Days of Summer" team with the director of "Smashed" for a high school drama that dismisses with all the cliches you associate with high school dramas. Miles Teller is outstanding as a hard-to-know popular kid/inchoate alcoholic, and Shailene Woodley is the attractive yet socially-stunted girl who comes into his life. Epiphanies happen, but in unexpected places in this tender and absorbing film.
Awards: Teller and Woodley shared a much-deserved Special Jury Award for acting.
Distribution: New(ish) company A24 got this hot property for a "low seven figures."
The Buzz: Finished just four days before its Sundance debut, with no time for closing credits, this tremendous look inside the still-raging demonstrations in Egypt is eye-opening, energetic and, at times, exuberant. While both a wonderful primer on the specifics of this particular conflict, it is also a necessary document about 21st century political struggles, from its Web 3.0 info distribution tactics to its economic, social and religious implications. A major film.
Awards: Audience Award for World Documentary.
Distribution: None. Maybe distributors want to wait a few more weeks and see if an epilogue gets added? Have you read the paper today?
The Buzz: Shane Carruth, director of "Primer" and heretofore the Harper Lee of independent film, emerges from whichever geodesic dome he lives in with this radical piece of pure filmmaking from the other side of the 5th Dimension. While some ignoramuses may call this inscrutable, "Upstream Color" is, at its very least, a horror/sci-fi yarn about mind-control worms. What could be more commercial? The fact that the movie is presented in a thick soup of allegorical collage means that post-screening conversation better be part of your evening's plans.
Awards: Hats off to Sundance for coming up with this one: "Upstream Color" wins a Special Jury Prize for Sound Design. A perfect accolade for a divisive film, especially one where a major character is called "Sampler" (though, personally, we think he's God, man...)
Distribution: "Upstream Color" could also be called "Upturned Middle Finger." (Well, not really.) Carruth operates on such a plane of individualism that he's self-distributing this one. Normally, this is the mark of failure, but here it is the right thing to do. If you live in a major city or college town, check your listings this April. You kinda have to see this one in a theater.