Written by: FFT Webmaster | February 14th, 2014
Sundance Film Festival 2014
Written by Rob Goald, Senior Editor, with additional reporting by Jeremy Taylor and Carlos Rojas
The Best of Festival and Wrap Report
PARK CITY, Utah—- In their sixth year at the helm of Sundance, both John Cooper as festival director and Trevor Groth as program director have settled in and created a more back to basics 30th Edition of this great film festival. While nothing materialized quite as powerful and strong as Fruitvale from 2013, there was a reasonable buying spree in 2014 with upwards of 20 films achieving acquisition. For the first time in Sundance history, the opening night film Whiplash, won both the Dramatic Grand Jury and Dramatic Audience Award. The consensus among critics was that Whiplash and Boyhood were the most significant films and that rogue auteur Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Volume 1 upstaged them both with a surprise screening. Sundance 14 seemed more cosmopolitan than in previous years but the film that impressed me the most, Imperial Dreams, was shot in Los Angeles by a USC graduate Malik Vitthal. With 120 films, and less than 10 days to see them, you are going to miss some superlative movies. Below are FFT’s traditional “best” of festival. It’s hard to believe but Film Festival Today has been covering Sundance for a decade! Enjoy!
THE FILM FESTIVAL TODAY TOP 10 OF SUNDANCE 14
- Whiplash(Damien Chazelle)
- Frank (Lenny Abrahamson)
- Imperial Dreams (Malik Vitthal)
- Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
- Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
- The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson)
- 20,000 Days On Earth (Ian Forsyth & Jane Pollard)
- Rich Hill(Andrew Droz Palermo & Tracy Droz Tragos)
- Fishing Without Nets (Cutter Hodierne)
- Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (David Zellner)
BEST OF SUNDANCE 14 FESTIVAL CAPSULE REVIEWS
AWARD WINNERS+ PLUS
U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
- Rich Hill ***
Directors Andrew Palermo and Tracy Tragos have made a solid documentary about hard choices in rural America. Three boys in Rich Hill, Missouri are depicted barely making it as they cross the line from childhood to adolescence in hard scrabble fashion.
Winner U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary.
- Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory ***1/2
Director Michael Rossato-Bennett crafts a poignant look at the scourge of the brain known as Alzheimer’s disease. What makes the film worthy is the remarkable way music can bring back to life a dying mind.
Winner of The Audience Award: U.S. Documentary
- E-TEAM ***
Directors Katy Sevigny & Ross Kauffman document the workings of this human rights organization as they gather evidence to convict dictators of war crimes,
Winner of the Cinematography Award for U.S. Documentary
- The Case Against 8 ****
Ben Cotner and Ryan White won the Best U.S. Documentary Director Award for this touching examination of the case to overturn California’s ban on same sex marriage. Shot over five years, the film follows the team that took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. We will get to see this one on HBO.
- Watchers of the Sky ***1/2
Director Edet Belzberg weaves five stories of courage from Nuremberg to Rwanda, from Darfur to Syria and from inactivity to action.
Winner of the Editing Award: U.S. Documentary.
U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION
- Whiplash ****
Director Damien Chazelle exhibits command of every aspect of narrative filmmaking with this breakthrough feature. The logline bestowed by fans was “Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard”. The performances are more Scorsese than Kubrick with a powerful jazz component throughout this engaging and compelling film.
Winner U.S. Grand Jury Prize and U.S. Audience Award: Dramatic
(a rare occurrence!)
- Fishing Without Nets ***1/2
Writer/director Cutter Hodierne delivers a riveting tale of Somalia pirates from the perspective of a young Somali fisherman. This little film holds up against Hollywood’s “Captain Phillips”.
Winner Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic
- Low Down ***1/2
Director Jeff Preiss working from a memoir by Amy-Jo Albany achieves a rare honesty in his depiction of her journey from childhood to adult under her father, bebop pianist, Joe Albany. The rough times living a marginal life with a drug addict parent who pursues a life in the arts in 1970s Hollywood is graphically revealed.
Winner Cinematography Award: U.S. Dramatic.
- The Skeleton Twins ****
Director Craig Johnson tells the tale of estranged twins Maggie and Milo. The two are living lives of quiet desperation and find their reunion gives them hope and the power to move forward. Both lead actors, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader break free of comedy this time and hit a dramatic home-run!
Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in the U.S. Dramatic category.
- Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter ****
Director David Zellner tells the bizarre tale of a Tokyo office worker suffering from undiagnosed young-adult onset schizophrenia, who travels to Minnesota to find the money she saw buried in the snow kwhile watching the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo”. The film is beautifully realized in its imagery and for documenting madness with a unique lyrical sensibility, I’m calling it a Japanese “Nebraska”.
WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
- The Green Prince ****
Director Nadav Schirman allows us to enter the world of Israeli espionage wherein the spy must observe his own people for more than a decade. A tension filled ride with an emotional edge that makes this film a poignant experience.
World Documentary Audience Award.
- 20,000 Days on Earth ***1/2
British directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard combine drama and documentary as they document the multi-talented artist Nick Cave’s 20,000th day on Earth in a fictitious manner. What results is a fascinating insight into the artistic process as Cave moves from writing to recording to performance.
Winner of the Directing and Editing Awards: World Cinema Documentary
- Happiness ***
Director-screenwriter Thomas Balmes working collaboratively with DP Nina Bernfeld document how a Bhutanese village named Laya, perched high in the Himalayas, is brought into modern times as electricity and television finally reaches one of the world’s most isolated spots. All of this is depicted through the eyes of an eight year old monk named Peyangki.
Winner of the Cinematography Award: World Cinema Documentary.
- We Come as Friends ****
Directed and produced by veteran documentarist Hubert Sauper this remarkable cinematic odyssey takes the viewer into the heart of Africa at the moment that Sudan, Africa’s biggest country, is being divided into two countries. This film documents the horror and savagery that unfolds before our eyes.
It won World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematic Bravery
WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION
- To Kill a Man ****
Director and screenwriter Alejandro Fernandez Almendras tells the story of Jorge with impeccable skill and meticulous crafting. Jorge is a family man living a marginal existence when he gets mugged by a neighborhood punk named Kahule. Jorge’s son seeks revenge and attacks Kahule and in the process gets shot and almost dies. Kahule gets a minimal sentence which intensifies the issues between the young men. Ultimately, the film’s title reveals the difficulties one faces in terminating another’s life. This brilliant film won
The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic.
- Difret ***
Director and screenwriter Zeresenay Berhane Mehari tells the story of a 14 year old who is kidnapped and shots her husband to be in the abduction, Meaza Ashenafi is a young lawyer who represents disenfranchised women and children and steps in to this patriarchal case to defend this innocent girl. The results are riveting.
Winner of the Audience Award World Cinema Dramatic
- 52 Tuesdays ***
Director Sophie Hyde tells the story of 16-year-old Billie’s coming to grips with her mother’s gender reassignment operation. Billie, who has been very close to her mother, will only see her only on Tuesdays for entire year. This emotion packed experience has many ups and downs and is a unique life affirming event.
World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award.
- Frank ****
Director Lenny Abrahamson knows his share of idiosyncratic characters; just see “Adam and Paul” or “Garage”. He makes this film a guide to a band that reminded me of San Francisco’s eccentric “Residents”. A brilliant Michael Fassbender acts under a giant plastic head to play a musical avant-gardist in this unique story of music and a touch of insanity. One of the festival’s most intriguing films and a trip to the excesses that makes art so disturbing.
- Blue Ruin ***1/2
Directed and written by NYU film school graduate Jeremy Saulnier, “Blue Ruin” is his second feature and a twist on the classic American revenge story. A slacker is roused to action as he learns of terrible news and sets off for his childhood home. What grabs you is the kinetic energy of the narrative as our protagonist learns how to become an assassin.
A remarkable film on a micro-budget.
- Imperial Dreams ****
There’s no film at Sundance 2014 that stayed in my mind like Malik Vittahl’s stunning directorial debut, Imperial Dreams. It stars John Boyega as Bambi (“Attack the Block”), a young man straight out of prison, living in the slums of Los Angeles. The only lifestyle he knows is gangsta, but while in prison, he gets a short story published and decides he wants to be a writer and take care of his son. The film is riveting as it depicts how difficult it is for Bambi to break free of the criminal milieu from which he is from. Developed with a series of grants and nurtured at the 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab, Imperial Dreams won the Audience Award: Best of NEXT
- Obvious Child ***
Writer-director Gillian Robespierre delivers an “abortion” comedy that is both funny and replete with pathos. The film features actress/comedian Jenny Slate as Donna on-stage often in a Brooklyn club delivering themes such as responsibility and the need to grow up. With a boyfriend breakup, real life happens as the impulse to talk about her life in front of strangers is cute and disarming. It all leads to satisfying entertainment and a heartfelt film.
PARK CITY AT MIDNIGHT
- The Guest ***
Director Adam Wingard (“You’re Next”) and screenwriter Simon Barrett open the door to a new breed of “home-invasion”with a visit from a classic mysterious-stranger with a hidden agenda portrayed by Dan Stevens. The film brings a new dimension to genre fans and prospects look promising for both niche theatrical and VOD.
- The Better Angels ***
Director-writer A.J Edwards is an acolyte of Terrence Malick and forges ahead with that spirit and direction. The film examines the brief, but, formative years of Abraham Lincoln’s time in Indiana. Young Abe’s story is told with a remarkable attention to verisimilitude as the filmmaker recreates life in the backwoods of Indiana of 1817. The film unspools like poetry as the intricate cinematography and sound design bring a lyrical quality to this work which is truly unique.
WITH 22 REVIEWS, THAT’S A WRAP FOR 2014!