The Sundance Film Festival is an embarrassment of riches. Not everyone sees everything. Critics and buyers often watch five films a day. If they indeed sit through until the credits appear, that would come to about 50 films over the ten day festival. That is not even half of the 121 features that played at this year's festival. There were many dozens of films that were terrific and will likely be mainstays of this year's cinema conversation. Last year's U.S. Narrative feature winner Fruitvale Station became a favorite of audiences around the country as did its predecessor Beast of the Southern Wild. This year's big award winner at Sundance, Whiplash, could very well follow in their footsteps.
Earlier this week, an email circulated among Film Society of Lincoln Center staff who attended the recent Sundance Film Festival. The simple question was posed: “What are [some] films worth watching from this year's festival?” FilmLinc asked those half dozen or so staff who attended to recommend a few films. Film Society staff have different reasons for attending, so their target screenings vary, but hopefully this list is helpful when sifting through a long roster of new films.
Below are 21 recommended films from this year's Sundance Film Festival in alphabetical order courtesy of Film Society staff. The list is only meant to be a starting point. Again, there are many more to see…
Descriptions courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival
Ben Cotner and Ryan White's The Case Against 8.
Appropriate Behavior (U.S.)
Director: Desiree Akhavan
For Shirin, being part of a perfect Persian family isn’t easy. Acceptance eludes her from all sides: her family doesn’t know she’s bisexual, and her ex-girlfriend, Maxine, can’t understand why she doesn’t tell them. Even the six-year-old boys in her moviemaking class are too ADD to focus on her for more than a second. Following a family announcement of her brother’s betrothal to a parentally approved Iranian prize catch, Shirin embarks on a private rebellion involving a series of pansexual escapades, while trying to decipher what went wrong with Maxine.
Boyhood (technically a “Preview Screening”) – U.S.
Director: Richard Linklater
Shot over 12 years, the drama explores the life of a family. It centers on Mason, as well as his sister Samantha who go on an emotional and transcendent journey through the years from childhood to adulthood. Boyhood stars Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater [description from Deadline.com http://www.deadline.com/2014/01/boyhood-sundance-richard-linklater-joins-lineup/ ]
The Case Against 8 (U.S. Documentary)
Directors: Ben Cotner, Ryan White
Election Day 2008: Californians passed Proposition 8, a measure that repealed the right of same-sex couples to marry. This documentary takes us behind the scenes of the high-profile trial that overturned the controversial constitutional amendment. The case first made headlines with the shocking alliance of lead attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies, political foes who last faced off on opposing sides in Bush v. Gore. The plaintiffs are two loving gay couples who find their families at the center of the same-sex marriage controversy.
Concerning Violence (Sweden, U.S., Denmark, Finland)
Director: Göran Hugo Olsson
Göran Hugo Olsson returns to the Sundance Film Festival (The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 played in Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Competition in 2011) with this bold, fresh, and compelling visual narrative about the African liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Concerning Violence combines newly discovered archival material depicting some of the most daring moments in the confrontation with colonial power, accompanied by singer Lauryn Hill’s searing narrative and drawn from psychologist/philosopher Frantz Fanon’s seminal anti-colonial text, The Wretched of the Earth.
Dear White People (U.S.)
Director: Justin Simien
At prestigious Winchester University, biracial student Samantha White begins her radio show, “Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man, Tyrone, doesn't count.” Sam becomes president of the all-black residential hall Parker/Armstrong, whose existence is facing extinction in the name of diversification. TV reality show Black Face/White Place smells gold in Sam’s story and decides to follow it, rejecting the proposal of fellow black student Coco Conners, who pitched her show Doing Time at an Ivy League. The clamor over Sam's rise also becomes a career-defining opportunity for black misfit Lionel Higgins when he is asked to join the school’s lily-white newspaper staff to cover the controversy, even though he secretly knows little about black culture.
Dinosaur 13 (U.S. Documentary)
Director: Todd Miller
On August 12, 1990, in the badlands of South Dakota, paleontologist Peter Larson and his team from the Black Hills Institute unearthed the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found. It was the find of a lifetime—the world’s greatest dinosaur discovery. They named their dinosaur Sue. Two years later, when the FBI and the National Guard showed up, battle lines were drawn over ownership of Sue. The U.S. government, world-class museums, Native American tribes, and competing paleontologists became the Goliath to Larson’s David as he and his team fought to keep their dinosaur and wrestled with intimidation tactics that threatened their freedom as well.
E-Team (U.S. Documentary)
Directors: Katy Chevigny, Ross Kauffman
When atrocities are committed in countries held hostage by ruthless dictators, Human Rights Watch sends in the E-Team (Emergencies Team), a collection of fiercely intelligent individuals hired to document war crimes and report them to the rest of the world. Within this volatile climate, filmmakers Ross Kauffman (Born into Brothels) and Katy Chevigny (Election Day, Deadline) take us to the frontline in Syria and Libya, where shrapnel, bullet holes, and unmarked graves provide mounting evidence of coordinated attacks conducted by Bashar al-Assad and the now-deceased Muammar Gaddafi. The crimes are rampant, random, and often undocumented, making E-Team’s effort to get information out of the country and into the hands of media outlets and criminal courts all the more necessary.
Ira Sach's Love Is Strange.
Infinitely Polar Bear (U.S.)
Director: Maya Forbes
The year is 1978, and the Stuart family is struggling to hold it together. Cameron, a bipolar father, has had a nervous breakdown that leaves him unemployable, and Maggie, a hardworking mother, can’t quite make ends meet. Despite Cameron’s aristocratic pedigree and the couple’s top-notch education, they’re broke. When Maggie decides to accept a scholarship to pursue her MBA in New York, she must leave her daughters, Faith and Amelia, in Boston with their now-somewhat-convalesced father. So begins an untamed, unpredictable, 18-month experiment as eccentric, exuberant Cameron takes over primary parenting of his precocious, sensitive little girls.
The Internet's Own Boy (U.S. Documentary)
As a teenager, Aaron Swartz was a computer-programming prodigy with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. After emerging as a pioneer of Internet activism, education, and politics, he was indicted on multiple federal charges in 2011 and 2012, setting off a complex chain of events that left the Internet community reeling. Shortly thereafter, at the age of 26, Swartz was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Brooklyn apartment. His family, friends, and supporters immediately blamed the prosecutors of the case, who aimed to put him in jail for 35 years and brand him a convicted felon for life. Swartz was persecuted for the very rights and freedoms for which he stood, and that ultimately broke him.
Last Days in Vietnam (U.S. Documentary)
Director: Rory Kennedy
During the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army closes in on Saigon as South Vietnamese resistance crumbles. With the specter of a Communist victory looming and only a skeleton crew of diplomats and military operatives still in the country, the United States prepares to withdraw. As they begin to realize the reality of certain imprisonment and possible death of their South Vietnamese allies, American diplomats and soldiers confront a moral quandary: obey White House orders to evacuate only U.S. citizens, or risk being charged with treason and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they can. With the clock ticking and the city under fire, heroes emerge as a small handful of Americans take matters into their own hands.
Director: Hong Khaou
The sudden death of a young London man named Kai leaves his headstrong Chinese-Cambodian mother, Junn, and his boyfriend, Richard, each in a personal and profound state of grief. Feeling a strong sense of responsibility toward Kai’s only family member, Richard reaches out to Junn, who has been biding time in an assisted-living home. Though Junn speaks little English, her dislike of Richard is plain, and she meets him with stony resistance. Since they share no common language, Richard hires a translator to facilitate communication, and the two improbable relatives attempt to reach across a chasm of misunderstanding through their memories of Kai.
Listen Up Philip (U.S.)
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Anger rages in Philip as he awaits the publication of his sure-to-succeed second novel. He feels pushed out of his adopted home city by the constant crowds and noise, a deteriorating relationship with his photographer girlfriend Ashley, and his own indifference to promoting the novel. When Philip’s idol, Ike Zimmerman, offers his isolated summer home as a refuge, he finally gets the peace and quiet to focus on his favorite subject — himself.
Love Is Strange (U.S.)
Director: Ira Sachs
After 39 years together, Ben and George finally tie the knot in an idyllic wedding ceremony in lower Manhattan. But when news of their marriage reaches the Catholic school where George works, he is fired from his longtime job, and the couple can no longer afford their New York City apartment. As a temporary solution, George moves in with the two gay cops next door, while Ben moves to Brooklyn to live with his nephew, Eliot; Eliot’s wife, Kate; and their teenage son. As Ben and George struggle to secure a new apartment, the pain of living apart and their presence in two foreign households test the resilience and relationships of all involved.
Marmato (U.S. Documentary)
Director: Mark Grieco
Every day in Marmato, a shimmering Colombian mountain town, families pray for safety as their men walk out their doors and down into the mines, scratching out a living with little more than shovels and outdated sulphur lamps. Beneath their village lies one of the largest gold reserves on the planet. In 2006, the Colombian government invited foreign investment to the region to stimulate economic growth, unleashing a corporate gold rush. As plans progress to destroy residents’ homes and level the beautiful mountaintop for an open-pit mine, Marmato charts the mounting crisis as the local community struggles to protect its way of life and economic sovereignty.
The Measure of All Things (U.S. “live” Documentary)
Directors: Sam Green, yMusic
Acclaimed documentarian Sam Green began experimenting with “live documentary” storytelling at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival with Utopia in Four Movements. Green returns to Sundance to develop the form with The Measure of All Things, a playful and beautifully poetic meditation on humanity, loosely inspired by the Guinness World Records book series. Green interprets our collective fascination with the book of world records as a profound need to try and make some sense of who we are by calibrating human experience and marveling at its outer contours. Green himself travels to various reaches of the earth to collect original footage of record-holding people, places, and things.
Justin Simien's Dear White People.
My Prairie Home (Canada Documentary)
Director: Chelsea McMullan
With only an acoustic guitar and a laptop, transgender singer/songwriter Rae Spoon, who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” embarks on a modest tour across the vast and blue-skied plains of Canada, facilitated by Greyhound buses and generic motel rooms. Delicately observed through Spoon’s contemplative moments, My Prairie Home takes an impressionistic approach to its subject, thwarting the expectations of a traditional music documentary. The film poetically weaves together Spoon’s personal history of an evangelical household back in Alberta, a troubled family life, and a forbidden first love—all of which left indelible marks on their lyrics and are brought to life through playful, music-video–like visual sequences.
Overnighters (U.S. Documentary)
Director: Jesse Moss
When hydraulic fracturing unlocks an vast oil field in North Dakota’s Bakken shale, tens of thousands of unemployed men descend on the state with dreams of six-figure salaries. In the tiny town of Williston, busloads of newcomers step into the sad reality of slim work prospects and nowhere to sleep. Over at Concordia Lutheran Church, Pastor Jay Reinke is hell-bent on delivering the migrants some dignity. Night after night he converts his church into a makeshift dorm and counseling center. But as broken men arrive in droves, the congregants sling criticism, neighbors get suspicious, and the town threatens an ordinance to shut Reinke down. When the Williston Herald gets wind that sex offenders are among Reinke’s “overnighters,” even the pastor’s supernatural determination can’t stop things from spinning out of control.
Rich Hill (U.S. Documentary)
Director: Tracy Droz Tragos, Andrew Droz Palermo
If you ever find yourself traveling down Interstate 49 through Missouri, try not to blink—you may miss Rich Hill, population 1,396. Rich Hill is easy to overlook, but its inhabitants are as woven into the fabric of America as those living in any small town in the country. Filmmaking cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo embark upon an immersive and dazzlingly cinematic journey into the lives of Andrew, Harley, and Appachey, three Rich Hill boys navigating the often-treacherous road between childhood and adolescence. Despite the isolation and deprivation of their individual circumstances, they long for the same things we all want: a nice house, dinner on the table, and a healthy, loving family. Droz Tragos and Droz Palermo’s intimate connection to their subjects serves as a window into a too-often bleak environment, where simply getting by is considered a success, but the hope for a normal life and a brighter future persists.
Sound and Vision (U.S.)
Director: Chris Milk
When Beck reimagined David Bowie’s 1977 song “Sound and Vision,” Chris Milk set out to literally recreate the experience of cinematic sound and vision. Milk captured the performance using newly patented technologies like full spherical image capture and 360-degree binaural/multinaural audio recording. Now reengineered for a virtual reality platform, this special presentation allows the user to inhabit the first live-action virtual reality (VR) film for the Oculus Rift. As audiences are able to stand on the stage with Beck or roam the audience and orchestra, immersed in audiovisual richness and freedom of movement, the viewing experience of a recorded concert is radically transformed.
We Come as Friends (France, Austria Documentary)
Director: Hubert Sauper
As war-ravaged South Sudan claims independence from North Sudan and its brutal President, Omar al-Bashir, a tiny, homemade prop plane wings in from France. It is piloted by eagle-eyed documentarian Hubert Sauper, who is mining for stories in a land trapped in the past but careening toward an apocalyptic future. Like his flying machine, Sauper intuitively zooms in for close-ups and out for perspective, yielding shocking and profound insights about the contours of contemporary colonialism. A Chinese company extracts 300,000 barrels of oil a day as locals outside its gates die from water poisoned by the plant. Texas missionaries set up shop—erecting fences, issuing solar-powered electronic bibles, and insisting on clothing naked villagers. Encounters with opinionated Sudanese citizens, U.N. workers, an elder who has unwittingly signed away 600,000 hectares of community land, or financiers at a Sudanese investment summit bring into focus foreign fantasies—insidious and overt, with or without guns—of possessing Africa. Brimming with visual metaphor and grounded in honest human contact.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Andrew, a promising 19-year-old drummer at a cutthroat Manhattan music conservatory, has little interest in being just a musician. Haunted by his father’s failed writing career and plagued with the fear that mediocrity just might be genetic, Andrew dreams of greatness. Determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps, he practices daily until his hands literally bleed. The pressure of success ratchets into high gear when he is picked to join the school band led by the infamous Terence Fletcher, a brutally savage music instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential. Under Fletcher’s ruthless direction, Andrew begins to pursue perfection at any cost — even his humanity.
Bonus pick: Nymphomaniac (Denmark) – Sundance Secret Screening
Director: Lars von Trier
The latest by Danish bad boy Lars von Trier was not formally a part of the Sundance Film Festival roster, but part 1 of the feature played a “Secret Screening” at the festival's midpoint and was introduced by festival director John Cooper. Nymphomaniac, which already had its release in Denmark (beginning Christmas day no less) will have its festival premiere at the upcoming Berlin International Film Festival, which FilmLinc Daily will be reporting from beginning next weekend.