And now, the narrative features…
Keep the Lights On (dir. Ira Sachs): I haven’t seen any of Ira Sachs’s much-lauded earlier features like 40 Shades of Blue or The Delta, but if they’re much like his latest, I need to do some quick catching up. This low-key, naturalistic story about a decade-long love affair between two men has the pleasing feel of lived experience (the tale is said to be autobiographical), and for much of its running time unspools in a fresh, unforced fashion. It moves smartly and with great economy through a decade of story in the time it takes for most movies just to start scraping themselves off the ground. The added drama of long-running drug addiction bogs things down somewhat; I wished the film hadn’t headed there, but I’m sure its creator wished his life hadn’t as well. Such is the lot of the autobiographical film.
For Ellen (dir. So Yong Kim): So Yong Kim’s tiny previous features In Between Days and Treeless Mountain didn’t immediately suggest how her intimate camera-close filmmaking style would evolve over time. The introduction of Paul Dano, struggling mightily to pull off the role of scraggly, dissipated rocker/father Joby, into an aesthetic that had previously relied on careful collaboration with child nonactors upends the apple cart somewhat. At times, So seems so hesitant in the face of an actual actor that she just lets her camera roll, much to Dano’s and the film’s detriment. The film gets better: the afternoon Joby spends connecting with his daughter Ellen is filled with small observations that recall the pleasures of So’s earlier films. Not enough to iron over the unevenness of the film’s first half, but these bits at least suggest she might be on to some wide-angle avenues through which to open up her small-scale filmmaking.
Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold): Andrea Arnold’s Michael Fassbender-starring Fish Tank was something of a minor revelation, and not merely because of its magnetic star. Her tale of English working class life served to reinvigorate an entire strand of British filmmaking that had seemed subsumed to the ever-present gansters ‘n’ guns stuff the U.K. readily shovels upon the world, and her take on the globally employed unadorned handheld camera proved surprisingly poetic, while still rough and rowdy. She makes the move to period adaptation without skipping a beat or changing her approach at all; her Wuthering Heights is a stripped-down herky-jerky affair that feels wholly modern, plays fast and loose with the novel (Heathcliff is now…black?), and ends up vaulting Arnold close to the forefront of contemporary auteurs. It’s a terrific, bracing work that’s often brutal (perhaps too much so for its own good) and sticks in your craw. In the best way.
Smashed (dir. James Ponsoldt): Smashed has the unfortunate distinction of being the least of the films (narrative or doc) that I caught at Sundance. It’s the cautionary tale of a school teacher (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, gamely attempting to slum and frump; she just misses at both) alcoholic that, in end result isn’t much more than a thinly veiled advertisement for 12-step plans. The best that can be said for Smashed is that the tone-deafness of the first half (secret drinking in an elementary school parking lot scored with bouncy Jon Brion-esque toonz) gives way to a more sober (pun intended) backend that doesn’t take its characters down the expected bottoming-out-cleaning-up trajectory. It comes close, but the detours keep this from being a total waste.
whiteonwhite: algorithmicnoir (dir. Eve Sussman): I wasn’t sure a film noir composed by a computer algorithm from 3000 or so-odd discrete fragments of footage and voiceover would be watchable, much less endlessly fascinating, but whiteonwhite was one of the most exciting projects I saw at the festival. I’ll direct you here to SundanceNOW contributor Farihah Zaman’s interview with creator Eve Sussman for more as they explain the thing better than I could. It’s super cool.
Last, but certainly not least, the film that incited the most discussion during my days at the festival and that would go on to win the coveted Grand Jury Prize and a big distribution deal…
Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin): For me, Beasts is an early contender for the 2012 “Let’s Not All Get Carried Away” award given to films that shouldn’t really be proclaimed anything (much less “among the best films to play at Sundance in two decades” as Manohla Dargis recently dubbed it) before the dust has had a chance to settle. I’ll admit there’s an elemental pull to Zeitlin’s junkyard folklorics, and pleasure to be had in the production’s overall ingenuity and jagged edges. The pre-credit sequence, which might well be the best Arcade Fire video never made (seeing an early track from those over-emoting Canadians plastered over the trailer for Zeitlin’s lauded early short Glory at Sea worries somewhat), just about made me a convert. But at the risk of being labelled a knee-jerk backlasher, I still think it’s worth acknowledging that the film hits a curiously fallow patch midway through, and whether that’s a function of Zeitlin and crew running out of steam, or this viewer running out of steam from constant over-stimulation, neither is suggestive of a complete work of art. (My hunch is that the latter process is at work and there’s just too much on the screen too often.) Beasts is so different from most films that find their way to Sundance that the overwhelming reaction isn’t surprising, but it shouldn’t need noting that just because a work is different, doesn’t mean it’s the second coming. That said, even if it may already be wildly overhyped, Beasts still has a lot to offer the jaded viewer.