Sundance Film Festival

The Best and Worst of Sundance 2014

The 2014 Sundance Film Festival came to a close over the weekend, with more screenings and more parties and more name-dropping and more deals and, oh yes, the end-of-festival awards. Your correspondent, who spent five days in Park City, has a kind of remarkable ability to totally miss the films that end up winning these awards, and that streak continued this time around; of the 25 features that took prizes this year, I saw exactly two (2). But I sampled a lot of other stuff — 22 movies in total, and while this is only a fraction of the 118 that screened there, we can only do so much. Here are some brief thoughts on each of those… Read More

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Zach Braff’s ‘Wish I Was Here’ Is Becoming a PR Nightmare

Poor Zach Braff just can’t catch a break. You would think he’d be on top of the world: successful actor-turned-director with a new movie playing at Sundance that just sold for seven figures. But that’s not what’s getting him attention. Various outlets have noted that while Braff is riding high in Park City, the Kickstarter backers who financed a significant chunk of the budget for his film, Wish I Was Here, have been reduced to begging for tickets outside of screenings and wondering why they haven’t even received the meager rewards (T-shirts, posters, and the like) attached to their contributions. From a PR standpoint, Wish I Was Here is turning into a cautionary tale on the dangers of mixing direct fundraising with Hollywood inefficiency. … Read More

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Sundance 2014: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon Take Another Entertaining ‘Trip’

PARK CITY, UTAH: If it ain’t broke, the old saying goes, don’t fix it, and this appears to have been the organizing principle for The Trip to Italy, a film whose title lays its formula out in the simplest possible terms: The Trip, plus Italy. The original 2011 Trip (adapted from a six-episode British television series) found comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon going on an eating tour through Northern England for The Observer; this time, they hit six cities in Italy, in spite of Coogan’s concern that “it feels odd to do something for the second time.” Maybe so, but it doesn’t play that way; under the direction of returning filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, their new Trip is just as funny, sharp, and telling as its predecessor. … Read More

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Sundance 2014: David Cross’ ‘Hits’ Is as Mean and Cynical as You’d Hope

PARK CITY, UTAH: The phrase “equal-opportunity offender” is tossed around with such shrugging carelessness that it’s all but lost its fangs; you mostly hear it used by shock jocks and racists. But it seems about the only appropriate way to describe the authorial voice of stand-up comic, Mr. Show co-creator, and, now, feature filmmaker David Cross, whose debut picture Hits premiered last night at the Sundance Film Festival. In it, Cross faces the rather challenging task of sustaining a narrative that dislikes pretty much every character that inhabits it. But that’s also what makes the film audacious — you’ve got to admire Cross’s consistency. … Read More

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Sundance 2014: ‘Life Itself’ Is a Warm Tribute to Film, Criticism, and the Incomparable Roger Ebert

PARK CITY, UTAH: Roger Ebert was the first one to tell us that film criticism does not exist in a vacuum — that critics carry their personal experiences into the theater with them, and that not only should they not ignore those experiences, but they should use them. Yet for that reason, readers may be hard-pressed to find reviews of Life Itself, the new bio-documentary portrait of Mr. Ebert that premiered at Sundance this weekend, that are solely about the film. For many of us, Roger Ebert is the reason we write about films, his television work and books and online reviews inspiring us to be the kind of people who, well, would like to trudge through Utah for a week in January to see movies and write about them. No film in the festival is as critic-friendly; watching it, I finally understood how football players must feel about Brian’s Song. … Read More

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Sundance 2014: How Richard Linklater Spent 12 Years Chronicling ‘Boyhood’

PARK CITY, UTAH: Early in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Mason’s mom (Patricia Arquette) asks him to paint the doorframe. They’re moving out of their apartment — the first of several relocations over the film’s dozen-year narrative — and painting everything back to white. On the frame, Mason finds those little marks charting his and his sister’s growth, how tall they were at which age. More than any other contemporary filmmaker, Linklater understands cinema’s inherent value as the keeper of those little marks. The story of Boyhood‘s 12-year production (“We started this film 4,208 days ago,” Linklater joked at yesterday’s Sundance screening) is so fascinating that it threatens to overpower the narrative — since the former is so ambitious, the latter so slight. But this is a moving and powerful film, one that is all but without precedent. … Read More

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Sundance 2014: Kendrick, Lynskey, Dunham Shine in Swanberg’s ‘Happy Christmas’

PARK CITY, UTAH: As the opening credits roll in Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, the festivalgoer’s eyes have to do a quick adjustment. Here, in a sea of slick, crisp, clean high-def video, Swanberg has gone retro; for the first time, the prolific video filmmaker is shooting on Super 16mm film, with cinematographer Ben Richardson aggressively pushing the grain. It lends the picture a roughness, a homemade quality, recalling the works of John Cassavettes, who encouraged the improvisation of actors and frequently cast his friends and family (as Swanberg does here). Swanberg’s let-the-camera-run aesthetic can go either way — towards self-indulgence, or overheard, naturalistic candor. Thanks in no small part to the considerable gifts of stars Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Lena Dunham, Happy Christmas goes the right way. … Read More

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Sundance 2014: Aubrey Plaza Reinvents Herself in ‘Life After Beth’

PARK CITY, UTAH: Aubrey Plaza underplays so adroitly, on Parks & Rec and in films like Safety Not Guaranteed and Funny People, that it’s easy to wonder if she’s working with a limited range — that she’s merely playing the “Aubrey Plaza type” (and it has certainly become a type). If her new film Life After Beth — a dizzy little zombie comedy that premiered at Sundance yesterday — does nothing else, it should put those concerns to rest. She’s magnificent in a role that couldn’t be further from April Ludgate; hell, by the end of the picture, she couldn’t be further from the character she’s playing at the beginning. Her Beth is a brilliantly realized comic creation, and an awe-inspiring testimonial to exactly what she’s capable of. … Read More

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Sundance 2014: How Crowd-Funding Harmed Zach Braff’s ‘Wish I Was Here’

PARK CITY, UTAH: Normally, when a Sundance alum returns to Park City with a new feature, it’s hugs and handshakes all around. Zach Braff, star of the long-running Scrubs, brought his feature directorial debut Garden State to Park City exactly ten years ago, and he rushed to finish his follow-up, Wish I Was Here, in… Read More

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