Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sundance 2011 Recap

Sundance is always a blast and 2011, my third time round, was no exception. With a week of friends and enemies as well as relative strangers all huddled together against the blistering cold plotting movie time tables, bartering tickets, and swapping stories about improbable celebrity sightings there were an endless stream of great memories. One of my favorite parts about the festival is how it pulls together a set of friends who are increasingly geographically dispersed. My house all met at the SLC airport before making the trek out to Park City, with flights arriving from Seattle, Boston, NYC, and LA. For a few days it was like we were all back in Seattle again.

Of course the most important part of the trip was the movies I saw, and this year's viewings clocked in at 11 screenings. This post is mostly for me to remember the films I saw this year, but if you want to hear about some great movies, read on. These reviews are presented in chronological order based on my viewing them at the festival.

1. Here was the first film I saw at Sundance and by far the least appealing. This movie provided a visually stunning portrayal of the Armenian countryside and a somewhat ambling story about two disconnected young adults whose lives briefly cross paths. This movie was an achingly long 120 minutes and could have easily be compacted into half that length. This not only would have not sacrificed the key elements of the film, but probably would have made it far more enjoyable. One I was past the "Ooh pretty!" stage, I spent most of my time in this film watching the clock. (3/10 stars)

2. The second movie I saw was Little Birds, a movie about two 15-year old girls growing up in a desolate stretch of rural California who decide to run away to the big city in LA. The movie then follows their adventures upon arriving in the city and promptly falling under the sway of some less-than-upstanding homeless boys. Both girls respond very differently to the situations they are thrown into and remain relatively believable. The final sequence was fantastic and shocking and in my opinion made the movie. I would say this movie is worth checking out if it makes it to Netflix. (5/10 stars)

3. The next movie that I saw was Another Happy Day and this was by far the highlight of the festival. This move falls into the dysfunctional-family-brought-together-for-a-wedding genre, but was extremely well made with a whole cast of strong believable characters, especially Ellen Barken as Lynn and Ezra Miller as Elliot. To top this off, the director of the movie is only 25 and broke down in tears while talking about his film and his experiences bringing it to Sundance. Another Happy Day won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and I highly recommend checking it out when it comes to town. (10/10 stars)

4. In A Better World was a film that was part of a new feature at Sundance called Spotlight, these films were not entered into the festival for award consideration, but rather were a selection of films that had come out over the past year that the festival coordinators especially liked and wanted to bring more exposure to. As you might expect being one of these films, In A Better World was an extremely well done film. This movie was mostly in Dutch and revolved around two families dealing with how to handle masculinity and violence in modern society. The movies features a fantastic performance by a young boy Christian who becomes convinced that violence was absolutely necessary to establish ones dominance and to protect what is his. This movie has been nominated for an academy award, so definitely check it out. (10/10 stars)

5. Next up was Submarine, a look into the life of a rather existential teenager named Oliver Tate. The movie plays out like a diary looking into the fantasies, fears, and general travails of Oliver as he navigates his way through high school in rural England. In general, the movie held my attention and didn't feel too long, the story was interesting and Oliver was a very likable character so I would say it was largely a success for the festival. (6/10 stars)

6. On The Ice: This movie came up through the Sundance system for developing film makers and started its life as a short several years ago. It was now adapted into a feature length film and I'd say this was it's biggest fault. There wasn't quite enough story for this length and about half way through it started to drag. The first half though was extremely fascinating. The moved revolved around two Inuit high school seniors growing up in a small town in the very far north of Alaska. The look into the culture of these kids, what they have adapted from mainstream American culture and what they retain from their tribe's roots, was very cool. I also realized that I could not imagine ever living in northern Alaska. (4/10 stars)

7. Page One: This was an amazing documentary about life at the New York Times as the company copes with a changing business environment driven by new technologies and fragmentation of both consumers and advertisers across competing mediums. You really get a sense for how the company is in a state of free fall with everything that it built its business model on being undermined, but at the same time a sense of optimism pervades among the staff that the NYTimes will survive this period and even prosper. As someone with a fairly keen interest in the news industry and digital media this documentary was a must and it completely delivered. (8/10 stars)

8. Homework: This was a great little movie about a boy growing up in NYC who simply refuses to do homework. In his opinion life is too short to waste it on such a pointless endeavor. The movie is a typical teenage coming of age story with a girl, and older guy who is a questionably bad influence, and out-of-touch parents and teachers. Ultimately the protagonist, George, learns quite a bit about himself, his goals, and what exactly he is doing here and the journey makes for a very enjoyable experience. (9/10 stars)

9. The Ledge: This feature was all about a young man who is standing on a ledge of a tall building and threatening to jump. The story unfolds as a police officer is brought in to negotiate with the jumper and gradually begins to understand how he got into this predicament. There is also some story around the negotiator himself, which while not completely derivative, I felt largely distracted from the primary story line. Several of my friends complained about the dialog as being unrealistic, but honestly I didn't notice it while watching the movie. All together the film could stand another run through the editing room to really tighten up the story, but it was a very well done festival film. (7/10 stars)

10. Melt With You: This was definitely the craziest movie that I saw at Sundance and completely did not play out like I expected. Featuring Rob Lowe and Jeremy Piven, this movie is about four middle aged college friends, who get together at a remote beach house for a reunion and to escape their less than satisfying lives. The movie gets going with a massive amount of drinking, drugs, and partying and then takes a dramatically different turn that I wasn't expecting. I don't want to give the surprise away, but the movie gets more and more bizarre with each event that unfolds from then on. (5/10 stars)

11. Being Elmo: This was a movie that I tacked on at the last minute with some extra vouchers I had and was a TBA at the time so I had no idea what I was signing up for. To be honest, I don't think I would have seen this movie otherwise, it being a documentary about the man who invented Elmo. However, having seen the movie it was actually very well done. The film follows the life of the now famous and wealthy puppeteer as he grew up a somewhat peculiar African-American youth in rural Baltimore to eventually landing on the crew for Sesame Street under the tutelage of the prolific Jim Hensen. (6/10 stars)

Wow that was quite the task putting all that down. In addition to these movies I really wanted to see Margin Call (finance thriller starring Zachary Quinto), The Son of No One (a police thriller), and Kaboom! (new Gregg Araki film), but wasn't able to get into any of them. Fortunately, all 3 films look set to come out to general release so I will definitely be catching them eventually.

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