The first weekend of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, which usually makes up the busiest days of its entire run, has come to an end with most of the highly anticipated titles having been screened at least once for film lovers and industry hopefuls who are searching for the next breakthrough film no one has seen coming. Indeed here in Sundance, it is rarely a movie with star attachments that takes the industry by storm in the competition categories. On the contrary, it’s usually a small film from a newbie. If you look at the ticketing page of the festival for advice on how to navigate your way through sold out shows, you’ll notice these words of wisdom: “Be adventurous with last-minute film choices! Last year’s Grand Jury Prize winner Beasts of the Southern Wild had 200 empty seats at its first screening.” While there hasn’t necessarily been a showstopper such as Beasts of the Southern Wild yet (not including the big premieres, here), a few titles managed to stir up some debate and get the attention of the crowd temporarily stationed in Park City. Among these, none of them received as consistently great reactions as Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow, a title I was able to see late yesterday night as part of the festival’s NEXT section dedicated to finding bold and innovative works. The film follows a family of four on the last day of their trip to Disneyland, which starts with the father Jim (Roy Abramsohn) losing his job over a phone call he receives from his boss. Hiding the news from his wife and young children, Jim’s final day at the theme park takes a surreal detour, turning the “happiest place on earth” into a David Lynch-esque nightmare for the family. Shot in black and white with a crisp, classic look that hints a taste of the French New Wave, Escape From Tomorrow is an effective and disturbing look at our contemporary tastes and willingness to embrace the mass-produced, coating our individualism to make each of us one of the same. Director Moore is a newcomer, and thus, it’s a mystery to everyone -including myself- how he managed to shoot a feature length narrative film in Disneyland completely on the sly. Yes, he had no permits; just a dedicated cast and crew who agreed to walk around with cameras, posing to be tourists. “We almost get caught once”, said Moore during the post screening Q&A, also noting that their shot list was much longer than their script, with every single move and location intricately planned and learned on paper. Cinetic is representing the film for potential distribution deals; and since it’s safe to say that Disney is soon going to file a lawsuit against the filmmaker (and he is aware of that), it is hard to predict if a theatrical future is in the cards for Escape From Tomorrow. One can only hope.
Other titles I was able to fit in from the NEXT section were Shaka King’s Newlyweeds, whose mild humor, buried within a script as cloudy and directionless as its subjects, failed to impress; and Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner, a film that effectively depicts the loneliness of its characters with the kind of sensitivity and humanity one would expect from Mike Leigh. It was refreshing to see this film which speaks to mature audiences.
Over at the US Dramatic Competition, many buzz-worthy titles had their initial shots at becoming the next big prizewinner as the entire crop has been screened at least once. I have so far seen (apart from Cherien Dabis’ May In The Summer which I already talked about in my Day 1 recap), John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Francesca Gregorini’s Emanuel and The Truth About Fishes (with a few more coming up tomorrow and Tuesday); and among these, David Lowery’s title easily stands out with its slowburning, lyrical Texan tale of love torn apart by crime. Blending a western look with Malick-esque storytelling, Lowery’s handle on the joyless lives of his characters (with pitch-perfect performances by Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster) impresses and bruises. It’s the kind of movie that will attract a lot of admiration, yet perhaps not enthusiasm. Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, which tells a story of murder in the early college years of American poet Allen Ginsberg, is stylish in bringing back a period to life, and once again features phenomenal performances by the entire cast (including Ben Foster, once again); yet the film goes slightly off the rails in its 3rd act, which can simply be salvageable through re-editing. Lastly, Francesca Gregorini’s Emanuel And The Truth About Fishes tells a surreal, quiet story of coping, longing, letting in and letting go. Emanuel, a sharp yet mysterious teen living with her dad and stepmother (in an initially stagnant, yet increasingly keen performance by Kaya Scodelario) forms a bond with the cool next door neighbor Linda (Jessica Biel) and the turn of events brings her closer to understanding loss. Despite the gorgeous cinematography and the interesting nuances in the film which constructs Linda’s story as the antithesis of Emanuel’s, this title is unlikely to resonate in this category. I am still planning on seeing Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Toy’s House and Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely; however based on the early reviews and instant Twitter reactions of critics attending the festival, it is safe to say that Toy’s House has a real shot at being the winner of this category.
In the US Documentary Competition, I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said almost all titles here are creating the kind of buzz that makes them look like potential winners. Documentaries have been enjoying a fruitful theatrical run in 2012 continuing the trend of the previous few years, and this year’s Sundance titles suggest that we can continue to expect greatness from non-fiction storytellers. I have managed to fit in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller, and Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet From Stardom (see my Day 1 recap) into my schedule so far –and it’s worth mentioning not all titles have been screened in this category yet- but based on what I’m so far hearing, the competition might be between these two. I am personally a big fan of both titles, but would be especially pleased if After Tiller, a vital, inevitable documentary for which “brave” doesn’t come close to being a sufficient definition, wins this category. Following 4 doctors who perform late term/3rd trimester abortions in the US, After Tiller gives voice to those who stand in the extreme end of an already controversial topic. Given the political dimension of the story, and the expected hate it will attract, all screenings of this doc (which the doctors themselves attended as well), were tightly monitored by a security staff. I am still looking forward to seeing Greg Barker's Manhunt: The Search For Osama Bin Laden and Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and The Boxer.
Lastly, the Premieres –which are usually the most star-studded entries of the festival- made for a colorful few days here in Park City. Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker, which favored style over substance in what happened to be the festival’s biggest disappointment for me, widely divided audience reactions. In The East, Zal Batmanglij’s second collaboration with the beautiful Brit Marling and his follow up to the masterful Sound Of My Voice, tension and mystery were tightly managed to the advantage of this highly entertaining film’s pace. Among the titles I haven’t yet seen, sex –as Robert Redford mentioned during the opening press conference- seems to be a recurring theme in films such as Don Jon’s Addiction (Joseph Gordon Levitt’s directorial debut), Anne Fontaine’s Two Mothers, and Drake Doremus’ Breathe In. I look forward to catching more of these titles before I depart on Wednesday. When one looks at the last weekend, it is easy to see that none of the titles have been generating as much buzz as Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, his third and final (perhaps?) installment of the trilogy, which started out with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. It had its first screening earlier tonight and many critics on Twitter have already declared it a masterpiece. I am seeing it tomorrow morning at 8:30 am and it won’t be easy, especially after tonight’s Fox Searchlight party that was still in full swing as I was heading back to my condo at well after midnight.