Last year, City Weekly turned its Sundance Film Festival attention to the eternal question: How do you decide what to see when so many of the filmmakers are unknown quantities? Sure, film-guide summaries can point you in the right direction, but how much direction does that give you beyond what it’s about, to how it’s going to be about what it’s about?
Sundance (Jan. 19-31 this year in Park City and other Utah venues) hasn’t changed radically a year later—and as a result, neither has our approach. If you’re facing the question of how to choose between two films that seem superficially similar, and your time and resources are limited, you need a little nudge in the right direction.
Well, that nudge is us. Trying to pick between multiple documentaries about the Great Recession? We’ve got you covered. Not sure which gritty drama about co-dependent addicts is for you? You will be. Want a clearer sense of where to spend your entertainment dollar on a thriller that tests the bonds of friendship? It shall be granted unto you.
Welcome to Sundance—and shop with just a touch more confidence.
VACATIONS GONE BAD
Wish You Were Here (World Dramatic)
Premise: Two couples embark on a carefree holiday in Cambodia, but only three of them return home to Sydney. What happened on that fateful night? And how will those who returned be able to return to normalcy in its aftermath?
Track Record: Director Kieran Darcy-Smith is a veteran Australian actor with a few short films under his belt, making his feature-directing debut.
Familiar Faces: Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom, Warrior)
The Case in Favor: Edgerton seems to have a knack for picking good thriller scripts, including the terrific, little-seen The Square.
The Case Against: The film-guide description of its achronological structure may signal that it’s more about the gimmick than about the characters.
Black Rock (Next)
Premise: Three childhood friends set aside their personal issues and reunite for a girls’ weekend on a remote island off the coast of Maine. One wrong move turns their weekend getaway into a deadly fight for survival.
Track Record: Director Katie Aselton’s solid romantic dramedy The Freebie played at Sundance in 2010.
Familiar Faces: Aselton (TV’s The League), Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns, Straw Dogs).
The Case in Favor: It's intriguing to see how a filmmaker associated with low-budget relationship stories figures out the unique rhythms of this genre.
The Case Against: See “The Case in Favor.” Aselton and husband/filmmaker Mark Duplass (who wrote the script) may know characters, but can she build the tension required for a genuine thriller?
The Verdict: Wish You Were Here by a nose. Edgerton is almost always compelling as an actor, and the premise offers the potential for great psychological drama. Take the rookie unknown over the more experienced hand who seems like an odd fit for the material. (Scott Renshaw)
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (U.S. Documentary)
Premise: Renowned Chinese architect, artist and activist Ai Weiwei has garnered international attention as much for his ambitious artwork as his political provocations and increasingly public clashes with the Chinese government.
Track Record: Director Alison Klayman is making her feature-documentary debut.
The Case in Favor: Klayman also worked on a PBS Frontline documentary about Ai Weiwei, so she’s clearly intensely familiar with (and fascinated with) her subject.
The Case Against: A profile of someone known for bold, risky political positions against a totalitarian regime could end up being more about celebrating his courageous actions than digging into a warts-and-all biography.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (U.S. Documentary)
Premise: Serbian-born performance-art pioneer Marina Abramovic prepares for a major retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, hoping to finally silence four decades of skeptics who proclaim: “But why is this art?”
Track Record: A veteran documentary cinematographer, Matthew Akers is making his debut as a feature filmmaker
The Case in Favor: The daring work undertaken by Abramovic over the course of her 40-year career—including giving herself unprescribed medications and intentionally rendering herself unconscious—makes for some undeniably interesting subject matter.
The Case Against: The art itself is so intriguing that any movie attempting to dissect it may feel wan by comparison.
The Verdict: Marina Abramovic. Even if the rest of the film is uninspired, the opportunity to discover (or re-discover) Abramovic’s groundbreaking pieces virtually guarantees that there will be a large chunk of content that can keep your interest. (SR)
ASSHOLE MUSICIANS IN TRANSITION
California Solo (World Dramatic)
Premise: A former 1990s Britpop rocker has long settled for an unfettered life of drinking too much, recording podcasts and working on a farm outside of Los Angeles. When he’s caught driving drunk and faces deportation, he must confront past and current demons in his life to stay in the country.
Track Record: Writer/director Marshall Lewy’s debut feature Blue State—about a disgruntled liberal who moves to Canada after George W. Bush’s re-election—played at a few festivals in 2007 before going straight to DVD.
Familiar Faces: Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting), Danny Masterson (That ’70s Show)
The Case in Favor: Carlyle has rarely gotten a showcase role like this, one that he richly deserves. And there are enough intriguing details in the description that it may not be just another “alcoholic musician goes straight” tale.
The Case Against: Then again, it might be just another “alcoholic musician goes straight” tale. And distributors apparently didn’t see a ton of potential in Blue State.
I Am Not a Hipster (NEXT)
Premise: Brook, a talented young singer-songwriter, has become the cliché of a tortured artist while struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother. Into his isolated life come his three sisters and estranged father, as they prepare to scatter his mother’s ashes.
Track Record: The first feature for writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose solid short film Short Term 12 played Sundance in 2009.
Familiar Faces: Mostly a cast of unknowns, aside from veteran character actor Brad William Henke (Bram from TV’s Lost).
The Case in Favor: Low-key character drama seems to be an area in which Cretton is comfortable, if Short Term 12 is any indication.
The Case Against: The NEXT category has, over its short history, been a grab-bag of occasionally impressive efforts amidst a lot of stuff that wasn’t at all ready for prime time.
The Verdict: I Am Not a Hipster by a slim margin. Cretton seems to have some raw talent, and there’s the potential for more discovery both in a concept that isn’t quite as well-worn, and in a filmmaker who may be an “I saw his first movie back in the day” memory someday. (SR)
BEHIND THE MUSIC
Under African Skies (Documentary Premieres)
Premise: Paul Simon returns to South Africa to explore the incredible journey of his historic 1986 Graceland album, including the political backlash he sparked for allegedly breaking the U.N. cultural boycott of South Africa, designed to end apartheid.
Track Record: Director Joe Berlinger has a 20-year record of compelling documentaries, including the “behind the music” doc Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.
The Case in Favor: Berlinger has already demonstrated a talent for getting great fly-on-the-wall material from musicians.
The Case Against: Paul Simon is nobody’s idea of a live-wire character, so it’s going to be left to the supporting players in this tale to provide the spark that’s unlikely to come from the central subject.
Shut Up & Play the Hits (Park City at Midnight)
Premise: A documentary that follows LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy over a crucial 48-hour period, from the day of their final gig at Madison Square Garden to the morning after, the official end of one of the best live bands in the world.
Track Record: Co-directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern also collaborated on 2010’s No Distance Left to Run, a documentary about the reunion concerts of the British band Blur.
The Case in Favor: The unique-sounding structure could be a terrific way to find focus, rather than a broader story about the band and its influence. The filmmakers also seem to have a distinctive interest—based on their other film—in bands as living entities rather than mere producers of music.
The Case Against: If LCD Soundsystem’s brand of disco-punk isn’t your thing, you’re going to have to hope that the backstage stuff is really good.
The Verdict: Shut Up & Play the Hits is the slightly more intriguing option between two documentaries that both could be terrific. Your personal musical tastes may dictate a different direction, but we’ll opt for the narrow focus and potential for higher energy. (SR)
Keep the Lights On (U.S. Dramatic)
Premise: Documentary filmmaker Erik and closeted lawyer Paul meet for a casual encounter, but begin what will become a 10-year relationship. But that relationship is complicated by dysfunctional codependence, including drug abuse.
Track Record: Director/co-writer Ira Sachs was at Sundance in 2005 with Forty Shades of Blue, and dealt with complex gay relationships in his 1996 coming-out drama The Delta.
Familiar Faces: Julianne Nicholson (Boardwalk Empire)
The Case in Favor: Sachs is a proven filmmaking talent who has shown a facility for creating characters who sidestep all stereotypes.
The Case Against: Initial press-release description of the story as “autobiographically inspired” inspires fear of a filmmaker too close to the material to know what is and isn’t working.
Smashed (U.S. Dramatic)
Premise: Kate and Charlie are a young married couple whose bond is built on a mutual love of music, laughter and ... drinking. When Kate decides to get sober, her new lifestyle brings troubling issues to the surface and calls into question her relationship with Charlie.
Track Record: James Ponsoldt was at Sundance in 2006 with his Nick Nolte-starring drama Off the Black.
Familiar Faces: Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), Octavia Spencer (The Help), Megan Mullally (Will & Grace)
The Case in Favor: If we know anything from Breaking Bad, it’s that Aaron Paul can kick all kinds of acting ass playing someone dealing with an addiction.
The Case Against: Off the Black was a less-than-stellar story of someone trying to fix up an alcohol-filled life.
The Verdict: Keep the Lights On, if for no other reason than Sachs’ proven history. The solid cast of Smashed hardly makes it easy to dismiss, but when the chips are down, bet on the director. (SR)
FINANCIAL MELTDOWN DOCS
The Queen of Versailles (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Premise: A married couple starts building a 90,000-square-foot mansion with their real-estate fortune, only to see their dream crash to a halt when the economic bubble bursts. This film documents their two-year journey through murky financial waters.
Track Record: Lauren Greenfield’s first documentary, Thin, received praise for its examination of anorexia treatment when it played at Sundance in 2006. It also aired on HBO.
The Case in Favor: A lot of hopes were dashed with the bursting of the real-estate bubble. The Queen of Versailles details a particularly large-scale example.
The Case Against: In the promo stills, the film’s subjects look like the kind of folks who could feature in a freak show of wealth and excess. It would be easy for a documentarian to capture that weirdness without digging for any deeper hint of humanity.
We’re Not Broke (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Premise: This documentary takes the stance that the U.S.A. isn’t broke and there’s no need to slash government spending. We just need to make all the giant corporations pay their taxes. Guided by protesters who were ahead of the curve on the Occupy movement, We’re Not Broke explores the unfixed loopholes that let the country’s richest companies avoid taxes.
Track Record: Directors Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce teamed up for three previous documentaries. In 2003, they won the Audience Award at Slamdance for The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, which won several other small awards.
The Case in Favor: Talk about good timing. Occupy Wall Street and its sister protests popped up after the Sundance submission deadline had passed, and it’ll take another year for anyone to edit a really thorough piece on the movement. But while the subject is hot, this film has it covered.
The Case Against: Not to get overly cynical, but Sundance programmers may have selected We’re Not Broke because of its topical relevance, rather than its cinematic merits.
The Verdict: The Queen of Versailles reigns. All things being equal, the personal story usually connects deeper than an essay film. Granted, We’re Not Broke could be an outstanding essay, but let’s play it safe. (Jeremy Mathews)
YOUTH VS. TOTALITARIANISM
1/2 Revolution (World Documentary)
Premise: As protest swells in downtown Cairo, a group of friends and activists who live near Tahrir Square witness the beginning of the Egyptian revolution. 1/2 Revolution promises to show both historic events and intimate moments that the rest of the world’s media didn’t catch.
Track Record: Co-director Omar Shargawi has won several festival awards for his past documentaries, while his partner Karim El Hakim makes his directorial debut.
The Case in Favor: This is history written immediately. We’re getting an inside look at a major historic event less than a year after it happened.
The Case Against: The words “chaotic,” “visceral” and “fiercely immediate” all appear in the press description. That could translate to “nonsensical gibberish” if the filmmakers couldn’t figure out how to assemble their footage.
Putin’s Kiss (World Documentary)
Premise: After meeting a group of liberal journalists, a rising star of Russia’s nationalistic youth movement ponders a detour on her path to success. Marsha, 19, begins to question the fascist tendencies of Nashi, the party that gave her a scholarship, a job and an apartment.
Track Record: Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen makes her feature debut.
The Case in Favor: The film aims to work as both an intimate character study and a critique of a corrupt system. By finding a subject who falls from such a high state of grace in the party, Pedersen ought to have a compelling story.
The Case Against: Internal struggle is both integral to this story and difficult to portray. The film’s challenge will be to make Marsha’s thoughts compelling and avoid whiny rambling.
The Verdict Putin’s Kiss may well be a clearer, deeper portrait of its subject, being detached from one big crazy moment, but the revolution in Egypt is such an exciting topic that 1/2 Revolution has the slight edge. (JM)
TIME IS RELATIVE
Safety Not Guaranteed (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Premise: After seeing a personal ad seeking a time-travel companion, a trio of magazine reporters visit the man who placed it to figure out what his deal is.
Track Record: With little to go on besides some rarely seen shorts and an hour-long documentary, director Colin Trevorrow is a wild card. However, he does have the backing of executive producers Jay and Mark Duplass, who have become Sundance mainstays in recent years.
Familiar Faces: Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Veronica Mars), Aubrey Plaza (Funny People, Parks & Recreation), Mark Duplass (Puffy Chair, Humpday, The League)
The Case in Favor: The setup could spawn some intriguing characters, and the cast members have pleased Sundance audiences in the past.
The Case Against: Sundance has screened many films with interesting premises that turned out to be limp slogs. If Safety Not Guaranteed leans too heavily on its initial concept or is too precious in its characterizations, we could be in for another.
John Dies at the End (Park City at Midnight)
Premise: A new drug that causes its users to drift through time and space actually serves as a gateway for extra-terrestrial invaders. A couple of college dropouts try to stop them, but, if the title is to be believed, at least one of them dies at the end.
Track Record: Director Don Coscarelli has been making eccentric horror films since the 1970s, including the Phantasm series and 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep. Bruce Campbell fans will remember the latter, in which an aged Elvis, now living in a nursing home, faces off against an evil ancient Egyptian entity.
Familiar Faces: Paul Giamatti
The Case in Favor: Who can resist a drug that turns you into Slaughterhouse-Five’s Billy Pilgrim? While Paul Giamatti’s Sundance appearances haven’t all been as successful as American Splendor, he always gives a film a certain something.
The Case Against: While Bubba Ho-Tep, Coscarelli’s last feature, was fun, it was merely a trifle. Given the slippery, time-shifting structure suggested by John Dies at the End’s title, Coscarelli will need to bring his A game to pull this one off.
The Verdict For fans of cult film, this is an easy win for John Dies at the End. On the other hand, Safety Not Guaranteed could be a good choice, provided it doesn’t get too precious. If nothing else, it has likable actors who will surely charm everyone at the Q&A. (JM)
TIM & ERIC MANIA
Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (Park City at Midnight)
Premise: Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim squander a billion dollars that they were supposed to use to make a movie, then try to make the money back to avoid the wrath of a sinister, giant corporation. Their plan: Revive a dying shopping mall.
Track Record: Tim and Eric are best known for their sketch-comedy show Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, which ran for five seasons on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Their absurd, low-budget sketch comedy boasts many hard-core fans, alongside those who don’t get it and those who’ve never heard of it.
Familiar Faces: Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Zach Galifianakis, Jeff Goldblum, Will Forte.
The Case in Favor: When they’re on, these guys can be extremely funny. And they’ve got a collection of experienced movie actors to help them navigate their first feature film.
The Case Against: Tim and Eric take a lot of chances and like to experiment, which isn’t bad. But when they fail, even a two-minute sketch can feel long. It remains to be seen whether these madmen can control a feature-length project.
The Comedy (U.S. Dramatic)
Premise: Not the laugh riot that the title and cast might suggest, The Comedy studies the lives of aimless, entitled hipsters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Heidecker plays an apathetic, born-rich layabout who wastes his days with his friends, mocking sincerity and turning everything ironic. All existing plot descriptions say these aging losers engage in “acts of recreational cruelty and pacified boredom.”
Track Record: You probably haven’t seen writer/director Rick Alverson’s first two films, The Builder (2010) and New Jerusalem (2011), unavailable on DVD. They’re reportedly meditative and spacious, so don’t expect a fast-moving plot. Alverson also fronts a band called Spokane.
Familiar Faces: Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Gregg Turkington (aka Neil Hamburger), James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem).
The Case in Favor: Sometimes there’s no better way to get serious points across than by coating them with a layer of humor. And furthering the tension, the comedians acting in the film often employ the kind of irony that the film reportedly critiques.
The Case Against: Sundance films about people who live pointlessly and aimlessly often turn out to be pointless and aimless themselves.
The Verdict: The Comedy. It could be a middling bore or a self-important trainwreck, and Billion Dollar Movie could be hilarious. Fans of Tim and Eric—as well as people hoping for an all-star thriller of a Q&A—should hit Billion Dollar Movie, but since it’s coming out theatrically March 3, go ahead and take a chance on the lower-profile film without a distributor. (JM)
WEDDING PREP MADNESS
Premise: Kirsten Dunst’s character got all the attention in high school, but now she’s a bridesmaid—for a woman she used to call Pig Face. She and two friends who also ridiculed the bride accept their duties and embark on a wild, raunchy bachelorette party.
Track Record: In 2010, writer/director Leslye Headland was a staff writer on the short-lived TV series Terriers; this is her first film. Will Ferrell and his longtime collaborator Adam McKay produced the project.
Familiar Faces: Kirsten Dunst, James Marsden, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, Adam Scott, Rebel Wilson.
The Case in Favor: Dunst never fails to engage her audience, and is due for a moment to shine in an edgy comedy. Factor in her able co-stars, and there’s potential for big laughs.
The Case Against: As evidenced by last year’s Our Idiot Brother, a promising cast doesn’t always make a great film. Bachelorette needs to convince us that these women would accept their bridesmaid duties. Plus, dirty humor is a delicate art. If the tone isn’t quite right, the filmmakers end up flailing about, slinging obscenities with no sense of gags or comedic rhythm.
Save the Date (U.S. Dramatic)
Premise: A wedding serves as a powder keg in the lives of two very different sisters—one getting married, the other on a post-breakup rebound. As the ceremony nears, the sisters each go on an emotional journey and (this is just a guess) learn some life lessons.
Track Record: Filmmaker Michael Mohan was at Sundance in 2010 with One Too Many Mornings, which played in the low-budget sidebar NEXT. He now graduates to the main competition, boasting a film made with more resources and better-known actors.
Familiar Faces: Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr
The Case in Favor: Fans of the cancelled Starz TV series Party Down will be pleased to see Caplan and Starr, but they might be equally pleased to see Caplan and Scott in Bachelorette.
The Case Against: There could be a lot of drama stirred up with no real purpose. If the film serves as a juxtaposition between two characters, it'd better get those characterizations right.
The Verdict: Based on the descriptions, we have in Bachelorette a broad comedy focused on one raunchy night, and a more deliberate character-based comedy in Save the Date. I’m going to call this one for Bachelorette, if only because of a deep-seated belief that the likes of The Hangover and Bridesmaids can still be outdone. (JM)