The highlight of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was a story that started there in 1995.
Premiering to capacity crowds leaving with misty eyes and lumps in their throats was Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the casually masterful completion of a trilogy that began 18 years ago at this very venue with Before Sunrise. You probably remember that sweet little wisp of a film, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy shared a star-crossed evening in Vienna, but for my money, things got a lot more interestingly complicated when the two finally met again in 2004’s Before Sunset.
Before Midnight finds the couple settling into their early 40s, trying like hell to keep that spark alive while contending with the pressures of kids, careers and the daily grind of over-familiarity. Like the previous pictures, it’s a long and loopy conversation in an exotic locale (Greece this time) with some uncomfortable truths buried beneath the banter. What Linklater, Delpy and Hawke (who all wrote the screenplay together) have done with this series is quite marvelous and possibly unprecedented, dragging the first film’s dreamy romanticism into a far less swoony reality as time goes by. Before Midnight is heartbreaking and hilarious, a wise meditation on how happily-ever-after isn’t as easy as it looks.
Also returning to Sundance after a nine-year absence was writer-director/one-man-band Shane Carruth, who confounded audiences and became a nerd icon with 2004’s micro-budget time-travel opus Primer, and then promptly disappeared. Carruth reemerged last week with Upstream Color, a similarly obtuse, impressionistic semi-science fiction tale about mind control, psychotropic worms, pig intestines and Walden. More than one person I know compared watching Upstream Color to a religious experience, but, as with Primer, I remained stubbornly agnostic, admiring Carruth’s ingenuity and innovation, while the film itself left me totally cold.
You’re going to be hearing a lot in the coming months about Fruitvale, which, despite its awful title, won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the Dramatic Competition. First-time writer-director Ryan Coogler’s strikingly assured debut stars Michael B. Jordan (aka Wallace from The Wire and Vince Howard from Friday Night Lights) as Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old who was gunned down in cold blood by transit cops at an Oakland subway stop on New Year’s Eve in 2009. The shooting was captured on cell phones, and a subsequent trial resulted in riots, but Coogler opts for the personal instead of the political, narrowing the film’s focus to a day in the life of a well-meaning fuckup, exploring a community and economic circumstances seldom glimpsed on the big screen. Fruitvale is surprisingly warm, funny and lived-in. And then, so horribly sad.
I also quite enjoyed David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche, in which the lowbrow auteur returns to his indie roots, sort of. Combining the lyrical Southern charms of his early pictures like All the Real Girls with the rude, juvenile humor of Green’s post-Pineapple Express Hollywood output, this is a rambling, shaggy tale of two Texas road-crew workers (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) yakking all day about their lady problems. It’s a small film with a potty mouth and a big heart.
Of course, they can’t all be winners. Sundance has a notorious penchant for stars trying to stretch in edgy, unexpected roles. Biopics here can be particularly treacherous terrain, and though I didn’t get a chance to watch Ashton Kutcher invent the iPhone in the reportedly risible Jobs, I did see Amanda Seyfried as Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace in the imaginatively titled Lovelace—a movie that also probably could have been called Jobs. It’s a formulaic, insight-free Star 80 knock-off that sanitizes Lovelace’s legendarily abusive relationship with husband Chuck Traynor (skeezy Peter Saarsgard) and will probably already be available via Video On Demand before you finish reading this article.
The most difficult ticket in town was for Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow, a surreal, sicko comedy about a suburban dad slowly going mad during a long day at Disney World. The hook here is that Moore and his crafty crew shot the film on tiny digital cameras without permission or permits inside both Mouse House theme parks, and it’s hard to imagine Disney’s attorneys being too pleased with their Magic Kingdom being depicted as a stygian pit of sexualized despair. Folks were scrambling to get into screenings, as the notoriously litigious corporation makes even their own movies disappear (Anybody seen Song of the South lately?), so the fate of this one is decidedly uncertain. Here’s hoping the courts can hash it all out, because Escape from Tomorrow is an outrageous provocation with a renegade spirit that reminds you what a festival like Sundance is supposed to be about.