Rounding Up the Best from the Sundance Film Festival

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 31, 2012

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Beast of the Southern Wild

It was all anybody was talking about in line.

See, you wait in line an awful lot at the Sundance Film Festival, and that’s where complete strangers kept approaching me and asking if I’d yet seen Beasts of the Southern Wild. A bona fide overnight sensation, writer-director Benh Zeitlin’s defiantly idiosyncratic debut picture became the toughest ticket in town after its first, rapturously received public screening. Such breathless hype continued for the rest of the fest, to a point where I was already sick to death of hearing about this movie long before I sat down to actually watch it.

Turns out everybody was right, for a change. The phantasmagoric adventures of a defiant, 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy in the forgotten, ramshackle post-Kartina wreckage of New Orleans unspool as a modern folk tale, dreamlike in their mythological grandeur while simultaneously grounded in earthy humor, surreal interludes and goofball nonsequitors. It’s the damndest thing I’ve seen in awhile, the kind of stubbornly personal vision that reminds you what independent films (and this festival) are supposed to be all about. Beasts of the Southern Wild winning the Grand Jury Prize was the least surprising thing that happened all week.

Meanwhile, that angsty, 20-something exuberance that made Joachim Trier’s Reprise such a blast of energy has soured into pre-middle-aged despair in his stately, devastating Oslo, August 31st . Trier’s cohort, Anders Danielsen Lie, returns here as a 30-something junkie on a day-long pass from rehab, wandering ghostlike through his old hometown, taking stock of relationships ruined and years wasted. It’s a quiet, truthful film. And so terribly sad.

“This is not a motherfuckin’ sequel to Do The Right Thing,” Spike Lee announced, taking a momentary break from shit-talking Tom Brady after the premiere of Red Hook Summer.

Lee reprises his iconic role as pizza deliveryman Mookie (now with a graying beard) for a couple fleeting appearances in this often alarmingly misjudged project, which the director financed out of pocket and shot last summer with the assistance of his NYU students. The gist of it, I guess, is that a spoiled rich kid from Atlanta is forced to spend the summer in a Brooklyn housing project with his fire-and-brimstone preacher grandfather (well-played by The Wire’s Clarke Peters). But since this is a Spike Lee Joint, tangents abound.

Buoyed for awhile by vibrant colors, a few dazzling camera tricks and the kind of blunt, socio-economic discussions missing from too many American films (even at Sundance), Red Hook Summer at first feels like it might be Lee’s Gran Torino, complete with gawdawful child actors and colorful old codgers. Then along comes a disastrous plot twist that made me want to throw a trash can at the movie screen.

The festival’s actual motherfuckin’ sequel was Julie Delpy’s Two Days In New York, a follow-up to the actress’ loosey-goosey 2007 directorial debut, transplanting Two Days In Paris’ hijinks stateside and jettisoning Delpy’s previous amour, Adam Goldberg, in favor of the much funnier Chris Rock. Second verse, same as the first, with Delpy’s wacky family (her father even plays himself) causing one crisis after another during a frenetic 48 hours. Rock makes a surprisingly sturdy straight man, seething with exasperation and having imaginary conversations with a cardboard Barack Obama. 

I seem to be in the minority regarding Bachelorette, a blisteringly vicious comedy from playwright Leslye Headland, starring Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher as a trio of coked-up bridesmaids seething with resentment on the eve of their fat friend’s wedding. Comparisons to a certain Kristen Wiig blockbuster are bound to be rife, but this is a much nastier piece of work—Bridesmaids by way of Hurlyburly—mining sick laughs from bulimia, suicide attempts and some magnificently creative profanity. Dunst’s Tracy-Flick-On-Blow routine never failed to slay me.

I also quite liked Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, which sent many audience members streaming for the exits. Eschewing Masterpiece Theatre period tropes, the Fish Tank director chucks most of Emily Bronte’s dialogue, shooting Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s doomed romance with jagged, visceral immediacy. Arnold can’t quite stick the landing, but the movie’s rawness sticks in your ribs.

The U.S. Dramatic Competition Audience Award went to The Surrogate, which will presumably score every subsequent film festival audience award on its way to next year’s Oscars. Extremely difficult to dislike, even though it’s really not very good, writer-director Ben Lewin’s film stars John Hawkes as Berkley poet Mark O’Brien, who was profiled in 1996’s Academy Award-winning doc, Breathing Lessons .

Confined to an iron lung but aching to lose his virginity, Hawkes’ O’Brien hires a sex therapist played by the frequently nude Helen Hunt. He confesses details of their awkward, increasingly tender relationship to a wonderfully deadpan Catholic priest (William H. Macy, master of droll reaction shots). Lewin’s direction is pedestrian at best, but the performances are winning and it’s such catnip to a certain type of art-house crowd that Fox Searchlight immediately coughed up $6 million for distribution rights.

By this time next year, I am probably going to hate this movie.

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