The Best and Worst of Sundance 2013

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by Anthony Kaufman
January 24, 2013 11:15 AM
8 Comments
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It was a pretty good year for American independent cinema in Park City.

I watched about 17-18 feature films at Sundance (about half docs and half fiction), reviewing most of them for Screen Daily, the international film industry trade (Europe's answer to Variety). I only walked out of one, and can say only two were duds, and even those had compelling subject matter.

I've been doing this long enough (on and off since 1998) that the inconveniences of the festival (the freezing cold, the circuitous shuttle bus routes) mostly wash over me. I avoid Main Street at all costs--managed to go only once this year, and not in the evening--and stay in the theaters and the condo, doing the work of writing about movies, which is a lucky and privileged occupation. There were a number of buzzed-about movies that I missed (curious where I'll fall on "Fruitvale," but I suspect that I'll not be a fan) and I didn't catch "Cutie and The Boxer," a critically praised documentary that really should have been a must-see for me. But alas, there are too many movies and too little time.

Here is my breakdown of favorites and, um, least favorites:

The two best films at the festival were David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" and Andrew Dosunmu's "Mother of George," which were coincidentally shot by the same cinematographer, Bradford Young, whose exquisite, expressionistic and yet highly distinct and disparate work on both films was tremendously evocative.

Andrew Bujalski's "Computer Chess" (see review) and Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color" (see review) injected vision, originality and a certain amount of confounding WTF into my festival. Without them, Sundance might have been a bore, and I thank both directors for sticking to their uncompromising visions. Matthew Porterfield's "I Use to Be Darker" is another true original, with a handful of singular moments (often musically) that bare the emotional soul of its characters.

Other narratives that were good, but I have reservations:

"Concussion" -- see review

"The Spectacular Now" -- see review

"Crystal Fairy" -- see review

Among the best documentaries I saw were, in order of personal preference:

"After Tiller" -- see review

"Dirty Wars"

"Who is Dayani Crystal" -- see review

"We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks" -- see review

"Gideon's Army"

Then there were three docs that I wasn't crazy about: "Blood Brother" (see review), "Pussy Riot-A Punk Prayer" (review) and "Citizen Koch" (review).

As for the one film I walked out on, the much-discussed DisneyWorld-set sick-and-twisted fantasia, "Escape from Tomorrow," I will only say that I stand by my contention that it's an infantile and amateurish film that doesn't deserve the attention its geting. There are those who I respect that admire its outlandishness, so maybe someday I will see the whole thing. And when I do, I hope it will be 15 minutes shorter.

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8 Comments

  • Nick | February 5, 2013 6:19 PMReply

    I found your review of "We Steal Secrets" informative. I haven't seen it yet (I never read reviews of narrative films that I'm planing to see though) and was initially a little cautious. Glad that Gibney hasn't (according to you) made the anti-Assange doc that I was expecting. And I utterly dislike the guy (he is probably the raging narcissist he is accused of being). Can't say that I'm looking forward to "The Fifth Estate" though. It looks and smells like our generations "Che!" (the reactionary and ridiculous feature by Richard Fleischer).

  • Nick | February 5, 2013 5:57 PMReply

    I'm looking forward to Scahills "Dirty Wars". I hope that it gets exposure, even if it (making a guess here) doesn't fit mainstream political discourse.

  • Nettrice | January 26, 2013 5:35 PMReply

    I loved The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete.

  • gwl | January 25, 2013 1:04 PMReply

    Finish it and write about it or don't finish it and don't write about it. 101.

  • AJ | January 29, 2013 6:04 PM

    totally with GWL

  • Reini Urban | January 25, 2013 12:11 PMReply

    Sorry, but I also hated "Mother of George". A highly stylized camera on a simple drama may work to get Oscar noms, but doesn't reflect the topic and characters, only the ego of the director. Typical social festival porn in the likes of Push by Sapphire and Paperboy.
    Crystal "Hairy" was also on my low end of the spectrum.
    Unlike Silva's Festivalhit "The Maid" "Crystal Fairy" is a typical Larrain underdeveloped story, very likely based on true events. It has its moments, but generally a boring true life nonsense day at the beaches, with two unlikable negative characters with some pseudo-psychological stupid relevations. Larrain territory. "The Maid" at least turned it around.
    My only real Sundance standout film this year was Sean Ellis' "Metro Manila", Slamdance had more to offer.

  • J Bardsley | January 24, 2013 6:29 PMReply

    I'd certainly agree "Mother of George" was beautifully shot, but I have yet to talk to another movie-goer who did not perceive it as agonizingly slow. It has been a very good year at Sundance, but this one was near the bottom (with "The Lifeguard" and "A Teacher", for different reasons) of my list. Near the top was "Ain't Them Bodies", "May in Summer" and "Breathe In", on the dramatic side and "Dayani Cristal", "Crash Reel", "Anita" and "Manhunt" (sorry, missed "Tiller"- heard it was great.)

  • shelly | January 25, 2013 2:42 PM

    Anyone who saw the dreary Restless City knew Mother of George (shot in 2011) would be pretty and boring.

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