By Matt Singer | Criticwire January 21, 2013 at 10:03AM
Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, this week's question:
Q: With the Sundance Film Festival in full swing, what overlooked festival film from the last couple of years deserves more attention and acclaim?
The critics' answers:
NOTE: Clicking any title below will take you directly to where you can find that film available for rent or streaming online, or on DVD and Blu-ray.
"There's a film that premiered at Sundance in 2005 called 'The Chumscrubber' from first-time director Arie Posin (Posin hasn't released a film since but has his sophomore effort 'Look of Love' with Robin Williams, Ed Harris and Annette Bening hitting sometime in 2013). Besides getting a limited release in the theaters by Newmarket (28 to be exact, for only 2 weeks, which is where and when I happened to catch it on a whim), it wasn't received well by critics upon release and didn't ever gain the cult status of a 'Donnie Darko.' For me however, it's always been a weird little endearing film that I thought should have gotten more attention. It boasts an impressive cast of indie darlings -- Jamie Bell, Lou Taylor Pucci, Camilla Belle, Justin Chatwin, Rory Culkin, -- and some big names to boot -- Glenn Close, William Fichtner, Ralph Fiennes, Carrie-Anne Moss -- and is a dark satiric comedy about the inner demons of a suburbia with an exterior as fabricated as its houses. Intermixed with comic book transitions and a parallel parable about a post-apocalyptic video game starring a headless hero known as The Chumscrubber. It was on Netflix Instant for a while but sadly is no more. If you can track it down however, give it a watch. Maybe there's hope for it yet!"
"Last year's New York, San Sebastian, and London Film Festival selection 'The Dead Man and Being Happy' is the only one of the 2012 Holy Trinity of Road Movie reshapings to not get U.S. distribution. Director Javier Rebollo told me: 'I like having people with different languages. A lot of different accents give depth to a movie. Just think of Peter Lorre, or Marlene Dietrich, or Greta Garbo.' He reinvents the drive, just as Leos Carax does in 'Holy Motors' through the city of Paris and Abbas Kiarostami with Tokyo in his 'Like Someone in Love.' 'The Dead Man And Being Happy' takes us on a journey through a rapidly changing Argentina, archiving what is about to disappear. He creates a visual time capsule, where pistols are infected with tumors and history becomes a utopia, where Don Quixote will encounter 'Twin Peaks.'"
"'The Revenant,' which was the highlight of Screamfest two or three years ago, and got a very quiet limited release in 2012. A great and timely horror-comedy hybrid that's exactly the kind of original spin genre fans say they want."
"Soi Cheang's 'Motorway,' a low-key car chase film from Johnnie To's Milkyway Image productions, was the best genre movie I saw in 2012. It did not receive U.S. distribution yet, but its rubber burning pleasures will be readily available on DVD in March."
"I’m going with 'Mystery Team,' an outrageous and extremely funny low-budget comedy about a group of teenagers who gained some fame as kids by fashioning themselves as real-life Encyclopedia Browns. The gag is that they still act as morally upright and naïve, even when investigating a double homicide. Maybe the film has received a larger following since it premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival as part of the Park City at Midnight series -- I only saw the film on Netflix Instant, though it’s not available streaming on that site for now -- but even the allure of its cast doesn’t seem to have engendered a large cult base. 'Mystery Team' was written by the comedy troupe Derrick Comedy, and stars many of them, notably 'Community'’s Donald Glover as Jason, the leader. Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, and Ellie Kemper also appear in the film, and again, it’s very funny. So if you haven’t yet, check out "Mystery Team.'"
"I'm a sucker for a quality film maudit, and it used to be that a suitably horrified or deranged festival debut could rally up at least a cursory case of domestic distribution; this actually seems to still be the case at Sundance, so it's good to know there's still some madness afoot in the Utah mountains. But there have been a couple of Cannes scandals that actually turned out fairly interesting films, certainly worth more than just being torrented by the curious and those who like to gawk. Urszula Antoniak's 'Code Blue' (which got screwed out of a local festival screening last year because of an absence of English-subtitled DCPs -- seriously, wasn't this the sort of thing that the digital changeover was going to fix?) and Brillante Mendoza's 'Kinatay' (which you'd think would have parlayed a contentious Best Director prize into some sort of attention, especially with QT's support) are the kind of films I delight in: extreme art films that could play for aesthetes or gorehounds with equal versatility. Both are impeccable pieces of direction, and it kills me that there is simply no legal way to access these films in the English-speaking world."
"'Persepolis' directors Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's magical look at life, 'Chicken With Plums,' went vastly overlooked. Premiering back at TIFF 2011, I adored the film, but it garnered little praise when it hit theaters last summer, and even less when among year-end lists. My hope is the same doesn't happen for the astounding 'Simon Killer' this spring."
"Though it's pretty well-liked by those who have seen it, it still feels like Sophia Takal's 'Green' should be a lot more highly-regarded than it is. Tense and gripping, yet unabashedly personal and sincere, it so perfectly toes the line between finely-honed craft and personal expression that so many first-time filmmakers struggle with. It finally found a distributor last fall, though, so hopefully those who haven't yet will check it out."
"I've been banging the drum for a fantastic documentary called 'The Elephant in the Living Room' for almost two years now, and I'm thrilled to have the chance to do so again here. 'Elephant,' which played at the Silverdocs Film Festival among others, explores the very real problem of people adopting exotic animals as pets, unaware of the potential for danger to themselves and the community at large. It introduces us to two interesting men: Tim Harrison, who specializes in capturing escaped wild animals, and Terry Brumfield, who can't bear to part with his pet lions. The fates of Tim and Terry meet, with unforgettable results. This documentary is a real eye-opener, showing the viewer how widespread exotic animal ownership is. But most of all, it is a touching portrait of two men on opposite sides of the issue who work together to do what is right. Provocative and humane, 'The Elephant in the Living Room' deserves to be discovered and appreciated on a wider scale. You can catch it on Netflix Instant."
"Many of last year's Sundance films went on to gather a large audience and major mainstream acclaim, but the best of the bunch was Rick Alverson's 'The Comedy,' which went mostly overlooked or was outright panned."
"I'll take this opportunity to defend Kevin Smith's 'Red State,' a Sundance entry from two years ago. I loved that film and especially dug seeing Smith get back to his roots. I know he's a divisive figure these days, but even so I wish more people had seen it and at least considered the acting of Michael Parks and John Goodman for some citations. I'm still convinced the movie never got a fair shake. Also, last year a little romantic comedy called 'The First Time' premiered at Sundance and even if I'm the only fan of it out there, it's still a great flick. I wish that one had gotten some notice earlier this year."
"'The Perfect Host.' It's rare to see David Hyde-Pierce in a leading role, but he's astonishingly good here."
"I always say that 'Take Shelter' from Sundance 2011 deserved a better rattle than it got. Jeff Nichols created a chilling apocalyptic vibe with very little money and sparing use of CGI, and it was early recognition of the talents of Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon. Deserves a long second life on TV and at sci-fi retro fests."
"The best film from festivals that was handled the worst in terms of distribution was 'The Loved Ones.' Maybe it's the horror fan in me, but the fact that this film made the festival rounds in 2009-10 and was just released on DVD (no Blu-ray) in 2012 makes me sad. Horror is a genre that can use all the standouts it can muster, and this notable standout was unjustly swept under the horror rug."
"Jeff Nichols' 'Take Shelter,' which premiered at Sundance two years ago, somehow got shut out of accolades at both Sundance and the Oscars (though Cannes Critics Week was kind). Its relevance then and now sends shivers down my spine, as we continue two years later to face a future full of the unknown. Threats from all sides -- economic, societal, internal, and perhaps metaphorical -- loom in the near distance, ready to take away everything we hold dear at a moment's notice. How can a man burdened with the responsibility of protecting the livelihood of himself and his family cope with such frightening uncertainty? The script is pitch perfect (put me firmly in the camp of those who love the ending), the performances are top drawer, and its technical execution is especially strong. It's hard to truly label something so recent as 'overlooked,' but as I gaze into my crystal ball and see future 'best of the decade' lists with 'Take Shelter' conspicuously absent, I weep for the future."
"I really responded well to 'Mr. Nobody,' which came and went with a thud. Not dissimilar to 'Looper,' it's a film that does so many things right that so easily could have become risible. Strong performances, a clever story that doesn't fall into becoming obnoxious, it's a sorely overlooked gem of a genre pic that played TIFF a few years back and then was for the most part forgotten."
"The film that springs to mind immediately is 2007's 'Estomago: A Gastronomic Story,' which I saw at a very empty morning screening during Fantastic Fest a few years ago. This Brazilian production is still not available in the U.S., so as much as I loved it, I can't revisit it or spring it on friends without everybody having all-region DVD players (and I've given up on a high-def release). The dark comedy follows a drifter who takes a job as a short order cook, but really learns his craft when he has to satisfy the appetite of a sexy, food-obsessed streetwalker. It's a great, sensual, wicked film that deserves a bigger audience, (and I still have a movie-crush on knockout Fabiula Nascimento)."
"I would like to toss out a word for the documentary 'Big Boys Gone Bananas!*' by the Swedish director Fredrik Gertten. This movie tells the story of the filmmaker's struggle to get distribution for his previous film 'Bananas!*' in U.S. As the film was to be launched at the L.A. Film Festival, it turned out that he had a mighty enemy, the Dole company, which would do anything in their power to stop the film from being screened. Not only did they treat Gertten and the production company with lawsuits, they also used questionable methods in their contacts with journalists, film distributors and anyone who could have helped getting the word out about the film. Things look hopeless until one day, when someone decides to write an e-mail to a hamburger restaurant, asking what they're thinking of when they're serving fruit from Dole. And the story takes a new, unexpected turn. The film is engaging and suspenseful as a thriller and thanks to this far more of a threat to Dole than the film they originally tried to stop. In the end it's a testimony of the power of the consumer. I kept tearing up during the final act as I was struck by the insight that the little things we do matter. An e-mail, a blog post, or just your choice of banana brand as you're making your weekly shopping can have further effects than you imagine. The big boy may seem scary when he goes bananas at you. But he doesn't always win. I really wish that this film could reach outside of the festival circuit and get the attention and acclaim it deserves."
"Watching the buzzed about 'Kill Your Darlings' at Sundance this year -- which was terrific, incidentally -- reminded me of another recent Sundance title about Allen Ginsberg that came and went without nearly the love it deserved: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's 'Howl,' which starred James Franco as Ginsberg and wove together the poet's life, his trial for obscenity, and a mind-blowing, animated interpretation of the titular poem. This latter section was a real gambit on the part of the filmmakers, but it pays off in spades, melding words and pictures in a powerful way. Lovers of movies and literature (and confused students reading Ginsberg for the first time) owe it to themselves to check out this gorgeous and powerful movie."
"Mateo Gil's 'Blackthorn' was one of the best non-docs I have ever seen at the Tribeca Film Festival. It's a Western starring Sam Shepard that's meant as a follow-up to the classic 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' as he plays the older Butch now living in hiding in Bolivia after seemingly dying. It's a really terrific follow-up with cool flashbacks to the past with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jamie Lannister from 'Game of Thrones' and co-star of this weekend's 'Mama,' playing the younger Butch in framing sequences that bookend the original film. Shepard is absolutely fantastic in the movie and for all the talk about Westerns made by auteurs over the years, from 'True Grit' to 'Django Unchained,' it's a shame it got lost in the shuffle."
"I live in Alabama and don't get to attend festivals, so I am typically the one waiting around for festival releases to hit Atlanta or, more likely, straight to VOD/home video. However, I do love the work of Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To, who has released several great films in the last few years that have gotten little to no American distribution. Since Hong Kong's Blu-rays are Region A-encoded, I've gotten to sample a few of these. The best is 2012's 'Romancing in Thin Air,' a deceptively simple rom-com that gradually delves deeper and deeper into metatextual commentary until it becomes both a celebration and critique of the way pop culture defines our lives, a midpoint between 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' and the analytical exploitation of Abel Ferrara's work. Last year offered a number of great films, but To's was far and away the best new release I saw. Its reception among the few who have seen it is mixed, but I hope that increased availability will let more have access to one of the filmmaker's best works."
"In anticipation of covering my first Sundance, I watched and rewatched a lot of films by directors who have new films at this year's festival. As such, I had somehow overlooked Zal Batmanglij's debut 'Sound of My Voice' last year and found it to be a terrific and eloquently crafted psychological thriller, hinged on ambiguity and an alluring script from Batmanglij and star Brit Marling. After seeing it, I can now safely say their newest collaboration premiering this year, 'The East,' is easily one of my most anticipated."
"There are tons of documentaries I could choose for the answer, but I’m going to go with something fairly recent: 'Camp 14: Total Control Zone.' At Toronto its astonishing story of a North Korean prison camp escapee was overshadowed by the similar-sounding 'The Act of Killing.' Since then its subject was given a report on '60 Minutes' that never mentioned the documentary. Now it’s available to stream on Netflix Watch Instantly, but it’s not on DVD, and of course there aren’t really review outlets just for that sort of distribution. At least it can should be seen, though, and it should be."
"It wasn't exactly buried, but 'The Guard' hasn't gotten enough attention either. Brendan Gleeson's performance needs to be studied, chronicled, and worshiped."
"'Red Lights' from Sundance 2012. Featuring an excellent role for Sigourney Weaver, the film was dismissed by critics due to a problematic finale and neglected with a botched release. Hopefully it will receive another look in years to come."
"Victor Kossakovsky's '¡Vivan las Antipodas!' captures the essence of that perfect film festival experience for me. I stumbled upon the film, a dialogue and narrator-free documentary that explores the relationship between a variety of antipodes around the world, at DocFest, in a gap between films I'd actually planned to see. Needless to say, it stole the festival for me with its remarkable camerawork quite literally unlike anything I'd ever seen before. Chances are had I not stumbled in to that festival screening I would never have heard about it."
"Despite being a Steven Soderbergh film and receiving the Criterion treatment, 'And Everything Is Going Fine' sadly remains under the radar. The director's careful edits of Spalding Gray's monologues allow the actor to tell his own story in chronological order, regardless of the age when he shared each anecdote, making for a stunning autobiographical tapestry. Innovative and devoid of standard documentary crutches, the work pushes the genre forward and remains one of the most exciting non-fiction films to date."
The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on January 21st, 2013:
The Most Popular Response: "Amour"
Other Movies Receiving Multiple Votes: "Django Unchained," "Zero Dark Thirty," "The Last Stand," "Life of Pi."