By Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood January 24, 2014 at 4:07PM
The Sundance Film Festival is a crucible for industry trends and finding emerging talent. Festival watchers tend to focus on the weak economic prospects for many of the films showcased in Park City. The independent marketplace is slowly evolving, but there was plenty to see. So what if no one film galvanized the festival the way "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Fruitvale Station" did in recent years? The festival probably erred in starting off with its best offering, jazz thriller "Whiplash." No other film topped the buzz generated by this one.
While established filmmakers such as Richard Linklater (12-year exploration "Boyhood"), Michael Winterbottom (sequel "The Trip to Italy") and "The Guard"'s John Michael McDonagh (Fox Searchlight pick-up "Calvary") are returning with mature work, the festival is crammed with agents, managers, producers and execs looking for the next Miles Teller or Shailene Woodley (who both returned in new films) and the next director to watch. Who did they find? See below.
Sundance is the land of strong documentaries, many of which go on to compete in awards season. This year was no exception, as Rory Kennedy debuted her best film to date, "Last Days in Vietnam," a thrilling portrait of the military heroes who helped to evacuate at-risk South Vietnamese before the advancing Viet Cong arrived in Saigon. Alex Gibney explored Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti in colorful music biodoc "Finding Fela," and Steve James brought audiences to tears as they shared their grief over losing film critic Roger Ebert in "Life Itself." Other top-notch docs we consumed this week include Katy Chevigny and Ross Kaufman's "E-Team," Edet Belzberg's "Watchers of the Sky" and Todd Miller's "Dinosaur 13." (Anne Thompson interviews Sundance doc directors Kennedy and Lucy Walker here.)
- Writer-director Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash," which was expanded from his short which debuted at Sundance only last year, knocked out Sundance opening night audiences--and was swiftly acquired by Sony Pictures Classics. Miles Teller showed his mettle not only on jazz drums but by holding his own against J.K. Simmons as his fiercely abusive college music professor. (Anne Thompson review and Miles Teller interview.)
- Charlie McDowell, son of Malcolm and Mary Steenbergen, shows a sure hand with twisty marital drama "The One I Love," produced by the ubiquitous Duplass brothers. It’s hard to write about this without giving away the central spoiler (on which the film’s premise turns), but it’s a fascinating if not fully successful look into relationship disappointment, and the identities we assume while in love. Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass star as a husband and wife -- whose marriage is on the rocks -- at a vacation home prescribed by their counselor to rekindle their spark. Relationship dramedy meets bodysnatcher-esque sci-fi. (Anne Thompson interviews Moss here.)
- Ana Lily Amirpour stormed the NEXT section with "Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," adapted from her graphic novel. This stylish, inky black-and-white Iranian vampire noir follows a young woman bloodsucker who stalks the few inhabitants of Western ghost town Bad City. A slow burn (too slow at times), and the arrival of what could be an exciting new voice in indie cinema. (Beth Hanna review.)
- One-time movie marketer Justin Simien packed his debut "Dear White People," a searing satire of college life, with more ideas than it could possibly contain--but it works. (Anne Thompson feature.)
- Terrence Malick collaborator A.J. Edwards debuted his polarizing "The Better Angels," which displays a strong handle on form, visuals and a skillful approach to dealing with the myths of Abraham Lincoln. This divisive period piece follows three years in Abraham Lincoln’s childhood. While some found it frustratingly indebted to Malick’s style, it's ultimately emotionally resonant, and visually compelling in black-and-white. Jason Clarke is the standout as Lincoln’s taciturn father.
- With "Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart," Jeremiah Zagar returns to the much-publicized 1990 case of Pamela Smart, who was convicted of coercing three teen boys to shoot and kill her husband. An incisive look at the blurred lines between mediated images and the country’s justice system, set against the backdrop of the first televised trial. (Beth Hanna review.)
- Joe Swanberg continues to hone his filmmaking in "Happy Christmas," a holiday family comedy that also has a sharp eye for character nuance and foibles. This unassuming yet effective Christmas-set family story follows a depressed wife and mother (Melanie Lynskey) who befriends her husband’s wild younger sister (Anna Kendrick) after she moves in to their basement. Rich handheld 16mm camera work, and lovely performances all around, particularly by Swanberg’s adorable real-life baby son, Jude. (Beth Hanna review.)
- Mike Cahill follows up Sundance debut "Another Earth," which he co-wrote with star Brit Marling, with a film he wrote himself, "I, Origins," a brainy other-worldly exploration of science vs. religion also starring Marling and Michael Pitt. His voice rings loud and clear. (Fox Searchlight picked it up.)
- David Zellner's "Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter," co-written and produced by brother Nathan Zellner, was one of the best-looking films at this year's fest. They pay homage to the Coens, while asserting a visual style all their own. The Zellners delivered this formally striking, delightfully weird adventure tale following a Japanese young woman outsider (a kooky, heartbreaking Rinko Kikuchi) who has become obsessed with the loot buried by Steve Buscemi’s character in “Fargo.” Her insatiable curiosity takes her to the snowy wilds of Minnesota, where terrifying wonders are in store. (Beth Hanna review here.)
- Lynn Shelton showed her strength as an actors' director with "Laggies," a stronger film than last year's "Touchy Feely." Shelton moves away from her improvisational style, collaborating with writer Andrea Siegel, who adapted from her novel. Keira Knightley gives one of her most natural recent performances alongside the always fabulous Sam Rockwell and Chloe Moretz.
- Aaron Katz follows up his superb "Cold Weather" with another atmospheric exploration of two characters in an exotic landscape, co-directed with Martha Stephens, Sony Pictures Classics pickup "Land Ho," starring character actor Paul Eenhoorn ("This is Martin Bonner") and newcomer Earl Lynn Nelson as two retirees who go on an unexpectedly funny and charming picaresque road trip comedy to Iceland that would make Michael Winterbottom proud.
- Following “The Color Wheel,” Alex Ross Perry delivers another acerbic, mannered work about hard-to-like characters, the caustic comedy "Listen Up Philip." In this case, it’s Jason Schwartzman as narcissistic novelist Philip, Jonathan Pryce as his ruthless mentor (think Philip Roth), and Elisabeth Moss (easier to like) as Philip’s ex-girlfriend who reclaims her identity following their breakup. Messy-elegant handheld camera work recalls Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives,” which Perry cites as his key inspiration.
- Ira Sachs delivers his best film to date, the moving love story and New York valentine "Love is Strange," starring the incomparable John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a couple who get married after 30 years--and then separate. This is a four handkerchief weepie. How often do we see stories about mature love? Not often enough. (Anne Thompson interviews Lithgow and Sachs here.)
- Gregg Araki returned to Sundance for his eighth time with "White Bird in a Blizzard," which tonally recalls the funny-sad emotional wrench of 2004's "Mysterious Skin," while proving Araki's adept hand at building suspense and creepiness. This pop-colored suburban tragedy stars Shailene Woodley as a teen grappling with the disappearance of her unhappy, unpredictable mother (Eva Green, in hell-raising Bette Davis mode). A flawed film to be sure, but also one of haunting images and stinging emotion. (Beth Hanna review.)
More breakouts and disappointments and our top tens are below: