For me, for always and forever, The 2010 Sundance Film Festival will be remembered as the year of Blue Valentine. It is, without question, the best film that I have ever seen at Sundance, a sumptuous and painfully real movie that, beat by beat, moment by moment, takes real risks on behalf of deep feeling and true emotion, risks that constantly broke my heart and brought me into direct confrontation with myself. Derek Cianfrance, who directed the film by letting his actors cut loose in the best possible ways, is a major talent and his seemingly involuntary decision to not make this movie at any other point over the last ten years is proof that sometimes, fate provides discretion on behalf of the artist. While it is possible that another pair of actors may have been able to pull off this movie, I can’t imagine who they would be or how it might have worked out.
Ryan Gosling’s Dean is a showcase for the actor’s gift for expressing the finest details of inarticulate masculinity, but it is Michelle Williams who proves herself one of the great actors of the day; utterly believable both as a college heartbreaker and as an exhausted mother and wife struggling with her need for a flicker of ambition and stability, Williams is transcendent. Watching the pair fall in and out of love is a shattering experience, and one that worked for me on every level. In an era of undercooked improvisation and a lack of cinematic ambition among so many low-budget films, Blue Valentine soars into the realm of films like A Woman Under The Influence and A nous amours, films that shock you into a true understanding of what the cinema can really do when the stars align.
Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine
Who hasn’t stood broken hearted, in the arms of the one you love, desperately aware that it’s all over? I am not sure what the festival’s Narrative Jury deliberations were like, but I can almost smell the cynicism from here; how this film wasn’t somehow recognized as a major achievement at the festival is utterly beyond me. I had plenty of conversations with younger, otherwise thoughtful friends and colleagues who dismissed the film for one reason or another (“The more I think about it, the more I’m souring on it,” one told me), but I look at that reaction as a sort of optimistic line in the sand; one day, maybe not long from now, maybe years down the road, you’re going to be staring down the end of a relationship, suddenly and shockingly aware that every word, every gesture, every action is inadequate to repair the damage of every previous word, gesture and action. You’ll open your mouth to say something, to provide yourself some closure, and maybe you’ll remember this; the movie was real all along. It’s just that your experience of love wasn’t.
Which is not to say there weren’t quite a few engaging, even fun films at the festival this year. I really enjoyed many of the narrative features I saw, from The Kids Are Alright (which is a film that finally allows queer couples the same privilege that is allowed so many heterosexual couples in movies; to be assholes) to a movie like The Extra Man, which was a light and sweet adaptation of the Jonathan Ames’ kinky piss-take of a novel about a poor old gadfly who spends his nights chasing the fortunes of rich old ladies and his days grooming a pretentious young cross-dresser the tricks of the trade. The light touch of these films was countered by the thrilling formalism of I Am Love, which stood alongside Blue Valentine as one of the true revelations of my time at the festival.
Tilda Swinton, who has become one of the those actors where you simply type her name and you instantly convey everything about her you would hope to convey (she’s that great), plays Emma Recchi, the wife of a wealthy Milanese industrialist. Emma falls in love with her son’s friend, a young chef named Antonio, and the shit eventually hits the fan (as it must). While the film is ostensibly about their extra-marital affair and its impact on the family, it is really the story of a personal transformation, of Emma’s move away from the luxurious and cold excess of wealth and toward sensual happiness and personal pleasure. The director Luca Guadagnino swings for something between Visconti and Antonioni, and in that regard, the film has the look and texture of something, well, for lack of a better phrase, old school. But all of those big ideas about movies are used to the film’s advantage, typified by Guadagnino’s use of a brilliant score by the American composer John Adams. Adams’ music adds a layer of complexity to the proceedings, and it literally transforms the movie’s climax from a simple, inevitable conclusion into a heart-stopping thrill that leaves you breathless. I am a real fan of Adams’ work and was happily surprised by the liberal use of his score in this film; I really think it, along with the gorgeous cinematography, gives the film a real sense of intention and a formal grandeur that is so often absent at Sundance.
Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love
In the end, like any great feat of overindulgence (and believe me, 30 films in six days is an overindulgence of epic proportions), most of what remains are the bright and pleasurable moments that shaped my experience. While I am sure I am overlooking a million other happy moments of discovery, many of them feel distant now, lost in the crush of films. This is what remains, and so I hope it will suffice in lieu of some “trend spotting” report about the state of cinema (see my previous post here) or some negative judgments about the festival or this or that movie. I can’t be bothered to pose anymore. I love the cinema, wherever and whenever it presents itself, in piles of snow or in converted tennis clubs, I couldn’t care less. Movies? Love. Let’s leave it at that.