I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but anyone who says this year’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival wasn’t a bit of a letdown is fooling themselves.
The fest ran from Jan. 16-26 in the mountains of Park City, Utah, and showcased a whopping 119 feature films culled from 4,057 submissions, as well as loads of shorts. Over the years, Sundance has introduced some of our finest filmmakers to the world, including: Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple, ’85), Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape, ’89), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, ’92), David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, ’94), the list goes on. If that’s not enough of an endorsement for you, here are the winners of the fest’s Grand Jury Prize—the most coveted award—over the past five years: Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” By Sapphire (’09), Winter’s Bone (’10), Like Crazy (’11), Beasts of the Southern Wild (’12), and Fruitvale (’13, retitled Fruitvale Station). Quite a lineup right there. The big winner at this year’s festival was Whiplash, which took home the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Dramatic Feature. It centers on Miles Teller as a jazz drummer at a top music conservatory who clashes with his despotic teacher, played by J.K. Simmons. It’s not quite on the level of those past winners.
Last year’s Sundance brought us a bevy of fascinating films. There was the coming of age drama The Spectacular Now, which landed a special jury prize for acting for young stars Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley; the aforementioned Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the real-life slaying of Oscar Grant, featuring a magnetic central turn by Michael B. Jordan; Lake Bell’s In a World…, which took home the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award; and Richard Linklater’s brilliant Before Midnight.
Sadly, no features I saw this year matched the quality of those four films. Granted, I was only able to see 30-something movies over the course of the fest, and missed a couple of big ones due to scheduling snafus, e.g. Boyhood, Linklater’s film about the development of a child from 7-18, which was shot in 39 days over 12 years, and The One I Love, about a married couple (Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss), struggling to keep their marriage afloat. But you can only see so much.
The tepid reception was evident in the acquisitions. Gone are the days of the $15 million purchases (see: Little Miss Sunshine, ’06), but last year saw a massive $9.75 million be shelled out by Fox Searchlight for dramedy The Way, Way Back. The biggest deal at this year’s fest was a combined $3.5 million for The Skeleton Twins, Craig Johnson’s drama starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, which was split by Lionsgate and Sony Pictures Worldwide for domestic and international rights, respectively.
There were several themes on display at Sundance ’14. Whereas last year was all about sex, this one tackled the plight of the struggling musician. There was Frank, Lenny Abrahamson’s film about an eccentric avant-garde rocker in a giant papier-mâché head, played by Michael Fassbender; the aforementioned Whiplash; and Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s latest featuring Tom Hiddleston as a vampire-rocker and Tilda Swinton as his centuries-old squeeze.
It’s an understated study of inner torment—Stewart’s biggest strength—and no one, with the exception of Jennifer Lawrence, can hold a close-up as well as Stewart.
On the documentary side, which was much stronger than the feature side this year, the big theme was the perils of the Internet. There was Web Junkie, a fascinating look inside China’s government-run prison-like rehab clinics for Internet-addicted teens; Love Child, which probes South Korea’s gaming culture in light of a couple who let their two-year-old baby die while on a gaming binge; and The Internet’s Own Boy, about computer prodigy and Internet activist Aaron Swartz who, after being indicted on federal charges, reportedly took his own life at the age of 26.
There were still plenty of standouts this year. Here are The Daily Beast’s awards for the best of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
BEST FILM: Frank
Lenny Abrahamson’s bizarre black comedy centers on the titular Frank (Michael Fassbender), a delightful oddball rocker who spends every waking moment donning a large, spherical papier-mâché head that resembles a Max Fleischer cartoon. He’s the front man of an avant-garde rock band, the unpronounceable Soronprfbs, and is joined by two detached Parisians, and a surly synth-lady, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal, channeling her inner Karen O.). When a talentless interloper (Domhnall Gleeson) joins the group, their dynamic slowly dissipates. This movie’s grown on me the more I’ve thought about it. It’s a strange one, based on Chris Sievey’s character, Frank Sidebottom, but the first half is witty, and terribly funny, thanks in large part to Fassbender’s entertaining turn as Frank, acting via his voice and wild body movements. And the film raises interesting questions about the differences between art and commerce, as well as private and public consumption. It’s destined to find a strong cult following.
BEST DOCUMENTARY: Web Junkie
Directed by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, and executive produced by Eve Ensler and Morgan Spurlock, Web Junkie takes us inside the Internet Addiction Center in Daxing, a suburb of Beijing, China—one of 400 government-run centers to cure Chinese teens of Internet addiction. The film presents both sides of the divide, from the grieving parents who deal with children that play World of Warcraft for 10 hours a day, to the children who retreat into the virtual world out of loneliness. It’s a fascinating exploration of Internet addiction, as well as China’s youth, and how they’re being failed by their detached parents, and by the country’s one-child policy.
BEST ACTOR: Brendan Gleeson, Calvary
At 58, burly Irishman Gleeson is in his prime. And he has the brothers McDonagh to thank for that. First was Martin McDonagh, who gave Gleeson one of his first starring roles as an assassin in hiding—opposite Colin Farrell—in the excellent drama In Bruges. Then came John Michael McDonagh, who cast him as a hedonistic, drug-taking, hooker-sexing Irish cop in The Guard, alongside Don Cheadle. Gleeson was charming and transfixing in both roles. He continues the trend in John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, which premiered at Sundance. Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a kind, god-fearing man who’s told by a killer that he has one week to live. With his time almost up, Father Lavelle is forced to enjoy his final days with friends and family, and also investigate his parishioners to try and hash out the identity of his future killer. Gleeson’s performance is imbued with quiet grace—a foil to his dirty cop in The Guard—and he’s never less than captivating. Honorable mention, meanwhile, goes to Ryan Reynolds for his against-type turn as a deranged serial killer who talks to his pets in Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices. It’s the best performance of Reynolds’s career.
BEST ACTRESS: (Tie) Anna Kendrick, Happy Christmas & Kristen Stewart, Camp X-Ray
With three films at Sundance ’14, Kendrick was the fest’s unofficial queen bee. Her finest turn came in Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, where she plays Jenny, the terribly selfish—and self-destructive—younger sister to Swanberg’s family man. When she crashes with her brother’s family after a nasty breakup, drowning her sorrows by binging on booze and pot, the shit hits the fan. It’s a reprehensible character on paper, but Kendrick, through her charm, transforms her into a troubled, complicated soul worthy of our sympathy. In Camp X-Ray, Kristen Stewart puts her Twilight detractors to rest with her gripping performance as a rookie guard at Guantanamo Bay who strikes up a friendship with a detainee (A Separation’s Peyman Maadi), which leads her to question the morality of her actions. It’s an understated study of inner torment—Stewart’s biggest strength—and no one, with the exception of Jennifer Lawrence, can hold a close-up as well as Stewart.
BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE: Jude Swanberg, Happy Christmas
Filmmaker Joe Swanberg’s real-life (then) two-year-old baby steals every scene he’s in in Happy Christmas. Whether he’s mimicking Swanberg shoveling food into his mouth or busting a move with Kendrick and Lena Dunham, it’s the best performance by a baby in a long, long time. I’m serious! You will fall in love with this little tyke.
MOST NSFW FILM: Wetlands
With all due respect to Lars von Trier, whose study of sex and self-loathing, Nymphomaniac, lives up to its name, the raunchiest movie at this year's Sundance is the German drama Wetlands, which follows the travails of a bodily fluid-obsessed teen. You can read about the film's various sex scenes and orifice exploration right here.