BEST OF FEST

The Daily Beast’s Best Of Sundance: Fruitvale, The Spectacular Now, Pussy Riot, and More

The best films, performances, direction, and screenwriting at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Awards 2013

Each year, film critics, aficionados, and industry-types flock to the mountains of Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival. The ’13 edition of the premier independent film festival, running Jan. 17–27, boasted nearly 200 films culled from 12,000 submissions. Whereas last year’s festival featured a number of critically acclaimed films, including Oscar nominees Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sessions, and Searching for Sugar Man, the ’13 program exhibited several movies that you’ll be hearing much more about during next year’s awards season. From the poignant coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now to the riveting Fruitvale, about the real-life shooting of Oscar Grant by an Oakland, Calif., cop, here are The Daily Beast’s awards for the best of Sundance.

Best Picture

The Spectacular Now

 

Written and directed by James Ponsoldt—whose film Smashed, about a dysfunctional young married couple struggling with alcoholism, received critical raves at last year’s fest—returns to Sundance with this touching bildungsroman. The Spectacular Now follows Sutter (Miles Teller), a gregarious high-school senior who seemingly has it all—he’s popular, has a hot little number for a girlfriend (Brie Larson), and is beloved by all. His world comes crashing down, however, when his gal dumps him. He soon crosses paths with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a nerdy go-getter with a love of sci-fi, and takes a liking to her since her purity and sincerity are completely alien to him. Aimee compels Sutter to confront his demons, including his nonexistent relationship with his father (Kyle Chandler) and subsequent vendetta against his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), as well as his booze problem. Despite its obviousness on paper, the film, written by the team behind (500) Days of Summer, never rings a false note—thanks in large part to the performances of Teller and Woodley, who radiate charm and evoke plenty of pathos. It came as no surprise when the pair won a Special Jury Prize for Acting at this year’s fest. And, after a heated bidding war, the film was acquired by new distributor A24, who outbid Weinstein Co. for movie rights.

Roast Beef Productions

Best Documentary

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

 

Winner of the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer chronicles the history of the Russian feminist punk-rock collective Pussy Riot. Donning balaclavas, the gals stage unauthorized guerrilla performances around Moscow, belting out riot grrl-ish tunes that touch on feminism and LGBT rights and take potshots at Vladimir Putin. Three of the women were arrested for “hooliganism” when, on Feb. 21, 2012, they stormed the soleas of Cathedral of Christ the Savior, an Orthodox church in Moscow, and performed a raucous tune criticizing Putin. Despite lasting all of 40 seconds before being broken up by security, the trio was sentenced to two years in prison for their actions. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s film contains awesome performance footage of the group, as well as their heavily publicized trial, and also explores the backgrounds of the three arrested Pussy Rioters, sans balaclavas. It’s a messy, frenetic, kick-ass ode to feminism, free speech, and punk-rock rebellion. HBO Documentary Films picked up the movie during the fest, so expect to catch it soon on the small screen.

Steve Dietl

Best Direction

David Lowery, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

 

It is truly astounding that this luscious, lyrical film marks David Lowery’s feature filmmaking debut. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is set in rural Texas and tells the saga of Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and Paul Muldoon (Casey Affleck), two outlaws. After a shootout, police nab Paul and sentence him to a lengthy prison term while Ruth is acquitted of all charges. Four years later, Paul escapes from prison to reunite with his lost love, and meet the daughter they conceived just before he went away. Many have compared Lowery’s direction to Terrence Malick’s, since he methodically—and beautifully—captures the rich Texas landscape. With his meticulous framing and technical proficiency, his work more closely resembles the exquisite lensing of Paul Thomas Anderson. Watch out for David Lowery. You’ll be hearing plenty more from him soon. And the film, which was acquired by IFC Films, will be coming soon to a theater near you.

Rachel Morrison

Best Actor

Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale

 

The big winner of this year’s fest—taking home both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award—Fruitvale was one of the four best dramatic features I saw at Sundance, alongside The Spectacular Now, Before Midnight, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It retells the plight of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old father who was gunned down by an Oakland BART officer on New Year’s Day 2009. The incident, in which Grant appears to be restrained and executed, was captured on cellphone cameras and uploaded to YouTube, resulting in a national uproar. Despite building to a foregone conclusion, Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Grant is nothing short of remarkable, transforming a grainy YouTube victim into a gregarious, empathetic young man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Jordan, who has delivered stellar turns in Chronicle and on the TV series’ The Wire and Friday Night Lights, may be getting more accolades for his performance during next year’s awards season. Awards guru Harvey Weinstein—via his Weinstein Co.—acquired the film, after all.

Myles Aronowitz

Best Actress

Brit Marling, The East

 

Two years ago, Brit Marling was the talk of Sundance with her movie-ready backstory: Georgetown University valedictorian turns down job offer from Goldman Sachs to write and star in two well-received flicks at the fest: Another Earth and The Sound of My Voice. She’s reteamed with her Voice director, Zal Batmanglij, for The East. Marling, who also co-wrote the film, stars as an agent for a corporate security firm who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of eco-terrorists known as The East. Things get hairy, however, when she begins to sympathize with the group, including its enigmatic leader (Alexander Skarsgard) and his fiery No. 2, played by Ellen Page. The film is a marvelous platform for Marling’s talents, as she leads viewers on an emotionally complex journey chock full of fascinating contradictions while never losing her grip on you. Those previous Sundance entries put the 29-year-old stunner on the map, but The East may just be the film that makes her a household name.

Claire Folger

Best Supporting Actor

Sam Rockwell, The Way, Way Back

 

Sam Rockwell has been one of the more underrated character actors in Tinseltown for quite some time. The only film to date that’s really managed to harness his myriad talents is Duncan Jones’s brilliant sci-fi film, Moon. In The Way, Way Back, writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who shared the Best Screenplay Oscar with Alexander Payne for The Descendants, have crafted the perfect role for Rockwell. He plays Owen, a wacky man-child who manages the Water Wizz water park, and takes in Duncan (Liam James), a reticent 14-year-old. Owen serves as a surrogate father to Duncan, offering a welcome respite from his dysfunctional life at home where he’s being smothered by his anxious mother (Toni Collette) and her asshole boyfriend (Steve Carell). Rockwell is a total riot, delivering an endless series of one-liners at breakneck speed and then, when you least expect it, slows down and imparts some valuable life lessons. If there’s any justice in the world, you’ll be hearing more about Rockwell’s performance come next year’s awards season. It’s a big reason why the film became one of the costliest acquisitions in Sundance history, selling to Fox Searchlight for an estimated $9.5 million.

Macall Polay

Best Supporting Actress

Nicole Kidman, Stoker

 

There is a scene late in Stoker, a hyperstylized horror movie courtesy of Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), which left the crowd in stunned silence. Up until then, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has openly returned the advances of her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a deranged psych-killer who moved into the family home following her father’s (Dermot Mulroney) death. Their bizarre, incestuous courtship has both confused and disgusted Evie Stoker (Nicole Kidman), a lascivious floozy who beds good ol’ Charlie because he resembles a younger, more handsome version of her late husband. India enters the dining room where Evie is seated at the head of the table. Kidman then unleashes a teary-eyed, two-minute monologue brimming with vitriol toward her troubled daughter. “I can’t wait to see the world tear you apart,” she says in a violent whisper. Like a cross between her schizo news-lady Suzanne Maretto (To Die For) and feral jezebel Charlotte Bless (The Paperboy), Evie represents Kidman at her batty best.  

Despina Spyrou

Best Screenwriting

Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Before Midnight

 

Before Midnight marks the third film in filmmaker Richard Linklater and stars/co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s Before Sunrise trilogy. Set nine years after the previous installment, Before Sunset (2004), which came nine years after Sunrise (1995), Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are now living in Paris as a couple, and the parents to twin girls. Jesse finds himself torn between his current love and his former life, and wishes he could be there for his young son, Hank, who lives back in Chicago. After dropping off Hank at the airport following a fun summer in the Greek islands, Jesse, Celine, and the girls return to the island paradise to resume their vacation. But all is not well in paradise, as the two begin to bicker over his attachment to his son and her desire to return to a job in the French government, eventually building to a spellbinding 30-minute hotel-room fight. The film is filled with a series of intellectually stimulating confabulations examining social and sexual mores in a tech-savvy world, male hubris vs. female sensitivity, and a host of other topics. Despite mainly consisting of five big, dialogue-heavy scenes, the film, once again co-scripted by the trio, is an intimate and witty exploration of the modern family that will delight fans old and new.