As the Sundance Film Festival wraps, two films are the prevailing standouts — The Surrogate and Beasts Of The Southern Wild. But Red Lights and Filly Brown have been the titles consistently coming up short along with Lay The Favorite. Sundance founder Robert Redford warned attendees on Day One to explore the fest’s various nooks and crannies before guessing which films would be hits or misses. Here’s my reporting:
The Surrogate, directed by Ben Lewin
This film is the obvious commercial hit and awards contender coming out of Sundance this year and it already caught a $6 million acquisition deal as Deadline reported Monday. This film proves that there are still films that arrive with little fanfare and then break out. Starring Helen Hunt (in a terrific performance) and John Hawkes and William H. Macy, pic centers on a man who is confined to an iron lung and at age 38 makes it a goal to lose his virginity. All the buzz bodes well for Lewin who proves that reinventing yourself is possible at any age. Born in 1946, Lewin has a bevy of TV writing and directing credits with a sprinkling of features like Georgiawhich received two AFI Award nominations way back in 1989.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild directed by Benh Zeitlin
This is the fest’s artistic smash to date. The filmmakers had the “dream” Sundance premiere at the Eccles Theatre complete with a standing ovation and immediate buzz at hobnobbing events. Instantly speculation began about who would snag the film populated by unknown actors. Fox Searchlight did. This is the first film by co-writer/director Benh Zeitlin and the team behind Court 13. “Court 13 is an ethos we have on approaching a story and production,” Zeitlin told me. “The arc is made through homemade objects, actors that are non-professional, and a crew that is chosen for their courage and art rather than pure skill.”
Your Sister’s Sister directed by Lynn Shelton
This film about grief had its U.S. debut at Sundance after a Toronto fest premiere initiated buzz. Sundance’s comparatively smaller lineup is giving the film some breathing room and good word of mouth for performances by Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass, and Mike Birbiglia. The film follows Jack who is grieving over his bother’s loss and heads to his father’s cabin unaware that a woman is already staying there with similar circumstances.
Red Hook Summer directed by Spike Lee
This film proved extremely divisive with its supporters saying “Spike Lee is back” and detractors simply dismissing it. The film nevertheless was talked about well after it premiered and not only because of Lee’s anti-studio rant during the post-screening Q&A. Financed by Lee, pic follows a boy who goes from a comfortable life in Atlanta to living with a grandfather he has never met in a gritty housing project in Brooklyn, location for Spike’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do The Right Thing (1989), Crooklyn (1994), Clockers (1995) and He Got Game(1998).
Simon Killer directed by Antonio Campos
Buzzed before the fest, this film turned into Sundance’s greatest polarizer. It’s the latest installment from the Borderline Films folk who brought Martha Marcy May Marlene here last year. Martha director Sean Durkin switched roles with Campos and put on the producer’s hat for this film about a disturbed recent college grad who falls for a Parisian prostitute. “Ambitious”, “cinematic”, and “tough” were adjectives used. “It’s like Shame. Some love it. Others hate it,” was one opinion after its Eccles debut. Look for it to possibly play Cannes. Martha was one of the few Sundance choices there last year and Simon Killer‘s French setting and artistic sensibility may get it a slot.
For A Good Time Call… directed by Jamie Travis
This Sundance film like Bachelorette have drawn some initial comparisons to box office smash Bridesmaids. But this is seen as “the more accessible” of the two because of its less dark material. It revolves around two frenemies who end up in a NY apartment together and share a “dirty secret”.
Keep The Lights On, directed by Ira Sachs
After a slow start following a sneak screening in New York, the film picked up steam in Park City. Some festgoers ranked it among this year’s favorites due to its raw intensity even if they call it flawed. Based on a true story, the film revolves around two men’s emotionally and sexually charged journey through the love, addiction, and friendship.
Compliance directed by Craig Zobel
This divided audiences right out of the gate following its initial screening. It had one of the most emotional Q&As at the festival. One woman yelled out “Sundance can do better” after its premiere which reflected what many thought. Others have lauded the film as “an incredibly smart movie” about the American psyche post-Guantanemo Bay. The film follows two women working at a busy fast food restaurant on a stressful workday that leads to police detention and a sexual assault.
The unfortunately titled Finding North by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush is the “big issue doc” of the festival. Though “not artsy”, it’s “very Participant” as in Participant Media which also made An Inconvenient Truth). Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio came on board as producer of the film about hunger in America.
How To Survive A Plague received a rapturous standing ovation the minute the lights went on following its first screening. Sundance attendees noted the AIDS film came in with little buzz but is now on a roll.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present is “so much more than you think it’s going to be,” and “definitely not a PBS documentary”. A performance artist for 40 years, Abramovic staged maybe a Sundance first: a silent party. (Attendees including Redford walked around a gallery without schmoozing.)
Heidi Ewing’s and Rachel Grady’s Detropia caught good word of mouth on the non-fiction side as did Bart Layton’s The Imposter, Me@ The Zoo, West Of Memphis, and the even more polarizing Queen Of Versailles