Film Feature: The 10 Best Films of Sundance 2013

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Photo credit: Sundance

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, Ray McKinnon, Joe Don Baker, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, and Sam Shepard
Written and Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Synopsis: Ellis and Neckbone are best friends approaching the twilight of their youth. While exploring, they stumble upon the hiding place of charismatic outlaw Mud (played with controlled charm by a well-cast Matthew McConaughey), who takes a quick liking to the boys and recruits them to his cause: the search for true love and a clean getaway.

Review: I adored Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” and so I’m hesitant to say that the writer/director’s follow-up is better but it’s certainly arguable that it’s as good. It’s a more epic piece with the feel of a great, lost young adult novel about coming-of-age. With great performances from its entire cast (especially another nomination-worthy turn from McConaughey), “Mud” is a striking, memorable drama about how children deal with divorce and the shattering of the illusion that all men are chivalrous and all women want to be saved. It’s a smart, well-acted flick that also simply looks great. Some things fall flat when they leave Park City, playing better there in the thin mountain air. I expect “Mud” to do the opposite and be one of the more acclaimed films to emerge from Sundance 2013.

“Upstream Color”

Upstream Color
Upstream Color
Photo credit: Sundance

Starring: Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth
Written and Directed by: Carruth

Synopsis: Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.

Review: The big WTF movie of Sundance 2013 is Shane Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to 2004’s “Primer.” Any concern that the time since “Primer” might have mellowed or mainstreamed this daring filmmaker is shattered within minutes of this daring piece of work. I’ve seen a number of dramas that could be called “more poetry than prose” (think “The Tree of Life”) but few science fiction films that warrant that description. “Upstream Color” is a thematic piece, a visual commentary on control, identity, and even love. Some will hate it (the last half-hour has almost no dialogue) but others have already fallen head over heels in love with its undeniable originality. I’m not sure I’ve wrapped my brain around “what it all means” but I’m not sure I ever will. I’m increasingly sure I adore this movie. It will divide audiences around the country when Carruth self-releases the film in April.

“The Way, Way Back”

The Way, Way Back
The Way, Way Back
Photo credit: Sundance

Starring: Liam James, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Amanda Peet, Allison Janney, Toni Collette, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Nat Faxon, & Jim Rash
Written and Directed by: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Synopsis: The Way, Way Back tells the story of 14-year-old Duncan’s awkward, funny, and sometimes painful summer vacation with his mother, Pam, her overbearing boyfriend, Trent, and his daughter, Steph. Although Duncan has a tough time fitting in and finding his place, he does find an unlikely ally and mentor in Owen, a carefree employee at the local water park where Duncan gets a job. Over the course of the summer, as his mother drifts further away, Duncan—with encouragement from Owen—begins to open up and come into his own.

Review: The most crowd-pleasing film of Sundance 2013 has already been picked up by Fox Searchlight with a late Summer release being eyed. Think “Little Miss Sunshine”. And I expect this very funny, very sweet comedy to have similar results with audiences and possibly even awards-giving bodies. Faxon & Rash’s directorial debut (they already won an Oscar for writing “The Descendants) produced the most audience response I heard in Park City by some stretch. Laughter and applause. When the history books are written, I expect this to be the most profitable film of this year’s fest. It certainly doesn’t break any molds but it’s a familiar tale told with enough heart and wit to work. And it includes one of Sam Rockwell’s most engaging, hysterical performances. He’s reason alone to see it.

“We Are What We Are”

We Are What We Are
We Are What We Are
Photo credit: Sundance

Starring: Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Bill Sage, Michael Parks, Wyatt Russell, Nick Damici, and Kelly McGillis
Written by: Damici & Jim Mickle
Directed by: Mickle

Synopsis: A seemingly wholesome and benevolent family, the Parkers have always kept to themselves, and for good reason. Behind closed doors, patriarch Frank rules the roost with a rigorous fervor, determined to keep his ancestral customs intact at any cost. As a torrential rainstorm moves into the area, tragedy strikes and his daughters Iris and Rose are forced to assume responsibilities that extend beyond those of a typical family. The most important task the girls face is putting meat on the table— but not the kind that can be found at the local supermarket. As the unrelenting downpour continues to flood their small town, local authorities begin to uncover clues that bring them closer to the secret that the Parkers have held closely for so many years.

Review: The best horror movie of this year’s fest is Jim Mickle’s remake of the 2010 film about a family of cannibals whose carefully structured life falls apart after the death of the matriarch. The Parkers have their own religion, one that requires regular murder and ingestion to keep away sin. Rather than going the gore route, Mickle plays it smart, shooting “We Are” like a southern gothic or a David Lynch film. He told me the film’s inspirations were Robert Altman’s “3 Women” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which should make clear that his approach is different than the blood & guts route that 99% of his peers would have taken. Choosing tension and atmosphere over the grotesque, Mickle allows for actual performance (Julia Garner is going to be a huge star some day) and Del Toro-esque composition. It’s one of the best American horror movies of the last few years. It’s been picked up by the small eOne, which concerns me a bit as it could mean straight-to-DVD, but hopefully they can get this flick a theatrical release. It deserves it.

“When I Walk”

When I Walk
When I Walk
Photo credit: Sundance

Written and Directed by: Jason DaSilva

Synopsis: It all started on a family vacation. In 2006, the 25-year-old, vital, handsome, talented Jason DaSilva was on a beach with his family when, suddenly, he fell down and couldn’t get back up. Doctors told him he had multiple sclerosis, and it could lead to loss of vision and muscle control, as well as a myriad of other problems. Jason decided to exercise more, but the problem just got worse. So he turned to his mom. She reminded him that he was a fortunate, privileged North American kid who had the opportunity to pursue the things he loved most—art and filmmaking. So Jason picked up the camera, turned it on himself, and began filming the slow, difficult decline of his body and the miracles he encountered along the way.

Review: Finally, there’s the first film I saw on my first full day at the fest (which turned out to be the best…saw 40% of this list on that day), a powerful documentary about the failure of the human body and the triumph of the human spirit. DaSilva was a talented documentarian before he was struck down with Primary Progressive MS, a disease that ate away at everything he loved and yet couldn’t kill his spirit. This was the best doc at Sundance 2013 and, surprisingly, still hasn’t been picked up. I’m sure it will get to you soon, either in theaters or, more likely, on HBO. We’ll keep you informed. With all the major names and stars at Sundance this year, I love that one of the people I won’t soon forget is Jason DaSilva, a man I didn’t know before taking off for Park City but that I won’t forget now that I’ve left. That’s what makes Sundance great — the familiar and the new in one fest: Sam Rockwell & Jason DaSilva, Rooney Mara & Julia Garner, Julie Delpy & Amy Seimetz. They share the stage in Park City and remind us why we love film in the first place. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

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