Sundance Film Festival: Park City to Chicago

by Patrick McGavin Monday, February 25th, 2013 5:05pm Part of the At the Movies series

This year’s edition, which ran January 17-27, was a strong and distinctive one. Sundance is also, conveniently, the first major film festival of the calendar year, so it plays a large and exacting role in shaping the larger discourse. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild played last year on the first full day of the festival, and it immediate created a sensation.

This January marked my 22nd time covering the Sundance Film festival, the most important American film festival.

Every festival creates its own rhythm. Sundance, like Cannes, is as much state of mind as a physical setting. Playing in my own mind how independent American film culture and landscape has been altered by the rise of Sundance over these last two decades is fairly daunting.

This year’s edition, which ran January 17-27, was a strong and distinctive one. Sundance is also, conveniently, the first major film festival of the calendar year, so it plays a large and exacting role in shaping the larger discourse. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild played last year on the first full day of the festival, and it immediate created a sensation.

By contrast, the major discovery this year was Fruitvale, like Beasts a first feature by a regional unknown, in this case a marvelously assured young filmmaker named Ryan Coogler. Brilliantly acted and imbued with a rage about race, class and social inequality, Fruitvale tells the jolting the harrowing story of the final day in the life of Oscar Grant (beautifully played by the young actor Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old Bay Area man trying desperately to hold on to his dignity while acknowledging past mistakes and the need to do right by his girlfriend (the wonderful Melonie Diaz) and their magnetic young daughter.

Coogler’s great talent is for subverting expectation, coloring feeling and emotion in an unforced and natural manner that only intensifies and anguish and wanton loss of the movie’s tragic and powerful climax.

Every Sundance produces at least one major provocation, and this year’s had Chicago connections. Escape from Tomorrow is the first feature of Randy Moore, a North Shore native who grew up in Lake Bluff and studied film at Columbia College. In an act of political daring, he surreptitiously shot his film at Disney World, using small, mobile cameras to produce his searing and dark fantasia about a suburban Everyman who’s plunged down his own rabbit hole. The man (Roy Abramsohn), a somewhat nondescript married father of two beautiful young kids, awakes from his private nightmare to learn he has been fired from job.

Spending his final day of vacation, this idealized American representation of escape, wonder and thrill seeking is transformed through the black and white cinematography and sinister disorientation into a cautionary, soulless Mecca of cultural conformity, mind-numbing consumerism and lethargy. In a touch redolent of Vladimir Nabokov, the man is further unhinged by his deepening and criminal fixation on two lascivious French teenage girls.

Overnight, Escape from Tomorrow became the hottest ticket in town, the audacity of the filmmaking and its central conceits igniting all manner of wild speculation that Disney would seek legal injunctions to prevent the movie from ever being seen. I overheard one woman insist that Disney would buy the film and then suppress it.

Some journalists openly wondered if the film would ever been seen again. Tim Wu, a journalist who specializes in law and copyright issues, wrote in the New Yorker the film fell under the legal doctrine of “fair use,” and said Disney would have no legal recourse to ban the film. The movie’s overextended and not always as precise as necessary, but at its best it is incendiary and exhilarating.

Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, set in Greece, his rueful and blisteringly funny concluding piece to his extraordinary Before triptych, struck me as the Austin-based independent’s greatest film. The first piece, Before Sunrise, opened the festival in 1995. The middle entry, Before Sunset, came out in 2004. Linklater again collaborated very closely with the stars, Ethan Hawke, as the American novelist, and Julie Delpy, as his French lover.

Linklater’s observational, liquid style has never been so fluid and graceful, capturing in long takes and subtle camera movements the heartbreak, pain, disappointment and extreme melancholy experienced by the central couple. The humor is piercing and poignant as what passes between the two are the most generous though difficult, even intransigent, of feelings, attitudes and desire. I seriously doubt to see a better English-language film this year.

Sundance now pulses in many directions. Fittingly, my Sundance ended not in Park City but the Music Box Theatre, part of the satellite Sundance USA festival. Lynn Shelton’s dramatic competition title, Touchy Feely marks a sharp turn away from the sexual screwball activity of Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, exploring the complex family dynamics of Abby (Shelton regular Rosemarie DeWitt) and her brother, the wonderfully deadpan Josh Pais and his daughter, played by Ellen Page.

I interviewed Shelton during her time here. She called the movie her “Bergman film,” a necessarily interior, knotty film that was by nature meditative and searching. “In order to get those performances, I collaborated really closely with the actors to find the characters and fit them to the characters like a glove,” she said. “Because of that highly collaborative part, I was like a sociologist, an observer, an interloper. This film was inside of me and had to come out.

“Later, I asked [the actors] to put their own stamp on it. We got together and talked a lot on the phone and helped fill out the backstory. This film came from a different place and explored things I’d be yearning to explore, rather than just dialogue-driven narrative line.

“I want to get into people’s heads, and film is the best medium for doing that,” she said.

From Park City to Chicago, Sundance 2013 was ten days that shook the [movie] world.

Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago writer and film critic. His reviews, essays and film festival reports currently appear in Time Out Chicago, Boston Phoenix and Cineaste. He also maintains the film blog,

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