Final Days, Park City, UT: While the dust has officially settled on Sundance 2015, due to a jam-packed last couple of days capped off with a lengthy road trip home, I didn’t get a chance to write about the last few days of the festival, where I managed to see 5 of the festival’s biggest movies. Here are some thoughts on titles that without a doubt will be coming up again as they reach a US release.
Racing Extinction (US)
Director: Louie Psihoyos
Writer: Mark Monroe
Stars: Elon Musk
My final documentary comes from high profile filmmaker Louis Psihoyos, director of Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. Prior to the film’s screening, he proudly announced that since his last documentary, dolphin hunting has decreased by nearly 2/3rds, tangible evidence at the power of cinema. In his follow-up documentary, Racing Extinction, Louis takes a larger scope, discussing the endangerment and mass murder of multiple animal species all across the world. One, in particular, is the manta ray, which has become a delicacy in China and as a result, they are being slaughtered. Louis and his team infiltrate an illegal seller of these meats that are extremely expensive but remain a commodity because they are believed to cure cancer and other myths that serve as excuses for mass hunting. The reason the film excels is because it takes the micro-sized issues such as these and shows why they matter on a global scale. The extinction of species will have a drastic impact on the environment worldwide and is a metaphor for the current human behavior that is so damaging. The filmmakers do an incredible job of showing why this is happening and that, although this is by no means a quick fix, this is something we all must get involved with.
I am an environmentalist and a vegetarian so I fit squarely into the range of people who are most likely to see the film. But I recommend it to any viewers because this is not a film meant to tell you how grim the future is, it is one about showing how with the right steps we can make a difference in the world, and every single human being can help make a difference. I am inspired by this film and look forward to promoting it as the year goes on. In short, it’s something that everyone should see.
Director: John Crowley
Writer: Nick Hornby
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Zegen
Brooklyn was one of the premieres that generated the most hype over the course of the festival, despite a synopsis that appears rather pedestrian. Ellis Lacey, an Irish girl (played by a mature Saoirse Ronan) moves across the Atlantic to Brooklyn, New York in hopes of a better life in the 1950’s. The film is a chronicle of the challenges of leaving family and comfort behind with the lofty promise of an education and a career. Over the film’s runtime, we see Ellis go from a girl who can barely carry on a conversation to a full-fledged woman. A major part of this transformation is due to the romantic plot of the film. Through meeting Tony (Emory Cohen), Ellis finds herself able to adjust to being so far away from her family, and finally find her voice.
This is a sweeping romance in the old fashioned form, akin to something that would’ve been released in a different era of cinema. It doesn’t feel dated in its execution at all, but it feels like the type of film that seldom gets made today. In this regard, it is oddly refreshing to see a conventional drama unfold. For anyone who has ever traveled far from their family or been in a long distance relationship, this slow-burning drama will strike a personal chord. Fox Searchlight will be releasing the film later this year, and it seems destined to be a film that connects with all kinds of audiences.
*Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (US)
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Writer: Jesse Andrews
Stars: Jon Bernthal, Nick Offerman, Olivia Cooke
On the final night of the festival, I had a ticket to the 9:45pm screening of the “Grand Jury Prize Winner” and when I got out of a film playing before it at 8:45pm, there was still no word on who the winner was. Finally, 15 minutes before the film was set to begin, thanks to Twitter, we in line were informed that the festival’s winner and the film playing that night would be the much anticipated Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Through the entire festival, I had heard talk about how exceptional of a film it was, and now was my chance to see it for myself.
I was not disappointed. From the title you can get some sense of what you’re getting into, but Earl is a drama and a comedy about a senior in high school whose mother forces him to befriend the girl in his class who has leukemia. This is not meant to be either extreme of light-hearted or heavy-handed. Like any great film, it strikes a beautiful balance right in between.
The reason I found the film so easy to connect to all viewers is because all of the cinematic elements on this project seem to come together in a most harmonious fashion. No film element is left underutilized. We are told the story visually through the great camera work and the exceptional production design. However, these are just accentuations of what is an incredible story, a roller coaster of humor and sincerely touching moments. After seeing the film, it was so clear why this is a winner. It just delivers across the board everything you could ask for in a movie and feels so refreshing despite being a rather tried genre. As an added bonus, the film has a countless number of homages and references to classic cinema, so is especially fun for avid film-goers. Of all the films I saw at Sundance, I look forward the most to revisiting this gem: it represents exactly the type of quality films that find a path to success through the festival.
*Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Winner, Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic Winner
*Slow West (UK/NZ)
Director: John Maclean
Writer: John Maclean
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Rory McCann
On the final Sunday of the festival, they screen the winners of various categories, and I made sure to catch Slow West, the New Zealand film that won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Dramatic. Ironically, the film is set in the United States during the classic Western era, and features a non-American but recognizable cast including Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Distributor A24 has picked the film up for some sort of release this year.
The film follows a 16-year-old boy who meets a drifter named Silas (Fassbender) on his journey across the West to catch up with the girl he loves. Over the course of the film we learn more about why his love moved out here and why he is following her. Like any Western, there are bandits and villains scattered throughout the perilous journey, and he will need all the help he can get from Silas in order to reach his destination. The film gets off to a slow pace at first, but before too long develops into an intense action adventure where there is no way to predict what will happen next. There are some brilliant moments of set-up and payoff here that are so seamless you don’t realize that they play into the story until after it has passed. It does a fantastic job of keeping with the conventional Western tropes but also feeling fresh and like something we haven’t seen before. Because the film is a brief 84 minutes, it’s also difficult to find too many faults once the story really takes off. For any fans of the Western, this film can be added to the catalog of modern Westerns that are ensuring the genre and the spirit of the West lives on.
*World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic Winner
Director: Marielle Heller
Writer: Marielle Heller
Stars: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig
My final film of the festival before embarking on a 10-hour journey home was one I was rather thankful to see. Just a few days earlier, I had a chance meeting with the film’s director, Marielle Heller, and had a rare opportunity to speak with her about the industry and how she got to where she is. The film is a testament to the independent spirit, telling a story that could never have been made in a conventional studio. The story is about 16-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley), whose coming-of-age story becomes radically different than the norm when she starts sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend. As can be inferred, despite the gloss of coming-of-age comedy, this is at times a difficult film to watch with a subject matter that’s difficult to digest. However, at its core it is a universal story about learning what matters and how to healthily achieve confidence in yourself. As pointed out to me by a fellow festival-goer, it’s a rare teenage coming-of-age story that is told from the female perspective, both in its protagonist and in the writer/director. The result is another film that feels refreshing and something worth sharing with the general public. Interestingly, the film actually won the award for Cinematography, and knowing that going in gave me a special appreciation for the craft of the film, especially in the choices of lighting. The film is a 1970’s period piece which allows for a more immersive experience and helps explain the rather unconventional relationship that develops between Minnie and her mother’s boyfriend. Overall, this represents a great voice in film and shows us a story that wouldn’t normally be seen as universal, but is done in a way that we all can relate to, and the final message of the film is something that everyone should hear when they are going through the doldrums of teenage years.
*U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Excellence in Cinematography
And with that, so ended my experience as a volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival. In total, I managed 25 films and saw a film at every single venue of the festival. For anyone who is a lover of independent cinema, Sundance is a true haven and a place to surround yourself with like-minded people. I’ll also add that part of what makes it both special and daunting is that no two experiences are alike and that everyone who comes here will see a different set of movies and have a different experience. I’ve been very happy to share mine here at CINEMACY, and down the road hope to find myself at the festival again!