January 28th, 2014. This year's Sundance Film festival didn't have any breakouts à la past buzz hits Beasts of Southern Wild, Garden State, and Precious, but In a festival without THE FILM, critics, buyers, agents and distributors were able to witness brilliant films without the extreme hype festivals in recent years have become associated with. My top ten films of Sundance 2014 were a mixed bag of sex, science, and the spirit of rock and roll.
WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD
Gregg Araki's cult of personality is thrown into mature spincycle in this mysterious drama that most closely sits next to Mysterious Skin in the Araki oeuvre. Rising star Shailene Woodley plays Kat Conner, a teenager whose parents (Christopher Meloni and Eva Green) are in a loveless dysfunctional marriage until the day her mother vanishes without a trace, leaving her in the dark just as Kat's own identity and sexuality begin to blossom. Eva Green tears up the screen in every scene she's featured in a performance that recalls Joan Crawford's wire hangers bit. The ensemble cast is rounded out by her best friends (Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato), her hunky loser boyfriend next door (Shiloh Fernandez), the cop investigating her mother's disappearance (Thomas Jane) and therapist Angela Bassett. Araki's films can be best understood in the filter of the coming of age genre and this film shares with its predecessors his love of camp, sex, nudity, dirty talk and an incredible new wave synth pop soundtrack of favorites from the The Cure, Tears for Fears, and Depeche Mode. The music adds to the experiential waking nightmare feel of the film through Woodley's eyes, in this heartbreak beat of a film that should satisfy both Araki believers and nonbelievers.
GOD HELP THE GIRL
Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch's film adaptation of his 2009 project God Help The Girl began as an album of thematically linked material featuring sourced female vocalists. Murdoch's whimsy kitchen sink musical tales reference an innocent time of outcasts, mixtapes, and vintage stores, and if you're a fan of Murdoch's quirky Glasgow narratives, you can't help but fall for it. Opening in a hospital, we meet depressed anorexic teenager Eve (the charming Emily Browning) who escapes from her surroundings and heads to the city's light-up music venue where she encounters nerdy but opinionated guitarist James, (Olly Alexander). Together with his music student, Cassie (Hannah Murray), they form a band and bond over their favorite music in the dreamy settings of the city's parks and canals. The pure pop delight of the numbers would be enough to play as an extended music video, but the charming performances of all the leads, especially Browning, and the simple but powerful message of music's ability to transcend ordinary life leads to magical results and guarantees this rite of passage film a place in the cult classic canon.
Based on a short that screened in last year's festival, Damien Chazelle's second feature film is a triumph of all or nothing sacrifice about an ambitious young drummer (Miles Teller) and his abusive teacher (J.K Simmons). Set in a fictional NYC musical college that is #1 in the country, Andrew is an aspiring drummer determined to make it in the jazz industry at any cost and bravely faces off against his maniacal verging on satanic teacher Terrence Thatcher's less than nurturing teaching methods. Making jazz music and music school dangerous, the film plays like a horror version of Center Stage—Teller's drive for perfection leads to bloody hands and drum kits. Building to a thrilling finale, the film marks a new directorial voice to watch.
Former Twilight queen Kristen Stewart makes another convincing step away from the franchise that made her famous as Guantanamo Bay prison guard Amy Cole, who finds an unexpected connection with one of the detainees, Ali (Peyman Moaadi). Though the film implies they are locked up unjustly, it's more concerned with the characters relationships rather than taking a firm political stance. Through Peter Satler's direction, it also questions the prisons we place in our own minds, as both principal characters are confined and seeking connection. Stewart, delivers a performance that may be best to date, unflinching and heartfelt, and should remind audiences of the greatness that awaits in a career where she's consistently taken challenging and offbeat roles.
LISTEN UP PHILIP
Combining the literary eccentric misfit tics that populate a Wes Anderson film and the acerbic wit of Woody Allen's depiction of New York City, Alex Ross Perry's film provides Jason Schwartzman with the best role of his career since his Rushmore breakout. Rarely, have we seen such an unredeemable unlikable character on screen. In this dark comedy, Schwartzman's Philip is a characterization of the things we may think but don't ever dare to say aloud—in the first five minutes he rips into an ex girlfriend who was deemed unsupportive of his literary career and a colleague who never advanced his literary career (he's shown pulling away in a wheel chair). Upon release of his second novel, he experiences a downward spiral and meets an older successful writer that becomes his mentor (Jonathan Pryce). He takes the elder's offer up to write in his upstate country house, much to the dismay of his long suffering photographer girlfriend (Elizabeth Moss). The film shifts between the three central characters' perspectives while still being centered around Philip's story. A neurotic and narcissistic portrait that champions the film's anti-hero, the film works because it never quite loses the audience's empathy to his struggle to perfect his art and relationships.