Sundance is sometimes thrilling, but it can also be an ordeal. Especially when the films are good, but not great. And even more so if you arrive with limited tickets, and are left to the tender mercies of the Wait List lines (which, given Sundance’s idiosyncratic approach to Wait Lists, requires standing on each one twice, 2-3 hours before a screening and then again half an hour in advance–it makes for a lot of lines). So there are some notable omissions below: major acquisitions like The Surrogate, Arbitrage, Safety Not Guaranteed and Black Rock were just impossible to see. However, the 22 capsule reviews below give a fair idea of what the festival was like.
One other note: the US distributors listed below are accurate as of the time of writing, but no doubt there will be more acquisitions over time: it’s hard to imagine that commercial comedies like Bachelorette or The First Time, and awards hopefuls like Smashed, won’t eventually be released.
All that being said: here, more or less in order of preference, was one man’s Sundance 2012:
LIBERAL ARTS (IFC): Josh Radnor, star of How I Met Your Mother, shows signs of potentially becoming a major filmmaker with this beautifully realized, intelligent and even graceful comedy-drama. To say it’s about the relationship between a 35-year old academic administrator (Radnor) and a 19-year old college student (the again-remarkable Elisabeth Olsen) is to minimize the scope of Radnor’s ambitions and achievements–it’s really a film about growing up, at any age. Full Review Here.
FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL… (Focus): Jamie Travis’s comedy is smaller in scope and budget than Bridesmaids, but more subversive and just maybe flat-out funner. Two women (Ari Graynor and Lauren Anne Miller, also co-writer of the hilarious script with Katie Anne Naylon) who can barely stand each other find themselves running a phone-sex business together, leading to hysterical laughs and, incredibly enough, some genuinely earned sentiment. The last reel is irresistible. Full Review Here.
COMPLIANCE (Magnolia): The most unsettling drama of the festival, a true-life story about the impulse to obey authority no matter what. Director/Screenwriter Craig Zobel guides a letter-perfect cast (headed by Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy and Bill Camp) methodically down a path that leads to a horror that’s more shocking for being so banal. Full Review Here.
CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER (Sony Classics): Rashida Jones’ and Will McCormack’s script tells the awkward, funny and sad story of a relationship that refuses to admit it’s over. Under Lee Toland Krieger’s direction, Jones and Andy Samberg (yes, Andy Samberg) give sensitive performances that are as effectively serious as they are comic. Full Review Here.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (Fox Searchlight): The Festival’s Dramatic Jury Grand Prize Winner is a story about life in the poverty-stricken Louisiana bayou, rhapsodically visualized by director Benh Zeitlin, and with brilliant music and sound design to match. It’s gorgeous and completely unlike any other film at Sundance, but it’s also for people who thought the trouble with The Tree Of Life was that it was too tightly plotted. Full Review Here.
SAVE THE DATE (No Distrib): More serio-comic romance about break-ups and new romances, this one a little more on the indie nose. Michael Mohan’s film (written with playwright Egan Reich and graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown, whose drawings inspired the script) leaves itself open to charges of conscious hipsterism, but its hugely appealing cast, headed by Lizzy Caplan (in what deserves to be a breakout performance) and Alison Brie as sisters, helps keep things grounded. Full Review Here.
SMASHED (No Distrib): Days of Wine and Roses for the 21st-century, with a spectacular Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the spouse who decides to get sober, and Aaron Paul as her husband who doesn’t. The script by James Ponsoldt (who also directed) and Susan Burke dares to be funny about all this (and with a cast that includes Nick Offerman, Megan Mullaly and Octavia Spencer, there isn’t a laugh left on the table), but it also accommodates heartbreak, searing arguments and the ambivalence of the newly sober. Full Review Here.
THE FIRST TIME (No Distrib): Can a movie be too lovable for its own good? Writer/Director Jonathan Kasdan is so fond of his teen leads (Britt Robertson and Dylan O’Brien) that he barely gives their romance any challenges to overcome–they’re just endlessly charming, articulate and cute, and while that’s diverting, it’s also a little thin. Full Review Here.
ROOM 237 (No Distrib): Either the prospect of a straight-faced 104-minute study of obsessive theories concerning Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining thrills you, or it doesn’t. As a Kubrick devotee, count me among the (probably limited) group that couldn’t wait. In any case, given that the entire movie is composed of footage director Rodney Ascher considers “fair use,” the film may never be seen in its current form outside festival venues. Full review Here.
BACHELORETTE (No Distrib): Leslye Headland’s movie writing/directing debut, based (although apparently rather loosely) on her own play, ends up being far more conventional and less edgy than it starts out to be, as its 3 “heroines” (Lizzy Caplan again, this time with Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher) are forced to learn Life Lessons and Become Better People in the final reels. Until that point, though, there are plenty of dirty, socially unacceptable laughs to be found. Full Review Here.
SHADOW DANCER (ATO): James Marsh’s low-key, complicated thriller (adapted by Tom Brady from his own novel) works the LeCarre side of the spy street, with morally ambiguous characters and no end of betrayals. Andrea Riseborough is the IRA member forced to turn informer by MI6′s Clive Owen in a Belfast where no one on either side can be trusted. The fact that everyone is hiding something means that we don’t get to know any of the characters particularly well, but the film is very effectively put together. Full Review Here.
2 DAYS IN NEW YORK (Magnolia): Julie Delpy’s sequel to her own 2 Days In Paris is more sit-commy than its predecessor, but a lot of fun. Her character’s eccentric family (including Delpy’s own father playing her dad) again occupies center stage, this time visiting her in NY rather than being visited. The movie’s most pleasant surprise is Chris Rock as Delpy’s new boyfriend, more assured and relaxed than he’s ever been on the big screen before. Full Review Here.
WISH YOU WERE HERE (Entertainment One): Two Australian couples go on a vacation to Cambodia, but only 3 people come back. Kieren Darcy-Smith’s drama (co-written with Felicity Price, who also plays one of the leads) isn’t really a thriller so much as a story about the damage caused by secrets hidden and revealed. Price, along with Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer (in a much more intense role than any of her Hollywood eye-candy parts) are excellent. Full Review Here.
MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (Participant/AFFRM): The basic story of Ava DuVernay’s film could have been the stuff of a TV movie: a young mother (Emayatzy Corinealdi) waits out her husband (Omari Hardwick)’s prison term; as she finds out more about him, she comes to question the limits of her own loyalty. As written and directed by DuVernay, however, and performed by Corinealdi, Middle of Nowhere has a dignity and seriousness that sets it apart. At times it can feel stolid, but it consistently recognizes the humanity of its characters. Full Review Here.
OSLO AUGUST 31 (No Distrib): A loose Norwegian remake by Joachim Trier (co-written with Eskil Vogt) of Louis Malle’s The Fire Within, about a drug addict in recovery (Anders Danielsen Lie) having his first day back in the real world so he can interview for a job. Extremely well performed and filmed, but unrelievedly grim to the very end, with insights overwhelmed by an aestheticized embrace of self-destruction.
HELLO I MUST BE GOING (No Distrib): Todd Louiso’s film, written by Sarah Koskoff, is unintentionally the less interesting version of Liberal Arts: a narrowly-focused story about a depressed (divorced, out-of-work) 35-year old (Melanie Lynskey, very good) who begins a romance with a 19-year old (Christopher Abbott) that sparks her back to life. Mild, populated by dysfunctional family tropes, and lacking in ambition. Full Review Here.
FILLY BROWN (No Distrib): The familiar Sundance subgenre of a low-income young woman’s struggle to improve her life. Youssef Delara (who also wrote the script) and Michael D. Olmos directed this somewhat ham-handed story about an aspiring rapper (the terrific Gina Rodriguez) and her interactions with her jailed mother, dependable father, and some music industry pros who–spoiler alert!–aren’t all that trustworthy. Full Review Here.
V/H/S (Magnolia): Gimmick (horror anthology) piled upon gimmick (“found footage”), with different indie-terror directors behind the camera for each of the 6 segments. There’s some inventiveness in the ways the footage is justified (Skype, eyeglasses with a spy camera built in), a dollop of memorable gore and a few cheap thrills, but before too long, a serious law of diminishing returns kicks in. Full Review Here.
RED LIGHTS (Millenium): Rodrigo Cortes’s supernatural thriller is classy and fun for a while, with Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy as scientists who debunk false mediums and Robert DeNiro as the one they can’t figure out (and Elisabeth Olsen among those in support). Unfortunately, the second half becomes increasingly dumb, and the ending is awful, both illogical and a cheap trick. Full Review Here.
LAY THE FAVORITE (Weinstein): Stephen Frears’s comedy-drama about big-time gambling, from a script by D.V. DeVincentis, sounds on paper like it should have everything going for it, from well-regarded autobiographical source material and an experienced, skilled director to a cast that includes Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn and Laura Prepon. And yet it’s more proof that sure things rarely are: clumsy, uninspired, rife with miscasting and not even smart about its own subject matter. Full Review Here.
THE PACT (IFC): Nicholas McCarthy’s feature writing/directing debut is mostly a routine Boo! low-budget haunted house movie, but it has one neat twist about an hour in, and a few minutes of genuine suspense after that. It’s not quite enough to make the picture worthwhile–especially because after those promising minutes, the movie winds things up with a cheap-shock coda–but Caity Lotz as the kick-ass heroine has real charisma. Full Review Here.
GOATS (No Distrib): Every festival seems to have at least one prominent loser, and this year it was Christopher Neil’s directing debut, adapted by Mark Jude Poirier from his own novel. Whatever appeal that novel may have had is lost on screen, buried in cliches about prep school and narcissistic New Age mothers, not to mention self-conscious eccentricity involving, well, goats. Even a cast that includes David Duchovny, Justin Kirk and Ty Burrell can’t help, and a mark of the movie’s failure is that it’s one of the rare times you’ll ever see the phrase “a bad performance by Vera Farmiga” (as the mother) used with sad accuracy. Full Review Here.
And full versions of all SHOWBUZZDAILY’S Sundance reviews are Here.