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.
NYMPHOMANIAC PT 1 (of 2)
Lars Von Trier's much anticipated controversial film was the not-so-surprise screening on the schedule. The film follows the sexual awakening of its central character Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Over a Rammstein-tracked credit sequence, she's found mysteriously injured in an alleyway by a kind stranger (Stellan Skarsgard) and after refusing an ambulance, she agrees to come up to his apartment for a cup of tea. Divided into ten chapters (five in each part), Joe, fireside-chat style, confesses to him a life of multiple sexual partners she's experienced without emotion or regret. Seen in flashback, the younger Joe (played by newcomer Stacy Martin) loses her virginity to an older boy with an untraceable accent and a moped (Shia LeBeouf). Her thirst for more anonymous sex elevates with a competitive game with her friend (Sophie Kennedy Clark) for the most partners on a train—the winner is rewarded a bag of sweets. Joe confesses she's a bad person, destructive to herself and others, but Skargard's authoritive voice seems to find meaning in her story beyond judgement. Sexual patterns and behavior are equated with fly-fishing and Fibonacci numbers. Yes, Von Trier is concerned with all of the sex that the title implies, but the film is also his most relatable and humorous to date. The most striking (and clothed) scene of the film features Uma Thurman as a scorned wife whose husband leaves her Joe, but it's played for laughs as the audience knows he's just one of many, in a long night of Joe's revolving bedroom doors. Part 1 breaks abruptly and perfectly. Anticipating the next darker installment, thusfar Von Trier has created another provocative epic of open wound performances, with more than just sex on the mind.
Mike Cahill's extraordinary second feature, I Origins is an intelligent and often challenging film that opens up conversations about faith, science, evolution, and reincarnation, but never strays too far from the depth of human emotions. Michael Pitt, convincingly plays young scientist, Ian Gray, pursuing a Ph.D in eye evolution, attempting to close the door on the possibility of any theories of intelligent design for the universe. In the film's first act, Pitt meets Karen (Brit Marling), a first year med student serving as his new lab assistant who helps develop his theories and Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a mysterious stranger he encounters at a Brooklyn loft party and falls for at first sight. Their relationship comes to an end after a freak accident, and then the film flashes forward 7 years later, where Ian is a successful scientist, married to Karen and about to give birth to their first child. The ideas only hinted at in the first half of the film play out in a series of plot twists that lead Gray to India and audiences to question further theories of interconnectedness and the human soul itself. A finale soundtracked to Radiohead's haunting "Motion Picture Soundtrack" brilliantly leaves audiences with questions that will only lead to repeat viewings.
Richard Linklater's 12 years-in-the-making masterpiece is a fascinating nearly three-hour film that feels as intimate as watching home videos—it's hard to believe it's not a documentary. What unfolds is something I can safely safe I've never seen on screen before and likely will never be attempted again achieving such honest results. The story follows Mason Jr. (breakout star Ella Coltrane) from the age of seven through high school graduation and his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and sister (played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei) as they experience parallel coming of age stories and rites of passage. Arquette, as a single mother in a dead end job, is struggling to just keep her family afloat and decides to move the family and go back to school, while their musician father has run off to Alaska to take some time to himself. As Mason grows into a long-haired, pot smoking teen, experimenting with earrings, nail polish, and photography, he's also subject to a string of alcoholic stepfathers, while his real father floats in and out of his life imparting philosophical wisdom, and later starts a new family of his own. The movie doesn't focus on the overly dramatic moments, instead choosing to relish in those small lingering beats of time where scenes are made up of long discussions, playing like a precursor to Linklater's Before Sunrise trilogy.
The queen of period pieces, Keira Knightly, delightfully comes down to present day in this arrested development coming of age film directed by Sundance favorite Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister's Sister, Touchy Feely). At 28, Megan (Knightley) feels stuck in her relationship with her longtime boyfriend (Mark Weber), the same friends circle since high school (led by Ellie Kemper), and a degree that she no longer wants to pursue. She meets a feisty but troubled teenager Annika (played by the always winning Chloe Moretz) in a parking lot asking her to buy some beers. Annika is struggling in school and at home with her divorce lawyer father (Sam Rockwell) and her long estranged mother (Gretchen Mol). Lying to her boyfriend about attending a week long improvement seminar, Knightley's character opts for a week off at her new younger friend's house to become immersed in her world, where she also develops a relationship with Annika's father. The movie's refreshing look at a time in one's life when you need to step out of yourself to gain it back, plays as a total crowd pleaser and a chance for Knightley to properly let her hair down.
Set against the backdrop of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn music scenes with original songs written by Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice, Kate Barker-Froyland's debut feature is an emo musical romance that festival goers compared to past circuit hit, Once. Franny, A Phd student (Anne Hathaway) is researching in Morocco, when her study is interrupted by a sudden tragedy—her talented brother (Ben Rosenfield) is hit by a car and in a coma. The siblings were estranged for months after a disagreement over her brother's decision to drop out of college to pursue his musical dream. Having ignored his attempts to reconnect by sending her the songs he had been singing in the subways of NYC, she's propelled into further guilt and stumbles upon his diary which she uses to help revive him through the things he loved, especially the music of indie rock singer James Forester (up-and-coming actor-musician Johnny Flynn). Forester's character released a record that became a sensation only to find himself without anything to write about for his followup. Predictable, yet believable through the genuine chemistry these actors have, these two characters come together and convincingly find a genuine connection in her pain. Anne Hathaway at her most subtle is turns the musical spotlight to Johnny Wright, whose voice has the power to melt hearts in this slight but moving film.