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Sundance: 14 Films We Saw at the 2013 Film Festival

This past week, I traveled to Utah to cover the Sundance Film Festival for Moviefone. This was my first trip to the annual event, and for the most part, things went very well. Granted, I did make one big mistake in not staying long enough, which means I missed several buzzed-about films, including “Lovelace,” “A.C.O.D.” “Fruitvale” and “Escape From Tomorrow.”

Nevertheless, I still got to see 14 movies in my four-and-a-half days in Park City. Most of them were great, others … not so much. Below, I wrote a few words on each.

dick cheney

“The World According to Dick Cheney”
Pulling off a neutral account of one of the most polarizing figures in American history is not an easy task, but director R. J. Cutler (“The September Issue”) does it magnificently. Starting with Cheney’s early beginnings, as a college dropout with two DUIs, to his falling out with President George W. Bush, Cutler paints a complicated portrait of a complicated man. This film may not change your views of the former Vice President, but it will at least give you some context of who he is as a person and the decisions he makes.

dayani cristal

“Who Is Dayani Cristal?”
A hybrid documentary-drama, this film follows the path of “Dayani Cristal,” a Honduras native found dead in the Arizona desert (because officials were not able to identify him, he is given the pseudonym Dayani Cristal, which comes from a name tattooed across his chest). Interspersed with scenes of actor Gael Garcia Bernal reconstructing the steps of “Cristal,” this film is both an exploration of the human condition and a commentary on America’s immigration policy. Despite its high emotions, the message here becomes a bit muddled, especially when you take into account the scenes with Bernal. It’s an interesting concept, but in the end, the film feels like it’s two movies trying to be one.


crystal fairy

“Crystal Fairy”
Michael Cera plays a jerk in this Chilean flick about life, mysticism and sex. As Jamie, Cera plans a trip with his friend Champa and his younger brothers to the northern part of Chile, where they plan on taking mescaline on the beach. However, as I mentioned in my longer piece about the film, this shouldn’t be labeled the Michael-Cera-takes-drugs movie — there is way more below the surface here to just write it off as that. Instead, this is a film about self-discovery, one that doesn’t involve a typical structure or storyline. It’s also about deception, as the group’s journey eventually leads the two main characters to reveal something about themselves they never thought possible.


martin bonner

“This Is Martin Bonner”
The what-happens-when-you-grow-old theme has been done to death in movies, and it doesn’t get much of a refresher here. In “This is Martin Bonner,” director Chad Hartigan explores the life of Paul Eenhoorn, a fifty-something who’s just relocated to Reno, leaving behind his grown children. Yet, despite its title, this film isn’t really about Martin Bonner. Instead, the focus seems to be on an ex-con, who’s looking to work his way back into society after a lengthy stint in prison. While he and Martin end up in an unlikely friendship, it translates to a rather boring story on screen. That said, there is one bright spot in Eenhoorn, who plays the light-hearted Bonner to perfection.


mud movie

Coming off a 2012 which saw him in four (!) critically acclaimed roles, Matthew McConaughey returns with “Mud.” The film features the oft-shirtless actor (spoiler: he’s shirtless in this movie, too) as a fugitive who recruits two young boys to help him escape from the law and run away with the girl of his dreams. This was an enjoyable movie, with a Mark Twain-esque storyline that takes place on the Mississippi River. However, while McConaughey continues to shine outside his normal rom-com comfort range, the true standout in this film is 16-year-old lead Tye Sheridan. “Mud” is only the second film for the young actor, who first held his own alongside Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in 2011’s “The Tree of Life.” Here, he continues this streak by successfully going toe-to-toe with McConaughey. Clearly, Sheridan is someone to keep an eye on.


don jon

“Don Jon’s Addiction”
Imagine Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino for just a second. OK, now paste Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s head on the “Jersey Shore” star’s body. And now you have a rough estimate of the character JGL plays in his directorial debut. As Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt not only pulls off the role of a porn-addicted bro, he also shows us the ugly side of how human beings pursue relationships. Between clips of online pornography, Jon celebrates his love (aka addiction) of masturbating to triple-x footage — at least at first. He soon realizes that this habbit has become a burden on his actual sex life. Though “Don Jon’s Addiction” will likely cause some to cringe at its head-first take into sexuality, Gordon-Levitt should be commended for making a film that actually addresses these issues in the first place. (Bonus: The movie also features Scarlett Johansson’s most entertaining role ever.)



“Sound City”
I normally don’t like to be blasted out of my seat at 8:30 in the morning, but for Dave Grohl’s new documentary, I made an exception. In “Sound City,” the Foo Fighter frontman documents the story behind one of the best studios ever. Despite being a bit of a dump, Sound City in Los Angeles ended up recording dozens of unbelievable albums, including Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush” (the studio closed in 2011). In addition to interviewing more than 40 musicians for the film, Grohl also explores the digital vs. analog debate, and why Sound City was so integral to the latter’s success. The only downside to this film is the last 30 minutes, which play more like a commercial for Dave Grohl’s new Sound City album then part of the full documentary.


kill your darlings

“Kill Your Darlings”
As far as beatnik-era movies go, this one is a bit of a mess (which is unfortunate, considering the story: three iconic writers — Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg — in college, who end up involved in a murder that changes their lives forever). However, this film should still be seen, namely for its strong performances. Anchored by Daniel Radcliffe as poet Allen Ginsberg, the former Boy Who Lived is magnificent as the the soon-to-be ‘60s icon, pulling off a convincing American accent, taking drugs and participating in a gay sex scene. Not to be outdone, Ben Foster is terrific too, as a young William S. Burroughs (he not only sounds like the author, he looks like him).



“A History of the Eagles, Part One”
Ignore everything you heard from “The Dude” Lebowski — The Eagles are great. This documentary, directed by Alison Ellwood, follows the rise of the band, from Glen Frey and Don Henley’s start with Linda Ronstat, to breaking off into their own group, to their messy breakup in 1980 (“Part Two,” which will premiere on Showtime this year, tells the second-half of the Eagles story, when they reunited in 1994). While you may not be a fan of the ‘70s rock icons, you will at least appreciate Ellwood’s attention to detail, along with the band’s willingness to show both the good and downright ugly side of their group’s history.


look of love

“The Look of Love”
Can anyone say watered-down “Boogie Nights”? Based on the life of ‘70s smut magnate Paul Raymond, this film somehow manages to bore the heck out of you by going over the same sex-drugs-downfall narrative over and over and over again. Poor Steve Coogan — who turns in a very convincing dramatic performance as Raymond — doesn’t have much to work with from the script. Perhaps in the hands of another filmmaker, this story could have shined. Instead, you get a movie that’s all style and no substance. But, hey, at least the soundtrack is awesome.


aint them bodies saints

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”
Honestly, it took me a few days after first seeing this film to go from liking “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” to loving it. That’s because “Saints” is a slow burn — a meditative look at the life of an outlaw couple, separated after one takes the fall for injuring a police officer. A strong story, gorgeous cinematography and a unique score filled with handclaps and haunting strings makes “Saints” a must-see. Set in Texas, director David Lowery — along with a talented cast that includes Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Ben Foster — has done something many of today’s directors are unable to pull off: a powerful and timeless piece of cinema.


before midnight

“Before Midnight”
As far as finales go, this one was damn-near perfect. In the final film in Richard Linklater’s “Before” series, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy once again return as Jessie and Celine, the couple that met on a train to Vienna 17 years ago. Here, we catch up with the two eight years since their last meeting and … well, I’d rather not spoil the plot for those who don’t want to know. In fact, my own piece of advice would be to avoid as much press on this movie — trailer included — as possible and go in with a clear conscience. It will make the reveal of what the duo are doing now that much better.



Korean Park Chan-Wook is a cinematic genius, known for his highly stylized films and brutal depiction of violence. In “Stoker,” Chan-Wook takes on his first American project: a story about a teen (Mia Wasikowska) who loses her dad in a car accident and soon finds her mysterious uncle living with her and her mother (Nicole Kidman). Though the movie’s big reveal isn’t all that surprising, it’s still fun to watch it all unfold, with enough subtext to warrant a second viewing. The film is a chilly story of murder and deceit, and the director captures it all by channeling Hitchcock.


upstream color

“Upstream Color”
From Shane Carruth, the writer/director/star behind the 2004 indie favorite “Primer,” comes a story about a woman who’s drugged by a small-time thief. However, she soon gets dragged into a larger force that connects the world we live in. Where Carruth’s first film, “Primer,” featured a (comparatively) straightforward narrative; “Upstream Color” dumps it entirely for a movie that is striking, beautiful and very hard to follow. I only saw this movie once, and, after five days of watching films and not sleeping much (you don’t get a lot of rest at these festivals), I had a difficult time unwrapping the mysteries laid on screen. That said, if you are into dreamy experimental flicks, you should absolutely check it out.

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