Sundance 2012: The Big Roundup

Ryland Aldrich, Festivals Editor

Ahhh, another snowy year at Sundance (particularly snowy this year) has come to a close. A lot of excellent films have been packed up in their canisters and sent to their new distributors. Even more will move along in the festival season, hoping to find a friendly home on some form of new-fangled download-to-your-alphanumeric-pager distro-strategy. But before these movies make it to screens of various sizes near you, I'd like to take you on a quick tour of all the titles I was able to catch this year. I've included my letter grade, a few words of what I thought, whether the film has yet to land distribution, and also my initial impression via my immediate tweet after seeing the film.

As you might notice, the films I saw at this year's festival included a whole lot of B grades. Frankly, the quality of films this go-around was a bit lower than in past years. There weren't a lot of bad films (I avoided both Lay the Favorite and Price Check after hearing rotten reports). It just seemed that filmmakers (or maybe the fest) was playing it a bit safe. While there are obvious exceptions (Compliance), no fewer than a dozen of the films I saw can be best summed up in one word: charming. I'll avoid too deep of an analysis on this trend as to the role of the economic downturn or the perception that distributors are avoiding challenging films. But it is safe to say that this trend led to a generally less risky batch of films -- and therefore a generally less rewarding crop. But there were certainly some gems to be found amongst the rhinestones. Now, here are my thoughts:

28 HOTEL ROOMS - Next - My Grade: B

28 HOTEL ROOMS is a mostly successful experiment; an interesting yet ultimately limited way to tell a love story. Messina great.
This story of a long term affair takes place over a number of years, exclusively in the hotel rooms that the affair goes down in. It's pretty indie, but it works, mostly on the strength of Chris Messina. No need to rush out and see it but it will probably do a decent turn on pay cable.

ABOUT THE PINK SKY - World Dramatic Competition - My Grade: B

Keiichi Kobayashi's moody B&W Japanese school girl drama ABOUT THE PINK SKY might be too small a story for many to really connect.
I wasn't particularly impressed by this somewhat mundane story that employs a heavy handed style to the detriment of its narrative.
My Review of ABOUT THE PINK SKY

AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY - US Docu Competition - My Grade: B

This doc chronicling the controversial career of Chinese activist/artist Ai Weiwei is a pretty by the book doc about an incredibly anti-establishment artist. It is well worth watching for anyone interested in modern art or Chinese politics - but there's no harm waiting to watch it at home (no theatrical plans yet, anyway).

THE AMBASSADOR - World Docu Competition - My Grade: B

THE AMBASSADOR is a fascinating look at corruption in Africa (shocker!) if you can stomach the "performance art" of Mads Brügger.
There is no doubt that it is pretty fascinating to see this white Danish dude work his way through the layers of corrupt African bureaucracy, but I couldn't help asking myself if he was doing it to make a political statement, or just to say, "hey look how stupid these people are."

ARBITRAGE - Premieres - My Grade: B+

ARBITRAGE is excellently written/directed/performed thriller about wealthy privilege. Might Gere be thinking about statues?
I really enjoyed this financial thriller that is far more thriller than it is financial. Instead of focusing on the details of the finance plot, Jarecki spends time making the story and characters interesting. The film sold to Lionsgate/Roadside for $3M.
My Review of ARBITRAGE

BACHELORETTE - Premieres - My Grade: B

BACHELORETTE is a wilder more hit/miss Bridesmaids. Isla Fischer is great. It's also the PARTY DOWN mini sequel. Casey+Henry4eva!
It's almost funny just how obviously this film is going after the Bridesmaids crowd. It mostly disappoints but there are some pretty funny moments, especially Isla Fisher's reee-diculously dumb character who rivals Inspector Clouseau in idiocy at times.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD - US Dramatic Competition - My Grade: A

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is the kind of remarkable film that rekindles your passion for independent cinema. Pure magic.
Without a doubt, my favorite film of the fest, this beautifully whimsical film is a must see when it comes to a theater near you from Fox Searchlight ($1M), likely sometime next fall.
My Review of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

BLACK ROCK - Midnight - My Grade: B-

Katie Aselton's survival-thriller follow-up to The Freebie needed a lot more comedy and another script pass. It did, however, sell to LD Entertainment for $1M+.
My Review of BLACK ROCK

CALIFORNIA SOLO - Premieres - My Grade: B

CALIFORNIA SOLO is a sweet but forgettable tale of an aging rocker dealing with all kinds of aging rocker problems.
Robert Carlyle plays an over-the-hill rocker with an immigration problem almost as bad as his drinking problem in this respectable little indie that won't likely make more than a ripple.

CELESTE & JESSE FOREVER - Premieres - My Grade: B+

CELESTE & JESSE FOREVER is a heartwarming contemporary romcom with plenty of laughs, well deserving of a strong distributor.
I rather liked this very commercial rom-com starring Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones that Sony Pictures Classic (odd choice?) bought for $2M. It should make some good late summer counter programming.

COMPLIACE - Next - My Grade: B

Feel like a survivor after COMPLIANCE. Extremely uncomfortable. I hated experience of watching it but am starting to respect it.
This was, without a doubt, the most controversial film of the festival. When all is said and done, Compliance will likely be the film that we remember from Sundance 2012 (along with Beasts and The Surrogate). It is the kind of extremely tough film that requires you to continually remind yourself, "this is a true story." That's simply the only excuse for the filmmaker to put the audience through such an ordeal. Magnolia has signed on for an undisclosed amount to bring it to screens of some sort in the next year or so.

THE END OF LOVE - US Dramatic Competition - My Grade: B

THE END OF LOVE may be the Mark Webber show, but it's his 2 year-old son who steals the spotlight. Yet another Sundance charmer.
The story here is all about Webber "directing" his son (or rather the scenes around his son) to tell a very competent and touching story - even if it feels a bit manufactured at times.

FILLY BROWN - US Dramatic Competition - My Grade: A

FILLY BROWN is exactly the hard hittin hip-hop drama I hoped. Gina Rodriguez straight kicks ass. Sundance must see!
I loved Youssef Delara and Michael Olmos's hard hitting hip hop story. Huge congrats to the guys. I seriously hope this one finds a good distributor soon.

THE FIRST TIME - US Dramatic Competition - My Grade: B

THE FIRST TIME is a very talky teen romance. While not always 100% sincere, in the end it works. It's, wait for it... charming.
The tweet says it all. There are a whole lot of scenes of teens sitting around talking about falling for each other - but ultimately the performances by Dylan O'Brien and Britt Robertson win us over.

FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL - Premieres - My Grade: B+

FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL is the smart & silly girl power raunch-com you've been waiting for. Perfect summer counter programming.
I had a lot of fun with this film about girls starting a phone sex business, mostly on the strength of stars Lauren Milller and Ari Graynor. Focus liked what they saw, buying worldwide rights to the film for $3M.

HELLO I MUST BE GOING - US Dramatic Competition - My Grade: B

HELLO I MUST BE GOING is an ultra charming comic romance, best in its comic moments. Great direction & Melanie Lynskey is a star.
Todd Louiso's awkward comedy is pretty funny but runs a bit too long in its more sincere moments. Melanie Lynskey does a fantastic job in a role that seems like it was written for her (it wasn't).

I AM NOT A HIPSTER - Next - My Grade: B

I don't have a lot to say about this heartfelt indie about a rocker who just isn't that likable as a protagonist. This might the film from Sundance 2012 that I forget first.

THE IMPOSTER - World Docu Competition - My Grade: B+

THE IMPOSTER is a truly stranger than fiction docu, ripe for remake. Wondering if the extreme stylization adds to the intrigue?
This is a fascinating docu that is super stylized and well worth tracking down if it ever makes it to a screen near you - more likely on demand than in a theater.

KID-THING - Next - My Grade: C+

The Zellner Bros' KID-THING has some wonderfully mundane humor but too much of the plot fails to resonate to ultimately recommend.
While those mundane moments of goat milking are fantastic, I just couldn't get on board with the central plot of a little girl riding around being a spoiled brat.

LIBERAL ARTS - Premieres - My Grade: B+

LIBERAL ARTS is an episodic but heartfelt film abt feeling adult. Radnor def has a gooey center but I'm starting to root for him.
LIBERAL ARTS perfs: Jenkins (duh) & Zac Effron (rly?) particularly great. Janney & Radnor solid. Real story is Lizze Olsen is the weak link.
Josh Radnor didn't exactly win me over with Happythankyoumoreplease. But his sophomore effort shows a lot of promise, mostly on the strength of its supporting performances (except, sadly, a pretty weak Lizzie Olsen). The film sold to IFC for just north of $1M.

NOBODY WALKS - US Dramatic Competition - My Grade: B

NOBODY WALKS is a small somewhat pessimistic view of love & relationships. Like the LA love but not a particularly memorable film.
Another Sundance indie that no one needs to rush out and see, Ry Russo-Young's John Krasinski/Olivia Thirlby/Rosemarie DeWitt drama is, unfortunately, not as good as that cast deserves. Magnolia saw something they liked, however, buying the film for mid to high six figures.

RED LIGHTS - Premieres - My Grade: C

If you accept a world where magicians are criminally persecuted for faking tricks, RED LIGHTS is still a mediocre genre thriller.
As if to confirm that Robert De Niro is allergic to decent films, Rodrigo Cortes's Buried follow-up was my least favorite film of the fest, mainly because it just feels like a failure of execution by Cortes. It seems like he just didn't understand what the writer was trying to do (the film is written by Rodrigo Cortes). Just to lock in my impression of the company, Millennium Entertainment bought the film for one of the highest totals of the fest: $4M.

ROBOT AND FRANK - Premieres - My Grade: B+

Yes, it's another "charming" Sundance film, but this Alfred P. Sloan winning near-future dementia dramedy is a great film because of tight writing and fantastic performances by Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard. Sony/Samuel Goldwyn picked up the film for $2M and change.

ROOM 237 - New Frontiers - My Grade: B+

ROOM 237 has some pretty incredible theories about THE SHINING. Some are wacko but film nerds will love it.
This isn't necessarily an expertly crafted docu, but the crazy theories professed by the Kubrick/The Shining scholars interviewed, make this one of the most entertaining films of the festival.

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED - US Dramatic Competition - My Grade: A-

Adored SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED! A heartfelt & hilarious love story w/ perfect amount of wackiness, awesome cast, & a great script.
This wacky little sci-fi-ish comedy was one of my top films this year. Both Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass are great, but the funniest part, for me, was Jake Johnson. This one is going to get a release from Film District after their $1M+ purchase.

SAVE THE DATE - US Dramatic Competition - My Grade: C+

Not even a the stellar cast of Lizzy Caplan, Allison Brie, Martin Starr, and Mark Webber could elevate this rom-com that just never gets the audience involved with any of its characters.

SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS - Midnight - My Grade: A-

LCD Soundsystem's SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS is a near perfect concert doc w/ many cool narrative elements & a slammin performance.
I loved both the rocking performances and the innovative storytelling and editing in my favorite docu of the fest. Check out the review (also my favorite of the fest).
My Review of SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS

THE SURROGATE - US Dramatic Competition - My Grade: B+

THE SURROGATE is certainly a touching tale. Hawkes (& Hunt) are incredible, but don't think I'm quite ther on Best Pic Oscar buzz.
Fox Searchlight took home the biggest sale of the fest with this $6M buy. Hawkes seems pretty damned likely to see awards buzz but I just don't feel the story goes on enough of a journey to quite be considered a home run. There wasn't a ton of buzz, but William H. Macy deserves some serious kudos as well.

UNDER AFRICAN SKIES - Docu Premieres - My Grade: B

Joe Berlinger's Paul Simon Graceland doc UNDER AFRICAN SKIES is an interesting & music-filled chronicle of the album's birth.
Joe Berlinger's journey with Paul Simon through the history of his album Graceland is a great history lesson for music fans but fails to really get on top of the racial issues it tries a bit too hard to tackle.

V/H/S - Midnight - My Grade: B+

V/H/S is a bunch of very good filmmakers having fun with a particular medium. Even w/o coordination, interesting themes emerge.
More than anything, the filmmakers involved with this found footage anthology subscribe to my favorite precept of horror filmmaking: Make it Fun! Magnolia/Magnet agreed, picking up the film for $1M+. This couldn't be a better match.
My Review of V/H/S

WISH YOU WERE HERE - World Dramatic Competition - My Grade: B

WISH YOU WERE HERE is a tense relationship drama w/ a crime plot backdrop. Fantastic performances although a few plot shortcuts.
There are some unfortunate problems with Kieran Darcy-Smith's drama - but they're not because of the performances by Joel Edgerton, Felicity Price, or Teresa Palmer. Entertainment One picked up the film for an undisclosed sum.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS - Spotlight - My Grade: B

True, Andrea Arnold's WUTHERING HEIGHTS is no FISH TANK, but still fair bit to like, in particular the emotionally charged editing
I finally got a chance to see Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank follow-up. It's not particularly entertaining and it's hard to like the characters, but it's an interesting adaptation of a book I have no interest in reading.

YOUR SISTER'S SISTER - Spotlight - My Grade: A-

Great performances & a smile-inducing story make Lynn Shelton's YOUR SISTER'S SISTER is a wonderfully worthy follow up to Humpday.
Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie De Witt give excellent and fun performances in this somewhat stage play-esque story with plenty of laughs and plenty of heart. IFC has been on top of this one since TIFF.

Some of the notable films I didn't catch were Antonio Campos's mostly praised thriller SIMON KILLER which sold to IFC, James Ponsoldt's Mary Elizabeth Winstead starring sober-up drama SMASHED, Eugene Jarecki's War On Drugs Grand Prize Doc winning THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, and Mike Birbiglia's Best of Next winning SLEEPWALK WITH ME.

A final word of mention for the two Sundance 2012 films I came in having seen The Raid, and Oslo, August 31st. Both films are excellent. Both films were in my Top 10. Both films deserve an A. Go see 'em.

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