In my five years of attending the Sundance Film Festival, I’ve grown accustomed to how nice everyone is, from the volunteers—many of whom fly in from out of state expecting no more compensation than a few free movies—to the bartenders and cab drivers, a lot of whom are ski bums who vacationed in Park City years ago and fell in love with the slopes. But this year, I started noticing a few cracks in the facade, such as a waitress grumbling to a regular about the influx of demanding, unappreciative customers during Sundance, and a bus driver snapping at passengers who’d missed their stop. Even on my way into town, the shuttle-driver—a ski enthusiast in his sixties—went on a long rant about how for a whole week, he’d be ferrying around entitled jerks who’d be missing out on some of the best snow of the season. Later, when I was the only passenger left, I asked him how he landed in Utah, and whether he ever found time to check out any of the Sundance movies. He answered that he was born in Utah, the grandson of a Buffalo Soldier, and that he was partial to documentaries like Gasland and The Tillman Story, because he served in Vietnam, and he knows that the government and the billionaires are conspiring to screw us all.
That shuttle driver is probably going to love Sundance’s opening film this year, The Queen Of Versailles. Documentarian Lauren Greenfield started out intending to film the mega-wealthy David and Jackie Siegel as the Orlando couple built the biggest house in the United States. But then the recession hit, devastating David Siegel’s timeshare business, and Greenfield’s project became about whether a family accustomed to excess could learn to scale back. The Queen Of Versailles is also about the Siegels’ creeping sense that they’re reaping what they sowed: he for bankrolling Republican candidates who facilitated the financial crisis, and she for agreeing to be another in a line of David Siegel’s trophy wives, knowing full well that she’d have an expiration date. Whatever the origins of The Queen Of Versailles—and whether it’s all on the up-and-up, factually—this is a sad, funny film, full of the wonder of opulence and the shock of decay. It confirms what a lot of people already feel in their bones about what a culture of unexamined privilege has wrought.
The Queen Of Versailles set the tone for a Sundance slate unusually concerned with matters of class and influence. Sometimes these films were directly about the wealthy and their role in our recently shaky economy—as with The Queen Of Versailles, and as with Nicholas Jarecki’s white-collar thriller Arbitrage, starring Richard Gere as a venture capitalist scrambling to cover up catastrophic mistakes in his business and personal life—and sometimes they were more about how power relationships become so ingrained that even those way down the social ladder fall into line. In Craig Zobel’s torn-from-the-headlines Compliance, for example, Dreama Walker plays a fast-food cashier who allows herself to be stripped and detained for hours by her boss Ann Dowd, all because a prank caller posing as a policeman insists that Walker is a thief. In Ry Russo-Young’s Nobody Walks and David Trueba’s Madrid, 1987, young women submit to sexual relations with their mentors—in the former, it’s an art student sleeping with a Hollywood sound editor, and in the latter, a journalism student sleeping with a political columnist—because they figure it’ll be time-consuming and counterproductive to refuse. The way these people slot easily into predetermined social roles shows how the unthinkable can happen organically. (See also: The Impostor, Bart Layton’s stylish, sly documentary about a young Frenchman who in the late ’90s successfully impersonated a missing San Antonio teenager for months, relying on people’s presumptions and hopes to pull off the con.)
Sundance 2012 also featured multiple documentaries about the legal system—in the U.S. and abroad—highlighting the feeling of powerlessness that overcomes ordinary citizens when they face unsympathetic courts. Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law In These Parts attempts to exact some small measure of justice by grilling the Israeli lawyers and judges who put into place the legally dicey measures that have allowed their countrymen to seize more and more Palestinian-occupied territory in the name of security. Alexandrowicz even gets a few of his interviewees to admit that “order and justice don’t always go hand in hand.” Similarly, Amy Berg’s West Of Memphis revisits the West Memphis 3 case with up-to-the-minute information that even the recent Paradise Lost 3 didn’t have, demonstrating how our advocacy model of trial law can lead to state representatives spinning stories they know are probably untrue, then using their authority to stand strong against any alternate theory, no matter how many millions protest. Along the same lines, Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War (about female soldiers who’ve been raped), and Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In (about the history of the “war on drugs”) are two outrage-generating docs that at their core are about how the law tends to disregard certain truths if they threaten to bollix up a smooth-running, cash-generating status quo.
With Shadow Dancer, director James Marsh and screenwriter Tom Bradby offer a non-documentary consideration of powerlessness, adapting the latter’s 1998 novel about an Irish single mother (played by Andrea Riseborough) who joins the IRA to get revenge for the brother she lost to a British bullet as a girl, then becomes a pawn in the covert war between her superiors and MI5. Shadow Dancer is a concise, impact-filled little suspenser, depicting how venting frustration against one unjust establishment can lead to being mired in a different kind of unjust establishment. Better, then, to seek non-violent, soul-enriching alternatives, as shown in two documentaries about how pop culture softened South Africa: Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugar Man, about soulful ’70s singer-songwriter Rodriguez, whose career stalled in his native Detroit before he became a mysterious hero to liberal whites in the apartheid era; and Joe Berlinger’s Under African Skies, which looks back at the controversy and celebration surrounding Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 album Graceland. Neither of these docs ignores the political realities of South Africa, but both ultimately advocate for art as a sometimes-unintended catalyst for change. With Under African Skies in particular, for all the argument over whether Simon was arrogant or ignorant in his violation of the UN’s cultural boycott of South Africa, it’s undeniable that he made life better for the local musicians he collaborated with, if only by introducing their sound and their story to the world. There’s an anecdote in the film about the members of one South African group visiting Simon in New York and asking where they could get a permit to tour Central Park, and being stunned to learn that they were free to go whenever they wished. That story is a bracing reminder of what freedom really means to someone who’s never experienced it firsthand.
Staying in the pop-culture vein, two very different movies at Sundance dealt with the democratizing power of videotape. In the documentary Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, Stacy Peralta tells the story of his pioneering skateboarding team (led by a teenage Tony Hawk) and how their skate videos helped spread the sport to the sticks after the first skateboarding wave had crested and crashed. The documentary then shows how too much fame, too soon, messed with these kids’ heads. And in the horror anthology V/H/S, a disparate group of indie filmmakers (such as Ti West and Joe Swanberg) play with the “found footage” genre, finding fresh ways to approach a stale gimmick, while also exploring how the narcissism inherent to the YouTube/POV-porn/Skype generation means that people literally miss the darkness lurking in the corner of the frame while they’re staring at their own faces. Bones Brigade and V/H/S celebrate the DIY spirit, but also serve as cautionary tales of a kind.
Movies like Bones Brigade and V/H/S also speak (in their own way) to what the independent film movement is all about. Writing about the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, I briefly discussed the relative value of artificiality and reality in cinema, which is a subject even more on my mind each year at Sundance. The typical “Sundance movie” is more script-driven than imagery-driven, and frequently has writerly qualities—forced quirkiness, say, or unnatural erudition—that soften its impact. That’s not necessarily a complaint, mind you; there’s something to be said for Hollywood-style slickness (and stars) in an independent production. Still, it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes of a movie like Arbitrage or Jack Schreier’s charming-but-slight Robot And Frank—starring Frank Langella as a senile jewel thief who gets help from his mechanical butler—to realize they’re going to be safely familiar and unchallenging.
The question then becomes: Are they entertaining? In the case of the Rashida Jones/Andy Samberg breakup comedy Celeste And Jesse Forever, the dialogue is phony, the “Can childhood sweethearts break up yet remain friends?” plot is too gimmicky, and the humor is sub-sitcom. (Though Jones does prove she has the chops to be a movie star.) In the case of the Ari Graynor/Lauren Anne Miller vehicle For A Good Time, Call…, on the other hand, the jokes are funny, the two-old-enemies-unite-to-launch-a-phone-sex-business plot is novel, and I was touched by the idea that the whole movie was essentially a romantic comedy about two women becoming friends. Yet any given moviegoer could watch those two movies and have exactly the opposite reaction.
Similarly, I was initially turned off by Jonathan Kasdan’s high-school romance The First Time—in which Britt Robertson and Dylan O’Brien play teenagers who fall in love and lose their virginity to each other over the course of one intense weekend—because the actors look like actors, the dialogue sounds like dialogue, and the edges of the movie are populated by cartoony characters. But by the end, The First Time had ingratiated itself with me to the point where I’d call it one of the four best films I saw at Sundance (along with Queen Of Versailles, Under African Skies, and the one I’m saving until the end of this piece). What changed? Nothing, superficially, except that Robertson and O’Brien’s characters deepen the more they talk to each other, and when the titular scene arrives, it’s one of the funniest, tensest, and most honest depictions of sex I’ve ever seen in a movie—teen-pic or otherwise. At that point, the artificial becomes real, in much the same way that two people who put on a front while flirting eventually discover that pretense can only carry them so far once their clothes are off and the action’s heating up.
Still, it’s hard not to wish The First Time had a little more of the verisimilitude of 28 Hotel Rooms, the feature-filmmaking debut of actor Matt Ross, who follows young married professional Marin Ireland and handsome bestselling author Chris Messina as they conduct an affair over several years (and, as the title indicates, several different places). 28 Hotel Rooms updates the old Same Time Next Year premise, and emphasizes the playfulness and awkwardness of lovers rather than forcing them into structured, movie-ish chitchat. Had Ross shown a little more ambition in imagining the changes in these characters’ lives, this would’ve been my favorite film of the fest. I also admired the rigorous realism of Laurence Thrush’s Pursuit Of Loneliness, which my friend Mike D’Angelo aptly described as like a fiction-feature version of a Frederick Wiseman documentary. Shot in black-and-white, with minimal narrative, with non-professional actors, and with characters that come and go, Thrush’s film mainly concerns a hospital staff’s efforts to find the next of kin for a dead hoarder. Pursuit Of Loneliness’ matter-of-factness stands in stark contrast to the Robot And Franks of the fest, and is powerfully melancholy as it reduces human life to a mystery with far too many clues.
Stark realism isn’t the only alternative to Hollywood slickness, though; filmmakers can also venture into absurdity. That’s the case with Wrong, Quentin Dupieux’s follow-up to his cult hit Rubber, which sees Jack Plotnick playing a man who wakes up every day at 7:60 and goes to work in an office where the sprinkler system runs nonstop, drenching the laptops and documents. When his dog gets kidnapped by a self-help guru (William Fichtner, doing a weird but hilarious Chinese-American accent), Plotnick enlists pet detective Steve Little, who hooks the dog’s dried turds to a machine that can read their memories. Not quite funny or weird enough to be wholly successful, Wrong is at its least imaginative as it explores how a life can be turned upside-down by the smallest changes. Even better is Richard Bates Jr.’s arch horror exercise Excision, starring a de-glammed AnnaLynne McCord as a pimply, gawky high-school senior who has sexy dreams about mutilation and spends her spare time researching ways she can help her sister, who suffers from cystic fibrosis. The supporting performances by Traci Lords and John Waters (as a Catholic priest!) should give some idea where this movie’s head is: It’s mostly a grotesque domestic comedy, right up until the inevitable moment when it becomes a Vault Of Horror eight-pager. The obvious point of comparison for Excision is Carrie, except that this Carrie is on the offensive, looking to soak her classmates in blood.
And then there are the singular visions: expressive, true, and all too rare, veering from realism to fantasy at their conjurers’ whim. Case in point: An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty, Terence Nance’s experimental feature in which a man named “You” feels so bummed that a woman he likes has canceled a date that he contemplates the larger context, taking into account his job status, his sleeping habits, his past romances, and other esoterica. Nance describes “You” through multiple second-person voices, lengthy quotes from relevant books, and animated interludes in different styles, shifting from one to the other frequently and fluidly. The movie isn’t always easy to grasp, but I doubt I’ll see a more visually inventive film this year. I also enjoyed (but didn’t completely love) Kid-Thing, the Zellner brothers’ latest elliptical, deadpan art-comedy, starring Sidney Aguirre as a freckle-faced, golden-haired, tomboyish pre-teen who pedals her bike around the rural outskirts of Austin, shoplifting biscuit dough to hurl at passing cars. The images in Kid-Thing are frequently stunning, as David and Nathan Zellner linger over the rainbow colors of soda and slushie machines, and also sometimes indulgent, as they shoot themselves scratching off lottery tickets for upward of a full minute. But the movie comes so close so often to capturing something real and profound about the loneliness of childhood, conveyed in the pitiful flicker of an off-brand console videogame.
It’s just the Zellner brothers’ bad fortune that their poetic, eccentric movie about a self-reliant little girl had to screen in what will be remembered as the year of Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s magical, thrilling film about the grade-school-aged “Hushpuppy” (played by the remarkable Quvenzhané Wallis) and her struggle to survive in a ramshackle Delta community known as “The Bathtub.” Purposefully designed to echo post-Katrina New Orleans—yet set in a world not quite our own, where giant, hairy boar-type creatures roam—Beasts Of The Southern Wild is like a live-action Hayao Miyazaki film, with Days Of Heaven narration. The movie culminates in a thrilling finale—and a last shot that’s one of the damnedest things I’ve ever seen on a screen—affirming the notion that the most important task we undertake is to leave a mark that’ll be seen for generations to come.
As I left Beasts Of The Southern Wild, thinking about how representational truth can feel more real than “realism,” and contrasting the scratched-out existence of The Bathtub with the trash-strewn Siegel mansion of the post-collapse The Queen Of Versailles, I overheard a sour-faced critic on the bus muttering that this year’s Sundance had been awful, and that Beasts was a brainless fairy tale designed to win awards while having nothing to say about life in 2012. And with all these artful, passionate movies I’d been seeing rattling around in my head, combined with the voice of my angry shuttle driver and disgruntled waitress, I felt a strong compulsion to muscle my way down the aisle and punch my colleague square in the face. We try to be nice, but this veneer of civilization? So perilously thin.