Yesterday afternoon, on my final day of Sundance, Variety officially brought to an end the hours of speculation that have become an annual pastime among press in Park City. This year’s secret screening—the mystery movie scheduled for a “TBA” slot on Tuesday evening at the Egyptian Theatre, just as Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 was last year—would be none other than the unofficial world premiere of the Wachowskis’ delayed space opera Jupiter Ascending. Don’t let me get anyone’s hopes up, though: While last year’s surprise dose of Von Trier was something of an unofficial press screening, packed to the gills with journalists, critics were persona non grata at last night’s 3-D exhibition of the spring blockbuster. “No press are being admitted,” a volunteer told me and A.V. Club contributor Ben Kenigsberg as we tried to talk our way into what turned out to be a half-full screening. Moments later, festival director John Cooper confirmed this policy, encouraging the both of us to go see something more explicitly Sundance-appropriate instead. The irony of such a decree, issued moments before the introduction of a $200 million studio film at the festival he runs, was surely not lost on the programmer.
So we didn’t get in, though not for lack of trying. I could go on and on about the suspect reasoning behind showing such an enormous Hollywood product at a film festival devoted to independent movies, or what it says for the movie in question that Warner Bros. was so insistent that critics not be invited (though a few did manage to score hard tickets—not that they can write about the embargoed title yet). Maybe, however, this shut-out was a blessing in disguise. Maybe Cooper is right and there are better ways to spend a film festival—and in my case, to finish one—than watching a picture that will be released in countless American theaters in about a week. It wasn’t as though there weren’t plenty of fine alternatives.
One of them, the touching, sweeping immigrant story Brooklyn (Grade: B+), really snuck up on me. Adapted by Nick Hornby, from a novel by Colm Tóibín, the film follows a pretty Irish girl (Saoirse Ronan) as she leaves her tiny community for the hustle and bustle of New York, where she struggles with homesickness, slowly adapts to life in the big city, and falls in love. Period-piece melodramas (the film is set in 1952) don’t often play Sundance, which tends to favor an edgier breed of independent movie, and Brooklyn’s old-fashioned charms felt like a breath of fresh, simpler-time air. The plot eventually becomes something of a love triangle, with our heroine torn between a nice Italian lad (Emory Cohen, from The Place Beyond The Pines) and an equally nice Irish suitor (Domhnall Gleeson). But the real tough decision faced by the character is whether to keep fighting to make it on her own, thousands of miles from her family, or to retreat to the comfort of her hometown, where she’s “needed.” It’s a very relatable conflict that Ronan, in what may qualify as her first truly adult performance, powerfully internalizes. Her transformation from fresh-off-the-boat introvert to confident city slicker is entirely credible, and one of my biggest pleasures of the festival.
The consistently intense ’71 (Grade: B) offers a much less tranquil vision of mid-20th-century Ireland. Jack O’Connell, from Starred Up and Unbroken, plays an inexperienced British soldier abandoned by his unit when things go FUBAR in Belfast circa the titular year. With no choice but to fend for himself, the young man creeps around town, receiving assistance and opposition from conflicting forces—IRA militants, British Army sympathizers, and several neutral parties. The clear model for this guerrilla historical drama is the work of Paul Greengrass, and not just the similarly themed Bloody Sunday. Director Yann Demange is operating in the same urgent, handheld, you-are-there mode, and like Greengrass, he tackles politicized history apolitically—in this case, by suggesting that there are no rooting interests, that everyone involved in these troubles is not to be trusted. As pure action cinema, ’71 is unrelenting, unforgiving, unsentimental. Enjoy it as a genre exercise, a gloried urban-warfare potboiler; do not look to it for ideology, beyond a general, pervasive cynicism.
As far as more traditional Sundance fare goes, it didn’t get much better (or funnier) than Results (Grade: B+), the latest comedy from Andrew Bujalski. The writer-director’s last movie, Computer Chess, was a wildly unusual departure, in which he traded the mumblecore style he helped pioneer for something even less commercial. Results is a wide swing in the opposite direction—a surprisingly accessible yukfest, as slickly shot and directed as Computer Chess was rough and intentionally primitive-looking. Some fans have already expressed disappointment that a true original filmmaker has made a swerve for the mainstream, but Results is no sellout move. If anything, it proves that the filmmaker’s offbeat sensibilities are malleable enough to be applied to something more superficially “traditional.”
Granted, for once, the privilege of using his native Aussie accent, Guy Pearce exhibits a unexpected gift for straight-man comedy. He plays Trevor, the owner and proprietor of an Austin fitness center, where he oversees—and secretly pines for—short-tempered personal trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders, looser and funnier than she’s ever been). Into both of their lives wanders the slovenly, independently wealthy stoner Danny (character actor Kevin Corrigan, in a rare starring role), who claims to want to get in shape, but mostly just seems totally unsure of what to do with his piles and piles of money.
As with Brooklyn, it’s possible to describe what occurs as a love triangle, but the romance seems almost beside the point. Results feels instead like another of Bujalski’s studies in socialization, driven less by the demands of the plot—which, in this case, is actually quite unpredictable—than the big personalities on screen. Early on, one could be excused of mistaking the characters for caricatures—the hyper-positive workout guru, the tightly wound tyrant trainer, the rich slob—but Bujalski allows them to grow into themselves, and into their more distinctive qualities, as the film expands in unexpected directions. I thought more than once of Albert Brooks, whose chatty portraits of neurotic romantics the film sometimes resembles, especially during inspired moments like a dinner with a hardass exercise icon (Anthony Michael Hall, having fun with his Eastern-European severity). In its just-left-of-center appeal, Results feels like an ideal Sundance film—funny, unusual, and a fine note on which to end a sturdy festival. Who needs Channing Tatum saving the universe when you have Guy Pearce telling Kevin Corrigan that seeing Rocky 200 times is “half the battle, mate”?