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Sundance 2013: Todd McCarthy on the Best of the Fest

Fruitvale Still 2 - H 2013
"Fruitvale"

THR's chief film critic reveals his top picks from this year's edition of the Park City event.

Nothing sent me into orbit this year; there was no breakthrough along the lines of last year's Beasts of the Southern Wild that's likely to turn up on my or many other 10-best lists come December. But Sundance 2013 did provide the feeling of a promising new generation of filmmakers beginning to take root, one more than ever loaded with women (fully half of the 16 U.S. Dramatic Competition entries were directed by females) but also diverse in their interests, ranging from comedy and manifestly mainstream commercial aspirations to social issues, sexuality, genre revisionism and out-there narrative experimentation.

Sundance could take more than it usual share of satisfaction in its accomplishments this year due to the fact that Fruitvale, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, would not even have existed were it not for the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and institute grants that kept the project afloat. Fruitvale, which dramatizes the short life and tragic death of Oscar Grant in a police shooting in 2009, represents one of those fabled Sundance success stories the likes of which date back at least to 1989 and Steven Soderbergh with sex, lies & videotape, that of a young filmmaker no one's ever heard of one day who is the toast of the town the next.

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In this case, he's Ryan Coogler, a highly ingratiating 26-year-old black man from modest circumstances in the Bay Area who studied film at USC, participated in the Sundance Lab last January and within the year managed to enlist the help of such Hollywood luminaries as Forest Whitaker and Octavia Spencer and get his film made and out into the world with the spotlight firmly on him.

It's a powerful and well-made topical drama, one that stars another promising talent by the name of Michael B. Jordan. One can only hope that expectations are now not raised so high that the film might appear overrated and perhaps a bit sanctified to future viewers.

For me, two other films shared the top shelf with Fruitvale. After warming up with Off the Black and last year with Smashed, director James Ponsoldt came into his own with The Spectacular Now, which was prized by the jury for its fine lead performances by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. This is an unusually rich teen comedy-drama that goes much deeper than 99 percent of films dealing with adolescents -- so insightfully does it dig into its young characters' hopes, levels of denial and eventual assumption of awareness of their inherited personal traits and the consequences of their behavior.

I got a strong rush out of John Krokidas' stylistically charged Kill Your Darlings, a reasonably plausible and emotionally turbulent look at budding bohemians Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs when they were merely lads discovering they were different at Columbia University in the early 1940s (how did they all avoid the Army, anyway?). Aside from dramatizing the eventually fatal relationship between the desperately enamored David Kammerer and the beautiful young Lucien Carr, first-time director Krokidas demonstrates real flair for shooting, cutting and music and is especially sensitive to the formative moments of his subjects' artistic adventurism and sexual impulses.

Among the eight competition films directed by women, the most compelling was Stacie Passon's Concussion, which charts a different sort of walk on the wild side -- that of a lesbian suburbanite -- Belle de Jour-like foray into prostitution as a way to explore her own domestic stasis. The most purely entertaining film in the entire competition was In a World ... from Lake Bell, hitherto known mostly as an appealingly offbeat actress with rare screwball gifts whose eventual profile in the Hollywood scheme of things has been hard to figure. Now it's much clearer: She has real promise as a writer-director based on this funny, live-wire look at the world of Hollywood voice-over talent.

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Francesca Gregorini's Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes and Jerusha Hess' Austenland were pretty well received by my colleagues; and Cherien Dabis' May in the Summer, Lynn Shelton's Touchy Feely and Liz W. Garcia's The Lifeguard somewhat less so. But the unaccountable prizewinner was Jill Soloway, who was named best director for her very conventional, TV-style work on the banal and tonally uncertain Afternoon Delight. Awards program audience members were at a loss afterward wondering how the jury came up with this choice.

Shane Carruth's Upstream Color was the most anticipated competition entry for hard-core enthusiasts for his debut film Primer nine years ago. Beautiful, mysterious, thematically suggestive but dramatically obscure, this is an experimental art film that appealed to exactly the same fan base as Primer and suggests a deeper burrowing into the writer-director-cinematographer-editor-composer-sound designer-lead actor-distributor's idiosyncratic mind rather than, as some had hoped, an artistic expansion.

One thing this year's filmmakers all got right was keeping their work tight. The average running time of the U.S. competition entries was 96 minutes, certainly a much shorter average than what you find at the big international festivals such as Cannes. The longest film of the 16, Andrew Dosunmu's visually vibrant but underachieved Mother of George, about Nigerians living in New York City, runs 106 minutes, while Fruitvale is the shortest at 85 minutes (the official Sundance catalog lists its running time as 100 minutes, suggesting some significant last-minute pruning was done).

As usual, the batting average was lower in the festival's graduate program, the Premieres. Stealing the show was Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, the third and almost certainly the best of his ongoing collaborations with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. In a series of breathlessly long takes, this one goes deeply into the mutual understandings and lingering resentments of a couple entering middle age, highlighted by amusing but trenchant dialogue and beautiful Greek backdrops.

The special event of the festival, experienced by a full house committed to spending an entire Sunday at the Egyptian Theater reveling in it, was the world premiere of the six-hour miniseries Top of the Lake, created and written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee and directed by Campion and Garth Davis. Shot on stunning locations in New Zealand and featuring terrific work by leads Elisabeth Moss, Peter Mullan and Holly Hunter, this highly female-centric mystery pivots on the investigation into the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old. In time-honored fashion, many dreadful skeletons are unearthed that reveal the depravity beneath the beauty of the place. It's a series basically on a level with the best American longform dramas of the past couple of decades and a must for serious viewers when it debuts on the Sundance Channel in March.

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Several entries in the low-budget Next category inspired spirited reactions, especially Alexandre Moors' disturbing Blue Caprice, which imagines the manipulative older man/younger protege relationship behind the Washington, D.C.-area Beltway sniper shootings. Randy Moore's provocative, sophomorically surreal Escape From Tomorrow uses Disney World as a location to transformative ends; Chad Hartigan's rigorous, quietly observed character study of two men in transition, This Is Martin Bonner, surprisingly snared the category's audience award, while Andrew Bujalski's one-joke Computer Chess amassed fans captivated by the resurrection of 30-year-old PortaPak black-and-white video for the occasion.

The standard advice festival veterans give to newcomers wondering what they should see among the 120-plus films annually on offer at Sundance is: When in doubt, see the documentaries. Rarely is there a documentary in the U.S. or World categories that isn't at least worth sitting through, and mostly they're very good. Given the press of other films, I simply didn't have the time to fully take my own advice this year, but the word was generally strong.

Among the most talked-about American documentaries were Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish, about killer whales kept in captivity at water parks; Richard Rowley's Dirty Wars, which looks at a journalist tracking the inside story about covert U.S. military efforts; Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army, focused on burdens faced by public attorneys defending poor clients; Jacob Kornbluth's Inequality for All, starring (and that is the word) economist Robert Reich; Greg Barker's Manhunt: The Search for Osama Bin Laden, a welcome companion piece to Zero Dark Thirty; Shaul Schwarz's Narco Cultura, an eye-opening window on drug cartel-inspired music; Morgan Neville's hugely crowd-pleasing Twenty Feet From Stardom, which puts terrific backup singers front and center; and Marta Cunningham's Valentine Road, about the 2008 murder of cross-dressing eighth-grader Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney (full disclosure: my wife, Sasha Alpert, co-produced this one). All these films and no doubt others played to packed and highly responsive audiences all week. And then the awards were announced and the big winner (of both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award) was Steve Hoover's hitherto less-heralded Blood Brother, which emotionally illuminates the community at a remote facility for HIV-infected kids in India.

It all goes to show that, going in, you never know at Sundance what will emerge, who will transform from a nobody into a player or which film or two will define a given year. In this year's work overall, both dramatic and documentary, you felt engagement, not cynicism; an exploratory impulse, not a willingness to settle for formula. With any number of the filmmakers who established their names this year, their next works can be anticipated with real interest.