Sundance: Todd McCarthy's Picks for the Best of the Fest
Is 'Brooklyn' the next 'Boyhood'? Given its raw and raunchy lineup, this year's fest didn't offer much in the way of widely accessible movies — with one quiet, moving, potentially Oscar-friendly exception.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
What was the first movie that had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and subsequently was nominated for a best picture Oscar? Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape, one might guess. But no — that won at Cannes; the Academy wasn't paying attention to Sundance in 1989. Lee Daniels' Precious in 2009? Sorry, it was long before that. Oh, right, the New England-set drama In the Bedroom in 2001. Nope, still no dice.
In fact, the first feature to go the distance from a January bow in Park City all the way to Oscar noms more than a year later was British rom-com Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994. It happened again in 1996 with the Aussie biopic Shine. Those were the early days, when the American independent films were really, really small and Sundance dolled up its program with prestige non-U.S. titles and sometimes even a new Woody Allen.
The first American independent title from Sundance's U.S. Dramatic Competition — the festival's main attraction — to make it as an Oscar nominee was, in fact, In the Bedroom 14 years ago (Todd Field, where art thou?). In the nine years since crowd-pleasing festival sensation Little Miss Sunshine cracked into the Academy's top five, six more Sundance competition titles have made the grade: Precious, followed by Winter's Bone in 2010, Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012, Fruitvale Station in 2013 and the current pair, Richard Linklater's Boyhood and Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, the two critical favorites from 2014.
Although this year's Oscars race might be too close to call, Boyhood is the first emergent Sundance title ever to have been given a serious shot at the coveted statuette. Consequently, the question hot on the lips of many Sundance attendees was: Does anything at this year's edition appear likely to run the marathon all the way to next January and beyond?
As has been noted, this year's festival was loaded with sex — and pretty explicit sex at that: boy-on-boy, girl-on-girl, transgender-on-transgender, gymnast-on-gymnast — not the type of thing the Academy crowd usually anoints.
By far the best film I saw in the U.S. Dramatic Competition was Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which opens with the eponymous high-schooler (played by breakout star Bel Powley) losing her virginity to her mother's boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) — and there's much more where that came from. So probably not Oscar's cup of tea.
Other popular competition action had straight guy Jack Black on the receiving end of James Marsden's bisexual stud in The D Train (written and directed by Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul) and a foursome (played by Taylor Schilling, Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche), especially the guys, letting it all hang out during an exploratory evening in Patrick Brice's The Overnight. Meanwhile, the modest but very nicely done World Cinema Dramatic Competition opener, The Summer of Sangaile, centered on an intense romance between two Lithuanian teenage girls, and the wildest film in the Next category (showcasing smaller, more offbeat productions) was Sean Baker's Tangerine, which dives right into the world of transgender prostitutes on the streets of Los Angeles. In other words: Don't look for any of these characters to be invited to walk the red carpet at next year's Oscars.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's quirky tearjerker Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, about a film-loving outcast, his partner in cinephilia and the cancer-stricken girl they befriend, got a standing ovation at its first screening. But while it surely will be a hit with its intended audience, the film probably is not a 10-best-of-the-year prospect.
The only dramatic film I saw at Sundance that might stand a chance of being remembered by the Academy a year from now is not a big production (and part of me hates to discuss it in these terms for fear of raising expectations too high): John Crowley's Brooklyn, an extremely moving, classically made romantic drama about first love and the conflict immigrants can feel between their birthplaces and the new worlds they've struggled to get to and adopt. It's a timeless piece that would have looked good had it been made any year between the period in which it's set, the early '50s, and now, when it has the benefit of a cast that's well-nigh perfection (starting with Saoirse Ronan in the central role of the newly arrived Irish girl).
Brooklyn is widely accessible but also refined. Of course, it's not as adventurous or bold or cutting edge as what we all come to Sundance to discover, but there were plenty of other offerings on that score.
Crowley's film actually is a far scarcer commodity in this day and age: a work that might straddle the demographic divides between age categories, between the sexes and between narrow-interest groups. Indeed, Brooklyn could very well occupy that smallest of niches, as a movie made for everyone — in that sense, the closest thing to a Boyhood this year's Sundance had to offer.