I startled awake this morning to bright light and complete confusion—where am I? What year is it? After spending a packed three-day-weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, watching back-to-back movies in dark, thousand-person theatres, it’s hard to remember what my real life is supposed to look like.
I was lucky enough to score credentials for the second week of Sundance this year, and along with my four roommates, flew out to Park City to catch the end of Robert Redford’s infamous independent film festival. I’d never been to anything of this scale, and let me tell you, thank goodness we went for Week 2: by the time we arrived, the festival’s 50,000 attendees were halved. Festival volunteers were quick to recount stories of two-hour traffic standstills, round-the-block lines in the freezing cold, and the tiny streets of Park City choked with pedestrians. While Week 2 wasn’t a total breeze (I spent many an hour on fruitless waitlists, which often stretched to 300+ people), we certainly skipped much of the frustration and claustrophobia that is a signature of the Sundance experience.
By the last Friday of the festival, nearly all the premieres were over, and many of the talk-of-the-town flicks (To Kill a Man, 52 Tuesdays, Low Down) were done screening, but I still managed to squeeze in seven incredibly memorable films in my short three days in PC. All of these movies deserve full reviews; if and when they are picked up by theaters (or, probably, Netflix), and when they become available to the general public I fully intend to give each its proper due. But for now I’ll have to content myself with an abridged recap of all of them. I’ll talk about these in the order I saw them in, as they are all so different from one another, they are hardly worth comparing.
A Most Wanted Man
My first ever Sundance film screened at 8:30 in the morning in a 550-person theatre. If you’ve never seen a movie before 10 am, I don’t recommend it–but A Most Wanted Man was intriguing enough to keep me awake (a much higher compliment than it sounds.) Adapted from John Le Carré’s thriller novel of the same title, the film boasts the all-star acting quartet of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Robin Wright. Hoffman stars as the world-weary head of a little-known German government intelligence agency, tracking down a potential terrorist (excellent newcomer Grigoriy Dobrygin) in conjunction and conflict with a wealthy banker (Dafoe), an idealistic social worker (McAdams), and a United States FBI agent (Wright.)
While there are plenty of movies that portray intelligence operations in the post-9/11 world, A Most Wanted Man is unique in its execution, not at least because it is set in Hamburg, a city that is supposedly a center of government counter-terrorism since it was discovered to be an origin point of the 9/11 plot. Hoffman, McAdams, and Dafoe all don German accents, an interesting casting decision by director Anton Corbijn, and one that divided my roommates and I: they claimed the accents were shaky and distracting; I maintain that they were all excellent (my grandparents are German, so I’m giving my opinion the benefit of the doubt.)
Similar in tone to another recent Le Carré adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Most Wanted Man adapts the same cerebral tone and deliberate pacing. It never devolves into an action film, but it is thrilling nonetheless, and Hoffman is especially wonderful as a brilliant man whose career has been defined only by his mistakes, yet soldiers on with heartfelt sense of duty. A Most Wanted Man has been picked up by Lionsgate, so you can expect to catch it later this year.
Writer-director Steven Knight’s Locke actually premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and as such, it is not an official Sundance film, but part of the festival’s new Spotlight series that screens independent films of note regardless of premiere. When I first read the film’s blurb in my Sundance packet, I wasn’t particularly interested: a thriller about Tom Hardy in a car? Now, I’ve been a fan of Hardy’s as much as anyone with ovaries, but I couldn’t imagine liking any one-man-show movie—and this is literally one-man, as Hardy’s is the only face that we ever see on screen. But Locke was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I left the theater thoroughly stunned and deeply moved.
“Thriller” is the wrong word for this movie, although it is certainly a tense watch. The film unfolds in real time, as we follow one Ivan Locke (Hardy) on a late-night drive from Wales to London. It’s entirety consists of Locke speaking on his Bluetooth to various people in his life. It may sound dull, but it was the most gripping 85 minutes I spent at Sundance.
Through Locke’s phone calls (we hear voices on the line, by noted actors including Ruth Wilson, Ben Daniels, and Andrew Scott) we slowly piece together his story: a soft-spoken construction supervisor beloved by his family and admired by his peers, Locke has left his work on the eve of the most important day of his career to be at the side of a woman he slept with once, as she gives birth to his child. As he struggles to manage his boss, employees, wife, teenage sons, and accidental mistress, we witness one man’s life suffer a complete breakdown in heartbreaking focus. Tom Hardy gives a tour-de-force performance, showing exquisite restraint as a man whose sense of duty to his bastard child causes his entire world to fall apart. Steven Knight’s writing sometimes falls on the side of the poetic, but this film is less movie than cinematic play, and as such the metaphors rarely ring false. It’s tightly crafted and visually stunning—the “thriller” aspect comes entirely from the cinematography and editing, with tense images of moving traffic the only thing to pull us away from Hardy’s face. Put together, it is downright virtuosic in its execution.
I walked into Locke expecting a bore; what I found was a masterpiece. It’s been picked up by indie distributor A24, so keep an eye out for a hopeful 2014 release.
Jamie Marks is Dead
Okay, finally: a Sundance movie that is so completely, obscenely Sundance-y that it could only ever been seen at the most pretentious independent film festival in the world. Horror-mystery-romance Jamie Marks is Dead is a visually beautiful, decently acted, total and complete whackjob of a movie that I couldn’t adequately explain if I had ten pages. I spent its duration alternately clutching my neighbor for dear life and trying to unfreeze my face from its open-mouthed position of what-the-living-heckness. Jamie Marks wasn’t bought, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it rise to weird cult status if it gets a Netflix Instant release.
At first appearance, it’s a typical Sundance story of teen angst and loss, as track star Adam (Cameron Monaghan of Shameless) and his maybe-girlfriend Gracie (Morgan Saylor, aka Dana from Homeland, being Dana from Homeland) deal with the aftermath of the mysterious death of one of their classmates, the bullied nerd Jamie Marks. All this seems quite straightforward and pretty compelling, as both young actors are excellent, but then things take a turn for the WTF. Adam and Gracie start seeing the ghost of Jamie—but it’s not a wispy, incorporeal spirit. The ghost of Jamie Marks is naked, dripping wet, and living in Adam’s closet. Gracie and Adam are the only ones who see Jamie, but for all intents and purposes he is alive and real: he borrows Adam’s clothes, follows him around town, and even plays Frisbee with him. Also, he harbors a not-very-secret lust for Adam, and the erotic undertones (and sometimes very, very overtones) between the teen and his creepy dead friend are more than a little uncomfortable.
It’s also worth noting that Jamie, played by Noah Silver, looks exactly like Daniel Radcliffe. So if you’re interested in watching a teenager give gleeful piggyback rides to an undead Harry Potter wearing skinny jeans, boy have I found the movie for you.
The best part of Jamie Marks by far is a supporting role by Judy Greer, who plays the alcoholic driver who paralyzed Adam’s mother (Liv Tyler) then squeezed herself into being her best friend. It’s one of Greer’s funniest and most interesting parts in awhile.
Jamie Marks is no Oscar contender, but as long as you don’t look too closely, it’s a wild movie that is as terrifying as it is tentatively hilarious. I laughed, I cried, both at the same time and for reasons that were neither funny nor sad. But if you’re looking for a ridiculous movie to watch with your friends on a low-key Saturday night (COUGH or a Deadshirt Date Night), Jamie Marks is about as good as it gets.
Check back later this week as Haley delves into the other half of her Sundance experience!