Film Reviews

Sundance: Cults and Uncertain Futures Dominate the Festival

In Mike Cahill's Another Earth — a multiple prize-winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival and one of two titles movies OR titles (to avoid rep of "film") co-written by and starring the festival's biggest breakout, Brit Marling — both hope and anxiety follow the discovery of Earth 2, a planet on which each resident of our world has a doppelgänger living a parallel life. The mood at this year's festival sometimes felt like its own alternate universe, inspiring similarly mixed feelings. Though economic disaster is still a fresh memory in the real world, up in Park City, studios and their subsidiaries threw big money at small movies with a velocity not seen in half a decade. A cause for celebration? Sure. But the thing about bubbles is that they burst.

With a number of Sundance 2010 alumni nominated for Academy Awards last week (Blue Valentine, The Kids Are All Right, Winter's Bone), buyers may have wanted to hitch their wagons to the next arthouse hit turned Oscar nominee — or, at least, claim the next Jennifer Lawrence. Ingenue Fever seemed to motivate the acquisition of a number of long, slow, serious films with high-art aspirations, evidently made for very little money, and all built around the siren call of a gorgeous, previously unknown starlet.

British actress Felicity Jones' heartbreaking turn almost redeems Like Crazy, the slight, trite romance that unexpectedly won the Dramatic Grand Jury prize and was acquired by Paramount. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's little sister, Elizabeth, starred in Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, a nonlinear thriller about a traumatized, voluptuous escapee from a Manson-esque sex cult. It was picked up by Fox Searchlight, which also bought Another Earth, one of two Sundance films in which the lithe and sultry Marling plays a morally slippery criminal aiming to redeem herself through love. Much better than the implausibly romantic Another Earth is the intensely claustrophobic Sound of My Voice, an as-yet-unacquired collaboration between Marling and director Zal Batmanglij that, in its low-key, sprawling cult-conspiracy mythology, calls to mind Richard Kelly.

The boom-time mania on the ground was matched by a different kind of collective lunacy on screen. Cults and other spiritual rebellions were a big theme this year — not only in Martha and the Lost-like Sound but also in Vera Farmiga's crowd-pleasing women's picture Higher Ground, Kevin Smith's scattered genre-fuck Red State, and Miranda July's spacey-comic The Future, which, like Jeff Nichols' humorless Take Shelter, turns the angst of frustrated 35-year-olds into fodder for surrealism.

When asked about this mystical trend at a Q&A for Sound, Marling noted that "a cult is an instant way to find meaning." Or, to quote the narrator of The Woods, Matthew Lessner's psychedelic satire of hipster back-to-nature idealism, "It felt good to believe in something other than myself. And I figured, at the very least, it would make for a killer blog entry." The only Sundance film about cults that could actually have life as a cult film, The Woods has the greatest comic insight into why our current culture might inspire a search for meaning in the first place.

While the dramatic sections were dominated by one kind of bait-and-switch (hot girls making difficult films more marketable), Sundance dangled a different kind of carrot to lure visitors. Baked a different kind of what?to this year's New Frontiers section, which showcases non-traditional film and video work. The marquee attraction was James Franco's Three's Company: The Drama, a video-installation deconstruction of the '70s sex-com narrated by the actor/Oscar host/pansexual tease. Franco may contain multitudes, but as is the case with most of his prolific creative output, TC:TD is most interesting for merely existing on the same résumé as both Howl and General Hospital.

But hopefully Franco's project ccompelled the curious to stay for After Ghostcatching — a collaboration between dancer Bill T. Jones and the digital art collective OpenEnded Group, featuring 3-D imagery so detailed and immersive that it reveals the extent to which we've been shafted by Hollywood's sloppy embrace of the technology — or Mark Boulos' ur-visceral nonfiction installation All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Boulos' work plays out on two screens on opposite sides of the room: One documents the activities of a Nigerian rebel group fighting against the European oil companies that exploit their country's resources; the other features vérité footage shot on a Chicago futures-trading floor at the dawn of the credit crisis. Each film builds to a crescendo of men yelling and waving their arms in the air — cell phones in hand on one side, automatic weapons on the other; one representing what Boulos calls "metaphysical economics," the other its real-world consequences.

In terms of more traditional nonfiction programming, highlights included James Marsh's intimate exposé on a nature-versus-nurture experiment, Project Nim, and Page One, Andrew Rossi's fly-on-the-wall "vérité"portrait of the New York Times media desk. Startlingly up-to-date (it essentially doubles as the story of the Times' relationship to WikiLeaks), Page One ultimately advocates for the necessity of old-school journalism in an ever-splintering media landscape, mostly via columnist David Carr, an unlikely but fierce defender of both the medium in general and the specific NYT brand.

But no film at Sundance explored the tension between old and new media, fixed history and the uncertain future wired life is hurtling toward as powerfully as Braden King's highly experimental romance HERE. Will (Ben Foster) is an American cartographer contracted to gather ground data for satellite maps in rural Armenia; he meets Armenian-born photographer Gadarine (Lubna Azabal) by chance when she returns from travels abroad. As King alternates between naturalistic but sensual snapshots of their ensuing road trip and non-narrative, pure-cinematic montages, HERE encompasses themes of distance and intimacy and the moral gradients of recording fact and creating art/fiction. The couple's common obsession with the lonely road brings them together (as does their physical chemistry), but it doesn't change who they are or their complicated engagement with both the romantic nature of travel and its darker side — namely, conquest.

This vital, gorgeous, cerebral, and deeply passionate film was the only great thing I saw at Sundance that remains without a U.S. distributor as of press time — proving, perhaps, that sex can only sell so much.

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Karina Longworth