Thursday, 9 February 2012

The 10 Hottest Films of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

You don't have to be a cinephile to know about the Sundance Film Festival. Apart from Cannes, it's probably the most famous film festival in the world. Okay, it may not attract the big names we see each year in Venice or Toronto, but that's purely due to the timing of the festival in relation to awards-season, and besides, it's not the point of Sundance. Independent film is the point of Sundance, and the festival is probably the primary reason why indie movies are so much bigger now than they were 30 years ago. Some of today's biggest and best directors received their big break at Sundance, including Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Kevin Smith (Clerks), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), Christopher Nolan (Following), Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight), Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape), Darren Aronofsky (Pi), The Coen Brothers (Blood Simple), James Wan (Saw) and David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey). Did you know, Robert Redford started it all?

This year's Sundance Film Festival seemed particularly good, with a number of films catching my attention for whatever reason. Hit the jump for the ten films I am most excited to see after Sundance 2012, four of which are documentaries.

Almost all of the information below is taken directly from the Official Sundance Film Festival Page.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild (directed by Benh Zeitlin)

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and favourite of this year's festival by an overwhelming margin, this one sits comfortably at number one.

Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry (both nonactors)

Critic Quote: "It's undoubtedly something extraordinary: like a live-action Miyazaki film, with Days Of Heaven narration, set in a dirt-poor community at an unspecified time of crisis." - Noel Murray, AV Club

Hushpuppy, an intrepid six-year-old girl, lives with her father, Wink, in “the Bathtub,” a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Wink’s tough love prepares her for the unraveling of the universe; for a time when he’s no longer there to protect her. When Wink contracts a mysterious illness, nature flies out of whack—temperatures rise, and the ice caps melt, unleashing an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs. With the waters rising, the aurochs coming, and Wink’s health fading, Hushpuppy goes in search of her lost mother.

2. Room 237 (Documentary directed by Rodney Ascher)

Critic Quote: "Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining is about characters who are drawn into madness by their surroundings. Rodney Ascher‘s Room 237 is about film critics who are drawn into madness by The Shining." - Matt Goldberg, Collider.com

Have you ever seen a hidden message?

In 1980 Stanley Kubrick released his classic horror film, The Shining. Loved and hated by equal numbers, the film is considered a genre standard by many loyalists, while other viewers dismiss it as the lazy result of a legendary director working far below his talent level. In between these two poles, however, live the conspiracy theories of ardent fans who are convinced they have decoded The Shining’s secret messages regarding genocide, government conspiracy, and the nightmare that we call history.

Rodney Ascher’s documentary, Room 237, fuses fact and fiction through interviews with the fans and scholars who espouse these theories, and reworking the film’s scenes forward and backward. Room 237 is about more than people who like a famous movie; its vision encompasses original intent, fair use, analysis, and criticism. It investigates what it means to be a fan—why do we need to find deeper meanings in film, and how do those insights change our lives?

3. The Surrogate (directed by Ben Lewin)

Cast: John Hawkes and Helen Hunt

Critic Quote: "It might just be the most poignant, moving film ever made about one man's surprisingly noble efforts to get laid." - Nathan Rabin, AV Club

The quest for love appears insurmountable when a man confined to an iron lung determines, at age 38, to lose his virginity. Based on the autobiographical writings of Berkeley, California–based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, The Surrogate chronicles his attempt to transcend the limbo between childhood and adulthood, in which he is literally trapped. With the blessing of an unusual priest and support from enlightened caregivers, the poignantly optimistic and always droll O’Brien swallows his fear and hires a sex surrogate. What transpires over a handful of sessions transforms them both. Rivetingly, sensitively, and humorously portrayed by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, the couple’s clinical exercise becomes a tender, awkward, and gracious journey from isolation to connection—corporal and spiritual.

4. The Queen of Versailles (Documentary directed by Lauren Greenfield)

Critic Quote: "Like a Theodore Dreiser novel for our time, infused with the vivid, vulgar spirit of reality TV. It often had the sold-out Eccles Center howling, but also has elements of profound tragedy and allegory." - Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com

With the epic dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy, The Queen of Versailles follows billionaires Jackie and David’s rags-to-riches story to uncover the innate virtues and flaws of the American dream. We open on the triumphant construction of the biggest house in America, a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by Versailles. Since a booming time-share business built on the real-estate bubble is financing it, the economic crisis brings progress to a halt and seals the fate of its owners. We witness the impact of this turn of fortune over the next two years in a riveting film fraught with delusion, denial, and self-effacing humor.

5. Simon Killer (directed by Antonio Campos)

One of the most divisive films of Sundance 2012, this one could go either way. Seriously, the first two review you'll read on Rottentomatoes go from "[a] brilliantly orchestrated work of cinema in a grimy, 1970s vein" (Salon.com's Andrew O'Hehir) to "[a]n unpalatable Franco-American entrée one would like to send back to wherever it came from" (The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy). The concept is right up my alley though, so I have high hopes.

Cast: Brady Corbet (Melancholia and Martha Marcy May Marlene)

A recent college graduate goes to Paris after breaking up with his girlfriend of five years. His life should be open-ended and full of promise, but he can’t shake his feelings of loss. Being a stranger in a strange land only aggravates his situation. When he falls in love with a young mysterious prostitute, a fateful journey begins, though we soon learn that Simon is the one with deeper secrets.

6. Red Lights (directed by Rodrigo Cortes)

Another divisive film, mostly due to the wacky ending (apparently). There is a trailer though, and it looks great. I also loved Buried, Rodrigo Cortes' previous film.

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Olsen and Toby Jones.

Critic Quote: "This is a 21st century Ghostbusters." - Peter Sciretta, Slashfilm

Two investigators of paranormal hoaxes, the veteran Dr. Margaret Matheson and her young assistant, Tom Buckley, study the most varied metaphysical phenomena with the aim of proving their fraudulent origins. Simon Silver, a legendary blind psychic, reappears after an enigmatic absence of 30 years to become the greatest international challenge to both orthodox science and professional sceptics. Tom starts to develop an intense obsession with Silver, whose magnetism becomes stronger with each new manifestation of inexplicable events. As Tom gets closer to Silver, tension mounts, and his worldview is threatened to its core.

7. Compliance (directed by Craig Zobel)

The most controversial and disturbing film of this year's festival, and based on a true story to boot. Enough to get me excited!

Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy

Critic Quote:It’s so effective it made me want to walk out because the real life events portrayed were so enraging, so unbelievable, so easily avoidable and painted such a bad light on humanity that I could almost not stomach sitting in the theater.” - Germain Lussier, Slashfilm

Becky and Sandra aren’t the best of friends. Sandra is a middle-aged manager at a fast-food restaurant; Becky is a teenaged counter girl who really needs the job. One stressful day (too many customers and too little bacon), a police officer calls, accusing Becky of stealing money from a customer’s purse, which she vehemently denies. Sandra, overwhelmed by her managerial responsibilities, complies with the officer’s orders to detain Becky. This choice begins a nightmare that tragically blurs the lines between expedience and prudence, legality and reason.

8. The Imposter (Documentary directed by Bart Layton)

Critic Quote: "The Imposter makes slick work of its wily subject, using atmospheric reenactments and stark, soul-baring interviews to explore a mind-boggling case of false identity." - Peter Debruge, Variety

It’s 1994: a 13-year-old boy disappears from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Three and a half years later, he is found alive, thousands of miles away, in Spain. Disoriented and quivering with fear, he divulges his shocking story of kidnap and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not what it seems. Sure, he has the same tattoos, but he looks decidedly different, and he now speaks with a strange accent. Why doesn't the family seem to notice these glaring inconsistencies? It's only when an investigator starts asking questions that this astounding true story takes an even stranger turn.

9. West of Memphis (Documentary directed by Amy Berg)

If you've heard of the West Memphis Three, you'll know that this is perfect documentary material. What's more, this one is produced by Peter Jackson.

Critic Quote: "West Of Memphis brings enough to the table to stand alongside "Paradise Lost" as a nuanced, powerful look at a miscarriage of justice..." - Drew McWeeny, Hitfix

For many people, the case of the West Memphis Three has become synonymous with wrongful conviction. Despite a lack of physical evidence, three Arkansas teenagers were found guilty in 1994 of the ritual murder of three eight-year-old boys. Media attention led to an outpouring of support that has helped to keep them in the public consciousness for nearly two decades.

10. Liberal Arts (directed by Josh Radnor)

Yes, it seems a little tired and a tad hipster, but apparently this really is good.

Critic Quote:With Liberal Arts, [Josh] Radnor positions himself as a mini-Cameron Crowe, mixing joy, life lessons and a love of culture into a perfect, crowd pleasing film” - Germain Lussier, Slashfilm

Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney.

Newly single, 35, and uninspired by his job, Jesse Fisher worries that his best days are behind him. But no matter how much he buries his head in a book, life keeps pulling Jesse back. When his favorite college professor invites him to campus to speak at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance. He is prepared for the nostalgia of the dining halls and dorm rooms, the parties and poetry seminars; what he doesn’t see coming is Zibby—a beautiful, precocious, classical-music-loving sophomore. Zibby awakens scary, exciting, long-dormant feelings of possibility and connection that Jesse thought he had buried forever.

Any of these stand out?

Honourable mentions: Safety Not Guaranteed, Celeste & Jesse Forever, Smashed, Wish You Were Here, Wrong and V/H/S.

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