The name of the Sundance Festival game? No, it’s not to go to as many gifting suites or parties as possible, it’s to see lots of amazing films. Our editor in chief Luke Crisell and associate editor Caitlin Smith spent five days running from theatre to theatre in Park City, Utah, to check out the best new films, directors, and actors. Here, they weigh in on the intense, the weird, and the lovely. Illustrated by Andy Miller
Most Likely to Make You Lose Your Faith in Humanity
Any lovely childhood memories you have of visiting SeaWorld will be forever tainted within the first 10 minutes of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s heartbreaking documentary about the entrapment of killer whales. Cowperthwaite de-romanticizes the world-famous theme park by exposing the immoral way that it functions through interviews, rare footage, photos, courtroom details, and incident records. In one particularly painful conversation, a gruff fisherman from Seattle gets teary eyed recalling when the park commissioned him to capture a hoard of baby Orcas as their family watched in anguish, calling it the worst thing he has ever done. From there, we’re introduced to Tilikum, a magnificent and exceptionally large male Orca that was captured for a sad little park called Sealand near Victoria, British Columbia, and whose tiny quarters, it’s believed, led him to a frustration and psychosis that led him to kill a trainer. Despite the tragedy, SeaWorld didn’t hesitate in buying Tilikum from Sealand so they could use him to breed with their female Orcas. As could be predicted, Tilikum kills not once, but two more times, and Cowperthwaite delves deeper into these incidents, revealing horrifying details on SeaWorld’s attempt to rationalize the situation. A neuroscientist who’s been studying the brain of the killer whale has discovered that there’s a portion developed for processing emotion that humans don’t even have. “Everything they do is social,” she says. After watching Blackfish, it’s hard to imagine anyone with a brain allowing these extraordinary creatures to be treated so cruelly.
Best Reason Not to Go Corporate
We have a crush on Brit Marling. And it’s not only because she’s such a babe, or because of her killer sense of style—she’s also a master at writing captivating screenplays (if you’re not already familiar, please see yourself immediately to her other two films, Sound of My Voice and Another Earth). The East is her latest masterpiece (and the biggest budget she’s had to work with yet—thanks to Fox Searchlight), which she wrote with her regular collaborator, director Zal Batmanglij. Marling also stars in the film (alongside Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, and Patricia Clarkson) as badass contract worker Sarah who sets out to infiltrate an anarchist group of freegans (dubbed The East) who are bent on “counter attacking” corrupt corporations (an oil company after they deliberately pollute the ocean; a pharmaceutical company whose medicine is causing illness rather than curing it; a power plant that’s poisoning a town’s water). As Sarah gets deeper and deeper into the game, she finds herself struggling with a strange form of Stockholm syndrome and right and wrong begins to blur, posing the (not unfamiliar) question: is an eye for an eye ever fair punishment?
Most Likely to Be on Our Top Ten Films of 2013 List
If you saw 2011’s Like Crazy, then you’ll know why we were so pumped to see director Drake Doremus’ new film, Breathe In. Apparently (and understandably), Doremus has a thing for Felicity Jones (as well as gifted musician Dustin O’Halloran, who he commissioned to create another incredible score); she stars here as Sophie, an 18-year-old foreign exchange student from England who comes to stay with a family in upstate New York for her last semester of high school. Tensions ebb and flow between Sophia and her temporary family—Keith (Guy Pearce), an unfulfilled and restless piano teacher and cello player who’s displaying obvious signs of a midlife crisis; Megan (Amy Ryan), an uptight and controlling stay-at-home-mom; and their insecure daughter Lauren (newcomer Mackenzie Davis, who steals the show)—until several incidents cause that tension, and the characters, to break. The combination of a stellar, multifaceted script (written by Doremus and Ben York Jones) and the natural chemistry between the cast (much of the film was improvised) makes this one of our favourites from the festival, and possibly one of our favourites for the year.
Best Reason to Buy Organic
THE MOO MAN
This quiet and endearing portrait of an organic dairy farmer in rural England might just have you tearing up the next time you open a carton of milk. Our introduction to Stephen Hook is simple, much like his life, and we like him immediately. Hook chats lovingly with his cows as if they were people; and they may as well be to him—he has names for all 55 in his herd, and despite their physical similarities, never seems to forget which is which. There are at least four calf births during the film (more than we’d prefer, mind you), all of which seem to get progressively less miraculous and more torturous to watch—but it’s all for the sake of accurately portraying Hook’s day-to-day existence which, outdated and exhausting (physically, financially, mentally) as it may seem, is honorable. Unlike most, Hook never seems to question this way of life, even though modern British dairy farms are monopolizing his industry and he’s getting paid virtually unlivable wages for his tiring work. As the film’s poster states: “You might never look at cows the same way again.”
Most Likely to Make You Want to Move to Sweden
INEQUALITY FOR ALL
Former secretary of labor for the Clinton administration and current professor of public policy at UC Berkeley Robert Reich heads this enlightening documentary on economic inequality in the U.S. Touted as the economy’s answer to An Inconvenient Truth, Reich presents us with beautifully illustrated charts and graphs which reveal the astonishing gap between America’s wealthy and impoverished citizens. “Today,” Reich explains, “the richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the rest of the nation put together.” The film is filled with jaw-dropping facts like this, along with interviews from both sides of the chart. A mother of two working paycheck to paycheck asks sincerely: “How do you even build wealth?” It is, indeed, a notion incomprehensible and unattainable to most Americans today, and Reich—always articulate (he’s an expert at putting things into Layman’s terms), endlessly inspirational, and overwhelmingly likeable—spends the entirety of the film explaining what the problem is, but without presenting any real solution apart from the idea that the middle class needs to thrive in order for that gap between the rich and the poor to shrink. It’s educating yes, but equally disheartening.
Best Handling of a Harrowing Subject
It’s a strange experience to go through high security screening—bag searches, pat downs, metal detectors—just to see a movie. That’s what we and our fellow viewers were required to do before entering the theatre to watch After Tiller, a controversial documentary on late-term (read: third trimester) abortions, the murder of doctor George Tiller (who was ultimately killed by a protestor for performing this procedure), and the team he left behind to carry on his stigmatized life’s work. It’s an occupation that, for obvious reasons, is highly denounced and dangerous, due to the amount of radical members of the pro-life movement who will go to all lengths to put a stop to the practice (which is why the screening room was filled with armed security guards). There are only three doctors left in America who still perform this procedure and they, and other close colleagues and friends of Tiller are at the centre of this emotional film, and quickly make it clear that their work is far from being vicious and heartless—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Distraught families travel from all over to these offices—the only two in the U.S.—as a last resort due, most often, to their unborn baby’s fatal or highly disabling illness. Everyday, the doctors compromise time with their families for their work, make hefty moral decisions (often, on whether or not to accept a patient), provide comfort and counseling for what is likely one of the worst day’s of their patient’s life, and face the risk of being attacked or killed for doing so. It’s an occupation that’s profoundly emotional and difficult and, as the stories of the doctors and their patients prove, grievously misunderstood. After Tiller shines a new light on a topic that is normally condemned to darkness.
Most Likely to Make You Spill Your Popcorn in Shock
If you saw Japanese director Chan-wook Park’s film Oldboy, you know he has a penchant for gore. His first English film, Stoker, is no exception. After her father dies on her 18th birthday, India (Mia Wasikowska) and her elegant but emotionally unstable mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) are visited by his brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), whose existence has been kept something of a secret. India is suspicious of Charlie’s motives—especially when she finds him following her home from school—and he proves to be a new breed of “creepy uncle.” What unfolds is a mysterious, seductive, and gothic psychological thriller made all the better by Park’s anime-like style of directing. (Oh, and in case you’re curious, despite the fact that writer Wentworth Miller claims to have been slightly influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it has nothing to do with vampires.)
The Most Nudity You’ll See in 90 Minutes
THE LOOK OF LOVE
Fans of Steve Coogan will be surprised to see him in a serious role as infamous British impresario and playboy Paul Raymond in The Look of Love. Director Michael Winterbottom (who helmed 2010’s brilliant The Trip) prefaced the screening by saying that Coogan was the one to approach him about making a biopic about Raymond. In the film, we follow the “grandfather of Soho” as he goes from London’s property king to London’s porn king, opening a wildly successful club with nude dancers and, later, buying and heading the relaunch of Men Only, a magazine he defends over and over against obscenity charges. Raymond, full of charm and wit, starts out married and living at home with his wife Jean (Anna Friel) and son. But his late-night trysts with the girls at his club wear on Jean and she files for divorce after Raymond runs off for a weekend holiday with his newest dancer, the leggy redheaded Amber (Tamsin Egerton). Around the same time, another woman enters Raymond’s new life—his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots, the highlight of the film), who has been kicked out of boarding school for smoking pot. Raymond decides to creates a show for her at his club, but when it fails with audiences, Debbie falls into a vicious downward spiral, doing coke and partying constantly (habits which her father both condones and indulges). Debbie’s story ends in typical poor-little-rich-girl style, and Raymond is left to wallow in his empire of porn, property, and shallow relationships with various young women. But that’s not to say we don’t feel sorry for him—it’s not easy for most to sympathize with someone like Raymond, but Coogan’s performance succeeds.
Fairest Portrayal of a Crime
In Valentine Road, Marta Cunningham investigates the 2008 shooting of eighth-grade student Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney. Cunningham bravely explores beyond the headlines, which scream hate crime, and delves deeper into the complexity of the lives of both victim and murderer and the messy courtroom drama that followed. Through stirring interviews with family, friends, and teachers, we’re offered backgrounds on King and McInerney’s childhoods—both of which are endlessly tragic and troubled. From the outrageous (the meeting—over cake and wine—between three female jurors on the trial who define McInerney’s actions as “taking care of a problem” referring to the fact that King wouldn’t stop cross-dressing at school) to the heartbreaking (the teary reunion of the teacher and two students who were in the classroom during the murder), Valentine Road offers a concrete look into the tragedy and how it has affected those involved, while avoiding the easy route of making McInerney look like a monster.
Best Reason to Not Move in with Your Boyfriend
All of a sudden, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is disgusted by other people’s skin. This presents a serious problem, since she happens to be a masseuse. This could, it’s safe to assume, have something to do with the fact that her boyfriend just asked her to move in with him. Director Lynn Shelton is a pro at creating uncomfortable true-to-life films (see her low-budget hits Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister) and in this wonderful little dramady, she does what she does best by shaking up the chemistry between Abby, her boyfriend Jessie (Scoot McNairy), emotionally devoid brother Paul (played flawlessly and hilariously by Josh Pais), and his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page), who is evading college because she doesn’t want to abandon her father and his failing dental practice. In just a few days, everyone undergoes a transformation—Paul loosens up and embraces a New Age energy therapy called Reiki believing that it might help to save his practice, Jenny reaches a breaking point in her stagnant restlessness, and Abby goes from pouncing on Jessie to recoiling from him to snapping out of her funk and coming to her senses. It’s a quirky and brilliant mess that only reinforces our love for Shelton.