What You Need to Know From Sundance
Bold, impassioned, ecstatically beautiful, Shane Carruth's Upstream Color -- a lyric reverie on loss, love, and various invasions of the body -- was in a class by itself at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Well, let's say it was a class shared by a more conventional but no less heady consideration of coupledom and the cosmos, Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, the third (but one hopes not the last) in Linklater's series of scintillating gabfests co-scripted with stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
erpb Upstream Color
Carruth's film -- his first since winning Sundance's Grand Jury Prize in 2004 for the garage-inventor time-travel opus Primer -- unsurprisingly divided critics and audiences with its fragmented, allusive semi-narrative involving parasitic worms and copious quotations from Thoreau's Walden. But this hypnotic, symphonic film, which calls to mind everything from Jacques Rivette's Paris Nous Appartient to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, undeniably gets under your skin, and it confirms its 40-year-old writer-director-producer-composer-editor-star as one of the singular talents in American movies today.
It also points to an ongoing paradigm shift in the indie film landscape: Heeding the gospel that indie gurus like producer Ted Hope and Filmmaker magazine editor Scott Macaulay have been preaching for years now, Carruth came to Sundance with a well-plotted distribution strategy for Upstream Color already in place, including theatrical bookings in some two-dozen markets and a near-simultaneous release on iTunes, Amazon and other video-on-demand platforms. The distributor? Carruth himself, nimbly dodging the Sundance meat market where, for every headline-grabbing seven-figure sale, there are dozens more in the five- and low-six-figure range -with few if any of those figures ever getting back to the actual filmmaker.
Another formidable multi-hyphenate, Carruth's co-editor David Lowery was also present at Sundance with his third feature as writer-director, the 1970s Texas crime drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints, featuring Casey Affleck as an escaped con trying to get back to the woman (Rooney Mara) he loves. Judging from the craftsmanship on display, Lowery is a talent to watch -- as surely as Saints was instantly overpraised by those desperate for a little old-fashioned cinematic luxuriousness after many days in the color-desaturated, poorly-framed digital trenches.
Probably the most visually arresting movie in the festival alongside Upstream Color, ATBS drips with terminally imitative Terrence Malick-isms -- including (but not limited to) cameos from such regular members of the Malick stock company as bodies posed artfully against magic-hour skies, hands gently caressing tall grass, crisp white linen blowing in the breeze and (on the soundtrack) tremolo strings straining for the ethereal. But where Carruth's film feels vibrantly alive with meaning, Lowery's too often seems embalmed with stylization, including the decision to have the (very fine) actors deliver nearly all their lines in breathy half-whispers.
If Sundance 2013 failed to yield a single critical and audience consensus favorite on the order of Precious or 2012's Beasts of the Southern Wild, day by day there were still many pleasures to be had -- quite likely the most varied and enjoyable lineup of the 11 Sundances I've attended. Even some of the duds managed to contain a diamond, like luminescent newcomer Kaya Scodelario, who works wonders with the title role in the otherwise taxing Emanuel and theTruth About Fishes. This veritable SNL parody of an indie film sent my quirk-o-meter into the danger zone around the time Jessica Biel appeared as a grieving mother who substitutes a plastic doll for her deceased newborn.