Sundance in Review

What came out of the Sundance Film Festival this year? Now that I’ve had several days to rest up and recollect about this year’s festival, many recurring themes popped up out of the many screenings I managed to have time for. But everybody who comes here know this: Sundance is all about drama. Long-distance romance, teenage angst, infidelity, Elizabeth Olsen, death-inflicted guilt, sensory loss, claustrophobic horror, John Hawkes, physician-assisted suicide, picketing church extremists, YouTube–these were some of the on- and off-screen themes that made up the 2011 slate. But comedies were interspersed there to be discovered by the bleary-eyed crowds to level the emotional balance.

A comedy that I found to be unexpectedly jarring amidst all the deeply felt films was Flypaper. Starring Ashley Judd and Patrick Dempsey, it was a bumbling bank heist caper that seemed too silly and broad, but refreshingly humorous after watching dark landscape films from exotic territories. The Details was another notable comedy, make that spontaneous tragicomedy, which deals with that sordid suburban malaise called infidelity. Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks play an unnerved couple whose lawn is strangely attacked by raccoons. The grass is literally greener on the other side! But it was the scene-stealing Laura Linney, whose performance as the wacked-out neighbor and attempted homewrecker, that takes this film to a level that would have never been accomplished without her.

For the dramatic perspective, one could sense having a deja vu experience. Elizabeth Olsen appeared in two of the films I saw here at the festival. The younger sister of the famous Olsen twins, she is all set to become the breakout star this year for Silent House and Martha Marcy May Marlene. The claustrophobic tension of Silent House was already mentioned in a previous review, but Martha Marcy was a similarly dark film about cult trauma. A slow-building and frustrating film to watch, it traces Martha’s escape from a brainwashing cult group to her sister’s safe home in Connecticut. But the paranoic flashbacks that Martha experiences do not make herself or her sister’s family safe. The growing tension does get more substantial as the film progresses and writer/director Sean Durkin knows how to keep us on edge. However he just kept us dangling in the end.

Guilt can be a killer as shown in the starkly-filmed On the Ice. Set in an Arctic town of Alaska, two friends grapple with the consequence of an accidental death of their friend after an altercation. They attempt to pass the blame off as a drowning, but you can sense the broiling tension as one of the friends’ father sees right through it and uncovers tracks leading to the death. At least it wasn’t so icy for the bittersweet Danish film Happy, Happy. Showcasing two couples that seem far from it, the film was a different type of study in obtaining marital contentment. Sex and infidelity ran rampant with these households but overall it made for more resolute bonds in the long run.

While looking back at these films, they didn’t offer audiences any glimmer of hope or note of optimism, but artistically it was a strong and bountiful lineup that one could ever witness here. Always a privilege catching these films, I am still confounded by the filmmakers as they create original stories and from far-off exotic locales. The dealmaking was especially active as a whopping total of 39 films struck multimillion dollar deals with notable distributors like Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classic, Paramount and The Weinstein Company. So, look out, as proven by Precious and Winter’s Bone in previous years, this year’s Sundance hit could be next year’s sleeper hit at the Oscars.

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