PARK CITY, Utah — The 30th Sundance Film Festival ended its 10-day run Sunday, with filmmakers from 37 countries hoping to strike Hollywood gold by having their films acquired by a studio or distributor. This was not a record year, monetarily speaking, for filmmakers — nor was it my favorite year.
Not that there weren’t a lot of really good films, but, simply put, there is no breakout film such as 2013’s Fruitvale Station or 2012’s Beast of the Southern Wild or 2012 Oscar winner Searching for Sugarman. And although there were quite a few acquisitions, the US distribution rights for the highest-bid film, Whiplash, sold for about $3 million — a big difference from Little Miss Sunshine, which was acquired for $10 million in 2006.
In the long run, though, a film’s sales price doesn’t matter to the average fan, because the audiences’ favorite films rise to the top and are eventually available in theaters, on TV or on streaming video.
I was able to see only a small percentage of the 117 films screened, but here are four favorites:
Whiplash, a drama that premiered on opening night to rave reviews, tells the story of a talented, driven young jazz drummer (played by Miles Teller) who is attending one of the nation's most prestigious music schools. There, he comes under the tutelage a legendary, intimidating and abusive professor (J.K. Simmons) as the film explores how far artists — and by extension any athlete or performer —will push themselves to achieve greatness.
Both actors give career-defining performances in this exceptional film, with Teller doing much of his own drumming.
The buzz over Whiplash continued for the entire festival. Sony Pictures Classic acquired this film within 48 hours of its showing. It received both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award for US drama feature. Following on the heels of Fruitvale, it marks the second year in a row that the top two prizes for an American narrative feature have gone to the same film.
Park City is a small town, and word of extraordinary films travels fast. By day three of Sundance, what started as a casual email message of “Have you heard about the film Alive Inside?” had become a roar. Audiences gave filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett a three-minute standing ovation, and there was not a dry eye in the packed theater when I saw it.
As we exited, I overheard audience members discussing how to reach Apple CEO Tim Cook to suggest Apple supply iPods to nursing homes.
The film follows social worker Dan Cohen, who has launched a campaign to bring iPods and music therapy to nursing homes. Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory opens with a 96-year-old Alzheimer’s patient (who was featured in an online video that went viral in 2012, with nearly 10 million views) looking largely unresponsive to the outside world until he is given a pair of headphones with which to listen to Cab Calloway, his favorite artist. The music energizes and awakens him as he taps into a part of his brain that still lives. It is a jaw-dropping, intense and emotional experience to witness it.
As the film progresses, we see one patient after another respond — almost by magic — to the Shirelles, Benny Goodman and Frankie Valli as Cohen highlights ways that non-medical personnel can help those for whom music is one of the only sources of joy remaining.
As we exited, I overheard audience members discussing how to reach Apple CEO Tim Cook to suggest Apple supply iPods to nursing homes, while others discussed pioneering efforts in their own communities. Music has kept many of us from losing our minds, and this film illustrated how it helps people find what little of their faculties they still possess.
Alive Inside received the Audience Award for Best Documentary but had not been acquired at the close of Sundance.
UT alum Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play a couple on the brink of splitting when their therapist (played by Ted Danson) recommends a weekend getaway. Although the film’s pre-release description reveals only that their character will be tested, the movie is part supernatural thriller, part existential query — with a dash of humor thrown in — as it explores how relationships change and how we aren't always our "perfect selves" to our partners, nor do we want to be.
In the hands of less-talented actors, the film might seem completely absurd. But The One I Love is clever and takes some unexpected twists and turns that are still haunting me. RADiUS-TWC bought the film and plans a fall 2014 release, just in time for Oscar consideration.
Midway through the festival, I was missing the outstanding and nostalgic music documentaries that have been a part of past years. Thanks to the late entry of Lambert & Stamp, along with the unexpected and heartwarming surprise of Alive Inside, I need not have worried.
"I think it's the greatest untold story in rock. It's a relationship played out through musicians on the rise to megastardom.” — 'Lambert & Stamp' director James D. Cooper
Even diehard rock fans may not be familiar with the names of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who, with no prior management or music experience, became the managers of legendary rock band The Who. First-time documentary director James D. Cooper tells the story of a partnership that produced one of the greatest rock bands in history.
"I think it's the greatest untold story in rock," Cooper says. "It's a relationship played out through musicians on the rise to megastardom.”
Shot mostly in black-and-white in a way that captures the mood of London in the late '60s and '70s, Lambert & Stamp is crammed full of interviews and previously unseen concert footage with remaining Who members Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend and lots of juicy gossip and anecdotes from Cash himself (who died in 2012 before seeing a cut of the film).
At two full hours, I would have preferred more of The Who’s music and less talk, but true Who fans will relish the background of two unlikely partners who revolutionized the way rock bands are marketed.