The Sundance Film Festival’s Spotlight section is a curated set of mostly foreign films that have already made the rounds at other major festivals, where they’ve achieved acclaim. Although all of these films have since been picked up for US distribution, some of them are still worth making the time for at Sundance. Here’s a look at some of the best and worst this section has to offer.
Yann Demange’s tense thriller, “’71,” which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year, follows a working-class British soldier, Gary Hook (the amazing Jack O’Connell) who finds himself in 1971 Belfast, stranded in the middle of IRA territory on one fateful night. Separated from his unit after being badly beaten in a struggle that killed his fellow soldier, Gary must be resourceful to survive. He finds himself seeking refuge first with a young boy who knows the ropes, and then with a family that mistakes him for one of their own, bringing him in to give him medical attention, only to discover that helping him puts them in danger. As he meets more people from the other side, he begins to lose the will to fight this fight. It’s shot entirely with handheld camera — which gets incredibly shaky in the confusion of the biggest confrontations — because in the thick of battle you have no perspective: it’s all about survival. O’Connell (“Starred Up”) gives yet another stellar performance as a man who feels like a lost boy struggling to survive, rarely speaking a word, for his accent would give him away; his face says it all.
“ ’71” screens on 1/25 at 9:30PM (Peery’s Egyptian Theatre), on 1/27 at 8:30PM (The MARC), on 1/28 at 6:30PM (Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City), and on 2/1 at 10AM (Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room).
I caught Cêline Sciamma’s (“Tomboy”) terrific third film, “Girlhood” — about the struggles and triumphs of a tall, black teenage girl, Marieme (Karidja Touré) living in a low-income suburb of Paris — at its world premiere in Cannes last year — how fitting, that Sundance, the festival that debuted “Boyhood” last year would follow up with this film. Sciamma’s film is a strong reminder that it’s different for girls. We first meet Marieme on the football field, a warrior woman with strength, and the rest of the film charts the ways in which society — whether it’s her brother who beats her or her guidance counsellor who won’t listen — confines and constrains this radiant young woman. Marieme makes a series of decisions, in an effort to empower herself and find her independence, most of which have unintended, or ultimately problematic, consequences. But she also finds joy along the way. We see Marieme amongst her gang of girlfriends, supporting each other and finding solace in their companionship. We even see Marieme finding tenderness in a boy. But we also watch her finding herself in a world that isn’t ready for her, that doesn’t see her, or that can’t easily give her what she needs. Sciamma’s trademark sensitivity and compassion is at its peak in the film. Marieme may falter now and then, but we sense that her nickname “Vic” is actually telling: she’s a survivor and a fighter.
“Girlhood” screens 1/25 at 11:15 a.m. (Library Center Theatre), 1/26 at 12:30 p.m. (Redstone Cinema), and 1/31 at 6 p.m. (Salt Lake City Library Theatre).
When I caught the first press screening of the uneven but entertaining “Wild Tales” at Cannes, it already felt like it had been over-hyped, and it’s only gotten worse; it was just nominated for Best Foreign Language film by the Academy Awards. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable black comedy, and occasional satire, in six vignettes — of varying quality — each tale united by their depiction of human savagery. The first and last vignettes are sidesplittingly funny: one finds a group of people on a plane who discover they’re all connected by the same incompetent loser, and one finds a bride going crazy with revenge sex, on her wedding day, after discovering her new husband’s infidelity. Two of the vignettes are decent, including the one starring Ricardo Darín — because it’s not an Argentine film if he’s not in it — which satirizes the corrupt Argentine bureaucracy with a cathartic finish. But two are very weak: one is outright stupid while the other is merely about stupid people being outrageously crass without being funny. It’s certainly worth seeing with an audience, as the laughter of others will feed your enjoyment. But it has US distribution, so it’s really only a must at Sundance if you live somewhere it’s not likely to screen.
Read the full review of “Wild Tales” from Cannes 2014 here. “Wild Tales” screens 1/23 at 9 a.m. (Egyptian Theatre), 1/23 at 8:30 p.m. (The MARC), 1/28 at 6 p.m. (Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake City) ,and 1/31 at 9 p.m. (Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room).
Critical darling Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Eden” — based on the life story of her brother Sven, who was a DJ during the ‘90s House music movement in Paris — was one of the most divisive films to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. Not terrible, but also far from being one of Hansen-Lóve’s best, “Eden” tells the story of Paul (Félix de Givry, a handsome revelation) who, at eighteen, dreams of being a DJ, and winds up stuck emotionally, mentally, and musically, at that age for the next ten years. We watch as he destroys relationships, he develops a cocaine addict he can’t afford, and eventually finds himself in debt, friendless, and jobless in his 30s. The film is at its best when chronicling Paul’s romantic relationships, in which the tenderness is palpable — one of Hansen-Løve’s greatest gifts. Hansen-Løve also impeccably captures the party scene: the music, the dancing, the flashing lights, and of course, the drugs. The trouble is it’s so repetitive, because Paul is incapable of growth or development, which makes the movie as stunted as he is: we rinse and repeat through girlfriends, parties, and false promises, nothing leading anywhere. It’ll hit cinemas in May, if you absolutely must see it, but your time is probably spent better elsewhere.
“Eden” screens 1/23 at 6 p.m. (Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City), 1/27 at 2:15 p.m. (The MARC), and 1/28 at 5:30 p.m. (Egyptian Theatre).
A surprise hit at the Critics’ Week sidebar in Cannes, where it won all the awards, I caught this fascinating, deeply disturbing, and utterly compelling Ukrainian film at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. “The Tribe” tells the story of a terrifying underground gang — into prostitution and drugs — at a high school for the deaf. Told entirely in sign language, without subtitles, it unfolds in long takes with broad scope. The characters’ gestures are so expressive, and the film so exquisitely shot, that we need no translation: the plot, however simple, is clear, and the emotions of everyone involved come through. We follow a teenaged boy who’s new to the school, as he gets inducted into “The Tribe,” starting with his initiation rites. But he gets sidetracked: he falls for one of the girls who is also working as a prostitute, derailing things. Near the beginning of the film, we follow the boy on his first night out with the gang, descending flights and flights of stairs within the school: before long, we see this is a descent into hell, where horrible things beyond your imagination happen. Haunting and enthralling, “The Tribe” is one of the most original and downright engaging films of the year. By the end of the film, he’ll have to climb those stairs one last time in an act of retribution. Although Drafthouse films picked “The Tribe” up for US distribution, if you live somewhere like San Francisco, it’s not likely to get the release it deserves in a proper theatre: it’s a must-see at the festival.
Read the full review of “The Tribe” from TIFF 2014 here. “The Tribe” screens 1/24 at 6 p.m. (Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City), 1/26 at 11:30 a.m. (The MARC), and 1/27 at 9 a.m. (Temple Theatre).