2013 Sundance Film Festival—My Top 8 Picks + reviews, Q&A pictures The spectacular 2013 Sundance Film Festival has come to an exciting conclusion and I've returned to sunny South Florida to take stock of my whirlwind week in snowy Utah. As usual, I used Twitter to cover the festivities with photos and post-screening capsule reviews of all the films I saw. Hopefully you followed along and were able to join me in experiencing the events in real time.

The quality of this year's lineup was truly extraordinary, as usual. Sundance 2013 wowed me from the very first screening, so it's a formidable challenge for me to narrow down my favorites to just a few. But, as I do following every festival (61 since the start of 2006), this wrapup will conclude with my list of Top Picks. First, some statistics. Unlike my typical festival schedule of five or six screenings a day, it's a challenge to even get to four at Sundance, but I was determined to fit in as many as possible this year. With a modicum of grit and a magnum of luck, I succeeded. For the first time, I managed to see five films on two days and four films on three days. My total was 28 movies, including two Slamdance Film Festival selections. The 26 Sundance features included 22 narratives and four documentaries.

Sundance 2013 started off as an international event, with five of my first seven films coming at least partially from overseas. After that, 15 of 17 films were American (with one US/Canada co-production), including 11 in a row at one point. That was a first for any of the 61 festivals I've attended. My Sundance ended the way it started -- with two foreign films. In total, there were 15 exclusively US productions. Of the remaining 11 titles, there were three U.S. co-productions -- with the UK, Canada, and Cambodia. The eight exclusively foreign films included one each from Afghanistan, Chile, China, New Zealand, UK, and South Korea. Co-productions included Australia/France and Georgia/Germany. There wasn't a single country with more than one solo entry -- also a first.

In some years as many as half the screenings I've attended were in other languages. This year only six of the 26 features were subtitled. There was one film produced by a foreign country that was a mixture of English and Spanish -- Crystal Fairy (Chile). The remaining films spoken in their native tongues included Cambodian (in a US/Cambodia co-production), Chinese, Georgian (in a co-production with Germany), Korean, and Persian (produced by Afghanistan). Of the 15 films exclusively from the United States, one was a documentary. Therefore, I saw 14 U.S. narrative features -- over half my total-- including several of those "sweet little American indies" which I crave at festivals.

In addition, one of my goals is always to catch as many competition films as possible, and this year I lucked out -- 11 screenings were in competition categories, including my first four and last three. I saw three in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, four in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, three in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, and one in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

Another reason to attend festivals is to be among the first to see a movie. For the first time in 61 film fests over the course of eight years, Sundance 2013 was a festival in which every single movie I saw was a World Premiere -- being seen by the public for the very first time -- and I was fortunate to be at 14 of their first screenings (most have four or more screenings). I doubt this record will ever be matched.

One thing that film festivals offer over traditional cinemas is an exciting and informative Q&A session with the cast and filmmakers after a screening. Most films at Sundance have at least four showings, and Q&As traditionally wane with successive ones. But that's beginning to change. Every public screening I attended had a Q&A, no exceptions, including 14 first screenings, six second screenings, and even two third screenings. That was also a first among the 61 festivals I've attended.

One of the curious and, occasionally, most frustrating consequences of attending multiple films back-to-back is coming across trends which may or may not have been as apparent if not for the quick succession of these themes. Perhaps it's because I see so many low budget American narratives at festivals, causing conventions and romantic comedy tropes to become tiresome, but I find myself tuning out a lot sooner than I used to. Here's a template for an indie trying to be mainstream: Begin with voiceover describing every character. For example, "This is my sister Bonnie. She broke up with her husband over a bad meatloaf. This is her girlfriend Kate. Kate likes to walk around the house with nothing on but a clown nose..." Make sure one of the first scenes is an overhead shot of the protagonist(s) in bed. If the first shot isn't a bed it's a car. At some point, have the leads say, "I have something to say." "No, I have something to say." "Okay, you first." "No, you first."

While death and issues surrounding grief are not uncommon topics, I first noticed this plot trend in 2009 when my favorites from Sundance (The Greatest) and Tribeca (Accidents Happen) both involved families grieving over the loss of a child and how parents and siblings come to cope with these tragedies. At one festival I saw six films centered on fathers dying of smoking-related illnesses. Three of these opened with a shot of a man lying in bed hooked up to tubes, coughing his lungs up. One movie opened with a young girl asking her mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" The very next one opened with a young boy asking his mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" I kid you not. I just sat there shaking my head.

I had an equally surreal experience at Sundance in 2011. The first six pictures I saw all dealt with death. The first five of these included death and guns. Two involved death, guns, and suicide. One juggled themes of death, guns, and homophobia. And one had death, guns, suicide, and homophobia (the very first one I saw). I found myself walking into theaters saying, "Please don't let this be about death..." It wasn't until my seventh screening that I finally found a film without any of these four themes. But my very last movie there was, like the first one, about death, guns, suicide, and homophobia.

Last year, Sundance lightened up a bit. Days of darkness and depression gave way to a festival filled with relationship dramas. Most of my films dealt with the struggles between parents and children, especially fathers and sons. "Write what you know," the old adage says, and screenwriters did just that. All had touches of humor, mirroring real life which, for me, is one of the definitions of an indie. Of the 34 features I saw at SXSW last year, 18 had death as a major plot point. But that was actually a relatively small percentage compared to many recent festivals (admittedly the numbers are skewed by my penchant for horror). Whether comedic drama or dramatic comedy (sort of like partly cloudy and mostly sunny -- I never could tell the difference) my favorite films in 2012 made me laugh and cry, often within the same scene. That's the power of cinema.

The 2013 Sundance Film Festival will go down in the books as "Porndance," as the week was filled with tales of love, lust, and sex bordering on soft pornography. Even just among the selections I saw, there was the steamy eroticism of films like Two Mothers, A Teacher, Concussion, and Pit Stop, as well as some of the movies that actually had porn as their subjects, including Don Jon's Addiction, Interior. Leather Bar., The Look of Love, and Lovelace. But far from being filled with shock value, these dark and occasionally not very titillating films were intended to be mass appeal, very carefully edited for R productions more appropriate for Lifetime movies than the art house.

Every year fewer and fewer films are actually, well, films. Or at least not shot on film stock. It wasn't that long ago when digital cinematography, primarily utilizing the RED camera, was a curious oddity. This is now becoming the norm, while the Alexa system is rapidly replacing the ubiquitous RED as digital camera of choice. This also allows many movies to be projected in widescreen as opposed to the common 1.85:1 aspect ratio which was the traditional format for independent films featured at festivals. I used to mark "WS" in my notebook next to the widescreen films which were few and far between. This year I noted the rare "1.85" where it appeared since almost every picture was in the 2.39:1 widescreen cinema ratio, including all 10 screenings I attended at the Eccles Theatre.

Almost every movie I saw was enjoyable. Some were disappointing but still worthy of recommendation. Most met my expectations. But only a few exceeded them, so I had to make some tough decisions. I had to narrow them down to what I consider to be the best of the best using a 1-4 rating scale. No films deserved only 1 star (avoid at all costs) and only four films received 2 stars from me (not recommended). A whopping 14 movies were good enough to merit a 3 (worth seeing). But there were only eight films I'd recommend and see again (and maybe even buy the DVD). My Top Picks are selected from those 4-star films.

Here is my list of Top 8 Picks from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Countries of origin are listed in parentheses. Reviews follow with links to my Q&A photos.


(in alphabetical order)


Don Jon's Addiction (US) -- Sundance Film Festival resident auteur Joseph Gordon-Levitt brought his 37th feature to Park City this year, the self-penned directorial debut Don Jon's Addiction. He stars as "Don Jon" Martello, a smooth operator from New Joisey who fits every macho Italian stereotype there is -- with one exception. He busts the notion that continual one-night stands, or even having a steady girlfriend, eliminate the need/desire to, umm, pleasure oneself on a regular basis. In Jon's case, that means several dozen times a week, primarily assisted by the hot babes at Pornhub.com (an actual site which allowed the use of its site and material in the film). Tony Danza is uncharacteristically brash as his father, no small feat as Gordon-Levitt explained in the Q&A -- he's just too charming and had to be directed to "be angrier" in take after take. Standouts in support include Julianne Moore (!) as a caring cougar, Scarlett Johansson as a would-be girlfriend, and Brie Larson as the sister who doesn't speak a word other than those she types on her phone every time she's on screen.

This is a rapid-fire, laugh out loud comedy that glosses over what is a real issue today although the consequences of his compulsion -- including the inability to sustain a relationship -- are readily apparent. The film is visually sharp, as well, with high production values owing to Gordon-Levitt's long career and trail of industry veterans eager to offer their services to him. The slick look and frenetic pace of the film is a tribute to the topnotch work of cinematographer Thomas Kloss (Fear, 2011's Conan the Barbarian) and editor Lauren Zuckerman. She cut Drive, The Deep End, and two of my recent fest faves -- Tanner Hall (GenArt 2010) and Jayne Mansfield's Car (Toronto 2012).

In what has come to be known as "Porndance," this is another film that truly fits the description. It isn't just one of many Sundance films involving sex and skin this year -- Don Jon's Addiction is one of several with pornography as its subject (others I saw were Lovelace, Interior. Leather Bar., and The Look of Love). While the videos being viewed by our protagonist are somewhat graphic, they are very carefully edited to include no more than what one would expect in an R-rated picture. There is no real pornography depicted, although what is implied may be more shocking than what is shown. Relativity Media picked up the film for a reported $4 million, one of the more expensive acquisitions of the festival. It should do well in theaters and should have no problem avoiding NC-17 from the MPAA. See my review and photos of the Q&A.


Milkshake (US) -- As I make the festival rounds every year I search for that elusive "sweet little American indie." I don't come across them very often, certainly not often enough, but when that moment happens there's a little pitter-patter in my heart as I know I'm witnessing what could be the launching pad for hot new talent -- writers, directors, actors -- who will go on to produce exciting, creative work in the years to come. I found that here in Milkshake. This exquisite coming-of-age film is an auspicious feature debut for co-writers/directors/editors David Andalman and Mariko Munro. Tyler Ross stars as Al Jolson's great-great-grandson Jolie Jolson, with Shareeka Epps, Georgia Ford, Eshan Bay, Leo Fitzpatrick, Nuri Hazzard, and Danny Burstein in support.

These are real kids telling a real story, with high production values and a compelling narrative that defies genre. So much is unexpected here, from the clever cultural references rooting the story firmly in the '90s, without dependence on the traditional soundtrack of needle-drop hit singles, to the refreshing Gus Van Sant-influenced long takes that are rarely seen in the typical high school dramatic comedy. The laugh lines are contained within protagonist Jolie's voiceover, giving the visuals more authenticity as sight gags become unnecessary. What a brilliant device. Most of all, though, Milkshake is a star vehicle for young Tyler Ross. He was selected as one of Indiewire's 10 Actors to Watch at Sundance, and it's easy to see why as he effortlessly carries Milkshake from opening to closing credits. Distribution rights were acquired by Phase 4 Films for release in theaters this summer and on VOD across all cable and digital platforms. See my review and photos of the Q&A.


The Spectacular Now (US) -- Director James Ponsoldt holds a special place in my cinematic heart since I was such a fan of 2006's Off the Black. I covered that splendid film's World Premiere as well as a half dozen successive festival screenings of it -- even flew to Chicago for the theatrical opening there. For the same reason, though, I hold him and his work to a higher standard. With The Spectacular Now, penned by (500) Days of Summer writers Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter from the Tim Tharp novel, Ponsoldt delivered on that promise. By film's end it was "The Spectacular Wow." But it didn't happen right away. Initially, the incessant use of alcohol turned me off, as it had in last year's Smashed (although I recognized the necessity of it). About halfway through I'd written it off as acceptable but not exceptional, and did not anticipate picking it as a favorite.

Then something changed. At a pivotal moment in the movie I had an epiphany that instantly catapulted the film onto my mental Top 10 and, from that point on, I was overwhelmed with the honesty of the narrative and star Miles Teller's nuanced performance. It convinced me that this is certainly a work worthy of praise and wide distribution. I was truly moved as I witnessed Ponsoldt's expansion beyond the conventions of the genre to help create such a real, authentic coming-of-age film.

Following the premiere, The Spectacular Now was acquired for theatrical release by A24 Films, a new distributor based in New York. "We fell in love with this film the minute that we watched it and we know the rest of the country will embrace this timeless love story," said an A24 spokesperson. "James has directed a wonderful film that depicts young love with complete authenticity and has two young stars giving incredible performances with Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley." Producer Andrew Lauren added, "I am so thrilled that the film has found a home with a company that has such passion for it. It’s been an amazing Sundance and we are so gratified by the incredibly warm response here." The film will open in limited release August 2. See my review and photos of the Q&A.


A Teacher (US) -- In her second feature, director/producer Hannah Fidell (2010's We're Glad You're Here) has crafted a ripped-from-the-headlines narrative all too familiar to audiences -- an illicit relationship between a female high school teacher and a young male student. Lindsay Burdge portrays Diana Watts, the cougar with a heart of gold, aching for young Eric. As the youth, Will Brittain is cool without being macho, tender without being tentative -- in short, what every woman desires. He's the perfect vulnerable man/boy with the puppy dog eyes destined to fill the educator's boring days and long nights otherwise spent grading papers and hoisting drinks with equally dull colleagues. What sets A Teacher apart from the typical Lifetime movie is the agonizing inevitability of the dark twists and turns ahead. Yet we have no idea where this story is going, even though we think we know the outcome.

Besides the nuanced, brilliant performances by the two leads, A Teacher boasts some of the most beautiful cinematography of the festival. Director of photography Andrew Droz Palermo plays with light and shadow, framing his subjects in doorways through which we see only darkness, with quiet moments that are the hallmark of independent films. There are some long single takes that cause the couple's love scenes to transcend anything we're used to in conventional cinema, triggering a level of discomfort as though we're voyeurs peeking through a peephole into the bedroom of a young couple in the midst of a forbidden affair.

The steamy eroticism of A Teacher joins films like Two Mothers, Concussion, and Pit Stop, along with features that were actually about porn, including Don Jon's Addiction, Interior. Leather Bar., Lovelace, and The Look of Love, in a set of titles that has caused this year's festival to be lovingly labeled "Porndance." Love, lust, and sex bordering on soft pornography were served up to audiences this year who eagerly came and gulped down the provocative fare. Oscilloscope Laboratories plans a theatrical, video-on-demand, and digital release for later this year. See my review and photos of the Q&A.


Twenty Feet from Stardom (US) -- There are essentially two kinds of documentaries. The first turns you on to a story you knew nothing about. The second documents a subject you've heard of -- maybe even have read about or studied -- but uncovers facts that are not only new to you but also put a completely different perspective on what you thought really happened. Call it a revelatory experience. This film from director/producer Morgan Neville is a triumphant example of the latter.

Imagine if hundreds of hit songs by dozens of artists from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and even into this millennium all had the same small group of backup vocalists. Ridiculous, huh? Well, guess what? It's closer to reality than you may think. This is the story documented in Twenty Feet from Stardom and I was so moved by it that it's hard to contain my enthusiasm for this stunning achievement. Neville chronicles the musical history laid down by several singers who performed on so many recordings that we've come to know and love, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Patti Austin, and Táta Vega. These women performed on so many hit songs that it could be said they had one of the most unsung (no pun intended) roles to play in the culture of the last 50 years. You may not have heard their names, but you've heard their voices.

The list of artists whose songs they backed up is amazing: under various names with producer Phil Spector (e.g., The Crystals) to The Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, James Taylor, Carole King, Bette Midler, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen, many of whom were interviewed in the film. To look at the list is to hear the soundtrack of your life, whether you're 15 or 85 -- you know these songs. It would be a spoiler to name them, as one of the great joys of viewing this was in finding out exactly what tunes they sang on. So I'll leave that for you to discover. Twenty Feet from Stardom was so lovingly made. And the fact that Neville got the clearances which gave him the rights to include the music in the picture is a tribute to the industry's love and respect for these singers. It goes without saying that the soundtrack is, without a doubt, one of the greatest of any film I've ever seen. It has to be, after all. These are the songs we've been listening to fondly for 50 years. When we hear these tunes in our heads, or sing the choruses out loud, many times we're singing the parts these women recorded. The hooks in the harmonies -- the notes we remember -- are very often the riffs and refrains of the backup singers, not the lead vocalist.

No matter what your age, if you have ever listened to music I can guarantee you Twenty Feet from Stardom will touch you as few films have. To say that this story is long overdue would be an incredible understatement. It's hard to imagine anyone alive today who hasn't been affected by the people who are profiled in this documentary. There's even a good chance you wouldn't be here if not for the voices of these women. Ponder that. Shortly after the premiere, in one of the first deals of the festival, The Weinstein's Company's multi-platform brand RADiUS-TWC picked up the film for theatrical distribution.


Two Mothers (Australia, France) -- Naomi Watts (King Kong, Mulholland Dr., The Ring), Robin Wright (Beowulf, Moneyball, Unbreakable), Xavier Samuel (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, The Loved Ones, Anonymous), and James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom, The First Time) star in this Australia/France co-production based on a true story. The Doris Lessing novel was adapted for the screen by Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement, A Dangerous Method). Two Mothers marks the 12th feature effort for French director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Chloe, My Worst Nightmare). Two Mothers is one of those movies with a deceptively simple premise that many readers may know. For those who don't, however, I won't reveal the logline as it's best discovered as the film unfolds. Watts and Wright are the titular Two Mothers. Samuel and Frecheville are their sons.

Visually stunning and filled with steamy eroticism, Two Mothers includes festival favorite Xavier Samuel's best career performance. This was the first title I saw at this year's Sundance Film Festival that left me with no doubt in my mind I'd be placing it on my Top Picks list come festival's end. In fact, right up until the last couple of days, it was one of only three films that I continually praised when asked what my recommendations were. It is one of the most extraordinary films of the year. Following the screening, Exclusive Releasing acquired Two Mothers for theatrical distribution. See my review and photos of the Q&A.


V/H/S/2 (US, Canada) -- The found-footage horror anthology V/H/S premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim. I attended the midnight screening at SXSW in Austin, Texas in March. That film combined the brilliant talents of some of our most revered genre filmmakers, including Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence. The segments were written by Simon Barrett, David Bruckner, Nicholas Tecosky, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, and Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, and Chad Villella). The project was produced by Gary Binkow, Roxanne Benjamin, and Bloody Disgusting co-founder Brad Miska with Tom Owen and Zak Zeman as executive producers.

For the sequel V/H/S/2, the same production team is back, adding Jamie Nash and Kyle David Crosby as producers. Barrett and Wingard also have Executive Producer credits this time around. But the writing/directing team has been revamped. Wingard is the only V/H/S director back among the helmers. Barrett, who wrote two of the pieces on that movie, is back as a writer as well as director and executive producer. The rest of the new directing team includes Edúardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Evans, and Jason Eisener. Barrett, Tjahjanto, Evans, and Eisener also wrote their segments. Additional writers include John Davies and producer Jamie Nash.

Horror anthologies work best when the short films within are connected in some way, wrapped in an overarching narrative and bookended by a defining incident. This was the case with V/H/S, and V/H/S/2 continues that format. I enjoyed V/H/S, as did many genre fans. Naturally, there were ups and downs and, unlike traditional features, it was easier to pick it apart and praise as well as criticize certain aspects of the project due to its structure. Those reactions worked to the team's advantage this time, as returning filmmakers Barrett and Wingard were able to tailor the sequel in response to feedback they received after the first picture -- from the public as well as journalists. V/H/S/2, as a result, has limited or eliminated much of what viewers disliked about V/H/S while adding or enhancing more of what audiences applauded.

The result is a much more satisfying film that, as the team intended, drops what didn't work and expands on what did from V/H/S. Simple but brilliant. The relatively self-contained stories maintain a level of stunning visuals and breathtaking reveals throughout. All are impressive achievements. Like its predecessor, V/H/S/2 was acquired by Magnolia Pictures for distribution through their genre arm Magnet Releasing. See my review and photos of the Q&A.


The Way, Way Back (US) -- The Academy Award-winning writing team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who shared the Oscar with Alexander Payne for Best Adapted Screenplay for 2011's The Descendants, are back as co-writers/directors of the coming-of-age dramatic comedy The Way, Way Back. For this refreshingly authentic directorial debut, the pair has assembled an all-star cast including Allison Janney, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet, and Rob Corddry. Watch for some role reversals, though, as some of your favorite comic actors take some dramatic star turns in this poignant narrative.

The youngsters in the spotlight include Zoe Levin, AnnaSophia Robb, and River Alexander. A far-reaching search for the critical lead role of Duncan, the 14-year-old protagonist, turned up Canadian actor Liam James. He's perhaps best known as Young Shawn through four years of the hit series Psych and as Noah, the hero of Roland Emmerich's disaster epic 2012. The 16-year-old (15 at the time of shooting) is the heart and soul of The Way, Way Back, a role loosely based on true events in the life of co-writer/director Jim Rash.

While the coming-of-age genre encompasses a wide range of adolescent trials and tribulations, it's the awkward stage of a young boy on the cusp of manhood that defines the genre more than anything. Write what you know, "they" say, and many first-time directors (mostly male) mine this fertile territory in their early careers. These young filmmakers are at the forefront of film festival fare, resulting in a glut of these titles at events like Sundance. They're hard to avoid, and often formulaic and trite. But every so often a movie comes along that breaks the conventions and sets a new benchmark. We've seen several in the past year, including last Sundance's Goats and the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival favorite The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The Way, Way Back is certainly a much lighter film than the latter, but has enough dark moments and unexpected turns to leave the viewer emotionally charged and wanting to spend more time with Duncan on his summer vacation in Cape Cod. Following the film's first screening, Fox Searchlight beat out suitors including Lionsgate, FilmDistrict, Paramount Pictures, and Warner Bros. in a bidding war for theatrical distribution rights. The final price tag of $10 million, along with other guarantees, makes it the largest deal in the history of the Sundance Film Festival. See my review and photos of the Q&A.

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NOTE: Every one of my Top 8 Picks was acquired for distribution during or immediately following the festival. That's also the first time I'm happy to say this in 61 festivals over the course of eight years. Those distributors and details of those deals are included in the comments after each title above.


Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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