Film Feature: The 10 Best Films of Sundance 2013

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CHICAGO – The general consensus in Park City this year was that the overall quality of films presented to critics, industry, and paying audiences was near the highest it’s ever been. There seemed to be a lack of true stand-outs — I heard people say “There’s no Beasts of the Southern Wild” repeatedly — but the overall picture was a pretty one.

I have to say that it was easy to find ten films from this year’s fest that I thoroughly recommend, some of which will likely find their way into my best-of-year lists in eleven months. In alphabetical order and with details on when you can see them, these were the best that the Sundance Film Festival had to offer in 2013:

Honorable Mentions: “C.O.G.,” “Fire in the Blood,” “No,” and “S-VHS.”

All synopses courtesy of Sundance.

“After Tiller”

After Tiller
After Tiller
Photo credit: Sundance

Written by: Greg O’Toole, Martha Shane, & Lana Wilson
Directed by: Shane & Wilson

Synopsis: Since the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas in 2009, only four doctors in the United States continue to perform third-trimester abortions. These physicians, all colleagues of Dr. Tiller, sacrifice their safety and personal lives in the name of their fierce, unwavering conviction to help women. But for some in the pro-life movement, these doctors are “murderers” who must be stopped.

Review: One of the most emotionally wrenching experiences of Sundance 2013, Shane & Wilson carefully re-humanize four men & women who have become icons for the pro-choice movement and demons for the pro-life one. The fact is that they’re just people with concerns, questions, and beliefs. “After Tiller” can be a tough experience to watch as much of it consists of pregnant mothers describing the fetal abnormalities that will make their unborn child’s life absolute Hell (and how that led them to such a horrible decision) but it’s an important film, the kind of work that takes the political and makes it personal again. There’s no release date here but if the right studio picks it up, it will likely play arthouses by the end of the year. If not, it could go to HBO (who loves to pick up Sundance docs).

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”

Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Photo credit: Sundance

Starring: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, and Keith Carradine
Written and Directed by: David Lowery

Synopsis: Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie, an impassioned young outlaw couple on an extended crime spree, are finally apprehended by lawmen after a shootout in the Texas hills. Although Ruth wounds a local officer, Bob takes the blame. But four years later, Bob escapes from prison and sets out to find Ruth and their daughter, born during his incarceration.

Review: David Lowery’s Sundance Lab-produced drama drew comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and Terrence Malick and I think those obvious inspirations set me up to expect just a bit more from it. The film lacks the weight of its influences but is nonetheless a haunting, well-performed, beautiful piece of work. Sure, it falls short of “Badlands,” but so do most movies that work from the Malick script. I’m haunted by what does work about “Saints” including its stellar trio of central performances, gorgeous cinematography, and evocative score. It hasn’t been picked up yet but I’m sure a studio will do so soon. Maybe Focus?

“Before Midnight”

Before Midnight
Before Midnight
Photo credit: Sundance

Starring: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
Written by: Hawke, Delpy, & Richard Linklater
Directed by: Richard Linklater

Synopsis: We meet Celine and Jesse nine years after their last rendezvous. Almost two decades have passed since their first encounter on a train bound for Vienna, and we now find them in their early forties in Greece. Before the clock strikes midnight, we will again become part of their story.

Review: One of my absolute favorite films of the last few years and the best thing anyone involved has done to date, “Before Midnight” is a stunning drama about the cost of love. The fact is that most romantic dramas that end on a beautiful, heartfelt note like the end of “Before Sunset” don’t consider what happens next. “Midnight” is about how a decision to leave your family for another woman has repercussions even if it was clearly the right one. It’s about the intermingling of love, regret, passion, and annoyance that are part of every relationship and it is an absolute masterpiece. Sorry to report that this one has no firm release date yet either although there’s a bidding war going on in Park City with Lionsgate reportedly in the lead. If they pick it up, I would expect a Fall release. Stay tuned to the site and our Facebook page for updates.

“The Gatekeepers”

The Gatekeepers
The Gatekeepers
Photo credit: Sundance

Written and Directed by: Dror Moreh

Synopsis: Director Dror Moreh filters the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1967’s Six-Day War through the keen perspectives of all six living former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency. In remarkably candid one-on-one interviews, the men reflect on lessons learned and reveal the lasting impact of their actions on the peace process—for better or for worse.

Review: This Oscar nominee hits Chicago theaters on February 22nd and it’s a stunner, a movie that was reportedly inspired by Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War” and deserves to stand by that masterful work. Candid, revealing, and honest in ways that I just don’t believe the equivalent King-makers in the United States would ever be, the men who comprise the majority of Dror Moreh’s complex documentary are people that I won’t soon forget. I actually had a chance to see this pre-fest but it played at Sundance and, even though I’ve seen dozens of films since, I haven’t forgotten it. I won’t for some time. “Searching For Sugar Man” or “The Invisible War” seem the likely choices for Oscar but I won’t be slightly upset if “The Gatekeepers” takes the prize.

“Kill Your Darlings”

Kill Your Darlings
Kill Your Darlings
Photo credit: Sundance

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Ben Foster, Jack Huston, Michael C. Hall, Elizabeth Olsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyra Sedgwick, and David Cross
Written by: John Krokidas & Austin Bunn
Directed by: Krokidas

Synopsis: While he is attending Columbia University in 1944, the young Allen Ginsberg’s life is turned upside down when he sets eyes on Lucien Carr, an impossibly cool and boyishly handsome classmate. Carr opens Ginsberg up to a bohemian world and introduces him to William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Repelled by rules and conformity in both life and literature, the four agree to tear down tradition and make something new, ultimately formulating the tenets of and giving birth to what became the Beat movement. On the outside, looking in, is David Kammerer, a man in his thirties desperately in love with Carr. When Kammerer is found dead, and Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr are arrested in conjunction with the murder, the nascent artists’ lives change forever.

Review: Possibly the most pleasant surprise of Sundance 2013 is this striking dramatic debut with one of the best ensemble performances you’ll see all year. (Sony Pictures Classics has picked up the film with a release date TBA.) Radcliffe, Hall, Huston, and Foster are great but the movie belongs to Dane DeHaan as the star of “Chronicle” gives a performance reminscent of young Leonardo DiCaprio or River Phoenix. He’s going to be a MASSIVE star and likely award winner someday. This is just the warning shot.

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