By Sarah Hillman
The common theme of Sundance Film Festival 2011 seemed to be life, plain and simple. From the struggles of long-distance relationships (Like Crazy) to the ending of life itself (How to Die in Oregon), this year’s featured films tugged at audiences in ways that enlightened us, made us feel sorrow, or in other cases, just plain uncomfortable. My top films of the festival were all centered on a life-altering event, and the aftermath that can ensue…whether positive or negative. In this post I’m choosing to write about five films that were not necessarily among my favorites, but that still managed to leave a decent impact on me after watching.
The Details, dir. Jacob Aaron Estes
One of the most enjoyable of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I felt this was a pleasantly surprising film. Written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes, The Details, stars Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks portraying a couple that has been married for ten years and is now in a rut. When raccoons destroy their back lawn, Jeff’s (Tobey Maguire) attempts to get rid of the pesky critters sets off a chain reaction of events that send his life, and the lives of those around him, spiraling out of control.
This was a fast paced film that kept me interested in the story, as it was very entertaining to watch what outlandish predicament the main character managed to get himself into next. The actors all did great jobs in their roles, and Maguire was unusually refreshing, as he displayed more range in this film than he has in any of his other more well-known projects. I can’t think of any other film in which I’ve seen him be as comedic or as wacked-out as he was in this one; his timing and facial expressions alone are enough to make this worth watching. There were many over-the-top performances in this film, especially Laura Linney’s performance as his bizarre next door neighbor. Although most of the cast are established actors, the uniqueness of this story alone makes it a film that I would recommend to anyone with a good sense of humor about the ups and downs of life.
Win, Win, dir. Thomas McCarthy
I’d never seen a film about wrestling before Win Win, and didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I did when I read its description, but this endearing film worked its way onto my list of festival favorites. The film takes place in New Jersey and is centered on an attorney/volunteer wrestling coach who takes on the guardianship of an elderly client in an effort to save his practice from going under. When the client’s long-lost grandson shows up on his doorstep, the lives of all of the characters take a drastic turn.
The chemistry between the actors in this film felt very natural, and the fact that Alex Shaffer (the grandson) is a real-life wrestling champion, gave the film a very authentic feel. There is enough comedy and drama in this film to keep you entertained while wanting to find out how their story ends, and it will leave you with a feeling of satisfaction after its resolution. This is definitely another film to watch out for.
Perfect Sense, dir. David Mackenzie
Perfect Sense, a love story directed by David Mackenzie, was one of the most riveting and effective films I watched at this year’s festival. In the midst of a global pandemic that is about to dramatically change the world, Susan and Michael find each other and abruptly begin an intense love affair. This is more than a love story about them though; it is more of a love story about the world as a whole and explores how we would all cope when presented with the loss of our most cherished senses.
The cinematography and sound effects perfectly set the mood in this deeply moving film, absorbing the audience so much so that many of us walked out at the end feeling like we’d just experienced what we’d seen ourselves. This film stars Ewan McGregor and Eva Green in, what I consider to be, two of their most memorable roles to date.
Little Birds, dir. Elgin James
Little Birds was another of those films that had an interesting impact on the audience. Based on the story of two teenage girls living in a small California town, this film gave a riveting look at the harsh reality of the possible consequences of escaping one’s home to pursue the unknown. The two main characters were opposites with one being the emotionally unstable child in need of direction, and the other being the moral compass of the film. When the former decides to follow some street kids to Los Angeles, the other follows her in hopes of keeping an eye on her friend during their short-lived adventure.
This film had a more personal affect on me than some of the others, not only because I knew girls like them when I was that age, but also because of the countless stories I’ve heard about what can (and often does) happen to runaways. Director and writer Elgin James gave the story a personal touch by writing about the experiences he’d had before turning his life around for the better. The acting of the two lead actresses in this film was superb, and it was an honest film that addressed some issues usually left untouched in mainstream films today. My only frustration with this film was the lead character herself and her apparent lack of logic thought, but if you can find some way of feeling sympathy for her despite her actions (which may or may not happen) you will have as much as an appreciation for this film as I did.
Martha Marcy May Marlene, dir. Sean Durkin
This was the first film I saw at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it was quite an interesting film to start with. This film follows the life of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) after her escape from an abusive cult. After being absent from mainstream society for two years, she seeks shelter with her sister and her sister’s husband. There, she struggles to fight the leftover anxiety from her experiences while trying to assimilate back into the life she knew before.
I’d never seen a film that addressed this subject, so I don’t have much to compare it to, but this seemed to be a highly original film about a taboo subject that still exists in the undercurrents of our society today. This was a character driven film, so being that there was not much of a plot, I felt that it moved a little slow at times. Regardless, Olsen did a great job carrying most of the film on her own, with her very convincing portrayal of a person going through a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The occasional irritation I felt with her character is exactly what the writer/director Sean Durkin was going for. Another interesting side note is that Durkin developed this film through a short he created in a Sundance Institute Lab. Considering this, I’d say he did a pretty good job at adapting its storyline into a full-length feature. This film will definitely be one to make him an upcoming filmmaker to watch.