PARK CITY, UTAH — If the films played at this year's Sundance Film Festival are an early indication of the year to come, 2013 is going to be a very good year for movies. I've seen 29 films over the course of the festival, and the great ones have far outnumbered the bad. (Read reviews from the first half of Sundance here.) With so many films to choose from, which ones have garnered the most attention? Here, six of the most buzzed-about from the second half of Sundance:
1. Before Midnight
The film: Setting his new movie eight years after the events of 2004's Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater revisits the unfinished romance between the ideological American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the brazen, outspoken Celine (Julie Delpy) in the final installment of his trilogy. The film's surprises are best left unspoiled — but rest assured, Before Midnight is the best of the trilogy and a near-perfect film. Linklater's subtle but spectacular direction find the rhythm of an already superb script (co-written by Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy). From one beautiful, long tracking shot to the next, Jesse and Celine (now in their early 40s), embark on the philosophical discussions of life, love, and politics that defined the first two films, while capturing an innate sense of realism.
The buzz: Raves across the board. I've heard more critics call Before Midnight the festival's best than any other film that has screened. Though it hasn't been picked up yet, it will surely be acquired for a high sum, with an awards-qualifying fall release likely.
2. Toy's House
(Toys House Productions)
The film: The coming-of-age dramedy is always a popular draw at Sundance. But of the many coming-of-age films I saw this year — and trust me, there were many — none impressed as much as Jordan Vogt-Robert's Toy's House. Authentic, charming, and hilarious, Toy's House follows the adventures of two frustrated teens (played by newcomers Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso) who run away to a clearing in the woods and build their own home to escape their overbearing parents. Anchored by brilliantly comic performances from Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly, who are married in real life — but not in the film — Toy's House captures adolescent frustrations and angst with good humor.
The buzz: Mostly positive. CBS Films just picked up Toy's House for U.S. distribution, and with the extra draw of Offerman, Mullaly, and Community's Alison Brie in the cast, it could become an indie sleeper hit.
3. Upstream Color
The film: Writer/director Shane Carruth exploded onto the independent film scene when his cultishly adored time travel film Primer premiered at Sundance back in 2004, and after a nine-year absence, Carruth has finally returned with the even more puzzling — but strange entrancing — Upstream Color. The film is a Terrence Malick-esque exploration of love and the interconnectedness of past lives told through a non-linear story of the bizarre romance between Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth). The film's loose plot features mind-controlling grub worms, a God-like figure who intervenes in people's lives unnoticed, and pigs — and the challenging and abstract nature of the film is more evidence of Carruth's mastery at metaphoric and symbolic filmmaking. Beautifully shot and scored, it's clear Carruth is attempting something very unique, and for viewers, trying to unravel the layers of Upstream Color is half the fun.
The buzz: Vehemently divided. Some critics have raved that it's a masterpiece, and others have absolutely hated it. Anticipating the difficult nature of marketing his film, Carruth decided before the festival that he wouldn't attempt to sell Upstream Color, but will distribute it himself in April.
4. Ain't Them Bodies Saints
The film: First-time writer/director David Lowery's lyrical treatise on love and devotion is the other Sundance film drawing comparisons to Terrence Malick. But where Upstream Color is more like Malick's Oscar-nominated Tree of Life, Ain't Them Bodies Saints is more like Malick's early work in films like Badlands and Days of Heaven. The film stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as Bob and Ruth, a couple that lives like a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. When the pair are finally caught, Bob is sent to prison, leaving the pregnant Ruth behind. The strength of their love is tested when Bob breaks out of prison after four years and begins out on a dangerous journey to reunite with Ruth and his daughter.
The buzz: After receiving ample praise from critics, Ain't Them Bodies Saints was picked up for distribution by IFC. Despite its all-star cast, it's a difficult film to market to mainstream audiences, but I suspect a limited theater engagement and some strong video-on-demand numbers will come from the word-of-mouth praise.
5. The East
The film: In her second collaboration with The Sound of My Voice director Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling stars in another film that examines the dynamic between a leader and his or her followers. Though Marling played the part of the enigmatic leader of a religious cult in her previous collaboration with Batmanglij, The East finds Marling in a role-reversal as an undercover agent sent to infiltrate and break up an environmental terrorist collective led by a charismatic leader (Alexander Skarsgaard). The East is an interesting companion piece to The Sound of My Voice; the two share similar plots, but it's the accomplished and masterful direction by Batmanglij that truly separates them. While The Sound of My Voice explored the leader/follower dynamic in a sort of existential manner, The East is far more thrilling: A stark, tense procedural that raises questions about authority and moral ambiguity.
The buzz: Generally positive. The East premiered at the festival with a distribution deal already made with Fox Searchlight, though a release date hasn't been set.
The film: The story of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace's harrowing marriage to the sociopathic playboy Chuck Traynor has spent an unusually long time in development: Lovelace's tell-all memoir Ordeal was released in 1980, and the tragic story of a wholesome girl-next-door type turned international-porn-star would seem difficult to mess up — but directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who made the forgettable Beats-generation treatise Howl) disappoint. Stars Amanda Seyfried (playing Lovelace) and Peter Sarsgaard (as Traynor) give the film their all, but it's a fruitless effort considering the lackadaisical script, which plays more like an R-rated Lifetime movie than a tragic story of manipulation and abuse during the sexual revolution. Audiences deserve better, and so did Linda Lovelace.
The buzz: Mostly negative — but that didn't stop Harvey Weinstein, who reportedly made an offer and bought the film right in the lobby after its world premiere.