Sundance welcomes young truth-tellers

Damien Chazelle, director of "Whiplash," about a young jazz drummer, accepting the Grand Jury Prize for drama at the Sundance Film Festival awards ceremony Saturday, in Park City, Utah.
Damien Chazelle, director of "Whiplash," about a young jazz drummer, accepting the Grand Jury Prize for drama at the Sundance Film Festival awards ceremony Saturday, in Park City, Utah. (CHRIS PIZZELLO / Invision)
Posted: January 29, 2014

This year's Sundance vision of the world - terrible, lean, bleak, demanding, a whole lot unfair, and maybe a little whimsical - was 30-30.

It was a showcase for a generation of filmmakers coming into their 30s in an event that itself turned 30.

The 110 films spread over 10 sections seemed to say, "Enough nonsense, here's what's really happening behind the curtain of American life."

So all you strivers out there in a depressed economy, take a look at Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle and one of the festival's opening set of four films. Like 2013's Fruitvale Station, it won both of Sundance's two top prizes, the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award.

A young jazz student, played by rising indie actor Miles Teller, is driven to become the core drummer of a jazz ensemble in an elite music school run by J.K. Simmons, chucking his usual Mr. Genial persona and playing a bald, genius-seeking vampire in search of talent to hollow out and inhabit.

For facts and figures on the tailspin of education in America, there was Andrew Rossi's Ivory Tower, one of four documentaries that CNN's doc division brought to town, this one about the price of a college education. It's a jaw-dropping compilation of statistics and rationales for what has happened to aspiration in America. The film won nothing but praise, although the top documentary prize went to Rich Hill, about three kids growing up in a Missouri town that comes off as a springboard to nowhere. Alive Inside, about the effect that old songs have on Alzheimer's patients, won the doc audience award.

Richard Linklater's Boyhood is a 160-minute time-capsule film that follows the growth of its Texas child stars, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter, as they mature from single-digits into their late teens.

In Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins, for which Johnson won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are thirtysomethings once joined at the hip as the Dean kids but estranged for the last 10 years. Milo and Maggie Dean each try and fail to kill themselves on the same day, he in L.A, she in suburban New York. Hader lands a spare room back in the middle of Wiig's marriage to the wrong but likable guy played by Luke Wilson. The siblings proceed to reconnect by blowing the cover off each other's delicate self-deceptions. Even when it's dark, it's funny in the hands of its two deadpan stars, who help viewers skip over the "Huh?" plot points.

Speaking of delicate self-deceptions, there's the Mitt Romney to be found in Greg Whiteley's behind-the-scenes doc titled Mitt, also filmed for CNN to be released this year, possibly in theaters.

Whiteley is a Utah-based Mormon filmmaker who took on the received wisdom about Romney: that in the 2012 election he failed to let America see the real Mitt. Whiteley trailed Romney on a hunch as far back as 2007, with no interference from the subject or his family. You may read elsewhere that Whiteley's Mitt is the real deal. On reflection, the guy's a suit - genial, but the son of Ward Cleaver more than George Romney.

One of the smarty-pants films to come out of the festival this year is Obvious Child, by Gillian Robespierre. Starring Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy, the story puts a Jewish woman standup comic squarely in the path of a Gentile business guy who is "So Christian, he's a Christmas tree," as she tells her gal pal. It's the only meet-cute romantic comedy about abortion probably anywhere, out this year from Sony Pictures Classics. Sony also picked up Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz's Land Ho!, a road-trip movie in which two old guys, ex-brothers-in-law, head to Iceland to raise a little geriatric hell in the time they have left.

Hoop Dreams director Steve James filmed the last five months of Chicago Sun-Times film critic Rogert Ebert's life, adapting the late scribe's 2011 memoir Life Itself. It's in keeping with the behind- the-curtain sense of Sundance this year that Roger had no problem letting James film the truth of what cancer did to his jawline. It left Ebert's eyes bright, however, his hands industrious, and no dying of the light.


Harlan Jacobson is the head of Talk Cinema at the Ritz Five in Center City and the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

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