Sunday, 29 January 2017

Top Ten Sundance Grand Jury Winners

So today the Sundance Film Festival wraps up for another year, bringing forth a fine selection of movies that I look forward to catching later in the year and acting all snobbish when I know what that movie is about and who made it while everyone else is just hearing about it, but not quite as snobbish as the select few who attended the festival and saw said movie. Anyway, for over thirty years now the festival has provided a platform for independent filmmakers and like any festival is chooses a select few each year to present with an award.

For Sundance the most esteemed prize it can give is the Grand Jury Prize, honouring what the year’s jury deems to be the best film of the festival. In honour of that I thought I would provide a list of my ten favourite Grand Jury Prize winners in the history of the Sundance Festival. So without further ado, here it is.

10: Like Crazy
In case you needed reminding just what a tragedy Anton Yelchin’s death last year was, one of his finest roles came in this drama that impressed the 2011 Sundance Jury enough to take the top prize. The film tells the story of Anna played by Felicity Jones, a British exchange student who falls in love with an American student, Jacob (Yelchin), only to be separated from him when she is denied re-entry into the United States after staying in the country longer than her student visa allows. When taking their performances as they are, each actor is brilliant, sharing excellent chemistry and heart wrenching nuances when separate. But the story behind the films development makes you appreciate it even more, with director and co-writer Drake Doremus assembling a 50 page outline of the story in which Yelchin and Jones improvised almost all of their dialogue. It’s an extraordinary undertaking and makes for an emotionally resonant movie.

9: Poison
Before he went on to direct acclaimed features such as ‘Far From Heaven’, ‘I’m Not There’ and ‘Carol’, Todd Haynes began his career with this provocative, three-part exploration of AIDS-era queer perceptions and subversions that established him as a formidable talent and figure of a new transgressive cinema. It is a remarkably strong and bold debut film, boasting a stylistically and conceptually audacious piece of filmmaking. Haynes manages to make each of his three stories distinct and unique in their visual style but links them with a strong thematic component that gives the film as a whole a strong impact. Haynes has continued to explore the themes he raised in ‘Poison’ and it served as the perfect platform from which to launch himself as a bold new voice in an ever changing world.

8: Welcome to the Dollhouse
Coming of age films are rarely as painfully hilarious as Todd Solondz’s surprise hit of 1996. It demonstrates the there are few forms of torment more cruel than the way unpopular kids are treated at school. Admittedly some may be inclined to disagree with me on that, but I’d challenge you to sit through ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ without wincing at the intense honesty with which Solondz recounts his story. It helps that Heather Matarazzo is fantastic in the lead role as Dawn, an outsider in all walks of life, tormented at school, excluded from social circles and ignored by her own family. Some storytellers would show some restraint and sugar coat the material but Solondz remains faithful to his tone and perseveres in his agonizingly funny feature.

7: Primer
‘Primer’ is one of those films where the audience became so pre-occupied with the mechanics of the plot (which are mind numbingly brilliant with its experimental plot and dense dialogue) that they forget to acknowledge the fantastic filmmaking that is on display. Its low budget does not restrict Shane Curreth at all, who uses his directorial skills to make every shot meaningful and weighty. It is dense and innovative in its structure, ‘Primer’ is sure to challenge viewers on an intellectual level like few other movies ever have. It is methodical and heavy on technical jargon, but for those willing to listen it rarely feels overwrought or overtly dense. Whether it infuriates you or connects with you, it is bound to start a discussion and that is what bold voices  

6: Fruitvale Station
Perhaps the best thing about Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut is how it seems to put aside the political aftermath of the story of Oscar Grant in favour of telling a very personal and intimate portrait. While this story holds great weight in the discussion of race relations and the role of police officers, Coogler’s script allows us as an audience to simply hang out with Grant for a day. We witness his struggles, flaws, hopes, dreams and triumphs. We empathise with him on an itimate level, brought out more by Coogler’s delicate direction and a truly terrific performance by Michael B Jordan. This makes the ultimate, and all true tragedy all the more heart breaking. Just a few years on Coogler is fresh from his international acclaim after directing ‘Creed’ and is slated to helm Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’, all thanks to this expertly crafted independent film.

5: You Can Count On Me
As we speak, numerous industry commentators are speculating on how many awards Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 drama ‘Manchester by the Sea’ will win. Sixteen years before his recent masterwork premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Longeran attended the festival with his directorial debut ‘You Can Count on Me’. Telling the story of Sammy, played by Laura Linney, a single mother living in a small town, and her complicated relationships with her brother Terry, played by a pre-Hulk Mark Ruffalo. Boasting two extraordinarily tender and heartfelt performances by Linney and Ruffalo its seemingly simple story is superbly crafted and extremely moving.

4: American Splendour
In an era when comic book movies reign supreme in almost every walk of movie life now, one film that seems to have been forgotten in the shuffle. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s biopic about Harvey Pekar, the author of the American Splendor comic book series. Pekar’s comic was autobiographical in itself, chronicling his daily life and frustrations that were to him, more exciting and invigorating than any superhero. It stunningly integrates Pekar’s art with his reality, with the script and direction combining the various elements of his life, all underpinned by an excellent performance by Pail Giamatti, into a strikingly stylish portrait.

3: Winter’s Bone
Jenifer Lawrence’s popularity may have skyrocketed since 2011 and though I’m a fan of most of her work since then, for me her high point and best performance can still be found in Debra Granik’s independent film. Lawrence plays a teenaged girl in the rural Ozarks of the central United States who, to protect her family from eviction, must find her missing father. It is bleak and haunting in both its visual style and its themes that deal with family ties, poverty and self-sufficiency as well as how all are changed next to the influence of the underworld methamphetamine labs. Lawrence in particular brings a poignant performance that is punctuated with the rawness and difficulty of the world she lives in but still retains a sense of hope and optimism that elevates the film even further.

2: Whiplash
It may be recent but I think I can safely say that Damien Chazelle’s intense drama will go down as one of the greatest films to ever screen at the Sundance Festival, let alone win its esteemed Grand Jury Prize. From the opening frame the psychological intensity and pulsating rhythm of the film are overtly obvious and maintained for its entirety, right up until that painstakingly brilliant finale that, dare I say it, stands as potentially the greatest ending in cinema history. It is easy to talk about ‘Whiplash’ and do nothing but discuss J.K Simmons frighteningly forceful yet infectiously charismatic performance that rightly won him an Oscar, but spare some thought for Miles Teller’s remarkably empathetic lead role. Then there is Chazelle’s masterful direction, which elevates the already watertight screenplay to the highest levels of perfection. Given he is now sweeping the awards circuit yet again with ‘La La Land’ it is not difficult to see why ‘Whiplash’ launched him onto the scene in such a powerful way.

1: Blood Simple
I am inclined to the argument that ‘Whiplash’ is the superior film out of these top two, in fact given a few more years where its legacy can further cement itself into our collective consciousness I might place it at the number one spot. But when it comes to demonstrating just how valuable the Sundance Film Festival is in providing new artists with a platform to launch their careers and go on to achieve greatness, then no other product of the festival has yet to match that of Joel and Ethan Coen, who arrived at the 1984 festival with their directorial debut. But even putting that aside ‘Blood Simple’ is still a truly fantastic movie. The neo-noir is packed with stylish directorial choices, excellent performances and a tense and thrilling plot that evokes the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. Like many of the Coen’s films it is as darkly hilarious as it is brutally violent, balancing each contrasting element with a strikingly bold visual palette. It introduced the world to a new generation of filmmakers who have been crafting amazing films ever since.

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