THE BLOG
01/23/2013 09:14 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

Sundance Diary - Days 4 and 5 - The Spectacular Now , Stoker and Before Midnight

As your time in Park City stretches on, you enter a sort of delirium tremens of cinematic fatigue where all the films you've seen -- the good, the bad, the bat s#!t crazy -- start blending into one gigantic bowl of indie chow mein. It doesn't help that all the after-parties and lack of sleep also induce a state of low-grade alcoholic psychosis. (Monday is a particularly bad morning-after, as Hollywood's big three agencies -- CAA, WME and UTA -- threw their bacchanalian orgies Sunday night right across Main St. from one another. They achieved such a state of thermonuclear excess that CAA actually had to issue an apology for the dildo-wielding pole-dancers at its party.) As much as all the free Stella Artois and promotional t-shirts are nice, you start longing for the chance to actually pay for a half-decent meal instead of relying on finger foods for caloric content. However, the upside of all this is that when you do get some sleep, the good films you've seen rise to the surface of your snow-battered consciousness.

The first that leaps to mind is The Spectacular Now, director James Ponsoldt's follow-up to his Sundance hit last year Smashed with a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the writing duo behind 500 Days of Summer. Featuring another great, nuanced performance by Shailene Woodley and a break out one by Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now follows a charming, young alcoholic as he navigates the last few days of high school -- and the burgeoning damage his drinking is doing to his future becomes painfully clear. After he's dumped by his dream girlfriend, Teller goes on a bender that winds up with him waking up on Woodley's lawn and beginning a rebound relationship that becomes much more. Clearly inspired by John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, The Spectacular Now delves much deeper into darker territory -- almost as if Ponsoldt, Neustadter and Weber had asked themselves what deep pathos was behind Ferris Bueller's nuclear charisma. As a coming-of-age film, it ups the ante for future coming of age films, daring directors not to tastefully turn the camera away from the more complicated demons teenagers face. Even now, far too comfortably ensconced in my 30s, Spectacular Now resonates -- enough to make me reconsider indulging in the second bottle of free Stella.

Stoker and Before Midnight also managed to thrust up through the alcoholic haze. Oldboy director Chan Wook Park's first English language film, Stoker plays like an update of Shadow of a Doubt on acid. While Park graciously declined the comparisons to Hitchcock after Monday's screening, Stoker makes clear that he understands the universal language of suspense almost as well as the master. Mia Wasikowski stars as a dour, young girl who's idyllic childhood falls apart when her father dies and her uncle (Matthew Goode) comes to stay with her and her mother (Nicole Kidman). You figure out pretty fast from the demonic glint in her uncle's eye that all is far from it seems and there's clearly some messed-up family history that needs to be uncovered. Goode absolutely steals the show and Park proves that he can sustain his signature mood of alienated horror as well in English as Korean.

Before Midnight, meanwhile, may be one of my favorite films of the festival after Fruitvale. Director Richard Linklater first introduced us to Jesse and Celine, the ultimate fantasy couple for diehard hopeless romantics with 1994's Before Sunrise, then brought them (and us) back together a decade later in Before Sunset. In the previous two, the couple always seemed a tad too good to be true -- we should all be so lucky to meet our true loves backpacking in Europe --but in Before Midnight Linklater takes us to the other side of the fantasy, after happily ever after. As always, the dialogue is sharp and delicious but the underlying drama here gives it all an added kick. Some may dislike that Linklater pops the fantasy bubble, but in my opinion, never have Jesse and Celine felt more real.