Every once in a while, you accidentally wind up with a thematic day at a film festival: a day where, for one reason or another, you wind up seeing a string of films that seem to all hue to a similar theme.
Not because you chose them for that reason but that's just how it turned out.
All five of the films I saw on Monday at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival seemed to deal with issues of family, in one way or another. And as it happened, it was also a day in which I felt exhilarated or moved -- or both -- by each of the films I saw.
Three of the films were features and two were documentaries. The happiest accident of the day, in fact, was that I happened to see In a World, written and directed by and starring Lake Bell. It was showing at a press screening that started at 11:30 a.m. and I happened to get to the holding tent outside the Holiday Village multiplex, where press screenings take place, around 11 to see something that started at 12. Instead, being impatient, I went in to see "In a World" and was glad I did.
Bell plays Carol, a struggling vocal coach in Los Angeles who wants to be the first great female voice-over artist. Her father (played by Fred Melamed) is a voice-over king, who discourages her. So does her sister (Michaela Watkins), who is slightly bored in her marriage to a loving, work-at-home tech guy (Rob Corddry). As Carol reaches for her dream, she runs up against her father's own vanity and competitiveness in a movie that is consistently smart and funny.
It also features an exceptional cast, every one of whom -- from comedians Demetri Martin and Tig Notaro to Watkins, Corddry and Lake -- knows where the laughs are but never labors to deliver them. It's an intelligent and insightful comedy that never winks at the camera. Bell is a triple-threat talent to keep an eye on.
Just before that, I was practically giddy when I walked out of my first screening of the day, Chan-wook Park's first American film, Stoker, which was written by Wentworth Miller (Michael Scofield on Prison Break) and which takes a much darker view of the family. Miller's script is vaguely reminiscent of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, right down to a suspicious character named Uncle Charlie (played by the ever-reliable Matthew Goode), whose niece, India (Mia Wasikowska), has a feeling there's something hinky about him when he shows up for her father's funeral.
She's right -- and Park puts us on edge right from the start, with his restless camera and the insinuating, disquieting music of Clint Mansell. Park's deliberate and deliberately eye-catching camera work and editing (there are cross-fades that will take your breath away, not to mention the action itself) are simply stunning, a wild ride given a dazzling visual component that raises the stakes considerably. Goode and Wasikowska are a fascinatingly matched pair -- and Nicole Kidman is the wild card as Wasikowska's newly widowed mother, who is beguiled by Charlie, the brother-in-law she's never met.
Stoker isn't for the faint of heart and yet the violence is seldom graphic -- but always shocking. Watching this film is like taking an adrenaline shot to the cerebral cortex.
This commentary continues on my website.