As Sundance heads into its mythic second weekend -- of which many have heard but few dare endure -- all trappings of mainstream movie civilization fall away: plot resolution, reliable narrators, temporal continuity. Those who stay enter the Indie Heart of Darkness. The bustling, doe-eyed crowds of Hollywood hangers-on are gone, safely ensconced in Los Angeles' commercial bosom. They leave behind a Park City bereft of gifting suites and all hope, where locals chant furiously "MILF, MILF, MILF!" at Jennifer Coolidge while ex-Fox Chairman Tom Rothman sadly wanders the Redstone Cinemas "green-lighting" a bag of Junior Mints.
What remains are the film fanatics, scruffy-bearded hipster mountain men determined to see everything -- absolutely everything -- Sundance has to offer. Once they've completed this sacred task, they purify themselves by leaping over bonfires fueled with overstock Blu-rays of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and chanting "Death to Bay!" Then, and only then, are they deemed worthy to attend Sundance's awards ceremony, which festival director John Cooper inaugurates by stripping naked, smearing himself in vegan-friendly stage-blood and slaughtering a 6-foot-tall replica of the Oscar statue made from 100 percent biodegradable soy.
I am not one of those mountain men. In fact, I missed a great deal from even my modest must-see list, which expanded geometrically every time one of my Park City roommates came back from another screening. According to these guys, S-VHS was the best fright-fest in a long time I never had; The East was a remarkably compelling psychodrama even though its plot description felt like a liberal-agit-prop movie-of-the-week commissioned by MSNBC; Metro Manila featured surprisingly touching family drama; Jiseul had beautifully composed black-and-white photography; Escape from Tomorrow was cool; and The Summit was just awesome. I also barely missed crowd-pleaser The Way, Way Back but its $10 million sale to Fox Searchlight means I can catch that one later. I did manage to catch Ain't Them Bodies Saints, but I wasn't as enthralled with its pseudo-Malick vibe as were others so I'd rather use my last few moments of your waning attention span to highlight two films I saw which I hope don't get forgotten: Magic, Magic and Circles.
Magic, Magic was director Sebastian Silva's other film with Michael Cera at Sundance, after opening night's Crystal Fairy. I've loved Silva's work since I saw his wry, touchingly oddball first feature The Maid. I even enjoyed his less-universally-beloved follow-up Old Cats, and I'm pissed at Sundance's bus schedule for making me miss Crystal Fairy. All in all, I think Silva's one of the most entertaining, inventive and brilliant rising directors out there, and Magic, Magic confirms my belief with its Polanski-esque flair for f#*!ing with its audience. One minute you're laughing at the main characters' bizarre (yet human) behavior; the next you become deeply disturbed as you realize its implications. Juno Temple plays a shy, awkward young American girl who's never been out of the country before until she comes to visit her cousin in Chile for a road trip to the southern wilds. She's cooped up in a car with her cousin's callous friends, then left at their mercy in a remote lakeside cabin when her cousin must return to Santiago to take an "exam." There's no love-loss as Temple's needy freak-out behavior gets on everyone's nerves and their impatience only hastens her mental deterioration. (Specific kudos to Michael Cera for channeling his obnoxious side as a foppish ambassador's son whose quasi-sexual harassment of Temple provokes some of the movies' most uncomfortable laughs and most disturbing reversals.) It only gets worse from there. The tension of being thrust into a group of strangers is a universally relatable feeling, of which Silva takes full advantage. However, he also never lets you get too comfortable with any of the characters as what seem like minor complications and molehill concerns blossom into stomach-churning psychological horror. The result is a masterfully orchestrated slow-burn that sneaks up on you, gradually pushing you to the edge of your seat until look down and see a yawning chasm beneath. All in, it's a great little thrill-ride that hopefully will make its way into your Netflix queue, or even better, a real theater!
Finally, my last pleasant surprise from Sundance was Serbian director Srdan Golubovic's Circles. This taut little triptych of moral dramaturgy starts with a tiny but potent act of heroism during the Bosnian war by a Serbian soldier who stands up to his fellow soldiers on behalf of a Muslim cigarette seller in Serb-occupied Bosnia. The action then jumps forward 12 years into more-or-less the modern era to follow the consequences of this one tragic, if noble, event as they ripple across newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, and Serbia. Although the plot and back story are intentionally elliptical, you actually understand far more of what's going on than you may realize at first -- the movie has a narrative fragmentation that gives the story a mosaic feel but that's more an aesthetic choice than a vehicle for goosing your audience as in say, Memento. The suspense created matters less than the way the fractured story forces you to think about the film's subjects and its themes as you piece it all together. Each of the three interwoven segments functions as a meditation on what makes those small acts of heroism just so rare and difficult, especially in the middle of general madness and inhuman brutality. Compelling, thought-provoking and challenging: one shirks from using critical clichés, but they fully apply here.
Circles is a movie of moral questions, which forces you to contemplate those questions in a way that so few movies rarely do but great art almost always does.
And that wraps up Sundance 2013 for me. Until next year when the Great Redford bestrides Park City like the golden god he is and lets loose the indie dogs of cinema for 2014!
P.S. And a grateful shout out to the Korean Film Council for throwing one of the funnest Sundance parties with great bulgogi-beef sliders and the once in a lifetime chance to ogle the great Park Chan-wook while eating glass noodles!