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The 10 Best Things at Sundance 2014

Disclaimers: I went to Sundance, but only for the first five days. I missed a lot of things that were probably pretty great. I missed the premiere of Gareth Evans’s ‘The Raid 2: Berandal’ and the Tuesday-night “secret screening” that turned out to be the first U.S. showing of ‘Nymphomaniac.’ I didn’t see enough foreign films or documentaries, and I didn’t see enough movies made by women, and I didn’t see ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ because nobody told me it was a Farsi-language horror-Western whose vampire protagonist skateboards in a hijab until it was too late.

Disclaimers: I went to Sundance, but only for the first five days. I missed a lot of things that were probably pretty great. I missed the premiere of Gareth Evans’s The Raid 2: Berandal and the Tuesday-night “secret screening” that turned out to be the first U.S. showing of Nymphomaniac. I didn’t see enough foreign films or documentaries, and I didn’t see enough movies made by women, and I didn’t see A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night because nobody told me it was a Farsi-language horror-Western whose vampire protagonist skateboards in a hijab until it was too late. I missed the Joe Swanberg movie costarring Lena Dunham because I’m a race traitor. I probably missed your movie. I might even have said in an email I was going to come see your movie and not actually made it. This was probably because there were three other movies that started within 30 minutes of your movie and I couldn’t make that kind of time commitment. Look, I’m sorry, but I had to go eat a Balance bar and charge my phone, OK? I was at 13 percent. You don’t let your phone get below 13 percent in a work-travel situation. That’s just irresponsible. 

Anyway: These are the performances, songs, and scenes I can’t stop thinking about. I didn’t mean to write so much about moments I liked in movies I didn’t love, but sometimes that’s the way it works. I’ll do better next year.

1. J.K. Simmons in Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle

Star Miles Teller plays his own drums — as did Chazelle, back in high school — in a formulaic slaying-the-mentor drama that still captures the physical labor of music-making better than just about any film about musicians I’ve seen. There’s a moment early on when Teller’s Buddy Rich–worshiping Andrew Neiman, new to a crack conservatory jazz ensemble conducted by the merciless Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), flinches as one of the brass players casually empties a spit valve onto the floor. Before long, pushed to the breaking point by Simmons calling him names like “fucking weeping-willow shit sack,” he’s shredding his hands in marathon practices and cooling down afterward by plunging his bloody fists into ice, just like De Niro in Raging Bull.

The joke nobody could resist afterward was Full Metal Drumkit, because Simmons’s zestily profane pit-bullying owes so much to Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermey, who (being a former real-life drill sergeant) is supposedly the only actor who was permitted to ad-lib on a Kubrick set. The other joke (which the film isn’t entirely in on) is that instead of preparing his charges for the battlefield, Fletcher is teaching them to play super-tight fusion jazz! It’s like Top Gun if Maverick and Goose were fighting it out for a spot in Spyro Gyra. Simmons could get and would deserve a dark-horse Oscar nomination for this, but I’d still rather have just watched him play the lead in a biopic of Rich himself, a legendary drummer and even more legendary verbal abuser. Imagine Simmons in a wig, barking rhetorical questions like, “You think I’m the only one that’s gonna work up there while you motherfuckers sit out there and clam all over this fucking joint?” Gold, I tell you. Don’t think J.K. Simmons can’t get him an all-L.A. band tomorrow night. Don’t think that’s not impossible. It’s very fuckin’ possible.

2. Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love,” in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive

There’s a great moment early in Whiplash when Andrew can’t stay on tempo and Fletcher gets in his face, demanding to know if he’s a lagger or a hurrier. In Only Lovers, champion lagger Jim Jarmusch finally gets around to addressing the vampire craze, with a film about two pair-bonded bloodsuckers (Tilda Swinton and a strikingly Ian Astbury–ish Tom Hiddleston) named Adam and Eve lying low in the no-questions-asked bohemias of Tangier and Detroit. Looking half-dead in first class while traveling under passports that say “Stephen Dedelus” and “Daisy Buchanan” is such an exemplary rock-star baller move, as is wanting to kill yourself because normal people are a drag and the whole world’s been gentrified.

Eventually Eve’s sister (Mia Wasikowska) shows up to call Adam and Eve snobs, which they are, and inject the movie with something like a plot, but as usual the story’s an excuse for everyone to hang out and talk — about Charlie Feathers and Einstein’s theory of entanglement, a Swedish Hagstrom guitar with a “mother-of-toilet-seat finish” and how Europe was cooler during the Black Plague. Whether it plays to you as tedious or enthralling, it sets its own pace from the first song you hear — a 45 of Jackson’s dizzy Oriental-twang rockabilly classic, slowed-and-throwed to 33 by SQÜRL, Jarmusch’s noise-rock band. The mix brings out a sense of doom and reverie that you instantly realize was always there; it’s like a whole All Tomorrow’s Parties fest compressed into two minutes of screen time.

3. R100, directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto

Matsumoto’s fourth feature is a sex-comedy version of The Game in which a furniture salesman (Nao Omori, from Ichi the Killer) joins an elite club for fetishists who want to be surprise-attacked in public by dominatrices and lives to regret it. For about 40 minutes, as we watch Omori dote on his ailing wife and preteen son between random whippings, it’s almost a sweet father-son melodrama, in which the bondage metaphorizes the mingled pleasure and pain that comes with caring about other people. Then the dominatrices won’t leave him alone, and Matsumoto starts cutting to a meta-movie about horrified ratings-board officials watching this film, supposedly the final and most personal work by a 100-year-old director named “Hitoshi Matsumoto.” The CEO of the bondage club is played by Lindsay Hayward, a 6-foot-8 actress and wrestler who tried out as “Isis the Amazon” in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling; per a press release, this film got her Guinness-certified as the tallest actress ever to appear in a leading role. She gives an unhinged, seething performance Russ Meyer would have loved, like the long-lost daughter of one of the avenging angels from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Godzilla.

4. Willis Earl Beal in Memphis, directed by Tim Sutton

The rankest, most cynical piece of suffering tourism to hit a Sundance screen this year was the Vice-backed Fishing Without Nets, a film about Somalian piracy that plays like director Cutter Hodierne’s audition reel for future Bourne films. But maybe I had exploitation and exoticism on my mind: I’d just come from Tim Sutton’s Memphis, a semidocumentary about the black lo-fi musician Willis Earl Beal. On his records, Beal occupies a weird space between Daniel Johnston and Cody Chesnutt, dreaming up haunting/half-assed songs that sound like demos a second take might ruin. In the movie, he wanders his hometown, avoiding making an album. He goes to a Baptist church, stands up in the pulpit, and decides not to sing. He throws his necktie in a tree, ends up at a bar. He sees his girlfriend (Lopaka Thomas, who’s great in what’s apparently her acting debut), dances with her to Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “I’ll Take Care of You” — a vast, bereft ice castle of a song — and recounts the plot of the Twilight Zone episode “Where Is Everybody?,” the one where the astronaut wakes up in a deserted town and slowly goes crazy, until we find out that he’s actually under observation in a sensory-deprivation tank, the subject of an experiment.

When Beal plays with the Hi Records house band, his inability to sing a song the same way twice annoys Teenie Hodges, but when he’s dicking around with a Casio in an attic surrounded by empty 40 bottles and crumbling insulation, the music pours out of him. His talent is a beautiful thing that he can’t show anybody, like the ornate chandelier on the floor of his bedroom. “You find glory,” Beal suggests, “when you’re by yourself.” Then he tells a story about fucking a pile of dirt. The visuals echo William Eggleston, but the creeping sense that we’re watching an arty nature show that treats the black people of a major American city like unicorns is something else entirely. The movie allegedly went over big when it screened as part of a Gucci-sponsored program at the Venice Biennale in 2012, but I wonder how it’s going to play in Memphis.

In moments, you can see Beal growing uncomfortable with the camera’s presence, and maybe with the project in general; he’s said as much in interviews. Late Saturday night, I ran into him on Main Street, alone, maybe a little drunk, maybe more than a little, carrying a bottle of water and a twisted half-bag of chips. I mentioned I’d seen his movie; before I could come up with a positive way of expressing that I kind of liked it, because in spite of myself I kind of did, Beal said: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know what? This film almost imploded anyway. Like, I cussed ’em all out. I tore up the set, everything. So, tomorrow, it’s going to be a fucking redux. I’m gonna say, ‘Fuck you guys, and fuck the film, and fuck you goddamn whores, and I hope you fuckin’ fuck yourselves’ — I’m going to say ‘fuck’ a lot, it’s going to be great. And then I’m going to take out my goddamn credit card, and then I’m going to fucking go to the airport. I’m going to go back home, and I’m going to sit on my couch, and I’m going to pet the cat. I’m going to have a bourbon, and I’m going to go to sleep. My wife is going to fucking come home from work in the morning, and she’s going to hug me, and everything is going to be great.”

He found the movie insincere, a kind of betrayal of his one-take approach to making art, and something about the way the filmmakers were talking about the movie now bugged him, and Sundance in general seemed like a bunch of bullshit — but he’d gone along with all of it. “So you could say, philosophically, that I deserve where I am right now,” he said. “I deserve to be right in the middle of Dante’s fuckin’ hell. I’m like the shallow masses, but I’m also like a vampire with a soul. Like, I’ll bite the shit out of somebody and feel bad about it.” I gave him a hug and an Altoid; I hope he got home OK.

5. Richard Jenkins in God’s Pocket, directed by John Slattery

The movie doesn’t work — it’s a portrait of drinking-class Philadelphia in the ’70s that pushes a lot of Pete Dexter’s prose onscreen without much poetry. But as the alcoholic newsman instructed to cover a local tragedy, Jenkins gets a priceless introduction, dictating his hammy, Pete Hamill–ish “I love this city” column into a tape recorder while driving to work, Schlitz empties already piled high on the passenger seat.

6. Blue Ruin, directed by Jeremy Saulnier

One of the most original, diabolical crime movies in years. It’s noir as a universe of escalating complications, where the tiniest detail can end you. It’s a movie about logistics — the finer points of living in your battered Pontiac or defending a home from armed invaders. When Dwight, the movie’s nerdy drifter protagonist, gets back in touch with one of his high school buddies, the guy remembers when Dwight disappeared, because it was “the same year El Duce got hit by a train.” I have to be this vague because there are actual twists to spoil, including the fact that it’s kind of a comedy.

7. The Threesome Scene From Appropriate Behavior, directed by Desiree Akhavan

Akhavan cocreated and starred in the Brooklyn lesbian web sitcom The Slope, and her feature debut — in which she stars as Shirin, a bisexual hipster sifting the wreckage of a broken relationship and struggling to find the courage to come out to her traditional Iranian family — mines pretty similar territory. It feels like 90 minutes of two-minute skits, and the jokes never stop feeling like jokes, which doesn’t mean they don’t land. (Shirin, to the aloof Williamsburg beardo guy she’s brought to a party in a vain attempt to make her ex jealous: “What is up with your passive disinterest in everything? What happened to you at Wesleyan that made you like this?”) But there are flashes of real promise, particularly when Shirin lets herself be picked up at a snooty cocktail bar by a wolfish yuppie couple looking for a three-way. The failed sex scene that follows is a small marvel — mostly wordless, funny, emotionally complex, full of awkwardness and real longing conveyed through nothing but facial expressions and the halting rearrangement of bodies.

8. Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater; Land Ho!, directed by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens

Linklater’s kitchen-sink epic about a family navigating the 2000s, shot in installments over the course of 12 years, was the best Sundance movie I saw by a name director; Katz/Stephens’s raunchy road comedy about old friends navigating their sixties was the best surprise. My colleague Wesley Morris has already written about Land Ho!, and I’m not sure I can compress what I felt about Boyhood into a paragraph quite yet. So what the hell, let’s talk about Cobra Starship. The action in Boyhood rarely bows down to the soundtrack — there’s never a moment like when Dazed and Confused takes “Sweet Emotion” for an endless cruise around the parking lot — but the music’s a constant presence and a context clue, just like Ethan Hawke’s haircuts. There’s an emotional jolt every time Linklater drops the needle on another pop hit to indicate time’s awful, beautiful, endless passage; you’re suddenly aware of how many years it’s been since “Hey Ya!” or “Island in the Sun” or “Ms. New Booty” or “Crank That” or “1901,” and that that number isn’t going down. Even “Good Girls Go Bad” suddenly seems like a ring on a redwood.

9. The Guest, directed by Adam Wingard

Best movie with a Front 242 song on the soundtrack since Single White Female.

10. Gene Siskel in Life Itself, directed by Steve James

In an irony Gene (and probably Roger) would have savored, James’s documentary about the life and death of Ebert, the world’s most famous film critic, is almost stolen by Siskel, the world’s second-most-famous film critic, who predeceased his TV nemesis by 14 years. Turns out young Gene logged some time as part of Hugh Hefner’s entourage back in the day, riding the Bunnyjet to many an exotic locale; there’s a priceless montage of photos depicting Siskel on his Brian Fantana, enjoying the company of topless women and the breeziness of unbuttoned silk shirts. And whenever the film cuts to Gene and Roger trading sick burns in the balcony, it’s Siskel who gets all the best lines. They practically come to blows over Benji the Hunted; Ebert accuses his partner of “wrapping himself in the flag of the sophisticate” and Siskel shouts back, “No, boredom! Boredom with Benji running!”

Even if you’ve seen it all on YouTube before, the archival stuff is a lot of fun. It needs to be, since the footage of cancer-ravaged Ebert straining to smile through his declining days is heartbreaking, especially when we see him spend some of his last moments on the planet watching A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III. He calmly scribbles “GIVE IT UP, CHARLIE” on his notepad. The movie will never matter as much when it plays in the real world as it seemed to in a room full of film critics, but at least to me, on Monday night, after days and days of stuffing my face with cinema, it felt like an eloquent valorization of the search for transcendence in piles of dreck. As we see Ebert put it while introducing one of his frame-by-frame screenings of movie classics at the Conference on World Affairs: “Every year we find something totally amazing in the films.” Pause. “It’s not there, but we find it.”