PARK CITY, Utah — Almost everywhere you turned in Park City last week, you saw familiar faces. Austinites dotted the streets, bars, parties and movie screens at the Sundance Film Festival.
Twenty-two years after he brought his debut feature, "Slacker," to Sundance, Richard Linklater headlined a long roster of Texas filmmakers at Park City, where they drew the attention of movie fans and industry insiders.
The week felt like a celebration of how far Texas, and Austin in particular, has come on the national indie scene. The Austin Film Society, co-founded by Linklater, hosted a jam-packed party for Texas filmmakers, and several Austin arts patrons held well-attended private parties.
And any place you found one local filmmaker, you likely found another. "Mud" director Jeff Nichols attended the after-party for David Gordon Green’s "Prince Avalanche"; Linklater was spotted at Nichols’ U.S. premiere; and the emerging younger artists popped up at Texas films all over town.
The scene at Sundance was illustrative of the collaborative spirit of the local film community and, in the words of Nichols, proved that Austin is a "force to be reckoned with."
Below I take a look at some of the Texas films that played Sundance and hand out my Lone Stars at Sundance awards.
Best film (‘Before Midnight’)
It only seems fitting that the best Texas film at Sundance would be directed by the man who has come to serve as something of the godfather of the Austin film world, AFS co-founder Richard Linklater.
His 1995 film "Before Sunrise" introduced us to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), two starry-eyed young travelers who meet in Vienna. The walk-and-talk film spoke to the filmmaker’s great ear for dialogue and love of European cinema. The would-be couple’s engaging banter explored the glorious possibilities of love and life at the dawn of adulthood.
The 2004 follow-up "Before Sunset" had the two meeting once again, this time in Paris, as they were on the verge of making decisions that would define the rest of their lives. They reached out through the dense fog of time to see if they could reconnect and left audiences wondering what would be of the compelling love story.
The excellent "Before Midnight" catches up with the couple in Greece. Their lives have a sense of permanence now, but during the course of a long day spent walking and talking, they realize that maybe they don’t share the same ideas for their future. In fact, maybe they don’t even share a similar perspective on the current state of their union.
Co-written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, "Before Midnight" delivers a hilarious and heart-wrenching look at the beauties and banalities of long-term love. Hawke and Delpy have such an incredible ease with one another that it feels no time has passed since they were together on screen. But time has passed, and with it a collection of memories, resentments, petty grievances and deep sacrifice that both burdens and elevates their relationship.
The screenplay — which deserves an Oscar nomination — is a moving examination of the perils and pleasures of aging and the difficulties of maintaining passion and a sense of self while being part of a couple.
"Before Midnight" is biting and beautiful. And though it feels like a wonderful conclusion to a trilogy, here’s to hoping we get to see these characters again.
American classic award (‘Mud’)
Austin filmmaker Jeff Nichols’ "Mud" has a captivating and linear story populated with distinctive characters and unfolds like the kind of classic American novel you could expect to find on a 10th-grade syllabus.
It’s no surprise then that Nichols referred to Mark Twain when discussing the film at Sundance.
The movie follows Ellis (Tye Sheridan) as he suffers the pain of his first heartache and comes to realize the fallibility of the adults around him. He is drawn into this journey of discovery by a charismatic wanted criminal named Mud (Matthew McConaughey).
As Ellis tries to help Mud make it back into the arms of his beloved, he realizes that the world is fraught with disappointment. The clever and determined boy who lives on the river in rural Arkansas eventually comes to accept the limitations of an imperfect world.
Nichols’ last film, "Take Shelter," used a catastrophic weather phenomenon as an allegory for a man who feared for the safety of his family. The movie, which ended up on a slew of top 10 lists in 2010, resonated with audiences due to its abstract evocation of the country’s fiscal crisis. The movie was relatable to a wide audience but tied to a specific personal anxiety the filmmaker had about raising and protecting a family.
"Mud" also has a personal connection for the Arkansas native, but the touchstone of this story was less immediate than the inspiration for "Take Shelter." Nichols had his heart broken by an unfaithful girlfriend in 10th grade and would be revisited by love’s pain years later when he and his subsequent girlfriend broke up in college. The filmmaker relied on that experience along with the lessons he learned upon discovering that some of his mentors were not perfect human beings to weave the engaging narrative.
"That’s what this whole movie was anchored off of for me," Nichols said at Sundance. "We’ve got boats and trees and snakes and things, and Matthew McConaughey saying crazy stuff, but at the end of the day, when that kid gets his heart broken, and when he realizes the fallibility of the adults around him, that is what this movie is about."
The movie, like the experience of adolescence, is a rich and emotional experience that jolts and jangles with a sense of wonder, mystery and discovery.
Odd couple award (‘Prince Avalanche’)
David Gordon Green scales back from his broad comedies of recent years ("Pineapple Express," "Your Highness") for a small portrait of two goofy guys trying to find their footing in life.
Alvin (Paul Rudd) has charitably taken on his girlfriend’s dim-witted brother, Lance (Emile Hirsch), to work with him on a road crew. They fill their days by painting stripes on roads inside a fire-ravaged park and arguing over who gets control of the boombox. (The film is set in 1987, and the limited costume and set design are perfect).
Alvin fancies himself something of an intellectual. He listens to German-language tapes in preparation for a future trip to Europe with his girlfriend (whom we never meet) and prides himself on his diction and elocution. But the buttoned-up act is mostly a charade that hides his insecurities and failings.
Lance is a man of much simpler pleasures. He constantly thinks about (and talks about) sex, always with one eye toward the weekend and a journey to the big city to satisfy his urges. His simplicity and stupidity irritate Alvin, but there is something pure in this happy fool.
Alvin’s need to exert his authority over Lance — played out in a burst of hilarious, fraternal verbal sparring — eventually gives way to vulnerability and and the acceptance that his life is not as well-ordered as he hopes it to be.
Rudd brings a subtle sadness to Alvin, and Hirsch plays the naive Lance with a doe-eyed innocence and the sloppiness of an excited puppy. The two make for a great pair, whether they’re arguing or bonding.
Shot in Bastrop after the wildfires, "Prince Avalanche" takes place entirely in the state park. Austin musicians Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo provide a score that mirrors the odd couple’s isolation and despair.
Magnolia Films acquired distribution rights for the film and plans for a theatrical run this summer.
Breakout artist (David Lowery, ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’)
Dallasite David Lowery has made several films that have received critical admiration, as well as grants from the Austin Film Society. His Sundance entry "Ain’t Them Bodies Saints" looks as if it will propel the filmmaker and former Austinite to greater heights and national attention.
The moody, atmospheric and artful "Ain’t Them Bodies Saints" has the bleakness of a Cormac McCarthy novel and nods at the dark beauty of early Terrence Malick.
Casey Affleck stars as outlaw Bob Muldoon, a bank robber with a soft swagger. The movie opens with a fight between Bob and his wife Ruth (a mesmerizing Rooney Mara), as she tries to untangle herself from his devilish charm. After a botched robbery, Muldoon spends four years in prison before escaping to return to his wife and baby.
But during her husband’s absence, Ruth realizes that she must make a choice about the life she wants to create for her and her daughter.
Cinematographer Bradford Young renders this world that feels centuries, and not decades, old in dark and dusty hues. The slow pacing of the movie, which feels like an old country-blues song, is a testament to Lowery’s confidence in his artistic vision. And just when the song feels like it will lose its breath and slump in the corner, it comes to attention, grabs a bottle of whiskey, breaks it over the bar, and hell spills out like a slow-motion wash of blood.
Lowery’s storytelling and eye for visuals is not the only thing that will garner attention. He gets excellent performances from Affleck and Rooney, proving himself a skilled hand at working with strong actors. In addition to "Saints," Lowery also worked on Sundance films "Pit Stop," as co-writer, and the wildly imaginative "Upstream Color," as editor.
The Weinstein Company owns foreign distribution, and big-name distributors were circling Lowery and his production team, who won a $10,000 grant during the fest from Indian Paintbrush. Last year’s winner of the inaugural producers award was the team behind "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a fact that signals Lowery is already joining some lofty company.
Best love scene ("Pit Stop")
Austin director Yen Tan’s third feature, "Pit Stop," examines with a steady hand the ache of loneliness and the propulsive desire to connect.
Set in a small Texas town, the movie deals with Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda) and Gabe (Bill Heck), two blue-collar gay men longing for love after hitting romantic rough patches. Bill lives in a near-empty apartment and still spends much of his evenings at his old house with his ex-wife and child. He does not know how to begin to build a more fully realized life as a gay man.
Soft-spoken Marcus has recently lost his younger boyfriend and spends parts of his days caring for another former lover who is in a coma. Marcus converts his lonely pain into a warm nurturing of others but can’t find anyone to reciprocate that tenderness. Until he meets Bill online.
The early action moves at a somewhat glacial pace, but by the end of the film, you realize that Tan has used the technique to effectively represent the unmoored state of these two men, adrift in a world that offers little embrace.
When Bill and Ernesto finally end up in each other’s arms, their act of love offers the characters a longed-for relief. The emotional climax is well-earned and justifies Tan’s slow build. Tan said he drew from his own experience of sexual intimacy in crafting the scene.
"Sometimes when you really connect with the person you love, you can have a very sort of transformative sexual experience," Tan said. "When it’s kind of like the connection of body and soul. For me, when I experience that, I’ve always wondered how can you convey it in film and how do you convey it in a way that people can feel it when they’re watching it, too. They can watch it and be reminded of how they felt when they were connected with somebody else sexually."
Best new use of old technology (‘Computer Chess’)
Andrew Bujalski shot his first three movies on 16mm film. And despite the strength of those efforts, he kept running into the same obnoxious question: "Why do you continue to shoot on film?" So, the former Bostonian who moved to Austin about a half-dozen years ago when he made the film "Beeswax" decided to respond.
"There was some contrarian impulse in me that thought, ‘All right, you guys wanna shoot video, I’ll show you video,’" Bujalski said at Sundance.
He had fantasized about what it would be like to shoot on video that didn’t look or feel like anybody else’s movie shot on video. The result is "Computer Chess," a mostly black-and-white movie shot on Sony AVC-3260. He bought the vintage cameras, made in 1969, on eBay.
The visual style of the film is a perfect fit with the content — a group of computer programmers have a competition to see if any of them can program a computer to beat a human at chess.
"Computer Chess" feels like a homemade video shot in the late ’70s or early ’80s, and Bujalski offers a funny and bizarre examination of that amorphous time when hippy-dippy humanism was bumping up against technological advancement and the attendant interpersonal disconnect.