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Critic's Notebook

At Sundance, the indie buzz is back

Distributors snap up ‘Like Crazy,’ ‘Martha Marcy,’ ‘My Idiot Brother’

Elizabeth Olsen, star of the much-praised “Martha Marcy May Marlene,’’ was a Sundance sensation; Sean Durkin won a directing award for the cult-escape drama. Elizabeth Olsen, star of the much-praised “Martha Marcy May Marlene,’’ was a Sundance sensation; Sean Durkin won a directing award for the cult-escape drama. (Jody Lee Lipes/Reuters)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 31, 2011

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PARK CITY, Utah — If the Sundance Film Festival of 2011 is to be remembered for anything, it will be for the return of business as usual. Which, after the last few years, is pretty unusual.

Granted, the number of films sold at Sundance is hardly a reliable barometer of the nation’s economic strength. Yet the fact remains that of the 118 movies from 40 countries unspooling over the festival’s 10 days, dozens were bought — more than 30, by one count. There were few breakout titles and no gotta-see-it game-changers like “Little Miss Sunshine’’ or “The Kids Are All Right’’ from previous years. Instead, there were simply a lot of movies that a lot of people liked and that a lot of distributors decided they wanted to buy.

It wasn’t one or two companies with open purses, either; everyone was playing, and they were paying amounts that seemed sensible rather than the absurd largesse of earlier festivals. Paramount spent $4 million on the impassioned young-love drama “Like Crazy,’’ an audience favorite and winner of both the grand jury prize for dramatic film and a special award for actress Felicity Jones. Fox Searchlight bought cult-escape drama “Martha Marcy May Marlene’’ — another much-praised movie and a winner for Sean Durkin’s directing — and the coming-of-age comedy “Homework’’ for $3 million each.

Sony Classics bought “The Guard’’ (Brendan Gleeson’s starring turn being one of the hot topics on the festival shuttles) and the tense Michael Shannon drama “Take Shelter’’ and Morgan Spurlock’s product-placement lovefest, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.’’ The Weinstein Company shelled out the biggest bucks for little movies with major stars: “The Details,’’ starring Tobey Maguire, and “My Idiot Brother,’’ starring Paul Rudd, each went for around $7 million. Even National Geographic jumped into the pool, buying distribution rights for the global video-collaboration documentary “Life in a Day.’’

The market for independent movies, in other words, seems simultaneously chastened and emboldened after several years in the doldrums. That can only be good for audiences, not to mention filmmakers, art house cinemas, and, increasingly, the new windows of cable on-demand and streaming rentals. Given the limited number of non-multiplex screens in the country, do you think Durkin really cares where you see “Martha Marcy May Marlene’’ as long as you see it?

And you should. The film is a low-budget but gorgeously photographed tale of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who escapes from a vaguely Manson-ish cult (led by the freshly Oscar-nominated John Hawkes) and settles in with her brittle older sister (Sarah Paulson) and officious brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). She doesn’t tell them what she has fled, but the movie shows us in carefully composed flashbacks that deepen unease into gradual horror. One scene in particular drew a collective gasp from audiences at Park City screenings.

The star was one of the festival’s two acting discoveries (the other was Jones of “Like Crazy’’), and her pop-irony credentials were strengthened by the fact that she’s the younger sister of the much-mocked Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. Judging by her eerily controlled performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,’’ Elizabeth’s the one with class and talent — verily the Ashley Judd to their Naomi and Wynonna.

The documentaries are where the Sundance meat usually is. Every year there’s one that everyone clears a space around and discusses in hushed tones, and the 2011 edition was “How to Die in Oregon,’’ a stunning, persuasive examination of assisted suicide among terminal patients that won the grand jury prize for documentary. The decisions reached in this film are not reached lightly, and the brutal directness of almost everyone we meet oddly serves to lighten the experience: These people are past the ethical struggles, and their certainty has a purity that’s singular and moving.

Much of the film’s running time is spent observing the final year of Cody Curtis, a 54-year-old wife and mother with inoperable liver cancer; she’s articulate, philosophical, graceful, and scared as hell, and anyone who watches “How to Die in Oregon’’ is a better person for knowing her, even indirectly. The film has a point of view but steers clear of polemics; director Peter D. Richardson wants to get close to people who are far out on the limb of human experience and who understand exactly what they’re walking away from. It’s a hard but moving, even transformative, watch, and since it was made with HBO money, it will air on the cable channel later this year.

Anything a festivalgoer saw after “How to Die’’ looked shallow, especially those movies that stuck to established Sundance cliches. Still, it made sense that the Weinsteins snapped up “My Idiot Brother’’ — it’s exactly the kind of movie Harvey Weinstein would have bought in 1997. Rudd goes hairy and happy as the title character, a crunchy goofball so naive he sells pot to a uniformed cop because the guy asks nicely. Once out of jail, he bounces among the homes of his three sisters, played by Elizabeth Banks (uptight Vanity Fair writer), Emily Mortimer (mousy Brooklyn mom), and Zooey Deschanel (downtown sort-of lesbian), reducing their various lives to ruin. An adorable mess much like its dazed and confused hero, “Brother’’ will be easy to market as the Judd Apatow comedy it’s not. But the sale fueled the sense that there were two Sundances going on this year, one pointed contentedly toward the past and one aiming more quietly and firmly at the future.

Of the latter, “Take Shelter,’’ starring perennial Sundance “It actor’’ Shannon, had deservedly strong word of mouth. A slow-burner about a Midwestern husband and dad who has nightmares of a coming apocalypse and starts building a survivalist dugout in his back yard, “Shelter’’ collects all the angst that can beset a modern family man — post-9/11 fears, ecological disaster, the fragile well-being of one’s loved ones — and squeezes. Just when a viewer starts wishing that the movie would get on with it, the hero erupts in a hair-raising scene at a Lions Club community dinner and the star at last is revealed as the Michael Shannon we know and fear.

If there was a keynote emotional thread to Sundance 2011, in fact, it was human rage and the need to contain it. The struggle was evident in documentaries such as the electrifying “The Redemption of General Butt Naked,’’ about a warlord from Liberia’s civil war who has reinvented himself as a Christian evangelist seeking forgiveness from his victims. (Some aren’t ready to forgive; neither were a few vocal audience members at festival screenings.) It could be seen in dramas such as the pitch-black “Tyrannosaur,’’ in which the great Scottish actor Peter Mullan, last seen as a fascist yobbo in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I,’’ scorches the screen as a man so vicious it finally scares even him. (Mullan and costar Olivia Colman split a special jury prize for their performances.)

The rage was there in “Little Birds,’’ a cautionary tale of two teenage girl runaways (one of them a jittery hellion played by Juno Temple) and in the back story of its writer-director Elgin James, who spent years in the Boston gang FSU before walking away and reinventing himself as a filmmaker. It welled up from the past in documentaries such as “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,’’ an archival dumpster dive that forces a viewer to see the Black Power movement in an entirely fresh light.

Yet for every crack that opened up, another Sundance offering would smooth it over: entries such as Azazel Jacobs’s “Terri,’’ a sweet-souled high school misfit comedy with none of the aggressive hipsterism of “Napoleon Dynamite’’ or “Rushmore,’’ or “Win Win,’’ a warm, inclusive tale from writer-director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,’’ “The Visitor’’). “Win Win,’’ a soft-centered delight, stars Paul Giamatti as a small-town lawyer who’s a lousy businessman, a pretty good wrestling coach, and a decent, if flawed, human being. Right there’s a motto for this festival if you want one: Nice guys don’t finish first, but they finish, and in the cold new world order that may have to be enough.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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