Leading up to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, I started a “#SundanceReality” Twitter hashtag, including a comment that “Attendees tend to over-praise comedies just because so much that’s there is so bloody serious.” Indeed, many of the festival’s most noteworthy cautionary tales — like Happy, Texas in 1999 — are comedies that wowed Park City audiences only to crash and burn at sea level.
So at the risk of proving my own axiom: Sundance 2013 was one of the funniest in my 16 years of attendance.
The festival’s wonderful comedies were funny in many different ways, and for different reasons. Teen coming-of-age stories are a Sundance staple, but two terrific variations on the theme came from The Way, Way Back and Toy’s House. The former — from the writer/director team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash — follows 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who is suffering through a miserable summer vacation at a New England beach with his divorced mother (Toni Collette) and mom’s boyfriend (Steve Carell). Plenty of the narrative beats are familiar stuff, but it’s just flat-out hilarious virtually from start to finish, anchored by a predictably terrific Sam Rockwell (as Duncan’s surrogate father figure) and a just-as-predictably terrific Allison Janney (as the mother of Duncan’s crush).
In Toy’s House, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Chris Galletta tell the story of Joe Toy, (Nick Robinson), a 15-year-old boy frustrated by life with his widowed, acid-tongued father (Nick Offerman), and Joe’s equally parent-pestered best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), as they decide to run away to a house they’ve built in a secluded forest clearing. The tone only rarely gets serious about the kids’ conflicted relationships with their parents; the filmmakers are smart enough instead to focus on the great cast and Galletta’s tart dialogue, resulting in something akin to a John Hughes version of Stand By Me.
Quirkier strains of humor showed up as well. Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess re-visits the early 1980s at an annual gathering of programmers working to design the best software for playing chess. Bujalski proves wonderfully sly at taking his surreal episodic plot threads and tying them into a bigger look at the collision between digitalization and physical contact; his deadpan approach allows for a fresh look at the technological breakthroughs we’re still learning to integrate with our humanity. Then there was Sebastian Silva’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012, a stream-of-consciousness journey with an American student (Michael Cera) traveling in Chile specifically to experience a mescaline high; Silva proves to be pretty perceptive about a certain brand of youthful narcissism dressed up as exploration.
Some of the brilliant comedy also came from an unexpected place, and the festival’s single best film: Before Midnight, the highly-anticipated nine-years-later look at the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). Along with director Richard Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have further deepened the relationship between these two characters, using the passage of time as a fundamental part of the connections between people. Their exchanges are also funnier than they’ve ever been before, even if this breathtaking film is eventually about something richer and more heartbreaking. Where Before Sunrise was about romance, and Before Sunset was about longing and regret, here for the first time in the series, we’re seeing a story about love.
Of course, plenty of the festival’s most talked-about films were more serious, like Shane Carruth’s enigmatic Upstream Color, the writer/director’s long-awaited follow-up to the 2004 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Primer. Despite protestations to the contrary, the fascinating plot — about a woman who falls prey to a complicated scheme using chemically fed grubs to hypnotize victims into giving up their money — isn’t particularly hard to follow; the only question is whether whatever it means is as interesting as its magnificent surface.
Then there was Escape from Tomorrow, Randy Moore’s story of a family man losing his mind during a Disney World vacation that used surreptitiously-taken footage at the theme parks. The chatter was all about Moore’s audacity and the possibility of legal action by Disney — fortunate for the filmmaker, as his concept is ultimately far more compelling than the fragmented result.
But the biggest winner of the festival — taking both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize — was ultimately Fruitvale, writer/director Ryan Coogler’s fictionalized account of a real-life story involving a young black man shot and killed by transit police during an altercation in Oakland, Calif. My look at the film was only a pre-festival work-in-progress, but its schematic march toward tragedy gave me little reason to expect it would leave viewers tearful and cheering. Funny the way a film festival works that way sometimes.