The Grand Jury Prize (for best film) at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival went to Like Crazy. This is a decision I don’t agree with in any way. I thought Like Crazy was okay film, but this year that’s just not enough because Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene (which did win Best Director) were on a whole other level of filmmaking. In this blog post I’ll give my mini reviews of all three films and reveal what I believe should have won the Grand Jury Prize and best Director.
Like Crazy: I saw Like Crazy a couple weeks ago. The director (Drake Doremus) and main actress (Felicity Jones) were in attendance for a Q & A after the film, which is always awesome. The film had a tiny budget ($450,000), was shot on a 7D (side note #1), and didn’t have a typical screenplay. Instead, there was a 50 page outline and the actors came up with the dialogue. This works and doesn’t work. Scenes between characters seem genuine, but I also feel like the film is missing the precise details and pacing that could really make it better. There were great moments. A montage that involved voicemails was really well done, but, to me, Like Crazy had a surface level understanding of what a relationship is like. The problem is I didn’t really feel anything. For me, an emotional investment is more important than any other aspect of a film. When I feel something I can forgive poor writing (even though that investment is usually the result of great writing), technical mistakes, poor direction, ok acting, etc. Not all films have to break my heart, but this is what the want the film wants to do and it didn’t come close even though the film even though it felt tailored to me. I dealt with a long term relationship (Samantha being in Senegal). I understand how hard they are. Like Crazy showed this, but it had no weight to it. I care more about the side relationships than the actual relationship. This is how I knew the film didn’t really work for me. I thought it was a poor man’s Blue Valentine and comes no where near Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (my all time favorite film about relationships).
Final Grade: B- (Okay)
Side note #1: I used to be obsessed with the idea of using DSLRs for filmmaking, and I know a lot of my friends love the DSLR movement but I gotta be honest, I’m over it (and I haven’t even shot with one yet). A lot of the film felt soft and when it a DSLR is in focus it’s glossy and digital. That said, it’s still a great inexpensive tool for people without access to other equipment. Honestly, I’ll probably end using it on my next short film (blah).
Martha Marcy May Marlene: This another film with a tiny budget (under $1 million), but it’s so much more precise than Like Crazy. The director, Sean Durkin, wrote a meticulous screenplay, and the difference between MMMM and Like Crazy is easy to see. The film moves at a methodical pace as the dread builds and ties knots in the pit of your stomach until the brilliant final shot. We see the film through Martha (Elisabeth Olsen – yes the younger sister of the Olsen twins) and feel every bit of anxiety and paranoia that she feels. Elisabeth Olsen is great. Like Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, her performance is subtle and real. This is a role that could easily be exaggerated. This is a testament to her and director, Sean Durkin. I can’t believe this is a film by a first time director. It’s the best first film I’ve seen since Hunger (UPDATED! This statement is incorrect because Animal Kingdom came out last year. Which I loved). The way Sean Durkin blurs the line between fantasy, reality, and dream is brilliant. Some of the cuts between past and present are well done, but some of them are genius (members of the cult swimming in dark murky water to Martha walking out of the darkness). This film also has one of my all time favorite slow dissolves. Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the three best films I’ve seen so far this year.
Final Grade: A (Incredible)
Take Shelter: Is Take Shelter the best film I’ve seen so far this year? Yes… I think. Currently Take Shelter, Martha Marcy Marlene, and Melancholia are in a weird three way tie. The order changes every time I think about it. Is Take Shelter the scariest film I’ve seen this year? A resounding yes. About 15 minutes into the film my girlfriend turned to me and said, “You didn’t tell me this was going to be so scary.” My response? “I didn’t know!” The first half of Take Shelter is truly disturbing. We experience Michael Shannon’s nightmares through his eyes and they’re real, visceral, and universal. He’s dreaming about what it would be like if society fell apart and people only cared about himself. He’s dreaming about a world not that different than our own. When we aren’t seeing intense nightmares we’re watching an honest portrayal of working class life and a man slowly losing it. Take Shelter isn’t as consistently great as Martha Marcy May Marlene. A few moments were kind of on the nose, but there moments so powerful and brilliant you forget about the little things. When Michael Shannon can’t hide his fears anymore he loses it in front of a whole town that has been talking about him. Chills ran up and down my spine. As the intensity increases and the film climaxes I was disappointed the film didn’t end. I didn’t need the resolution we were getting, but then the final scene happened and it was worth it in every way possible. The final scene of Take Shelter is a brilliant emotional catharsis to a great, great film.
Final Grade: A (Incredible)
In my opinion, Take Shelter should have won Best film and Martha Marcy May Marlene should have won (Best Director – which it did). Both films hit me in an emotional way (which is the most important thing for me). They did this in different ways but they were equally effective. So why give Take Shelter best film over Martha Marcy May Marlene? The end of Take Shelter is just so incredibly powerful to me, and in my opinion the Best Director award kind of means best first film and totally fits for Sean Durkin and Martha Marcy Marlene. The real truth is the are both Cannes films, not Sundance films (they were both at Cannes). Cannes films tend to be more challenging/art films. Sundance films are “indie.” They tend to be a little safer and a little more mainstream (Like Crazy). A lot of the time there are great films here but too often they end of being “independent films” produced by studios. Hopefully, Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene are evidence that Sundance is trying to be the great festival it used to be when it started the careers of people like Darren Aronofsky and Spike Lee.