“Matt Johnson’s The Dirties and Nicole Teeny’s Bible Quiz won the two main jury prizes at the Slamdance Film Festival,” reports Indiewire‘s Peter Knegt. Let’s have a look at the official announcement, add notes on what critics have been saying about the winners, and then follow up with reviews of other films that screened at this year’s fest.
Audience Award for Feature Documentary: My Name is Faith, by Jason Banker, Jorge Torres-Torres, Tiffany Sudela-Junker.
Audience Award for Feature Narrative: Hank and Asha, by James E. Duff. It’s “a romantic dramedy that fails to be either funny or dramatic, its mere 74-minute running time feeling nearly twice as long,” finds Brandon Harris, writing for Filmmaker. “It centers on the online romance between a American documentarian making a living as reality TV PA (Andrew Pastides) and an Indian film student living in Prague (Mahira Kakkar)…. Hank and Asha wears out its welcome very quickly, and that’s before you even begin to ask yourself why they don’t just Skype or Gmail chat in real time. Of course, if they had, this would have probably been a short.”
GRAND JURY AWARDS: NARRATIVE
This year’s Slamdance Narrative Grand Jury Prizes were selected by the esteemed panel of industry members Nancy Schafer, Meira Blaustein and Chris Gore.
Grand Jury Sparky Award for Feature Narrative: The Dirties, by Matt Johnson. “Terrifyingly timely and brutally honest, The Dirties uses film references to the extreme as dreams of youth and intense growing pains collide.” Features programmer Paul Sbrizzi at Hammer to Nail: “I’ll go out on a limb and guess that Matthew Johnson is pretty much playing his slightly younger self in The Dirties, which he wrote and directed. His character, Matt, is a film-obsessed high school outsider with tons of manic energy and a brain that fires off daring and hilarious movie ideas as fast as he can articulate them. With the help of his best friend Owen (Owen Williams) he’s making a movie for his film class—an over-the-top revenge fantasy about a group of bullies he calls ‘The Dirties.’ What starts out as sharp and brainy comedy goes boldly and believably to increasingly dark places, turning into a frightening character study, as the constant humiliations Matt suffers at school start to blur his ability to distinguish between his own thoughts and reality.” And he has more to say—a lot more to say—in a separate review, too. More from Ben Umstead (Twitch).
Special Mention: Joy de V., by Nadia Szold. “Filled with humor, flawless characters and performances and a highly developed visual style, Joy de V. is a film that signals the arrival of a powerful new filmmaking talent.” This feature debut “charts the speed of dreams; the layers and shapes, patterns and cadence of a fever dream,” writes Ben Umstead in Twitch. “Of a man met with madness that may be of his own doing, by the flick of his lighter’s flame, or that of the forces beyond him, out to get him, out to find him, and to leave him…. Tristan Allen’s cinematography falls beautifully in step with Szold’s musical choices which include Arvo Pärt and equally minimalist, if slightly more modern, original contributions from John Prince and Noah Plotkin. Called forth, mirrored and contrasted by the gloomy twang of the score’s guitar, there is space in these images, a boldness; if they are not already worn, they are beaten down, but beaten clean. Szold’s New York is an M.C. Escher skewing of the Boroughs; streets and neighborhoods collapsing in on each other at the same moment that they unravel out like a python.” But for the Hollywood Reporter‘s John DeFore, “Allegories and influences pile up but don’t add up.”
GRAND JURY AWARDS: DOCUMENTARY
This year’s Slamdance Documentary Grand Jury Prizes were selected by the esteemed panel of industry members Daniel J. Harris, Brian Knappenberger, and Dan Schoenbrun.
Grand Jury Sparky Award for Feature Documentary: Bible Quiz, by Nicole Teeny. “Director Nicole Teeny’s careful storytelling and her subject’s passion, angst, and youthful uncertainty are captured with universal empathy.”
Grand Jury Sparky Award for Short Documentary: The Birdman, by Jessie Auritt. “We felt this slice-of-life portrait said a lot about the economy and changing way of life in a New York City neighborhood.”
GRAND JURY AWARDS: SHORT FILMS
This year’s Short Film Grand Jury Prizes were selected by the esteemed panel of industry members Sheri Candler, Eleanor Burke, and Ron Eyal.
Grand Jury Sparky Award for Animation: I Am Tom Moody, by Ainslie Henderson. “For its insight and for its playful spirit.”
Grand Jury Sparky Award for Short Film: ROTKOP, by Jan Roosens and Raf Roosens. “For its outstanding ensemble, emotional resonance and its bold portrayal of teenage alienation.”
Special Mention: Josephine and the Roach, by Jonathan Langager. “For its richly imaginative visual style and for lead Jenna Augen.” Film Threat‘s Mark Bell calls it “a fantastical tale, and one that hearkens back to Amelie… and Being John Malkovich…. Overall entertaining, even if the imagery of a slovenly husband and the long-suffering wife isn’t the most original. It still captures a whimsical mood, and delivers a charmingly escapist story.”
Special Mention: Donald Cried, by Kris Avedisian. “For a standout performance, with the power to inspire empathy as well as to make you cringe.”
SPECIAL & SPONSORED AWARDS
Spirit of Slamdance Sparky Award Presented by Actor/Director Thomas Jane: The Dirties, by Matt Johnson. Awarded by the Class of 2013 Slamdance Filmmakers to the film team that best embodies the creative, independent, and entrepreneurial spirit of the festival, as well as showing exceptional talent as artists.
The Kodak Vision Award for Best Cinematography: Dieter Deventer for Fynbos. “For creating a perfect visual balance between breathtaking landscapes, naturally lit settings, and simple but strong compositions that present the tense fragility of the human spirit within the story.”
“There is more mood than matter to appreciate in Fynbos, a low-key suspenser that masterfully sustains tension with elliptical storytelling and evocative atmospherics, but ultimately comes across as all buildup and no payoff,” writes Joe Leydon in Variety. But at Twitch, Ben Umstead finds Fynbos to be “a film as enigmatic and engaging as any Antonioni picture (early Peter Weir also comes to mind), inviting and challenging the audience to immerse themselves in the expanse of the question mark that is human nature… and humans in nature. Like the recent minimalist masterstrokes by Julia Loktev (The Loneliest Planet) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), Fynbos explores the immediacy of separateness, that startling space between couples, between classes and between races.” More from Paul Sbrizzi (H2N).
“Brea Grant’s debut feature Best Friends Forever is essentially a B-movie,” writes Ben Umstead at Twitch. “And that’s a compliment. So then is it an essential B-movie? Imagine if Roger Corman gave a couple of Punky, feminist chicks a bundle of money to make a movie and the result is an apocalypse road trip movie that is just as grim as it is bad-ass, just as endearingly sweet as it is melancholic, and just plain fun and funny.” More from Mark Bell (Film Threat) and John DeFore (THR).
Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema: “Dan Mirvish, co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival (and perhaps more notoriously, co-founder of the Martin Eisendtadt hoax during the 2008 Presidential elections) has adapted Joe Hortua’s Off-Broadway play Between Us for mostly positive results, featuring four biting performances from an impressively assembled ensemble. A sort of modern day Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? infused examination of the inherent love/hatred backgammon of two people spending their lives together, Hortua/Mirvish don’t quite hit the drastic highs and lows of Albee/Nichols’ boozehounds George and Martha who used liquor as truth serum, but they still manage to create a harshly observed juxtaposition of two marriages, where the best of times and worst of times, if not interchangeable, are always in flux.” More from John DeFore (THR). And the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Eugene Hernandez interviews Dan Mirvish.
Again, Nicholas Bell: “It’s unfortunate that director J.R. Hughto’s sophomore effort, Diamond on Vinyl never quite keeps up the eerie tone it subtly cues for us. A metaphor that uses voyeurism to explore the artificiality of our interactions with those around us and the performances we play on a daily basis has the slight narrative asking questions too large to grapple with for its own purposes. An intricate sound design clues us in to the chronological time line, and we have to piece together the puzzle of events. If only some kind of discernible pay off by the final frame could have been created, then perhaps the ends would justify the means. Instead, we’re left wondering if maybe this shouldn’t have been a short film.” More from Mark Bell (Film Threat), Justin Lowe (THR), Paul Sbrizzi (H2N), and Ben Umstead (Twitch).
Ben Umstead at Twitch: “He’s Way More Famous Than You is a zany bit of fame-whore lambasting, with co-writer and star Halley Feiffer fearlessly taking aim at just about everything under the Hollywood/celebrity sun, most notably herself, and more importantly her appearance in ‘Noah Baumbach’s cinematic masterpiece’ The Squid and the Whale. As an alcoholic narcissistic, nightmare inversion (explosion?) of herself she squeals across the screen like a manic pixie banshee girl, dead set on making her own movie, which will, in her mind revitalize her in-the-toilet career. To do this, she finagles the help of her brother Ryan (co-writer Ryan Spahn) and eventually, with much begging and whining down the pipeline, his partner Michael Urie aka the gay guy from Ugly Betty, aka the guy who is gonna direct their movie, aka the guy who is directing the very movie we’re watching.” In the Hollywood Reporter, though, John DeFore finds it to be “a confounding and deeply unfunny comedy that thoroughly embodies the very qualities it intends to satirize.” [Update, 1/27: Feiffer reports on her Slamdance experience for the New York Times.]
Spencer McCall’s The Institute is “a documentary portrait of the Jejune Institute, an elaborate ‘alternate reality game’ that unfolded on the streets of San Francisco from 2008 to 2011,” writes Scott Foundas in the Voice. “The bait was an est-like self-help org concocted by producer/creator Jeff Hull and advertised through flyers and other guerrilla marketing techniques; the game itself was an elaborate scavenger hunt combining urban exploration with the search for a missing woman and a general promise of heightened self-awareness. Think a somewhat goofier, New Agey version of the gauntlet run by Michael Douglas’s self-absorbed businessman in The Game, and you begin to get the idea. Thousands of people for whom everyday life is evidently not exciting enough happily took the plunge. McCall recounts this all in playfully subversive fashion, attempting to replicate in cinematic terms the experience of participating in the game itself. Rarely have I felt so absorbed by a movie about people I found so incredibly annoying.” More from Mark Bell (Film Threat).
“Aron Lehmann’s feature debut is and isn’t an adaptation of Kleist’s novel Kohlhaas,” writes Ben Umstead. “The best supporting example I can give of this is how Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is and isn’t an adaptation of Laurence Stern’s 18th century meta novel. While Winterbottom’s film is full of snark, focusing on the petty, excessive and narcissistic ailments of the film industry, Lehmann’s film, by turn, is a celebration of the human spirit, an equally comic and tragic tale of community, commitment and craft.”
“Among the documentaries, My Name is Faith, by the directing trio Jason Banker, Jorge Torres-Torres and Tiffany Sudela-Junker, transcends its rudimentary aesthetic to deliver an incredibly powerful tale about the wages of emotional abuse and neglect on young children,” writes Brandon Harris for Filmmaker.
John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter: “Twenty years ago, Philippe Caland penned a story about torture and imprisonment motivated by sexual obsession; the resulting film, Boxing Helena, was notorious. He’s back now with Vipaka, exorcising some of those old demons under a quasi-Buddhist rubric. The result, less reminiscent of Jennifer Lynch’s Helena than its contemporary, Misery, is never as easily mocked as its predecessor, largely thanks to the heroic lead performance of Forest Whitaker.”
“Six Pakistanis struggle to make society a little better for themselves and their countryman in Cary McClelland and Imran Babur’s effecting Without Shepherds,” writes Brandon Harris for Filmmaker. “The panorama on display never feels like a sanitized or overtly alarmist look at Pakistan’s woes, nor a comprehensive look at Pakistani society, but it does offer a thoughtful portrait into the lives of some of this troubled country’s citizens, who despite their differences of class and ideology, share a longing for a better way of life.”
Update, 1/26: Dispatching to Filmmaker again, Brandon Harris argues that The Dirties “gives ammo to both political conservatives and liberals about why Americans have become such a violent people. To kill like this in America, the film seems to argue, you probably need to be as well versed in Fight Club and Malcolm X as you are in how to operate a handgun. That’s an incendiary argument and to be made so persuasively, so painfullly even, with such a limited means and almost naive ambiguity marks Mr. Johnson as some kind of marvel, or maybe just another prankster. With his empty brown eyes and permanently over eager, easily distressed face, he looks not unlike many young film producers I know.”
Update, 2/2: Movies.com‘s Erik Davis has a lengthy discussion about The Dirties with Matthew Johnson, who tells him: “We’d been accepted to Slamdance two weeks before [Sandy Hook]. We had our cast and crew screening in Toronto on a Tuesday, and then Sandy Hook happened the Friday before. It just changed everything for us. We got two phone calls from Slamdance that day and we thought they were going to pull the film out of the festival. But then we started talking about it—and we had our screening with the crew—and it became clear to all of us that this was an important film exactly because of its relevance.”
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