Seven things we learned at Sundance 2013

The hits – and misses – of the annual indie film festival



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Our man in the mountains reflects on his findings after a week stalking the screening rooms and pounding the snowy streets of Park City, Utah. Is Richard Linklater on to a winner with ‘Before Midnight’? Is James Franco the busiest man in American cinema? And was Sundance 2013 the year of the cougar?

Ethan Hawke never did get that plane

'Before Midnight'

'Before Midnight'

For most attendees of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the most eagerly awaited film of the festival was Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Midnight’ – the third chapter in the 18-year-old romance between laidback American writer Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and neurotic French bohemian Celine (Julie Delpy). Eagerly? Nervously might be closer to the truth: 2004’s ‘Before Sunset’ ended on such an exquisitely open-ended note that a sequel could have scuppered a lot of goodwill. Rest assured, then, that this latest day in the on-off couple’s company – with Greece supplying the backdrop to the walking and talking – hits nary a false note as it probes a relationship that has grown more complex since that blissful Vienna night in 1995.

James Franco has sex on the brain

'Interior. Leather Bar.'

'Interior. Leather Bar.'

Thirty-four-year-old dilettante James Franco continues to live a curious kind of double life in film. In our cinemas, he’s Hollywood’s most puppyish lead, raising vengeful apes and nabbing an Oscar nod for ‘127 Hours’. On the festival circuit, he’s a veritable factory of experimental, often homoerotic esoterica that’ll never see the light of day elsewhere: this year, he came to Sundance with both his directorial effort ‘Interior. Leather Bar.’, a reimagining of lost S&M footage from William Friedkin’s infamous ‘Cruising’, and ‘Kink’, a graphic doc study of the online BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism) scene which he produced. On screen, meanwhile, he played a supporting role opposite Amanda Seyfried in porn-star biopic ‘Lovelace’. Spotting a pattern?

David Lowery is a name to be reckoned with

'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'

'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'

James Franco wasn’t the only person multi-tasking. Brandishing an impressively bushy moustache, Dallas filmmaker David Lowery announced himself as one of the US indie scene’s brightest, busiest talents with contributions to three films – including two of the most talked-about entries in the US Dramatic Competition section. His editing of Shane Carruth’s mind-melting ‘Primer’ follow-up ‘Upstream Color’ is an impressive feat, but it was his own film, the gorgeous, heavily Terrence Malick-influenced neo-western ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’, starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, that really got people buzzing. Add to that a writing credit on ‘Pit Stop’, a delicate, well-received gay romance set in small-town Texas, and Lowery’s name is set to be ubiquitous on the independent scene – and beyond?

Filmmakers haven’t given up on Jack Kerouac

'Kill Your Darlings'

'Kill Your Darlings'

The long-anticipated adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ may have landed with a thud last year, but it would appear the indie filmmaking community is still trying to make the Beat revival happen. First came ‘Kill Your Darlings’, one of the buzzier entries in the US Dramatic section: young Brit Jack Huston plays a college-age Kerouac opposite Daniel Radcliffe’s Allen Ginsberg in a salacious but little-documented tale of murder. Michael Polish’s ‘Big Sur’, meanwhile, is a handsome, ambitious stab at Kerouac’s autobiographical account of mid-life ennui, with Jean-Marc Barr, doing a reasonable approximation of Kerouac’s verbose, uninflected patter, an unexpected casting choice as the dissolute author.

Older women have urges too

'Two Mothers'

'Two Mothers'

The film industry has long taken flak for repeatedly pairing middle-aged actors with nubile young actresses, but Sundance was doing its best to redress the balance as several films took the side of the cougar. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s raunchy directorial debut ‘Don Jon’s Addiction’ found the boyish actor being wooed by Julianne Moore, ‘A Teacher’ was a more serious study of inappropriate classroom relationships, while ‘The Lifeguard’ stars Kristen Bell as a stalled New York journalist who takes a job as a public pool lifeguard and gets frisky with a fragile teen. None of these, however, raised as many eyebrows as Anne Fontaine’s loopy Australian-set melodrama ‘Two Mothers’, starring Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as two lifelong friends who share everything – including the affections of their strapping teenage sons.

Teen angst is still big business

'The Spectacular Now'

'The Spectacular Now'

Still, Sundance remains a playground for the young, as many of the year’s biggest crowdpleasers trod the troubled-teen terrain so perennially attractive to independent filmmakers. Two look set to flourish outside the festival. ‘The Spectacular Now’ was the festival’s biggest word-of-mouth hit: its writer-director James Ponsoldt’s follow-up to last year’s alcoholism drama ‘Smashed’, and consensus is that this high school romance between Miles Teller (‘Rabbit Hole’) and Shailene Woodley (‘The Descendants’) plays out with equivalent adult intensity. Indie kingpins Fox Searchlight, meanwhile, forked out a whopping $10 million for distribution rights to ‘The Way, Way Back’, a formulaic but sweetly sincere summer comedy about a 14-year-old misfit who learns unlikely life lessons from Sam Rockwell’s kooky water-park manager.

The Sundance alumni society has taken over

'Upstream Color'

'Upstream Color'

One thing that used to distinguish Sundance from, say, Cannes was the significant presence of untested names. This year, however, it seems the programmers gave more room than usual for their pet auteurs. In the Dramatic Competition, former Grand Jury Prize winner Shane Carruth (‘Upstream Color’) is vying for a second win, with such familiar Park City-reared talents as Lynn Shelton (‘Touchy Feely’) also in the running. Elsewhere, major names include David Gordon Green (reverting back to his indie roots), Alex Gibney, Michael Winterbottom and Jane Campion. Between all this established-name appeal, it was harder than usual to guess who this year’s Benh Zeitlin (‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’)-style breakout might be.

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