Bold, impassioned, ecstatically beautiful, Shane Carruth's Upstream Color — a lyric reverie on loss, love and various invasions of the body — was in a class by itself at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Well, let's say it was a class shared by a more conventional but no less heady consideration of coupledom and the cosmos, Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, the third (but one hopes not the last) in Linklater's series of scintillating gabfests co-scripted with stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
Carruth's film — his first since winning Sundance's Grand Jury Prize in 2004 for the garage-inventor time-travel opus Primer — unsurprisingly divided critics and audiences with its fragmented, allusive semi-narrative involving parasitic worms and copious quotations from Thoreau's Walden. But this hypnotic, symphonic film, which calls to mind everything from Jacques Rivette's Paris Nous Appartient to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, undeniably gets under your skin, and it confirms its 40-year-old writer-director-producer-composer-editor-star as one of the singular talents in American movies today.
It also points to an ongoing paradigm shift in the indie-film landscape: Heeding the gospel that indie gurus such as producer Ted Hope and Filmmaker magazine editor Scott Macaulay have been preaching for years now, Carruth came to Sundance with a well-plotted distribution strategy for Upstream Color already in place, including theatrical bookings in some two dozen markets and a near-simultaneous release on iTunes, Amazon and other video-on-demand platforms. The distributor? Carruth himself, nimbly dodging the Sundance meat market where, for every headline-grabbing seven-figure sale, there are dozens more in the five- and low six-figure range — with few if any of those figures ever getting back to the actual filmmaker.
Another formidable multi-hyphenate, Carruth's co-editor David Lowery was also present at Sundance with his third feature as writer-director, the 1970s Texas crime drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints, featuring Casey Affleck as an escaped con trying to get back to the woman (Rooney Mara) he loves. Judging from the craftsmanship on display, Lowery is a talent to watch — as surely as Saints was instantly overpraised by those desperate for a little old-fashioned cinematic luxuriousness after many days in the color-desaturated, poorly framed digital trenches. Probably the most visually arresting movie in the festival alongside Upstream Color, ATBS drips with terminally imitative Terrence Malick-isms, including (but not limited to) cameos from such regular members of the Malick stock company as bodies posed artfully against magic-hour skies, hands gently caressing tall grass, crisp white linen blowing in the breeze and (on the soundtrack) tremolo strings straining for the ethereal. But where Carruth's film feels vibrantly alive with meaning, Lowery's too often seems embalmed with stylization, including the decision to have the (very fine) actors deliver nearly all their lines in breathy half-whispers.
If Sundance 2013 failed to yield a single critical and audience consensus favorite on the order of Precious or 2012's Beasts of the Southern Wild, day by day there were still many pleasures to be had — quite likely the most varied and enjoyable lineup of the 11 Sundances I've attended. Even some of the duds managed to contain a diamond, like luminescent newcomer Kaya Scodelario, who works wonders with the title role in the otherwise taxing Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes. This veritable SNL parody of an indie film sent my quirk-o-meter into the danger zone around the time Jessica Biel appeared as a grieving mother who substitutes a plastic doll for her deceased newborn.
Of course, Sundance functions as a discovery zone not just for emerging directors and screenwriters but for actors, too, as evidenced by Beasts Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. Among this year's standouts were Miles Teller as a smart-aleck teen confronted with his first true love in the superb coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now, and Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color's leading lady and a talented filmmaker in her own right. (Her debut feature, the taut Florida noir Sun Don't Shine, opens later this year.) Although they aren't exactly unknowns, two venerable indie players — Ben Foster and Juno Temple — fully came into their own with rangy, scene-stealing performances in multiple Sundance titles. Foster dazzled as the young William S. Burroughs on the edges of the Beat true-crime tale Kill Your Darlings, then impressed even more as a kindly deputy trying to keep the peace in Ain't Them Bodies Saints, a performance that evokes the young Gene Hackman in its understated masculine authority. Temple, meanwhile, turned up in no less than three Sundance films, giving a tour de force as an American tourist suffering an unexplained breakdown during a Chilean vacation in Sebastián Silva's unnerving meta-horror film Magic Magic.
It was also a Sundance of many happy returns for familiar faces too long absent from the screen, from a wizened Keith Carradine as the surrogate father figure of Ain't Them Bodies Saints to Dean Stockwell as a craggy apple farmer in the low-key, highly accomplished David Sedaris adaptation C.O.G. Then there was Lovelace, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's above-average biopic of Deep Throat porn sensation Linda Lovelace (a good Amanda Seyfried). About an hour into the film, I leaned over to a colleague to ask if he knew who was so brilliantly and movingly playing the part of Lovelace's mother, Dorothy Boreman, a strong woman, hardened by experience and the limited options open to women of her era, who gives her daughter tough-love advice she will later regret having given. My friend shrugged, and when the end credits rolled, we watched the name go by in quiet astonishment: Sharon Stone.