Sundance 2014: Festival an immersion in inventive genre storytelling

Elisabeth Moss in "The One I Love."
(Doug Emmett / Sundance Film Festival)

The stereotypical Sundance movie is thought of as something capital-Q quirky, typically a story of family dysfunction or coming-of-age. This year’s festival, across its numerous sections, featured a newfound immersion in genre storytelling that pushed the films to places that were familiar but with unexpected and most welcome twists.

Gareth Evans’ “The Raid 2,” for instance, does for the blood-soaked Asian action film what “The Dark Knight” did for the superhero film, injecting it with a seriousness, a depth of characterization and a scope of storytelling that raises it to a new level of legitimacy.

Despite its deep ties to the notion of cinema as art, Sundance is also very much an adjunct part of the movie business, and so the selections are not immune to larger market forces. And many of the top box office draws of 2013 — including a young adult adventure film, a comic-book superhero sequel, a kids sequel, an animated children’s film and a superhero reboot as well as numerous sci-fi films, a car chase sequel, another comic-book superhero and a series of broad comedies — might be thought of as genre films as well; but somehow, because of their size and box-office heft, they break free of the grubby bonds of being pigeonholed as such.

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Genre film, although as old as moviemaking itself, is a term often used as some kind of backhanded dismissal, the stuff of entertainment and distraction but not serious filmmaking — potboiler horror and run-of-the-mill thrillers for die-hard fans and insomniacs watching late-night cable or streaming. So it was something of a surprise when the program for this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up barely a week ago, included in the prestigious cornerstone of its U.S. Dramatic Competition such titles as the crime drama “Cold in July,” the zombie rom-com “Life After Beth” and the supernatural young adult story “Jamie Marks Is Dead.”

Sundance is something of an industry incubator, where talent gets discovered, ideas tested and trends first set. So the influx of genre storytelling — traditional, revisionist, inside-out, straightforward and everything in between — points toward a mode we may be getting more of throughout the year.

Part of the reason, perhaps, for the emergence of genre at the Sundance level is that with the recent boom in video-on-demand, the short descriptions in the menu window have become ever more important. Early VOD axioms tilting toward sex and a title near the beginning of the alphabet have become slightly more sophisticated, leaning instead to easily digestible synopses. (And the influx this year of cable outlets into documentary distribution is said by some to have influenced the subject matter and storytelling on the nonfiction side as well.)

The new hybridized distribution deals — which may include different partners for theatrical, digital and home video platforms — may contribute to some kind of hybridization of storytelling. Movies can be more than just one thing, a horror film and a comedy, for example, or a fight film and crime epic. Without dumbing down, filmmakers nevertheless have found ways to tell their stories that can be boiled down to something simple and direct. In turn, a number of these new genre films were among the splashiest premieres and higher-profile sales of the festival.


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“The Raid 2" was the most exciting and inventive genre film at the festival. It’s a huge step forward from 2011’s “The Raid,” and Evans, Welsh-born but living and working in Indonesia, has fully announced himself as one of the best action directors working today. With its tale of a cop (the phenomenal Iko Uwais) sent deep undercover into the underworld, the film becomes a layered saga of loyalty, honor, deception, betrayal and survival. The picture works as a crime drama on its own but then adds a series of astonishing action sequences, each one topping the last.

Any one of the set pieces in “The Raid 2" might be the climax to any other movie, leaving audiences buzzing about the prison fight, the car chase, the nightclub fight, the subway fight, the kitchen fight. Taken together, they are astonishing. It’s easy to be swept away by the fervor of Evans’ action and powerful fighting, such that suddenly you’re rooting for the ostensible villains because they’re unexpectedly sympathetic and just so cool. (The film’s getting a U.S. release in March, so don’t be alarmed when Hammer Girl becomes a cult Halloween costume this year.)

The festival also featured two films that purposefully reference lowdown ‘80s crime thrillers, Adam Wingard’s “The Guest” and Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July.” Both share scores reminiscent of the throbbing sounds in high-period John Carpenter films, something of a godfather to just the sort of self-conscious high-low, smart-trashy oscillations that are percolating throughout these new genre creations.


Jim Jarmusch, still defining indie cool at 61, had his most recent film screen at the festival. Having previously tackled the road movie, the samurai picture and the western, he now takes on the vampire film in “Only Lovers Left Alive.” In this story of love, longing and legacy starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as muses, sages and bloodthirsty bohemians across the ages, Jarmusch draws out something fresh from creatures of the night.

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The same goes for “What We Do in the Shadows,” written and directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, a faux documentary focusing on the lives of a group of vampires who share a house in modern-day Wellington, New Zealand. Steeped in vampire lore, the film is affectionate, playful and affecting, a comedy of vampire manners and etiquette.

Science fiction came in for a bit of tweaking as well, with “The One I Love” recontextualizing it amid a rom-com setup and “Young Ones” playing as a post-apocalyptic parable. Even the musical came in for reconsideration. “Song One” features Anne Hathaway and music by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice. “God Help the Girl,” written and directed by Stuart Murdoch, frontman of the Scottish group Belle and Sebastian, self-consciously plays with the form by having characters burst into song with other characters acknowledging it, also using a fledgling band’s rehearsals and performances in the story.


Even those films that didn’t explicitly engage with genre — from the acerbic literary hyper-awareness of “Listen Up Philip” to the breezy satire on race and identity in “Dear White People” — still managed to break the mold of what makes for a Sundance movie. Pointing toward the constant reinvention within the industry of independent filmmaking itself, the films this year at Sundance that did take on genre trappings did so in a way that made them familiar enough not to be alienating, fresh and distinctive enough to seem somehow new.