Before the awards are given out tonight at Sundance 2013, I’ve got three of my own to bestow, to movies that have stayed in my mind in the days since I traded the relatively balmy cold mountain air of Park City, Utah, for the frigid wilds of the Northeast.
The first award, for The Best Drama Most Likely to Break Your Heart, goes to Fruitvale — which, I’ll wager, will win other, more official awards later today too. This vivid, fast-moving, fired-up story propels forward with truth in its engine: In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, a young Bay Area African-American man named Oscar Grant was killed by a white cop’s bullet at the Fruitvale train station. Grant wasn’t a saint, but he wasn’t a sinner, either — just a guy with a live-in girlfriend and a young daughter, trying to figure out how to do right and stay away from doing wrong.
The high achievement of Fruitvale, by first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler (an African-American son of the Bay area himself ) lies in the way Coogler shapes his story, dramatizing the last day of Grant’s life as a means of conveying character; in the energy and immediacy of the no-nonsense visual style; and in the fine cast he put together. Michael B. Jordan earns his movie-star stripes as Grant; the magnificent Octavia Spencer commands her part of the story as Grant’s mother; Melonie Diaz brings Grant’s girlfriend to full life. I hope Coogler has more stories he feels he needs to tell as urgently as he tells this one.
I give my second award, for The Best Conversation We Hope Never Ends, to Before Midnight, in which Celine and Jesse, a.k.a. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, talk and talk and talk their lives into shapes suitable for adults who are now 41 years old. It’s a dialogue familiar to those (like me) who first fell in love with Celine and Jesse 18 years ago when Before Sunrise — a rapturous Sundance debut — set the then-23-year-old French girl and American boy down in Vienna and let them loose.
Of course, Before Sunset, Before Sunrise (made nine years later), and Before Midnight only feel loose: Evolving the script with Delpy and Hawkes, filmmaker Richard Linklater has built characters who are exceedingly well-formed and finely delineated. And what seems to be plotless meandering (first in Vienna, then in Paris, now on a sun-bleached stretch of Greece’s southern Peloponnese) is in fact an exciting story about sustaining both a loving twosome relationship and simultaneously a singular sense of self. Also, I hope you’ve noticed, not one plot point is given away here. Mentioning Greece doesn’t count.
Finally, I bestow my Great Role For a Deserving Actor Award to Robin Weigert in Concussion. Weigert was an unforgettable Calamity Jane in HBO’s Deadwood and an important supporting player opposite John Hawkes in The Sessions. In Stacie Passon’s erotic drama Concussion, Weigert plays a lithe lesbian wife and mother who is beaned in the head by her kid’s baseball and emerges from the accident itchy with sexual desire unmet by her wife (Julie Fain Lawrence). Thus begins a second, secret career in high-class lesbian prostitution, transacted in a minimalist-chic studio in New York City, away from her suburban New Jersey home. The movie is a silky, high-toned thing: Belle du Jour meets The L Word meets fortysomething. You’ve never seen so many beautiful women-who-love-women, and such fine fashion choices.
But more to the point, we’ve never seen Robin Weigert get the chance to hold a movie on her own. And to exult in her own sexuality. And to be afforded the luxury of developing a character who herself changes over time. Here, she grabs that opportunity and flowers in it. One other bonus for Weigert: She gets to get busy with the alluring Maggie Siff from Sons of Anarchy.
Congratulations to all the winners of Sundance 2013! Stay indie, my friends.