Sundance 2013: a local tragedy, an ongoing romance, and top picks

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Here we are again: 'Before Midnight'

Ryan Coogler's Bay Area story Fruitvale picked up the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize; it is, of course, based on the life and death of Oakland's Oscar Grant, a young man gunned down by a BART cop on New Year's Day 2009. I emerged from this important, wonderfully-made debut like everyone around me in the sold-out theater — in devastated tears.

Lead actor Michael B. Jordan is absolutely gripping as Oscar — no surprise for anyone who saw him as Wallace on the first season of HBO's The Wire, or as one of Josh Trank's accidental superheroes in 2012's surprisingly gritty Chronicle. Coogler is a skilled director; the way he slowly builds toward his story's inevitable conclusion is worthy of praise.

But as I thought about it in the days after the screening, I realized I had some reservations about Fruitvale's script, despite all of its good intentions. Its characters, including the BART policemen and Oscar, tend to be one-dimensional, which drains the story of nuance. Instead of guiding the viewer though the situation, it ends up telling us what its point of view is.

Rounding out this year's Sundance picks is the latest film in Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke's Before series, Before Midnight. I heard multiple critics complaining that they were annoyed with "yet another entry;" frankly, that made me wonder if they themselves are tired of their own lives. The random-yet-precise-ness that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have allowed these two characters to explore over 18 years has to be experienced to be understood.

Before Sunrise
(1995) is perhaps the series' most relatable, since it embodies the excitement of traveling around in one's carefree early 20s. Hawke and Delpy embodied their characters' journey so well that I have actually plotted my own travels over the years with that film in mind.

Then came Before Sunset (2004), with the characters in their mid-30s, and their lives haven't necessarily gone the way they'd hoped. If you revisit Sunset you may find how spot-on Linklater and company are in capturing the progressive pitfalls of the know-it-all generation.

Heartbreaking and somehow still romantic, neither film can prepare you for what Before Midnight has to offer. Now in their 40s, both Hawke and Delpy have said in interviews that they developed the characters of Jesse and Céline alongside their own hopes and dreams, and use these alter-egos to help understand their own limitations in life.

As for Linklater — who emerged on the Sundance scene with 1991's Slacker, losing the Grand Jury prize to Todd Haynes' Poison — even if you don't have a mini-breakdown as each Before film ends (every time ... sniff), there's no denying his spontaneous yet meticulous Before series has produced magic over 18 years, and is on its way to being the narrative equivalent of Michael Apted's monumental Up series.

TOP FILMS OF SUNDANCE (and SLAMDANCE) 2013

1. Jane Campion's Top of the Lake (UK/New Zealand)
2. Richard Linklater's Before Midnight (USA/Greece)
3. Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess (USA)
4. Sebastián Silva's Magic Magic (Chile)
5. Matt Johnson's The Dirties (Canada)
6. Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Waaseypur (India)
7. Sebastián Silva's Crystal Fairy (Peru/USA)
8. Nicole Teeny's Bible Quiz (USA)
9. Alexandre Moors' Blue Caprice (USA)
10. James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now (USA)
11. Zachary Heinzerling's Cutie & the Boxer (USA)
12. Sean Ellis' Metro Manila (UK/Philippines)
13. Michael Winterbottom's The Look of Love (UK)