My friend Dan Casper attends the Sundance Film Festival every year, sees everything and writes thumbnail reviews that I thoroughly enjoy. Here's his report for 2006.
Let me just get this out of the way first – 2006 was not a good year for the Sundance Film Festival.
Sure, there were plenty of films to see, and plenty of good ones at that (particularly some of the documentaries), but there just weren't any truly great films. No revelations, no films that I must urge you to run out to see, no performances that bring forward an emerging talent.
It was just an average year at best – perfectly enjoyable but not a great festival.
So with that out of the way, here’s my annual recap of the films I saw, in order of preference (best ones first), so that you can plan your moviegoing year, or not, or at least start to fill up your Netflix queue with some films that, admittedly, may be nice to see at home on a rainy day.
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1. An Inconvenient Truth
Powerful and compelling documentary about former Vice President Al Gore’s advocacy of environmental issues and his grass roots campaign to build awareness of the global warming crisis that is now upon us. At the heart of this film is one of the most compelling slide presentations I’ve ever seen, a presentation which Gore gives on college campuses around the country, and one which is a model for all leaders in how to organize and deliver a message. Gore came to the festival and spoke to our audience after the screening, but even if he hadn’t, this film would have stood on its own as a compelling case study in leadership, grass roots activism, and above all, a call to action.
An entertaining, insightful, and unexpectedly layered profile of NY Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz and his ‘puzzling’ community. Of course, the prototypes for this study lie in films like ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Word Wars’ – but somehow ‘Wordplay’ finds ways to tread new ground, bringing new insights into the world of geekdom, and profiling some truly interesting, creative, and clever individuals who are at the heart of the would-be crossword zeitgeist.
3. The World According to Sesame Street
Fascinating film about Sesame Workshop’s efforts to export their titular TV series to developing nations around the globe. The development of the show for viewers in Kosovo, Bangladesh, and South Africa is profiled, and along the way, we learn about Sesame’s educational approach, the impact of cultural differences, and the challenges of globalization.
4. All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise
Heartfelt documentary chronicling Rosie O’Donnell’s first gay and lesbian family cruise. The film does a nice job showing what it might be like to live in a world that is totally accepting of everyone’s differences, and the warmth and love on this boat of idealism are genuinely moving. A few curmudgeonly types described this as a horror film – 500 gays are imprisoned on a boat with Rosie for a week – but I say phooey to them all.
5. Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner
Interesting portrait of playwright Tony Kushner, tracking his life and his projects over a 4 year period from just after 9/11 though the 2004 presidential election. This film is beautifully constructed and does a nice job chronicling Kushner’s life and work but somehow doesn’t bring an insider’s view that would have made this an even stronger film. Credit to director Freida Lee Mock for creating such a strong film about a subject she admitted to knowing little about, but shame on her for not getting closer to her subject or even acknowledging the many influences that no doubt have contributed to Kushner’s success as a playwright and activist.
6. 13 Tzameti
The best dramatic feature at the festival, and that’s not saying much, this stylish suspense film from France takes Hitchcock, Tarantino, and pretty much all of film noir as its inspirations and comes up with something pretty darn original. Filmed in glorious black and white, this story of a man who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time is always compelling to watch, but the film itself is a bit more style than substance and is really nothing more than a calling card for up-and-coming director Gela Babluani.
A powder keg of a film that audiences will either love or hate, this laser-sharp relationship comedy takes the most obscene premise imaginable and somehow spins an insightful exploration of relationships and the secrets we keep, or don’t keep, from those we love. Though acted within an inch of its life by the lovely Melinda Page Hamilton, Bryce Johnson, and others, this was without question the most original film I saw at the festival.
8. So Much So Fast
Sad, moving portrait of a young man with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) tracks his disease in depth but seems to be even more about the incredible family that takes care of him. This is a profile of a terrible tragedy that has affected beautiful, privileged people, but each member of this family is a true hero in their own way, showing for once how rare and special a loving, supportive family can be.
9. Puccini for Beginners
Sparkling film that is a screwball romantic comedy for our time, director Maria Maggenti delivered the most joyful 90 minutes I spent at the festival this year. Sure, it all evaporates as soon as you leave the theatre, but the film is sharply written, keenly observed, and deeply funny – what more can you ask for?
10. Kinky Boots
The latest Britcom to come ashore, ‘Kinky Boots’ is a film that actually avoids most of the obvious clichés and delivers something that is fresh and original (and beautifully filmed). The heir to a shoe factory in Northern England struggles to revive business after the death of his father and turns to a flamboyant man who convinces him that boots for drag queens could be a market niche worth exploring. The film features a wonderful performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (of ‘Dirty Pretty Things’) as the drag diva with a heart of gold and a business sense to boot.
11. Little Miss Sunshine
This is the film that had the most buzz this year and was a huge hit with audiences and studio executives alike. It’s a perfectly adorable film about a dysfunctional family on a road trip to take their young daughter to compete in a children’s beauty pageant. With scenes that are truly inspired and hysterically funny, and a cast that is a pitch-perfect ensemble entirely in tune with the piece, there’s really no reason not to like this film. At the end, I couldn’t help thinking that this film was written backwards – that its destination (the beauty pageant) was somehow more important than its starting point, but I can’t deny that I had a lot of fun all along the way.
12. God Grew Tired of Us
Awarded both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for documentary film this year, ‘God Grew Tired of Us’ is a moving and triumphant film about young Sudanese men escaping the endless civil war in their country and coming to America for a fresh start. Filled with insights about cultural dislocation, this is a humane and sensitive portrait of 3 men who have lived tough lives who find a home and freedom and compassion in our country. My only criticism about this film is that it covers exactly the same ground as an admittedly less polished film from last year called ‘The Lost Boys of Sudan.’
13. Friends with Money
The opening film of the festival this year, Nicole Holofcener’s ensemble dramedy is a nice piece of writing, but unfortunately Jennifer Aniston is miscast as an aimless woman well into her 30s whose older friends have had much more success in their lives than she has. It’s hard to understand why Aniston’s character would have been friendly with these women in the first place, but fortunately they are all played by amazing actresses – Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack, and Catherine Keener – and the film succeeds because they are just so damn good.
14. A Lion in the House
A very long film (nearly 4 hours), but a very compelling one, that chronicles the experiences of 3 families with children who are cancer patients at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. This is a strong film that comprehensively covers nearly all aspects of its topic and in a strange way still left me wanting to learn more (well, maybe after a bathroom break).
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for dramatic feature this year, ‘Quinceanera’ chronicles the dynamics of a Mexican family preparing for their daughter’s 15th birthday celebration. I must say my impression of this film grew in retrospect, but unfortunately the film is marred by a terribly realized subplot about a young gay cousin and the predatory gay couple who invites him into their relationship. This subplot felt so out of place to me in a film that celebrates family, tackles the subject of gentrification of our ethnic neighborhoods, and rejoices in the celebrations that make America’s melting pot of cultures so unique.
Maggie Gyllenhaal can do no wrong in my book, and sure enough, in this film, she is wonderful as a woman just released from prison struggling to reclaim her life, especially the young daughter who she barely knows. Without Gyllenhaal’s performance, this film wouldn’t be much, but Gyllenhaal lifts up this kitchen sink drama and turns it into a character portrait worth remembering.
17. The Trials of Darryl Hunt
Absorbing though traditionally-realized documentary about the efforts to exonerate North Carolina convict Darryl Hunt from death row. You can’t help but be moved by Hunt’s story of a wrongful, racially-driven conviction and his lengthy journey to bring forward justice, and the film does a nice job building suspense and conveying the feelings of exhaustion and determination that no doubt faced Hunt and his advocates.
18. Who Killed the Electric Car?
A nice companion piece to ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ this film explores another side of the environmental issue by delivering an entertaining and probing investigation of why we are not further developing and manufacturing the electric-powered vehicle, a car whose time has come (as the film mentions several times) – and unfortunately one whose time has already passed. At its heart, this is really just an extended ‘20/20’ or ‘Dateline’ piece, but it’s done well, and it’s tale is an interesting one.
19. The Illusionist
A film with the gloss and shine of an expensive Hollywood period piece and with high-profile (and wonderful) performances by Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. Its tricky script demands patience at times, but the payoff is interesting though perhaps a bit confusing. Nonetheless, with its piercing Philip Glass score and handsome production values, the film works well and is worth keeping an eye out for.
Verite documentary profiling the journeys of 3 women with eating disorders undergoing treatment at a residential center in Florida. Hard to watch at times, this film raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer about both the disease and its treatment. Though filmed with a degree of honesty that its verite approach facilitates, I can’t help thinking that a more orchestrated treatment of the subject might go further in helping us learn about a disease that perhaps many of us don’t really understand.
21. The Night Listener
Straightforward suspense thriller adapted faithfully from Armistead Maupin’s novel (and why not, since the book reads like a screenplay anyway?), ‘The Night Listener’ is about a mysterious child and the writer he develops a friendship with. Unfortunately the film makes the mistake of revealing its cards a bit too soon (unlike the novel), but despite this, Robin Williams is terrific and terrifically convincing in the lead role, as is Toni Collette as the woman who may or may not be behind the mystery.
22. Flannel Pajamas
Overlong and overwrought relationship drama that gets things right about 50% of the time and gets things totally wrong otherwise. Not entirely without merit, the film really cracks along when it’s good, but when it’s not, it’s a real clunker. It was interesting to note that the friend I saw this film with sympathized with one of the main characters in the relationship portrayed in the film, while I sympathized with the other. I guess relationships really do have two sides to them, and I do give the film credit for showing this, but unfortunately some of the film is just totally wrongheaded and not in the least convincing.
23. This Film is Not Yet Rated
Expose of the motion picture association film ratings board and their lack of consistency in rating films, this piece clearly has an agenda that just doesn’t feel all that important to the average moviegoer. Not without its flashes of brilliance (showing sex scenes from 2 films side by side to highlight the inconsistency of ratings, for example), overall this film didn’t resonate for me and its focus on the mechanics of its undercover investigation, though entertaining, just didn’t seem all that relevant to the proceedings.
24. Man Push Cart
Small, scrappy little film cut from the immigrant experience cloth, ‘Man Push Cart’ was better than most small, scrappy little films are, but its story is familiar and offers nothing fresh or surprising. It’s the kind of film you want to feel good about but ultimately walk away from feeling a bit undernourished.
25. Art School Confidential
Though it starts off well, this film goes downhill pretty quickly and never really recovers from it. Brought to us by the same creative team that made the delightfully dark ‘Ghost World’ a few years back, ‘Art School Confidential’ bursts with promise, has some fun moments and nice performances, but loses steam about halfway through and gets bogged down in the pulp of a hard-boiled detective yarn that is a bit incongruous with its subject (though no worse than last year’s ‘Brick,’ I suppose, which spun its hard-boiled detective yarn around life in high school).
A film about women in prison in the UK writing and performing in music videos, these songbirds don’t quite sing well enough to make them all that noteworthy. More interesting than the women and their performances is the story behind the film – the seed of its idea, the therapeutic aspect of it for the women, and the logistics of its making. There’s an interesting documentary in there somewhere – one that is much more interesting than this film.
27. Stephanie Daley
Though this was one of the first films I saw at the festival this year, my friends saw it late in the festival, and when we discussed it afterwards, I was embarrassed to admit that I remembered very little about it. What I do remember is that Tilda Swinton was really good in it (when isn’t she good?), and that it was a pretty serious affair about a lawyer defending a teenage girl accused of killing her baby.
28. TV Junkie
Now we’re moving into the self-indulgent films on this list. The first of several films that spend way too much time with people who just aren’t all that interesting, ‘TV Junkie’ edits down over 3000 hours of home movies to create a disturbing portrait of a TV reporter who also happens to be a crack addict. Tedious and way too long, some credit (and sympathy) must be given to the director and editor for watching all of the footage so we don’t have to.
29. Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst
Not quite self-indulgent, but definitely a film about someone who just isn’t that interesting. Florence Broadhurst, the pre-eminent wallpaper designer of Australia, purportedly led a colorful life, but all of the color is missing from this overly gimmicky and annoyingly inventive documentary about her life. Teeming with animation, re-enactments, and interviews in rooms wallpapered with Florence’s work (yawn), this film does show some creativity on the part of esteemed Australian director Gillian Armstrong.
30. The Hawk is Dying
Paul Giamatti stars in this downbeat tale of a man who adopts dying hawks and then keeps them in captivity and starves them to death. A strange film that lands with a thud and also happens to be the darkest (meaning least lit) film I’ve ever seen (did someone forget to pay the electric bill?). With that said, Giamatti comes out of this mess relatively unscathed and actually, despite how unpleasant his character is, turns in a good performance. Unfortunately, director Julian Goldberger probably won’t see the light of day after this, the second unexpected failure of his career.
31. Come Early Morning
Ashley Judd is wonderful in this character study of a troubled woman, but there’s practically nothing interesting about this film, which chronicles a young woman’s journey from a world of one night stands to a world of, well, what will likely be more one night stands.
32. No. 2
I’m afraid this film was setting itself up to be the butt (pun intended) of bad jokes with its title, and I’m sorry to report that the title is not far off from what this film is. OK, it’s not all that bad, and it does offer an intermittently interesting and deft performance from the great Ruby Dee as a Fijian woman bringing her family together for a final party before handing over her house to one of her progeny. But other than that, it’s a curiously uneven film that just doesn’t ever find its rhythm.
33. Right At Your Door
Possibly the first film since ‘The Blair Witch Project’ to create a sense of terror and dread with virtually no budget, but this film that speculates about a dirty bomb attack on Los Angeles ends up being just plain silly. Full of characters making stupid choices, this film did prove, if nothing else, that it is possible to create a doomsday thriller without big budget special effects – unfortunately, this just isn’t a good one.
Filmmakers from around the world (including Gaspar Noe, Matthew Barney, Larry Clark and others) were challenged to create a series of short, explicitly sexual films, and the results are pretty mixed. Far and away the best film in the lot is Clark’s, a nearly 40 minute piece about his search for a regular guy to have sex with a porn star for his section of the film. Clark’s film is witty and entertaining, which is more than can be said for the rest of ‘Destricted’ – and thankfully, Clark’s film is also the longest, almost making ‘Destricted’ worth a gander.
35. Who Needs Sleep?
The first of 2 films about sleep deprivation at the festival this year, and while neither one was very good, at least this one had something to say. Famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler authored this entry about sleep deprivation among professionals in the film industry, and like ‘This Film is Not Yet Rated,’ this film also has an agenda, one that few outside the industry will care to hear about for 90 minutes.
In case you can’t make it to the Mauthausen concentration camp site on your next trip to Germany, this film fills in what you missed with a ponderous, serious, and ultimately not very interesting tour. I do feel badly about dismissing a film about the Holocaust, but this noble effort just doesn’t educate or illuminate – it just sits there and watches groups of tourists get upset at sites that are barely explained or contextualized by the guides. Send this one immediately off to the vaults of Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.
37. Wide Awake
You guessed it – film #2 in the sleep deprivation film sub-festival. Unfortunately, this one smacks of self-indulgence as the filmmaker drones on endlessly about his insomnia and his family sits around telling him he should get some sleep. Brief attempts are made to visit specialists to understand the nature of sleep deprivation, but the film stops short of providing any insight and instead fills out its time with quickly edited footage of alarm clocks going off and people yawning – enough to put me to sleep at the midnite screening I attended.
38. Wild Tigers I Have Known
Pretentious and virtually incomprehensible, this film gets points only for its occasional visual brilliance. I can’t even begin to tell you what this one was about, but it had something to do with a high school student who is attracted to his best friend and then dreams of tigers or something. Whatever.
Another mess of a film, this one was about a German student who loses his passport while in Africa and stows away on a cargo ship to get home. Strange and unusual things start to happen, but I don’t really understand them – they lost me when the slaves in cages start speaking to the ship’s crew in their native tongue. Well, actually, that was one of the more understandable scenes in this movie.
40. In Between Days
Ugh. This is a ‘naturalistic’ (meaning boring) tale of a teenage girl who comes from Korea to a small town in America with her mother and has a friendship/flirtation with a boy also from Korea who never takes off his ugly ski hat for almost the entire film. That really bugged me – but nearly everything about this acclaimed film (what were they thinking?) drove me batty.
41. small town gay bar
The worst documentary at the festival this year, this film makes exactly one point, then repeats it over and over for more than 90 minutes. It’s hard to be gay in Mississippi, this film continuously reminds us, but it helps if you have a place to go. I’ve already written the first verse of a country-western song that I think should go over the credits for this film (“Oh it’s hard to be gay in Mississippi…”). Perhaps Reese Witherspoon (in June Carter Cash mode) will grace us by singing it, then we can all leave the theatre when she’s done.
A completely misguided and at times offensive drama about a political candidate who once sent a man to death row and who must face him when he is pardoned and released from prison. Not much more to say here.
43. Wristcutters: A Love Story
A comedy, I think, about suicide. It would be bad enough if this film were about a suicide support group or something, but this one has the gall to set itself in the afterlife, where everyone who has ever committed suicide is sitting around having a grand old time. Where did this film come from? And how is it possible that so many people at the festival told me they enjoyed it?
44. The Darwin Awards
A big, high-profile, star-studded mess that will be coming to a theatre near you simply because so many noteworthy actors agreed to be in it – including Winona Ryder, Joseph Fiennes, and others. I sat through this entire film with my mouth wide open at the horror of it all. Not a single laugh in this raucous stink bomb of a comedy that I can’t even begin to describe. My friend walked out, but I was too entranced looking at the accident on the freeway to join her.
Here’s hoping for a better festival in 2007!
Yours in moviegoing,