Here is this year's Sundance Film Festival report from my friend Dan Casper.
1 – The Savages
Easily the best dramatic feature at the festival this year, Tamara Jenkins’ film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as adult siblings who are asked to make important decisions about their aging father’s long term care and somehow stumble their way through it all. This is a tough film, but it’s not just about what it means to grow old in America today – it’s also about sibling rivalry, middle age, and the disappointments that drive families apart – and at the heart of it all are magnificent performances by two of our finest actors. Watch for this film at Oscar time next year.
2 – Manda Bala
The documentary revelation of this year’s festival, Manda Bala is a riveting portrait of contemporary Brazil. Director Jason Kohn uses the food chain as a metaphor to show how seemingly unrelated circumstances all feed into the cycle of violence that is at the heart of Brazil’s current economic and social problems, but he does so in a way that is vital, engaging, and wholly original. I guess I would describe Kohn’s technique as Errol Morris meets Quentin Tarantino, but Kohn is really in a class by himself, bringing the documentary form forward into a new and exciting place. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in Documentary Filmmaking.
3 – In the Shadow of the Moon
A sentimental favorite, this film is simple, elegant, and a supremely moving experience. In the Shadow of the Moon documents the Apollo space missions of the 1960s and 70s, but brings a new perspective to this well-documented era by allowing the men who traveled to the moon speak about their experiences in their own words. Filled with glorious images of the moon, Earth, and space, this film will look splendid on your plasma TV when it airs someday on the Discovery Channel (HD, of course!). There’s no ponderous narration, no scientific lecturing – just the faces and words of the men who traveled in space, looking back on what clearly are the defining moments of their lives. Winner of the World Documentary Audience Award.
4 – Hear and Now
Irene Taylor Brodsky’s parents have been hearing impaired for all of their 60+ years, and now they have decided to have cochlear implant surgery to restore their hearing. This is an inspiring film that, at its heart, is more about two people sharing their lives together than it is about this controversial medical procedure and its outcome. The Taylors have an entirely unpredictable journey into the world of sound, but it’s a journey that somehow, despite its difficulties, in my mind, makes sense. Winner of the Documentary Audience Award.
5 – War/Dance
Stunningly filmed documentary about children living in the middle of the Ugandan civil war zone who travel to Kampala to participate in the country’s annual student music and dance competition. Every single frame of War/Dance would make a beautiful still photo for a coffee table companion book for this film, and I admit that I was thoroughly engaged in the beauty and poetry of the images filmmakers Sean and Andrea Nix Fine created. The moving narrative is a familiar treatise on the healing power of art in times of peril, and though the film did work for me, its impact was diminished a bit for a reason I can’t quite articulate. My friends observed that the film actually felt entirely ‘staged’ to them and that there is nothing honorable about having these children recount their tales of torture and horror. I respect that view, but I can’t deny that for some, the techniques used in this film will go a long way towards bringing attention to its agenda. I give the film high marks for its artistry, but I admit that its intent and execution are a bit of a mismatch. Winner of the Documentary Directing Award.
6 – Strange Culture
An intriguing film that explores the strange case of Steve Kurtz, an artist who was arrested on evidence of suspected terrorism when it was found that his home contained scientific equipment and other materials for an art installation he was working on about genetically-modified food products. Not only is this a fascinating and thought-provoking case, but the film is presented in a fascinating and thought- provoking way. Not content to simply document the case, director Lynn Hershman Leeson uses actors to recreate scenes that Kurtz’s lawyers will not allow him to talk about publicly since his case is still awaiting trial. I was fascinated by the many layers to Kurtz’s story – and by the many layers of Leeson’s film. Strange culture, indeed.
7 – Never Forever
I’ll admit it – I love a good melodrama – and Never Forever is, simply put, a highly- polished melodrama. Elevated by a strong performance from Sundance’s woman-of- the-year, Vera Farmiga, this somewhat sordid tale of a woman married to an infertile Korean businessman who pays another Korean man who she meets at her fertility clinic to impregnate her, is riveting despite itself. Yes, at times it feels like it’s headed down a rabbit hole, never to return to sanity, but Farmiga carries the film, keeping it grounded, and keeping me engaged during its twists and turns.
8 – Girl 27
Back in 1937, a Hollywood chorus girl, Patricia Douglas, then 17, was invited to perform at an MGM sales meeting and became a victim of rape and abuse by one of the salesmen attending the convention. Very little was reported about this incident, and over 60 years later, director and investigative reporter David Stenn went in search of answers. Why the cover-up? What happened to Douglas? Why was she never heard from again? Stenn finds lots to chew on in this story, but ultimately his film (and its accompanying Vanity Fair article) is a lucid account of abuse and its ramifications on one person’s life up until the day she died. Heartbreaking and tragic.
9 – Crazy Love
A jaw-droppingly unbelievable tale of obsession and madness, this film documents the unusual love affair between two unforgettable New Yorkers – Burt Pugatch and Linda Riss – who have spent the better part of the last 45 years falling in and out of love with each other. Saying more about their relationship wouldn’t be fair to filmmakers Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens, who reveal the details of their complex relationship beautifully in this textured and strangely compassionate film. Pugatch and Riss sat near me on my flight out to Sundance, and though I did not know who they were at the time, I knew they were one-of-a-kind characters – had they been near me on my flight back, I just might have asked to change my seat.
10 – Broken English
It doesn’t bring anything new to the romantic comedy genre, but Zoe Cassavetes’ Broken English sparkles with witty dialogue and appealing situations – and, hey, with Parker Posey leading the band as the film’s unlucky-in-love heroine, how can you go wrong? A pleasant diversion for a rainy afternoon.
11 – Waitress
Filmmaker Adrienne Shelly’s recent murder brought an extra layer of sentimentality to her already sentimental film Waitress, but even if Shelly had been with us, I would have applauded this film’s good-natured warmth and charm, its entirely convincing performances, and its often surprising wit. The setup is straight out of the 70s sitcom Alice, but the film sneaks up on you and gains surprising depth as it works up to its wholly expected and entirely feminist resolution. A chick flick of the highest order.
12 – My Kid Could Paint
That Is 4 year old Marla Olmstead an art prodigy or just a kid playing with her paint set? Or is Marla’s seemingly charming fam
ily pulling the wool over the eyes of the art world and making buckets of money off their kid? Or maybe something else entirely is going on here. One thing I do know is that filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev raises a lot of questions, throws out a lot of ideas, and ultimately shrugs his shoulders at the Olmsteads, eventually turning the camera on himself and his journalistic responsibility over his subject. This was frustrating to me by the end of this film, but I still respect a lot of My Kid Could Paint That for its intriguing dissection of a family thrust into fame by their child’s precociousness. Less successful in its assessment of the art world than last year’s raucously entertaining Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?, but worthwhile nonetheless.
13 – Starting Out in the Evening
A gentle character study of an aging writer, his daughter, and the young graduate student who comes into their lives, director Andrew Wagner’s follow-up to his very different The Talent Given Us is a nice piece of writing and acting, with Frank Langella’s reliable performance at its core. This is a modest film, quiet and at times slow, but a rewarding one.
14 – Away from Her
Another quiet film at the festival this year, Sarah Polley’s Away from Her tells the gentle story of a woman facing the onset of Alzheimer’s with grace and poise. Featuring a central performance by the great Julie Christie, the film has a mesmerizing quality to it that serves as a kindler, gentler counterpoint to the biting wit and complexity of another strong film at Sundance this year, The Savages.
15 – Chasing Ghosts
Not quiet at all, Chasing Ghosts documents the history of the video game revolution of the 1980s with all of the wit and vitality you would expect. A slick portrait of geekdom and its birthplace (the Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa), the film is never less than entertaining but becomes even more than that when we check in with the men (and yes, they are all men) who were the reigning Pac Man and Asteroids champions of their day.
16 – Grace is Gone
John Cusack’s fully-realized performance is at the heart of this film, which appears to be a well-researched and believable study of a man’s journey to acceptance of the death of his wife in the Iraq war and the inevitable, though difficult, discussion he has with his daughters about their loss. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t fully get myself inside the head of Cusack’s character and couldn’t quite connect with the daughters either, and I guess the script and direction ended up keeping me at enough of a distance from this film to really be moved by it. Not a bad film, and one that many will respond to more than I did, but watching Grace is Gone just wasn’t quite the experience I might have expected. Winner of the Dramatic Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
17 – Trade
A guilty pleasure (if pleasure is the right word), this film is a Bruckheimer-style thriller about the global abduction and auctioning of young children into sexual slavery. It’s hardly an expose, and doesn’t have all that much of a social conscience, but damn if it doesn’t create a tense scenario and deliver on its promise to keep you on the edge of your seat and disturb you. It seems at first that Trade is going to be another Babel-style triptych, riffing this time on the human rights of underage children, but it quickly turns into a strong thriller that really didn’t sell me on itself until its final half hour, which was riveting and intensely disturbing. Featuring a chilling performance from Mexican actress Kate DelCastillo as the villainous Laura.
18 – Joshua
Clearly inspired by Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, director George Ratliff has created a spooky, witty film and cast terrific actors to creep us out with his tale of one very odd child who feels very threatened by the arrival of his new sibling. Vera Farmiga (again) plays the mother who is thrown into post-partum depression by her son, while Sam Rockwell is the father driven to paranoia. This film had no trouble keeping me awake at its midnite screening, but when it was all over, I couldn’t help thinking the film was more of an exercise in style over substance.
19 – Rocket Science
Director Jeffrey Blitz, who made the terrific documentary Spellbound, creates another promising underdog scenario with his fictional tale of a socially awkward teen with a stutter who is recruited for the debate squad at his school, and I can’t remember a more entertaining time at the festival for me than the first 45 minutes or so of Rocket Science. Its setup is terrific, the writing sparkles, the central performance by newcomer Reece Daniel Thompson is spot-on (he won a special acting award from the Sundance jury), and the voice-over narration by Alec Baldwin adds the perfect touch. Unfortunately, the film is all setup and no payoff, with a second half that loses a lot of steam before sputtering out and ending. Too bad, but I give the film credit for trying.
20 – An American Crime
This is a lurid tale about a very disturbed woman in Indiana who takes in her neighbor’s children and tortures and abuses them to no end. This film was most unpleasant to watch, but I can’t deny that Catherine Keener and Ellen Page give brilliant performances that probably not too many will want to see. Brave choices on their part, and a brave choice on yours if you choose to see this film.
21 – Smiley Face
Let me just say up front that I have never smoked pot, so I’m not sure I am the target audience for this stoner comedy that spends a day in the life of a young woman who has smoked way too much of it, but damn if I didn’t find Anna Faris’ performance in Smiley Face one of the most inspired comic performances I have seen this year. Sure, this movie is pure silliness, but Faris carries the day, and director Gregg Araki (who made a great leap forward in his skill as a director a couple of years back with Mysterious Skin) gets things just right. Opens in your local theatre on 4/20 (think about it).
22 – Once
A wee tiny small little miniscule musical, this charming Irish film fulfills its modest ambitions, but I guess I wanted it to be more. A street performer meets a woman on the Dublin streets, wanders around with her, regaling her with songs on his guitar, and at one point, on a piano in a music store they pass by. It’s kind of a love story, and then it kind of isn’t, but it’s hard to say a bad word about a film that aims to charm and has no pretensions about doing anything more than that. Winner of the Audience Award for World Cinema, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s because of the film, or because the film’s stars came up after each screening and performed a few songs live for the Sundance audience before they voted.
23 – Year of the Dog
I love Mike White’s view of the world in films like Chuck & Buck and, to a lesser extent, The Good Girl, and Year of the Dog clearly has White stamped all over it. Molly Shannon is perfectly cast as a dog lover who goes over the edge when her dog Pretzel (or was it Pencil?) dies, becoming an aggressive (and annoying) animal rights activist. Because this is a comedy, the dark side of Shannon’s character is played more for laughs, so it’s hard to argue that she really could have benefited from a few visits to a good therapist to help cope with her grief. Nonetheless, the supporting cast is strong and makes the most of a not-so-great script, but I couldn’t help but think that you really have to be a major animal lover to understand how this character could have gone so far off the deep end.
24 – Red Road
Here’s one that really baffled me, since it kept me in the dark for most of its nearly 2 hour running time, then walloped me at the end with some ve
ry fast plot twists that made sense of all that came before them. Overall, I guess that means this was a tightly constructed, well-thought-out film, but as my friend and I discussed, it just needed to give me a bit more as it went along so that I wasn’t so put off by some of the main character’s actions – such as stalking and eventually having intense, violent sex with an ex-convict who she spies on through the surveillance system at the security firm she works at. A resourceful film for sure, but one I’m not sure I really appreciated all that much.
25 – Padre Nuestro
Here’s another film that baffled me. For much of its short running time, I thought this film’s two main characters, who are very similar-looking Mexican boys who have come across the border, were actually one person. Something happens early in the film that led me to believe that one of the boys was out of the picture, but alas, he was not, and all I can do is blame the director and editor for their lack of clarity in telling their story. Somehow, once my head was on straight about what was going on, I got back into the film, which so far had played like standard scrappy urban indie fare to me, and I found the film’s final 20 minutes or so to be compelling enough to not entirely dismiss it. Winner of the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, but in my mind, an accolade not earned.
26 – Snow Angels
I’ve always felt David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow) was an extraordinarily talented filmmaker who had yet to make a good movie, and unfortunately Snow Angels hasn’t done much to change his track record. This bleak tale about the loss of a child and the impact it has on a small town is sad indeed, and the miscasting of Kate Beckinsale in the lead role (she seems to be miscast a lot these days – another case in point, Laurel Canyon) is unfortunately fatal to the film. I was never bored by it (unlike George Washington, which is a great film to fall asleep to), but it didn’t add up to much for me either.
27 – For the Bible Tells Me So
This documentary on Christianity’s views on homosexuality does itself a service by focusing on several families’ experiences and personal stories rather than on the Bible-thumpers who dismiss it all as sin, but the film also goes off on quite a few tangents that seem geared towards making this a definitive film on homosexuality rather than a specific film about one aspect of the debate on religion and sexual preference. The cartoon segment on what it means to be gay really didn’t add much, but it sure was entertaining. Director Daniel Karslake is a first-time filmmaker, and that shows, but he’s a filmmaker with clear passion for his subject, and for that I give him credit.
28 – Four Sheets to the Wind
A slight, well-acted slice-of-life in a Native American community in the Southwest, Four Sheets to the Wind doesn’t make much of a film, but it introduces several appealing Native American actors who should have bright futures ahead of them. Actress Tamara Podemski was awarded a special acting prize by the Sundance jury, but I would have made a point of recognizing the strong work of Cody Lightning and Jeri Arredondo as a son and mother coping with the loss of their father and husband.
29 – Everything’s Cool
Somewhat of a companion piece to last year’s An Inconvenient Truth, this film brings several additional layers of information to the global warming debate but is not nearly as tightly focused or as strong in its delivery as the Gore documentary. Filmmakers Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold made one of my favorite Sundance docs a few years ago (Blue Vinyl), and I had high expectations of their film this year, but unfortunately, this one’s a bit of a mess. I get the sense that they rushed to complete Everything’s Cool and in the process forgot to use their great storytelling gifts, so evident in Blue Vinyl, to really suck their audience into this important issue. Helfand and Gold started this film long before An Inconvenient Truth, and I think the pressure created by that film’s success has really had an impact here.
30 – Year of the Fish
Director David Kaplan tries to make his film look more mythic and important than it is by rotoscoping over his modest digitally-shot feature to give it a unique animated look that is intriguing at times but grows tiresome since not every moment of this Cinderella-set-in-Chinatown tale has quite the resonance he would like to believe that it does. The film is entirely watchable, however, and has its entertaining stretches.
31 – Chicago 10
The opening night film at the festival this year, Chicago 10 is a real mess but has some brilliant ideas that unfortunately aren’t well-executed. I was excited to learn all about the Chicago 7, their protest at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and their subsequent trial, but because this film is resolutely committed to its stylistic flourishes and its big, loud, busy mises-en-scenes, I can’t say I learned all that much. Most confusing to me is why a film about the Chicago 7 is called Chicago 10.
32 – The Pool
A trend at this year’s festival was films by filmmakers not native to the cultures they made their films about. Chris Smith’s The Pool is set in Goa (off the western coast of India) and is a character portrait of a young man trying to make something of his life. I can’t say all that much happens, or that the film is all that interesting, or beautiful, or much of anything. In fact, I was pretty bored throughout much of it, but I guess I’m supposed to give Smith credit for making a film that seems to be an homage to the work of the Indian master Satyajit Ray – though that doesn’t make it a film I’d really want to see. Winner of a Special Jury Award for Originality of Vision.
33 – Chapter 27
This film purports to be a serious character assessment of Mark David Chapman, who was John Lennon’s assassin, during the final days leading up to Lennon’s shooting, but really this film is a shameless vehicle for Jared Leto, who put on 60 pounds and much vocal affectation to pull off this stunt that not for a minute feels like a genuine piece of acting. OK, I give the guy credit for trying, and the script itself isn’t terrible, but I think I walked into this film with a bit of a grudge against Leto, since I had heard some Hollywood bigwig at dinner the night before complain on his cell phone to somebody that Leto wanted the stage “all to himself” during the Q&A session after the film’s screening.
34 – The Go-Getter
I’ve already pretty much forgotten this film, which is pretty standard road trip fare about a guy who steals a car and develops some kind of relationship over the phone with the stranger whose car he has stolen. An appealing cast, led by Lou Taylor Pucci and Zooey Deschanel helps, but there’s not much to say about this unmemorable film.
35 – Ghosts
I’ve been a fan of Nick Broomfield’s documentaries about Heidi Fleiss, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, and Aileen Wuornos, but Broomfield makes a rocky transition to dramatic filmmaking with Ghosts, which brings a distinct verite sensibility to its tale of a Chinese immigrant who comes to Britain, works a series of menial jobs, and eventually gets swept up by the tides while on a cockle farming expedition in Northern England. Broomfield has something to say about the plight of illegal immigrants in his country, and some of the film (particularly the cockle expedition) is impressively filmed, but other films have tackled a similar subject much more effectively (my favorite is probably a film called Last Resort, which has more to say in 75 minutes about illegal immigrants than just about any film I’ve seen).
36 – The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun The Sund
ance programmer instructed us, “Don’t be afraid to laugh!” before our screening of this film, but alas, I did not laugh once. Sure, Mr. Vig and the Russian nun who comes to his family home to accept his generous offer to turn it into a Russian Orthodox monastery are quirky and hard-headed, but I just didn’t find them to be all that funny – just a bit old and cranky. This film tries so hard to mine these two kind souls for entertainment value, but there’s not much to be found.
37 – Sweet Mud
Mud indeed. This film is about life on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1970s, but unfortunately it’s muddied up with strange subplots about a mother’s mental illness, a visitor from Switzerland, an older man in love with a younger woman, a child coming of age on the kibbutz, and more. Somewhere there’s a good film to be made about the kibbutz movement, its communal living and politics, and that film could be nicely framed by a story of a child’s coming of age or a visitor’s reaction to the dynamics of the kibbutz lifestyle, but instead Sweet Mud meanders along and never satisfies. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema.
38 – Reprise
The divergent/convergent trajectories of 2 young writers in Norway is the focus of Reprise, and unfortunately, this is another film that starts out with great promise and then goes nowhere. Director Joachim Trier has some visual flair, but I couldn’t help thinking I’ve seen every technique he uses in this film before. Not really much to say on this one.
39 – Protaganist
Academy Award-winning documentarian Jessica Yu tries too hard to apply the structures of classical Greek tragedy to the lives of 4 tragic men, and the result is an intellectual curiosity at best. I think Yu was a bit constrained by her chosen hypothesis, and this film is a perfect example of making data fit a theory rather than the other way around. An interesting idea, but not an interesting film.
40 – Zoo
Several years ago, a man in the Pacific Northwest was rushed to a hospital, and upon investigating the cause of his unusual injury, investigators discovered a farm in Washington State that was a sexual playground for those who were into, ahem, bestiality. Filmmaker Robinson Devor went to investigate this strange incident, and in the process, found lots of people who wouldn’t talk about it. No surprise there, but Devor’s decision to make a documentary anyway leads to one of the most obtuse, unsatisfying films at the festival this year. A ‘meditation’ on zoophilia, Zoo tries to create a mesmerizing cinematic experience, but unfortunately it provides virtually no information and no insight into its subject. For a more satisfying investigation into an odd sexual subculture, see Kirby Dick’s film Sick instead.
41 – Miss Navajo
Here’s my problem with Miss Navajo: despite its political correctness, the Miss Navajo Pageant, which showcases the ancestry, talents, and dreams of young women across the Navajo nation, just isn’t very interesting, and this film’s decision to profile one aspiring contestant on her journey through the pageant process doesn’t work, mainly because she just isn’t very interesting either. Everybody in this film seems perfectly lovely, and I did get a kick out of the sheep slaughtering portion of the competition, but I just wish there were more to say about Miss Navajo – the pageant, its contestants, or this film.
42 – Save Me
This film about a gay reformation ministry is full of good intentions but in bad need of a script. It’s hard to figure out exactly what the message is here, since the film traffics in every gay film stereotype you can think of and is clouded by characters with inconsistent motives and actions. Judith Light comes away unscathed and turns in a respectable performance, though I’m not quite sure even she understands what her character is really about. I’m as confused about this film as some of its characters are about their sexual preference.
43 – Fido
I laughed a couple of times during Fido, a silly comedy about a day in the future when the flesh-eating tendencies of zombies can be regulated so that the undead can work simple jobs, like becoming the titular domestic help played by Billy Connolly here. The film looks great, and it has a great cast, but I just didn’t feel like I wanted to go along for the ride.
44 – The Legacy
A man and his grandson travel to a small town carrying a coffin. The grandfather is to be shot when he reaches his destination as part of a long-standing feud between families, and the grandson is to carry the coffin home afterwards. This film is an allegory for something, but I have no idea what. I think something got lost in translation (the film comes from France and Georgia, as in the former Soviet Union not the Peach State), and I just don’t have the energy to figure out what. I sat mystified by this film, at times feeling like an intricate joke was being played on me (if you’ve ever seen the Ingmar Bergman parody De Duva, you’ll know what I mean).
45 – Dark Matter
Let us discuss the dark matter of Dark Matter, the second worst film I saw at the festival this year, and if it weren’t for #46 below, well, I guess it would be the worst. A Chinese exchange student in mathematics comes to an American university, works with his mentor, and then when academic politics turn against him, goes on a crazy shooting spree. I am flabbergasted that the great Meryl Streep would choose to participate in this film, especially since I can’t imagine any reason why she would have found the thankless role of a college professor’s wife who serves as hostess to the exchange students remotely interesting. On top of that, the film itself doesn’t even try to explain or create any sense of inclusion with its audience about any of the mathematical or scientific concepts discussed – sure, dark matter and string theory can be challenging to understand, but there are ways to handle this subject matter without resorting to pointless hand-waving and big words. This film won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for a narrative film with scientific or technological subject matter, but probably because it was the only film at the festival this year to go anywhere near the world of science.
46 – Teeth
OK, here it is, the film you have been waiting for. The worst film I saw at Sundance this year, without a doubt, was Teeth, an embarrassing horror-comedy about a teenage girl who discovers that she has teeth in her (are you sitting down?) vagina. Everything you can imagine that would happen does, and then some, and it’s all incredibly distasteful. Newcomer Jess Weixler was awarded a special jury prize for acting, probably for her bravery in taking a role that will probably prevent her from ever having a normal date with a boy ever again. What’s especially offensive to me about this film is that the Sundance programmers decided to put this film in competition instead of scheduling it as an out-of-competition midnite film, a spot on the schedule that probably wouldn’t have bothered me one bit. To call this film one of the few films this year that advances the art of independent cinema is abominable, and to punish the Sundance jury by making them take this dreck seriously is unforgivable. So that I don’t end on such a sour note, I did overhear one amusing comment as I left the theatre after the screening – “I wonder how she flosses down there.”