Dan Casper’s Sundance 2009 Recap

My friend Dan Casper sends his Sundance reviews every February and I always find them an excellent guide to movie choices for the rest of the year. Here they are.

1 / Mary and Max

The first fully animated film to be selected as the opening night feature at Sundance,

this endlessly inventive, heartfelt Claymation semi-documentary (yes, really) is

about an unlikely long-distance friendship between two unusual souls. Mary is a

child living in a small Australian town, and Max is an obese, Jewish middle-aged New

Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome. Mary randomly selects Max to be her pen pal,

thanks to a phone directory on the shelf in her local post office, and what starts off

as an innocent correspondence between two lonely people soon evolves into a deeply

moving exploration of how each one of us, no matter how damaged or alone we feel

in the world, has the capacity to help someone live a more satisfying life.

Claymation turns out to be the perfect medium for telling this story, and Mary and

Max, voiced perfectly by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, was, for me, a

triumphant start to a great festival. While there were many other great films this

year, this one stands out as one of the few that feels like something unique and

brand new.

2 / The Cove

A rousing call-to-action and a damn powerful film, The Cove documents the practice

of dolphin farming in Japan and goes to great lengths to expose corruption, injustice,

and ecological homicide. When filmmaker Louie Psihoyos learns that there is a

remote town in Japan where dolphins are secretly slaughtered and turned into

lunchmeat for the local schools, he gathers together a team of scientists, engineers,

divers, and even special effects artists to reveal the secrets of The Cove. The

mission itself is fascinating, the results are horrifying, and never before have I seen

such a compelling case for filmmaker-as-activist, where the tools of the craft become

the machinery for change. The film works on so many levels, and when the

filmmakers finally succeed in their mission, you can’t help but be thrilled and moved

at their accomplishment. Winner of the Audience Award (US Documentary).

3 / Humpday

Last year, I championed the modest but appealing achievements of a film called

Baghead, a well-conceived indie comedy/suspense film. Well, this year, the scrappy

talkfest genre has been perfected by director Lynn Shelton in Humpday, which even

stars one of the writer/director/actors of Baghead, Mark Duplass. Humpday is about

two childhood friends who reunite – one is now an artist and vagabond, the other a

married corporate-type – and when they learn about an amateur porn contest called

Humpfest, they decide to make a gay porn film together, convinced that, as straight

men, they can’t lose with such a bold artistic statement. Of course, it’s not as simple

as that, and their spontaneous decision becomes the lightning rod for a series of

perfectly observed conversations and confrontations. I was consistently surprised by

the intelligence and honesty of Humpday, and several times when I thought the film

had just about said everything it could, the stakes are raised, and the characters are

faced with new dilemmas to manage through. Humpday reinvigorates

improvisational cinema, creating a scenario for our times that is resonant and

thought-provoking, but it’s also hilarious and completely entertaining. Winner of the

Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence.

4 / Good Hair

In Good Hair, Chris Rock, our host and guide through the history and culture of black

hairstyles over the years, singularly proves that just about anything can be the

subject of a good documentary if it’s presented well and with the right tone and

spirit. The film is great fun and is more informative than so many documentaries

I’ve seen on the so-called important issues of our time. Though lighthearted in

spirit, the film does probe some interesting questions while revealing a fascinating

subculture that is visible to most of us only on the heads of those who live within it.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize (US Documentary).

5 / Push (Based on the novel by Sapphire)

The big winner at this year’s festival – the film took home the Grand Jury Prize (US

Dramatic), the Audience Award (US Dramatic), and a Special Jury Prize for Acting –

Push is a brutal but rewarding experience. Based on a composite of stories of

teenage girls growing up fast in Harlem, Push tells the heartbreaking story of

Precious Jones, who, at the start of the film, has become pregnant with a second

child by her father. It all goes way downhill from there, and despite the awful things

that happen to Precious, the brilliant performances in this film (and urban poetry of

Precious’ voiceover) kept me engaged and compelled me to stick with the disturbing

material. Keep an eye on newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, as Precious, and don’t be

surprised if Mo’Nique, playing Precious’ abusive mother, gets recognized at Oscar

time next year – that is, if the film is even released in theaters. It’s a tough sell –

and a tough film.

6 / The Greatest

It’s hard to believe that Shana Feste’s film The Greatest is her first feature. With its

fully realized script, superior production values, sure-footed performances from a

top-notch cast (including Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan), and even a stunning

debut by a promising newcomer (Carey Mulligan, who also appears in the next film

on this list), The Greatest has all of the ingredients for a recipe that only the most

seasoned chef could master, but Feste has pulled it off brilliantly. Despite its

unquestionable commercial aspirations, however, the film is undeniably the work of

an auteur, and Feste brings enough unique directorial and dramaturgical touches to

her story of a family dealing with the loss of a son to make this quite a calling card

for her certain career. What I found most impressive in The Greatest was its

presentation of four individuals’ distinct approaches to the grieving process – and its

relative lack of sentimentality in presenting such a moving portrait of one family’s

journey through a difficult time.

7 / An Education

This delightful British comedy is everything you expect it to be, and yet still manages

to be a fully satisfying coming-of-age tale of the highest order. Acted to the hilt by a

top-flight British cast and, well, anchored with a stunning debut by a promising

newcomer (yes, it’s Carey Mulligan again), An Education is carried away by Mulligan

to a place far beyond the expected. Superior production values recreate the heady

world of London in the 1960s, where a schoolgirl must choose between the

temptations of an older man (Peter Sarsgaard, excellent), who introduces her to a

life of excitement and culture, and the pragmatic urgings of her father (Alfred Molina,

also excellent), who urges her to consider an education at Oxford that lies just on

the horizon. Screenplay by Nick Hornby. Winner of the World Cinema Audience

Award (Dramatic) and World Cinema Cinematography Award (Dramatic).

8 / Paper Heart

I’m not quite sure whether to call this a documentary, a personal essay, a dramatic

feature, or a delightful comedy, but the Sundance programmers put this unique film

in the US Narrative Feature competition, so I suppose we are expected to consider it

a work of fiction. Whatever it is, it is thoroughly charming, as we follow

actress/comedian/musician/puppeteer Charlyne Yi as she searches for the meaning

of love in contemporary Los Angeles. Yi asks a diverse set of couples what love

means to them, then recreates some of their most special moments with adorably

cheap-looking puppets. It’s all very charming, and as we follow Charlyne through

her journey, we realize that she may, in fact, be falling in love herself when she is

introduced to actor Michael Cera at a party. The arc of their relationship turns into

the arc of the film – at least until it becomes clear to Charlyne that her relationship

with Michael is being ‘directed.’ If the film (and Charlyne and Michael) weren’t so

adorable, it might all be a bit pretentious, but the film goes down easy thanks to the

charisma of its leads and the intriguing uncertainty of what, exactly, we are


9 / We Live in Public

Billed as the story of the most famous Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of (or

something along those lines), We Live in Public profiles one Josh Harris, who was

responsible for bringing chat rooms and video streaming to the forefront during the

early days of the Internet boom. Perhaps most provocative about Josh’s story is an

‘experiment’ he ran, called “Quiet: We Live in Public,” an installation of sorts where

artists, writers, and other New York downtown-types lived in an underground bunker

for 30 days at the turn of the millennium, with webcams installed everywhere so that

privacy of any kind was impossible. Josh’s story is a fascinating and provocative

one, and it is well-documented by director Ondi Timoner, who was rewarded by the

Sundance jury simply because she culled through hours and hours of what must

have been just glorified surveillance videos to find the nuggets of gold for her film.

While I have a lot of respect for this film and found its subject to be interesting

(albeit disturbing), I just can’t accept the filmmaker’s premise that Josh was a

visionary. He was a mentally disturbed individual for sure, but since the film leaves

his madness unexplained and doesn’t seem to create a plausible case for Josh’s

impact on the world we now live in, the film left me cold and empty at the end.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize (US Documentary).

10 / World’s Greatest Dad

In one of his very best roles, Robin Williams plays the father of a dreadful teenager

who, in a curious turn of events, becomes transformed from deadbeat kid into

lauded saint overnight. While at first I didn’t care for this film, it gathered great

momentum as it moved along, and in the end, turned into a surprisingly deep and

thoughtful black comedy about the nature of human behavior in the face of tragedy.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to say much more about the film, except to say that it is a

totally original work, scripted and directed by (believe it or not) the comedian Bobcat

Goldthwait. Hey, any film that can make some great jokes at the expense of the

nearly-forgotten musician Bruce Hornsby can’t be all that bad, right?

11 / Helen

The most depressing film at this year’s festival, Helen also turns out to be one of the

best, thanks to a magnificent lead performance by Ashley Judd, who plays a young

music professor battling bipolar disorder. The film has a very European feel to it,

thanks to director Sandra Nettelbeck’s sharp direction and gloss-free approach to the

material. This is Judd’s film all the way, however, and her portrayal of a woman in

deep pain and turmoil is masterful and heartbreaking.

12 / Over the Hills and Far Away

A fascinating documentary about one family’s search for healing in the world of

Eastern medicine. When Rupert Isaacson and his wife Kristin learn that their son

Rowan is autistic, they search high and low for answers and solutions. Then, one

day, Rowan is taken with his father to a nearby stable, and Rupert discovers that his

son not only has a calming influence on the horses, but that he is also calmed by

them. So begins a journey on horseback to the outer reaches of Mongolia, where

the family attends healing rituals with the shamans of the region. Miraculously,

something amazing does happen, and while Rowan’s autism remains a part of this

family’s life, their experiences on this unusual journey raise important questions

about the effectiveness of Western medicine, the depth of a family’s bond, and the

healing powers of simply leaving a familiar environment and searching for answers in

an unfamiliar place.

13 / Sin Nombre

A stunningly visual debut feature from director Cary Joji Fukunaga, Sin Nombre

tracks several characters on a train journey through the Mexican countryside as they

make their way to the US to escape the gang violence of contemporary Mexico.

Honestly, this just wasn’t a film for me – violent, sordid, bleak, and claustrophobic –

but I can’t deny the great filmmaking skill that went into making this most

impressive-looking feature. Director Fukunaga has a long career ahead of him.

Winner of the Directing Award (US Dramatic) and the Excellence in Cinematography

Award (US Dramatic).

14 / The Yes Men Fix the World

Near the end of last year, I was offered a free New York Times one morning as I

entered the subway on my way to work, and even in my not-fully-caffeinated state,

it struck me as an odd gesture in this town at this time. I should have taken one of

those papers, though, since they contained not a single line of negativity, or, for that

matter, a single news story with anything but the best possible news you can

imagine. This ‘fake’ New York Times was the work of The Yes Men, a pair of

corporate pranksters who create elaborate stunts to highlight the greed, corruption,

and overall bad behavior of large American corporations. The Yes Men Fix the World

is the second film documenting their pranks, and while more entertaining and

accomplished than their first feature, the film is still basically a record of a bunch of

masterfully planned and executed stunts. The stakes are higher for The Yes Men this

time around, but ultimately it just feels like these guys are out to have fun at

corporate America’s expense rather than having a true activist impact on their


15 / No Impact Man

An entertaining film that documents writer Colin Beavan’s efforts to live in New York

City for an entire year while having zero to minimal impact on the environment, No

Impact Man gives us food for thought about our current environmental crisis. The

film works equally well as a profile of family dynamics in the face of exceptional

circumstances, but ultimately the film is about what it takes to make an impact by

making no impact at all.

16 / Big River Man

A strange little film about a strange little (?) man, one Martin Strel, a paunchy

middle-aged Romanian who also happens to be the most accomplished long-distance

swimmer in the world. Strel and his manager/spokesperson son narrate their

journey down the Amazon river, and if you didn’t know this film was a documentary,

you might mistake it for a Christopher Guest parody, since Strel and his entourage

are almost too odd to believe. Winner of the World Cinema Cinematography Award


17 / The September Issue

When I ran into one of my Sundance friends late in the festival and asked her about

The September Issue, a documentary that follows Anna Wintour and her editorial

team as they prepare for the September issue of Vogue, her response was exactly

what mine would have been – “I mean, who cares really?” Indeed, I could not care

less about what it takes to put together a fashion magazine, or even what the

fashion industry is about at all, so I came to this film with a challenge that I bring to

a lot of documentaries about topics that just don’t really interest me – show me why

I should care. Well, The September Issue was partly successful, but mostly not. It’s

an entirely well-made film, it’s relatively fun to watch, and its coverage of its subject

matter is entirely sufficient, but really, who cares? No disrespect to those of you

who do, but I don’t, though I was willing to have this film prove to me otherwise.

Winner of the Excellence in Cinematography Award (US Documentary).

18 / Prom Night in Mississippi

A film that benefits greatly from its nearly perfect timing, Prom Night in Mississippi

documents the first integrated senior prom at a high school in Mississippi – in 2008!

When actor Morgan Freeman, a resident of Charleston, Mississippi learns that the

town holds two separate proms for its white and black students, Freeman offers to

pay for the prom himself if the school will agree to hold one dance for everyone. The

students are totally fine with that idea, but the parents and school board are scared,

and while the filmmakers don’t get close enough to their subjects to really burrow

deeply into the racism at the core of the issue, documenting the prom itself and the

students who attend (including a brave interracial couple) are still powerful enough

to make this a solid documentary worth seeing.

19 / Afghan Star

The Afghan version of American Idol is the subject of a straightforward but very

interesting documentary. While ostensibly about the show and its popularity in

Afghanistan, the film puts an interesting lens on an entire culture and manages to

share a great deal of information about Afghanistan, the role of women in Afghan

society, and the importance of song to the local culture. Winner of the World Cinema

Directing Award (Documentary).

20 / Sergio

Sergio Vieira de Mello was a United Nations ambassador who was known as much for

his charisma as for his superior negotiation and leadership skills. This biography of

Sergio was interesting to me for its portrait of a life and career that I was entirely

unfamiliar with (despite the popularity of the film’s source material, Samantha

Power’s book Chasing the Flame). The film is framed around an inquiry into Sergio’s

untimely death in an explosion at the UN headquarters building in Baghdad, which

left him trapped in the rubble for many hours. While there was much attention

placed on the dramatic recreations in the film of Sergio’s attempted rescue, I found

these scenes to be murky and hardly worth the painstaking effort that must have

gone into recreating the harrowing scenario. Sergio’s life was undeniably interesting

and engaging, but the details of his death and rescue didn’t add much to the power

of the film for me. Winner of the US Documentary Editing Award.

21 / Boy Interrupted

Filmmaker Dana Perry turns her lens on a very personal story in Boy Interrupted. A

profile of her son Evan, who committed suicide at the age of 15, the film captures his

troubled life throughout the years through home movies and family reminiscences.

It’s a painfully intimate film, and a very sad one too, and Perry is to be admired for

having the strength to put this story onto the screen. In Evan’s suicide note, he

specifically requests that the nature of his death not be shared with others at his

school and elsewhere and that his funeral be a private family affair. I can’t help but

wonder if Perry has really respected her son’s wishes by making this film, but if this

helps other families deal with childhood depression and suicide, then I suppose the

film has served a noble purpose.

22 / Amreeka

This film comes straight from the Sundance takeout menu school of filmmaking. It’s

the tale of (select genre) a fish out of water, a (select culture) Palestinian immigrant,

coming to America and finding her way though a maze of complications. She and

her son stay with (select secondary characters) members of her extended family,

become friendly with (select character for audience to relate to) her son’s school

principal, works in a (select unfortunate yet comical situation) White Castle burger

shop, and generally spends the run of the film adjusting to her new life. Film ends

on an upbeat note, with a (select closing scene of family unity) – well, I don’t want

to spoil the film for you entirely. Despite all of this, Amreeka boasts a strong title

performance by Nisreen Faour, who creates a winning character even though the film

feels entirely familiar and predictable. Not such a bad film after all, but it breaks no

new ground.

23 / Children of Invention

If you’re not in the mood for hummus tonight (see above), perhaps you’d like to

order Chinese food instead? Another thoroughly predictable yet competent entry in

this year’s festival was Children of Invention, an entirely charming film about a single

Chinese-American mother of two, who loses her job and her home, hides out in a

model apartment in a new housing development, and takes a job as a salesperson

for a Ponzi-like scheme that takes advantage of new Chinese immigrants. Like

Amreeka, this film benefits from some strong performances and a somewhat topical

storyline, but we’re in deeply familiar Sundance territory here.

24 / The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle

A wild ride that, while not entirely successful, had enough quirkiness and cleverness

to carry me through its 98 minute running time. Don’t mistake Little Dizzle for

anything more than the fun midnight movie that it is – this strange film can probably

only be appreciated in the wee hours of the evening – and probably plays even

better under the influence of something not quite legal. Imagine a world where men

can become pregnant and give birth to small creatures called ‘dizzles,’ and you’ll

begin to understand.

25 / Lymelife

The big winner at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Lymelife had several exhibition

screenings at Sundance this year, and I was looking forward to seeing this comingof-

age drama about brothers (played by a couple of the Culkin clan) growing up on

Long Island during the Lyme disease scare of the late 1970s. A strong cast – led by

Timothy Hutton, Alec Baldwin, and Cynthia Nixon – does fine, but this film is all

about character and atmosphere, and in the end, I found myself pretty unsatisfied by

this relatively inconsequential film.

26 / Adam

Adam is one of several films at Sundance this year featuring characters with

Asperger’s syndrome. Hugh Dancy is wonderful as the title character, a socially

awkward loner who grabs the attention of Rose Byrne and ultimately endears himself

to her and her family. I’ve already forgotten most of what happens in Adam, but I

did enjoy Dancy and Byrne’s performances, though I can’t help but wonder why

director Max Mayer had to cross the Atlantic to find his admittedly winning leads.

Stretching the boundaries of how ‘science’ is defined, this light romantic comedy won

the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for a dramatic feature focused on science or technology,

beating out a film called Cold Souls, which I was hoping to see, which featured Paul

Giamatti as an actor freezing his soul so that it could be used by another actor in a

production of The Cherry Orchard (or something like that).

27 / Spread

Another inconsequential film with strong (but far from likeable) performances,

Spread features Ashton Kutcher as a gigolo who seduces and lives off the wealth of

successful women in Los Angeles. Anne Heche (nearly unrecognizable to me)

brilliantly (but unpleasantly) plays the cold-hearted attorney who is his latest target.

Kutcher, who produced the film, claims that he wanted to bring films like Shampoo

and American Gigolo up to date in this piece, and he is not unsuccessful at doing just


28 / Against the Current

An ill-conceived and pedestrian film that was at least watchable due to the charisma

of its lead actor (Joseph Fiennes) and a strong supporting turn by the alwaysinteresting

Justin Kirk. Against the Current maps the story of a man who wishes to

kill himself, but before he goes, he chooses to swim the length of the Hudson River,

for no real reason other than to give the supporting characters ample time to talk

him out of his suicide plan and for us to learn the motivation behind his death wish.

One detour to visit the mother of one of the characters (played by Mary Tyler Moore)

was comical and fun – but the whole tone of the film changed, and I found this

jarring, regardless of how much I was enjoying myself in this section of the film. I

suppose director Peter Callahan wants to give us a good cry, but by the time this

long journey reaches its end, I just wanted Fiennes to kill himself – or not.

29 / Art & Copy

This documentary about the history of advertising covers a broad landscape –

perhaps too broad, since the film feels like it’s only scratching the surface of its

subject. While the film is interesting throughout, it is so anecdotal and episodic that

I couldn’t help but feel I was just getting snapshots rather than a well thought out

history. It left me with so many questions, and plants so many seeds that never

blossom into a compelling landscape. A major disappointment – and one of the films

that I was most looking forward to seeing.

30 / Cliente: A French Gigolo

This film, which (no surprise) comes to us from France, was OK I guess, but I was

just never drawn into its world of middle-aged career women searching (and paying)

for love in their limited free time. Two sisters (played by Nathalie Baye and director

Josiane Balasko) have different ways of coping with their unmarried middle age, and

while I can’t quite put my finger on why this film didn’t work, I think perhaps its

lighthearted tone was the first mistake. As I am writing this, I am thinking of

another, more serious French film on similar themes, called Heading South. In that

film, Charlotte Rampling did a great job creating a character also negotiating middle

age while on vacation at a beach resort in Haiti. Take a look at Heading South,

directed by Laurent Cantent (who made this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner The

Class) instead.

31 / Wounded Knee

This straightforward documentary about the Native American standoff at Wounded

Knee, South Dakota in 1973 does a fine job taking us back in time through film

footage that has not been seen in a long time and through interviewed recollections

by key characters in its unfolding drama. I was looking forward to this film mostly

because its director Stanley Nelson made a magnificent documentary a couple of

years back about Jonestown (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple),

and Nelson does bring his rigorous technique to this film as well, but at a short 74

minutes, this film doesn’t quite resonate the way Jonestown did – to be fair, the

situation at Wounded Knee was not nearly as complex and engaging to me, though it

remains an important chapter in modern Native American history.

32 / Peter and Vandy

A gimmicky film that charts the evolution and dissolution of a fairly uneventful

relationship between young urbanites (played by Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler),

Peter and Vandy presents its many scenes in a scattered chronology that frustrates

and never pays off. Ritter and Weixler are fine, but this stagebound film (based on a

play by writer/director Jay DiPietro) isn’t smart enough to calculate out its plan in

advance, which is crucial, I think, to a film with such a seemingly clever conceit.

33 / The Killing Room

A flashy, attention-grabbing thriller about social experimentation, starring a first-rate

cast (including Chloe Sevigny and Timothy Hutton), that is quite compelling to watch

for the first hour or so, but once its secrets are untangled, I found myself asking

questions that gave me a headache of frustration for the last half hour of its running

time (OK, maybe all of the loud noises and unnecessary shocks gave me a headache

too). Four strangers are locked in a room with a series of challenges that are

intended to test their killing instincts. By the time the film was over, I realized the

entire scenario made absolutely no sense at all, and the implications the film tries to

draw to the nature of modern terrorism are completely ridiculous.

34 / Passing Strange

Passing Strange was one of the highlights of my New York theatergoing in the last

year, and director Spike Lee was there to capture the show’s final performance at

the Belasco Theater on Broadway. While the film is nothing more than a video

record of that performance, Lee manages to suck the life entirely out of this great

show with his frenetic handheld camerawork and ill-advised focus on closeups of the

cast throughout. I left this film concluding that Passing Strange is one of those

shows that can really only be experienced live, but the Sundance audience seemed

to really enjoy itself, and maybe I might have too had I not seen the show in New

York. If you didn’t catch Passing Strange, I suppose you should see this, but if you

have seen it, suffice it to say that you have seen it, and Lee’s film will not recapture

the joy of that experience for you.

35 / Arlen Faber

Jeff Daniels stars as reclusive author Arlen Faber whose bestseller of 20 years prior,

Me and God, made him legendary. A great premise for a character, and a promising

start for the film (which features one of the best – and funniest – credit sequences

I’ve seen in a long time), but unfortunately, Arlen Faber gets it all wrong, creating a

wacky slapstick-heavy scenario for its subject, sticking him in the middle of a

ridiculously quirky love story, and surrounding him with supporting characters who

are caricatures at best. There’s a terrific film somewhere in the premise of Arlen

Faber, but this isn’t it.

36 / One Day in a Life

Attractive young Italians spend a day at the beach. They talk, they walk, they talk

some more, then they leave. This, in a nutshell, is One Day in a Life, which at best

cannot be accused of false advertising, and at worst, just isn’t really about anything

at all.

37 / I Love You Phillip Morris

I Love You Phillip Morris opens with a reminder that this film is based on a true story.

And then it reminds you again that it really is. That reminder is important, because

what happens in this film is pretty unbelievable. Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor play

convicts who fall in love in prison and go to great extremes to be together. Their

tricks and cons are somewhat clever, somewhat disturbing, and somewhat

unbelievable (but true). The big problem I had with this film is that its tone (which

one might call Farrelly Brothers lite) didn’t help me to buy into the veracity of the

material, and I ended up finding the film more offensive than intriguing. Carrey is

Carrey here, but McGregor comes out (pun intended) unscathed, creating a

believable and three-dimensional character in the midst of all the insanity.

38 / Louise-Michel

This one baffled me. When I first read about Louise-Michel in the Sundance catalog,

I immediately dismissed it because it was the creation of filmmakers whose work I

have never enjoyed. But after this film won the World Cinema Special Jury Prize for

Originality award, I thought I would give them another chance. I probably should

have stuck with my instincts, since Louise-Michel lives entirely in a world that I can’t

grasp at all. Its characters are relentlessly strange but live in a very realistic

scenario, and their actions just don’t make any sense to me. When workers in a

small town in France are laid off as their factory shuts down, they hire a bumbling hit

man to kill off the factory boss. Seems like it could be interesting, no? No, it’s not.

39 / Stay the Same Never Change

If I thought the characters in Louise-Michel were odd, I had no idea what I was in for

with Stay the Same Never Change, a fairly incompetent feature set in Kansas City

about (I think) teenage girls living a pretty mundane existence. This film reminded

me in some ways of last year’s quirky Sundance find Anywhere USA, but filmmaker

Laurel Nakadate shows none of the talent that was on display in spades in that film.

40 / Spring Breakdown

Another major disappointment this year, Spring Breakdown corrals together a great

cast – Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, and Parker Posey – and squanders their

abundant talents completely. Poehler, Dratch, and Posey are a trio of women

approaching 40 who, through a set of circumstances that are not interesting enough

to describe here, end up going on spring break on the Gulf of Mexico and getting in

touch with their juvenile side. The potential for fun is there, but the film goes for

cheap laughs rather than humor that is grounded in the complex struggles of these

likeable ladies. I almost placed this at the bottom of my list this year, but then I

realized that a few other films were just a little bit worse than Spring Breakdown.

Read on.

41 / Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

The literarti will be drawn to this adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s book, and they

may enjoy seeing its large and starry cast speak the poetic words of the recently

deceased Wallace. All of the rest of us will be hopelessly bored watching this film

drone on and on with absolutely no reason for existing in its chosen medium. I could

imagine this as a spoken word performance, perhaps as a benefit for something or

other, but as it stands, the likeable John Krasinski’s directorial debut is about as

static as can be.

42 / The Clone Returns Home

My interest in Japanese cinema waffles back and forth all the time, and it’s always

with skepticism that I go to see a Japanese film. Some of them enthrall me –

Takashi Miike’s Audition, for example, or last year’s Megane (which you must add to

your Netflix queue, and which is a great film to watch on a day when you need to

relax!) – but just as many mystify or bore me, and I’m afraid The Clone Returns

Home is one of those. This formally structured, slow and measured science-fiction

film, with a pretentious concept and very little dramatic momentum, is, I suppose,

nice to look at in all of its spare beauty, but the film itself had nothing in it for me.

43 / Adventureland

Well, I’m sorry to report that our tour de Sundance has come to end, but not without

a few words about the single worst film I saw this year. In a year that really, in

retrospect, wasn’t bad at all (though perhaps you wouldn’t know it from reading my

notes on the last 20 or so films), Adventureland is at the bottom of this list not

because it’s all that awful (in fact, many enjoyed it), but because it holds the

distinction of being the one comedy I saw this year that I didn’t laugh at even once.

OK, I did laugh once thanks to a single throwaway gag that tickled me, but really,

this film just isn’t funny at all. On top of that, Adventureland tried to capture the

spirit of last year’s Superbad in its tale of a college graduate (played by the

appealing Jesse Eisenberg) who works at an amusement park (and doesn’t have a

single amusing moment) during his last summer before graduate school. With some

of the same creative team as Superbad in place, one might expect some success

here, but Adventureland is just a sloppy, ugly, and completely unfunny film.

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