In theory the juries, critics and distributors are there to ensure that the best movies at any given festival make their way into the marketplace. But films inevitably get lost in the shuffle. Here are 10 movies we’d install in the Sundance canon that were unfairly dismissed, ignored or simply slipped into obscurity.
Conceived in the heyday of queer theory and AIDS activism, the New Queer Cinema of the early ’90s was a galvanizing but short-lived movement. Still, its edge rubbed off on Sundance, which has since laid out a welcome mat for provocation and transgression. Here’s our list of our favorite films from the Sundance Film Festival.
LAST TRAIN HOME (World Documentary Competition)
Anyone who has been paying attention to the remarkably fertile Chinese independent film scene this past decade knows that present-day China, given the sheer speed and scope of its transformations, is a wellspring of abundant contradictions, an endless source of stories and images for the observant filmmaker.
The title of Lixin Fan’s directorial debut refers to the annual exodus of China’s 130 million migrant workers from the cities to their mostly rural hometowns — this happens only once a year, for the Chinese New Year holidays. Fan evokes the mind-warping scale of this event — we see the anxious rush to secure tickets, thronged railways stations and trains — even as he zeroes in on the experiences of one family. The Zhangs left their young children and their farming village so they could work at a faraway garment factory. Now strangers to one another, parents and children (who were raised by their grandparents) struggle to communicate, and the gulf only widens when the teenage daughter decides to leave school and takes a job in the city.
SECRETS OF THE TRIBE (World Documentary Competition)
The Yanomami Indians are an Amazonian tribe who lived in total isolation from the modern world until a half century ago, when one anthropologist after another started showing up to observe, document, and eventually exploit what they saw (and, in some cases, fetishized) as a virginal society. Piecing together testimonials from key researchers in the field and from tribe members, Brazilian documentarian José Padilha (BUS 174, Sundance ’03) progressively complicates the picture. Underlying all the bitter accusations and recriminations are the starkly opposed views of cultural and scientific anthropologists (the latter emphasize the role of evolutionary biology) and the conflicting assumptions that these native others are either noble innocents or violent primitives.
LOVERS OF HATE
Rudy (Chris Doubek), the less-than-lovable protagonist of Bryan Poyser’s dramatic-competition entry LOVERS OF HATE, is an embittered sadsack who can barely tolerate the sight of his smug younger brother, Paul (filmmaker Alex Karpovsky, last seen in Andrew Bujalski’s BEESWAX). An author of children’s novels who has apparently borrowed some ideas for his monstrously successful books from Rudy’s childhood fantasies, Paul drops into Austin for a reading and catches Rudy at low ebb: he’s out of work and has just been thrown out of the house by his wife, Diana (Heather Kafka), whom Paul has always had a crush on.
FAMILY AFFAIR (U.S. Documentary Competition)
It makes sense that Chico Colvard’s first-person documentary was picked up by OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s new cable network, given the surface parallels with last year’s Oprah-endorsed Sundance hit PRECIOUS. As a little boy, the filmmaker accidentally shot one of his sisters in the leg and, in so doing, blew the lid on a family secret. His father, an African American former GI who grew up in segregated Mississippi, had been sexually abusing his three sisters for years, unbeknownst to their mother, a German Jew. At first glance, FAMILY AFFAIR seems like yet another dysfunctional-family home movie, but it’s willing to ask some unexpectedly tough questions about abuse and its aftermath.
NIGHT CATCHES US <
American indie movies specialize in character-driven intimacy. Most of the fiction films you see at the Sundance Film Festival in a given year, good or bad, are insular by design, focused on personal conflicts and private moods, sealed off from the outside world. It’s always a pleasant surprise then to encounter a dramatic movie here that grapples with larger historical forces, that blends the personal and the political. That’s precisely what THE IMPERIALISTS ARE STILL ALIVE! and NIGHT CATCHES US — two of this year’s most interesting dramatic-competition titles — set out to do. Neither is wholly successful — IMPERIALISTS indulges in a few too many art-film affectations; NIGHT is serious and somber, almost to a fault — but both are strikingly ambitious debuts (by women writer-directors, as it happens).
SMASH HIS CAMERA, directed by Leon Gast
One of two documentaries about paparazzi culture at the Sundance Film Festival this year — the other is Adrian Grenier’s TEENAGE PAPARAZZO — Leon Gast’s SMASH HIS CAMERA traces the colorful career of Ron Galella, “paparazzo superstar” (as he calls himself). Among the first and by far the most notorious of stalker photographers, Galella played a years-long cat-and-mouse game with Jackie Kennedy and earned a restraining order for his efforts. Once he got too close to Marlon Brando, who rewarded him with a fist in the face.
Now in his late 70s, Galella fondly revisits these old war stories in SMASH HIS CAMERA, which also follows the still-active photographer on a few excursions from suburban New Jersey to Manhattan high society. He worms his way up to Robert Redford at a charity event and hands him a copy of his new book (needless to say, this got plenty of laughs at Sundance). He barges onto the red carpet of the CHANGELING premiere to get a good look at Brangelina. Various experts — curators, photographers, lawyers, gossip writers — weigh in on the merits and ethics of Galella’s work (there’s widespread disagreement).
UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS.
Love it or hate it, AVATAR has revived for many audiences the old-fashioned notion of movies as a social experience. Billed as a “live documentary,” Sam Green’s UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS does effectively the same thing, on a smaller scale but with bigger ideas. Performed twice at the Sundance Film Festival this week as part of the New Frontier section, this was a charmingly homespun cross between a “benshi” silent-film show and a PowerPoint presentation: Green stood before the audience, narrating and cuing still and moving images while three musicians performed a score by co-director Dave Cerf.
As in his Oscar-nominated THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND (Sundance 2003, co-directed with Bill Siegel) Green sifts through the ruins of extinguished idealism. UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS is as much a story of failure as it is one of hope.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival 2010
It’s easy to see why Lisa Cholodenko’s THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT has scored the biggest distribution deal to date at this year’s Sundance. (Focus Features acquired it for a reported $5 million.) Enthusiastically received at its packed premiere on Monday night, this lively crowd pleaser appears to take a conventional form (family dramedy) and give it an unconventional spin (it’s about what you might call a modern family).
Image from THE RED CHAPEL.
One of the oddest non-fiction stunts in recent memory, THE RED CHAPEL combines two inherently dubious genres — the culture-clash comedy and the ambush documentary — and pushes them to surreal extremes. The film’s director, Mads Brügger, a Danish journalist, recruited two Danish-Korean performers, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell (who is handicapped but prefers the term “spastic”) to pose as a comedy act, and convinced the North Korean authorities to allow them to perform in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, in the spirit of cultural exchange.
FOUR LIONS, a comedy about terrorism at the Sundance Film Festival 2010
FOUR LIONS, a pitch-black farce that begins with jihadi-video bloopers, raises some obvious questions. Are jokes about suicide bombers in poor taste? Is it too soon to be finding the hilarity in extreme radicalism? Can terrorism ever be safe for comedy? But if FOUR LIONS proves anything, it’s that “safety” and “taste” are irrelevant concepts for a comedy about such a deadly serious subject; whatever larger meaning we might glean from the film comes from the inherent danger of the project and from the discomfort it provokes.
Abu Jandal, a Yemeni cab driver and former Al-Qaeda member in THE OATH
I’ll be surprised if I see a fiction film at Sundance this year that comes close to the novelistic scope and richness of Laura Poitras’s exemplary documentary THE OATH — or has a character even half as complicated as THE OATH’s main subject, Abu Jandal, a Yemeni cab driver and former Al-Qaeda member.
James Franco in HOWL, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
HOWL is not an Allen Ginsberg biopic but something at once trickier and more modest: a celebratory adaptation of his most famous poem. For their first fiction feature, the veteran documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (THE CELLULOID CLOSET, PARAGRAPH 175) have recruited a lineup of top-tier collaborators: an all-star cast led by James Franco, cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Therese DePrez, composer Carter Burwell. As you’d expect, HOWL looks and sounds terrific. But the prudent insistence on documentary fidelity — the film was in fact conceived as a doc — is restrictive, even perverse. Just about every line you hear comes from HOWL itself, or is adapted from interviews that Ginsberg gave after its publication and from court records of the 1957 obscenity trial against City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti that ensured the poem’s immortality.
I’m reluctant to add to what I suspect will be a critical pile-on against HESHER, at least based on the reactions after yesterday’s mobbed premiere at the Eccles Theater. But I’ll call it out only because its problems seem to be symptomatic. Despite its appealing cast, Spencer Susser’s HESHER is not just familiar in its failings but weirdly comprehensive, practically a textbook of indie-film blunders and cliches.
This is the kind of movie, all too common among rookie directors, that is so enamored of its cute concept — in this case, anarchist as grief therapist — that it never bothers to develop or explore that concept, or even test its basic plausibility.
In his feature films, Spike Jonze has successfully melded his singular sensibility with other equally distinctive voices (Charlie Kaufman in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION, Maurice Sendak and Dave Eggers in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE). But for a taste of pure, unadulterated Jonze — to really appreciate the deadpan high concepts, the absurdist melancholy, the skewed sense of enchantment — turn to his music videos and short films.
Written and directed by Jonze (and financed by Absolut Vodka), the half-hour I’M HERE, the high point of a strong opening shorts program, follows in the venerable tradition of sci-fi stories about robots who discover the contradictions of the human heart. Sheldon (Andrew Garfield) is a sad-eyed android librarian in an unfriendly Los Angeles where the robots lead an underclass existence and seem fated for a lonely obsolescence. (He and his fragile fellow bots certainly look like last century’s models: boxy heads, Lego-like appendages, protruding wires.)
Still from RESTREPO.
How’s this for an opening salvo? RESTREPO, the first documentary to screen at Sundance 2010, kicks off with a grunt’s-eye view of being caught in a roadside-bomb explosion, and only gets more intense from there. In 2007 and 2008, journalist Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington made 10 trips to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a six-mile corridor near the Pakistan border, at the time the focal point of the fighting between U.S. forces and the Taliban. A raw, often harrowing piece of frontline reportage, the film uses post-facto interviews with the soldiers to orient the viewers, but mostly, it opts for disorientation — for the surreal ground-level experience of combat, alternating between restless downtime and confusing firefights.
Image from HOWL
Journalists at film festivals invariably find themselves with the task of connecting the dots among dozens of disparate movies — looking for the big picture, whether in the form of a new fad or a larger cultural moment (e.g., last year’s elusive search, during a Sundance that coincided with a historic inauguration, for the quintessential Obama movie). Expect lots of trend-spotting once Sundance 2010 kicks off on Thursday night, and expect these three topics to get plenty of play:
Image from THE OATH, the story of Salim Hamdan
That ephemeral Sundance commodity known as buzz used to be something you picked up at parties, on shuttles, waiting in line at screenings — now it’s quantified before the festival even begins, with films ranked on the Sundance site according to page views (and, once the screenings actually get under way, star ratings). Based on the track records of the parties involved (and on totally unscientific early word of mouth), here are the four movies — one from each of the competitive sections — I have the highest hopes for…