Our picks for Sundance Film Festival, January 20-30
Sundance promises to be exceptional this year. The docket is loaded with romantic comedies, unbought premieres with major talent and sweeping non-fiction essays on problems facing America.
The Salt Lake City Library is now an official Sundance venue so look for long lines and crowded café shops in the Urban Room January 20-29. The Beehive Tea House becomes the Sundance House for artists and patrons between screenings, hosting music nightly from 9 p.m. to midnight courtesy of the Utah Visitors Bureau. The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (formerly Salt Lake Art Center) will host the New Frontiers program replete with digital installations, curated panels and conversations. KUER’s RadioWest with Doug Fabrizio will cover the festival live from the Christian Center of Park City so tune in for interviews regarding films you want to see at the festival (or put on your Netflix or Utah Film Center wish list).
Documentaries are particularly strong this year.
Lauren Greenfield’s opening night film Queen of Versailles takes a personal look at the mortgage and real estate crash through Westgate tycoon David Seigal’s fall from billionare on paper to bankruptcy.
Kirby Dick’s incendiary Invisible War will leave audiences enraged as it takes on the Department of Defense and what they are not doing about rape in the military.
Notable this year is the number of large essays looking at America’s problems. Facing North examines hunger, In My House exposes a failed drug war, Detropia is a lament from a decaying urban city, and Escaping Fire is prescriptive for health care reform. A Fierce Green Fire and How to Survive a Plague look at the history of important social movements, and three films cover the careers of uncompromising artists Ai Weiwei, Marina Abromovic, and Jim Balog Chasing Ice).
Programmers say this is the strongest year for the World Documentary competiiton, already the strongest category of the festival. I’m marking Jennifer Balchwal’s Payback and Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man.
This year the festival offers the new Spotlight category featuring especially strong films that have played at other festivals. Another new category is Documentary Premieres, for veteran filmmakers who have a film that will have wide audience appeal. Happy Sundancing!
Expect a lot of excitement centered on these films on the sales block. It feels like a strong buying year.
2 Days in New York—Dir. Julie Delpy
A follow-up to 2 Days in Paris, this romantic comedy stars Chris Rock and Julie Delpy.
Arbitrage—Dir. Nicolas Jarecki
Arbitrage—the art of buying low and selling high—depends on a person’s ability to determine the true value of any given market. The talent has made billionaire hedge fund magnate Robert Miller the very portrait of American business success. The outstanding cast includes Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Tim Roth, and Nate Parker.
Goats—Dir. Christopher Neil
Vera Farmiga and home town favorite Ty Burell team up for this coming-of-age prep school comedy about strange and estranged family dynamics.
Robot and Frank—Dir. Jake Schreier
The Friday night Salt Lake Gala screening, Robot and Frank is a delightful dramatic comedy, a buddy picture, and, for good measure, a heist film set sometime in the future. This tender story about aging ungracefully and family care stars Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, and Peter Saarsgard.
Shadow Dancer—Dir. James Marsh (Man on a Wire, Project NIM)
Growing up in a Republican family in 1970s Belfast, Collette McVeigh’s childhood is shattered, and her family radicalized, when her brother is killed. Twenty years later, Collette—a single mother with her own young son—is active in the IRA, along with her two surviving brothers. Fearing for her son’s welfare, she returns to Belfast where, betraying family and beliefs, she becomes a reluctant mole for British intelligence. Starring Clive Owen and Andrea Risebourough.
The Words—Dir. Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal
A must see closing-night film. The blurring of fiction and memory, the power of the written word and who has right to claim them is revealed in this tight drama. Starring Dennis Quaid, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, and Olivia Wilde.
U.S. Documentaries Competition
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry—Dir. Alison Klayman
Ai Weiwei is known for many things—among them great architecture, subversive in-your-face art and political activism. This film chronicles Ai’s complex life for three years, beginning with his rise to public prominence via blog and Twitter after he questioned the deaths of more than 5,000 students in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and continuing through his widely publicized arrest in Beijing in April 2011.
Chasing Ice—Dir. Jeff Orlowski
This breathtakingly beautiful documentary follows the indomitable photographer James Balog as he brings to life the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS)—a massive photography project that placed 30 cameras across three continents to gather visual evidence of the Earth’s melting ice. The visionary artist, in facing his own mortality, bequeaths the magic of photography and the adventure of the expedition to a new generation while capturing the most visible sign of climate change.
Marina Abromovic: The Artist Is Presesnt—Dir. Matthew Akers
Seductive, fearless, and outrageous, Marina Abramovicć has been redefining performance art for nearly 40 years. Using her body as a medium and pushing herself beyond physical and mental limits, Abramovicć creates emotionally provocative work that transgresses boundaries and expands consciousness. She is, quite simply, one of the most compelling artists of our time.
Finding North—Dir. Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush
One in six Americans doesn’t get enough to eat on a regular basis, and Finding North unveils the human stories behind the statistics. Exposing the costs and causes of this hunger crisis in the richest country in the world, this bracing film explores ways to correct this alarming and unnecessary state of affairs.
The House I Live In—Dir. Eugene Jarecki
In the past 40 years, the war on drugs has resulted in 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer and destroyed impoverished communities at home and abroad. Yet drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever. Where did we go wrong, and what can be done? This fascinating look at our failed drug policy feels more like Wired than a documentary.
Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare—Dir. Susan Froemke
Potent forces fight to maintain the status quo in a medical industry created for quick fixes rather than prevention, for profit-driven rather than patient-driven care. Destined to be hailed as the definitive film on American healthcare, Escape Fire offers a way out—a primer on how to save the health of a nation.
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE—Dir. David France
Faced with their own mortality, an improbable group of young, mostly HIV-positive, men and women became radical warriors taking on Washington and the medical establishment. With no scientific training, these self-made activists infiltrated the pharmaceutical industry and helped identify promising new drugs, moving them from experimental trials to patients in record time and turning AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.
Invisible War—Dir. Kirby Dick
Kirby Dick’s investigative journalism exposes a rape epidemic in the armed forces with stark clarity and escalating revelations, investigating the institutions that perpetuate it as well as its profound personal and social consequences.
U.S. Dramatic Competition
End of Love—Written, directed and starring Mark Webber
Mark is a struggling actor stuck between the life he once knew and the one waiting for him. When the mother of his two-year-old son suddenly passes away, he is forced to confront his shortcomings.
The First Time—Dir. Jonathan Kasdan
In this film directed by Lawrence Kasdan’s son, a casual conversation sparks an instant connection, and over the course of a weekend, things turn magical, romantic, complicated and funny as Aubrey and Dave discover what it’s like to fall in love for the first time.
Filly Brown—Dir. Youseff Delera
Musical energy and a breakout performance by Gina Rodriquez highlight this film. “Majo” Tonorio, a.k.a. Filly Brown, is a raw, young Los Angeles hip-hop artist who spits from the heart. HUH?
The Surrogate—Dir. Ben Lewin
With the guidance of a priest and therapist, a California journalist-poet employs a sex surrogate. Based on the autobiographical writings of Berkeley-based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, the film has a great cast with John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William Macy.
World Documentary Competition
5 Broken Cameras—Dir. Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi (Palestine/ Israel)
Just awarded the IDFA Special Jury Prize, Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, joins forces with Guy Davidi, an Israeli, and from the wreckage of five broken cameras, two filmmakers create one extraordinary work of art.
The Ambassador –Dir. Mads Brügger (Denmark)
After winning the World Dramatic Jury Prize in 2010 with The Red Chapel, Mads Brügger returns to the Sundance Film Festival with yet another brilliant example of gonzo filmmaking. Armed with a diplomatic passport, a hidden camera and his razor-sharp wit, Brügger risks life and limb to uncover deep-rooted corruption that allows others to continue to get rich from Africa’s resources. The Ambassador is a genre-breaking tragi-comedy that establishes Brügger as a singular voice in the documentary world.
The Law in These Parts—Dir. Ra’anan Alexandrowicz (Israel)
Part Fog of War, part tutorial on constitutional Israeli law and democracy, this film documents the laws that formed the Occupied Territories. Brilliant and challenging, it looks at national security and democracy. This film is not about the people who broke the law, but about those entrusted with the law.
Payback—Dir. Jennifer Balchwal (Canada)
Based on Margaret Atwood’s book, Jennifer Balchwal does for words what she did for image in Mafactured Landscapes and reveals the shadow side of wealth and debt.
Searching For Sugar Man—Dir. Malik Bendjelloul (Sweden/South Africa)
This is the opening night film; the buzz is it is already a contender for the Audience Award. Rodriguez was a rock icon who failed in the US but was legendary in South Africa. Two South African fans decide to look into the mystery of how Rodriguez died and what happened to the profits from his album sales.
World Cinema Dramatic Competition
The Last Elvis—Dir. Armando Bo (Argentina)
In the unique world of the Buenos Aires celebrity-impersonator scene, “Elvis” Gutiérrez is a star. By day, though, he must contend with a dead-end factory job and an ex-wife who worries about how his obsessive behavior affects their young daughter, Lisa Marie.
Violeta Went to Heaven—Dir. Andrés Wood (Chile)
An audience pleaser. Like a Chilean Edith Piaf or Bob Dylan, Violeta Parra was a folksinger and pop culture icon whose songs, like “Gracias a la Vida,” expressed the soul of her nation and protested social injustice.
Wish You Were Here—Dir. Kieran Darcy-Smith (Australia)
Expectant parents Alice and Dave join Alice’s younger sister, Steph, and her new boyfriend, Jeremy, on an impromptu tropical getaway in Cambodia. But following Jeremy’s abrupt disappearance, the others must attempt to return to their normal lives in Sydney. The shell-shocked survivors’ recovery begins to fall apart when a stinging truth about their time in Cambodia is revealed.
Declaration of War—Dir. Valérie Donzelli (France)
A young couple’s world turns upside down when they learn their newborn child is have severely ill. The French Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film, the opening night film of the 2011 Cannes International Critics’ Week and France’s official 2011 Academy Award entry, Declaration of War is, above all, a love story.
Monsieur Lazhar—Dir. Philippe Falardeau (Canada)
When a beloved teacher commits suicide in a middle-class Montreal middle school, the substitute, an Algerian refugee, comes to comfort them by sharing his own grief and gentle soul. Touching beyond measure, this is Canada’s 2011 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film.
The Orator—Dir. Tusi Tamasese (New Zealand)
Where tradition is law, struggle is constant, and family is everything, director Tusi Tamasese delivers an authentic and intimate view into the complexities of village life. The Orator premiered at the Venice Film Festival, introducing Tusi Tamasese as a fresh and powerful voice from the South Pacific. Entirely shot in Samoa, The Orator is the first Samoan feature film and has been selected as New Zealand’s entry in the foreign language film category at the 84th Academy Awards.
Your Sister’s Sister—Dir. Lynn Shelton (USA)
A twist of fate brings a man and a woman together at a summer home; when the woman’s sister shows up and finds them together, havoc ensues. Lynn Shelton first came to the Festival in 2009 with Humpday. Your Sister’s Sister is a subtle, heartfelt romantic comedy that premiered at Toronto earlier this year. Starring Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt.
A Fierce Green Fire —Dir. Mark Kitchell
In the 21st century, the idea that we are all connected is almost a cliché, though it is little understood and rarely acted upon. One 20th-century social movement understood this concept at its core. It is, in the eyes of many, the most important ever: the environmental movement.
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography—Dir. Stacy Peralta
A skateboarding romp that looks at how six athletes turn recreation into a team sport and became some of the most influential athletes in the world, using awesome archival footage and moving first-person accounts from brigade members Steve Caballero, Tommy Guerrero, Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Lance Mountain and Rodney Mullen.
The D Word: Understanding Dyslexia—Dir. Jamie Redford
In this deeply personal look at dyslexia, Redford follows his son Dylan and educator wife, Kyle, as Dylan applies to college and interviews others who have overcome dyslexia such as Richard Branson, Charles Schwab and Gavin Newsom.
Ethel—Dir. Rory Kennedy
An intimate look at her mother’s marriage to Robert F. Kennedy and how she raised her 11 children after he was assassinated. Ethel Kennedy has never given an interview to anyone, but she does for her youngest in this tender, funny, poignant biopic.
Under African Skies—Dir. Joe Berlinger
Paul Simon’s historic Graceland album sold millions of copies and united cultures, yet divided world opinion on the boundaries of art, politics and commerce.
West of Memphis—Dir. Amy Berg
Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil] explores the story of the West Memphis Three in this documentary produced by Peter Jackson. u