We began the festival with temperatures in the single digits (and I don’t mean Celsius—I mean Kelvin) and ended at a positively balmy 31 degrees Fahrenheit. Jacket unzipped. Stocking cap stuffed into pocket. Fingers holding a pen that I can actually feel and manipulate with enough precision to write words—phrases!—into a notebook that isn’t shaking.
We also began with a blank slate and now, ten days later, have some idea of what sort of (mostly) American independent films will find their way into multiplexes and art houses later this year. To help you sort them out as they come your way, I provide this handy scorecard, just one outspoken person’s hastily concocted opinion of a small cross-section of the Sundance program. Clip and save.
Each film below has a brief note or, in cases where I couldn’t be bothered, a link to my previous comments.
TIP-TOP FAVORITES (listed alphabetically)
My favorite films at Sundance this year were quiet, character-focused dramas that range from simply enjoyable to formally rigorous. Each one is about someone trying to return to the main road after an extended detour, wondering for a time if the detour is perhaps the main road after all. Every year I see good movies at Sundance, but I don’t remember seeing many of this caliber. It was a particularly good year.
• Momma’s Man
• The Visitor
This year I saw six very good, very different films that in other years might have been my favorites of the festival: a comedy, a thriller, three documentaries, and one avant-garde poem.
The funniest and scariest movie I saw at Sundance is a smart, low-budget parody of both cabin-in-the-woods horror films and the do-it-yourself brand of filmmaking known as mumblecore.
• The Black List
After several documentaries by white filmmakers attempting to wrestle with racism in America, this film is something of a palette cleanser, a series of brief interviews with prominent African-Americans (Chris Rock, Richard Parsons, Toni Morrison, Colin Powell) conducted by an unseen and unheard Elvis Mitchell.
• Eat, For This is My Body
This heavily symbolic experimental film about Haiti’s colonial past is a perplexing and trance-inducing work of art.
• The Escapist
I checked my watch just a few minutes into this gritty prison-break film—do I have the energy for this?—but by the mid-point I was fully engaged. It’s the only action film I saw this year, and it’s surprisingly clever.
• Man On Wire
In 1974 Philippe Petit illegally strung a cable between the tops of the World Trade Center towers and had the unfathomable guts to walk across it; they got it on film and made a fantastic documentary, probably my favorite of the festival.
• Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
These ten films are easy to like. Swallow them whole. Expect little to no aftertaste.
• American Teen
This documentary about four kids in an Indiana high school feels familiar—the geek, the jock, the rich bitch—and raises all kinds of questions about how it was made—how do we hear the phone calls, see the text messages, and attend all the pivotal events?—but it’s nevertheless an entertaining piece of work about one little corner of America.
• Be Kind Rewind
Michel Gondry continues his fascination with sophisticated effects that look low-tech, using them to tell a ridiculous story starring Jack Black—whose silliness governor (TM) has been turned up to eleven—that somehow ends as a touching ode to community filmmaking.
• In Bruges
• Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Probably the funniest and most engaging documentary ever made about US fiscal policy, this film is alternately enlightening and confusing as it tries to dig beneath a mountain of American debt.
• King of Ping Pong
• The Last Word
• The Recruiter (formerly An American Soldier)
• Sunshine Cleaning
Of the films inspired by recent poignant comedies—the glut that Little Miss Sunshine hath wrought—this is probably my favorite, thanks in large part to the strong cast led by the superb Amy Adams.
• What Just Happened?
SPECIAL AWARD FOR MASTERY OF DISCOMFORT
• Downloading Nancy
My least enjoyable two hours at Sundance were spent watching this film and then trying to flush it from my brain—and remember, I saw Good Dick and Pretty Bird—but I’ll admit that there’s skill involved in creating something so dismal; I just don’t know why they did it.
• Funny Games (US version)
Likewise, Michael Haneke is a master, but he hates us, and I don’t know what we did to provoke him so. (Further reading.)
HAVING A WONDERFUL TIME, WISH YOU WERE HER
These nine films flash with moments of brilliance, or tell compelling stories, or grip important topics with both hands, but they somehow don’t seem to be all that they could or should be.
The manic 20 minutes that open Absurdistan are a visually inventive tour de force in a style reminiscent of Guy Maddin or Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but then the film coasts into a slower fairy tale that has its moments but never fully regains that early burst of creativity.
• Blind Date
• Flow: For the Love of Water
I’m very interested in the issues of water usage, contamination, and dispersal—and can’t get over how readily we all accept the shipping of little bottles from Fiji—so I wish this scattered documentary about these themes had a sharper focus and clearer argument.
• Frozen River
• Made in America
Stacy Peralta knows how to tell a story, and his documentary about South Central Los Angeles is as moving and articulate as any documentary I saw at Sundance, and yet I can’t help thinking his view of these very complex racial divisions is incomplete to the point of being counter-productive.
Peter Galison and Robb Moss, doing their best Errol Morris, present an essay on why the government’s inclination toward secrecy works against a functioning democracy, but by jumping from topic to topic and chopping their interviews into sound bites, they never come up with a convincing thesis.
An Israeli man meets a Palestinian woman in Germany and they have a quick affair that’s weighted with meaning. The story feels thin—indeed, they were working without a script—but I liked these two characters and wondered where they’d end up.
Alan Ball’s film about a 13-year-old girl in abusive situations could be a text-book example of how an extremely faithful adaptation may still lack the insight of the original novel. Still, it’s a tough job—the book walks a very thin line—and the end of the film is satisfying despite the clunky handling of characters.
• Traces of the Trade
AGAINST MY BETTER JUDGEMENT
Films that I like if I ignore that nagging “but, but, but” part of my brain:
• Henry Poole is Here
I didn’t care for these movies at all, even though they were well made by some measures.
• Birds of America
Working in that underserviced area between the Royal Tenenbaums and Little Miss Sunshine, this calculating film starring Matthew Perry is among the least inspired comedies I saw at this year’s fest.
• The Merry Gentleman
• In Prison My Whole Life
• The Wackness
• The Wave
I BEG YOU, STOP
Ow, you’re hurting me.
• Good Dick
• Pretty Bird
I also saw the first 35 minutes of Be Like Others, a documentary about people who have legal sex-change operations in Iran because—in a fascinating flourish of Islamic legalism—homosexuality is a capital offense but operations for transsexuals are not. The part that I saw was quite interesting, a view of Iran that I’ve never seen, and I’d like to catch up with the rest of the film one day.