The Category: Documentary Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: In a tiny Alabama town with the curious name of Muscle Shoals, something miraculous sprang from the mud of the Tennessee River. A group of unassuming, yet incredibly talented, locals came together and spawned some of the greatest music of all time: “Mustang Sally,” “I Never Loved a Man,” “Wild Horses” and many more. During the most incendiary periods of racial hostility, white folks and black folks came together to create music that would last for generations and gave birth to the incomparable “Muscle Shoals sound.”
At the heart of the story is Rick Hall; overcoming crushing hardship, he managed to entice talent like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett to come and record what became their hit albums, backed up by the funkiest white men ever—the homegrown house band, the Swampers. As the word spread about the electrifying musical chemistry in this unexpected place, the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Staples Singers, the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Simon and Garfunkel magnetically followed suit. Interviewing an incredible roster of musicians, director Greg Camalier unearths a rich history of this unheralded gold mine of American music.
The Key Players: Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier; Rutger Hauer
The Draw: A no-brainer. Everyone knows about Motown and Sun, but the Muscle Shoals scene affected the development of American music as much as either one and is much less known.
The Category: Spotlight
The Sundance Synopsis: Ellis and Neckbone are best friends approaching the twilight of their youth. While exploring, they stumble upon the hiding place of charismatic outlaw Mud (played with controlled charm by a well-cast Matthew McConaughey), who takes a quick liking to the boys and recruits them to his cause: the search for true love and a clean getaway.
Illustrating a vibrant imagination, sumptuous attention to detail, and a remarkable gift for extracting magnetic performances from a talented ensemble, Nichols hurtles us into the middle of a lush adventure, ensnaring the excitement every youngster feels when trouble lurks everywhere and anything is possible. Steeped in the vanishing myth of the Deep South, a place that Nichols dearly loves, Mud’s handcrafted vision shines through in each richly textured frame and proves a tall tale for the ages.
The Key Players: Director Jeff Nichols; Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard
The Draw: Probably our most anticipated film of Sundance 2013. Paste readers will recall that Nichols’ 2011 film, Take Shelter, was our second favorite film of the year. His follow-up looks to be just as epic.
The Category: U.S. Documentary
The Sundance Synopsis: On May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden, America’s public enemy number one, was killed by Navy SEALs in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The raid, a watershed moment that gripped most of the world, lasted a mere 40 minutes. But the hunt for bin Laden took two decades.
The search began with a team of mostly female CIA analysts, known in intelligence circles as the Sisterhood. These women were trying to take down bin Laden before most of us even knew his name. Piecing together scraps of intelligence, they uncovered a secret terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, and warned Washington of this new impending threat. Their warnings were repeatedly ignored…until the 9/11 attacks, when all the rules changed.
Manhunt unfolds like a thriller. Renowned filmmaker Greg Barker garners unfettered access to the inner circle of a clandestine war on terror and creates a riveting tale of espionage and the moral choices of war.
The Key Players: Director Greg Barker
The Draw: Zero Dark Thirty got you hungry for more terrorist hunting? Here comes Manhunt, just in time. Almost as if it was planned…
The Category: World Documentary
The Sundance Synopsis: To a growing number of Mexicans and Latinos in the Americas, narco-traffickers have become iconic outlaws and the new models of fame and success. They represent a pathway out of the ghetto, nurturing a new American dream fueled by the war on drugs. Narco Cultura looks at this explosive phenomenon from within, exposing cycles of addiction to money, drugs, and violence that are rapidly gaining strength on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Artfully lensed, Narco Cultura exquisitely manages to capture the horrific devastation wreaked by the drug cartels. Focusing on certain disparate individuals impacted by them, including a narco-corridos singer in the U.S. and a crime scene investigator in Juarez, the film vividly portrays both the allure and the human cost of it all. Photographer/filmmaker Shaul Schwarz has crafted a dazzling, yet harrowing, examination of the viral effect of the violence that has reshaped the face of a country and created an entire subculture that celebrates corruption.
The Key Players: Director Shaul Schwarz
The Draw: Honestly I’m just amazed this film even got into the festival, because it looks to be a devastating critique of Hollywood. I can’t wait to see how hard it dares to hit.
Pussy Riot—A Punk Prayer
The Category: World Documentary
The Sundance Synopsis: In the winter of 2011, after a controversial election, Vladimir Putin was reinstalled as president of Russia. In response, hundreds of thousands of citizens rose up all over the country to challenge the legitimacy of Putin’s rule. Among them were a group of young, radical-feminist punk rockers, better known as Pussy Riot. Wearing colored balaclavas, tights, and summer dresses, they entered Moscow’s most venerated cathedral and dared to sing “Mother Mary, Banish Putin!” Now they have become victims of a “show” trial.
British filmmaker Mike Lerner and Russian Maxim Pozdorovkin collaborate to chronicle the way one small act of protest captured a nation’s attention and grew to become an international story of human-rights abuse. Putting a personal face on a rebellion, they track three bewildered women who are imprisoned by jail bars and cameras but prepared to defend their actions no matter what it may cost them. This film tells their epic story.
The Key Players: Directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin
The Draw: Someone in doc programming has it in for Vladimir Putin; this is the third Putin-critical doc of the past four years. I’m all for it.
Running from Crazy
The Category: Doc Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Hailed as one of the most distinguished families in American literature, the Hemingways have always exposed both their bright brilliance and their harrowing secrets. Two-time Academy Award winner and the only person to sweep all three of the Sundance Film Festival’s documentary awards for American Dream, Barbara Kopple focuses her newest film on Mariel Hemingway, a granddaughter of the legendary writer Ernest, as she explores her family’s disturbing history of mental illness and suicide. As a youngster, Mariel followed her supermodel sister, Margaux, into the acting world. Critics immediately praised Mariel’s natural talent, which created a deep rift between the sisters.
Kopple’s bold portrait of the Hemingways intertwines haunting archival footage from Margaux’s personal family documentary with scenes from Mariel’s life today as she advocates for suicide prevention and strives to live a rigorously healthy lifestyle to combat what appears to be her birthright. Mariel’s courageous journey of acceptance and introspection allows her to view her family and turbulent upbringing through new eyes and, for the first time, accept them with a peaceful heart.
The Key Players: Director Barbara Kopple
The Draw: I have a personal reason for this one—I recently interviewed Dree Hemingway and found her completely delightful. But even without that connection, I’d be interested in seeing this kind of familial self-reflection. Kopple is the celebrated director of Harlan County USA and American Dream.
The Category: Doc Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Multitalented musician Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana fronts a mission to resurrect the rapidly vanishing human touch behind the creation of music. When Sound City, a fabled recording studio, opened in 1969, it boasted a one-of-a kind recording console. Tucked away behind train tracks and dilapidated warehouses in the sunburnt San Fernando Valley, Sound City became rock ’n’ roll hallowed ground where music’s megastars captured their magic on analog tape for three decades.
The advent of the digital age ultimately sounded the death knell of Sound City. Grohl cobbles together a troupe of iconic musicians and singers who once called the studio home. Stevie Nicks, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Trent Reznor, Rick Springfield, and Paul McCartney are just some of the legends who jam with Grohl and create a brand-new album on that revered soundboard. Fasten your seat belts. Sound City, Grohl’s outstanding filmmaking debut, rocks the silver screen, not only unearthing music history but making it as well.
The Key Players: Director Dave Grohl; all those amazing names above.
The Draw: Musicians talking shop generally gives good doc; see, notably, It Might Get Loud a few years ago. And even if the movie’s no good, it sounds like worst case scenario, we’ll be able to sit back and enjoy some amazing music. Plus: Rick Springfield’s highest profile role since Californication!
The Category: U.S. Dramatic
The Sundance Synopsis: What happens when a family’s delicate psychic balance suddenly unravels? Abby is a free-spirited massage therapist. Her brother, Paul, an emotional zombie, owns a flagging dental practice, where he enlists the assistance of his equally emotionally stunted daughter, Jenny. Suddenly, transformation touches everyone. Abby develops an uncontrollable aversion to bodily contact, which seriously hinders her chosen profession and the passionate love life she once shared with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, rumors of Paul’s “healing touch” begin to miraculously invigorate his practice. As Abby navigates through an identity crisis, her brother discovers a whole new side of himself.
Boasting superb performances from an ensemble cast that includes Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston and newcomer Tomo Nakayama, Touchy Feely is about learning to live in your own skin—literally and figuratively. Written and directed by talented Sundance alumnus Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister), Touchy Feely bristles with originality, coupled with Shelton’s trademark sensitivity to the foibles of human nature.
The Key Players: Director Lynn Shelton; Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston
The Draw: Lynn Shelton is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Here she’s assembled possibly her strongest cast to date. One of our most anticipated films of the fest.
The Category: U.S. Dramatic
The Sundance Synopsis: Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.
Shane Carruth’s sensuously directed and much anticipated sophomore effort (his feature debut, Primer, won the Sundance Film Festival 2004 Grand Jury Prize) is a truly remarkable film that lies beyond the power of language to communicate while it delivers a cohesive sensory experience. With its muscular cinematic language rooted in the powerful yearnings felt before words can be formed, Upstream Color is an entirely original, mythic, romantic thriller that goes in search of truths that lie just beyond our reach.
The Key Players: Director Shane Carruth; Amy Seimetz
The Draw: Another “One name suffices” pick. If Amy Seimetz is starring in it, we’re there. Period.
Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington
The Category: Doc Premieres
The Sundance Synopsis: Photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington was always searching for the humanity within wartime conflict, as evidenced in his award-winning body of work. When he and Sebastian Junger spent a year filming a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in their Academy Award-nominated and Sundance Grand Jury Prizewinning film Restrepo, they weren’t simply looking for action; instead, they chose to focus on the many small moments that make war real. Hetherington’s footage of time he spent with the rebel army during Liberia’s civil war and in Libya prior to his untimely death from a mortar blast in 2011 conveys a rare sense of intimacy in sharp contrast to the violence surrounding him. Although he spent most of his time traveling to the epicenter of war zones, he was seeking the truth, rather than adventure. That is Hetherington’s enduring gift.
Director Sebastian Junger gracefully weaves together footage of Hetherington at work and moving interviews with his family, friends, and colleagues to capture his compatriot and friend’s unique perspective, compassion, and intense curiosity about the human spirit.
The Key Players: Director Sebastian Junger
The Draw: This one will be hard to get through without tears. Hetherington and Junger together made Restrepo, one of the best documentaries at Sundance a couple of years back. Hetherington was killed in action not too long after, and this is his friend and collaborator’s tribute to him.