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A substantial number of nonfiction films make a showing annually at the Sundance Film Festival. There are two competitive categories, for U.S. and World documentaries, as well as a documentary premieres section, which mirrors the dramatic feature premiere part of the festival. And once in a while, a documentary might sneak into the Next or Frontiers areas of Sundance.
Many of the films in the Documentary Premiere section hit on hot-button topics. Alex Gibney, know for sharp investigative filmmaking (he’s shone light on clerical pedophilia in the Catholic Church, grand scale corrupt corporate greed, scandals in politics and sports, the war on terror and more), looks at the secretive but ultra-powerful world of the Church of Scientology in his hard-hitting film, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. While he hit hard, Scientology hit back. They continue to do all they can to disparage Gibney.
Other films made a big impact, including 3 ½ Minutes in the competition. In 2012 a young man of color was shot to death by a white man in the parking lot of a Florida gas station. Filmmaker Marc Silver covered the trials that ensued and exposes the continued cracks in our criminal justice system, as well as the ongoing racism in the U.S. that we cannot get rid of. This film won a special jury award for social impact.
Also winning awards (for cinematography and directing) and also focusing on social justice was Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, about the border wars with drug lords. And brothers Bill and Turner Ross won another special award for verité filmmaking for Western, their portrait of small towns on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border.
Crystal Moselle won the Grand Jury prize for Wolfpack, her strange but true portrait of a family whose children have been locked in a housing project. Their only contact with life seems to be movies, and so they act accordingly, becoming true indie filmmakers themselves. How she managed to make this film – and to get the children to trust her – could be a film in itself.
Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary Meru won the audience award for its stunning look at a Himalayan climbing expedition. (It would be a crime for a film about nature in all its glory not to be beautiful.) Laura Gabbert didn’t win anything for City of Gold, her look at L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold. But her brilliant study of the Pulitzer Prize winning writer goes beyond food and cultural criticism and speaks to the importance of the critic in the social fabric of our world.
While much attention is paid to the U.S. doc competition, the films in the World documentary section have a better chance of being noticed than the international features in the World dramatic competition. There’s always a chance that the compelling subject matter in a film will draw viewers’ attention.
Sembene! is a strong and moving look at the life and work of the father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene. Directors Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman show his rise from immigrant dockworker to filmmaker. Sembene’s successful struggle is a grand tale, and not just a biography of the man, but the history of African cinema.
Listen to Me Marlon is another artist’s biography, but told from a unique perspective. Filmmaker Stevan Riley used unfettered access to Brando’s audio archives to allow the late cinematic icon to tell his own story. The film plays out like an investigation by the subject himself. Chad Gracia’s The Russian Woodpecker, which won the World Documentary jury award, is also an investigation. In this case it is the Chernobyl disaster. This time the investigator is one of the victims of the nuclear accident and his investigation includes a conspiracy theory that could very well be real.
At one point, The Russian Woodpecker turns into a political thriller, as does The Amina Profile. Sophie Deraspe’s documentary doesn’t so much expose the truth about the Gay Girl in Damascus blogger (pretty much everyone knew that already), as expose the dangers and costs – political as well as personal – that still exist on the internet.
After all the dark themes and suspenseful stories, turns out the winner of the audience award for international documentary was Dark Horse, a charming story of English working-class neighbors who take on the “sport of kings” and purchase a race horse. Their journey is inspiring, which would make someone like me turn away. But in the end the film is a fascinating group character study. And fascination is at the heart of the Sundance nonfiction films.
The Salle Debussy, which seats 1065, sits just next to the larger 2300 seat Grand Theatre Lumiere (2300 seats) on the Croisette in Cannes. It is in this smaller theater that the Un Certain Regard section of Festival de Cannes takes place.
It’s always been difficult to pinpoint the difference between this sidebar and the competition film. Perhaps these are “edgier” films; maybe they’re “smaller” films that might be swallowed up by the high expectations of the competition. In any event, some of the more interesting films of the festival can be found here. This year first time filmmakers shared the venue with veterans.
Mathieu Almaric, the prolific French actor, was here with his fourth feature as a director, The Blue Room. Almaric co-wrote the screenplay from a Georges Simenon novel and he also stars in this story of lovers under investigation for murder. As a director, Almaric lends a certain precision and clarity to his work. Here he even shoots the film in a standard academy ratio (more square than widescreen) to add a claustrophobic note. Although it didn’t win a prize, “The Blue Room” was one of the more successful films in the section.
Somewhat less successful in the final analysis, but quite fascinating in conception is Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou. Hausner has turned the suicide of German Romantic-era poet Heinrich von Kleist into a 19th century rom-com –- a very dry comedy.
Ruben Ostlund, whose previous film Play was in Directors Fortnight in 2011 won this year’s Un Certain Regard jury prize for Force Majeure, a morality play of sorts. The fabric holding a young family together begins to tear and pull apart when a near accident threatens their skiing holiday. Ostlund always makes his audience think, but in a politically-uncomfortable way, so the conversations about his work can as complex as the films themselves.
Lisandro Alonso has been making a name for himself with small jewels of films, such as La Libertad and Liverpool. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Jauja is a gripping adventure with Mortensen as a Danish engineer searching for his daughter in the mysterious landscape of Patagonia. Visually rich, this film could get Alonso noticed on a larger stage.
Ryan Gosling entered Un Certain Regard with his debut film as a director, Lost River. Having such regard for him as an actor, hopes were high. But unfortunately the story, of a mother trying to raise her sons in a seedily mysterious town, doesn’t hold up.
Asia Argento made an appearance with her fourth film as a director. Misunderstood is a story of a young girl’s struggle to find herself in the middle of a family of narcissists. Argento’s protagonist, who narrates the film – or is she just telling a story? – conflates her own reality with fantasy and the result is charming, witty and poignant.
White God won the grand prize in this section, and with good reason. This Romanian feature, directed by Kornel Mundruczo (who has been in Cannes with other films, Delta and Tender Son – The Frankenstein Project among them) is a grand story of good vs evil as well as a coming of age tale. As a young girl tries to find her pet dog who has been thrown into the streets by her father, she grows up fast while the dog learns hard lessons in the street.
All of these films, as well as the rest that make up the Un Certain Regard selection, offered an overview of what boundary-pushing films will be coming up on theater screens in the coming year. It was a great way to get started.
I Smile Back
Sundance has gained a well-deserved reputation for showcasing American independent film. Once upon a time, this meant extremely low budget films (almost no-budget) with cast and crew at the very beginning of their careers. But “indie” has become a term so cool, and independent film the road to bigger budget movies for their directors, that big stars can be found in many of the US Dramatic Competition section, as well as the Spotlight and Premiere sections.
For some, linking up with an interested star has become an imperative to try to get financing. Sometimes this can backfire, with big names in roles they’re really not right for. But independent productions can give stars an opportunity to try out roles for which they might otherwise not be cast. In fact, many bold face names look for such projects; the work can be very interesting, and with the right mix of director and actor, the performances can be revelatory.
This year, Jason Segel was just such a revelation. Normally known for comedy (especially the television series “How I Met Your Mother”), he gives an affecting performance as the late novelist David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour. Playing against Jesse Eisenberg as Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, Segel is the epitome of a man at once removed from social beings and craving some kind of human contact.
While not going in an entirely new direction, Irish actor Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish character for the first time in Brooklyn, John Crowley’s film of Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Tóibin’s novel. As a mid-last century immigrant to New York, Ronan is compelling as Eilis, who grows from girl to woman as she stakes her life in the old world and the new.
Comedienne Sarah Silverman takes a rare trip to the dark side in I Smile Back, Adam Salky’s entry in the U.S. dramatic competition. She plays a suburban wife and mother who can’t keep away from drugs and drink. The film is a perfect vehicle for Silverman to explore a dramatic character, a huge change from her comedy work.
Kristen Wiig has straddled the indie/Hollywood and comedy/drama lines for a while. Last year she showed her indie dramatic chops off in Craig Johnson’s Skeleton Twins, an entry in the 2014 dramatic competition. This year Wiig showed up in two Sundance titles. She was a hedonistic mother in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and a neo Brooklyn boho mother-to-wannabe in Nasty Baby, alongside the film’s writer/director/star Sebastián Silva.
Nasty Baby is a comedy-drama, as are most of these films, which can have the most meat on the cinematic bone, since they do reflect how most of our lives actually transpire. Nasty Baby didn’t appear in any of the mainstream sections, but in Sundance’s edgier Next section. After seeing the film, it’s easy to understand why.
For years Chiwetel Ejiofor has appeared as part of the ensemble in films by iconic filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Ridley Scott, Spike Lee, and has continued to work with them in supporting roles since his star turn in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which garnered him an Academy Award™ nomination.
But he has always worked with independent filmmakers throughout his career (Kasi Lemmons, Stephen Frears, Joss Whedon) and this year he showed up in Park City as one of a trio of post-apocalypse survivors in Craig Zobel’s U.S. dramatic competition entry Z for Zachariah. Nothing new for Ejiofor, who can play any kind of character at any time, it seems.
Paul Weitz’ feature Grandma was the closing night film at Sundance. It features Lily Tomlin – who can still make movies with the best of them – as a caustic grandmother off to help her granddaughter raise the money for an abortion. Tomlin has always been able to play the serio-comic role and Grandma is no exception. Hers is a subtle, yet brash performance as an estranged mother who is able to make a connection across generations.
Other stars – large and not so much – festoon the Sundance landscape. And while for years filmmakers saw stars as a way to get attention for their films, nowadays it’s the stars who see big acting opportunities in the indie Sundance scene.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
If you’re not a skier, the fact that the Sundance Film Festival takes place near the slopes of Park City, Utah is not a problem. In fact, not having to buy a lift ticket or wait on line for the ski lift gives one more time to watch films. Which, yes, you could do anywhere.
But if you want to watch the first batch of new American Indie films (the second batch is cultivated in Austin, Texas at SXSW later in the season), you better go to Park City and fight for a seat on the shuttle bus with the skiers (who will also be fighting with you for tickets to screenings). For those who do both, the Sundance Film Festival in Park City is a winter paradise of sport and culture, of indoor and outdoor activities.
As for me, I’m not a skier, and so the more time I have to watch films, the better. All of the films screening at Sundance are organized according to sections (all the better for award-giving), which include both US films and the so-called World Cinema sections for both narrative, or dramatic, features and documentaries. Or we can call those films non-fiction, a better appellation for much moving image these days. Of course, the Next and New Frontiers sections take care of many of these hybrid-like films.
The competition films vied for some prize or another. Needless to say, the Sundance Film Festival attracts an impressive roster of jurors, who, in addition to the four competitive sections mentioned above, also populate juries for short films and the jury for the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, a science award.
After ten days of intense viewing from the current crop of contendors in the U.S. dramatic competition, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon won the Grand Prize for U.S. dramatic films for his feature Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, beating out 16 other American films for the honor. The film also took the audience award, who don’t need a jury to tell them what they like.
But the other films were not totally cut out of the action. The Stanford Prison Experiment writer Tim Talbott won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, an annual prize. The film, about an infamous psychology experiement at the fabled institution, also won the Alfred P. Sloan prize for its emphasis on science. Robert Eggers won the directing award for his creepily unsettling The Witch, while Director of Photography Brandon Trost won the cinematography prize for his work on The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
Rounding out the U.S. dramatic competition honors, Lee Haugen won for his editing of Rick Famuylwa’s feature Dope, and screenwriter Jacqueline Kim and screenwriter/director Jennifer Phang shared a special jury prize for “collaborative vision” for their film Advantageous. Not in the competition, Josh Mond’s first directorial effort, James White, won the Next section’s audience award, giving edgier work an opportunity to shine.
As much as I am a glutton for the movies, it is imperative, when at Sundance, to nourish oneself. Park City does not lack for fine dining establishments, many of them lining Main Street, which looks like a set from a Hollywood western, but it must be real, since 64 of the Victorian buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places (Park City was, in its day, a silver mining town, and according to Wikipedia is one of the wealthiest towns in the U.S.).
It can be difficult to get reservations: these hip eateries are venues for the many parties that take place during the festival. But if you can squeeze in, there are some worth waiting for. Most are expensive, but it is Park City, after all, and it’s in the middle of the Sundance Film Festival to boot.
A short list of Main Street restos have to include Zoom. Owned by Robert Redford and located in a converted train station at the bottom of Main Street, Zoom serves hearty American cuisine that has a slightly urban taste to it. Moving up the hill (this is when you realize how high up you are!), Café Terigo serves contemporary Italian in a café setting; there’s an outdoor terrace for visitors during the warmer months. As its name suggests, Purple Sage’s menu is American West with a contemporary spin. The rooms (one upstairs, one downstairs) are small and intimate.
Chimayo is a high-end Southwestern restaurant; pricey, but well worth it. Not on Main Street but a block away on Park Avenue is High West Distillery and Saloon. They call themselves the first ski-in distillery in the country. I’ve never seen that part of this gastro-pub in action, but the idea of skiing in for a few drinks and then going back on the slopes makes me a bit nervous. An all-organic American menu, though, is pretty much on point for any meal.
Movies, good food, and good skiing are winning combinations in the hills of Utah.
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