Sundance Film Festival Report
This year’s Sundance was an interesting year, with the documentaries being the strongest component of the programming and some gems from the narrative feature sections. I was in full marathon mode, viewing a total of 35 films in 8 days. I am a little film fatigued. But, it was a fun year, and a couple of blizzard days aside, the weather was amazing and the atmosphere in Park City was crackling with energy as usual. I was fortunate to stay in a big cabin at Deer Valley Resorts, just a couple of miles north from Main Street. Rap star Little Wayne was my neighbor!
Anyway, here’s my top film picks (in no particular order):
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED
This deftly funny film from writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow, was inspired by the infamous classified ad seeking a companion to go back in time and to bring weapons. Starring Aubrey Plaza (PARKS AND RECREATION) and mumblecore film guru Mark Duplass, in a deadpan performance, this budding, slacker romantic comedy is also inspired by wisecracking ’80s movies like BACK TO THE FUTURE. The film played like gangbusters at the Eccles Theater, and it was super entertaining with witty writing, funny performances, and a lot of heart.
The best documentary I saw at Sundance is this film geeky pleasure in the examination of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal THE SHINING and all its hidden messages ranging from semiotics and symbolism, to numerology, to conspiracy theories that have made this classic a mainstay of constant discussion amongst film and academic circles for years. Rewinding and manipulating the speed of some key scenes like it’s the Zapruder film, with intense theories from academics, film critics, and other fans that have very unique interpretations of not only the film but also of Kubrick’s oeuvre (he had a 200 IQ after all), this wonderfully delicious doc is for film aficionados only. Some of the theories are really out there, and some make you really go, “huh, that’s a good theory!” Check out the official website for more details.
VALLEY OF SAINTS
One of the few films from an Asian American filmmaker in this year’s Festival, VALLEY OF SAINTS deservedly won the World Cinema Award and the Alfred B. Sloan Award. A tender romance set in the politically tumultuous region of Kashmir, bordering Pakistan. Guzal, a boatman who wants to escape his doldrum life, lights up when he assists a young scientist named Asifa. This dynamic brings out competing forces of traditional culture and modernity, mixing deep seeded feelings that come out of the juxtaposition of natural beauty and third world obstacles. Beautifully and lyrically shot, the film unfolds poetically with the backdrop of potential violence in the town, which is really just business as usual in this region. Writer-director Musad Syeed does an exemplary job with this debut. Check out the official website.
The best documentary I saw at Sundance. A group of friends, living in Cairo and just a few blocks away from Tahir Square, document the first seven days of the revolution that occurred last spring. Gripping, scary, with an in-your-face and on the ground immediacy, you see the ebb and flow of hope and despair day-by-day, as the now disposed Mubarak’s hired thugs and police start to take over the streets. It’s a visceral, hand held testimony of the Arab Spring that CNN and Fox News is not capturing at all. 1/2 REVOLUTION is a testament of how digital cameras are putting these tools into the hands of the people, and why documentaries are just so mindblowingly better than narrative films right now.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN
Another amazing documentary, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN gained early buzz and an immediate sell to Sony Pictures Classics. Rodriguez, a ’70s rock musician faded into obscurity and never made it big in the US. But, his first album was bootlegged and made it to South Africa, where he became a major phenomenon. When his second album is finally released in South Africa, gaining him even more rock god fandom, two of his fans make it his mission to find out what happened to him and where the profits of his album sales are going to. The twists and turns in this well made and always entertaining film is yet another testament on how life is just more compelling and shows the life lines and connective tissues of art and culture no matter what country or culture you are from.
World premiering in last fall’s Toronto Film Festival, where it made a huge splash, THE RAID is a non-stop onslaught of violence and death, a breakthrough action film that harkens back to classic John Woo of ’90s Hong Kong fare. Directed by my friend Gareth Evans, THE RAID is essentially GAME OF DEATH, where an ambushed swat team is trapped in an apartment building and must fight their way down each level to escape the dastardly drug kingpin and his drugged out, machete wielding, animalistic minions. Showcasing Indonesian martial arts icon Iko Uwaise, this guy is the new international action star! Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing this film in late March with a kick-ass music soundtrack from Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda. Highly recommended!
hitRECord with Joseph Gordon-Levitt
I attended Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s multimedia live event hitRECord. Hosted by Gordon-Levitt, star of such seminal Gen Y works like (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, BRICK, and HESHER, he also had some help from the “queen of indies,” Parker Posey. Not knowing what hitRECord was, I was introduced to a very cool project — an open collaborative production company, where people can submit video, writings, songs, drawings, and have them culled together into short films. Check out the collaborative’s official website.
The hitRECord event at Sundance was held at the Eccles Theatre, and there were literally 1,200 screaming fans. It was full of energy and Levitt was an affable host that would at times, make girls swoon. There was lots of audience participation as well, and using social media and recording was encouraged. He even sang a couple of songs including “Hey, Jude.”
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
WInner of the US Dramatic Grand Prize, this lyrical film is a gorgeous, abstract, allegorical tale set in a post-Katrina/apocalyptic world.The director, Benh Zeitlin, crafts a film that is part DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (which is having a revival 20th anniversary screening here at the Festival), part Huckleberry Finn and part Hayao Miyazaki magical realism. It’s pure cinema and just a lovely film overall.
THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES
A documentary that follows a billionaire couple, David and Jackie Siegel, who live in a 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by Versailles, built on the success of the time-share industry. But, when the sub-prime crisis occurs, their dream home goes into foreclosure, as they cut corners in their once lavish lifestyle, including laying off thousands of workers, cutting down on the electric bill, and flying commercially. It truly is a rags to riches to rags story that is so outlandish, eye opening, but also heartfelt, this was one of the breakthrough hits of the festival.
I AM NOT A HIPSTER
This charming film from Maui born filmmaker Destin Crettin explores what it means to be creative in the face of tragedy. Based in San Diego’s indie music and art scene, I AM NOT A HIPSTER exceeded my expectations and is much more than its cringe-worthy title suggests. It shows that cool kids have soul too, meandering through life in search of meaning, but in true deadpan, hipster fashion. Plus, the soundtrack is amazing!
A true crowd pleaser (it won the Audience Award, after all), this quirky and adult comedy stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in what looks like a precursor for Best Acting nods at the end of the year awards season.
The quest for love appears insurmountable when a man confined to an iron lung determines, at age 38, to lose his virginity. Based on the autobiographical writings of Berkeley, California–based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (Hawkes), THE SURROGATE chronicles his attempt to transcend the limbo between childhood and adulthood, in which he is literally trapped. With the blessing of an unusual priest and support from enlightened caregivers, the poignantly optimistic and always droll O’Brien swallows his fear and hires a sex surrogate (Hunt).
I hope to at least confirm some of these films for the upcoming HIFFs. Next stop, Berlin Film Festival!!!