I Went to Sundance so You Wouldn’t Have to
It’s been almost a week since the 2010 Sundance Film Festival wrapped. Yeah, sorry this is late. I’ve been hungover. Anyway, I don’t have room here — in my mind, that is — to tell you everything, so let me just break it down to the stuff I thought might be worth writing home about. Reserving the right to contradict my own first-impression opinions later on when reviewing any of these at length, here they are in alphabetical order, by category:
SOME FILMS I LIKED
“Enemies of the People”
Having lost several members of his immediate family to the Khmer Rouge genocide, tenacious Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath (in collaboration with British filmmaker Rob Lemkin) now spends his weekends gently persuading killing-field functionaries to demonstrate on him how they cut dozens of throats and patiently cultivating a cordial acquaintanceship with Nuon Chea, formerly Pol Pot’s “Brother Number Two.” All Sambath wants is an explanation. What he gets is an enthralling, unprecedented communiqué on the legacy of evil.
“Enter the Void”
To my earlier musings about Gaspar Noé’s new film, I’ll just add this: It’s about a pair of siblings — she’s a stripper, he’s a petty drug dealer — whose lives go to hallucinatory hell in Japan. It’s inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And it’s not for everyone.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”
This is not the first documentary about an artist made by a friend of the artist and therefore lacking some essential critical distance. Nor is it the first feature-length movie about this artist in particular (that would be Julian Schnabel’s biopic, “Basquiat”). But Tamra Davis’ portrait of the late-‘70s graffiti poet-cum-Lower East Side pop-primitive art superstar seems fresh, and inspired, nonetheless. Not to mention poignant: Just look at all the amazing work he made before joining the ranks of famous American 27-year-old drug casualties.
Because you haven’t really done Sundance if you haven’t seen at least one movie co-starring Catherine Keener. Here, Keener anchors a solid, shrewdly chosen ensemble cast that also includes Oliver Platt and Amanda Peet. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener seems to get better with every film, and now she’s cruising along the well-trodden path of neurotic New Yorker comedy-drama with grace and comely confidence.
I’m very happy to report that Jacques Audiard’s deserving Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is due to open nationwide, eventually, in limited release. Worth waiting for, it’s a tale both topical and timeless: a young Arab man’s odyssey of self-actualization through prison life and organized crime. Audiard’s arty but forthright storytelling seems like the ideal counterpoint to the enormity of his protagonist’s arc.
“Sins of My Father”
The son of despotic Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, long ago self-exiled to a new name and a new life in Argentina, reaches out to make amends with the sons of two politicians his father had murdered. And so Nicolas Entel’s documentary primer on recent Latin American political history has the great advantage of archetypal dramatic themes. “In the end,” the younger Escobar says, “we’re all orphans.”
“The Tillman Story”
As director Amir Bar-Lev’s unnerving and absorbing documentary makes clear, there is still more to say about the handsome NFL star who became an Army Ranger and a Chomsky-reading, war-opposing, self-sacrificing patriot, Pat Tillman. With open access to his family, and guarded access to his unit, Bar-Lev boldly wades into the morass of dishonorably manifested military embarrassment about Tillman’s death by friendly fire in Afghanistan. As in his earlier doc “My Kid Could Paint That,” the filmmaker focuses on the train-wreck collision of self-expression, propaganda and marauding media hype by which highly personal stories become national ones.
Director Debra Granik’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel won the festival’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and its Grand Jury Prize for Drama, and deserved them both. In the backwoods of the Missouri Ozarks, a teenager tries to find her meth-dealer dad before she and her helpless younger siblings and their mentally absent mom get evicted from the house dad put up for his bail bond before disappearing. The feminism, like the regionalism, comes naturally in this textured, character-driven thriller, with standout performances from Jennifer Lawrence as the indomitable heroine and John Hawkes as her speed-freak uncle.
SOME FILMS I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE LIKED
Indie golden boy Derek Cianfrance returns to narrative features with a vaguely pretentious and perhaps needlessly nonlinear narrative of a working-class (yet suspiciously hipsterish) marriage in decay. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling give their many shallow-focused closeups everything they’ve got, but after a while the whole thing feels hollow. And if that’s the point, well then it has been noted, thank you.
Reportedly “controversial” for centering on a group of would-be suicide bombers in London, this is admittedly the funniest comedy of jihad in recent memory, and a good-faith effort in the subgenre of adorably bumbling criminals. It’s just too bad the one-note satire of their insane ideology isn’t thoughtful or outraged enough.
I’m still puzzling over Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s experimental not-quite-docudrama, in which James Franco plays a young, glamorized, gay-iconified Allen Ginsberg, reading and discussing his landmark poem while his publisher sits mutely in court defending it against a charge of obscenity and several animated rhapsodies, by Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker, dramatize the poem itself. This poetically intelligent but structurally iffy and dramatically languid film gave me the real thrill of remembering Ginsberg’s brilliance, but also revealed the real and dubious difficulty of trying to make a movie about it.
I said it before and I’ll say it again, because the Internet has made me lazy: a respectable if not indelible account of John Lennon’s teenage years, and basically the backstory of his song “Mother.” OK, here’s more: The performances — by Aaron Johnson as our hero, Anne-Marie Duff as his nutty mum, Kristin Scott Thomas as his punctilious aunt, and Thomas Sangster as his Paul McCartney — are skillful, but, well, perfunctory. Even now, it somehow just doesn’t seem right that a film about the lead Beatle should fade from memory so easily.
A media circus ensues when an indebted rural farmer considers killing himself in order to earn government support for his family. Anusha Rizvi’s first feature, based on woefully true-enough events, almost achieves all the splendor and the sting of an R.K. Narayan novel, but it becomes unwieldy, and descends, perhaps inevitably, into the broad strokes of Bollywood bathos. I guess I’ll just keep waiting for the perfect black comedy about suicide.
SOME FILMS I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE SEEN
It’s just mumblecore maven writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass doing their thing — in this case, a quasi-improv DIY rom-com full of awkward, authentic weirdos — but it has an unusually compelling assortment of A-listers: John C. Reilly, Catherine Keener, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill.
Spencer Susser’s willfully antisocial feature debut offers up a revolting heap of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, here making quite an impression as a grieving family’s unwanted anarchist houseguest. Also with Natalie Portman in Sarah Palin glasses. One person I talked to described it as “despicable,” which is putting it mildly compared to how another person described it. Gordon-Levitt is an actor I admire, and maybe I missed this on purpose, for fear that he has arrived at a career plateau.
In which square-jawed, thrill-addicted journalistic Tyrannosaurus Sebastian Junger, along with fellow war-zone regular Tim Hetherington, embeds among a platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan’s “deadliest place on Earth,” the Korengal Valley. This doc got a Sundance prize too, hopefully not for a take-home message along the lines of “War is hell–ain’t it awesome?!”
SOME FILMS I DON’T REGRET NOT SEEING BECAUSE I WAS OUT DRINKING OR SKIING
The whole movie consists of Ryan Reynolds in a coffin, underground. That’s an easy concept to get behind, but life is short, and ten days in Utah is shorter.
Because come on. Weren’t we all already overusing that word five years ago?
Writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s girl-band biopic isn’t inherently objectionable; I just don’t think I’m ready to see “Twilight”‘s Kristen Stewart portraying Joan Jett. Yes, I’ll give it a chance eventually, but only because the ever-excellent Michael Shannon’s in it too. OK, and Dakota Fanning.
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