SUNDANCE 10 Wrap Report with The Top 10 of ’10

PARK CITY, Utah —- The 26th Sundance Film Festival wrapped with new Festival Director, John Cooper, painting a positive spin on a year without a true break-out hit.  “Great films make for a great festival.  This year it was as if I could feel a shift in the DNA of the film community—the reaction to the films was inspiring” opined Cooper. New Festival Director of Programming, Trevor Groth, added that hopefully the festival and its awards program “will allow the films to connect with a wider audience hungry for choice.”

Once again, Sundance went off without a hitch despite over 50 inches of snowfall during the 10 day festival.  Sarah Pearce, Director of Operations, told an audience at the 2009 IFFS that Sundance 2010 was produced for nine million dollars instead of last year’s 11 million, but I defy you to clearly see any noticeable difference in the logistics of what is clearly America’s most important and best -run film festival. There were many excellent films, and, as is our tradition, we nominate the following films for our Top 10 at Sundance 2010. Our Top 10 was compiled from films in all Competition categories and from the new Next Category to encourage low budget voices.

THE FILM FESTIVAL TODAY TOP 10 OF SUNDANCE 2010

  1. Winter’s Bone
  2. Blue Valentine
  3. Gasland
  4. Restrepo
  5. Animal Kingdom
  6. Waiting for Superman
  7. The Freebie
  8. A Film Unfinished
  9. Jean Michel Basquiat-The Radiant Child
  10. The Tillman Story

U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Restrepo ****

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Directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s is an extraordinary birds-eye view of what life is like in the Second Platoon in one of Afghanistan’s most strategically critical valleys called The Korengal.  The film takes its title from the name of the first soldier killed in combat in this valley of “hell on earth”.

Production values are topnotch, particularly the under-fire shooting of Junger and Hetherington, and Michael Levine’s first-rate editing. The film, which will get a screening on National Geographic Channel has little chance for a theatrical run as the American public has made it clear it doesn’t want to buy tickets to films about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The film was awarded The Grand Jury Prize in Documentary at Sundance 2010.

Waiting For Superman ****

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Director Davis Guggenheim(“An Inconvenient Truth”, “It Might Get Loud”)brings his wit and humor to tackle the issue of education in his latest doc endeavor. The title of the film comes from educational reformer Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone: As clips of George Reeves, as early TV’s Man of Steel, play out onscreen, Canada recalls thinking as a boy that, somehow, sometime, Superman would arrive in the South Bronx and save him. The allegory therein is that Americans maintain a fantasy about the way their schools will be changed for the better, even when it’s those very Americans who resist change whenever it is proposed.  The film calls for reform and makes a convincing case that something must done. With its mix of animation and engaging construction it won The Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance 2010.

Smash His Camera ***

Director Leon Gast’s portrait of the  first, and,  still most famous paparazzo,  Ron Galella, is idiosyncratic and memorable.  It’s replete with a plethora of star images and human interest stories that will “knock your socks off”. For example, the time that Gallela had his teeth knocked out by a seriously “out-of-control” Marlon Brando. This one won the Directing Award for Documentary at Sundance 2010.

Gasland ****

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Writer-director Josh Fox hits a home run with his debut doc about the dangers of natural gas drilling.  Narrating a first-person account, Fox relates how a natural gas    company made him a lease offer for $100,000 to explore on his land, which includes the house his parents built in Pennsylvania’s Delaware River Basin. Fox’s investigation sucks us in as his enthusiasm generates excitement and our social consciousness takes over.  The lyrical look is aesthetically pleasing as we join the grassroots message against “fracking”(the drilling process).  This one won a Special Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance 2010.

Joan Rivers-A Piece of Work ***

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Co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg document a year in the life of a woman who was the ‘role model” for today’s female comics. Joan is depicted as an assiduous and  cagey businesswoman who is driven by her love of entertainment and being in the spotlight. Mixing her hilarious stand-up routine with footage from The Tonight Show or QVC we see how Joan remains comfortable and confident in any scenario.  Her irreverent side and her family concerns all fit together in this coherent and moving portrait.  Winner of The Documentary Editing Award at Sundance 2010.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child ***

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Director Tamra Davis puts her heart and soul into this loving picture of the late, famed painter who set the 1980s art world ablaze with his street smart paintings reflecting the existential world of the disenfranchised. Davis discloses up front that she was a close friend of Basquiat, who opened himself up to perhaps his most expansive interview with her and designer Becky Johnson during the period he lived in Los Angeles in the mid-’80s. That interview provides the pic with significant insight into Basquiat’s thinking and personality; relaxed and smiling, among pals, the young painter is in his best form at the height of his career.  But, like many  artists he had a dark side which led him into the drug world  Artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel sums up Basquiat’s ensuing problems dealing with fame, money and the pressure to produce work: “He didn’t have the tools to navigate the sea of shit. He just wanted to have fun.” Basquiat died way too young but his art work will live forever.

The Tillman Story ****

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Director Amir-Bar Lev’s film is a masterful examination of the ugly truth behind the death of Pat Tillman.  Told much more via straight reportage than Bar-Lev’s fascinating “My Kid Could Paint That,” the film combines talking heads and archival footage into a mystery story of increasingly scandalous proportions. No matter whether you’re a liberal or conservative, the egregious misconduct by grunts, senior officers and politicos alike is terribly disturbing. The film reveals in no uncertain terms the duplicity that our government is capable of perpetrating on the its own people.

U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Winter’s Bone ****

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A teenage girl’s tenacity in the face of seemingly insurmountable physical and emotional barriers makes this film by director Debra Granik the best narrative feature at Sundance 2010. Following its brave heroine (an outstanding Jennifer Lawrence) as she seeks to uncover the truth behind her father’s disappearance, the film employs the structure of a whodunit to take a tough, unflinching look at an impoverished Ozarks community ruled by the local drug trade. Raw but utterly enveloping, “Bone” is that rare Sundance epiphany that marries cutting edge earthiness and emotional relevance.  It won hands-down The Grand Jury Prize for best Dramatic Film at Sundance 2010. It also won the prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.

3 Backyards ***

Film professor and director. Eric Mendelsohn returns with his first feature in a decade since the much admired “Judy Berlin” .His film is an experimental narrative feature and it works remarkably well..  It is really only partly about its open-ended characters and stories. It’s more about film as media synthesis. The music, production design and camerawork are so deliberate and effective in creating the tone that Mendelsohn is after one doesn’t quite care about any lack of narrative closure or back-story. A work of art and a work of beauty.  3 Backyards won The Directing Award: Dramatic at Sundance 2010.

happythankyoumoreplease *

Director Josh Radnor’s (“How I Met Your Mother”) film is a carefully contrived dramedy about gentrified urbanites which plays more like a sitcom than an indie movie.  The stories that are intertwined are insubstantial and the characters feel pasted together to make the plot move forward.   This one somehow won The Audience Award for Best Dramatic Film at Sundance 2010.  It is one of those rare years where we at FFT feel the audience got it wrong!

Blue Valentine ****

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Director Derek Cianfrance’s (“Brother Tied”) film is a heavily affected portrait of a disintegrating marriage. It is intensely portrayed by the great Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in two time periods — young, hot and enraptured in love and somewhat older, thwarted and not in love or certainly less so. Shooting close-ups with long lenses and with the Red digital camera system in the contemporary breakup scenes, Cianfrance immediately conveys the impression of eavesdropping on real life. A relationship movie shot in a fresh and riveting way conveying emotion and pathos with style and substance. Picked up by The Weinstein Company it was cut by seven minutes when it was screened at Cannes2010.

Lovers of Hate ***

Writer/director Brian Poyser’s mumblecore comedy is a delightful piece of entertainment which amuses and plays with your emotions in various ways. The story portrays a bitter rivalry between two brothers for the love of the older brother’s wife. In a beautiful mansion in Deer Valley, Paul( a wonderful Alex Karpovsky), a wildly successful author of children’s fantasy novels, will seduce his brother’s bored wife Diana (Heather Kafka), neither lover knowing that the hen-pecked Rudy (Chris Doubek) has been crouching in various corners of the house, eavesdropping and plotting his playful revenge. With the use of a cell phone the intensity of the charade makes for some compelling viewing.

Obselidia ***

Scottish-born writer-director Diane Bell’s debut feature is a unique experimental art feature that works on many levels. Ostensibly about a man named George (Aussie actor   Michael Piccirilli) whose quest is to document nearly extinct occupations, it turns into romantic entanglement.  Shot with the Red Camera System by DP, Zak Mulligan the film won the Sundance Cinematography Award for a dramatic feature. This one also was awarded the prestigious $20,000 cash Alfred P Sloan Prize for focusing on science or technology as a theme or depicting a scientist as a major character,

Howl ***

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. Vet documentarists Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman cross over to the dramatic form and build a unique and charismatic portrait of a young Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) as he delivers his titular classic poem “Howl”. To examine the impulses that caused the poem to be written, the filmmakers try a number of things: first, with excerpts from a far-ranging verite-style “interview” with Ginsberg; second, with elaborate animated sequences by former Ginsberg illustrator Eric Drooker that translate words into moving pictures; third, with a dramatic re-creation of the 1957 trial in which the prosecution attempted to outlaw the book by having it judged obscene and without redeeming artistic merit; and fourth, with renditions of key moments from the youthful Ginsberg’s life, notably his interactions, carnal and otherwise, with such Beat Generation superstars as Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Ginsberg’s longtime mate, Peter Orlovsky. Lensed by the great DP Ed Lachman this film is a treasure and resonates with the spirit of one of America’s greatest poets.

Hesher **

Jean Renoir’s “Boudou Saved From Drowning” explored how a homeless man brought to civilization could reek havoc on the well-to-do.  Debuting director Spencer Susser revives Renoir’s classic with this anti-social and amusing film.  His willfully anarchic

central character (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spikes every scene with gratuitous provocations and repetitive vulgarities.  Unfortunately the film repeats these acts one time too many to provide the proper balance. A climactic act of charity bordering on love gives some closure to a film which entertains more than it misses. Hesher, the violent anarchist with a giant upraised middle finger tattooed on his back, will appeal to many young people as a rebellion against a society inundated with rules and laws that restrict spontaneity.

NEXT

The Freebie ***

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Actress turned director, Katie Aselton, and wife of the uberhead of the D.I.Y. Baghead Cinema Movement, Mark Duplass, has created a high concept comedy with legs.  The premise is simple: a couple give themselves the freedom to explore sex with other people.  Shot in an astonishing 11 days, the resulting film is engaging and compelling viewing because the characters are so well defined.  Aselton and her fellow thespians hold the screen well and for a small film one could not ask for more. A triumph of ultra low budget filmmaking!

Armless ***

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Director Habib Azar’s dark feature deals with a medical condition which is called “body integrity” disorder.  The amusing and skillfully delivered premise is that the protagonist named   John(  pitch perfect , David London) wants to have his arms amputated. A cleverly designed script by Kyle Jarrow works us up to a satisfying climactic point which brings closure and a sense of satisfaction to the viewer. A wonderfully executed micro-budgeted feature which entertains, amuses and arouses emotion.

Homewrecker aka  The Locksmith **

New York based brothers, Todd and Brad Barnes directed this screwball comedy about a locksmith named Mike(Anselm Richardson) who is on work release from prison and has his day turned upside down by a ditzy chick, Margo(Ana Reeder)who thinks her boyfriend is cheating on her.  This low-budget shoot uses its NYC locations effectively and acoustic guitar songs by Todd Snider work well but the final tune, Chicago’s ’70s pop hit “Saturday in the Park’ seems too mainstream a choice for a cutting edge indie.

The film won the Sundance 2010 award as the best film in Next.  We at FFT, feel that “Freebie” or “Armless” were more worthy of that recognition.

WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

The Red Chapel (Det Rode Kapel) **

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Danish Director Mads Bruegger uses guerilla tactics ala “Yes Men” to capture this fascinating look behind the impenetrable walls of North Korea.  Recording his visit with two Danish-Korean comedians hoping to put on a show, Bruegger launches a sneak attack on what he calls “the most heartless and brutal totalitarian state ever created”. But his film only sporadically expresses this opinion through its candid-camera material.  unless getting North Koreans to sing along to “Hey Jude” strikes one as the height of hilarity. The film was awarded The World Cinema Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance 2010.

Wasteland ***

Director Lucy Walker’s film is a remarkable tour de force documentary about an artist named Victor Muniz known for photographs that recreate famous images using materials like sugar, chocolate syrup, and trash.  The Brooklyn-based photographer grew up in abject poverty in Brazil. We follow him as he returns to his homeland to search through Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho, a garbage dump that receives more trash each day than any landfill in the world. We observe as he hires many of the “trash people” known as “catadores” to help him gather the materials he needs for his next art project. He also documents the lifestyle of these “hardscrabble” workers as they eke out a living from the waste of others.  In the spirit of Agnes Varda’s “Gleaners and I”, Lucy Walker won The World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary at Sundance 2010.

A Film Unfinished ***

Director Yael Hersonski’s poignant doc presents for the first time (in one place) the footage the Nazis were gathering for a celebration of the 3rd Reich.  Of course, it was never finished and hence the title of this portrait of the doomed residents of the Jewish Warsaw ghetto. To flesh out the pain and hypocrisy of the images were 5 ghetto survivors and a cameraman who provide “expert” commentary.  German cameraman Willy Wist is quoted as saying that, “We were concentrating on the extreme differences between rich Jews and poor Jews.  And what a job he did.  Gripping and toxic as the BP oil spill these images are a time machine to the horrors of a Germany devoid of human kindness. The film won The World Cinema Documentary Editing Award at Sundance 2010.

Space Tourists **

Director Christian Frei (“War Photographer”) examines the impact of space tourism on that rarefied group of mega-wealthy who seek out thrills that only their vast wealth can provide. It costs a cool $20 million to spend eight days as a civilian guest aboard the Intl. Space Station,  Frei spends near-equal time on related earthbound matters, observing a Kazakh ghost town that was once HQ for the U.S.S.R.’s vast space program, and following scavengers as they harvest fallen rocket junk for scrap metal. We also visit Norwegian photojournalist Jonas Bendiksen and Romanian space enthusiast-cum-inventor Dumitru Popescu.  A fascinating series of vignettes that ultimately lack narrative fluidity, the film won The World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary at Sundance 2010.

His & Hers ***

Director Ken Wardrop interviews 70 women of the Irish midlands. He arranged these interviews in order of age with each one revealed to us in just one or two shots of their faces, houses, hallways and bedrooms. Each speaks of the men in their lives — first their fathers, then their boyfriends, husbands, sons, grandchildren, and finally their late husbands and grown children. Each funny, tiny moment and small, humble insight compounds on the voices before, adding up to a truly moving sense that experience is universal, and love is what gets you through it.  This one was awarded The World Cinematography Award: Documentary at Sundance 2010.

WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Animal Kingdom ***

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Writer-director David Michod’s unusually well crafted feature debut plays out like an Australian “ The Godfather” .We watch as an Australian crime family slowly falls apart as family members turn on one another with powerful rage and brutal violence.  Violence in this film shakes you to the core with its suddenness and finality. Performances are pitch perfect, led by Weaver in the unusual role of the blond ringleader, a sort of Ma Barker,  and Mendelsohn as her unnerving, mentally ill-equipped eldest son. The jury nailed it on this one, as it won The World Cinema Jury Prize for Dramatic Film at Sundance 2010.

Undertow aka Contracorriente ***

Director-writer Javier Fuentes-Leon’s touchingly intimate feature debut will appeal to art house and gay audiences.  The story is of a bisexual triangle taking place in a Peruvian fishing village where Hemingway once caught a 700lb Marlin! The story is of a fisherman named Miguel (Christian Mercado) his wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) and a painter who moves to the village named Santiago (Manola Cardona) The married man falls for the painter but hides his affair from his wife.   When the painter drowns and returns as a ghost the film creates an intriguing relationship of a unique nature. Undertow walked away from Sundance 2010 with The World Audience Award for Dramatic film.

Southern District ***

Writer-director Juan Carlos Valdivia has crafted a formalist look at the destruction of the upper class in his native Bolivia.  Focusing on the wealthy Zona Sur district, the film makes us a “fly on the wall” of these privileged people as they get ready to fall from their lofty lifestyle. With many sweeping long tracking shots and even 360 degree pans we examine the day-to-day machinations of this multistory home which becomes the most poignant character in this movie.  The film won two prestigious awards at Sundance 2010: The World Cinema Screenwriting Award and The World Cinema Directing Award-Dramatic

The Man Next Door *

Directors and cinematographers Mariano Cohen and Gaston Duprat depict a tale of two neighbors feuding over the newly constructed window between them. The argument sparks a conflict that is fraught with paranoia and compulsiveness. The amazing split screen image of a sledgehammer hitting one neighbor’s side of a wall and slowly coming out the other won this film The World Cinematography Award for Dramatic Film at Sundance 2010.  The rather disjointed narrative, however, prevents the film from being very successful otherwise.

Grown Up Movie Star ***

First-time director Adriana Maggs tells a tale of two sisters -13-year-old Ruby and her sister, Rose ( Julia Kennedy).  Besides providing an intimate look at the culture of Newfoundland and Labrador, this one is worth seeing because of the astonishing performance given here by Tatiana Maslany, who took the award for World Cinema Special Jury Prize: Dramatic Breakout Performance at Sundance 2010. As Ruby, she depicts the neuroses of being not just a teenager, but a young girl. Her interactions with adults, and flirting with men provide insights rarely explored or developed with such ferocity. A great start for director Maggs.

SPOTLIGHT

Enter The Void ***

Director Gaspar Noe (“Irreversible” and “I Stand Alone”) has described his latest offering as a “psychedelic melodrama”.  The film is the story of a drug deal gone bad, and young Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) who dies from a gunshot wound in the filthy toilet stall of the Void, a club, returns as a spirit with an incestuous lust for his sister. The camera is placed directly behind Oscar’s eyes and after his death, shows the point of view of Oscar’s spirit.  Noé continues to demonstrate visually arresting filmmaking; Oscar’s intense hallucinations early on manifest in incredibly elaborate, spiraling, abstract animations. The feeling during the film is the closest to a cinematic bad acid trip ever created. But, Noe’s film runs a good 40 minutes too long and needs pruning.  Nevertheless, an impressive work worth seeing if you have the patience and a jaded sense about the world at large.

Mother & Child ***

Director Rodrigo Garcia (“Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her”) has crafted a compassionate multi-stranded tale about the lives of ordinary women.  The focus is on family, biological parents versus those who adopt—and transforms them into something powerful. The strength of the acting alone makes this one worth seeing with “pitch perfect” performances from Naomi Watts as the forceful attorney named Elizabeth and defensive physical therapist Karen played by Annette Benning. Soon we figure out relationship of each character to the other and are mesmerized by the intricate weaving plotted by a master storyteller.

A Prophet ***

Director Jacques Audiard, son of famed screenwriter/director Michael Audiard, crafts a remarkable crime thriller that transcends genre by focusing on character. The film tells the story of a poor, illiterate youngster of mixed blood whose parents had abandoned him and who has nothing – until he goes to prison for adults and slowly begins to make the most of his situation, finally becoming some sort of demigod. Tahar Rahim is excellent as the incarcerated young man, Malik, a mixed bag of youthful bravado and naïve vulnerability who is quick to adapt to his circumstances – and profit from them. He becomes subservient to the Corsican gang leader Cesar, superbly played by Niels Arestrup, and uses his position of proximity to power to assume some for himself.  While the screenplay contains several confusing turns the end result is a powerful look at prison life in France.

PARK CITY AT MIDNIGHT

Buried ***

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Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes creates an English language pic that creates tension by taking place entirely in the mysterious darkness of a coffin The story is about a U.S. truck driver in Iraq kidnapped and held for ransom in a pine box. While trapped in the coffin his cell phone voice is our only onscreen character (Ryan Reynolds) attempting to stay in touch with the outside world. The film, which was picked up by Lionsgate, could become a break-out cult classic, but only time will tell

Splice ***

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Director Vicenzo Natali, working from a clever script he wrote with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor, crafts a small distinctive sci-fi film.  It may not reach cult status but it borrows heavily from “Frankenstein” and “Jurassic Park” and creates a blend of serious and frivolous fun Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play Else and Clive, a husband and wife team of superstar biochemists, whose work on creating animal hybrids finds them on the cusp of some major biomedical discoveries. But when the “suits” threaten to shut down their laboratories Else recklessly tries to combine human DNA with their test subject. The result is a unique new form of animal, a hairless anthropoid with tiny arms, squinting eyes and rabbit like legs. They soon discover the creature is growing like a fetus outside the womb into a woman-like beast creature. They call her Dren which is nerd spelled backwards and she is played by a seductive French actress(Delphine Chaneac)much in the spirit of Dryer’s classic “Joan of Arc” With remarkable special effects for an indie, “Splice” is both entertaining and mesmerizing.

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