2005 Sundance Film Festival Coverage
It was an extremely strong year this year at both the Sundance and Slamdance film festivals. In five days I caught 22 movies, and there were still at least several more movies I've been kicking myself for not being able to see (including Hustle and Flow, Why We Fight, The Dying Gaul, Murderball, After Innocence and Mad Hot Ballroom). Out of the 22 movies only three of them I'd recommend skipping; all the others are worth checking out and several of them are MUST SEE movies. I wouldn't be surprised if at least five of the movies I saw from the Sundance and Slamdance film festivals ended up on my list of the top 10 movies this whole year.
Thee first half of the film festival was dominated by films with big name actors like Pierce Brosnin in The Matador, Michael Keaton in Game 6 and Kevin Costner in The Upside of Anger. Many of these came into the festival with distribution deals and are already on the schedule for release into theaters in the first half of this year. This is one of the major reasons I decided to go to the festival for the second half, where the ratio of more fiercely independent films outnumbered the studio films.
Here are my thoughts on the 22 films I saw at the Sundance and Slamdance film festivals. I've ordered these films from 'Best' to 'Worst' which wasn't an easy task, considering how good many of these films are.
Me You and Everyone We Know - My absolute favorite film at Sundance. Me You and Everyone We Know is a romantic drama that looks at love from an outsider's perspective. It covers some of the same kind of ground as Amelie but without the fairy tale. Miranda July does an exceptional job both directing and acting in a film so creative and honest it's hard not to be an instant fan. Me You and Everyone We Know is one of the finest film debuts from an American female director and establishes Miranda July as a significant force in independent cinema. Me You and Everyone We Know is the kind of film you'll be thinking and talking about weeks after seeing. When it comes to theaters RUN don't walk to see this exceptional film. Also expect to see this emoticon used quite a bit online after the film's release: ))<>((
Kekexilli: Mountain Patrol - Another one my of favorite films at Sundance, Kekexilli: Mountain Patrol is simply brilliant. Reminiscent of the early work of Zhang Yimou (i.e. The Road Home), Kekexilli: Mountain Patrol follows a band of patrolmen in the mountains of Tibet as they try to protect the Tibetan Antelope from poachers. One of the best shot films I've seen a long time, Kekexilli: Mountain Patrol should absolutely be seen on the big screen (do not wait for DVD); many scenes in the film look so real it's almost impossible to believe that they aren't. At the screening the director spoke about his experience of shooting the film and amazingly the extreme weather you see in the film isn't an effect. It would be a huge mistake to miss Kekexilli: Mountain Patrol - it's just that good.
The Squid and The Whale - Directed by Noah Baumbach, this film is among my favorite that played at Sundance. The Squid and The Whale starts out as a film about a family dealing with the impact of divorce in the late '80s and then goes much much deeper, addressing the relationships between parents and their kids and the effect and impact of parents on their children's personalities. Absolutely fantastic performances from Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels, who gives the finest performance of his career. Newcomers Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are excellent as the children and Noah Baumbach does a stellar job with both directing and writing on the film. The Squid and The Whale won the Best Dramatic Screenwriting award and the award for Best Direction, and it's quite deserved. Don't miss The Squid and The Whale when it comes to theaters; it's an exceptional movie.
The Education of Shelby Knoxx - One of my favorite documentaries at Sundance. The Education of Shelby Knoxx is, on the surface, a film about a high school girl and her attempts to get sex ed taught in her local school. As the film progresses it turns into something much much bigger as it grapples with issues of religion, community and coming of age in the South. The Education of Shelby Knoxx is one of the most entertaining documentaries I've seen since Super Size Me and is one that should not be missed. The Education of Shelby Knoxx is set to air on PBS in the upcoming months so it should be easy to get to see, which you should because it's simply fantastic.
Police Beat - Probably the best 'hidden gem' of the Sundance Film fest, this film follows the life and love of 'Z', an immigrant from Somalia who works as a beat cop in Seattle. While the film is in English, it's narrated by 'Z' in Somalian (with subtitles) - a bold but brilliant choice that gives an insight into the experience of an immigrant in America. Z moves from crime scene to crime scene while dealing with a broken relationship with his American girlfriend, never lingering too long at any one spot. Director Robinson Devor does a great job of balancing these two elements and gets a wonderful performance from Pape Sidy Niang, who plays Z and is a first-time actor. Police Beat didn't find a distributor at Sundance, so I'm really hoping someone will pick up this film; it's one of the most creative and successful films showing the modern American Immigrant experience.
Thumbsucker - The 'coming of age' genre is well-traveled territory, so it's fantastic to see a film that brings something new to the table. Director Mike Mills has a magical style that is extremely engaging. Newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci is fantastic as Justin, a teenager grappling with self identity and the reasons behind his thumbsucking habit. Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio are fantastic as Justin's parents, and even Keanu Reeves delivers a solid performance as a mentor/orthodonist who spouts Yoda-like advice. Thumbsucker is like a breath of fresh air, something truly original.
3-Iron - An extremely subtle and wonderful film. 3-Iron tells the story of Tae-suk, a young Korean who breaks into people's homes, not to steal but to make himself at home (he even does their laundry). Two main characters almost never speak, and while the pace is slower than you might be used to, it really works. There are so many great subtleties in this film; it's the kind of film that probably would stand up well to seeing at least twice. 3-Iron is a great movie which I'd highly recommend.
The Aristocrats - This documentary by Penn Jellete and Paul Provenza explores an extremely lewd and dirty joke told between comedians called 'The Aristocrats'. The joke has a pretty simple structure: a quick set up, a story of a man going into a talent agency to talk about his act; an expanded middle, a free-form description of the act including as many references to extreme sex, defecation, bodily fluids and as much disgusting things the comedian can come up with; and then, the punch line. In about 90 minutes this joke is told over and over by almost every notable comedian in the industry, including Robin Williams, Whoopie Goldberg, Geroge Carlin, and many, many more. The film draws a parallel between The Aristocrats joke and jazz, and since it's basically the same structure; each comedian brings their unique comedic ability to the joke as they tell it, putting the focus on 'the singer rather than the song.' The Aristocrats is an extremely funny film, and by far the most lewd and explicit I've ever seen. You'd think hearing the same joke over and over again would get boring, but it isn't. Highlights of the film include a telling of the joke by Gilbert Godfried to the Friar's Club and by far the dirtiest telling by Bob Sagat. If you're easily offended this isn't the movie for you, but if you have a good sense of humor, and love comedy, The Aristocrats is a must-see film.
Stranger (aka Ono) - A beautiful Polish film which focuses on the relationship between a woman and her unborn child. Stranger might just be the best 'non-politicized' look at the human side of a woman's right to choose and the experience of pregnancy. Stranger is beautifully shot and wonderfully paced; an early shot in the film in the hospital is so brilliant it's worth seeing the film for it. While Stranger does have a number of very enjoyable moments, the end of the film doesn't deliver, being just vague enough not to pay off the way it could. Despite the unsatisfying ending I'd still highly recommend Stranger.
The Chumscrubber - (just an awful title for the film) Takes a look at the disconnected youth of suburbia and how 'self medicating' our society has become. While it isn't in the same class as Donnie Darko it does share some of the same qualities. The Chumscrubber features a number of stand-out performances from Ralph Fiennes, Carrie Anne Moss, Jamie Bell and Glenn Close with a scene late in the film between Bell and Close that makes the film worth watching. Also notable is Camilla Belle, who was also in the film The Ballad of Jack and Rose; she's got a fantastic screen presence and is definitely 'one to watch'. While the The Chumscrubber is far from perfect, it is well done and the script by Zac Stanford is very well done. If you like films like American Beauty and Donnie Darko you'll want to check out The Chumscrubber. It isn't as good as those two films, but worth checking out nonetheless.
Rock School - An enjoyable documentary which takes a look at Paul Green's School of Rock (the school that inspired the Jack Black film). This no-holds barred documentary takes a real look at a number of young aspiring musicians and their experiences at the School of Rock. One of the things I really liked about this documentary was the way it didn't white wash the experience. Paul Green isn't always shown in the most sympathetic light, and the highs and lows that the kids experience are clearly shown. At the center of the documentary is a group of the kids from the school and their preparation to play a huge Frank Zappa fest in Europe. Fans of Zappa will especially like Rock School as there's quite a bit of coverage of his music. Rock School is a fun, entertaining and engaging documentary worth checking out.
Hard Candy - A difficult film to watch, it follows the relationship between a 32 year old man played by Patrick Wilson and a 14 year old girl played by Ellen Page. Almost the entire film focuses exclusively on these two characters and both actors do an exceptional job of delivering intense and captivating performances. Hard Candy was shot on digital video and it looks amazing with some of the best color I've seen in a DV film. There is a significant twist (that I will not spoil it) and the second half of the film becomes extremely intense, violent and extreme. Hard Candy isn't for the faint of heart, but is highly recommended for fans of intense, well-acted films.
Brick - One of the most 'buzzed' about films among the 'hip' crowd at Sundance, Brick is a film unlike any you've ever seen. An odd fusion of a modern high school film and a Phillip Marlowe book (the film's dialog is pure Marlowe), Brick is a strangely wonderful and captivating film that's sure to become a 'cult classic'. Of particular note is Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who you might know from Third Rock From The Sun), who is excellent in the lead role, and a number of fight scenes that are just phenomenal. If you're into strange and quirky films then you won't want to miss Brick.
Rory O'She Was Here - A life-affirming film that reminds us to make sure we enjoy the simple pleasures in life and not let it pass us by. Rory O'She Was Here (better named in the UK as "Inside I'm Dancing") follows the story of two disabled teens bound to wheel chairs and their struggle for independence in a world that seems to want to confine them. James McAvoy and Steven Robertson are excellent as the two leads in the film. Robertson is simply fantastic in his portrayal of a teen suffering from Cerebral Palsy; he is so good it's hard to believe he doesn't really suffer from the disease. Rory O'She Was Here is an charming and uplifting Irish film in the style of Waking Ned Devine and is definitely recommended.
Abel Raises Cain (from Slamdance) - A documentary which looks at the life and exploits of Alan Abel, one of the most famous media hoaxers. Directed by Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett, Abel Raises Cain both tells the life story of Alan Abel and takes a harsh look at the media and their complete gullibility. Abel Raises Cain was among my favorite documentaries in Park City and it also took home the prize for Best Documentary at the Slamdance Film Fest. Hopefully Abel Raises Cain will get a distributor or a DVD release because it's definitely worth checking out.
Enron: The Smartest Man in The Room - A two hour documentary which takes an incredibly detailed look at Enron and one of the biggest bankruptcies in history. The film starts off poorly but quickly catches itself and ventures off towards greatness. By the end it's hard to believe that it's really as long as it is; it that engaging. Enron is one of the more methodical documentaries I've seen in a while and a definite recommend to people who are interested in the topic.
Forty Shades of Blue - Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic films at Sundance, Forty Shades of Blue isn't a bad film, it's just not one I'd ever consider being even close to 'the best' of Sundance. Director Ira Sachs does have a unique and lyrical style of telling the tale of a Russian woman in a loveless relationship with a much older music producer (played quite well by Rip Torn). Forty Shades of Blue is a family drama, with a family that is horribly screwed up, where no one's happy and no one wins. Again it's not awful, it's just not something I'd recommend that people run out and see.
3 Extremes - A collection of three short films with disturbing themes from three of the more notable Asian directors. The first of the three films, 'Dumplings' by Chan Fruit, is the best (and certainly the most extreme). Dumplings is absolutely not for the faint of heart and is absolutely, positively repulsive. The second segment, 'Cut' by Park Chanwook, is the poorest of the three films and was far from the level he achieves in Oldboy. The final film, 'Box' by Miike Takashi, is very well done; it's a lot less graphic and violent than his other work but certainly no less intense. Takashi does some fantastic things with sound in 'Box' which is worth checking out. While there's a lot to like in 3 Extremes, it didn't really live up to my expectations; the other films by these three directors might be a better way to spend your movie watching time than this collection of short films.
New York Doll - A documentary which follows the life of Arthur "Killer" Kane, bass player for the famed New York Dolls band. New York Doll shows what life is like for someone who's had it all and lost it, and their search for meaning in a life after incredible success has come and gone. Arthur Kane is an interesting person, so you want to find out what happens to him, especially when there's talk of a New York Dolls reunion. One of the most fascinating aspects of New York Doll is seeing just how many bands drew their inspiration from the Dolls and how much of an impact they had on music in such a relatively short amount of time. New York Doll isn't for everyone; fans of The Dolls will enjoy it much more than others. One of the weakening aspects of the documentary is that it spends a great deal of time on Kane's conversion to Mormonism, so much so it might be a turn-off for some viewers. All in all I'd recommend checking this one out when it comes to DVD.
Mysterious Skin - Well acted and well directed but horribly unfun to watch. Director Gregg Araki has a fantastic vision for Mysterious Skin and it's constructed beautifully, but the film focuses so much on the sex life of lead character (and hustler) Neil McCormick that it is difficult to enjoy. A stand out performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is also in Brick) and notable appearance from Michelle Trachtenberg (from Buffy The Vampire fame) help make the film much more watchable. Mysterious Skin is a very challenging film with one of the most brutal rape scenes I've seen on screen, and ultimately isn't one I'd recommend unless you're a big fan of Gregg Araki, in which case you'll probably love Mysterious Skin.
Mall Cop (from the Slamdance Film Fest) - A quirky and dark comedy that follows the exploits of a one-armed Mall Cop and his strange obsession with his missing arm. The tone of Mall Cop reminds me a lot of some of the films of Alex Cox (director of Repo Man); it's a strange and almost deadpan tone where actors seem to under-react to the situations around them, even when they're extreme. While there were a number of good laughs in the film and it did have strong production values (for a very low budget feature), the film just didn't work for me. I'll be interested to see what director David Greenspan does next; he's clearly talented with a nice style, but he needs to find a better script.
Kung-fu Hustle - Probably the biggest disappointment of the Asian films. It could have been a fantastic film, but is more Loony Tunes than Hong Kong Action film and there's much more CGI work than wire work. The story is very thin and aimless and the action is inconsistent. Not nearly as good as Shaolin Soccer. Only recommended if you're looking for a big dumb action film, which is to say it'll probably do well at the box office even though it isn't a great film.
Pretty Persuasion - One of the films I strongly disliked at Sundance, effectively a bad copy of Heathers with a lot more sex. The film focuses on the cruelty between people in high school. It stars Evan Rachel Wood, who seems to be doing a slight Wynona Ryder impersonation, and James Woods who does his coked out, over the top character that we've seen from him before. The worst thing about Pretty Persuasion is that it fails miserably trying to satirize issues like race, religion and sex. Instead of being funny it's often insulting, misogynistic, antisemitic, and just plain mean. Pretty Persuasion is a pretty poor film and I'd recommend you skip it when it comes to theaters or even on DVD.
High School Record - The only film at Sundance that I actually got up and walked out on (something I RARELY, if ever, do). It's a mockumentary gone horribly wrong, completely humorless and poor in almost every quality. High School Record is a film that shouldn't get theatrical distribution, but if someone is insane enough to pick it up, it's a film you should avoid at all cost.
In all, a truly fantastic year at Sundance and a ton of films headed for theaters that you'll want to add to your list of films to see!
- Geoffrey Kleinman