My Sundance 2009

Another lightly dusted contemporary report written for my droogies at FWFR, which I’m also bringing over here for the record. From a four-year vantage point, I’m doing a little better than last year on the prognostication: I got Carey Mulligan right and pegged Zooey Deschanel’s cuteness, currently beamed to all over network tv. This is the last Sundance capsule I wrote before starting this here blog, wherefrom they now originate.

2009 sundanceSome personal weather extremes were set. Warmest ever: it neared 40°F on Friday and actually rained, first time we ever saw that in Park City in January. Snowiest ever, too — on Saturday and Sunday, the heaviest snowfall we’d ever seen there: inch upon inch, which pleased the local ski industry. And, yeah, happiest ever: the ones we happened to draw were wonderful, and for the most part unusually uplifting. For the first time in six Sundance festivals, we didn’t see a single bad one. (Yes, lousy pictures do indeed make their way into Sundance — we have the optical scars to prove it.) So you’ll see a lot of four-star judgments in what follows.

Here is my early take on the fourteen we did catch, in the order in which we saw them.

AMREEKA**** A warm, delightful debut from Arab-American director Cherien Dabis. A Palestinian single mom struggling to raise her family in the West Bank unexpectedly receives a U.S. green card and relocates the family to Illinois — reluctantly, but mindful of the increased opportunities available to her teenage son. What ensues is by turns comic, infuriating, and heartbreaking. Nisreen Faour is splendid as the mother, but the real star is the writer-director, who has a long and fruitful career ahead.

THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE**** (U.S. Documentary Cinematography Award) I had no interest in fashion, Vogue or Anna Wintour before I saw this film, but that’s what good documentaries are for: to take you into new environments. We watch Wintour and her staff as they prepare the phone-book-sized September 2007 issue, the largest and most important on the annual Vogue calendar. The famously imperious editor in chief interacts with her staff and the mostly laughable denizens of haute couture, but underneath it all is a real tension between Wintour and her brilliant creative director, Grace Coddington, who oversees breathtaking photo spreads that the boss can decimate with the flick of a finger. Wintour even reveals some vulnerability, which will surprise anyone who takes her to be the inspiration for Meryl Streep’s character in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. Like me.

DARE**** A high-school romantic triangle with all kinds of combinations. Most interesting of all is that it takes three clichéd graduating-senior tropes — the good girl (Emmy Rossum); her puppy-dog, slightly nerdy friend (Ashley Springer); and the school’s Adonis (Zach Gilford) — and concentrates on each one in turn, time-shifting its ass off (this is gradually becoming a indieland cliché itself, as we discovered) and upending your preconceived notions of how they were formed and how they’re supposed to act. There is some serious subtexting going on here, and unlike most high-school movies, you’ll have no idea where it’s headed. Alan Cumming has a nice cameo as a returning school alumnus who made good on the stage and now instructs our starstruck acting-student ingénue in a way that can only be described as Muddled Method.

PETER AND VANDY*** Again with the time-shifting romance. But now with just two players. There are many lovely moments of tiny observed detail, but it was harder to fall in love with this movie because I didn’t fall in love with the couple. This is mean, but I whispered to Linda as the end credits rolled, “Glad to see Ethan and Uma working together again.” That’s how the two actors looked. It’s about how we can irritate each other if we get too close, but everybody knows that already. The jumping around in time kept us at an emotional distance which would have been fine if we’d had any empathy invested in the characters. Still: smart, real, occasionally funny, and these things are starting to look a lot more like real life than like simple frothy fables.

MOON**** (World Premiere) “Indie” science fiction. Sam Rockwell tends a mostly automated lunar station for the big company that provides Better Life Through Energy back on Earth. His three-year hitch is almost up, and the replacement and ferry home is on the way. A major plot surprise ends Act One, changing everything for the rest of the picture and making one particular role a tour de force. (At the Q&A, director Duncan Jones said he wouldn’t mind if people knew about it beforehand, and it may well be revealed in the forthcoming trailer, but you won’t get it out of me!) Some people are going to find this movie slow; it’s a chamber piece a la SOLARIS or SUNSHINE, very human-oriented. (If you hated either of those, you should probably avoid this one.) Visual effects are perfectly workable, though they might feel cheesy to anyone expecting a $100MM popcorn film. It’s not that at all. But it does tackle provocative Clarkeian/Dickian subject matter, and I liked it very much. Trudie Styler is one of the producers; she and her husband, one Mr. Sumner, were there at the preem.

EARTH DAYS**** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Film) A surehanded, inspiring documentary by Robert Stone on the history of the environmental movement. Using archival footage and new interviews with notables from Stewart Brand to Rusty Schweickart to Pete McCloskey, this piece cogently explains why, when and how, beginning long before the first Earth Day in 1970. The notion of ecology as a vital issue worthy of activism has its roots in Sixties counterculture, but as EARTH DAYS shows, it has since expanded far beyond that, and in most circles (George W. Bush cronies aside) has become given wisdom. Informative, provocative, and quite beautiful.

AN EDUCATION***** (World Dramatic Audience Award, World Cinematography Award) A luscious story (screenplay by Nick Hornby) set in London just before the Beatles-led youthquake. A brilliant 16-year-old schoolgirl who longs to study at Oxford (played to perfection by 22-year-old Carey Mulligan, who is going to receive huge attention for this movie) is swept off her feet by a rakish older man (Peter Sarsgaard) who even manages to captivate her stuffy, Oxford-obsessed father (an hilarious Alfred Molina). His type of education, though, is taught in restaurants, racetracks, and tony auction houses; and, best of all for the dazzled maiden, on the Continent. Will all this help or hinder her? Watch and see. Mulligan’s physical transformation from gangly coed to stunning sophisticate is an absolute wonder, and there isn’t so much as a note missed by director Lone Scherfig.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER***** The smartest, funniest, best-made thing I saw at the festival; I predict major commercial success when it’s released in the States on July 24. Yet another boy/girl time-shifter, but this one gets it right. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a bored copywriter for a greeting card company, meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel) when she lands a job as his boss’s assistant. Their time together is real and fantastic, somber and farcical, knowing and clueless, exactly like real life, of which this flick will remind you frequently. The impressively savvy script feels wholly original, like the next step in romantic screen stories; it’s so confident that it’s able to make fun of movie clichés without seeming unwelcome. The two stars are beyond delightful: one demonstrates marvelous verbal and physical clowning that seems to come out of nowhere, the other finds dozens of little ways to let the camera show the girl of anybody’s dreams. You love them both, as characters and as performers. I’ll leave the film’s many surprises for you to discover, but just remember this: when the soundtrack strikes up a familiar Hall & Oates tune from the Seventies, you’re about to see the funniest four minutes of film in a very long time.

OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY*** Rupert Isaacson is a British journalist and human-rights activist. His wife Kristin is a psychology professor from California. They seemed to have everything, especially when they produced a beautiful child, Rowan, in 2001. But three years later, their worst fears were realized when Rowan was diagnosed with autism. Having tried everything else to help him, they seized upon Rowan’s strange, deep affinity for horses, and set off on a horseback journey through Mongolia to meet with the world’s most powerful shamans. As we follow along, we get a very personal look at life with autism: inconsolable hours-long tantrums, all-too-brief moments of clarity and normalcy, and finally the hoodoo that the family can’t quite accept, only observe. Harrowing and thought-provoking at once.

MARY AND MAX***** (Festival Opening Film) The program calls the technique “claymation,” but the stop-motion images look shiny and pristine as they roll out the fable of a morose young Australian girl and her unlikely pen-pal, a lonely Asperger’s sufferer from New York City. The characters are as fancifully designed as anything from Aardman, but the sheer humanity of the imaginative story allows you to make that all-important jump: at some point — I don’t know exactly where it will arrive for you — they cease being animated characters and become just characters. The production is painstaking: there isn’t an instant of CGI, not even when raindrops are required. New York is presented as a dingy gray mass, enlightened only by the bits of color sent from Down Under. How does Pixar keep it up? Not with technology. Aussie director Adam Elliott and crew also know the answer: with story, story, story.

THE MAID (LA NANA)**** (World Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, Special Jury Prize For Acting—Catalina Saavedra) A longtime live-in maid for a Chilean family is getting stressed and unable to maintain the kind of service she’s given in the past, but is pathologically autocratic and unwilling to cede one inch of her turf to the helpers the family tries to provide for her. As the film begins, with a birthday party for the maid, we’re conditioned by years of movies to expect abuse from the family and sympathy for the downtrodden domestic — but in this film, it’s just the opposite. The family is warm and loving: it’s the maid who’s the basket case. Saavedra is well-known as a comedienne in her native Chile, but here plays straight, even a bit manic; the unsympathetic role will be exciting and refreshing for her many fans.

WE LIVE IN PUBLIC**** (U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize) Josh Harris is, as the marketing for this film asserts, the Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of. Way back when, at his startup Jupiter Communications, he helped introduce chat-rooms, some of them naughty, to Prodigy. He was worth $100 million at one point, but spent untold sums on a piece of performance art, “Quiet,” in which 100 artists lived in pods under 24-hour surveillance (it lasted 30 days until it was busted by FEMA as a millennial cult); and on an experiment in which he paid his girlfriend to live with him under the unremitting scrutiny of 32 motion-controlled cameras that even followed them into the bathroom. A visionary? Harris pegged Internet interaction years ago, pointing directly to our slow divestiture of privacy to outfits like Flickr and Facebook. Nuts? That too. This guy’s curse is that he consistently gets it right, but at least five years too soon. The pacing and editing are as frenetic as the subject, and nearly all of this — including both performance art projects, which are extensively depicted — was news to me.

THE COVE***** (U.S. Documentary Audience Award) Ric O’Barry trained Flipper — at least, the five dolphins who played him on the popular TV series. But as he got to better know these friendly, intelligent creatures, he became struck with remorse: taking them out of their natural habitat, even for Sea-World-like purposes, was clearly and demonstrably inhumane. Furthermore, fishermen in the Japanese town of Taiji, the world’s largest supplier of show dolphins, select for training only the finest specimens, worth as much as six figures each. The rest are herded by sound into a secret cove where hundreds per day are brutally slaughtered for meat — which nobody wants, since it turns out to be black with mercury! Following O’Barry (a pariah in Taiji who can only go there in disguise) and his singular passion, Louie Psihoyos and his crew intend to break Taiji’s strict prohibition against photography and trespassing and reveal its shame to the world with technology (some of it coming from similarly outraged ILM visual effects veterans) and sheer courage. This documentary is partly a polemic, partly a caper film, and partly an appeal to our most basic ideas of right and wrong. The climactic scene is as cathartic as anything I’ve ever seen.

PUSH: BASED ON THE NOVEL BY SAPPHIRE*** (U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, Special Jury Prize for Acting—Mo’Nique) By far the closest to a “typical Sundance film” of all we saw, and the achiever of an unprecedented (at least in our experience) feat: it won both the jury’s and the audience’s vote as best U.S. dramatic film. Precious, an obese New York high-schooler who has basically vanished inside the educational system, struggles with an horrific home life while she tries to learn to read to better herself. She is carrying her second child — both of them by her father. Her mother is a foul-mouthed harridan who abases her every day. (Mo’Nique, who plays this part, won a well-deserved special jury prize for acting.) It’s a raw, searing study by Lee Daniels which feels perfectly authentic; my caveat is that I really wasn’t in the mood to have my face rubbed in grit, and I can’t be sure when I will be again, and I don’t think many others can either. One very fine performer in this superbly acted film looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place her. The credits rolled by: Mariah Carey! (2013 edit: This film was released in the U.S. under the title PRECIOUS.)

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