The Sundance festival is very much an industry festival compared to most others that I’ve attended. Films are selected with the expectation that there will be some interest from film distributer and it seems like most of the attendees are somehow in ‘the business’. There seemed to be fewer celebrities about at the 2009 festival as compared to 2008 however. Possibly that was due to the Presidential inauguration which was right in the middle of the first half. There was still plenty of craziness on the opening weekend including a truck with a bullhorn dedicated to getting us to buy Love Sac beanbag chairs. These obnoxious dolts drove around Park City announcing their intention to party all through the night for the first few nights. I resorted to ear plugs.
Sundance is broken into two halves – A and B. Most attendees go for only one of those. The films are the same in the two halves and even attending both A and B you couldn’t see everything but it’s expensive in Park City during the festival and there’s only so much entertainment you can take. If you can endure the jacked up hotel prices it’s a great time to go skiing (perhaps that was the idea of having it in January). Other skiers stay away because of the high lodging rates and most of the festival attendees are there for movies. So we alternated movie days with ski days and it worked famously even if the snow wasn’t great – even got rained on one day while skiing. This is especially tragic when you consider that as a Colorado native I enjoyed my share of skiing but always heard how the best powder in the world was in Utah. Then, I move to Oregon and ski only occasionally because getting rained on, or general white-out conditions are all too common. Then I go to Utah and… I’m still not over it.
Getting tickets for Sundance is rather complex. I probably don’t have this exactly right but its something like this: For each of the following items (Festival Credentials, A Ticket Package, B Ticket Package) you sign up online for a lottery that will tell you whether you can get one. If you win that lottery you are assigned a time when you can purchase online. For the ticket packages you get about a half hour to buy 20 tickets per package though a clunky web site. Tickets are $20 each. You have to have a pretty solid plan to get through it in the time allotted. If your assigned time slot happens to be late in the overall sale (ie, other people have gone before you), you will find that some of the movies you want to attend are sold out and so you’ll have to adapt your plan.
Once all that is done however you have your tickets in hand and can rest assured that you’ll be getting into the movies you’ve selected. Well, almost. As with all festivals there are ‘Patrons’. These are people who made a sizable donation so they get to go to the front of the line (actually a different line entirely). At this year’s festival there were a couple of occasions where a large number of patrons showed up when most of the seats had already been filled. The official rules would say that the Patrons have to suffer the consequences of their tardiness but in these cases the festival volunteers offered to buy out some of the people who were already seated with free tickets to other movies.
None of this should scare you off though. The ‘Patron Buy Out’ activity was only something I heard about, it didn’t happen at any of the movies I attended. And, it seems like most of the movies have tickets available at the theater or someone selling extras outside the theater. Walkup tickets are only $15.
Here are the movies we saw at 2009 Sundance. We also attended most of the shorts programs: live action, animated and documentary. Shorts are one of the real reasons to go to film festivals, for the most part they seem better than those nominated for Oscars.
Lulu and Jimi (Germany)
Seemingly a Romeo and Juliet story, the setting for this movie conveys as much about the director’s intention as does the romance. Set in post war Germany, Jimi’s father, an African American soldier is damaged from the war while Lulu’s mother dominates and destroys any possibility for joy in Lulu’s home. You can watch this movie for the Romeo and Juliet aspects and it’s enjoyable in that context. But the movie is trying to tell us something about the wounds to the German culture and psyche and how to heal them.
Director Oscar Roehler’s style is like that of Canadian film maker Guy Madden. Artful sets, lighting and camera work are paramount. And that too is enough reason to see this, especially if you appreciate Guy Madden. The part of Lulu is played by French actress Jenifer Decker but her voice is dubbed over by another actress for lines in English and German. While most of the film is in English there are subtitles for the parts that are in German. Meanwhile, in Germany where they detest subtitles, both Lulu and Jimi have their lines dubbed in German. Confusing indeed but as I said this is a film with gorgeous visuals and perhaps that is what was important to the director. It was great to see this one at a festival as leading man Ray Fearon stayed afterwards for an extended Q&A.
Victoria Day (Canada)
Victoria Day is a Canadian holiday in honor of Queen Victoria. In common usage it’s the three day weekend that marks the start of summer. This movie is centered on the lives of some Toronto high schoolers on Victoria Day 1988. But, it’s about as far as you can get from a typical teen movie. Director David Bezmozgis was present at the screening and he stated that his goal was to show a genuine teenage experience and as a former teenager I’d say he has succeeded. He also stated that the movie was eight years in the making. A labor of love for sure and it shows with adept camera work and editing and a collection of excellent performances from a large set of actors.
This movie is so unlike whatever may come to mind when you hear the phrase ‘teen movie’ that I hesitate to talk about any of the plot points because they might trigger the wrong idea. This movie is more akin to Miranda July’s ‘You and Me and Everyone You Know’ than it is to even ‘Dazed and Confused’ (a movie I love and have watched repeatedly). If you get the chance to see this movie and I hope you do, the standard blurbs will tell you that part of the story is that a teenager goes missing. That event sets the tone for all the other characters. What really sets this movie apart in my mind is the utterly realistic portrayal of these kids’ middle class parents, you just don’t see that in movies, be they ‘teen movies’ or not.
Sin Nombre (USA/Mexico)
Another of the amazing feature films from first time directors at this year’s Sundance. Filmed primarily around Mexico City, Sin Nombre tells the tale of a small family attempting to make the journey from Honduras, through Mexico and into the United States. The term ‘Sin Nombre’ refers to ‘the nameless’ or ‘the unknown’ and is found graffitied on makeshift grave markers near borders as a tribute to those who have lost their life trying to reach for something better. That struggle is clearly in evidence here, as if sneaking on board a freight train with hundreds of other émigrés and running around checkpoints to dodge authorities wasn’t hard enough, the families journey becomes intertwined with a boy trying to escape a Mexican drug gang. The brutality of the gang life is intensely portrayed and is difficult to watch.
This film won an award for cinematography (as well as Directing) at this year’s Sundance. The Directing and Cinematography reminded me of John Sales (especially Lone Star). There are some amazing scenes shot on the top of moving train cars in Sin Nombre but most amazing is the slew of great performances from unknown and first time actors. I think it may have been these performances more than anything else that made the Sundance jury give the Director’s award here. This movie is well worth seeing.
Let’s Make Money (Austria)
A timely documentary about the global money pool and the effect it has on people. The subject matter alone is all that is needed to recommend this movie in times like these. From a film making standpoint it’s definitely a cut above the standard talking heads documentary. The interviews with both rich and poor are well shot and fascinating. And we get to travel from some of the most impoverished places in Africa and China to some of the richest such as the Jersey, once a home to cows, now an offshore tax haven used by financial centers such as London.
Here we see the prototypical financial manager living in chauffeured luxury and conducting business from a treadmill, on the phone and computer and watching TV at the same time. We may well wonder about this man’s fate since the time this movie was made. It’s not quite as simple as ‘evil money managers’ however as an interview with Economic Hitman John Perkins reveals. This is required viewing for all who haven’t read his book (Confessions of an Economic Hitman).
A timely comedy about the global money pool, the effect it has on people and what we can do about it (hint, it involves a hit man but not the famous Economic Hit Man as in Let’s Make Money). The subject matter alone is all that is needed to recommend this movie in times like these. This film is firmly in the screwball comedy camp and it serves to vent our frustrations well even if it sometimes dwells in the screwballishness and not the task at hand. We travel from rural France where laid off factory workers have decided to seek revenge to Jersey, once a home to cows, now an offshore tax haven used by financial centers such London.
Here we see the prototypical financial manager living in chauffeured luxury and conducting business from a treadmill, on the phone and computer and watching TV at the same time. The fate of this man is sealed but it’s not as simple as that because the global money pool seems to have no end as our factory workers find out.
(Yes the above two movies would make an awesome double feature which is how I happened to experience them at the festival. The themes were so similar I was able to cut-n-paste the reviews. The treadmill scenes, one real, one staged, were for all practical purposes, identical)
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (United States)
Directed by John Krasinski, yes that John Krasinski (aka ‘Jim’ on The Office), based on the book by the late David Foster Wallace. This movie was attracting more than a few female fans interesting in seeing Mr. Krasinski in person, apparently he’s become a bit of a heartthrob. To the extent that those throbs are based on the kindheartedness of his character on ‘The Office’, there may be some disappointment. Krasinski played a role in the movie as well as directing and it’s not all sweetness and light. Smarter hearts will throb all the more however as the performance and the movie reveal profound depth of thought and humanity. The central question is similar to last year’s Mike Leigh film ‘Happy Go Lucky’: How do we treat those among us who are too wounded to function well?
There was a lot of head scratching at the festival among those that had read the book because it didn’t seem to lend itself to movie making at all – how would they make a movie from this? The book’s contents match the title precisely – a series of fictional interviews with men, the book makes no mention even of who might be conducting these interviews. Krasinski came up with the idea of having the interviews conducted by a female graduate student who is writing a dissertation about men. He was able to discuss the script briefly with David Foster Wallace before Wallace’s tragic suicide and was thrilled when Wallace suggested the same female graduate student idea, the same idea that Krasinski had already employed in writing the script. That role is the single female part in the movie and it’s played brilliantly by Julianne Nicholson. Feminism brought us Women’s Studies. What comes next? Post feminism of course and that has us looking at men and how they’ve been affected by feminism. Men’s Studies.
The Clone Returns Home (Japan)
A quiet meditation on the soul, The Clone Returns Home is from the contemplative school of science fiction, a minimum of special effects and lots of scenes with little to no dialogue. Astronaut Kohei dies during a mission in space, back on earth they were prepared for this, they saved his DNA and they make a clone. The clone has the memories of the original Kohei but lacks the aspects of personality that let him deal with life, especially some traumatic memories from childhood. Where is the soul then? In our DNA? In our memories? Is it the part of us that responds to difficult circumstances? This film has luscious photography and music to give you time to think about these questions. The acting is stiff at times early on but that is soon forgotten when the movie takes us to the places that it wants to go.
Dare (United States)
This was the second ‘teen movie’ I saw at this year’s Sundance and while it more conventional than Victoria Day, it is far from conventional. The ‘dare’ is laid down when the princess of the high school drama department is challenged to live life more fully by a visiting graduate from the same program. From there on in Dare has little fear as three characters explore and discover their passions for each other and what they want to pursue in their young lives. Not every note is perfect in this film, the parents for instance are more on the cartoon side as compared to the fully developed characters in Victoria Day but I still liked it.
On the surface the drama in this movie revolves around the high school drama department but underneath that it is exploring the difficult path of self discovery and acceptance. I don’t know if this movie will make it to theaters, I think it should but the sexuality part might be enough to scare off the studios. It will certainly be on DVD though and it would make for a nice summer’s evening in front of the tube.
Cold Souls (United States)
When ‘Sideways’ came out I was not as enthusiastic about Paul Giamatti’s performance as everyone else. Yes, he did fine I thought but he was basically playing himself wasn’t he? I’ve never met him of course so I had no basis to know one way or another. In ‘Cold Souls’ Paul Giamatti does play himself and it’s even better than ‘Sideways’. There’s a scene at the end where Giamatti, filmed from about 50 yards away simply pours emotion through the screen. How does he do that?
This movie will be in theaters and there will be plentiful comparisons to ‘Being John Malkovich’, in ‘Cold Souls’ a machine has been invented that will remove your soul so that it can be stored safely and returned to you later, when it won’t be such an inconvenience. Paul Giamatti is finding his inner self to be a hindrance while performing in a play that is all about the inner life, Uncle Vanya. Not surprisingly, removing his soul does not have the desired effect. Warmth and tenderness are what we all need on the inside and this movie oozes with both. ‘Being John Malkovich’ is a great film but I don’t feel the need for repeated viewings, I do plan to own the DVD of ‘Cold Souls’ when it’s available.
One Day in a Life (Italy)
Telling a story that happens over the course of one day this sweet little film was actually shot in just a week . How can that happen? Natural lighting, on the beach. Salvadore is visiting the beach on his own and he connects with a small group also out to spend some time in the sun. Salvadore is intriguing for both men and women but the connection he ultimately makes is based simply on humanity. If the weather where you are is forcing you to stay inside a sun drenched movie such as this will turn your home theater system into light-therapy.
Humpday (United States)
Created in the style of a Mike Leigh movie but one step further. Mike Leigh collaborates with the actors in the creation of the script but in the end writes the script. For Humpday director Lynn Shelton told the actors in a general way what would happen in each scene but they came up with the dialog during shooting. The result is striking realism in the performances. In a Q&A after one screening a member of the audience had trouble understanding – “is this a documentary?” It’s a scripted movie but the actors created and owned the script and no one bothered to write it down. The striking realism is put to good use as two male college friends mutually dare their way into agreeing to perform together for an amateur porn contest. That is, have sex with each other even though they are not gay. This is indie film at its best and the Sundance jury recognized that by awarding a ‘Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence.’ I don’t know if this movie will make it to theaters, I hope it does.
The Reckoning (United States)
As a film this is a straightforward talking-head documentary. Nonetheless it got a standing ovation at the screening that I attended because the idea is so powerful. Bring the bad guys to justice. On a grand scale, through The International Criminal Court.
The history of this court is interesting as it is a novel idea – this level of cooperation and shared ideals between nations. We are all so familiar with the idea of ‘The Hague’ or ‘The World Court’ we tend to think that the ICC has been around forever but the trials we remember from even recent history were under a temporary court such as The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Currently the court is pursuing generals in The Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda and this is the focus of much of the movie. It’s shot on video and as I said, is mostly talking so it doesn’t add much to the documentary genre but it’s good to know that this is going on.
Peter and Vandy (United States)
Based on the play of the same name, Peter and Vandy is a relationship movie. A relationship movie is cousin to the romantic comedy and shares some of the same elements and predictability. Like a particular version of a jazz standard, the interest lies in the variation, what did this particular story emphasize? In this case the emphasis is on the breakup. But, a little more on the personalities involved than that other movie on the subject (The Breakup). As in that other movie there is a scene where the cruelty reaches a crescendo and I have to say that in the case of Peter and Vandy it didn’t work. Many in the audience were scratching their heads – “What was that about? How could he be such a..”. I think the answer lies in the ‘based on a play’ part of the film. When something is on stage there is not as much suspension of disbelief so an over the top scene can come across a little lighter, feeling more like the playwright or director is winking at the audience a little, acknowledging that we all know we’re watching a play here and the (whatever) being depicted here is something we’re all familiar with so let’s amp it up a little and have a laugh. Doesn’t work that way in a movie. Nonetheless, there is a deeper theme to the movie that outweighs such shortcomings. By jumping back and forth in time Peter and Vandy encourages us to think about the entirety, good and bad of this relationship and or own relationships.
Moon (United States)
A science fiction story conceived and directed by David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones. Financed by Sting through the film company run by his wife, Trudi Styler. Thus, this film represented our only celebrity sighting of Sundance 2009 (outside of those who got on stage to talk about their movies). Bowie and Sting were in the audience, we saw the backs of their head’s pretty well. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, sole attendant of a mining operation on the moon, nearing the end of his three year contract. His only company is the station computer, voiced by Kevin Spacey.
Bell starts to unravel mentally, hallucinating and crashing his rover vehicle when he thinks he sees someone out on the surface. Clearly the director loves the science fiction genre and makes interesting choices to honor that such as using miniature models rather than digital effects. There are, however only so many science fiction plots and this one will become recognizable as the movie goes on. Still, like romantic comedies there are variations on the theme and for fans of the genre this is enough.
We Live in Public (United States)
Another documentary from Ondi Timoner, director of ‘Dig’ a film about two rock bands, this one about internet pioneer Josh Harris. You might not recall that particular internet pioneer but he made his fortune by being the first to track internet data and sell it to advertisers. Lucrative as you might imagine, he made enough to become an Andy Warhol for the 90’s, creating his own version of the Factory but this time everything is filmed, all the time. With that kind of material to start with I would think that it would be next to impossible to make a bad film, in the hands of Timoner it’s a great film.
With ‘Dig’ it was natural that the music be great. For ‘We Live in Public’ it was even better although Timoner said that at the time of the Sundance screening she had obtained only ‘festival rights’ for the music and so if the film finds a distributer the music might change some. And, it might be ‘edited for content’ since having cameras on people 24-7 as Harris did means some of the footage is not ‘family friendly’. Interesting then that families, those we come from and those we make, are an underlying theme in both Dig and We Live in Public. Especially when those we come from are not all they should be.
Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire (United States)
There is a thriller called ‘Push’ already in theaters. That is not this. In fact this is one that I thought would not make it to theaters, not because of its quality but because of its hard-to-watch subject: A girl is severely abused and tries to make her way in the world. In spite of the hard to watch subject I presume that this movie will eventually be in theaters since it won both the Audience and Jury Prize at the festival.
There are great performances all around in this film including the actress playing the lead, Gabourey Sidibe and a small role as a welfare counselor played by Mariah Carey. But Mo’Nique , in the role of the mother, is astounding. She won a Special Jury Prize for Acting from the festival and she deserves to win many more. This Push will be in theaters, it was announced at the festival that it had been purchased. Oprah Winfrey had a hand in it so there will be plenty of publicity. This film deserves it.
The Maid (Chile)
Even though this was the winner of the Jury Prize for World Cinema at this year’s Sundance it wasn’t one that we were trying to see. But, it was the last day and it was still crowded, we didn’t have advance tickets for this time slot and we couldn’t make it across town in time to see the movie we had rated higher (whatever that was). Well you can’t go too wrong with Sundance prize winners.
This movie was based on the real life childhood experiences of the director. Chile has a growing middle class and they are keen to hire live in maids from poorer parts of Chile as well as other Latin American countries. Even a middle class lifestyle is overwhelming to those who have come from poverty and in this case the maid Raquel , determined to keep her position is unable to accept the idea that additional maids hired by the family are there to help and not replace her. There are some light moments and some serious ones and like the best indie films a humanitarian heart is at the core. Raquel is played by Catalina Saavedra, famous in Chili as a TV and film actress as well as a comedienne. She was awarded a Special Jury Prize for Acting. One of the new maids is played by Mercedes Villanueva, the actual maid who inspired the story.