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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Sundance Rundown

Despite vowing never to return to Park City without a film, I found myself at Sundance last week for the second time.

I was happily persuaded to go by a number of friends, in particular Garrett Sergeant, who edited the Oscar-shortlisted documentary Living for 32, which played as part of the festival's Documentary Showcase II, as well as my New York-based best friend, the lovely and talented actress Marjory Collado.

My selection this year was a mixed bag: 3 feature documentaries, 5 narrative features, and 18 shorts. As in 2010, the documentaries were on average much more compelling than the features. Overall, I saw fewer enjoyable films than I did in 2010, and specifically I found the shorts programs incredibly weak (I spoke to individuals on various lines who told me that in earlier years they had, in disappointment, decided never to purchase shorts tickets again. I don't know if I'd go that far, but I was certainly underwhelmed.)

Then again, last year's shorts program may have been a fluke, with a large number of festival heavy-hitters programmed, especially in animation. And even then there were some duds. As for this year, I don't want to spend a lot of time decrying specific films, as, honestly, the titles on my plate was so varied as to be incomparable. So I figured I'd mention a couple of the more interesting things I saw at Sundance 2011:

5) The Catechism Cataclysm dir. Todd Rohal

I talked to people who both loathed and loved this truly weird little film: a part South Park, part Deliverance tale of two old acquaintances--one a priest, one an aspiring rock star turned spotlight operator--on a canoe trip gone awry. Perhaps the strangest thing about The Catechism Cataclysm, however, is the honesty of its emotions in the midst of a bizarre story that features giggling Japanese tourists, sonic-induced hallucinations, and off-beat adolescent fables.

Though rough around the edges at times, the film kept the audience laughing non stop, no doubt due to its hysterical cast and deliciously awkward sense of humor. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a trailer available online, but when it pops up on Netflix in the near future, I recommend a late-night viewing.

4) The Mill and the Cross dir. Lech Majewski

When I learned that not only were Michael York and Rutger Hauer at Sundance, but they were in the same film, I immediately bought tickets. The Mill and the Cross is more of an art film than any I've seen in a while (even Jorodowsky's Santa Sangre). Its source material was an essay on Bruegel by Michael Francis Gibson; brought to life as a literal, moving interpretation of Peter Bruegel's vision and influences as an artist.

What's special about the film isn't its story--there really isn't one, and what's there isn't necessarily factual--but its ingenuous use of VFX in creating Bruegel's world: juxtaposing actors against recreations of Bruegel's work to create a strange, surreal aesthetic reflective of Breugel's highly recognizable paintings. "Cool CGI" and "art film" aren't necessarily two ideas that fit together very often, but here they do.

3) I Saw The Devil dir. Ji-woon Kim

If you like violence as much as I do, I Saw the Devil might be your new favorite film. Masterfully directed and acted, Kim and his amazing cast raise the beaten-to-death vigilante story of the wife-avenging hero to a new height of visceral gore and realism that had all the boys in the audience wincing in disgust and slavering for more. You know you're in for a wild ride the moment the main villain arrives just two minutes into the film: a surprisingly well-rounded serial killer played by Oldboy's Min-sik Choi.

The film's sound design was something to behold, raising tension unbearably in scenes of precisely choreographed violence. I had a discussion at Sundance with a producer friend in which we agreed that action films and musicals are essentially the same: when a scene runs out of steam, we're subjected to a song and dance number that minimally advances the plot. This film, however, was a happy exception to prove the rule, with fight scenes naturally and evenly interspersed throughout high drama. Absolutely my favorite narrative at the festival.

2) Senna dir. Asif Kapadia

Senna won the International Documentary jury prize for a reason. A lot has already been written about this remarkable racing documentary, so I'll be brief. One of the most amazing things about this film is its access to a seemingly unlimited archive of Senna footage--from his early childhood go-karting days, to briefing room arguments with Alain Prost, to the first-person camera feed that recorded his final race.

Indeed, there was so much footage (the director mentioned that some events were covered by more than 40 cameras, due to Senna's popularity with international press) that talking-head interviews were not only unnecessary, but would have ruined the riveting tension of this truly verité biopic. This film was so seamlessly assembled, that the inevitable fictional biopic of Senna is rendered entirely pointless: here you have the true account of a racing legend, starring the man himself, with more real-life coverage than even a James Cameron budget would allow.

As one of the few people at my screening who had any idea who Ayrton Senna was, it was remarkable to see the film's affect on an unknowing audience, and I hope that Universal, who produced the film, will give it a chance to play in the US.

1) Crime After Crime dir. Yoav Potash

Crime After Crime was, without a doubt, the best film I saw at Sundance. While I didn't catch the American documentary prize-winner, How to Die in Oregon, I'm certain Crime After Crime was a strong contender for second place, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it nominated for an Oscar this time next year. Crime After Crime is the story of two California lawyers who work tirelessly (and pro bono) over the course of seven years to free incarcerated Debbie Peagler, jailed for 27 years for her involvement in the murder of her abusive boyfriend and pimp in 1982.

If you know me you're probably scratching your head--from its description, this doesn't seem like my kind of film. It's actually the best kind of film: one that completely transcends tastes and prejudices with a heart-wrenching true story. Seriously, guys ... this one's amazing.

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