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It's beginning to look a lot like Sundance

By Jeremy Mathews

At the end of every year, the Sundance Film Festival announces the lineup for its 10 days of cinema and snow in January, and every year film buffs start guessing. Will it be a good year? Which films will be must-sees? What stars will I get to see in person? Has the festival totally sold out to Hollywood?

       
    Next issue, Jeremy will look at the world competition categories as well as the sidebar selections.

 

       

The most important answers, of course, are never known until the festival is at least half over, but there are some things that can be counted on. First, there will always be films that can be counted among the year’s most interesting efforts. Second, there will always be duds, whether they’re there to satisfy the peculiar tastes of one of the programmers or to get Justin Timberlake into the Eccles Theater in Park City High School. And third, if an actor wants to get paid less money to take a chance on an unknown filmmaker’s adventurous project, it doesn’t mean that the festival has sold out.

Oh, and there’s always a list of the stars who will be there—this year, it includes Bruce Willis, Robin Williams, Ashley Judd, Robert Downey Jr., Rosario Dawson, Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand, Catharine Keener, Paul Giamatti, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Tom Waits.

But the most fun post-lineup-announcement activity is watching journalists try to make sense out of the U.S. documentary and dramatic competition slates. Yes, it’s time to pretend we know about films that almost no one has seen, by people of whom nobody has heard.

Documentary
The Documentary competition category is usually the festival’s most solid lineup. Within the usual collection of character portraits and history lessons, this year features a number of politically charged works about equality and global relationships.

Several documentaries deal with prejudice and persecution, with a couple focusing on black America. Ian Inaba’s “American Blackout” looks at Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney’s career via the suppression of the black vote in both historical and recent elections. “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, discusses racial biases through the false conviction of a black man for the rape of a white woman.

Dealing with the border crisis, “Crossing Arizona” by Joseph Mathew observes the various sides of Arizona’s immigration crisis. And a different, but equally palpable prejudice is breached in Malcom Ingram’s “Small Town Gay Bar.”

Other films deal with how the United States relates to the rest of the world. In “God Grew Tired of Us,” director Christopher Quinn documents four boys from Sudan who come to the United States after surviving in Sub-Saharan Africa. Linda Goldstein’s “The World According to Sesame Street” offers a somewhat lighter look at the world’s political landscape, exploring how the famous television show has been adapted to different corners of the world.

Two more films look at the U.S. role in the conflict in Iraq. “The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends” by Patricia Foulkrod (producer of 2001’s “An American Rhapsody”) reveals the military’s process of training soldiers and how it affects their psyche when they come home. James Longley (2002’s “Gaza Strip”) offers “Iraq in Fragments,” which studies the country in three different chapters about life and ethnic tension during the war.

And the politics keep on stumping: In “An Unreasonable Man,” a higher profile political biography than “American Blackout,” Henriette Mantel and Stephen Skrovan use archival footage and 40 interviews to follow the political career of consumer advocate and election spoiler Ralph Nader.

And in a movie that may deal with social inequality as well as the difficulties of dealing with illness, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “A Lion in the House” examines five families with children fighting cancer. Reichert’s past work includes documentaries “Seeing Red” (1983) and 1976’s Oscar-nominated “Union Maids.” (In case you’re wondering, “A Lion in the House” has no relation to the more literally named 1919 silent comedy starring Dot Farley.)

Two other films are about illnesses. “So Much So Fast,” directed by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan (1995’s “Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern”) finds romance, obsession and sardonic humor in a film about a man diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Lauren Greenfield’s “Thin” documents the lives of women struggling with anorexia and bulimia.

In the last two years, music documentaries “Dig!” and “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” have stood out as some of the category’s best entries. This year, Raymond De Felitta, who won the audience award with his narrative “Two Family House” in 2000, will finally be in competition with “Tis Autumn—The Search for Jackie Paris.” The documentary investigates the jazz vocalist’s life while wondering how much personal information needs to be known about artists.

Michael Cain’s (not Michael Caine’s) “TV Junkie” will take on a less elegant aspect of pop culture. “Wordplay,” by Patrick Creadon, covers a more obscure topic—it’s a character study of New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz.

And in the category’s most personal piece, “Wide Awake,” director Alan Berliner offers a first-person account of his life as an insomniac. Morgan Spurlock won the directing award two years ago for putting his physical and mental health at risk in “Super-Size Me,” so Berliner may get lucky this year. And please note that the award-winning director is no copycat—he studied his relationship with his family in 1996’s “Nobody’s Business,” 1992’s “Intimate Stranger” and 1998’s “The Family Album,” and documented a dinner with 12 strangers who share his name in “The Sweetest Sound.”

Dramatic
The Dramatic Competition usually features the find of the festival—“Primer,” “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” “American Splendor,” “Pi,” etc. The only problem is that to find it, there are without fail some films whose presence at any festival, let alone one this prestigious, can’t be explained. Unfortunately, you can’t tell which is which until the end of the festival.

While everyone talks about which stars are going to be where, the festival itself loves the directors and considers all its competitors to be auteurs. You’ll notice the term writer/director popping up a whole lot in the following paragraphs. As always, this year is full of unknown artists (the big names play in the Premieres section). Some of them earned recognition with documentaries or shorts before making it here; others are earning their first recognition by being here.

The titles with stars in them are usually the fastest to sell out and the hardest to get into—at the beginning of the festival, anyway.

Dito Montiel’s “Recognizing Your Saints,” about teenagers in 1980s Astoria, New York, stars Robert Downey Jr., Rosario Dawson and Diane Wiest. High-pitched-and-scratchy-voiced actress Joey Lauren Adams (“Chasing Amy”) tries her hand at writing and directing in “Come Early Morning,” a story of addiction and love starring Ashley Judd and Tim Blake Nelson.

Michael Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Michelle Williams star in “The Hawk is Dying,” by Julian Goldberger (1998’s “Trans,” which has a 5.8 out of 10 on the IMDb) and based on the novel by Harry Crews about an auto upholsterer who trains a wild red-tailed hawk. Award-winning documentary director Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson,” about a drug-addicted junior-high teacher who bonds with one of his students, stars Ryan Gosling, who was largely responsible for the surprise top award “The Believer” received five years ago.

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as a released convict who returns to her home town in New Jersey and wants to know her daughter in “Sherrybaby” by Laurie Collyer, a Sundance alum known for 1999’s award-winning (at other fests) documentary “Nuyorican Dream.” Also dealing with maternity, Hilary Brougher’s (1997’s “The Stick Finders of Time,” with a 5.8 on the IMDb) “Stephanie Daley” stars Tilda Swinton and Timothy Hutton in a mystery about a pregnant forensic psychologist investigating a teenager accused of infanticide.

And Utah’s own Patrick Fugit (“Almost Famous”) stars with Tom Waits in Goran Dukic’s posthumous romantic comedy “Wristcutters—A Love Story.” The intriguing setup and good cast will almost surely earn this film some early buzz.

The section still features a healthy collection of films without big cast members. But be careful not to expect all the smaller films to be excellent, even though you’d assume that that’s how they made it to the elite category. Many of these films will probably never be heard of again.

Paul Fitzgerald’s “Forgiven” examines politics and the death penalty in the story of a U.S. Senate candidate who learns, as his campaign begins, that the man he prosecuted five years ago has been exonerated.

“Right at Your Door” deals with a hot topic in another way, creating a thriller about a dirty bomb detonated in Los Angeles, starring Mary McCormack and Rory Cochrane. With this film, Chris Gorack, who has proven himself as a talented art director (“The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Fight Club,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” supervising work on “Minority Report”) makes his debut as a writer and director.

“Flannel Pajamas” writer/director Jeff Lipsky (1997’s “Childhood’s End,” with a 4.4 on the IMDb) studies a magical night of romance and the challenging romance that follows.

In a mildly similar setup, some impulse sex leads to darkly comedic trouble in Bob Goldthwait’s “Stay,” not to be confused with the Marc Forster movie with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts that came out two months ago. It took some doing, but I’ve confirmed that Goldthwait is the actor known as Bobcat, who made the world laugh in the “Police Academy” movies.

In “Puccini for Beginners,” writer/director Maria Maggenti creates a “screwball comedy” about an unlucky-in-love lesbian writer in New York City who ends up in multiple love affairs. Maggenti made the insightful 1995 lesbian romance “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.”

“In Between Days,” by writer/director So Yung Kim, explores the experience of Korean immigrants through a confusing romance between friends. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s (2005’s “The Fluffer,” which has a 5.8 on the IMDb) “Quinceanera” also deals with racial minorities, examining Latino teenagers in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles.

A writer, director and star named Hadjii (yes, just Hadjii) looks at a black college student’s journey to adulthood in “Somebodies.” “Steel City,” written and directed by Brian Jun, twists the coming-of-age-young-man angle by pluralizing it in the story of two irresponsible brothers whose father goes to prison for killing a woman.

Premieres
While some of the premieres are by talented artists who are too established for the competition, the section also serves as a way to bring in titles that have little to offer other than big names. Remember Nicole Kidman’s performance in “Birthday Girl,” or Matthew McConaughey in “Tiptoes?” No? I envy you.

Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends with Money” will kick off the festival Thursday night, before the avalanche starts early Friday morning. This is the only screening that doesn’t conflict with seven other films that might be excellent. Respected indie veteran and TV director Holofcener has the odds stacked against her, as the opening night film has about a 75 percent chance of not being all that good and a 40 percent chance of just plain sucking. Still, the study of social relationships and personal lives has an army of talented actresses, including Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand and Catharine Keener, whom Holofcener directed in 2001’s “Lovely and Amazing.”

TV director Julian Jarrold’s comedy “Kinky Boots” will screen at the Salt Lake City opening night in Abravanel Hall on Friday. Since the festival switched the opening nights in Park City and Salt Lake City last year, few die-hard festival goers will make it down to see this one because the trip up and down the mountains means missing two other films.

For closing night, singer Justin Timberlake, who is rumored to be a hottie, will join fellow stars Emile Hirsch, Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone in “Alpha Dog,” about a suburban drug dealer who makes the FBI’s most-wanted list. Writer/director Nick Cassavetes lost whatever cred being John Cassavetes’s son might have given him when he made “John Q” in 2002. (His last film was “The Notebook.”)

Willis also stars alongside Josh Hartnett, Sir Ben Kingsley, Morgan Freeman and Lucy Liu in the mistaken identity thriller “Lucky Number Slevin,” by “Wicker Park” and “Gangster No. 1” director Paul McGuigan.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” director Michel Gondry returns to Sundance with “The Science of Sleep.” With actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gondry again taps into the subconscious as a man tries to take control back from the people who hold him captive in his dreams.

“Bad Santa” director Terry Zwigoff brings “Art School Confidential,” starring Max Minghella, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent and Anjelica Houston in an adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s satirical graphic novel. If the film is as good as Zwigoff’s first Clowes adaptation, “Ghost World,” it will be a memorable story of murder and undeserved success.

Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” started a bitter bidding war at Toronto, and its U.S. premier will allow people to find out what all the fuss was about. The satire stars Aaron Eckhart as a PR man who spins for big tobacco while trying to be a role model to his son.

On the subject of role models, Robin Williams, Toni Collette and Sandra Oh star in Patrick Stettner’s “The Night Listener,” written by Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin and Terry Anderson. Williams plays a radio host who begins talking on a telephone with a young boy who’s a fan, only to learn that there are some surprises. Surprising, eh?

Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell and Toni Collette star in “Little Miss Sunshine,” Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s comedy about a family’s cross-country road trip to place their daughter in a beauty pageant. In another somewhat light-hearted effort, Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell star in Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist,” about a magician in Vienna who overcomes his social standing to win an upper-class woman’s heart.

And while it’s not as high profile as some of the above titles, many will be eager to see “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” (formerly titled “Prairie Wind”), by “Silence of the Lambs” director Jonathan Demme. Demme’s Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense” is the greatest concert film of all-time, so he does have some high expectations to overcome.

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, who attended the festival with the very good “101 Rekjavik” in 2000 and the not very good “The Sea” in 2002, makes his U.S. debut with “A Little Trip to Heaven,” starring Forest Whitaker and Julia Stiles.

Finn Taylor, who competed in 2002 with “Cherish,” teams with Joseph Fiennes, Winona Ryder, David Arquette and Chris Penn for “The Darwin Awards,” inspired by the humorous website that describes people who accidentally kill themselves in humorously stupid ways. The film version give Fiennes the part of a forensic detective who investigates one of the humorous accidents.

“Don’t Come Knocking,” which premiered at Cannes and makes its continental premiere here, is by no means among the best work of Wim Wenders. But the director’s collaboration with writer/actor Sam Shepard may be enjoyable to locals because of the Utah locations used in the early scenes, which include an amusing gag at the Gateway mall’s fountain.

And since Sundance is known for its documentary program, it needs at least one doc premiere. Oscar nominee Kirby Dick investigates the Motion Picture Association of America’s ludicrous rating system in “This Film is Not Yet Rated.”

Other entries include Clive Gordon’s thriller “Cargo,” about a backpacking trip in Africa gone awry, and Isabel Coixet’s Spanish film “The Secret Life of Words,” about a nurse who takes a holiday to take care of a burn victim in an oil rig.

jeremy [at] saltshakermagazine.com

 

 
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