Sundance Film Festival: Oprah, Belafonte, and some indie gems in drama and documentary

Oprah launched her documentary film club and Belafonte carries on his social activism full tilt at the Sundance Film Festival, which was abuzz with talk about the digital future of film as much as the indie films themselves.

By , Film critic

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    Cast members of ‘Margin Call’ including Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany and Simon Baker watch a clip from their movie "Margin Call" after it received The Creative Coalition's 2011 Spotlight Initiative Award during the Sundance Film Festival.
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The Sundance Film Festival, which wraps up its 11-day run this weekend, screens 115 feature-length films. By the end of my run I felt as if I'd seen all 115. (Actually, I saw 20.)

Even for a bleary-eyed veteran of the festival circuit such as myself, the Sundance experience – which is primarily centered in Park City, Utah – is daunting, and not just because of the bales of snow with which we are regularly deluged. Actually, this year’s edition has been mercifully squall-free. I can recall a few years back when the festival resembled the Donner Party with movies.

The true challenge here is sorting out what to see and then attempting to make sense of it all. Trying to understand Sundance is the same thing as trying to figure out the state of the independent movie scene.

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That scene over the past few recessionary years has been going through a model change. No longer can filmmakers and distributors in the indie realm rely on revenues from the sinking DVD market. Presales to foreign markets are down, too, cash from hedge-fund sources and high rollers has dried up, and the number of journalistic outlets willing and able to provide features on the indie scene has dwindled.

Since indie movies rely heavily on good press, the latter is a crucial loss. It's a brave new world. Much of the talk at Sundance this year, where, despite everything, sales and attendance were up, was as much about the ways in which movies will be "consumed" in the future – with all the various digital platforms on the horizon – as on the films themselves.

Opening night I checked into "Sing Your Song," a documentary about Harry Belafonte, who was also in attendance. The film, directed by Susanne Rostock and coproduced by his daughter Gina, is hero-worshipy, but then again, why not? Belafonte is a hero. At 82, bald-pated and leonine, this social activist/entertainer remains as committed as ever to his mantra: "What do we do now?" [Editor's note: the original version of this story incorrectly identified the coproducer.]

When I interview him afterward, he tells me, "We shy away from radical thinking in this country. We must stop being victims and become more aggressive about overthrowing victimization." This is not your father's Harry Belafonte. No "Day-O" here. I ask him if he saw himself back in those calypso days agitating for civil rights around the world, and he answers: "I don't understand how it all happened." Then he lights up like a big, beaming Buddha and says, "I don't even know what kind of singer I am."

"Bobby Fischer Against the World" traces the rise and fall of perhaps the greatest of all chess players from his prodigious success as a preteen whiz to his wresting the world chess title from the Russians during the height of the cold war and his subsequent descent into reclusion and madness.

It's a bizarro reverse-success story and the footage of Fischer, ranging from his pipsqueak days at the Manhattan Chess Club to his final days in Iceland, with his Howard Hughes-like dishevelment, is captivating and singular. The filmmakers brought into Park City a number of grandmasters – including Joel Benjamin, who helped program IBM's Deep Blue in its win over world champ Garry Kasparov – to take on all comers. I played Joel and won handily... not.

Since documentaries are often the highlights of Sundance, it made sense that Oprah Winfrey chose the festival as the official launching pad for her documentary film club on her new OWN network. Playing to an elbow-to-elbow crowd at an invitational do in Sundance House, Oprah breezed in from the wings and made everybody feel as if they should be looking under their seats for a gift (except there were no seats). "It is my intention," she intoned with rock-solid resolution, "to do for documentaries what my book club has done for books." OWN has thus far acquired six films for broadcast and will produce five original two-hour documentaries, including one by Barbara Kopple on the Hemingways.

The room was packed with ardent-eyed documentary filmmakers suddenly eager to board the gravy train. The combined gross for theatrical feature-length documentaries last year was less than the opening weekend box-office take for "Megamind." Who knows, maybe Oprah can be a game changer?

She could have programmed an entire lineup of worthies from this year's Sundance. "The Redemption of General Butt Naked" – my personal favorite title among the docs – is about a Liberian warlord who personally massacred, often in his birthday suit, thousands during Liberia's 14-year civil war. Now he's reinvented himself as an evangelist seeking redemption from his victims. I didn't buy his redemption, though, amazingly, inevitably, some of his victims do.

"Crime After Crime" is about Deborah Peagler, who was sentenced to 25-years-to-life for her connection to the murder of the boyfriend who routinely and brutally abused her. Twenty years later, two young attorneys were inspired to reopen her case, thereby opening up a Pandora's box of political corruption that makes even the ordeals of Sisyphus seem like a stroll in the park. (During the festival the gospel choir from the predominantly African-American Cavalry Baptist Church in Salt Lake City performed a few numbers featured in the film.)

The unlikeliest of subjects – the travails of mixed-race kids in a Ukrainian village and the woman who single-handedly raised 23 of them as foster children – becomes the likeliest of inspirational scenarios in "Family Portrait in Black and White." (Oprah, are you listening?)

"Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times," looks primarily at the Gray Lady's media desk at a time when journalism even at the highest realms is under siege. This is not the fullscale portrait of a newspaper that only much wider access could have provided, but it’s often revelatory just the same, especially for news junkies. After the screening, Times media writer David Carr, who appears in the film, explained his job: "We write about people who write about people who actually do things."

"Project Nim" is a problematic documentary from "Man on Wire" director James Marsh about the chimpanzee that, in the 1970s, was the subject of a series of experiments that set out to demonstrate that apes could learn to communicate using sign language.

The various experimenters, several of whom were at Sundance, testify in the film about what transpired, much of it not pretty. The film is focused oddly: Nim's staggering ability to actually convey feelings by signing is treated by Marsh almost as an afterthought. Everyone connected to Nim seems to have been profoundly changed by him, though. At the film's Q-and-A afterward, I half expected the key participants to channel the chimp.

And then there was Morgan Neville's memory-lane extravaganza, "Troubadours," which offers up a minihistory of the Los Angeles singer-songwriter scene from the '70s. James Taylor, David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and many others croon and reminisce. Carole King, prominently featured in the film, gave a hush-hush concert in the basement of a club on Main Street, and she seemed ecstatically happy belting out her greatest hits on the piano as the densely packed audience waved their iPhones and swayed, trancelike.

Good-time feelings at Sundance come best from good movies. The dramatic features, those I saw at least, were the usual a mixed bag. I mostly liked "Margin Call," starring, among others, Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, about 24 hours in the life of a tanking Manhattan investment firm. It's better than, say, "The Company Men," though not as good as "Up in the Air." This recession-era genre is now officially a mainstay.

The best dramatic film I saw at Sundance was easily "Like Crazy," and, because I saw it near the end of my run here, it had the inadvertent force of an epiphany. Co-written and directed by Drake Doremus, and starring Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones as long-distance lovers, it's exactly the kind of movie that Sundance, at its best, is known for – a sweet, small movie about what regular people are going through in their lives.

It has the same bittersweet lyricism as Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," and it gave me renewed hope that, despite all the technotalk about high-definition multi-platform delivery systems and DVD sell-throughs, despite all the inane mumbling and navel-gazing that characterize so much of the indie world, good films can still break through by sheer force of talent.

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