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Sundance 2013: Documentaries shine in Utah

At the Sundance Film Festival, docs like 'Twenty Feet From Stardom' and 'The Crash Reel' show some of the best the industry has to offer.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / January 25, 2013

The Sundance Film Festival is held in Park City, Utah.

Ari Perilstein/Getty Images

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The weather was so uncharacteristically unglacial this year at the Sundance Film Festival that I almost – almost! – pitied the winter warriors deprived of their annual bout of bone-chill. Getting around Park City, Utah, has never been less of an ordeal. You could concentrate on the movies, not ice storms. I found myself rethinking my opposition to global warming.

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Of the 119 movies from 32 countries that screened at Sundance, I saw 15 in five days. If I missed more than my share of buzz-worthy fare, so did everybody else. Pity the poor festival programmers: They had to winnow the list down from more than 4,000 submissions.

In a series of firsts for the festival, there were 51 rookie filmmakers represented, and eight of the 16 films in official competition were directed by women. There was also much more talk than usual about the ways in which movies – especially the independent fare and documentaries that make up Sundance – are experienced by audiences.

As moviemaking becomes incrementally less expensive largely because of the rise of digital technology, a way will have to be found to showcase the burgeoning proliferation of films. The old big-screen theatrical model is giving way to video-on-demand via distribution services such as iTunes and pay-per-view TV channels. In the future, day-and-date VOD and theatrical releases of a given movie may become commonplace (if, indeed, a film is released theatrically at all).

Many of the Sundance filmmakers who once saw their indie cred as a steppingstone to Hollywood have embraced or resigned themselves to the fact that, because the studios are increasingly risk-averse and franchise-driven, their careers will likely be played out in the independent realm or on cable TV. As one producer here told me: “I can’t get studio funding for the movies I want to make. More and more of us are moving to television.”

If new and established filmmakers find themselves moving outside the big studio orbit, they may discover that more than a few movie stars, craving artistic challenges, will follow suit. There was no shortage of A-list actors represented at Sundance – Naomi Watts, Scarlett Johansson, and Nicole Kidman, to name a few. Thankfully, the Z-listers from previous years were in much shorter supply. I am still recovering from seeing Paris Hilton a few years back emerging from a stretch limo in her pink parka.

The documentaries

The documentaries always stand out at Sundance, and one of the best kicked off opening night, Morgan Neville’s “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” about the notoriously unheralded backup singers who have provided so many memorable riffs and refrains on our favorite pop, rock, and R&B recordings from the 1960s and ’70s. Four of the featured women in the film, Judith Hill (the sole youngster, she sang “Heal the World” at Michael Jackson’s televised memorial service), Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Táta Vega, turned the post-screening Q-and-A session into an impromptu concert that rocked the rafters. (Almost all of them started out in church choirs.) A few days later I lunched with all of them, as well as another featured vocalist, Darlene Love, and their high spirits remained uncontained. They are all close friends. There’s talk of touring with the film together, of making a Christmas album. From Love, I learned the ultimate accolade these singers give each other after a particularly powerful rendition: “Girl, I’m gonna have to throw my shoe at you.”

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