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 , Film critic

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

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.

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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.”

There are many reasons – luck, drive, timing – why these women are not as well known as the famous lead singers, but their pipes are every bit as good. With the rise of rap and synthesized musicmaking, the “big” sound of these women is increasingly in less demand, to the detriment of us all.

Inspirationalism was also the order of the day for Lucy Walker’s “The Crash Reel,” about Kevin Pearce, the snowboarding champ who has slowly come back from a traumatic brain injury (suffered in a 2009 fall on the Park City slopes). Walker made the movie while Pearce, who at one time wanted to return to big-time snowboarding and now advocates for brain-injury victims, was very much still on the brink. She worried that her film might have this “terrible tragic ending.”

Pearce’s entire family, whose unfailing support is clearly his touchstone, was on hand at Sundance. At a party for documentary films, Pearce wanted to know what I thought of the film and then offered up his own extended review. It was mostly positive. Whew!

I had a very political day and a half when I caught in succession Frieda Mock’s “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power,” about Anita Hill; “The World According to Dick Cheney,” directed by R.J. Cutler and Greg Finton; Alex Gibney’s marvelous “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks”; and Richard Rowley’s eye-opening “Dirty Wars,” which follows reporter/whistle-blower Jeremy Scahill’s investigations into covert military operations conducted by the United States in more than 70 countries, including some that are supposed American allies.

Hill, now an author and a professor at Brandeis University, showed up after the screening of “Anita,” which features ample testimony from the 1991 Senate Judiciary hearings in which 14 white men, headed up by then-Sen. Joe Biden, sat in mostly humiliating judgment of her charges of sexual harassment against US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. “I feel really good,” she beamingly told the packed house. About the issue of sexual harassment that she so much brought to the fore: “We have to commit ourselves to getting it right in the future.” And about that electric blue dress she wore to the hearings? “It became a fashion statement in Ghana.”

Dick Cheney cooperated on his documentary, which is even-handed even if its subject is not. Asked to name his main fault, he ponders for a long moment before coming up blank. Referred to in the film as “the most powerful unpresidential figure this country has ever known,” Cheney is not in the warm-and-fuzzy business. “If you want to be loved,” he says, “be a movie star.”

Over dinner I asked Alex Gibney about Julian Assange’s reaction to his film, which not only expertly delineates the history of WikiLeaks, the website that rocked the world, but also delves deeply into the psychology of its founder. “He’s already denounced it,” Gibney said. “And he hasn’t seen it.” As a consequence of sexual-harassment charges in Sweden, Assange has thus far escaped extradition by receiving asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. From there he has been furiously tweeting against Gibney and the film.

The dramatic films

On the dramatic film side, I could have lived without Jerusha Hess’s “Austenland,” a feather-light dingbat comedy about a Jane Austen-themed resort in England.

Jeff Nichols’s Mississippi-set “Mud” was too muddy. It’s about two teenage boys encountering a fugitive and stars Matthew McConaughey, who is mostly shirtless. (It must be in his contract.)

David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche” is a wayward buddy comedy starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as two highway road workers. Green was an indie icon with films like “George Washington” before crossing over to the dark side to make “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.” He’s trying here for an art film again (albeit a goofy one). Someone should have told Green that you can’t go home again.

On the other hand, I was happy I saw Drake Doremus’s “Breathe In,” his first film since his Sundance smash “Like Crazy.” Felicity Jones stars as a British foreign-exchange student who scrambles the lives of her hosts in upstate New York. It has moments of sustained insight and feeling that carry you past its sundry flaws. Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George” is a lilting drama about a Nigerian woman in Brooklyn who risks opprobrium to please her husband.

Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” is the third film starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, whom we pick up almost two decades after their characters had a chance meeting on a train bound for Vienna in “Before Sunrise.” The series has become a bit twee for me, but Linklater is the great humanist filmmaker of his generation. I’d rather be spending time with this couple than with just about any other movie couple around.

Many of the best films I’ve mentioned here have distribution or were bought during the festival, with undoubtedly more sales to follow.

That’s good news. The mantra of Sundance this year should have been: Open minds, open wallets.

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