Out of thousands of submissions, the folks who run Park City, Utah's Sundance Film Festival select several dozen features to screen at the exclusive mountain get together, of which only a handful attract the even keener eyes of industry and make their way to a theater near you.
In spite of this double distillation, the films at Sundance are always a mixed bag of trail mix -- you really have dig around for the blue m&ms. With music fans in mind, I've selected the five best of the fest, in no particular order.
Without a doubt the doc to beat at the festival, and perhaps the best film overall. Love relationships that start on social networks can be really, really complicated. The film follows Nev Schulman as he falls in love with girl, interacts with her family, and eventually even her friends -- all on Facebook. Without spoiling the fun, I'll just say that this film is so disturbing, hilarious and impossibly lucky to have captured what it did that the audience at times couldn't believe what they were watching -- cries of "NO WAY!" and "Oh...my...God..." could be heard throughout the packed theater on the final screening. The constant visual use of Facebook -- as well as Google Maps, Chat and other familiar web applications -- ultimately calls into question the effects that constant digital interaction has on authentic human connection, and to what degree the digital simulacrum can truly represent the world in which we live. After watching Catfish you'll want to start "friending" every random stranger, or you might just delete your Facebook account altogether.
- THE RUNAWAYS
When I first heard Kristen Stewart had been tapped to play the legendary she-rocker, I must admit I was skeptical -- "Belle" is a tough role to shake. But she shook it and then some. Focusing on Joan Jett and Cherie Currie from the band's inception to turbulent stardom, Stewart and Dakota Fanning deliver powerful performances that strike just the right attitude. With a heavy music video influence, the film is satisfying on many levels: as a visual piece, as a period piece, and most importantly as a gritty homage to a glam rocker that is every bit as edgy, raw, and real as the legend herself. Also, please note this film is Joan Jett approved - she's the executive producer. (See more about the film and its stars here.)
- EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
So...where to start? Banksy opens his "street art disaster film" by telling us about a doc filmmaker who wanted to make a film about Banksy, but who's story was ultimately so much more interesting that Banksy made a doc about him. The "filmmaker" in question is the delightfully insane Theirry Guetta, a french poseur documentarian and thrift shopkeeper who befriends and records over ten years of the street art legends, only to reveal to everyone that he is, in fact, not a filmmaker at all. He then launches his own poseur street art career, which has a poetic and tragic ending that brings the audience back to the eternal question: "What is art?" Or Banksy invented the entire Guetta character and is fucking with us once again...as when the announcer let the audience know that Banksy "may or may not be attending the premiere."Either way, the anonymous graffiti legend takes us through the history of the movement through his own edit of the footage shot by Theirry, while crafting a story about the Frenchman that is quite engrossing. The doc might be yet another piece of Banksy's mindblowing oeuvre, like the graf pieces he put up in Park City on opening night, but it also reveals a side of him that has never been seen or heard before -- the words from the man himself. Self-shot interviews, complete with black hoodie pulled way up and a voice distorter, provide an insight into the witty, satirical and brilliant mind of the anonymous street artist. With a killer soundtrack by Portishead's Goeff Barrow and a truly surprising ending, it looks like Banksy will be bombing screens across the country with this, his latest piece of art.
- COUNTDOWN TO ZERO
if you think the threat of global nuclear fallout "the likes of which the human imagination cannot comprehend" is a thing of the past, then don't watch this film. It is terrifying and will make you get off your ass and make some noise to get rid of nuclear weapons once and for all. Lucy Walker directs this lucid piece of social media activism from powerhouse Participant Media (An Inconvenient Truth), with an all-star lineup of experts including Valerie Plame, Jimmie Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Robert McNamara. The bottom line: How hard would it be for a terrorist to smuggle in weapons grade radioactive material to build a proper atomic bomb in the U.S.? "That'd be easy, just smuggle it in a bale of marijuana!" Radiohead's "The Reckoner" raises hairs and even draws tears at the most dramatic points in the film, highlighting the sense that at any moment, the world as we know it could be obliterated in a ball of fire fives times the heat of the sun.
- SYMPATHY FOR DELICIOUS
Though Director Mark Ruffalo himself seemed to wonder whether audiences would "get" his film, it received a standing ovation on premiere night and left many viewers spellbound. This story of a paralyzed DJ with the power to heal is at times quirky and humorous, at times very painful and real, but overall gripping and worth a watch. The idea for the project came from writer/star Christopher Thornton and Ruffalo's experiences with a close friend, and the connection shines through in subtle but powerful ways. Even with a terrific supporting cast including Juliette Lewis, Orlando Bloom, and Laura Linney, you will have to keep an eye on this as it is very much an independent film and might not find wide distribution.
Please note that this is one man's list. In spite of all the free energy drinks, I could only see a fraction of all the films appearing at the festival. Overall, the docs were stronger than the narratives this year, and you'll want to see a lot of them. But the increasing focus on bottom-line means you won't see many in theaters. Here's a short list of the ones you should see on the little screen at home.
- ALL OF MY FRIENDS ARE FUNERAL SINGERS
This is an experimental film that Tim Rutili, frontman for Califone, did as a companion piece to the band's tour. As a big Califone fan, what surprised me was how much the music fit into the fabric and themes of the film, in a way that opened up hidden meaning in songs I had heard many times before. The band actually came to Sundance to perform live with the film, which was a huge sensory treat for viewers. The surreal story of a psychic, Angela Bettis, and her many spirit realm friends will have you clapping, singing and dancing to beat the devil.
- TUCKER AND DALE VS. THE EVIL
This genre bending horror / comedy may be my favorite narrative at the festival, though as a long time fan of such cult classics as Army of Darkness and more recent hits like Shaun of the Dead, and a few beers before the screening, I'm definitely the target market. The film takes the "killer rednecks and hapless college students" format and turns it on its head, showing the audience how terrifying, deadly and hilarious the culture barrier between the rural and urban can be.
You can cancel your therapist appointment and watch this inspired documentary by Lucy Walker about the catadors - trash picking recyclers - who subsist off of the largest landfill in the world: Jardim Gramacho in Brazil. The human story is intense and emotional, made more so with a soundtrack by Moby that is at times more atmospheric and ethereal than we've ever heard him. Bring a hankie.
- BRAN NUE DAE
This is Rachel Perkin's evangelical musical revival, with the soul of a bollywood film and starring aborigines. Cross it off the bucket list.
- SHOCK DOCTRINE
A visually stunning interpretation of the book by Naomi Klein. When you find out what your government's strategies are for mass mind control, you will be shocked! There. I said it.