Sundance Official Selection of films get better every year. Between the indies, the short and the documentaries it is truly THE festival for independent filmmakers and film lovers. As a local I am hit with the same realization that this festival and cultivation of artists, industry moguls, and brilliant stories happens in my backyard! It always take a week for me to fully process and weigh in on the films I saw during the festival. So few weeks out, here it is.
Last year Sundance, I was working 24 hours for the 10 day festival. I followed and supported two film production teams through their selection process by Sundance, their travel to Utah, and their schedules during the festival (driving to and from the airport, screenings, meetings, press, photo shoots, parties, etc.) I can only attribute the week to a hell week but if you were on someone's clock for hell week. Regardless, if I could do it all over again I would ever year. Between the amazing teams I was a part of, filmmakers I met and crazy stories along the way it was 10 of my better days of 2013.
Fast forward to Sundance 2014. I purchased a ticket package which included 10 tickets, 2 tickets to the awards party and two credentials passes (gaining entry to the various "lounges" on Main Street) In addition I was able to score tickets with my "locals ticket pass" which proved to be easier and more inexpensive than I'd thought.
First film (purchased with locals tickets) Last Days in Vietnam, Directed by Rory Kennedy. First, I was shocked to get tickets to this film. Rory Kennedy, more me, is a Sofia Coppola of the documentary world. She is not only a powerful, intelligent and articulate figure, coming from America's "Royal" family, moreover, she is a brilliant force as a woman and a filmmaker. Last Days in Vietnam shared similarities with her previous films, being historic based, large archival footage material, etc. However, the film did stand apart from her other works as it contained stories largely unknown. Last Days in Vietnam focused solely on the last 24 hours of the American forces stationed in Saigon, Vietnam and their desperate attempt to escape the city with as many South Vietnamese as possible. Without giving away the beautiful stories, that should be told through her film, the use of incredible and rare archival footage really put the audience in Saigon. I could feel the urgency. I found myself searching the jolted footage of an ocean landscape for a helicopter coming back for me. It was so powerful and stories that are, until now, unknown. It highlights stories from all sides, Americans on the ground, Vietnamese in attempt to flee that were successful and unsuccessful. In a time of car bombing, imminent U.S. invasion this film highlighted the hero's that go unmentioned. The hero's that stayed to save as many foreign lives as possible even before their own, or their colleagues.
For Greg Whiteley's documentary, Mitt I traveled to Sundance Resort (apprx 1 hour south of Salt Lake/Park City) Sundance Resort is nestled in a gorgeous little canyon but not a lot to do here.....however if you have the chance to see a film in the "Sundance Screening Room" I highly recommend it. Amazing screening room and the drive back gives you excellent time to process the film. I was really looking forward to seeing Mitt, even though I can't stand to look at the man or his wife for too long....I find them plastic and frankly nauseating. The film didn't give me anything I didn't already know....I wouldn't call it "unprecedented" access. It was very family centric and less political than I would have hoped. That said, I am glad I saw it. Very interesting to see the behind the scenes of a presidential campaign and the emotional, physical toll it took on the Romney family. Took my father to see the film with me and as we walked back to the lodge to grab some lunch at the Foundry Grill we spotted THE SUNDANCE KID! I have admired Robert Redford as an actor, filmmaker, philanthropist since I was very young and to see him all golden locks (with some white streaks) bundled up in his ski onesie got me all starstruck.
Internet's Own Boy, really struck me with a story and issue I had little knowledge of before. Director Brian Knappenberger tells the story of Aaron Swartz, internet programmer genius and "hacktivist" who tragically committed suicide in January 2013. It is a beautiful memorial to Swartz, interwoven with interviews from his family, colleagues, friends, mentors and admirers. The film draws parallels to Swartz as the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates except he was never in it for the money, he literally wanted to make the world a better place (rough quote from Aaron's father, interviewed in the film.) Swartz was nothing short of a genius-in his short 26 years of life he helped develop RSS, Common Licenses and Reddit. Swartz took his own life because he was facing 35+ years in prison and millions of dollars for making public millions of academic journals, articles, etc., from the digital archive JSTOR. Swartz intelligent and passion were truly captured in this film and the stories, memories, history of his pending case leave you heartbroken and angry. How is it our government can bail out the biggest financial crisis, caused by crooks on Wall Street while they provoke and ceaselessly hunt Aaron Swartz, a young man who saw the need for academia to be universal online. Highly recommend this film and learning more about Aaron's Law.
My top pick from Sundance 2014.....E-TEAM. Co-directed by two truly fearless filmmakers, Ross Kaufman (Born into Brothels, Academy Award winner doc feature 2004) and Katy Chevigny. The film follows the lives of four members of the E Team or the Emergencies Team of the Human Rights Watch, the on the ground heroes we never hear about in the international crisis spots where human rights are being unimaginably violated. The film is so raw....you feel as if you are risking your life as you dart from the back seat of a rickety car and hop across the Syrian border at dawn, hoping not to be seen by government forces or worse. The four E-TEAM members featured in the film are themselves human. The audience experiences them in two facets-the thick of war crimes juxtaposed with their homes lives; looking back to the chaos of Yugoslavia and returning to their homes to drive their children to school. Investigating the horrific rule of Gaddafi and returning to home, cooking with their families. And most recently, the images still burned in our minds, of young children, men and women convulsing on a linoleum floor-Syrian President Assad gassing his own people, these E Team members investigate, build a report for international action and return home to welcome a baby. These are real people, both the team members and the civilians they seek to build evidence for their cases to the Human Rights Watch, UN, media outlets, etc.
China is one of the first countries to classify the use or overuse of the internet as clinical condition. Web Junkie, directed by Shosh Shlam, is a rare look into a treatment center for Chinese youth that are "addicted" to the internet. This was a fascinating topic, I am so intrigued by Chinese culture and government, this was a great mesh of the two. The film follows four boys in this treatment center, sent there by their parents, some even tricked. One boy's family told him they were going on to Russia for a ski holiday but drove him to the treatment center instead, because he was spending nearly all of his time at an internet cafe playing games. Each boy has a different relationship with their parents that you experience in counseling sessions. It is a wonderful observation into the Chinese culture as being individualistic. The parents relationships with their children are far from what an American parent would exude. What you take away from the film is that these children are driven to be "addicted" to the internet because they have little to no interaction, let alone affection, from their parents. They live their lives and spend fortunes on internet gaming. So much so that they take on another life within the game, developing friendships with characters, etc. Web Junkie was so much more than just kids addicted to being on the internet. The film left you solemn, with the realization that with no promotion of contact with their parents these children seek acceptance elsewhere, and what's more, that Chinese culture will continue to breed this behavior.
and the finale! I saw all documentary films except for ONE and I was so fortunate to see Frank. This quirky comedy had the entire 1200 person audience in fits of laughter throughout the story. Director/Writer Lenny Abrahamson tells the story of a young wannabe musician who discovers himself subbing in for a missing member of a strange band, whose name no one can seem to pronounce. However, he finds himself in a whimsical, eccentric group of strangely talented folks. Michael Fassbender, as Frank, is the fearless leader of the band and wears a giant cartoon-like paper mache head, at all times. Intelligent comedy with fabulously written characters and plot. This will be a huge crowd pleaser among the indie comedy audiences when released theatrically.