Sundance Film Festival
Park City, Utah 2009
**Note: 500 Days Of Summer was the best film I saw at the festival, but you’ll have to wait a few more days for that review.**
Locally, the Sundance Film Festival is usually known for overcrowding Park City with lots rubberneckers on the prowl for celebrity sightings. The chance for getting for into film screenings is usually slim – even if you hold out in the freezing cold wait list lines. Except this year was a little different than expected.
Blame the economy or whatever you want, but this year was more empty all-around, making it more bearable than other years (aside from trying to get down Main Street while flocks of people blocked the lane chasing down hack-celebrity Paris Hilton). The streets were less crowded. The screenings were easier to get into. And there were a lot less press and industry folk than I’ve seen in the past.
But if any year deserved the hype and floods of people, it was this one. Although not all of them were perfectly constructed or told in the best way, the films that I saw at this year’s festival were far superior to the sixteen flicks I saw at last year’s. The following are some of the films that I truly enjoyed and my thoughts on them.
Mary and Max.
Robert Redford and company officially kicked off the 2009 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday with the claymation feature Mary and Max from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Adam Elliot (Harvie Krumpet).
The titles characters Mary and Max, voiced by Toni Collette and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, have everything in common except their age and location. Mary is a picked on eight-year-old Aussie without a solitary human friend. Max is an overweight 44-year-old New Yorker that suffers from panic attacks so bad that he can’t handle human contact without losing it.
Mary and Max cross paths when Mary decides to reach out and make friends by contacting an anonymous pen pal who turns out to be Max. After only one letter, the two become one another’s solitary friend, a bond that will last their lifetime.
Mary and Max is like an animated version of the artistic French film Amelie. The story is fairly bright, although it dabbles into dark areas, and is very beautiful. If the rest of the festival’s films carry the quality of filmmaking that Mary and Max gives off, then this year’s festival should be exceptional.
Imagine a mix of the classic sci-fi flick 2001: A Space Odyssey and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (director of recent indie hit Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later). That’s what you get with Moon.
Sam Rockwell (Frost/Nixon, Choke) stars in a nearly one-man cast in Moon. Kevin Spacey lends his voice for the as the computer operating system and there are quick flashes of his wife, daughter and bosses, but it’s mostly the Sam Rockwell Show.
Some time in the near future, mankind rids the earth of oil-driven fuels. A new resource is found by harvesting stored solar energy from the rocks on the surface of the moon. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the solo operator of the entire lunar harvesting system. The company who runs the operation employs one man at a time for a three-year contract, and Sam’s is about to run out.
With only a few days to go, Sam begins to lose his grasp on reality and ends up crashing his lunar rover into one of the harvesting machines. The results of the accident drastically change Sam and his future.
Moon is the rare breed of science fiction films that successfully accomplishes what all the bad ones try to do. It’s psychological and smart. It’s well-written and intriguing. And it even makes you think.
With an outstanding performance from Sam Rockwell and a beautiful blend of directing and music, Moon is sure to become an instant classic for sci-fi aficionados. It is slated for a nationwide release with the date yet to be announced.
Under today’s circumstances, we’re flooded with anti-war films that show how bad the situation is “over there” and what it’s doing to our troops and society. Taking Chance is breath of fresh air, a release from those types of anti-war films.
Kevin Bacon gives another memorable performance as he brings to life the true story of a lieutenant colonel escorting the remains of a 19-year-old Marine across the country to his family.
Along the way, he realizes the impact that one fallen soldier can have on complete strangers, sacrificing your existence for people whom you will never know.
While Taking Chance is a slow moving “road trip” film, it never feels slow. You emotionally invest yourself in the personal and intimate experience. You never feel manipulated as you would in a typical Hollywood film that exaggerates and heightens the mood just to keep you going. This story is so natural that you feel as if you were a second escort.
Taking Chance is a HBO Film, so it will most likely appear on HBO before long.
Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Parker Posey star in this comedy as a trio of geeky friends about to hit their mid-life crises together.
Becky (Posey) works as the personal assistant to a Texas senator who has the potential of being the next Vice President. When the senator’s daughter heads to South Padre Island for a wild spring break, Becky is sent to keep an eye on her.
When she brings along her sidekicks Judy (Dratch) and Gayle (Poehler), Becky ends up having to keep her eyes on them too.
Spring Breakdown is laugh-out-loud comedy in the vein of Mean Girls and Hot Rod. While not your typical Sundance film, it was nice to see something light and warm at the festival. It’s set to open nationwide on Feb. 3.
Though the title of the film leads you to believe that Reporter is about the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, it’s really not.
Because the documentary follows him on to looking for stories in the Congo, it serves more as a road trip diary that wants to tell you more about the Congo crisis than the man who is willing to enter dangerous territory for the sake of finding truth.
Nonetheless, the journey he and his colleagues embark on makes the film worth seeing. Not only do they try to find the stories of the people living through it, but they confront the warlord responsible for it, trying to understand his justification for killing millions of innocent civilians through both violence and starvation.
Even though Reporter could have used some editing and focus, the story it tells is worth watching. It is informative and intriguing, but not at all the self-proclaimed life-changing film it tries to be.
The September Issue
Knowing absolutely nothing about fashion, going into this film I had no idea that Vogue Magazine’s September issue is the biggest and best of each year, setting the fashion trends for fall. The September Issue is a brilliant documentary taking you into the heart of Vogue during its most stressful time of the year.
The film mostly circles around Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour – the woman that Meryl Streep’s The Devil Wears Prada character is based on. It doesn’t take long to realize that Streep’s character wasn’t all that far off.
You do not need to be a fashion expert to enjoy The September Issue. Only moments into the film, I was asking myself, ‘Is this a documentary or a mockumentary,’ because it was just too entertaining to be a true fashion story. Many scenes and large chunks of dialogue were just too well written, comedically speaking, to be real. It had to have been scripted. But, no. It wasn’t. These people are so far out there and so over-the-top that you can’t help but find it entertaining – no matter who you are.
Even though all of the supermodel/runway techno music, The September Issue is absolutely charming. I’d put it right up there next to The King of Kong in my favorite documentary category. It’s entertaining, enthralling and funny.
A&E produced the film, so it shouldn’t be long before it premieres on their network.
Pardon the pun, but The Greatest may be the greatest film at Sundance this year, but it’s got some small, looked-over storytelling details that could hurt it come nationwide distribution.
In The Greatest, Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon play the parents of teenage kid recently killed in a car accident. Their grieving process is completely turned around when his girlfriend, who survived the accident, comes to stay with them. The film takes you on a beautiful journey with the family as they go through the grieving process and learn that it’s easier to all do it together rather than try to do it alone.
While the emotions created by characters and the story are extremely strong, a few unexplained and unanswered character choices temporarily pull you out of the film. If this film receives distribution, hopefully there will be a little editing solving these thematic problems. If so, there’s no doubt in my mind that many will connect with and fall in love with The Greatest. It’s a natural, tender story that won’t easily be forgotten.
Photos courtesy of Sundance Film Festival