This year the Sundance Film
Festival has a new programmer (John Cooper) and a fresh vow of cinema
relevance. We’ll see about that but one thing’s for sure the state of Sundance,
artistically and financially, has a hell of a lot to do with the treats that
will sustain art house maniacs. What follows are my hunches as to what may make
it out of Park City and on to screens from forty feet to four inches.
1-Howl: Homeboys Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman – still
reaping hosannas for one of the old time great queer docs, The Times of
Harvey Milk – take some artistic risks and liberties trying to embed us
inside the mind of a mad homo poet, the twenty-nine-year-old Allen Ginsberg.
According to biographer Barry Miles, in August, 1955, stung by a recent
dressing down by an old mentor, Ginsberg vowed to blast through
whatever was blocking his real voice. “I thought I wouldn’t
write a poem but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination
go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind – sum up my life –
something I wouldn’t be able to show anybody, writ for my own soul’s ear and a
few other golden ears.”
I saw the best minds of my
Generation destroyed by madness
Starving, mystical, naked
Who dragged themselves thru the
angry streets at
dawn looking for a Negro fix…
Howl would go on to be one
of the first hot sellers for the fledgling City Lights Press, provoke outraged
fulminations from mad dog conservative Norman Podhoretz for “its glorification
of madness, drugs and homosexuality,” prompt the SFPD to cite City Light’s
owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti and throw one of his clerks into the city’s drunk
tank, “which smelled of piss,” and lead to a historic Federal censorship trial.
Epstein and Friedman utilize fact,
fiction and animation tropes to explain how a seven page poem would launch a
counterculture, or what some have labeled an ongoing culture war.
2-Undertow: Writer/director Javier Fuentes-Leon
concocts a quixotic ghost story to demonstrate the anguish of a married
Peruvian fisherman, trapped between his passion for a male lover and his tiny
seaside community hatred of anything that rocks their boats -- with Latin hotties
Cristian Mercado and Manolo Cardona.
3-A Prophet: French director Jacques Audiard --
whose love of the Parisian underworld has sparked such filthy character driven
thrillers as Read My Lips and The Beat My Heart Skipped --
here out does himself with a prison based coming-of-age tale that is also a magic
realism charged ghost story.
When we first lay eyes on him,
nineteen-year-old Malik (incendiary newcomer Tahar Rahim), bares the scars of
the street. Now tossed into a human inferno – ruled by rival and fiercely
antagonistic Arab and Corsican gangs – Malik is ordered to murder another
inmate – a older informant who has the hots for him – as the price for being
“protected” by the prison’s Corsican don, the white haired and ferociously
ornery Cesar (a riveting Niels Arestrup). As wrenching as the murder scene is –
a naïve and frightened kid garroting a potential mentor with a razor – what
follows is literally astonishing as the murdered man stays with Malik and in a
very peculiar way instructs his transformation into a master criminal who
paradoxically may also be a comparatively decent human being. (Opens March 5 in Bay Area theatres)
4-Jean Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child: If you
thought Julian Schnabel’s feature debut undressing of a troubled man/child
painter who briefly set the New York Art world ablaze before succumbing to a
heroin overdose was all you needed to hear from Jean Michel Basquiat, doc maker
Tamra Davis says hold on a minute. Using his words and his art – labeled
Bebop-influenced neo-expressionism or sometimes gutter punk – Davis means to
resurrect the relevance of a black artist pioneer who she considered a friend.
5-Blue Valentine: If you’ve been missing a Ryan
Gosling (The Slaughter Rule, Fracture) fix these past three years,
rejoice, the Ontario bombshell is back, this time pitted against Brokeback
Mountain’s Michelle Williams in a nuanced chamber piece that attempts to
deconstruct a once loving marriage. Director Derek Cianfrance (with
screenwriters Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis) promise a wild ride with two of
the most brilliant film artists of their generation.
6-Hesher: On the subject of brilliance, the early
buzz from Park City has it that Joseph Gordon-Levitt absolutely steals the show
as a pranky, rude, anarchical antichrist figure who comes to haunt and bedevil
a family reeling from the loss of a young mother. Writer/director Spencer Susser
(with co-writers David Michod and Brian Charles Frank) give Joe a Halloween
fright wig and set him off to the frequently funny and scary job of helping a
thirteen-year-old kid (Devin Brochu) forget mom.
7-Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: If you think life
will never be the same now that Conan O’Brien has slipped off the late night TV
coil, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg give us a too close for comfort look at
female comedy’s original come back kid. Banished from late night when Johnny
Carson got pissed at her audacity for accepting a Fox show without seeking his
permission, the filmmakers show what its like for a female funny lady – whose
private life is forever shadowed by the suicide of her beloved husband – to
push on now that the odometer reads seventy-five and practically everyone
thinks she’s yesterday’s news.
8-Welcome to the Riley’s: Remember those glorious
interludes during the long reign of The Sopranos when David Chase would
suddenly lose gangland Tony and insert the emotionally supple James Gandolfini
into what amounted to a stand alone art film – sometimes a dollop of the
surreal such as Tony’s intensive care coma dream life, or maybe Tony Fellini.
Director Jake Scott and writer Ken Hixon cast Gandolfini as a distressed
businessman who finds an odd link to a young New Orleans woman (Kristen
9-Teenage Paparazzo/Smash His Camera: Sundance
doubles down on our taste for humbling pretty people having their fifteen minutes.
When thirteen-year-old Austin
notches a shot of Entourage pretty boy Adrian Grenier he doesn’t bargain
for the actor refusing to leave the frame and providing an intense tutorial in
Smash profiles a still active
camera hawk who earned a right to the jaw from Marlon Brando and a lawsuit from
10-Lucky: Jeffrey Blitz (Rocket Science)
confounds folk myths about ordinary blighters who hit the lottery.
11-All That I Love: Jacek Borcuch’s Polish sleeper
finds four provincial teens swept away by their dreams to be punk rockers just
as their country is rocked by the grass roots Solidarity movement.
12-Restrepo: Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington
create the doc equivalent of this year’s gripping war movie, The Hurt
Locker, as they embed us in the boredom, sheer chaotic terror and macho
camaraderie of soldiers from the Second Platoon trapped in a vital valley in Afghanistan.
13-Waiting for Superman/Daddy Longlegs: Two
films, two slants on the perils of childhood: the makers of An
Inconvenient Truth track dreams created and crushed by America’s capricious
Daddy Longlegs follows an
eccentric weekend dad’s capricious use of his “quality time.”