Having outlived and outlasted such erstwhile rivals as Slumdance, No Dance, Slamdunk, Lapdance, DigiDance, Dances With Films and even Son of Sam Dance (which turned out to be a Toyota van with a projector attached to its roof), the Sundance Film Festival is pleased to be able to celebrate its 25th anniversary this very year. Sort of.
The event itself, which began as the United States Film Festival in Salt Lake City, actually started in 1978. And the name wasn't changed to Sundance until 1991. What happened 25 years ago was that Robert Redford's Sundance Institute took things over, and nothing has been the same since.
For one thing, the number of films clamoring to be included in Sundance, which opens Thursday night in Park City, Utah, with a screening of the animated feature "Mary and Max," continues to be staggering. A total of 118 features were selected from 3,661 submissions, and don't even ask about the shorts: 96 were taken from 5,632 submissions.
Also showing no sign of letting up is the celebrity and swag hubbub that has increasingly shadowed the festival. Perhaps the most boggling press release this year was from one Christopher Ryan of Oceanside Entertainment, the creator of an "Unofficial Sundance Party List" that ran to 23 pages last year and was apparently bootlegged on Craigslist for upward of $500. Austerity has never been a Sundance hallmark.
However, it is the quality of the films shown that makes or breaks Sundance. It takes only a handful of quality films to make a festival memorable, especially on the often-chancy dramatic side, and there are several that fit that definition this year.
In the dramatic competition, a pair of films stand out of those available for viewing before the festival.
"Amreeka," beautifully written and directed by Cherien Dabis, stars the irresistible Nisreen Faour as an ebullient Palestinian woman who has to cope with the strains of moving to the U.S. shortly after the Iraq invasion. Made with a keen eye and a light touch, "Amreeka" excels at finding the warmth and humanity in a difficult situation.
Very different in tone is "Big Fan," written and directed by Robert Siegel, best known as the screenwriter of "The Wrestler." While both films deal with the unglamorous underside of professional sports, this story of how the life of an ultimate New York Giants fan gets turned upside down when he has an unplanned encounter with his idol is a poignant character study that is exceptionally well-acted by Patton Oswalt.
Probably the jewel of all the festival's dramatic films, and sure to be one of the best films of the year, is "An Education," the new work from Denmark's accomplished Lone Scherfig, whose "Italian for Beginners" and "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" were international hits. Working here with top screenwriter Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity") and actors Peter Sarsgaard and, in a breakout performance, Carey Mulligan, Sherfig has created an effortlessly involving film about a British high school girl, circa 1961, who meets an older man. This is one not to be missed.
If the quality of the dramatic films at Sundance is always hit or miss, the value of Sundance's documentaries, both those in the domestic and the world doc competitions, can always be counted on, and this year is no exception.
At the top of the list in the former category is Greg Barker's overwhelming "Sergio," a moving examination of both the career of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights, and the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his death in 2003 at the hands of a terrorist bomber in Baghdad.
Given the documentary competition's predilection for socially conscious films, it's no surprise that they predominate this year. Aside from "Sergio," some of the best of those are:
* "The Cove." With key parts shot guerrilla style, this muckraking doc follows a group of pro-dolphin activists, including Ric O'Barry, who captured and trained the original Flipper, as they attempt to unmask large-scale dolphin slaughter in a small town in Japan. A horror film whose most frightening aspects are all too real.
* "Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech." An examination of a variety of 1st Amendment crises as seen through the eyes of top attorney Martin Garbus, who happens to be filmmaker Liz Garbus' father. (A similar scenario has Sarah and Emily Kunstler investigate their father in "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.")
* "Dirt! The Movie." An invigorating look at an invaluable substance we take for granted that makes the case that "dirt might be more alive than we are."
Two of the competition's best docs this year, both directed by Sundance veterans, deal with aspects of media:
* Doug Pray's "Art & Copy" is an offbeat and entertaining look at the advertising business through profiles of legendary admen and women like Hal Riney, Mary Wells and the irascible George Lois, who made Tommy Hilfiger a household name much against his will.
* R.J. Cutler's "The September Issue" offers unprecedented access inside the offices of Vogue magazine, the Kremlin of fashion, plus an intimate portrait of Editor in Chief Anna Wintour, who knows just what she wants and exactly how to get it.
As has been the case in previous years, the world documentary competition is just as strong if not stronger than its domestic counterpart. Social and political concerns are also evident here, as witness "The End of the Line," an examination of what's happening to the world's fish (nothing good), and "Burma VJ," featuring riveting footage smuggled out of the country of demonstrations against one of the world's most repressive regimes.
Several of the world docs tell these kinds of stories in unusual ways. For instance:
* "Kimjongilia." A visually striking, inventively constructed documentary that intercuts grim testimony from North Korean defectors with a wide variety of unusual footage.
* "Big River Man." The most famous endurance swimmer in the world, an overweight Slovenian who manages 60 miles a day despite a taste for the bottle, attempts to swim the length of the Amazon to publicize the danger the river system faces.
* " Prom Night in Mississippi" examines the persistence of racism in a small town after resident Morgan Freeman offers to end the local system of separate black and white high school proms by paying for an integrated one.
Equally well done are a pair of nonpolitical films.
"Thriller in Manila" is a highly dramatized look at the bad blood behind one of the most brutal of heavyweight fights, the 1975 showdown between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. And "Nollywood Babylon" is an irresistible treatise on the Nigerian film industry, the world's third largest -- after Hollywood and Bollywood -- which produces 2,500 films a year, most made for less than $10,000 and all sold by street vendors. Even Poverty Row was never like this.
The one Park City festival that Sundance has not outlasted is thriving Slamdance, which has an anniversary of its own to celebrate this year, its 15th. That's long enough to feature films by a pair of Sundance veterans. Julie Davis, whose "I Love You, Don't Touch Me!" was a Sundance hit, returns with "Finding Bliss," while Broken Lizard, in Sundance with "Puddle Cruiser," shows up at Slamdance with "The Slammin' Salmon."
The most promising Slamdance films are the documentaries. Especially involving are "Heart of Stone," about the battle to bring a Newark, N.J., high school back to its former glory, and "The Road to Fallujah," an unusual personal look at a battle of another kind.
If you've read this far, you and only you deserve to know about the sleeper of the festival. That would be "Spooner," a delicate and quirky small-scale romantic comedy about an earnest teddy bear of a guy (Matthew Lillard), age 30, who absolutely, positively doesn't want to leave home. Then he meets Rose (Nora Zehetner). Directed by Drake Doremus and written by Lindsay Stidham, "Spooner" is sweet-natured, delicate and never overdone. You heard it first here.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times