by Jessica Mosby
At the opening day press conference, Sundance Institute President and Founder Robert Redford proclaimed, “I love all of the films at this festival!” Eleven days of films later, I cannot agree more. This was a banner year for the annual Sundance Film Festival. There were great films and large audiences hungry to see something new and exciting. The presence of female directors was unprecedented. Previous Sundance darlings returned with their latest work while other directors made their festival debuts. I often found myself torn – schedule-wise – between seeing a film by a favorite director or venturing off into uncharted territory with a new face everyone was talking about.
Post-festival, it is impossible to pick a favorite film. Would it be a drama or documentary? Can I even choose between two such distinctly different forms of filmmaking? Rather than choose just one favorite movie, I have picked my top films (eight in all) from this year’s festival.
Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology
Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology is a movie for our times. Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain effectively weaves together two distinct narratives: the modern history of progress and the challenges humanity faces in this technologically new world and her personal struggle of watching her father dying while she is trying to have a second child. Shlain’s father – brain surgeon and best-selling author Leonard Shlain – had originally hoped to make the film with his daughter. Rather than act as a formal co-filmmaker, the senior Shlain’s life-long neurological research serves as the documentary’s factual core. What emerges is an incredibly accessible and affecting 82-minute film that ends with some much-appreciated optimism.
Crime After Crime
There are certain documentaries that get your blood boiling. Crime After Crime is one of those films. Director Yoav Potash documents the legal struggle of Deborah Peagler, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in 1983 for her involvement in the murder of her abusive boyfriend. Evidence of the ongoing abuse was never presented during her original trail. Twenty years later, two pro bono attorneys from Northern California take Peagler’s case under a new California law that allows evidence of domestic abuse to be admissible in old criminal cases. The legal fight to reduce her original charges and sentence is the foundation for an incredibly dramatic 94-minute documentary that reveals the corruption of our legal system, while touting the resilience and commitment of extraordinary people struggling for what they believe in.
Kelly Reichardt is one of my favorite directors. Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are two original pieces of recent cinema that I loved. That said, I was not expecting Meek’s Cutoff. The Western follows three families as they brave the Oregon Trail in 1845. When the film begins, their seemingly incompetent or corrupt guide, Stephen Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood), is taking too long to guide them to their destination, and water supplies are dwindling. The dialogue is sparse as Reichardt captures the realism of everyday pioneer life – setting up camp, making food, dismantling camp, and walking all day next to a wagon. The pioneers (most notably Michelle Williams, a Reichardt casting favorite) are dirty, tired, and frustrated. Meek’s Cutoff is an exceptionally quiet and beautiful film with awe-inspiring cinematography and dramatic tension that makes 104 minutes feel like 10.
Pariah (Winner of the Excellence in Cinematography Award, U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Pariah’s title refers to its lead character, 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye). Alike is struggling with her sexuality and in turn her relationship with her conservative African American parents. At her Brooklyn high school, Alike is a star student with few friends. At home, her mother (Kim Wayans) is continuously nagging her to wear more feminine clothing and not hang out with certain friends. Alike’s homosexuality is that which is not spoken. Director and Screenwriter Dee Rees’s 84-minute coming out story is originally conceived, perfectly cast, and masterfully executed. There is a tone of universality in Alike’s desire for independence and acceptance that makes Pariah an exceptional film that vividly captures the moment between youth and adulthood.
Filmmaker Miranda July returned to Sundance with her latest effort, The Future. While the 91-minute film is not as good as her Sundance debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, it was still one of my festival favorites. Maybe it was the cat narrator. In many respects, The Future starts where Me and You and Everyone We Know ended. July’s character Sophie lives with her boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater) in a small Los Angeles apartment. Both work mediocre jobs that fall short of their talents and ambitions. After deciding to adopt a special needs cat, the couple realizes they only have one month to “live” before the cat arrives and they are tied down. July nicely mixes the heavy life stuff with the irreverent (the cat narrator) and lovable (Linklater) to meditate on what it means to really live.
The Last Mountain
The Last Mountain is an energizing environmental call-to-action. The United States continues to get much of its energy from burning coal, despite the existence of more efficient and environmentally friendly alternatives. Director Bill Haney puts a human face on mountain top coal removal by documenting the catastrophic environmental and health effects of such practices in Appalachia. The 95-minute documentary will make you reconsider where energy comes from, and the real price of seemingly unlimited, easily accessible power in every American home. What is most inspiring about The Last Mountain is that for all the real gloom and doom that the film documents, it ultimately presents real alternatives that could change the course of American energy policies and start the environmental restoration of Appalachia.
These Amazing Shadows
These Amazing Shadows is a movie for people who love movies. Filmmakers Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton document U.S. efforts to preserve original film reels through the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Beginning in 1989, films were selected for the registry through an exhaustive process. Mariano and Norton interview film critics, actors, directors, and preservationists about the importance of film preservation and their favorite films of yesteryear, including their registry lobbying efforts. Most noteworthy is the recovery of original reels of films later edited by censors to remove “indecent” content; I cannot wait to re-watch the 1933 Barbara Stanwyck classic Baby Face now that it has been restored to its pre-censor glory. While the documentary does not present any revolutionary conclusions (I wholeheartedly agree – films should preserved!), it is an enjoyable 90 minutes that celebrates filmmaking and makes you want to watch more movies.
About the Author:
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.