By Austin Dale | Indiewire January 30, 2012 at 12:31PM
Indiewire was on the scene at this year's Sundance Film Festival checking out this year's crop of new independent films. Here's all of our reviews from the festival.
When 1970s Mexican-American singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez faded from view, he'd never had much visibility in the first place. Typically known only as "Rodriguez," the musician's gentle pop tunes and activist spirit came through in a handful of albums that were barely noticed in the U.S. However, "Searching for Sugar Man," documentarian Malik Bendjelloul's remarkable chronicle of Rodriguez's neglect on his home turf and unexpected stardom in South Africa, compellingly argues for his place in the canon of great American rock stars, whether or not he wants the spot.
'The House I Live In'
"The war on drugs" has been a part of the national vernacular for so long that it seems old fashioned. Eugene Jarecki's Sundance-winning documentary "The House I Live In" unravels that overused term and if his approach is exhaustive and sometimes overbearingly detailed, it also reveals a troubling and paradoxical system of hierarchical, lower-class oppression.
'Sleepwalk With Me'
"Sleepwalk With Me" is based on writer-director Mike Birbiglia's one-man show; on those terms, the standup comedian-turned-filmmaker has made a respectable debut. With the help of producer and co-writer Ira Glass (NPR's "This American Life"), Birbiglia chronicles his struggle to find work as an aspiring comedian while fending off mysterious somnambulistic tendencies. The movie has no distinctive style despite
The allure of boundless wealth provides fertile ground for documentarian Lauren Greenfield in "The Queen of Versailles," a glossy portrait of a billionaire too confident to face the reality of his impending financial woes. Known by peers as "the timeshare king," real estate mogul David Siegel once built the largest and most expensive home in the country, a 90,000-square-foot mansion near Orlando that he was forced to put on the market after the recession hit. A self-made entrepreneur addicted to materialism, he never hesitates to speak openly about his burning desire. "If people don't need to feel rich, they're dead," he asserts--which makes "The Queen of Versailles" into a story of Siegel's battle to survive when everything he takes for granted becomes his enemy.
Sketch comedy program "Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!" is even more absurd than it sounds. Each fleeting episode features show creators Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim inhabiting a cheesy, lo-fi studio and engaging in a series of strange antics and tangents that transfix the utterly stoned and occasionally amuse everyone else.
Benh Zeitlin's 2006 short film, "Glory at Sea," rendered post-Katrina grief with an overwhelming sense of magic realism that quickly turned the project into a sleeper hit on the festival circuit. "Beasts of the Southern Wild," Zeitlin's feature-length debut, contains much of the same thing, repeated ad infinitum for roughly 90 minutes: Zeitlin offers up a majestic encapsulation of a child's worldview. Supremely ambitious and committed to profundity, "Beasts" sets the bar too high and suffers from a muddled assortment of expressionistic concepts, but it still manages to glide along its epic aspirations.
The filmmaking collective known as Borderline Films took Sundance by the storm last year with Sean Durkin's unsettling cult drama "Martha Marcy May Marlene," but their first major exposure began at Cannes with Antonio Campos' 2008 "Afterschool." The mysterious high school drama displayed the Borderline gang's penchant for dark narratives, long takes, and a disquieting mood closer in tone to European art cinema than anything else happening in the U.S. scene. His sophomore feature, "Simon Killer," continues along precisely the same path with far stronger results: With a dense, often impermeable style and a mentally unstable protagonist, "Simon Killer" is like watching the disturbed anti-hero of "Afterschool" all grown up.
Mark Webber's "The End of Love" is a kind of therapy for its director. Loosely based on the filmmaker's life, the movie stars Webber (an actor whose credits include "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") alongside his real-life toddler, Isaac, and explores the challenges of his single-parent household. Intimately shot and almost exclusively focused on the two characters' daily lives, "The End of Love" maintains an effectively bittersweet atmosphere that works its quiet spell throughout, although it aims too low to leave a particularly strong impression.
Documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have proven themselves masters of the vérité approach with the first-rate documentaries "Jesus Camp" and "12th and Delaware." In both cases, they managed to engage hot-button issues in a miraculously even-handed fashion, pitting radical-conservative attitudes (about religion and abortion, respectively) against liberal opposition without alienating either side. Their latest topical effort, "DETROPIA," lacks the same clearly defined battle lines that make their earlier films so galvanizing, but nevertheless delivers a snapshot of Detroit's dire financial straits and struggling middle class.
French director Quentin Dupieux's wacky "killer tire" movie "Rubber" was a surreal investigation into high-concept storytelling that opened with a mission statement: Facing the camera, an officer explained all narrative events would take place for "no reason." With his latest effort, "Wrong," Dupieux takes that to an even further extreme, teasing out a story while relishing a steady bombardment of zany non sequiturs. Dupieux's ridiculous foray into irreverence never aspires to transcend its fundamental silliness, but the continuing oddities accumulate into a singularly amusing head trip.
There's nothing fresh about the premise of a grown single man living at home with his mother, but Danish director Mads Matthiesen's first feature, "Teddy Bear," has a unique strategy for rejuvenating the formula. Its lead, real-life bodybuilder Kim Kold, is a hulking mass of biceps and bulging veins, but none of his chiseled features help in his quest for true love. Physically, he dominates the room; emotionally, he's a delicate flower.
The first sign of trouble in "Red Hook Summer" is a reminder of a much better Spike Lee joint set in the same neighborhood over 20 years ago. While sheltered Atlanta teen Flik (Jules Taylor Brown) gets a tour of the Red Hook projects from his stern grandfather (Clark Peters), none of other Lee himself slinks by as Mookie, the disgruntled pizza delivery man from 1989's "Do the Right Thing." Lee's latest project suffers terribly from comparison.
Austin-based sibling filmmakers Nathan and David Zellner make movies in a loony vacuum in which the only constant is a fixation on the bizarre. While technically geared toward comedy, neither their feature-length "Goliath" (which also premiered in the NEXT section, at Sundance 2009) nor innumerable offbeat short films commit themselves to punchline-driven humor.
Survival stories often occupy an ambiguous space in the horror genre, lingering somewhere between misogyny and female empowerment. The "final girl" trope pits a lone, frequently virginal woman against some ungodly threat, both glamorizing her struggle and imbuing it with dread. While generally conventional, Katie Aselton's "Black Rock" contains a nice twist on the genre by dividing the "final girl" archetype among three strong women as they dodge a pair of murderers on a remote island. Aselton's unassuming guilty pleasure gently diverges from a familiar scenario with impressively tense results.
Julie Delpy's genial 2007 directorial effort "2 Days in Paris" worked well enough; it delivered a small, uncomplicated romantic comedy and never left that safety zone. Her next film, "2 Days in New York," repeats the same formula so specifically that it's practically the same movie imported to a new setting. Shifting her love interest from Adam Goldberg to Chris Rock and moving the setting to Manhattan, "2 Days in New York" unfolds like a carefree metropolitan remix of the first installment. Since Delpy brings the same cheery vibes and her cast plays along, the familiarity is mostly welcome.
A jubilant celebration of raunchiness, "For a Good Time Call..." maintains the giddiness of a classic Doris Day sex comedy with all the suggestive dialogue transformed into the real deal. If it's as bubbly and forgettable as its precedents, "For a Good Time Call…" also shares their carefree attitude toward situational comedy. Built around snarky one-liners it's alternately grating and hilarious, often for the same reasons.
It's probably unfair to describe "Safety Not Guaranteed" as "Back to the Future" by way of "Juno," as it certainly sets the bar too high. But in terms of entertainment value and tone, the shoe fits. Colin Trevorrow's good-natured romantic comedy takes a handful of characters facing familiar conundrums -- loneliness, family problems, the desire to follow your passion no matter how absurd it may seem -- and sustains them with solid performances and impeccable good vibes. It's the rare case of endearing quirkiness.
"From the producers of 'The Tillman Story' and 'Man on Wire,'" reads a description for "The Imposter" provided by the Sundance Film Festival, which might have added "No kidding." Documentarian Bart Layton's engaging investigation into a bizarre 1997 case in which a Spanish man impersonated a missing adolescent from San Antonio--convincing the boy's relatives that he was the real deal--combines non-fiction detective work with an alluring sense of mystery. Sustained by its weird-but-true hooks, "The Imposter" only suffers from being too enamored of its unknown variables to reach a satisfying whole.
The "found footage" horror movie has been, if you will, done to death. Handheld camcorder footage provides an excuse to eschew cinematic storytelling in favor of sloppiness, under the assumption that the amateur quality fits the narrative. The anthology horror movie "V/H/S" is a sharp rebuke to this laziness, delivering the creepiest first-person horror movie since the original "Paranormal Activity" while pushing the genre in a fresh direction with the sheer visceral energy of its execution. The camera never sits still and neither will nail-biting audiences as they endure the heightened uneasiness created by this marvelously frantic accomplishment.
"I'm always in somebody's way," says Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), the Berkeley writer stuck in an iron lung and desperate to find love in "The Surrogate." His desire to improve his experience by seeking a sexual encounter forms the bulk of this undeniably sweet, affecting movie as it explores the impact of physical bonds on personal contentment through O'Brien's heartbreaking commitment to a difficult task. Less dreary than uplifting, "The Surrogate" succeeds as a light romance with heavy material.
The Western world viewed the Tahrir Square uprising through selective media filters and left the personal dimension largely ignored, which makes the handheld footage on display in Sundance World Competition documentary "1/2 Revolution" both stunning and vital. Shot by a group of progressive multinational friends on various devices during the heat of the drama, the material gets up close with the events and the mindset of the people experiencing them. Almost diary-like in its intimacy, "1/2 Revolution" is a thrilling first-person action movie empowered by immediacy.
Nobody else could fit the role of a crestfallen rocker that Paul Dano embodies in director So Yong Kim's remarkable "For Ellen." Kim's delicate feature takes the conventional deadbeat dad formula and rejuvenates it by letting Dano's naturalistic performance lead the way. The actor portrays a perpetually lost young man with a combination of innocence and utter confusion as he wanders through his life in a total daze. It's a role he was born to play and the movie sustains it.
"Keep the Lights On" looks like what it is: An incredibly personal work for writer-director Ira Sachs. The story of Danish documentarian Erik (Thure Lindhardt) living in New York and enduring a tumultuous relationship with the drug-addicted Paul (Zachary Booth) spans a decade with an unhurried pace attuned to the on-again, off-again pattern that the men endure. Sachs' quiet, observational style conveys the rich texture of the characters' ever-changing behavior. It's deeply affecting, even when nothing much happens.
Two years ago, Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" made waves for its impressive combination of improvised dialogue and keen insight into human relationships, a tricky balance achieved while also seamlessly drifting between comedy and drama. Her follow-up doesn't expand her range but applies it differently. "Your Sister's Sister" is another highly enjoyable relationship comedy, but a far quieter and contained work. Fortunately, Shelton stays within the boundaries of the material without overextending it, reaffirming the effectiveness of her homegrown approach.
Norwegian director Joachim Trier showed serious promise with his feature debut, "Reprise," a thoughtful coming-of-age drama about growing artist types with plenty of verve and style. His effective follow-up, "Oslo, August 31st," takes the opposite route. With its moving lead performance by "Reprise" star Anders Danielsen Lie, Trier constructs a powerful, upfront document of a recovering drug addict confronting the demons of his past.
The issue with "This Must Be the Place," Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino's first English language feature, has nothing to do with whether it makes light of the Holocaust. That might be a worthy debate if it didn't face other problems. Chief among them: An uber-campy Sean Penn performance, a gratingly quirky soul-searching plot, and character motives that barely make any sense. It's far too much of a godawful mess to merit serious moral scrutiny.
The classroom drama has become such a popular genre for societal analysis that it can be boiled down to a few essential ingredients: Good-natured but internally conflicted instructor takes on intellectually capable but emotionally stunted class and figures out a way to tame them. "Monsieur Lazhar," the fourth feature from Quebec-based filmmaker Phillippe Falardeau, fulfills these clichés while at the same time transcending them. It has neither the gritty edge of "Half Nelson" nor the screwball energy of "Hamlet 2" but a combination of realism and wit that relates it to both of them. The light, charming exterior services darker tragedies at the root of the story.