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Eugene Hernandez: Before Berlin Begins, The Ten Best from Sundance 2010

Indiewire By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire February 10, 2010 at 12:30AM

Berlin, Germany: February 10, 2010 -- When does a festival end? Even after a fest finishes screening films it can take days to take stock and gain some perspective on the event. For me, the Sundance Film Festival actually ends today, the day before I dive into another festival and a fresh crop of new films. So today I'll switch gears and close the book on Sundance as I open the door on Berlin. Because tomorrow, here in Germany, is the start of the 60th Berlin International Film Festival.
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Berlin, Germany: February 10, 2010 -- When does a festival end? Even after a fest finishes screening films it can take days to take stock and gain some perspective on the event. For me, the Sundance Film Festival actually ends today, the day before I dive into another festival and a fresh crop of new films. So today I'll switch gears and close the book on Sundance as I open the door on Berlin. Because tomorrow, here in Germany, is the start of the 60th Berlin International Film Festival.

On the plane to Berlin last night, as a buyer sat near me making a deal on his mobile phone before we departed, another film industry insider told me that this year's Sundance was, for him, the best in years. He said he saw some of the greatest films he'd seen in a long time. Of course, we agreed, it's all subjective. Choose a few other films and you might have a whole different experience.

For the past ten days since the end of the Sundance, I've been catching films I missed in Park City and contemplating the best of the fest. Like my friend across the aisle on the plane last night, I saw some terrific new movies. Along with my indieWIRE colleagues we've collected a list of our ten best of the fest. Ask us in a few months and the list might be different; we'll be catching up with more Sundance films as the fest cycle continues. And as we embark upon Berlin this week (and then SXSW next month), we'll also have hundreds of more movies to consider for our next top ten list.

The Best: "Blue Valentine" and "The Oath"

At the annual HBO dinner on the first Sunday of Sundance I was chatting leisurely with Ruby Lerner, executive director of the Creative Capital Foundation, and we were talking about this year's fest. Great art doesn't give answers or tell you what to think, we agreed, but rather grapples with complexity, in ways that can sometimes be unsettling and confusing.

Laura Poitras at the Sundance Film Festival last month. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Such is the case with Laura Poitras' "The Oath", a quietly provocative Sundance competition documentary that artfully challenges notions of Al Qaeda and the Middle East. It's the best doc I saw among another string of top notch non-fiction films at Sundance. I watched the movie at its first Park City screening and found myself unsettled for more than a day after. Calling it "quietly disturbing" in my initial write-up about the movie, I was shaken by its carefully constructed complexity that refuses to tell the audience what to think. As Ruby said during our dinner, great art can be unsettling and confusing.

Filmmaker Laura Poitras intended to make a movie about a detainee returning home from Guantanamo, but the story lead her in a different direction, revealing a complicated view of Al Qaeda and two men who were once close to Osama Bin Laden. Poignantly, the U.S. imprisoned the insider with loose ties to the terrorist group while the man with an apparently much closer link is freely driving a taxi in Yemen, the new hotspot that gained international attention in the wake of the recent attempted Christmas attack on an airplane over Detroit.

Two days later, I had an even more incredible Sundance experience. Leaving the Eccles Theater after the first screening of Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" someone approached me saying that he appreciated my recent 10 Best of the Decade list. I responded that if he recalled my list - with filmmakers including Almodovar, Wong Kar-Wai, Todd Haynes, and Gus Vant - he'd know why I loved "Blue Valentine" so much.

As I proclaimed at the start of a panel discussion the following afternoon, "Blue Valentine" is among the best films I've ever seen at the Sundance Film Festival (and I've been going for 17 years now).

I met Derek Cianfrance back at Sundance '98 when I fell for his first feature, "Brother Tied." Over the years we'd crossed paths and I'd heard about how he was close to getting his second feature, "Blue Valentine" off the ground. Walking into the Eccles for the first showing, I realized that the film had to be great to meet my expectations. It took Derek a dozen years and he finally pulled it off; the film was even better than I'd hoped it might be.

I've talked with friends about "Blue Valentine" for hours since seeing it at Sundance, again recalling my chat with Ruby Lerner. Great art doesn't give answers, it grapples with complexity. There's a beautiful complexity at the heart of "Blue Valentine." We meet a man and a woman at the end of the rope of their relationship, but are soon transported to the birth of their bond. Sadness and joy intersect and collide throughout the film, leading to a stunning conclusion. Derek Cianfrance meshes sound, image, story and performance in a way that evokes the great achievements of cinema, just like those movies on my ten best list. Also, I still can't stop listening to "You and Me" by Penny & The Quarters.

Eight More Greats

Those are my top two from Sundance, but in putting together a ten best list, I asked my indieWIRE colleagues to share the films they were most passionate about at the festival (and I added one more that I loved).

(in alphabetical order)

"12th & Delaware": Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's latest documentary hits the crux of the culture wars and walks a tightrope, offering a penetrating observational view of both sides of the abortion issue as seen from a pair of clinics across the street from each other. The film spurred dynamic Q & A sessions and will no doubt continue to stir discussion wherever it plays (and after it airs on HBO). [Brian Brooks]

"Boy": Taika Waititi takes several conventional scenarios -- the coming-of-age story, childhood flights-of-fancy, the early eighties -- and combines them into a charming, bittersweet portrait of a young boy with daddy issues that seems intent on perfecting everything that came before it, including Waititi's own trademark deadpan humor. [Eric Kohn]

"Catfish": The definitive account of social networking gone awry to cap off the decade. It's probably the first real zeitgeist movie for the iPhone generation; more than that, it's a tantalizing study of the pratfalls when truth and media collide. [Eric Kohn]

"GasLand": The paragon of first person documentary filmmaking, this compelling account of gas wells around the country and the damage they cause to rural populations makes a case for outrage with its remarkable individualized touch. [Eric Kohn]

"The Imperialists Are Still Alive!": Sorry to say that I missed this one at Sundance, but thankfully I caught up with it after the fest. Evoking a host of New York movies that debuted in Park City over the past twenty years like "Metropolitan," "The Daytrippers" and even "Party Girl," Zeina Durra's first feature is an often hilarious window into modern Manhattan. Seemingly both sincere and silly in its depiction of clashing New York lifestyles, the film is a perfect portrayal of the so-called luxury Manhattan that one encounters today, as seen from conflicting vantage points (and viewed in beautiful 16mm film). Drunken models in high heels stumble through a Chinatown storefront to drop a password and gain entry to a hotpot of the moment, "I'm a friend of Mr. Tang's!" [Eugene Hernandez]

"The Kids Are All Right": The power of Lisa Cholodenko's film lies in how consistently funny and deceptively lighthearted it feels. But in the end, the affecting nature of the film creeps up on you. The film's passionate final scenes leave you with the immediate realization that there is much more at play here than simply a sharp romantic comedy. "Kids" is one of the most endearing and genuine cinematic portraits of a contemporary American family ever, and one that just so happens to be reared by a same-sex couple. [Peter Knegt]

"Lovers of Hate": An engaging, well-crafted film made on a minimal budget that is well-acted and cleverly written. Bryan Poyser's latest showcases a bizarre love triangle with the elements of a stirring thriller. [Brian Brooks]

"Please Give": Nicole Holofcener's film has a similarly subtle profundity as "Kids". I've always loved Holofcener's work, and am quite certain "Give" is her best. It's an intentionally slighter film than "Kids," but its performances (Rebecca Hall, Anne Morgan Guilbert and Oliver Platt in particular) and the way Holofcener can write real characters and real dialogue so easily, make it a great companion piece and a worthy film in its own right. [Peter Knegt]

A Guide to Sundance

Critics and bloggers surveyed the 100+ feature films at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival on iW's criticWIRE, grading films A - F over the course of the festival. The complete list of grades for each film are available on each movie's individual page here at indieWIRE.

Looking at the best of the fest, according to criticWIRE, "Blue Valentine" and "Winter's Bone" are the top ranked Sundance narrative competition films, while "Gasland," "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," "12th & Delaware" and "Last Train Home" were the top ranked competition documentaries.

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be reached on his blog, through Facebook or via Twitter: @eug.

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This article is related to: Features, Festival Dispatch, First Person