Political filmmaking is an evergreen in Sundance's documentary competition, but two standout works complement each other powerfully in their emphasis on the local effects of national and international policies. Overseas, James Longley's mesmerizing "Iraq in Fragments" shakes off the oversaturated video vocabulary that has defined media coverage of the war-torn country and brings a cinematic beauty, both terrifying and ethereal, to the landscape. Broken into three sections that examine Iraq geographically, Longley focuses on the microcosmic experience, whether it be a young child, a radicalized adult or a wizened old man, to reflect larger truths about war and peace. And on the home front, Ian Inaba's sobering and effective "American Blackout" uses the Republican demonization of Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney to illuminate the causes and effects of African American disenfranchisement, especially in the 2000 and 2004 elections.
Following in the nascent tradition of 2004's "Tarnation" and 2005's "Grizzly Man," Sundance also debuts yet another documentary biopic that features people deeply drawn to recording their own lives on camera. In "TV Junkie," Michael Cain and Matt Radecki sift through 3000 hours to unearth the harrowing journey of adrenaline-lusting TV correspondent Rick Kirkham. Through marriage, fatherhood, and a successful broadcast career, Kirkham does his shakey best to balance a secret devotion to crack cocaine - until everything explodes in his face. At turns fascinating and repulsive, the film is both cautionary tale and exhibitionist orgy, a reality distortion where the subject's intimate sincerity and sense of self-worth is always in question.
The dramatic competition films finished their run with a collection of works that were solid in various ways but lacked the sort of innovation or inspiration to make them breakout experiences. In terms of performances, Ryan Gosling is riveting to watch as a hip public schoolteacher with a devastating secret in Ryan Fleck's atmospheric "Half Nelson," and Paul Giamatti's commitment to playing a tortured avian trainer almost single-handedly salvages the tediously overwrought "The Hawk Is Dying."
A sense of deja vu permeated Jeff Lipsky's "Flannel Pajamas" and Maria Maggienti's "Puccini for Beginners," in that the films, both of which explore sexual and romantic relationships, share principal actors (Justin Kirk and Julianne Nicholson). Of the two, "Flannel Pajamas" is by the far the more ambitious and accomplished in its intense, sober concentration on the arc of a single committed relationship. But "Puccini," a far more modest production, is fueled by a dizzying love for screwball comedy that gives its sometimes creaky plotting a bubbly vivaciousness.
The ripple effects of incarceration fuel both Paul Fitzgerald's "Forgiven" and Brian Jun's "Steel City." While "Forgiven," which examines the repercussions of a death-row pardon on the ambitions of a lawyer running for public office, offers a thoughtful, troubling look at moral equivocation, its scope is limited by a script that doesn't broaden its range effectively enough beyond the main characters' worlds. "Steel City," on the other hand, handsomely balances a half-dozen or so different storylines and richly-defined personalities all wrestling with their relationship to an imprisoned family member.
As for ensemble acting, two films stand out far ahead of the rest: Dito Montiel's "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" and Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer's "Quinceanera." Both movies - the former set in Queens, New York circa 1985, and the latter set in today's ever-gentrifying Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles - tell stories that sometimes feel stretched, convoluted or simply contrived. But the consistently high caliber of interaction among its cast draws attention to directors who clearly relish using performance not only as a narrative engine but also as atmosphere.
On the fringes of Sundance's prime selections are, of course, the midnight screenings, among which was the uneven neo-Frankenstein parable "Subject Two," Philip Chidel's surprisingly unhorrific horror movie that did have the viscerally thrilling plot device of a man continually needing to be killed as part of an immortality experiment - adding a clever layer of S&M to Shelley's enduring myth. But arguably the most fascinating film at Sundance this year was "Destricted," a collection of pornographic short films directed by such acclaimed auteurs as Matthew Barney, Larry Clark and Gaspar Noe. Vivid, inspired, wildly explicit and delightfully unerotic, their offerings - the best of them Clark's probing, hilarious study of how teens relate to sexuality and Marco Brambilla's mindfuck collage of porno scenes re-edited in flutter-cut associative clusters - are an electric reminder of how even the most familiar, cliched material can be born again as cultural epiphany. And isn't that what Sundance is for?
[Stephen Garrett is a freelance journalist and film editor based in New York.]
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