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66 Reviews From the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 28, 2014 at 12:48PM

Here are all of the reviews from the Sundance Film Festival 2014.
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Documentaries

Jesse Moss' "The Overnighters"
Sundance "The Overnighters"

"We Are the Giant" (Doc Premieres)

"'We Are the Giant' is both vital and devastating, with raw material conveyed through elegant construction. Barker asks the hard questions, issuing the frightening possibly of necessary violence when pacifism yields no results." Read more here.

"To Be Takei" (Doc Premieres)

"Now almost as popular for his amusing Facebook posts as his original 'Star Trek' performances, Takei makes for a genial screen presence as Kroot's movie capably acknowledges his contemporary appeal even while adding nothing new." Read more here.

"The Overnighters" (U.S. Documentary)

"At first galvanizing in its depiction of survival amid dire circumstances, 'The Overnighters' transforms into a devastating portrait of communal unrest. Jesse Moss' verite documentary about the impact of the oil boom in Williston, North Dakota on the local job market, and the controversial priest supporting the lives of the newcomers it attracts, contains one of the most remarkable examples of layered non-fiction storytelling to come along in some time." Read more here.

"Fed Up" (U.S. Documentary)

"Utilizing visual effects to deliver an infographic whiz-bang, 'Fed Up' is a slick presentation. However, Couric's narration suffers from a stilted quality not unlike the mechanical patter of the evening news." Read more here.

"Dinosaur 13" (U.S. Documentary)

"A subset of the recent scientific-documentary-as-thriller tradition epitomized by 'The Cove' and 'Blackfish,' Todd Douglas Miller's 'Dinosaur 13' is both awe-inspiring and tragic. Conventionally made but featuring an undeniably compelling story at its core, Miller's debut benefits greatly from the combination of passion and sadness embedded in its subjects' tale." Read more here.

"Return to Homs" (World Documentary)

"'Return to Homs' prioritizes such closeness with the insurgency over any journalistic analysis of their situation. On the outskirts of town with his family, Saroot displays a tenderness that belies his militant energy, showing the essence of the conflict between pushing ahead and attempting to flee." Read more here.

"Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory" (U.S. Documentary)

"The film's biggest shortcoming is its inability to trust the enormous power of its subjects. The magic that comes out of watching patients' rediscoveries works best when shown uninterrupted. Too often, however, these moments get relegated to part of a longer montage or used merely to enforce an industry professional's point." Read more here.

"Last Days in Vietnam" (Doc Premieres)

"While the documentary hardly breaks any new creative ground, its powerful content speaks for itself by revealing a harrowing episode of the Vietnam War — already a troubling chapter of American history. In interviews with subjects ranging from Henry Kissinger to a Vietnamese student who survived the ordeal, 'Last Days in Vietnam' is deeply compelling in its episodes, if a bit dry in its moments of straight historical narrative." Read more here.

"Mitt" (Doc Premieres)

"Even if you care little about him as a politician -- and I'll confess to that myself -- 'Mitt' offers up a fascinating divide between the private man and the public image. It's a divide the film is unable to account for on screen, which is understandable and frustrating." Read more here.

"Concerning Violence" (World Documentary)

"Olsson’s follow-up [to 'The Black Power Mixtape'], the bracingly unconventional 'Concerning Violence,' contains a radically different focus and tone. However, Olsson’s non-linear, found footage snapshot of African colonialism mirrors 'Black Power' for its similar use of preexisting material repurposed to strengthen its modern significance. Viewed together, the two movies offer a wholly unique process of interrogating history." Read more here.

"The Case Against 8" (U.S. Documentary)

"The first directorial partnership and Sundance debut of former Hollywood executive Ben Cotner and director Ryan White (2013's 'Good Ol' Freda') refuses to capitulate its compassionate treatment of all players in the five-year same-sex battle Hollingsworth v. Perry in the interest of greater purpose. Their emotionally-wrought take on the case takes it out of landmark territory and into the terrain of momentous historic significance." Read more here.

"Whitey" (Doc Premieres)

There's a telling moment in Joe Berlinger's latest documentary, "Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger," when a member of the defense team for the legendary Boston crime boss explains to one of his witnesses, "You're a better storyteller than I am." Although Berlinger’s latest work is a dense, unsparing look at the offenses and trial of Whitey Bulger, it's equally concerned with capturing how the many members of Bulger's expansive web -- criminals and innocent citizens alike -- use their experiences to control their version of the man. Read more here.

"The Internet's Own Boy" (U.S. Documentary)

"If you had magical powers, would you use them to for good, or would you use them to make mountains of cash?" Aaron Swartz's brother asks in Brian Knappenberger's documentary "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz." The question of whether this generation's programming magicians will choose to use their power for purpose or profit reverberates throughout this film's portrait of the eponymous late social activist. We often see stories of slight, sloppy-looking young coders like Swartz transformed into national icons by the tech industry, but rarely with such close attention to ethics. Knappenberger has delivered a film brimming with outrage, whose zeal becomes persuasive once Swartz takes on his activist mantle. Read more here

"Cesar's Last Fast" (U.S. Documentary)

Leader of the most vulnerable sector of American workers, Cesar Chavez was a relentless activist whose pioneering advocacy earned him a place among the great figures in world history. His battle against the tyrannical wealthy growers to better the conditions of thousands of Mexican Americans farm workers is chronicled in Richard Ray Perez's competent documentary "Cesar’s Last Fast." Read more here.

"Finding Fela" (Doc Premieres)

"Finding Fela," prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest work, faces the challenge of depicting a contradictory artist. But that's not to say it isn't entertaining. On the contrary, the film — about the life, times and music of Afrobeat superstar and Nigerian revolutionary Fela Kuti — is exceptionally watchable. Kuti's wild life never loses its surprise ingredients: from the time he married 27 girls in one ceremony to his involvement with a "spiritual guru" who slit throats for party demonstrations. The film's challenge lays in its difficult hero, an enormously talented and charismatic man who was also troubled, stubborn, unpredictable, and probably not entirely sane. Read more here.

"Mr. leos caraX" (World Documentary)

Tessa Louise-Salomé’s “Mr. leos caraX” doesn’t evade the self-congratulatory aspect of exploring an artist at work, but it remains a mesmerizing experience thanks to the appeal of modern cinema's most enigmatic auteur. Blatantly pitched at an audience already enamored of Carax’s mystique, Louise-Salomé's documentary doesn’t try to unpack Carax's films—practically an impossible task—and also leaves aside his personal life. Carax regular Denis Lavant, one of several interviewees in the movie, commenting on the strangeness of playing the lover of his director's "ex-girlfriend, soon-to-be girlfriend, or soon-to-be ex-girlfriend" is as personal an insight as we get. But since the director hardly speaks on set, it's hard to get a sense for what we're supposed to get out of the experience — a portrait of the director or his filmmaking? Read more here.

"The Battered Bastards of Baseball" (Doc Premieres)

"The Battered Bastards of Baseball," a documentary by siblings Chapman and Maclain Way, manages to be many things at once: an affectionate ode to their grandfather, a distinctive snapshot of a noble sports experiment and a bittersweet glimpse at the possibilities of the many ways in which the game of baseball can be experienced. Read more here.

"Happy Valley" (Doc Premieres)

No stranger to movies about scandal, documentarian Amir Bar-Lev has explored the fallout of private misdeeds made public in "My Kid Could Paint That" and "The Tillman Story." With "Happy Valley," Bar-Lev turns his camera on the outcome of disgraced Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky in the wake of his incarceration on sexual abuse charges. But this time, the project indicates few attempts at revealing new information. Instead, "Happy Valley" magnifies the impact of Sandusky's downfall on the various members of the Penn State community, aiming less to extend the public narrative than to broaden its scope. The result is a frequently riveting, if fairly straightforward, portrait of a university town grappling with its disgraced reputation. Read more here

"No No: A Dockumentary" (U.S. Documentary)

Sundance's timeline annually clashes with the NFL playoffs', but it was a life spent partly in baseball that gave this year’s festival one of its most captivating stories. The curious case of Dock Ellis’ now-infamous no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the San Diego Padres on June 12, 1970, thrown under the influence of LSD, is no stranger to Sundance audiences. James Blagden’s 2010 short “Dock Ellis & The LSD No No” is an amusing and concise encapsulation of the feat, featuring animation set to a public radio interview with Ellis. While Jeffrey Radice’s “No No: A Dockumentary” uses some of those same clips to illustrate the events surrounding that day nearly a half-century ago, those expecting a feature-length breakdown of a single athletic achievement will be pleasantly surprised to instead find a much deeper, fulfilling examination of the life that surrounded it. Read more here.

"Watchers of the Sky" (U.S. Documentary)

"We can’t try everybody who’s guilty of wrongdoing," admits Ben Ferencz at one point during Edet Belzberg's "Watchers of the Sky," a sobering statement from one of the Chief Prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. A reminder of the scope of humanity's flaws, it also concisely encapsulates the enormous task faced by anyone trying to come up with a comprehensive look at genocide. By bringing in perspectives from the media, activists, historians and the refugees themselves, Belzberg presents a view of modern challenges in combating genocide that, while not entirely thorough, is a sobering reminder of the difficulty of those efforts. Read more here

"Rich Hill"

Beautiful, haunting elegies for American poverty have gradually developed into a subgenre of modern documentary filmmaking: "October Country" captured the struggles of a dysfunctional family in upstate New York, while "Oxyana" found echoes of desperation among drug-addled residents a West Virginian mining town, and the newly released "12 O'Clock Boys" presents a lyrical view of daring teen street bikers from low income regions of Baltimore. Directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palmero's "Rich Hill," which won the Sundance Film Festival's grand jury prize for documentary over the weekend, epitomizes the best and worst aspects of this non-fiction storytelling tendencies. Read more here

This article is related to: Reviews, Sundance 2014, Sundance Film Festival, Nick Offerman: American Ham, No No: A Dockumentary, Viktoria, Lock Charmer, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, The Signal, Watchers of the Sky, They Came Together, Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, Ping Pong Summer, I Origins, Mr. X: A Vision of Leos Carax, Hits, Dear White People, Happy Valley, Finding Fela, The Voices, Fed Up, Song One, Little Accidents, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, Cesar's Last Fast, Listen Up Philip, Jamie Marks Is Dead, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, The Raid 2, WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, Under the Electric Sky, Calvary, Happy Christmas, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Wish I Was Here, Infinitely Polar Bear, The Foxy Merkins, God Help the Girl, Young Ones, Boyhood, Land Ho!, We Are the Giant, Frank, To Be Takei, To Kill a Man, The Case Against 8, Love is Strange, Concerning Violence, God's Pocket, The Overnighters, Mitt, Appropriate Behavior, The Babadook, Laggies, The Skeleton Twins, Last Days in Vietnam, Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory, R100, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Double, Camp X-Ray, Return to Homs, Dinosaur 13, Wetlands, Whiplash, Cooties