I went to Sundance so you wouldn’t have to

SN&R’s movie critic delivers his 2010 flick preview from Robert Redford’s famed Park City film festival

<i>Please Give</i>: You haven’t really done Sundance unless you’ve seen at least one film co-starring Catherine Keener.

Please Give: You haven’t really done Sundance unless you’ve seen at least one film co-starring Catherine Keener.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the 2010 Sundance Film Festival wrapped. Yeah, sorry this is late. I’ve been hung over. Anyway, I don’t have room here to tell you everything, so let me just break it down to the stuff I thought might be worth writing home about.

Films I liked

Charlie and the Rabbit

In UC Davis grad student Robert Machoian and Davis native Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck’s deceptively simple short film about a 4-year-old Bugs Bunny fan who sets out to do a little Elmer Fudding of his own, the environment—namely, Davis’ woods and wide-open fields—becomes a very compelling character.

Enemies of the People

Having lost several members of his immediate family to the Khmer Rouge genocide, tenacious Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath (in collaboration with British filmmaker Rob Lemkin) now spends his weekends gently persuading killing-field functionaries to demonstrate on him how they cut dozens of throats and patiently cultivating a cordial acquaintanceship with Nuon Chea, formerly Pol Pot’s “Brother No. 2.” All Sambath wants is an explanation. What he gets is an enthralling, unprecedented communiqué on the legacy of evil.

Enter the Void

So here’s the explicit and violent new film by explicit violence enthusiast Gaspar Noé, whose variously nauseating but nonetheless exhilarating work I first encountered at the Sacramento French Film Festival.

It’s about a pair of siblings—she’s a stripper, he’s a petty drug dealer—whose lives go to hallucinatory hell in Japan. It’s inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And it’s not for everyone. I exited Enter the Void wondering exactly how Noé, best known for 2002’s Irreversible, goes about his creative process, and trying to imagine his notes to self: Had Monica Bellucci raped. What next? Tokyo DMT trip as sex-and-death-infused episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos? Well, here you go.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

This is not the first documentary about an artist made by a friend of the artist and therefore lacking some essential critical distance. Nor is it the first feature-length movie about this artist in particular (that would be Julian Schnabel’s biopic, Basquiat). But Tamra Davis’ portrait of the late-’70s graffiti poet-cum-Lower East Side pop-primitive art superstar seems fresh and inspired nonetheless. Not to mention poignant: Just look at everything he made before joining the ranks of famous American 27-year-old drug casualties.

Please Give

Because you haven’t really done Sundance if you haven’t seen at least one movie co-starring Catherine Keener. Here, Keener anchors a solid, shrewdly chosen ensemble cast that also includes Oliver Platt and Amanda Peet. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener seems to get better with every film, and now she’s cruising along the well-trodden path of neurotic New Yorker comedy-drama with grace and comely confidence.

A Prophet

<i>Peepli Live</i>: Beware of Bollywood bathos.

I’m very happy to report that Jacques Audiard’s deserving Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is due to open at the Tower Theatre on March 19. Worth waiting for, it’s a tale both topical and timeless: a young Arab man’s odyssey of self-actualization through prison life and organized crime. Audiard’s arty but forthright storytelling seems like the ideal counterpoint to the enormity of his protagonist’s arc.

Sins of My Father

The son of despotic Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, long ago self-exiled to a new name and a new life in Argentina, reaches out to make amends with the sons of two politicians his father had murdered. And so Nicolas Entel’s documentary primer on recent Latin American political history has the great advantage of archetypal dramatic themes. “In the end,” the younger Escobar says, “we’re all orphans.”

The Tillman Story

As director Amir Bar-Lev’s unnerving and absorbing documentary makes clear, there is still more to say about the handsome NFL star who became an Army Ranger and a Noam Chomsky-reading, war-opposing, self-sacrificing patriot, Pat Tillman. With open access to his family and guarded access to his unit, Bar-Lev boldly wades into the morass of dishonorably manifested military embarrassment about Tillman’s death by friendly fire in Afghanistan. As in his earlier doc, My Kid Could Paint That, the filmmaker focuses on the train-wreck collision of self-expression, propaganda and marauding media hype by which highly personal stories become national ones.

Winter’s Bone

Director Debra Granik’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel won the festival’s Waldo Salt screenwriting award and its grand jury prize for drama, and deserved them both. In the backwoods of the Missouri Ozarks, a teenager tries to find her meth-dealer dad before she and her helpless younger siblings and their mentally absent mom get evicted from the house Dad put up for his bail bond before disappearing. The feminism, like the regionalism, comes naturally in this textured, character-driven thriller, with standout performances from Jennifer Lawrence as the indomitable heroine and John Hawkes as her speed-freak uncle.

Films I would like to have liked

Blue Valentine

Indie golden boy Derek Cianfrance returns to narrative features with a vaguely pretentious and perhaps needlessly nonlinear narrative of a working-class (yet suspiciously hipsterish) marriage in decay. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling give their many shallow-focused close-ups everything they’ve got, but after a while the whole thing feels hollow. And if that’s the point, well then it has been noted, thank you.

Four Lions

Reportedly “controversial” for centering on a group of would-be suicide bombers in London, this is admittedly the funniest comedy of jihad in recent memory, and a good-faith effort in the subgenre of adorably bumbling criminals. It’s just too bad the one-note satire of their insane ideology isn’t thoughtful or outraged enough.


I’m still puzzling over Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s experimental not-quite-docudrama, in which James Franco plays a young, glamorized, gay-iconified Allen Ginsberg, reading and discussing his landmark poem while his publisher sits mutely in court defending it against a charge of obscenity and several animated rhapsodies, by Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker, dramatize the poem itself. This poetically intelligent but structurally iffy and dramatically limp film gave me the real thrill of remembering Ginsberg’s brilliance, but also revealed the real and dubious difficulty of trying to make a movie about it.

Nowhere Boy

UC Davis grad student Robert Machoian and Davis native Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck shot<i> Charlie and the Rabbit</i> in Davis&#8217; woodsy and wide-open environs.

A respectable if not indelible account of John Lennon’s teenage years, and basically the back story of his song “Mother.” The performances—by Aaron Johnson as our hero, Anne-Marie Duff as his nutty mum, Kristin Scott Thomas as his punctilious aunt and Thomas Sangster as his Paul McCartney—are skillful, but, well, perfunctory. Even now, it somehow just doesn’t seem right that a film about the lead Beatle should fade from memory so easily.

Peepli Live

A media circus ensues when an indebted rural farmer considers killing himself in order to earn government support for his family. Anusha Rizvi’s first feature, based on woefully true-enough events, almost achieves all splendor and the sting of an R.K. Narayan novel, but it becomes unwieldy and descends, perhaps inevitably, into the broad strokes of Bollywood bathos. I guess I’ll just keep waiting for the perfect black comedy about suicide.

Films I would like to have seen


It’s just mumble-core maven writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass doing their thing—in this case, a quasi-improv DIY rom-com full of awkward, authentic weirdos—but it has an unusually compelling assortment of A-listers: John C. Reilly, Catherine Keener, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill.


Spencer Susser’s willfully antisocial feature debut offers up a revolting heap of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, here making quite an impression as a grieving family’s unwanted anarchist houseguest. Also with Natalie Portman in Sarah Palin glasses. One person I talked to described it as “despicable,” which is putting it mildly compared to how another person described it. Gordon-Levitt is an actor I admire, and maybe I missed this on purpose, for fear that he has arrived at a career plateau.


In which square-jawed, thrill-addicted journalistic Tyrannosaurus Sebastian Junger, along with fellow war-zone regular Tim Hetherington, embeds among a platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan’s “deadliest place on Earth,” the Korengal Valley. This doc got a Sundance prize, too, hopefully not for a take-home message along the lines of “War is hell—ain’t it awesome?!”

Films I don’t regret not seeing because I was out drinking or skiing


The whole movie consists of Ryan Reynolds in a coffin, underground. That’s an easy concept to get behind, but life is short, and 10 days in Utah is shorter.


Because, come on. Weren’t we all already overusing that word five years ago?

The Runaways

Writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s girl-band biopic isn’t inherently objectionable; I just don’t think I’m ready to see Twilight’s Kristen Stewart portraying Joan Jett. Yes, I’ll give it a chance eventually, but only because the ever-excellent Michael Shannon’s in it, too. OK, and Dakota Fanning.