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Section 101 Blog

Guest Blog - CTO Jim Hoffman from Sundance

This year's Sundance Film Festival, which I attended on behalf of Section 101, may have lacked the big "oomph" of the past years but that just showed me that even if the festival was missing a huge buzz movie, Sundance is still the place to be for filmmakers who want to showcase important, if not totally mainstream, films.  

The narrative films I saw were generally flawed and heavily overshadowed by the documentaries.  Almost without exception, the films all had something important to say and generally did not provide easy resolutions.  I was moved and challenged by most of the films I saw, and the diversity on both race and gender lines of the filmmakers continued to bring exciting fresh new voices to the forefront.  This was also probably the most blind I have ever gone in to the Festival, having not done my usual research on the movies I want to see in advance of flying to Park City.

In addition, Section 101 and Filmmakers Alliance has their Annual Sundance party at Trove Gallery on Main Street.  It was a great time, with a solid mix of filmmakers (both aspiring and ones with movies at the Fest), actors, producers, directors and more. 

As I've done in past years, I've put together a blog/diary of the movies I saw while I was at Sundance, and my sometimes strong opinion of what I thought of them! 

The Wow films:

Wild Tales

This film was actually nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category this year (but did not win).  This is a dark, twisted and very clever movie from Argentina.  It is comprised of 5 short films that each make stark commentary on the stress and complexity of modern life along with the craziness it drives us to.  Very original and funny - I am very excited to see what this director does next.  

Me, Earl and the Dying Girl

This film was the winner of the Critic and Audience awards, and deservedly so.  It seems on track to be this year's "Whiplash," "Little Miss Sunshine," etc.  I went in not expecting a lot and was blown away by the story, its wit, and ingenuity, and, of course, the acting.  This is a beautifully told coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a girl dying from Leukemia.  While this probably doesn't sound very appealing, trust me that this is a great film, with a strong voice, that will make you laugh as it brings you to tears.

Sembène

This documentary is the story of the father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembène.  Sembène started out as an author, but realizes early on that the literacy rates in Africa challenged his ability to reach his audience, so he switched to filmmaking.  It shows you the importance of people being able to have stories told in their voice and culture, along with the importance of film as a tool for education, social transformation and political change.  His topics ranged from slavery to genital mutilation to religious destruction of culture.  Sembène fought his entire life for his art and his people.  A powerful story that highlights the importance of art as both a political and educational weapon.

The Wolfpack

What a story!  This is the kind of film that makes documentaries both so exciting and important.  The movie focuses on a a family of 7 kids who live on the Lower East Side and almost never leave their (small) apartment. The children are home schooled by their mother and monitored by a very strict, and probably mentally ill, father. All they've learned about the outside world has been from watching films ("Dark Knight," "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," etc...). There are many difficult subtexts to this story that we see on and off screen, but this is a tale of resilience and love in the midst of serious issues of abuse.

Russian Woodpecker

This is a documentary about Russia and the Ukraine that tells the story of a very plausible theory that Chernobyl was blown up on purpose to hide the failure of an unrelated, but massive, Cold War experiment.  Under pinning this is the tale of our protagonist, a quirky and lovable Ukrainian-turned-Sherlock Holmes.  I hope this film gets distribution so the truth can be finally revealed.

Homesick

I love the director of this film, Anne Sewitsky.  Her movie "Happy Happy" was the Sundance Grand Jury prize in 2011. Her style and voice echo Bergman.  Sundance films don't generally tackle easy subjects, and here we look at incest. Every aspect of the film works, from the incredible performances to the script and cinematography.  Her work also reminds me of Jane Campion, one of my all time favorite directors. 

Meru

Gripping film about three men and their quest to scale an un-climbable peak in the Himalayas. The movie focuses on their personal journeys and the trials and tribulations that they face.  This was the best film at Sundance on a pure cinematic level.  The story telling and cinematography are brilliant.  A must see! 

Racing Extinction

This is the latest film by the director of "The Cove," Louie Psihoyos.  "Racing Extinction" looks at the impact of man on other species, and how it relates to the world and environment as a whole.  While the film presents some horrifying information, it is focused on hope.  This is a film in the category of “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Chasing Ice" that should be required viewing of every person on the planet.

The Rest:

The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution

This movie starts off telling you that there is no single story for the Black Panthers, a radical group of militant self defense "authorities" for minorities. While that is true, it is also becomes central to the film's problems.  It is an interesting topic, but the lack of a core theme makes it less interesting and not very impactful.   

However, there is some amazing archival footage that alone is worth seeing the movie.  Ultimately, the film will change the way you think of the Black Panthers.  All the information is there, but the choice to tell it as a linear narrative causes many of the things that strike resonant chords with issues that remain today such as racial profiling, police injustice, housing, jobs and education. The topics all get lost in the self-destructive muddle that the Black Panthers eventually devolve into.

Girlhood

Set in the housing projects of Paris, "Girlhood" tells the story of a teenaged girl challenged by her surroundings and trying to find her way.  I felt like this was a film with subtext that didn't translate cultural boundaries.  I was excited because I thought it would talk to the social, economic and cultural issues within France but instead, at least for me, it had little to say.  Not that I need films to be full of hope, but I do expect them to have a purpose.

Cronies

This is a nice simple film that was the thesis of one of Spike Lee's New York University students.  Not to take away from it, but not surprisingly, it felt a bit like Spike’s "She's Gotta Have It."  A well-told story of both culture clash and jealousy between three men in their early twenties, two of who share a long, deep bond, and the challenge of the introduction of the third person into the mix.

The Forbidden Room

This is more art than film.  Wild abstract movie paying homage to lost and rare low budget films from the past.  Thrilled I saw it, but this also had the most people walk out of any film at Sundance this year.  Not for the timid.  

Advantageous

This is an interesting sci-fi movie with a lot to say, maybe too much, but still very well done and worth a view.  It presents a vision of the future where many core issues of today are explored.  One of those films that you can’t find much fault with, but still feels as if it is lacking something essential.  

Eden

Probably the most disappointing of the films I saw, and sadly, another one from a French director.  This story follows a group of people involved in the French House music scene over the course of a decade. The movie ends up just meandering through their interconnected lives with little purpose to the journey. Perhaps that is the point, but it certainly didn't need 2-plus hours to tell, and the "resolution" at the end feels lightly connected to the rest of the film.  I enjoyed the soundtrack.  This movie would be really painful for someone who doesn't like EDM and does little to educate.

Chorus

Okay, I should have known better on this one... "Chorus" tells the story of two parents lives after the death of a child.  Sundance is famous for film descriptions that seem to relate to something other than the film you see.  This one had the description "Spartan dialogue, poetic inner monologues, single images held to contemplate, and minimalist yet rich characters—all contribute to a quiet cinematic power that builds to a crescendo of exceptional beauty and emotional catharsis".  I some how missed that part.  Bleak, bleak, bleak.  Hated it.

Cloro

Simple, quiet film set at a run down ski resort in Italy about a young woman's struggles with the conflict between her hopes and dreams, and her role as daughter and sister.  Beautifully told and acted.

Shorts 2

Shorts are such a great part of independent filmmaking.  The shorts is where you really get to see the new talent.  This collection highlighted a new trend in which filmmakers are hoping to take the original short and expand it into a feature.  “Whiplash" is a great example of this as was the aforementioned "Advantageous"

Summer of Sangaile

A beautiful film from Lithuania that tells the story of a friendship and ultimate romance between two young women.  The performances and chemistry between the two is magic and we are drawn into the love that they share.  

Slow West

I love westerns, wish there were more!  Here we have an Austrian take on the American Western, and it works.  Not a great, or even classic film, but the performances are terrific. Really, when has Michael Fassbender done anything bad? 

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Based on a graphic novel of the same name, this film tells the story of the sexual awakening of the a young woman in maybe not the most appropriate of circumstances. A truly stand-out performance by Bel Powley, also starring Kristen Wiig as Powley's mother and "True Blood"'s Alexander Skarsgård. The movie was buzzy, and is very edgy. Not everyone's cup of tea, but will find a strong audience that it resonates with.  

 

Let me know if you end up seeing any of these movies at the Cinema this year and whether you agree with my reviews!

- Jim