Our critics discuss 23 of the cold hard dramas and red-hot docs at this year's Sundance Film Festival


Sundance Film Festival

Owen Gleiberman

The grandest movie venue at the Sundance Film Festival is the Eccles Theatre, a plushly gargantuan high school auditorium with long, ribbony rows and no middle aisles. (Once a movie commences, it becomes an epic act of rudeness to even try to get to the restroom.) Cavernous yet comfy, the Eccles is the Big Tent of Sundance, and swathed in its institutional movie-palace vibe, I realized that the synergy of Hollywood and independent film is now so complete — such a routinely accepted fact — that griping about it is nothing more than an exercise in mid-’90s nostalgia.

Nevertheless, there were times at Sundance this year when the awkward waltz of purity and formula, daring and commerce, made one’s head spin. My own head spun, mostly with pleasure, as I watched Hustle & Flow, which in its fusion of up-from-the-streets grit and follow-your-dream mythology emerged as the signature movie of the festival. Produced by John Singleton, and directed and written by a 33-year-old whippersnapper named Craig Brewer who is clearly going places, it tells the story of a small-time pimp who tries to become a hip-hop artist, recording his own homemade crunk tape. Terrence Howard, mumbling in a Memphis drawl as thick as chicken-fried gravy, gives a wily and memorable performance, making good on the promise he showed in films like Ray and The Best Man. But just as you’re tuning in to his hardscrabble authenticity, you notice that the character never gets too mean or violent. He’s a nice realistic pimp. That said, once you accept Hustle & Flow as the toy-credible version of a pimp’s life, it’s shamelessly easy to get onto the movie’s wavelength, seduced as you are by the canny detail (the white teen hooker with the cornrows and the sullen pout), the gnarly charisma of Howard’s performance, and the down-to-the-bone crunk soundtrack that lodges itself in your ears.

If there’s a genre that’s always been the bane of Sundance, it’s the ”quirky” dysfunctional-family comedy. In that light, I found Phil Morrison’s Junebug to be a small miracle. It’s a disarmingly delicate culture-clash comedy set in North Carolina, where a neurotic down-home clan plays host to its overachieving elder son and his refined British wife. Liberated from any trace of caricature, the film digs deep into the world of the South and into the treacherous karma of in-law relations. Junebug is so good that I was doubly dismayed to see Steve Buscemi, who has proved such a gifted filmmaker (Trees Lounge), descend to the slacker-goes-home preciousness of a vintage bad Sundance family drama with the third movie he’s directed, Lonesome Jim, starring Casey Affleck as a one-note mope.

In need of a bracing wake-up, I went to The Aristocrats, a sickly fascinating and hilarious documentary in which 100 comedians do variations on the ultimate inside dirty joke — an excuse for each one to parade his grossest fantasies. Nothing is taboo in this jolting spectacle of marquee joke tellers letting their Marquis de Sade ids fly.

Another comedy brimming with zesty shock value, Pretty Persuasion, starring Thirteen‘s Evan Rachel Wood as a high school femme fatale, is a cavalcade of satirical rudeness that’s most effective as a mystery spinning around the question, How far will today’s mean girls go? The answer, according to the acandalous Hard Candy, is: Farther than you ever thought. This clever and excruciatingly intense duet of psychological torture features a fashion photographer getting punished for his pervy ways by the enraged 14-year-old girl he picks up in a chat room. The uncanny young actress Ellen Page makes the literate sarcasm sear. Devious games are also played in The Dying Gaul, though Craig Lucas’ malevolent love triangle, while suavely acted by Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson, and Peter Sarsgaard, starts as a brilliant dissection of sexual hypocrisy and then gets lost in its convolutions.

There are moments when all you require from a documentary is that it serve a great subject well. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a nimble investigative workout that leaves you with the exhilarated sensation of, at last, understanding the defining financial scandal of the virtual era. Inside Deep Throat does an exuberant and savvy job of packing 30 years of the porn business into 90 eye-opening minutes, and The Devil and Daniel Johnston explores the most eccentric figure in indie rock: a mentally ill troubadour who became an icon to the Cobain generation, even though he demonstrates about as much talent as Chauncey Gardiner.

To me, the most resonant films at Sundance were dramas that carried the cleansing slap of reality. Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack & Rose burrows inside the busted illusions of a latter-day hippie, played with ornery conviction by Daniel Day-Lewis, and the adolescent daughter he can’t bear to lose. And Layer Cake, which features the steely-yet-sensitive Daniel Craig (Sylvia) in a star-making performance, is a dense, wild, and convulsive British gangster thriller that gets at something you rarely see outside The Sopranos: the anxiety of those who live by spilled blood.

Lisa Schwarzbaum

Given the choice between Murderball, a nonfiction film about sexy, sumbitch quadriplegics who ram the living daylights out of one another playing rugby in souped-up wheelchairs, and Pretty Persuasion, a fiction about affectless, able-bodied teenagers who flop through their pretty days like fish, I’ll take the wheelchair guys with balls any day. And there you have this year’s Sundance Film Festival in a sweeping generalization: The documentaries grabbed my lapels because they were about something, while a critical mass of evanescent American dramas, heavier on mood than on matter, nuzzled coyly for attention.

Forty Shades of Blue, Ira Sachs’ Grand Jury award-winning drama about a Russian trophy girlfriend living in Memphis with Rip Torn as a fire-snorting bull of a music producer, riffled through all 40 swatches of cultural alienation beautifully, but little lingers in the memory besides the exquisite hues of melancholy painted by Dina Korzun as a lonely lady. Happy Endings, Don Roos’ lithe and clever shuffle of relationships gay and straight, features delicious performances by Lisa Kudrow and Maggie Gyllenhaal, but after the couples swing their partners, all that sticks is the revelation of Gyllenhaal’s slinky talents as a cabaret singer.

Brick, a stylish first feature by Rian Johnson starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a kind of high school gumshoe in a kind of high school film noir, brims with restless style minus the story to support it. Naomi Watts is endearingly unglued in the title role of a struggling Los Angeles actress in Scott Coffey’s self-conscious inside-the-industry fairy tale/nightmare Ellie Parker — but at this point, watching a famous Australian movie star play an American penny-ante hopeful lacks that Nathanael West feeling.

As for Noah Baumbach’s thumb-on-the-bruise autobiographical drama The Squid and the Whale, it’s a furiously wellobserved (and well-written) story about the sorry effect of a crappy divorce on a couple of brothers, with a standout performance by Jeff Daniels as the narcissistic father (Laura Linney plays the complicated mother). The film is affectingly personal — minus the artistic transition to the universal that always deepens impact.

I loved Miranda July’s piquantly original first feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, about fragile, quirky, and imperfect human connection. It was probably my favorite among the American dramas I saw, and I loved it like a poem, or perhaps like a piece of the performance art for which July is known; it is also poem-size, the kind of exotic delicacy likely to bloom only in festival soil. (For a different kind of stunt performance art, filmmaker Andrew Wagner cast his actual nonactor parents in The Talent Given Us, a nervy/zany/intriguing invented drama in which the parents of Andrew Wagner drive cross-country in search of their filmmaker son, Andrew Wagner.)

With no conclusions drawn about contrasting apertures of worldview, I can report neutrally that the most powerful and resonant drama I saw was the riveting Danish film Brothers, by Susanne Bier, about what a military man does to survive while serving in Afghanistan — and what effect war has on the peace in his own home. The stupidest drama I saw was also Danish — the inane Dear Wendy, directed by Thomas Vinterberg from a script of Lars von Trier’s post-Dogville leavings. It’s all about American children in love with guns, a fixation for von Trier, who has yet to set foot in America.

Still, while it’s easy for a mediocre doc to coast on content, it takes more than a great subject to make a good movie. Cool as the athletes are in the exciting Audience Award winner Murderball as they slug it out for the world championship title in the game called quad rugby, the story-telling pizzazz of filmmakers Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin is even cooler. The two know that nonfiction needs character, conflict, structure, suspense, and emotional payoff as much as any fiction. And they juggle multiple plotlines, including the lifelong rivalry between magnetically ornery competitors Mark Zupan (who’s got a hot, punk girlfriend) and Joe Soares (who’s got a soft, violin-playing son), and the slow rehabilitation of Keith Cavill, a broken moto-cross racer. There’s also zippy camera work, impolitic humor, thrilling sports action, and lots of good talk about quad sex.

Competing in the newly established category of World Documentary, on the other hand, Werner Herzog’s brilliantly disturbing essay Grizzly Man achieves a different kind of haunting greatness. Here is the tragic ballad of Timothy Treadwell, an intense loner with a surfer’s blond looks, who made his home among grizzly bears in the Alaskan peninsula for 14 seasons — until he was devoured in 2003, along with a girlfriend, by one of the creatures he loved. Treadwell’s own obsessive videos become the tracks Herzog follows, while adding his own footage and musings on the nature of nature and men. Grizzly Man, in turn, becomes a Sundance teaching tool in storytelling power.