Looking back at Sundance 2006 -- Our critics weathered storm and return with tales of addiction, attraction, and disaffection

By Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 03, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Our critics look back at Sundance 2006

Lisa Schwarzbaum

It’s a tribute to the extravagant too-muchness of the Sundance Film Festival that although I saw four movies a day during my Park City immersion, I didn’t see Quinceañera or God Grew Tired of Us, the fiction and nonfiction entries that took home the top prizes this year. I feel free to confess my oversight because this was the first time in 10 years that Sundance felt like a private experience rather than a group hug — a year in which favorites presented themselves more on reflection than on the spot.

As a jury of one considering dramas competing for prizes, I’d give my top award to Half Nelson, director Ryan Fleck’s gently pitiless portrait of a good New York City schoolteacher named Dan (Ryan Gosling) — a bright, middle-class young man in charge of an inner-city class — who is slowly spiraling downward in a crack cocaine habit he only thinks he’s hiding. It’s soon apparent that Drey (Shareeka Epps), one smart student in particular, is onto him with a mixture of love and angry disappointment. A loser’s sense of busted possibility passed from generation to generation is the subtext: Dan’s liquored-up parents remember the old days of Vietnam protest, and Drey lives her own young life surrounded by drug dealers. But Fleck touches on heavy things lightly, aptly applying the restlessness inherent in vérité moviemaking technique to volatile scenes. And in this he’s blessed with a tour de force performance — yet another — by the brilliant Gosling, surely one of our greatest young movie actors.

Another rising star, another exceptional perf: As the chief penitent in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Shia LaBeouf holds together Dito Montiel’s memoirish (don’t quote me, Oprah) tales of growing up tough and undernurtured in 1980s Queens, N.Y. The old days weren’t falsely good days in Montiel’s reckoning, adapted from his own tough book. And when, as the adult Dito, Robert Downey Jr. takes over to come to terms with a powerful Chazz Palminteri as his ailing father, the film goes electric with impacted emotions let loose at long last and after great hurt.

Any adult nostalgia to relive the fresh teen-girl life again was killed for me by Stephanie Daley and In Between Days, two fine — but grim! — dramas about fresh teen girls drowning in boy-girl confusion. The former, a tautly drawn, elegantly structured work by Hilary Brougher, juxtaposes the case of the title character, a 16-year-old girl accused of killing her newborn baby even though she claims she never knew she was pregnant, with the conflicted feelings of the pregnant forensic psychologist assigned to determine Stephanie’s truth; riveting performances by Tilda Swinton as uneasy woman and the exceptional Amber Tamblyn as miserable girl keep the power perfectly, painfully balanced between the two. In Between Days, written and directed by So Yong Kim and set in a wintry stretch of Any North American Koreatown, uses exquisite stretches of idleness to convey the psychological isolation of Aimie (newcomer Jiseon Kim), a Korean immigrant in love with a boy who sees her as a friend, nothing more.

In the mood for more misery, this time with the gloss of whores- as-royalty? Watch for the sensitive, award-nominated Spanish hit Princesas, by Fernando Léon de Aranos, in which prostitutes prove themselves to be, you know, wonderful women. For claustrophobic grimness above and beyond the call of the depressed Armistead Maupin story it’s based on, there’s The Night Listener, starring Robin Williams and Toni Collette, both acting with a capital Ouch. On the other hand, Wristcutters: A Love Story has the sound of sadness, but the joke turns out to be on us: Goran Dukic’s droll romp (based on an inventive novella by Etgar Keret) is deadpan delightful, imagining a washed-out afterlife populated by suicides, set in a territory that looks like a cross between a Jim Jarmusch American dreamscape and a lousy stretch of Eastern Europe, and starring Patrick Fugit and Tom Waits.

I want to give The Science of Sleep another go before I decide whether Michel Gondry’s directorial follow-up to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also delightful — or, as I suspect, just a drifting, indulgent distraction. It’s got yummy Gael García Bernal playing a man whose life and dreams bleed together; that’s a plus. It’s also built on Gondry’s excessively whimsical screenplay, minus the literary and structural intelligence of Charlie Kaufman that made Eternal Sunshine so sunshiny. So let’s proceed to documentaries, where my jury-of-one award would be split: Half would go to the American competition doc Iraq in Fragments by James Longley, a patient, lyrically photographed, closely observed meditation that pays calm attention to aspects of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish daily life. The other half would go to The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez by Swiss filmmaker Heidi Specogna — a well-researched, graceful film about the first American soldier to be killed in Iraq, a few hours after the war began in 2003; Gutierrez was, as well, an illegal immigrant and former Guatemalan street child. (For sheer Aussie wackadoodliness perfectly applied to the subject of an eccentric Australian wallpaper designer murdered in 1977, I’d also give a special prize to the great Gillian Armstrong for Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst; the thing is made in daft-on-daft heaven.)

And now the best of the fest, saved for last and buried, as Sundance often does with its own treasures: Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, classified by programmers as ”experimental,” is neither far-out nor hard to reach, but instead a soft-spoken, capaciously eloquent film about the friendship between two thirtysomething straight men on a weekend camping trip. There’s no sex, no crisis — just talk, silence, a shared adult experience of lost possibilities and present realities. It’s a beaut, and I hope you get to see it; I also hope that Sundance is open to more like it, more often.

Owen Gleiberman

At a film festival, everyone is a bit of a junkie. In the space of a week, you see more movies — 15, 20, or 25, depending on your tolerance — than most people do in a year. Hungry and glassy-eyed, you lurch from screening to screening, in search of the next fix, the movie that will make you higher than the last one. At first, the quest is exhilarating; after a while, it can turn exhausting — a more intense dosage may be required. Yet the hunger never dies. Why should it? When the Sundance Film Festival is as fluky and daring as it was this year, movie love becomes an addiction you scarcely want to recover from.

It was hard to avoid thinking in feed-your-habit terms, since the most resonant films I saw at Sundance were all deep-dish tales of dependence, chemical and otherwise. Take TV Junkie, a mesmerizing documentary trip to hell. The filmmakers, Michael Cain and Matt Radecki, edited down more than 3,000 hours of home-video diaries shot by Rick Kirkham, who chronicled his ’90s notoriety as a reporter for Inside Edition — and also his addiction to crack, which he hid from his family, even as he recorded it all, in squirmy and bleary-eyed 3 a.m. confessional detail, on camcorder tapes he never once rewound or watched. Kirkham, who resembles a hopped-up, hollow-cheeked Peter Gallagher, has an appetite for destruction that he can’t stop stoking, even as he attempts to cling to a normal existence. The fascination of TV Junkie is the way his drug life fuses with his need for the camera. Kirkham’s video descent becomes a tawdry tabloid Grizzly Man, a look at the secret sick heart of fame as it falls apart in someone’s hands.

Lauren Greenfield’s shocking and powerful Thin brings a different kind of addict perilously close to us. It’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary shot at a Florida facility for the treatment of eating disorders, and Greenfield, who follows four young women who’d rather die than eat, enters deep into the terrifying mysteries of anorexia and its more violent cousin, bulimia. Going beyond the standard fascism-of-fashion-culture sociology, the film reveals the urge to purge as not just an obsession but a religion, a hardwired belief that consumes body and soul. Thin is as pure and profound as the finest documentaries of Frederick Wiseman. It’s also a movie that could save lives.

Addiction hardly comes much rawer than in these two docs, but Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby, starring the brilliant Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a worthy fictional companion piece. She plays a monstrously self-involved druggie screwup — a young woman who emerges from prison, desperate to reconnect with her young daughter, but without the tools, or even the desire, to turn herself into a functional person. The way Gyllenhaal plays her, you can’t take your eyes off this human train wreck. Given the paucity of great roles for women in Hollywood, I couldn’t help but link Sherrybaby to Come Early Morning, in which Ashley Judd, after years of trying to keep her head above the schlock she was in, returns to her roots as a radiant and supple actress. Playing a rural small-town contractor who boozes and sleeps around yet won’t connect to any of the men she’s with, Judd nails a new breed of postfeminist lonely heart: strong, wounded, angry, touching in her self-delusion. The real surprise is that this deeply skilled character study was written and directed by Joey Lauren Adams, the baby-voiced star of Chasing Amy. She’s a born filmmaker.

Okay, I can just about hear you thinking: Were there any Sundance movies that were, like… fun? A lot of viewers gave major amusement points to Little Miss Sunshine, the year’s big festival crowd-pleaser. I couldn’t share the buzz, though. This road comedy about a quarrelsome family on its way to a prepubescent beauty pageant doesn’t waste a moment sticking its characters into sitcom slots. The presence of Greg Kinnear (as the annoying dad) and Steve Carell (as the morose gay uncle) could help make it a hit, and compared to Happy, Texas or Tadpole, it’s the Citizen Kane of glib-sitcom Sundance movies, but still: Little Miss Sunshine is cutesy, pre-chewed entertainment. For escapism, I preferred Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, a sumptuous mystery starring Edward Norton as a magician in 1900 Vienna whose stage tricks cast a luscious spell.

This was a notable year for music docs. Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold celebrates the veteran rocker in a lovingly mounted and shot concert film: a performance gorgeously haunted by the ghosts of age and loss. In Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, former Police drummer Stewart Copeland uses his Super-8 home movies of the band’s rise to create a collage of life inside the bubble of pop fame, and American Hardcore takes a sharp look at the crash-and-burn noise bands that pioneered U.S. punk in the shadows of Reagan.

Anticipation at a film festival works in strange ways. I was avid to see Art School Confidential, the new precocious-outcast comedy from director Terry Zwigoff and his Ghost World collaborator, Daniel Clowes. But this one, while sprinkled with choice bits of flaked-out boho satire, turns derivative and inflated. By contrast, I expected nothing from Stay, a comedy written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait with a premise that sounds like pure shock gimmickry, but it turned out to be a nutty delight. Melinda Page Hamilton has unmistakable star quality as Amy, who in college gives in to a sexual whim so over-the-line perverted that I can’t bring myself to describe it in this magazine. Years later, can she reveal her secret to the man she loves? Stay is a ticklish and disarming satire of the true nature of truth in relationships.

But will it ever reach a theater near you? Not likely — at least not if the MPAA has anything to say about it. Kirby Dick’s irresistible muckraking documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated exposes the puritan follies, the hypocrisies, and — in a private-eye coup worthy of Michael Moore — the hidden identities of the MPAA ratings board. It’s a movie that might just shake up the world of movies, which would be good news for movie addicts everywhere.