Friday, January 20, 2012

Reactions to First Four Sundance Movies

Because I don't like to know too much about the movies I am about to see here before I see them, it's often a real gamble. Which is fine - anyone who comes to a film festival not expecting to see their fair share of crap is more than little deluded. That said, I've been really lucky with my first four choices thus far.

I am hoping to see my streak of great movies continue for at least the rest of the day if not beyond. Here is what I saw so far. You'll be kind to excuse the cliches and misspellings - I am not a writer, but I do like being able to come back and remember what I liked and didn't like throughout the year, and make recommendations to others, so I jot this down.

The Queen of Versialles

This timely documentary that started off being about a wealthy businessman building the largest home in the US and quickly quickly turned darker in tone after recent economic events has been getting some press recently because its subject is suing Sundance. Apparently the guy (without having seen the film) doesn't like the way he's portrayed in some of the promotional materials. The filmmaker wisely declined to discuss that at her Q&A, and that was fine because the film perfectly stands alone as a fascinating, sometimes funny, often sad story of greed and redefining what it is to live within your means. I made the comment before and I stand by it: it would have been so easy to take shots at wealthy people who are so far removed in a lot of ways from real life. But that would do them and the audience a disservice since real life isn't always that simple. These folks are more than cariacatures here, and the director thankfully resists the urge to turn them into that even though she must have had plenty of opportunities. I hope this film can get seen by a wide audience, because I really enjoyed it and I think just about anyone else would also.

Hello I Must Be Going

Melanie Lynskey may not be a household name but many remember her from her debut opposite Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, or as the irresponsible mom of troubled wrestler teen from last year's unconventional family dramedy Win-Win. She admitted almost self-deprecatingly onstage last night after her film that she knows she's a character actress and is grateful for every role she gets. I for one would love to see her take the starring role a lot more ofte. Her performance was far and a way the best thing about this movie, which was about a bit of a lost soul of a woman, going through one hell of a rough time after moving back to live with her begrudging parents in Connecticut following a devastating divorce. Even though we've seen this type of character study/awakening at Sundance before, there was an authenticity to this one that resonated with me a great deal. The humor in this woman's story and her approach to her situation particularly stood out to me. I did think Lynskey's real-life husband was unconvincing as the investment banker stuff-shirt divorcee she awkwardly tries to date, and one quirk about a lie the male lead tells his mom didn't seem plausible to me, but other than that, I was completely onboard here.

Searching for Sugarman

I love a documentary that follows the solving of a real life mystery almost as much as I love documentaries about pop culture, fame and/or obscurity, especially if they can manage to surprise me, delight me, and make me cry. Searching for Sugarman mixes all of those elements up, adding a little South African history lesson, commentary on class and race in Detroit, and some music industry sleaze for good measure. This is an absolute cannot-miss movie. So watchable, so satisfying. I saw its second screening at the fest, at 9 AM, with a criminal 30 or 40 empty seats in the theater. No matter, because the crowd just exploded afterwards, with most of the audience standing right up to applaud even as the credits rolled. This one made my list of most anticipated and it's nice to see it was as good as I was expecting.

I Am Not A Hipster

This super-personal and intimate story of loneliness and grief set in San Diego's art scene is drawing some comparisons on Twitter to Once. I don't see that, quite, but I do see a really fantastic, sweet portrait of a not-so-nice guy struggling with how to still create and exist within his social circle and his partially estranged family following a devastating loss. The best thing about this film was a handful of characters it's easy to love including the indie rocker himself but especially his best friend. My one complaint was that the film rightfully juxtaposed the heavy overtones with some lighter moments involving the lead's three sisters, and sometimes those felt a bit twee or almost too cute to be real. But beyond that minor hesitation I did really like this one and I think many others will too.

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