MOVIES | Sundance Film Festival approaches, with Minnesotan films among those likely to wow


Once again this year, I’m off to Park City, Utah to report on the Sundance Film Festival for the Daily Planet. Sundance is always interesting, and this year will be even more interesting than most.

Last February, Sundance Film Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore left his post of 19 years to join the New-York-based Tribeca Enterprises as a chief creative officer for the company that is responsible for the Tribeca Film Festival, held every April. When Gilmore left, John Cooper, a 20-year veteran of Sundance and since 2002, the director of programming and creative development for the Sundance Institute, was named to succeed Gilmore. Not that Cooper’s new position as director dominated all the other hirings and switcheroos around the film festival circuit in the U.S. this past year (L.A., San Francisco, New York), but it is a significant change to the Sundance Festival, which is known as a hotbed of new discovery and excitement in American film every January. Two films that were discovered at Sundance last year that are now enjoying great Oscar buzz are Lee Daniels’s Precious and Lone Scherfig’s An Education.

As Cooper begins his first term as director, the 2010 Sundance Film Festival has made a few changes; also, Cooper has added a couple new programs at the festival. The first will be that the festival will be taking films on the road, in a program called Sundance Film Festival USA wherein the festival experience will go beyond Utah, taking eight different films premiering at the festival and spotlighting them in eight different cities across the U.S. (The closest venue to Minneapolis is Madison, Wisconsin’s Sundance Cinema, which will be hosting The Runaways, starring Kirsten Stewart playing a young version of rock goddess Joan Jett. Writer/director Floria Sigismondi is scheduled to appear at the sold-out screening on January 28.)

Another great addition to this year’s festival is Sundance Selects, where three films premiering at the festival will be available simultaneously on video-on-demand (VOD) through cable providers, including Comcast, Time Warner, and satellite provider Direct TV, which over 40 million cable subscribers can enjoy without traveling to Utah. After each film’s first public screening, the films will become available for 30 days on VOD to cable subscribers across the country. The titles are completely different from one another; the lineup includes an American independent in Benny & Josh Safdie’s dysfunctional family or, I should say, dysfunctional father dramedy Daddy Longlegs. That film features a hilarious performance from Ronald Bronstein as Lenny, the father/man-child who loves his kids to death but isn’t a suitable parent. Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom, co-directors of the 2006 political docu-drama The Road to Guantanamo, focused on the Tipton Three case, bring their latest political documentary, The Shock Doctrine, based on the bestseller by Naomi Klein; and Canadian director Daniel Grou’s bloody disgusting French-language 7 Days is a horror/thriller hybrid in the vein of Misery and Saw as a doctor captures the man responsible for the rape and murder of his eight-year-old daughter and decides to make him pay for seven days. It will have audiences in shock when it has its world premiere screening in the Park City at Midnight section of the festival.

NEXT is a new section comprising eight American films selected for breaking ground in low- and no-budget filmmaking; they’ve been added to supplement the current 112 feature films that were selected from the 3,724 feature-length submissions. This section seems to go back to the roots of what Sundance was meant to be about from the beginning, and I’m looking forward to a couple titles in the NEXT section.

Couple in bed

Among those 3,724 submissions a few from Minnesota will have an impact at the festival including the opening night film Howl, a drama centering on the obscenity trial Allen Ginsberg (played by James Franco) faced after the publication of his poem Howl. Howl is produced by the local production company Werc Werk Works, which made headlines with its most recent film, Todd Solandz’s misanthropic Life During Wartime—which screened at the Telluride, Venice, and Toronto festivals and had its local premiere at the Walker Art Center this past October. Bill Pohlad’s production company River Road Entertainment and his distribution shingle Apparition will present The Runaways, which is getting as much advance hype as any film out there. Finally, everyone seems to have a love her or loath her, but the new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, co-directed by Ricki Stern and Minnesota native Annie Sundberg, should be a hilarious collection of awkward moments—if it’s anything like Rivers’s personality.

As Sundance begins this week, I’ll be in Park City taking an excessive amount of notes and photos, taping interviews with upcoming filmmakers and known actors, sipping 5-Hour Energy shots, chowing down on raw organic protein bars, and I have some 60+ hours planned to spend in dark theaters watching some 30-35 films over the course of seven days. Not to mention walking over a dozen miles and catching numerous buses—all for the love of film and reporting on the hits and misses from Sundance (and the upstart Slamdance festival as well). A couple of other Minnesotans are making the trek out to beautiful Park City, and I’ll hopefully run into them at a screening or two: Sheryl Mousley, film/video curator at the Walker Art Center; and Star Tribune film critic Colin Covert. Here are a few titles that I’m anxiously waiting to see.

In the U.S. Documentary Competition, The Tillman Story by director Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Can Paint That) is the story of professional football star and decorated U.S. soldier Pat Tillman, whose family takes on the U.S. government when their beloved son dies in a “friendly fire” incident in Afghanistan in 2004. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a rare, brutally honest glimpse into the comedic process and private dramas of legendary comedian and pop icon Joan Rivers as she fights tooth and nail to keep her American dream alive.

In the U.S. Dramatic Competition, Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson) and Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain); they play a married couple. The film charts the evolution of their relationship over time, and also features a musical score by indie buzz band Grizzly Bear; it is directed by Derek Cianfrance. Obselidia has potential of being a sleeper surprise, featuring a lonely librarian who believes love is obsolete until a road trip to Death Valley with a beguiling cinema projectionist teaches him otherwise; it’s written and directed by Diane Bell.

In the World Cinema Documentary Competition, Last Train Home, by director Lixin Fan, won best documentary at IDFA in November. It sounds incredible: getting a train ticket in China proves a towering ordeal as a migrant worker family embarks on a journey, along with 200 million other peasants, to reunite with their distant family members. Sins of My Father has already been picked up by HBO; from the sound of it, it should be a revealing story about the life and times of notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, recounted through the eyes of his son, who fled Colombia to move beyond his father’s legacy.

Casey Affleck in car

In the Premieres section, nothing has got me more jazzed than Michael Winterbottom’s second film at Sundance: his adaptation of Jim Thompson’s classic pulp novel The Killer Inside Me, starring Casey Affleck as Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford—who is a patient, polite and well liked individual, until he starts killing people. The film co-stars Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, and Simon Baker.

In the NEXT section, writer/director/star Katie Aselton’s The Freebie explores a young married couple who decide to give each other one night with someone else. Dax Sheppard (Idiocracy) plays her husband. New Low looks like an even lower-budget film than Kevin Smith’s Clerks, but has some promise. Adam Bowers stars a neurotic twenty-something struggling to figure which girl he really belongs with: the best one he’s ever known, or the worst.

Finally, in the Spotlight section, I’m cheating a bit since I’ve already seen it but would love the opportunity to see again the French prison drama A Prophet, which was recently up for the Best Foreign Language film at the Golden Globes and would have made my top ten for 2009—but the film is being released in Minneapolis on March 26. It should not be missed. An engaging examination of a seedy, gangster-driven underworld set in a French prison that’s being compared to Scorsese’s, Goodfellas, it’s just as gripping and striking and makes that a reasonable comparison.