Sundance wrap-up: Supermodels, voyeurs, and Zombie Girl

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The 2009 Sundance Film Festival has wrapped up, and now I’ve had time to collect my thoughts on the 22 films I saw in five days—I did miss most of the films that won awards, except We Live in Public, and missed out on a few I wanted to see, but overall the trip was a success and these are a few of the films that are worth mentioning.

R.J. Cutler’s much-hyped documentary The September Issue, about Vogue editor Anna Wintour, was probably the most disappointing film I saw, due to the fact that Cutler didn’t dig far enough into Wintour’s “creative process.” Although Wintour’s icy demeanor is on full display throughout The September Issue, the film does give some recognition to the quiet career of Vogue‘s creative director, former model Grace Coddington. It turns out Coddington’s back story is more interesting than Wintour’s.

The highest-profile film I saw (and a tough ticket to get) was Antoine Fuqua’s police drama Brooklyn’s Finest, featuring strong performances from Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke, and Don Cheadle as cops who are on different paths but are all headed for disaster, It’s entertaining if flawed film, essentially Training Day II: New York, but it does feature a stirring performance by Gere, whose Eddie Dugan is on the brink of retirement and seems content to relax during his final week on the force despite chaos in his precinct. To say more would ruin a shocking and inappropriate moment that left audiences at the Eccles Theater in laughter when the credits rolled. Senator Films snatched the film up and plans to release it next fall; according to Variety, Fuqua has already said there will be some retooling of the film. Hopefully he’ll edit its cumbersome second act and the final five minutes.

The most surprising film had to be music video director Marc Webb’s feature film debut, 500 Days of Summer, which features a winning performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt of Mysterious Skin and Brick. Levitt plays a greeting card writer who falls for his boss’s new assistant, played by the doe-eyed Zooey Deschanel. It was hard not to smile throughout the film’s lovey-dovey scenario that both actors pull off efficiently and with remarkable candor. There is a trailer for the film (below) that features a drab voice-over—which is in the film too, but don’t be fooled. This is a sexy, surprisingly hilarious, and touching film for the Gen-Y crowd.

Documentary films are alive and well. The fishing exposé by Rupert Murray (Unknown White Male), The End of the Line, is a must-see for anyone who loves fishing and/or eating fish, especially sushi. Based on Charles Clover’s book of the same name, the film shows our obsession with consuming fish for its nutritional value even as we’re largely oblivious to the worldwide decline of the fish population, which is being rapidly wiped out by illegal fishermen using nets the size of football fields to bring more fish to restaurants and grocery stores.

Director Ondi Timoner (a previous Sundance award winner for the music documentary DIG!) brought a bizarre and harrowing documentary called We Live in Public, which brought her a second Best Documentary award. During the dot.com boom of the 90s, Josh Harris created the first Internet television network: Pseudo.com. He became a millionaire overnight and turned his attention to another innovative creation, an eerie experiment in which 100 volunteers lived in an underground warehouse in New York City with only one rule: they had to be filmed 24 hours a day for 30 days. Free rent, food, and alcohol were all included for them, but Harris owned their privacy, putting hundreds of cameras around the facility and watching the volunteers sleep, shower, have sex, and go through mental breakdowns. The film is powerful and unsettling, and should receive at least a limited release closer to next year’s award season.

A few docs at the neighboring Slamdance Film Festival also caught my attention. Chris Billing’s Lost Sparrow investigates the strange circumstances surrounding his family’s four adoptive Crow Indian brothers and sisters in upstate New York in 1978. The two boys, Bobby and Tyler, ran away from their home only to be found dead the next day, killed by a freight train. The reason they ran away is far more sinister than one might think; Billing’s film reminded me of Capturing the Friedmans but isn’t as well-executed. Zombie Girl: The Movie has some charm and an engaging young subject, Emily Hagans, who wrote and directed a horror film, Pathogen, when she was 12 years old. Watch the Daily Planet for my interview with Hagens and two of film’s directors.

Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins@yahoo.com) writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.