Welcome to Sundance, where every filmmaker’s dream can come true. 10 days of a unique film festival, a place where small-scaled, intimate & offbeat movies can get meaningful screening time and recognition, and their creators can start dreaming big. All of the movies shown at Sundance are independent, without the funds and the backing of a big studio. The festival does not discriminate in its entries, screening fictional dramas, documentaries and shorts, from the US and abroad; and big budget studios come to shop around and fish for the next big hit, hoping to spread their wings over future great film prodigies. For 10 days in snowy Utah, a film-buff fest is happening, shining with vivid colors of freshness and originality.
Over the past years we see a lot of these “small” movies get not only rave reviews and wide acclamation, but also receive growing recognition from the more “mainstream” institutes, even within the Academy Awards. Movies like Precious, Winter’s Bone, The Cove, Frozen River and many more have received Oscar nods over the past years; world-wide audiences became familiar with these films and their once-unknown talented actors (like Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa Leo, Ryan Gosling etc.) became big movie stars. For example (and also for future trivia) – even Vin Diesel, known mostly for his action-packed movies, was introduced in the festival with his own first feature film, Strays. The ones who make their first steps in the movie world at Sundance, could be the ones making the next big Hollywood blockbusters a few years from now.
Here is a review of some of the major films that have highlighted the Sundance festival over the past 10 years. The list doesn’t solely include the Grand Jury prize winners, but rather movies that were the most interesting and left us with the best lasting impression.
How does a guy cope with transforming his way of living and re-evaluating his personal commitments? L’Ultimo Bacio (The Last Kiss), an Italian romantic drama, follows this stage in life and the dilemmas ensuing within a group of Italian friends in their late twenties.
Carlo finds out that his girlfriend is pregnant, and that his life is about to take a 180 degree turn - its his time to settle down with his loved one, start a family and find stability. Although on the surface he appears ready for this new challenge, deep down inside he is hesitant and considers indulging himself with one last fling. He confides with his mates, who are facing different crossroads themselves. As a dramatic buddy film about adulthood, this movie doesn’t necessarily paint relationships and human & moral dilemmas with pretty colors. A few years later, Zach Braff made an American version of this film, with a slightly more Hollywood-ish ending.
This delightful fairytale-like movie from New Zealand about a girl’s coming of age, tells the story of a young Maori girl, who dares to defy the cultural traditions of her tribe. Pai was born to a strong Maori family line, a direct descendant of her ancestral tribe leaders. However, she cannot succeed her grandfather as the tribe’s chief, a role reserved only for men. Pai struggles against her family and her tribe for the fulfillment of her destiny as a leader in the upcoming times of crisis.
A standard day depicted in the movie - Morgan Spurlock enters a McDonald’s restaurant; he orders a meal – Big Mac, fries, coke; he has only 4 rules of thumb – eat three meals a day at McDonald’s, eat only from McDonald’s, try everything from the menu, and most importantly – whenever asked if he would like to super size his meal, he must reply ‘yes’.
Morgan tried this diet for a whole month, while preserving his normal lifestyle. He wanted to see the impact of everyday McDonald’s nutrition on his health, and consequently, at some point of the filming he was in real life-threatening danger. Super Size Me is a thought provoking and controversial documentary, with a witty twist of humor.
2005 – Brick - Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision – Drama.
An intriguing stylized crime drama, and one of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s best, back when he was still a well-respected actor in indie films and before transforming into a (well-respected) actor in big-budget movies. Brick is a clever and witty neo-noir film, but instead of shady offices and dark corners of the city, this movie occurs in the shady corners of the school and in the darker parts of suburbia. JGL is caught up in a murder investigation of his ex-girlfriend, which gradually leads him to discover a web of schemes and intrigues that hide underneath the surface; only in this case, the femme fatale and the amateur shrewd detective are teenagers.
Ryan Gosling has played in three of the most significant movies that came out this year – The Ides of March, Crazy Stupid Love and Drive. He is known as a multi-dimensional actor, and rightfully so; but everyone has to start gaining attention somewhere, and for him, the official quality stamp for his performances was given for Half Nelson.
Gosling is a dedicated teacher at a Brooklyn school, educating students who come from a rough background. His life and relationships are in turmoil, and he has a big skeleton in his closet – he is, to some degree, a drug addict. When one of his students, a young African-American girl, accidentally discovers his dark secret, they begin to form a supportive friendship. But events that happen to each of them start to deteriorate both their lives.
Half Nelson depicts a situation that only an indie movie can address properly. Although it hasn’t won any awards at Sundance, this film is well-worth mentioning, and its leading actor received his praise at the Academy Awards when he was nominated for an Oscar for his role.
2006 – Once - World Cinema Audience Award-Dramatic
This intimate musical drama, set in present day Ireland, shows the embroidering relationship between a daydreaming street musician and a hard-working & talented immigrant, a relationship based mainly on the love of creating and making beautiful music.
Director John Carney and lead actor Glen Hansard played in the same rock band – The Frames, and used some of their material in the film’s wonderful soundtrack, including the award winning song “Falling Slowly”. Both musicians and first-time actors – Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová (who were romantically involved in real life) – proclaimed they would never act again in a fictional movie, so this is a good chance to see them in this mesmerizing sweet film.
2008 – Man on Wire - World Cinema Jury Prize-Documentary
Some people look for an adrenaline rush and try to live on the extreme, others defy restrictions and go against the rules. Philippe Petit, a high-wire artist, has found a way to combine both thrills – he would exhibit his art & perform his stunts on high-altitude landmarks (not necessarily with authorization). Towards 1974 he had already set his eyes on the World Trade Center – and aimed to be the first man to walk on a wire stretched between the Twin Towers’ rooftops, at the height of 1,368 feet.
Man on Wire documents, through recent interviews and rare archive footage, the efforts and difficulties faced towards completing his mission – from formulating the idea and assembling a team to actually sneaking into the World Trade Center. Spoiler - At the end of it all, Petit managed to perform one of the greatest stunts in history.
2009 – Adam - Alfred P. Sloan Prize (science & technology)
Asperger Syndrome is a disorder that makes it difficult to communicate and understand everyday social situations, or to decipher human emotions and reactions, such as facial expressions, sarcasm and non-verbal gestures. Nevertheless, people with Asperger live, work and build their lives like everyone else. Mozart and the Whale was a moving film that addressed Asperger; Adam is another unique example.
Adam’s (Hugh Dancy) pre-determined organized routine has been shattered – his father, who took care of him, died. Adam also lost his job. Now he has to try to adjust himself to the unfamiliar through the difficulties imposed by his Asperger Syndrome. Beth (Rose Byrne) has just moved into Adam’s apartment building, and her life is also a mess following a hard breakup. The two find each other, and this seemingly-impossible relationship blossoms slowly as they support one another but also face more distinctive difficulties than most couples do.
A crime drama from the land down under. A heroin overdose, a violent crime spree, armed robbery and drug dealing - all these are combined to form a tense and bleak crime film, where the young “J” gets unwillingly exposed to the life of his grandmother and relatives – a family of gangsters. A police detective is trying to salvage J and make him testify against his gangster family. This highly-acclaimed Australian film has slowly and steadily gained its well-deserved attention.
The tag line simply says it all – “I want you/I need you/I love you/I miss you/Like Crazy” – its all about the craziness you feel when you can’t be with the one you love, leading to contemplation if the affection is strong and meaningful enough to be worthy of the trouble & agony.
Anna and Jacob fall in love; they spend a romantic summer in Los Angeles together, madly in love. But Anna is on a student visa to the US, and when she returns briefly to England, she finds out she can’t come back to L.A. anymore. The couple starts their struggle to allow Anna re-entrance to the country, while trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, with all its difficulties, reflections and frustrations. And they miss each other, to be honest, like crazy. Can love be strong enough to overcome all the barriers in front of them? This anticipated romantic drama is coming out in wide release at the end of this month.
So after all these great movies of the past years, Sundance truly is a film festival to look forward to. Hopefully this year’s festival will bring a fine crop of good unique films, which we will be hearing about in the coming years, after their first test drive at Sundance. Great things (and films) are ahead of us.
Technorati Tags: Academy Awards, Alfred P. Sloan Prize, Directing Award for a Documentary, Documentary, Drama, Grand Jury Prize, Grand Jury prize winners, Half Nelson, Hollywood, independent films, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Like Crazy, Man on Wire, Morgan Spurlock, romantic drama, Ryan Gosling, Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision, Sundance, Sundance Film Festival, Super Size Me, The Last Kiss, Whale Rider, World Cinema Audience Award, World Cinema Jury Prize
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