Sundance is an overwhelming event, and I heard from some veterans of the festival that this was a somewhat difficult year to encapsulate, despite Robert Redford’s call to watch serious movies for serious times. But most of the best movies I saw at Sundance had a certain joy to them, even when discussing difficult ideas or events, and the very best had a marvelous sense of humor. I haven’t published full reviews of all of these movies yet, though I’ll catch up in coming days, so bookmark this page if you want a guide to the best independent movies that will be coming to theaters this year.
Under African Skies: It says a lot about how wonderful I thought the music-making part of this story about Paul Simon’s Graceland, and his return to South Africa decades later, that I’m willing to forgive its less-than-stellar work on the cultural boycott of South Africa. It’s a debate about the responsibility artists owe politics that’s too heavily weighted in one direction. But the video footage of the recording sessions is amazing, as are the interviews with South African musicians about everything from what it was like to have this strange Paul Simon dude show up and want to work with them to what it was like to be able to go to Central Park without a pass.
The Invisible War: There’s nothing particularly stylistically innovative about Kirby Dick’s documentary about the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military. But the movie falls with the force of a sledgehammer, exposing as ineffective and dishonest the brass in the armed forces responsible for keeping women and men safe, and making it clear that an epidemic of sexual assault is hurting both men and women, and driving out of the armed forces exactly the people the Pentagon should most want to keep there.
The Atomic States of America: Based on Kelly McMaster’s memoir of growing up in a town on Long Island polluted by atomic runoff, the movie is the story of an agency captured by powerful interests and backed up by powerful presumptions of authority, and the ordinary citizens who have fought back against the industry they believe is poisoning their communities. I’d have been curious to hear more about how citizens in other countries that are more dependent on atomic energy than we are, but it’s amazing looking into our past romance of the peaceful atom—and thinking about what it means for our uncertain energy future.
Love Free or Die: Bishop Gene Robinson’s story has been told before, and the first openly gay Anglican bishop is hardly a retiring figure. But Macky Alston’s wonderful documentary isn’t just about him. It’s about the difficult process of organizing within the Anglican church, which shut Robinson out of the Lambeth Conference, to make it a more welcoming and affirming institution for the gay people who have kept faith with it. And the movie argues that a gay rights movement without the faith community is leaving power and influence on the table, and risks making gay people choose between love and faith.
The Queen of Versailles: Tons of ink and miles of film have been devoted to chronicling American excess in a recession age. But it’s hard to imagine that anything will do better than this story about David and Jackie Siegel, who built an empire selling time-shares to people who couldn’t afford them and then pushed themselves to the brink of financial ruin by building what would have been the largest house in America. Whether it’s expertly breaking down the housing crisis’ role in the crash or chronicling the horrifying wastefulness of the Siegel’s consumer spending, The Queen of Versailles is funny, biting, and utterly American.
Keep The Lights On: This tender gay love story has two things going for it. First, it’s an unconventional romance that bucks the Hollywood insistence that the story ends when a couple gets together or decides to stay together. It’s tremendously refreshing to see a movie that chronicles the rise and fall of a relationship, insisting that just because two people can’t continue to be together doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Second, it’s a warm, funny, explicit look at what it means to be gay and in love in a post-AIDS era. The movie’s specificity, whether it’s the results of an HIV test, the documentary the main character Erik is working on, or changes in the hookup scene give the movie wonderful roots.
The Surrogate: The funniest, warmest sex comedy I saw at Sundance is also one of the better movies I’ve seen in a long time about disability, intimacy, and independence. John Hawkes, of Deadwood and Winter’s Bone fame, which will certainly escalate after this performance, is marvelous as Mark O’Brien (a real-life journalist), who decides that though he spends most of his life in an iron lung due to childhood polio, he’s going to lose his virginity. The acting is top-to-bottom fantastic, and the movie is a forceful rejection of the idea that folks with disabilities are asexual, humorless, or mere victims.
Red Hook Summer: The community of critics who liked this movie (as opposed to the ones who savaged it, I’d argue unfairly) is growing. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I remain in the minority in my adoration of this movie, which takes on everything from the black church to asthma rates in Red Hook in its exploration of a New York summer. Centered around three pivotal church sequences and an amazing performance by Clarke Peters, transcending his acting on The Wire, this is a gorgeous, moving, unrepentantly and uncompromisingly black movie, and whatever Hollywood thinks, better for it.
Compliance: A terrifying look at what our trust in the police and other authorities can lead us to do to each other, Compliance is based on a true story of a man who convinced restaurant employees to commit more than 70 incidents of harassment and assault by pretending to be a police officer over the phone. As fast-food outlet manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) searches, detains, and ultimately sets cashier Becky (Dreama Walker, who should get real notice for this) up to be sexually assaulted, the movie raises deeply uncomfortable questions about what we’d do in the same situations.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Joyous, strange, frightening and loving, this beautiful movie is about everything from global warming to the appropriate psychological response to Hurricane Katrina. If you like apocalypses, dire beasts from the past, gorgeous landscapes, great music, and remarkable little girls as your protagonists, run, don’t walk. If there’s justice, this would be a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-type phenomenon, a wonder from another country within our own. A warning: once you’ve seen it, you may experience profound irritation at standard Hollywood fare for a period of time afterwards.