Sundance Showdowns | Film Festival | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Sundance Showdowns 

How to pick a winning movie when you have to make a choice.

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Recent Sundance parallel: Saved (2004)

Higher Ground (U.S. Dramatic)

Premise: An insecure woman joins a small fundamentalist community, then has a crisis of faith that turns her life into chaos.

Track Record: Oscar-nominated actress Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, The Departed and her Sundance breakout Down to the Bone) stars in her directorial debut. She can act, of that there is no question.

Familiar Faces: Farmiga, John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Bill Irwin (Rachel Getting Married)

The Case in Favor: Farmiga may have picked up directing tips from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and last year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition winner, Debra Granik, all of whom know how to inspire fine performances.

The Case Against: Working with great directors doesn’t necessarily make you a great director. Ask Sundance darling Mark Ruffalo, who was ripped apart for last year’s Sympathy for Delicious.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (U.S. Dramatic)

Premise: After fleeing a cult, a paranoid, mentally scarred woman tries to re-adjust to life with her family.

Track Record: First-time feature director Sean Durkin won a prize at Cannes for his short Mary Last Seen. He apparently has a thing for women whose names start with M.

Familiar Faces: Elisabeth Olsen (sister of the twins), John Hawkes (Higher Ground), Brady Corbet (Funny Games), Hugh Dancy (Adam)

The Case in Favor: Examining someone’s post-cult mental state, rather than simply cult weirdness, opens the possibility for an intriguing psychological study. Olsen is a wild card, but the supporting cast is strong.

The Case Against: If not handled correctly, a story about a person with mental struggles can make you want to take your own antidepressants. (“Oh look, she’s doing something else crazy. How similar to the last scene.”)

THE VERDICT: Farmiga earned a chance to test her prowess as a director. However, Higher Ground looks to be a hot ticket, giving Martha Marcy May Marlene a chance to take the spillover films-about-cults crowd. (Jeremy Mathews)

Recent Sundance parallel: Please Give (2010)

Restoration (World Dramatic)

Premise: When an old man’s business partner dies, his estranged son comes to help sort out his failing furniture-restoration business and wants to change things.

Track Record: Director Yossi Madmoni’s 2003 film The Barbecue People was nominated for 12 Israeli Academy Awards but won none. And you thought The Insider’s zero out of seven was embarrassing in 2000.

Familiar Faces: If you know Israeli cinema and television, you may recognize Nevo Kimchi, but not the other actors, most of whom are making their screen debuts.

The Case in Favor: In a festival that, over the years, has had its share of films about 20- and 30-somethings with unique jobs, it’ll be nice to see one about an old man with a unique job.

The Case Against: If not balanced right, the subject matter could easily become overly cute, especially with a storyline about a mysterious apprentice and a piano.

Old Cats (Spotlight)

Premise: A woman in her 70s realizes that her mind is giving way to senility; but she tries to hide it from her daughter and son-in-law, who have been waiting for the old woman to lose it so they can take over her luxury apartment.

Track Record: Writer/directors Sebastián Silva and Pedro Peirano won the World Dramatic Grand Jury prize in 2009 for the dark satire The Maid.

Familiar Faces: If you’ve seen The Maid, you’ll recognize several cast members, including Catalina Saavedra, who won acting awards at Sundance and several other festivals.

The Case in Favor: Silva and Peirano have a knack for observing the dynamics of human relationships.

The Case Against: Realistic it may be, but the digital photography in The Maid wasn’t particularly pleasant to look at.

THE VERDICT: Old Cats is the safer bet. However, The Maid wasn’t exactly the most audience-accessible film in Sundance history. Restoration could be a bigger crowd-pleaser. (Jeremy Mathews)

Recent Sundance parallel: When You’re Strange (2009)

Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (U.S. Documentary)

Premise: A documentary on the life and times of the legendary hip-hop group, formed in Queens, N.Y., in the 1980s.

Track Record: Actor Michael Rapaport has never directed a feature film before, but he did direct an episode of Boston Public.

Familiar Faces: Mos Def, Ghostface Killah, Ludacris, Common, the members of A Tribe Called Quest

The Case in Favor: The story of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg & Co. is interesting enough to engage non-fans who might like to discover the group’s alternative brand of rap music.

The Case Against: I used to be able to say nice things about Rapaport. Then I saw an episode of The War at Home.

Sing Your Song (U.S. Documentary)

Premise: You may know him for singing “Day-O,” but Harry Belafonte is an actor and activist as well as a musician.

Track Record: Susanne Rostock has been working as an editor for 30 years. This is her first stab at directing.

Familiar Faces: Martin Luther King Jr.; with any luck, the Muppets

The Case in Favor: Discover the life behind the musician, who campaigned tirelessly for equality.

The Case Against: If the documentary tries to overstate the influence of Belafonte’s activism, it could undermine it instead.

Troubadours (U.S. Documentary)

Premise: Using James Taylor and Carole King as the starting point, Troubadours explores the singer-songwriter movement that thrived in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1970s.

Track Record: Morgan Neville has directed many music documentaries, including Johnny Cash’s America, Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story and Muddy Waters Can’t Be Satisfied, all of which were nominated for Grammys—and we all know how hard it is to get a Grammy nomination.

Familiar Faces: Taylor, King, David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Elton John

The Case in Favor: Explores the quieter period between the wild, experimental music of the late ’60s and the arena rock and disco and would emerge in the coming years.

The Case Against: By framing the film in the context of a reunion concert, Neville could miss the heart of the story by focusing too much on the present.

THE VERDICT: While Troubadours might cast too wide a net and Sing Your Song is about only one man, Beats, Rhymes & Life looks to have more personal conflict, which could provide some drama that the other films lack. (Jeremy Mathews)

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