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A week in sun and snow

This year at Sundance

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This year at Sundance, long-simmering resentments finally erupted among industry bigwigs. Todd McCarthy, the chief critic of the trade publication Variety, laid into the festival with a rant that attacked everything from the quality of the films to the lack of comfortable seating. Grousing about Sundance is an annual ritual, but even if the festival is guilty of being clogged with tourists, films of variable quality and overexposed nonentities like Paris Hilton and Tommy Lee, I somehow managed to enjoy myself.

As usual, there were plenty of worthwhile films to see at the 2006 Sundance festival, but there seemed to be no clear-cut popular hits on the order of Napoleon Dynamite or Super Size Me. So, it was startling that two films swept the jury and audience awards: Quinceanera snagged both prizes in the dramatic section while God Grew Tired of Us repeated the feat on the documentary side. Throughout the week, I heard absolutely nothing about the former, a coming-of-age tale set in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles. On the other hand, God Grew Tired of Us, Christopher Quinn's tale of Sudanese lost boys, was mentioned quickly and frequently as a standout documentary. My last-minute efforts to see the film, however, came to naught.

Among the dramatic entries, I avoided the few movies being hyped by the mainstream entertainment press, such as Little Miss Sunshine (acquired by Fox Searchlight for $10 million), on the theory that I'd have an opportunity to see them when they come to Triangle theaters.

Two of my favorites turned out to be "little" films called In Between Daysand Old Joy, both of which are transfixing and sublime. The first is the story of an immigrant Korean girl going through teenaged growing pains in a new, English-speaking city. Even better was Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, which is similarly focused on internal psychodrama as it tells the story of two men in their mid-30s on a weekend camping excursion outside Portland. As fine hewed as Reichardt's film is, scored to the gentle guitars of Yo La Tengo, it ends up as a melancholy portrait of a disillusioned generation—or as Reichardt puts it in her director's notes, "the ineffectual left."

One of my favorite docs was TV Junkie, a mesmerizing, voyeuristic found-footage account of a B-grade television personality's descent into crack addiction. On more elevated planes were An Inconvenient Truth and Wordplay. The former is an excellent—and terrifying—portrait of Al Gore as a dedicated global warming Cassandra, produced by Full Frame mainstay Davis Guggenheim (The First Year). Gore's old boss Bill Clinton is a featured guest in Wordplay, a Spellbound-style account of competitive crossword puzzling, featuring New York Times and NPR puzzle editor Will Shortz, with appearances by celebrity crossword aficionados like Jon Stewart, baseball pitcher Mike Mussina and the Indigo Girls. Before the festival ended, Wordplay became the only significant documentary acquisition of the week, with IFC Films picking up distribution rights for a reported $1 million.

Last year's festival produced a bumper crop of Southern-themed films, including such significant releases as the North Carolina dramas Loggerheads and Junebug—which just yielded an Oscar nomination for Amy Adams. This year, the Dixie flicks were a less polished lot. Still, North Carolina was the setting for two strong films. The raucous The Foot Fist Way, from Concord native Jody Hill, emerged as one of the favorites of the Midnight program and may well become this year's Bubba Ho-Tep. On the documentary side, Southern justice and, in particular, Winston-Salem, came under tough scrutiny in The Trials of Darryl Hunt, a film about a wrongful rape and murder conviction in 1985. This film will be on HBO next year, but Triangle residents will be able to see it in April at the Full Frame fest. My experience with the incredible forbearance of Darryl Hunt led me to walk out midway through a melodrama called Forgiven, which was shot in Wilmington, after some unforgivably wretched plot turns involving a man wrongly convicted of murder.

Even if pampered critics like McCarthy no longer enjoy the festival, the reality on the ground is that most of the filmmakers are young, cash-strapped and grateful for the exposure. I spent a pleasant evening with one such artist, a Filipino screenwriter and producer named Raymond Lee, who provided a unique perspective on movie culture in a largely impoverished Asian country. His film The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros won over its premiere audience with its tale of a preteen transvestite in a tough Manila neighborhood. Unfortunately, foreign language films (other than those from France) are having a tougher time these days cracking the U.S. market, so it may fall to the N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival to bring this charming—and eye-opening—film to local audiences.

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