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From geeks to revolutionaries, pedophiles to fast-food junkies, the Sundance Film Festival presented a broad range of dramatic and documentary characters.
Among the highlights of the festival that ends Sunday:
“Super Size Me”: Taking a cue from Michael Moore, director Morgan Spurlock spins an alternately hilarious and horrifying exploration of an overfed nation. Spurred on by reports of rising obesity and its link to fast food, Spurlock documents his month-long experiment eating nothing but McDonald’s fare, sinking from perfect to imperiled health and augmenting his story with provocative sequences on fast-food addiction and corporate complicity in spreading calories.
“Napoleon Dynamite”: The geeks have landed in director and co-writer Jared Hess’ sweet and rollicking misfit comedy. Jon Heder gives a drolly hilarious performance as the title character, an Idaho high school dork with frizzy red hair and a whiny persona that could dampen the liveliest pep rally. Napoleon’s trials and triumphs reflect the inner nerd in all of us as he and his circle of bizarre associates discover their place in the world.
“The Motorcycle Diaries”: Director Walter Salles puts a buoyantly human face on Ernesto “Che” Guevara in this dramatization of the Argentina-born revolutionary’s odyssey across South America in the early 1950s, accompanied by his best pal aboard a broken-down Norton cycle. A portrait of the rebel as a young romantic, the film offers remarkable performances by Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna and an insightful look at the early stirrings of Guevara’s social conscience.
“Maria Full of Grace”: A raw yet lyrical glimpse into a rarely seen side of the South American drug trade: That of “mules” who smuggle heroin into the United States by swallowing rubber pellets filled with dope. Writer-director Joshua Marston delivers a gut-wrenching study of the economic hopelessness that drives young women to risk their lives as mules, while Catalina Sandino Moreno was one of Sundance’s freshest faces for her potent, honest performance in the title role.
“Heir to an Execution”: Ivy Meeropol’s documentary takes viewers on a deeply personal journey into the lives of her grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused of selling atomic secrets to the Soviets and executed as spies. Meeropol humanizes without idolizing her grandparents, balancing questions about the legitimacy of the government’s case with the family’s own doubts about the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs.
“Brother to Brother”: Tremendously accomplished filmmaking by writer-director Rodney Evans, who crafts a captivating drama about black gay artists struggling for acceptance. Evans skillfully weaves from modern times to the 1920s, creating a fictionalized story around real-life poet and painter Bruce Nugent that captures the hopeful exuberance of the Harlem Renaissance and the dilemma of artists trying to remain true amid commercial pressures.
“Open Water”: Writer-director Chris Kentis’ tale of married scuba divers left adrift by a careless boat crew in shark-infested waters is about as harrowing as films come. Based on a true story, the film terrifies visually and emotionally as harsh nature closes in on the couple (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, in powerfully authentic performances). The film’s hushed, understated closing sequence lingers in the mind for days.
“Last Life in the Universe”: Thai filmmaker Pen-Ek Ratanaruang directs a hypnotic comic drama about love and death, fate and choice. The film follows the surreal journey of an introverted, compulsive Japanese man living in Bangkok whose suicide attempts are perpetually interrupted by circumstance, including a strange romantic liaison with an unruly young Thai woman. Order and chaos collide as their symbiotic relationship unfolds with cryptic poignancy.
“The Woodsman”: A career dramatic high for Kevin Bacon, who delivers a daring performance as a child molester trying to build a new life after 12 years in prison. Director and co-writer Nicole Kassell presents a compelling picture of a man desperately grasping for a second chance. Bacon beautifully captures the melancholy of a man battling internal demons and external condemnation, while Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, Eve and Mos Def contribute earnest supporting performances.
“Dysenchanted”: Terri Edda Miller’s blissfully amusing short film may well have been the most enjoyable eight minutes at Sundance. Miller tosses Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Dorothy Gale and other storybook heroines into group therapy with a modern, angst-ridden woman, who comes to understand there is no happily ever-after as her fairy-tale confidantes share the epilogues to their happy endings.