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best of the fest

Sundance 2010: The Revenge of the Documentaries

When the lineup for this year’s Sundance Film Festival was announced, doc-watchers everywhere oohed and aahed at the murderer’s row of documentarians on the schedule. With new films from such Oscar-anointed filmmakers as Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound), and Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), among many others, the fest seemed set to turn things around after a less-than-explosive doc lineup in its 2009 iteration, when The Cove was one of the few titles to break out. After all that buildup, one could hear the collective sigh of relief exhaled yesterday when word hit the street that these documentaries were actually, like, really good. First came buzz that Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Afghanistan-war doc Restrepo was a riveting journey into combat. Then everybody started talking about a small Spotlight doc titled Catfish, by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, about the tangled relationship between a New York–based photographer and an oddball Michigan family. And then, the avalanche started in earnest.

Liberal Friendly Fire + Heart-wrenching Kids = Gold!
Appropriately enough, the first major sale of the festival was Paramount’s acquisition of Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, whose now-defunct art-house arm Vantage scored with the same director’s Inconvenient Truth in 2006. Superman may not have the sexiness of an Al Gore lecture on global warming (seriously, how awesome is it that we can say that?), but it does have a topic that hits even closer to home: America’s failing public schools. The film mixes the process-oriented approach of films like Spellbound and Hoop Dreams — Guggenheim follows four families from different walks of life as they struggle to find new schools for their kids — with the doomsaying activist spirit of Truth. Plus, it’s sure to piss off some important people: Not content to simply toe the liberal line, Guggenheim actually takes direct aim at America’s teachers' unions for being the prime obstacles to change. Collectively, the unions are one of the Democratic Party’s biggest campaign contributors on a national scale; the idea of a liberal filmmaker coloring them with the same brush Michael Moore used on the NRA in Bowling for Columbine promises some heavy-duty political fireworks when the film is finally released in the fall. Something tells us Paramount will laugh all the way to the bank on this one.

Paparazzo Legend Scoffs at Sundance Celebs, Stalks Redford
In its own way, Leon Gast’s winning doc Smash His Camera will probably piss some people off, too. One of them may even be Robert Redford: Gast’s loving portrait of famed paparazzo Ron Gallela (the subject of a fascinating New York feature a couple of years ago) features one hilarious scene where Gallela successfully infiltrates a private event where the guest of honor is none other than the Sundance kid himself. Gallela wants to take some photos and shove a signed copy of his book into Redford’s arms. To his credit, the befuddled superstar manages to keep smiling, which is more than can be said for some of Gallela’s other subjects/victims: Marlon Brando once famously punched out the photog’s teeth, and Jackie Onassis sued him twice. Jackie O. was, of course, Gallela’s most notorious quarry, half Moby Dick, half Mona Lisa. His windswept candid of her crossing the street in 1974 is one of the most beautiful celeb pics ever, and one can’t help but think that Gallela’s die-hard pursuit of her only added to her mystique in the seventies. Those of us assuming that Sundance would be like a candy store for Gallela’s fame-seeking Spidey senses were disappointed when he noted during his post-screening Q&A that today’s celebs are nothing compared to the icons of yesteryear. Also, their bodyguards are bigger.

Don’t Mess With the Tillmans
One might expect a documentary titled I’m Pat Fucking Tillman to be nothing if not controversial. So perhaps the last-minute title change to The Tillman Story was a sign that Amir Bar-Lev’s portrait of the Arizona Cardinals star — who enlisted in 2002 and whose grisly death by friendly fire was whitewashed by the Pentagon — is not the in-your-face call to arms one might have expected. Oh, it’s powerful, to be sure: One walks away from the film more furious than ever for the way Rumsfeld and Co. exploited Tillman’s death. But it’s more a sensitive portrait of the Tillmans, showing how this uniquely headstrong family took on the entire military and political establishment soon after realizing that their son’s death had been covered up in such cavalier fashion. War docs have been a mainstay of Sundance for the past few years, but by training his lens directly on the family at the heart of this saga, Bar-Lev captures something ineffable about the cost of war, suggesting that the real front is somewhere back home.