Must-See Films from Sundance 2014

I headed to Park City this year half expecting Sundance to have lost some of its luster. It was my fourth year, and I’ve heard the seven year itch actually sets in around year four, so maybe the film festival wasn’t all I once thought it to be.

I was wrong. Sundance has still got it, in ways Hollywood is totally lacking, holding up powerful totems of storytelling to inspire its devoted acolytes.

Here are my top 3 favorites:


1. “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” (my favorite film at Sundance) takes off on a spellbinding, twisting-and-turning journey, intimately documenting the life of computer prodigy, entrepreneur and internet activist, Aaron Swartz, who took his own life, at the age of 26. After being indicted by the federal government for systematically downloading academic journal articles from the digital library, JSTOR, Swartz fought a two year battle with an overzealous federal prosecutor who sought to make an example of the digital pioneer.

While Swartz’s death is unequivocally tragic, what Swartz stood for transcends the physical limitations of mortality. He was instrumental in championing the campaign against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), which could’ve crippled basic internet freedoms, and, more importantly, was a passionate advocate for the freedom and power of information. Driven to better the world around him, he pushed and prodded and challenged status quo, not motivated by money, power or fame, but a selfless and relentless need to use his talents, which were legion, for good.

For all the film does right, and masterfully, I was surprised by director Brian Knappenberger‘s decision to omit Swartz’s documented struggle with depression. It seemed like a missed opportunity, and a bit disingenuous, not to even mention the mental illness Swartz so delicately wrote about on his blog. Perhaps it didn’t fit neatly into the “Government Killed My Son” narrative ardently bellowed by his grieving father. While the charges against Aaron (he was facing a possible 35-year prison sentence) were egregious, absurd, and grossly overreaching, I have to wonder if some good could have come by addressing Aaron’s sickness and adding a bit of nuance to an otherwise impeccable character study.


2. “Life Itself,” a fulgent tribute to Robert Ebert, takes the viewer by the hand for an honestly rendered, warts-and-all walk down memory lane of the famed film critic’s life. He was the first of his kind to win the Pulitzer Prize, and to read one of his film reviews is to witness poetic genius. Ego and hubris are completely absent in his writing, and an unadulterated love and passion of film radiates off the page, as this critique of 1973 film “Cries and Whispers” demonstrates:

“Cries and Whispers” is like no movie I’ve seen before, and like no movie Ingmar Bergman has made before; although we are all likely to see many films in our lives, there will be few like this one. It is hypnotic, disturbing, frightening.

It envelops us in a red membrane of passion and fear, and in some way that I do not fully understand, it employs taboos and ancient superstitions to make its effect. We slip lower in our seats, feeling claustrophobia and sexual disquiet, realizing that we have been surrounded by the vision of a film maker who has absolute mastery of his art. “Cries and Whispers” is about dying, love, sexual passion, hatred and death – in that order.

Artfully directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), the film also takes an unfiltered lens to the last days, months, and years of Ebert’s life, when he, along with his family (most notably his wife, Chaz), staged a hard-fought battle with thyroid cancer that claimed a large portion of his face. In these moments, we see not a victim, but a warrior who stood up to fate’s sharpened talons and, with verve, vigor and grit, extracted every ounce of joy from life he could seize.


3. “Rich Hill” is a documentary I attempted to altogether avoid; I walked out of a TBA wait-list line when I heard it was playing. Who wants to witness the slow death of neglect devouring a small, post-coal mining town in Missouri? Who wants to see families skirting the precipitous edges of poverty, hanging onto their livelihoods with white, calloused knuckles, only to learn the safety net below offers large, gaping holes that will swallow them, slowly, but wholly. I hate to say it, but it’s not a reality I wanted to face.

After it won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, I dragged myself from the cowardly corner I cowering in and saw the film on my final day at Sundance. I’m so glad I did. Following the lives of three teenage boys, the story conjures Steinbeckian themes of class, dignity, love, family, poverty and a post-industrial future. While it doesn’t offer any answers, it serves a noble purpose in posing the hard, uncomfortable question: What happens when the American Dream slips out of reach?


The 3 Films I Didn’t See But Are At The Top of My Must-See List:

  1. Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory (Audience Award Winner: U.S. Documentary  Winner) — “Through revealing conversations with renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks and musician Bobby McFerrin, as well as powerful firsthand experiments conducted by Cohen in nursing homes, this groundbreaking documentary demonstrates how connecting the elderly to the music they love not only combats memory loss but also supplements a broken health-care system often indifferent to interpersonal connections.”
  2. The Case Against 8 (Directing Award Winner: U.S. Documentary) — “Election Day 2008: Californians passed Proposition 8, a measure that repealed the right of same-sex couples to marry. This documentary takes us behind the scenes of the high-profile trial that overturned the controversial constitutional amendment. The case first made headlines with the shocking alliance of lead attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies, political foes who last faced off on opposing sides in Bush v. Gore. The plaintiffs are two loving gay couples who find their families at the center of the same-sex marriage controversy.”
  3. Boyhood: “The new film from Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused; the Before trilogy) is remarkable in the first place for the concept: Linklater shot Boyhood over 12 years, following a young boy (Ellar Coltrane) as he grew from 6 years old to 18 by the film’s end. It’s remarkable as well because this crazy idea actually works. And boy, does it ever (no pun intended). Linklater himself has called this an “epic of minutiae” and one review called time itself a character in the movie, and both of these contribute to the film’s subtle but powerful effect. Indeed, we see the world change from 2001 to 2013 and, it turns out, it is actually possible to be nostalgic for last summer.”~William Beutler

All the feature film awards are listed here:

About Amy Senger:
Amy Senger is an L.A. transplant by way of Washington, DC, and co-founder of 1X57, named to Washingtonian’s Tech Titans list with her partner Steven Mandzik. Follow her on twitter @sengseng and follow the Pacific Punch @ThePacificPunch or email amy@1×


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