Sundance 2014: The Ten Best Films

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Matthew Crawley's a killer in one of our favorite Sundance films.
For Robert Redford, Sundance's opening day was a bummer. He woke up to learn the Academy had snubbed him for a (deserved) Best Actor nod for the sparse yachting drama All Is Lost, and had to spend his typically triumphant morning press conference swatting down questions about being sad. Luckily for the rest of us, the festival was a smash, or at least a sizzle. There wasn't a surefire champion, but most films earned warm, welcoming buzz that buyers stoked by writing check after check. Five years ago, covering Sundance was like selling a mote of gold: A film might be the real deal but was almost impossible for anyone else to see. Thanks to VOD, now odds are that everyone can (eventually) catch the best of the fest. Here are ten you shouldn't miss.

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What Separates Von Trier's Nymphomaniac From Porn?

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Let's start with the ending: the closing credits disclaimer that insists that none of the lead actors in Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac filmed penetrative sex. If there is real sex in the movie, and it sure looks like there is, it must have been done by one of the eight credited sex doubles, listed far down the crew after the cast, somewhere around the caterers and gaffers. (Humble billing, but oh, what luscious names -- my favorite was Elvira Friis.) The sex doubles loaned their loins to Von Trier, who digitally stitched them to his actors. In the era of Google image search, the difference between an XXX freeze-frame of an actor having sex versus a perfect simulacrum seems technical at best, though I suppose their parents must be relieved.

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Why Do We Judge When We Watch People Dance? Living Stars Reveals the Truth

The Sundance Institute
Every Sundance there's a crowd-pleaser, and most years it's got one degree of separation from the Little Miss Sunshine crew. But the most delightful flick of the 2014 fest is an unconventional documentary with no plot, no dialogue, and nothing but party. Living Stars, a fleet 63-minute film by Argentinean directors Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat, is a lark, a YouTube-influenced trifle that travels to different people's homes, plops a camera on a tripod, and asks them to pick a song and dance.

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Is Sugar the New Cigarettes? Fed Up, a New Sundance Film, Thinks So

© Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Sixty years ago, Fred Flintstone hawked Winston cigarettes. Today, he pitches cereal. And both can kill.

Stephanie Soechtig's rabble-rousing documentary Fed Up argues that it's time to attack Big Sugar just like we successfully demonized Big Tobacco. Narrated by Katie Couric, Fed Up is the first doc of Sundance to stir up an outraged Q&A with attendees agitating for nutritional reform: put new labels on processed foods, resurrect home economics classes, rally our leaders to combat the corporate Sugaristas, and screen Fed Up in schools across America.

The flick starts with a simple question. In 1977, George McGovern introduced the McGovern Report, which outlined healthy dietary goals for the country. Why, then, have Americans gotten fatter -- exponentially so, especially the young? In 1980, there were zero cases of childhood type 2 diabetes. In 2010, there were 57,636. "That used to be called adult-onset diabetes," sighs Bill Clinton. No longer. Now we have 9- and 10-year-old kids dying of heart attacks and strokes.

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Guantanamo Babe: Will Audiences Take Kristen Stewart Seriously as a Soldier in Camp X-Ray?

© Beth Dubber, Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Kristen Stewart in Camp X-Ray.
Kristen Stewart spent five Twilight films getting rescued by werewolves and vampires. Consider Camp X-Ray her rebuttal to a half-decade of playing damsels in distress. As Guantanamo guard Private Cole, Stewart is punched, bloodied, and spat on -- and that's just the first 10 minutes. When her commanding officer jokes, "Welcome to Gitmo," she smiles.

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At Sundance, Documentary Defends Pamela Smart, the Sexpot Schoolteacher Convicted of Murder

Pamela Smart, the sexpot schoolteacher who seduced three teenage boys to shoot her husband, has been imprisoned without parole since 1991. Her official release year is sometime in 9999, assuming that human civilization is still alive. Yet the captive in Jeremiah Zagar's Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart isn't her. It's us, the viewers who became transfixed by the first televised murder trial.

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Sundance Film Festival 2012: Chris Rock Talks to Barack Obama, and Other Random Festival Notes

After eight days in Park City, I'm back in Los Angeles; the festival continues through the weekend, with the awards announced Saturday night. Here are some notes on films I didn't get a chance to write about at length. Keep an eye out for my wrap-up of the festival in next week's print edition.

2 Days in New York
Actress/director Julie Delpy's (of Before Sunset/Sunrise fame) self-proclaimed "sequel" to her 2007 film 2 Days in Paris has Delpy's character split up from the earlier movie's boyfriend, played by Adam Goldberg, and now living with Mingus, a journalist (who Delpy's character meets while working at the Village Voice) played by Chris Rock. 

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Sundance Film Festival 2012: LCD Soundsystem's Last Show in Shut Up and Play the Hits

A mash-up of cinema and journalism, document and performance; a concert film sandwiched between a mission statement and a staged punctuation to a career:  the LCD Soundsystem documentary Shut up and Play the Hits offers more basic narrative satisfaction than many of the fiction films shown here using documentary aesthetics in the name of realism.

Structured around the hyper-self-conscious New York post-punk dance act's supposed final live show ever -- an epic affair that packed Madison Square Garden last April -- the film weaves together highlights of the show itself (including maybe half a dozen full performances chosen from the 29-song set); excerpts from an in-depth interview conducted by Chuck Klosterman a week before the show; and verite footage of the day after the show, documenting LCD singer/figurehead Murphy's first day as a "retiree," from the moment he wakes up in the previous night's white dress shirt, to a celebration dinner with the band and friends.

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Sundance Film Festival 2012: Marco Brambilla's Evolution (Megaplex) and the New Frontier

The theme of the 2012 New Frontier -- the Sundance section devoted to installation work, experimental film and video and art utilizing/ exploring emergent technology -- is "Future Normal." At a preview of the lineup held for press, programmer Shari Frilot defined that branded theme as reflective of an attempt to analyze the role of film in an age when "screen culture is evolving," to the point where "media technology integration really sustains humanity."

It's fitting the first piece visitors to the New Frontier gallery encounter, and by far the highlight of the whole exhibit, uses the trendiest technology of the moment to synopsize the past.

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Sundance Film Festival 2012: Beasts of the Southern Wild and Compliance

Broken social and economic systems, and the broken lives and homes they leave in their wake, have been a big theme at Sundance this year. Across documentaries and fiction features, broached directly and indirectly, it seems the new American dream is a longing for the old normal; accumulation or advancement is the stuff of fantasy when it's a back-breaking struggle just to maintain the status quo.

On Tuesday I caught up with two of the festival's most talked about films. Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild -- which sold to Fox Searchlight after what was reportedly a heated, weekend-long bidding war -- and Craig Zobel's Compliance are both movies about food chains, and the urgency of holding on for dear life to whatever it is you've got. But while Compliance coldly assesses how easily humanity, compassion and community can slip away when everyone's trying to hold on to what's theirs, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the inverse: it's a movie about a community for whom holding on to what's theirs is a communal effort, encompassing humans and animals, physical and metaphysical.

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