Jay Meehan: The short list
January 7, 2014
Of late, a rather large slice of the time pie has been taken up perusing the online 2014 Sundance Film Festival Film Guide in order to come up with a "short list" of films, panel discussions, and musical acts of which to partake once the festival, and my feeding frenzy, gets underway on January 16.
The problem with this wish-list sort of approach, of course, is that it’s most often not short at all. This is a good thing, however. It’s like the old "Escalante" long-sleeve T-shirt I quickly wore out back in the day that proclaimed "So Many Canyons, So Little Time." Time management and the lack thereof being what Sundance is all about.
First of all, you have your film categories to wade through and, being a card-carrying "doc head," I always start with the documentaries in competition and follow that up with those that made the cut in the relatively new "Documentary Premiere" grouping.
The films in the U.S. Documentary Competition, as always, cover the gamut of contemporary issues and the not-always-benevolent role of the human condition therein. No exception this time around.
"Cesar’s Last Fast," which chronicles the 5-week water-only hunger strike of migrant farm worker activist Cesar Chavez, immediately jumped to the top of my short list due to the fact that one of my final acts as a Californian before moving to Park City in 1970 was marching in the Chicano Moratorium along Whittier Boulevard in East LA.
None of us would get the chance to hear Chavez speak at the march’s concluding rally at Laguna Park, however, due to what a Grand Jury later deemed a "police riot." It’ll be one difficult proposition for me to not right-brain a whiff of tear gas during this screening.
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"No No: A Dockumentary," the story of Dock Ellis, the Pittsburgh Pirate hurler who once gained instant notoriety by tossing a no-hitter while fully immersed in an "acid trip" and "Dinosaur 13," the story of the unearthing of "Sue," the largest Tyrannosaurus rex ever found and the ensuing brouhaha over ownership of its skeletal remains, are a couple of others in the 16-film category.
The World Cinema Documentary Competition is always a go-to comfort zone when assembling my list and the U.K. entry "20,000 Days on Earth" immediately set a hook this time around. With the creative cycle of musical artist Nick Cave as its subject matter, this ought to keep my attention!
As should the Israeli-Palestinian spy doc "The Green Prince" and an awfully-intriguing 72-minute film from France called "Mr leos caraX" which screens in "English and French/Japanese with English subtitles. Now we’re getting somewhere!
In Doc Premieres, "Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger" turned my crank due to both Bulger’s somewhat film noir-like legend and the filmmaker’s place in my Sundance pantheon. Joe Berlinger has previously brought the haunting "Brother’s Keeper," the epic "rockumentary" "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," and "Under African Skies," the Paul Simon "Graceland" film, to the festival.
Another favorite filmmaker, Sterlin Harjo, premieres his "This May Be The Last Time" in this grouping. "Fining Fela", about musician Fela Kuti, "The Battered Bastards of Baseball," "Last Days in Vietnam," the civil rights film "Freedom Summer," and "We Are the Giant," which follows the Arab Spring, also screen in Doc Premieres.
Always a sucker for films containing musical sidebars or backstories, the early word on "Lowdown," "Song One," and "Whiplash," all from the U.S. Dramatic competition, quickly made my ever-elongating "short" list. "Camp X-Ray," with Kristen Stewart as a guard at "Gitmo," could also prove interesting, as could "Dear White People" and "God’s Pocket" with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, and John Turturro.
World Cinema Dramatic Competition is another category in which I attempt to become immersed, if for no other reason than these entries just might find themselves screening down the road at either of the local Heber cinematic art-houses.
"Lock Charmer (El cerrajero)" from Argentina fits this bill perfectly. Sebastian, our protagonist, learns in a short time frame that his girlfriend is "great with child" and that he has suddenly acquired the power to see into people’s lives once he rubs their locking mechanisms the right way. Great premise.
Then there’s "Wetlands," which I know won’t make it to Heber! From Germany, this totally frank and admittedly raunchy foray into the life of a "body-fluid obsessed" teenage girl will probably attract a bit of buzz! I’m unsure on how this could possibly have made my short list.
We’ll take a peek at the other film categories and some of the off-screen happenings during the festival in next week’s column.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.