The spectacular docs of Sundance and Slamdance 2014

Pub date February 25, 2014
SectionPixel Vision

Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam’s Web Junkie (Israel-China-US) is an eye-opening investigation into China’s declared number-one threat against youth: internet addiction. The doc observes as kids are sent (often against their will) to video-game rehab — and the takeaway is that many generation-gapped parents are even more clueless about emotions than their sons.

On a similar note was Kate Logan’s Kidnapped For Christ (US/Dominican Republic), which screened at Slamdance. As the film shows, thousands of unmonitored rehabilitation schools have popped up over North America that are filled with kids who are sent (again, often against their will) by their parents. Logan, a young evangelical filmmaker, was granted unprecedented access inside one of these controversial “Christian behavior modification programs,” and finds that things are most definitely not what they are suppose to be. Haunting and extrememly upsetting, the film’s similarities to Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp (2006) are inevitable. But Logan’s own safety being put on the line adds a more urgent note of danger as events unfold. 

Back at Sundance, Göran Olsson’s Concerning Violence (Sweden/Finland/Denmark/US) was easily the standout from the World Cinema Documentary category this year. Similarly structured to his 2011 film The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, this jawdropping “fly on the wall” archival journey lets the viewer piece together the struggles of African liberation of the 1960s and 1970s. Psychologist-philosopher Frantz Fanon’s seminal anticolonial text, The Wretched of the Earth, is the only narration for this visual narrative (read by Lauryn Hill). Watch this at all costs. 

Don’t let Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s The Notorious Mr. Bout (Russia/US) fall in between the cracks of festival mania this year. Bout follows the man who inspired one of Nicolas Cage’s best dramatic turns in Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War (2005), and it will send tingles down your spine. 

But nothing can prepare you for the winner of this year’s US Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner: Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s Rich Hill (US). Following three struggling youths in a Missouri small town, the filmmakers have created the perfect allegory for our “United” States of America. Broken-down homes and families are housing complex and confused young kids whose futures are terrifyingly bleak. The filmmakers’ unobtrusive, Wiseman-esque camerwork allow the quietest of moments to suddenly turn on a dime. And we the audience are forced to confront a dilemma that does not just get fixed by placing a website at the end of the credits.

Favorite Narratives of 2014 Park City

1. Memphis (US) – Tim Sutton

2. Boyhood (US) – Richard Linklater

3. Ida (Poland) – Paweł Pawlikowski

4. The Guest (US) – Adam Wingard/Simon Barrett

5. The One I Love (US) – Charlie McDowell

6. Nymphomaniac: Part One (Denmark/Germany/France) – Lars Von Trier

7. White Shadow (Italy/Germany/Tanzania) – Noaz Deshe

8. Love Is Strange (US) – Ira Sachs

9. The Better Angels (US) – A.J. Edwards/Terence Malick

10. The Trip to Italy (UK/Italy) – Michael Winterbottom

11. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (US/Japan) – The Zellner Brothers

12. Cold In July (US) – Jim Mickle

13. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (US) – Ana Lily Amirpour

14. Listen Up Phillip (US) – Alex Ross Perry