What We Saw—And Learned—At Sundance

The cast of Little Miss Sunshine.Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Indie films don’t have to end up as downers. Heroin addiction and child molestation can’t always be overcome in a 90-minute feature, as Sundance films like to remind us. But all those unresolved endings often feel like cop-outs—one reason why the comedy Little Miss Sunshine, with Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear, deserved the festival’s biggest deal ($10 million–plus). It corrals all the classic Sundance characters—girl with weight issues, depressed teenager, suicidal uncle, drug-addict granddad—but has the guts to cap its dysfunction with an anthemic dance number, the festival’s most romantic finale.

Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley should not play rival gang lords. Ever. Sorry, Duplex, you have been bumped from the top of the Worst New York Movie list. Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin was the festival’s most star-studded—and nonsensical—film. He cast Bruce Willis and Josh Hartnett as hit men, and, in some paroxysm of half-cooked anti-typecasting, Freeman and Kingsley as bloodthirsty gang lords … in present-day Greenwich Village.

From top: Ashley Judd in Come Early Morning; Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson; Gael García Bernal in The Science of Sleep.Photo: From top: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival; Adam Bell/Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival; Courtesy of Gaumont

The next new things are younger than ever—and they’re both from New York. Nine-year-old Abigail Breslin steals the already wacky show with her insane dance routine in Little Miss Sunshine. And 16-year-old discovery Shareeka Epps is the toughest kid on the block in Ryan Fleck’s strong Brooklyn drama Half Nelson, able to break your heart—in half, if crossed.

Ashley Judd can actually act. If you’ve been turned off by her stiff turns in Hollywood junk like High Crimes and Double Jeopardy, prepare to be surprised. She could even end up on best-actress lists next January for Come Early Morning. Under the direction of fellow actress Joey Lauren Adams, Judd plays a loose, hard-drinking southern woman who’s trying to clean up her act. She’s sharp but not sassy, funny but not hokey, and wholly convincing.

Michel Gondry’s even better than we knew. Written (!) and directed by cinema’s mad genius (Eternal Sunshine), The Science of Sleep is a messily ambitious romance composed of stop-motion animation, silly jokes, and sillier costumes. It tells the semi-autobiographical story of a Parisian artist (Gael García Bernal) whose wild dreams bleed into his dreary days. “Why do you love me?” his girlfriend pleads. “Because everyone else is so boring,” moans Bernal.

The Iraq-documentary genre is not dead yet. Yes, The Ground Truth was terribly sloppy. But Iraq in Fragments is an in-depth marvel about Iraqi citizens, and then there’s the German doc The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez, which tracks a “green-card soldier” from his youth in Guatemala to his eventual death as one of the first soldiers killed (by friendly fire) in Iraq. Both films, without deals at press time, deserve releases.

MoveOn.org should hire nobody Jon Daniel Ligon. Many of this year’s political docs were predictably preachy (or so I assume, because after a few misses, I wasn’t about to sit through An Inconvenient Truth, a 90-minute global-warming lecture by Al Gore). But Ha Ha Ha America is a hilarious seventeen-minute bit of lefty agitprop. Downloadable at Sundance.org, this intentionally mistranslated screed about Bush’s economic policies and China’s resurgence is bound to become a viral Web classic.

It’s not just Hollywood studios that make stupid exploitation flicks. The ballyhooed Right at Your Door, which tracks a young couple who endure the dirty-bombing of L.A., lets viewers experience the thrill of a terrorist attack without any of the messy politics (no one even wonders who’s behind the attacks). The film was picked up by Lions Gate (Saw, Hostel), surely for all the wrong rea

What We Saw—And Learned—At Sundance