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The Best and Worst of Sundance 2014

The 2014 Sundance Film Festival came to a close over the weekend, with more screenings and more parties and more name-dropping and more deals and, oh yes, the end-of-festival awards. Your correspondent, who spent five days in Park City, has a kind of remarkable ability to totally miss the films that end up winning these awards, and that streak continued this time around; of the 25 features that took prizes this year, I saw exactly two (2). But I sampled a lot of other stuff — 22 movies in total, and while this is only a fraction of the 118 that screened there, we can only do so much. Here are some brief thoughts on each of those films:

fed-up-1

These documentaries were terrible:
I love nonfiction filmmaking, and many of the Sundance docs were excellent. Not all of them, though.

Fed Up
Stephanie Soechtig’s anti-Big Food activist documentary is stuffed with information and good intentions, but as filmmaking, it’s a nauseatingly by-the-numbers affair. All your greatest hits are here: the pre-title sequence whose voice-over functions as thesis statement (recited by a strangely stilted Katie Couric, who co-produced), statistics presented as over-produced graphics and animations (so we don’t get bored by all them fancy numbers), and, worst of all, the end credit instructions for all the Things We Can Do To Make A Difference now that we’ve been shown the light and the truth. It’s an infantile, vaguely condescending way to end a movie (and one that documentary filmmakers keep inexplicably replicating), and while the film itself has insights, it certainly doesn’t tell us anything we couldn’t get from a good magazine article.

This May Be the Last Time
The true test for good documentary filmmaking is when it makes you interested in a subject you’re otherwise indifferent about, and that’s not a test that This May Be the Last Time passes. An earnest history and celebration of Muskogee hymns, Sterlin Harjo’s documentary has a few interesting stories and sidebars (the history of the title song, for example), but its running time is primarily taken up by close-ups of solemn a cappella singing, and suffice it to say that a little of that goes a long way.

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