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by Dan Nuxoll
January 22nd, 2011

It is kind of hard to imagine that I only arrived in Park City at 7 PM Thursday. Something about seeing 7 feature films makes a day seem much too epic to have lasted merely 24 hours. But it was a tremendously satisfying day, to be sure, and I have already seen several films that I really enjoyed.

I collected my badge and tickets from the proper offices and headed to the Press Video Library to kick things off and things started off well with Joshua Leonard’s debut directorial effort, The Lie. Leonard has acted in a wide range of television and film projects for some time, including Sundance discoveries like The Blair Witch Project and (ten years later) Humpday (which screened at Rooftop in 2009). The Lie is not going to gross $280 million dollars like the former and it is not quite as hilarious as the latter, but it is a consistently charming improvisational drama, and I think that audiences and critics will respond positively. The film it most closely resembles is probably Katie Aselton’s The Freebie, but personally I found Leonard’s humorous touch made it a bit of a lighter and more entertaining ride than that.

Next up was Goran Hugo Olsson’s Black Power Mixtape, a new documentary made up almost entirely of 16mm footage shot in the U.S. by Swedish film crews between 1967 and 1975. The footage is truly tremendous and features amazing interviews and candid moments with many of the most important–and most radical–leaders of the Black Power movement, but for various reasons it languished in a basement unseen by the world for 30 years. Visually, the film is entirely of that era–there is no contemporary footage at all–but Olsson did interview dozens of contemporary black authors, musicians, academics and activists, and their interpretations of the significance of the movement and of the footage that he shared with them is consistently interesting and engaging. But still, the archival footage steals the show, and the Black Power Mixtape manages to act as a tremendously valuable time capsule, even if it was assembled well after the end of the movement.

My good fortune continued with a press screening of Richard Ayoade’s masterful and extremely entertaining Submarine. I won’t write too much about it because there are already a great many lengthy, adulating reviews online for it (it was the breakout hit of Toronto this past fall), but I will say that all the praise is well-deserved. Comparisons to Wes Anderson have been made and will likely continue, but Ayoade’s voice is his own. The script, cinematography, acting, editing, pacing, everything is nearly perfect, and I wouldn’t change a frame of this film. This is an extraordinarily entertaining film, but Ayoade keeps the audience perpetually guessing as he alternately undercuts brief moments of genuine sentiment with sudden bursts of dark mischief and then playfully draws attention to the whole enterprise with knowing slices of meta-humor that are then turned upside down and refracted subtly through tiny bits of perfectly composed visual metaphors. It’s might be one of the most beautifully made comedies of the last ten years, but more importantly it is just very, very funny.

I was only able to watch about half of Liz Garbus’ Bobby Fischer Against the World, but I enjoyed what I saw (it’s a great story, of course, and Garbus is a seasoned pro, so I will try to see the rest later this week). The only reason I left was to dash over to the Library for the World Premiere of Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s feature debut, On The Ice. Maclean’s short film Sikumi was well received at Sundance in 2009, but when I saw it back then I remember thinking that it felt a bit like a condensed feature, a calling-card short. Turns out, I was right, but luckily the expanded version of the story plays quite a bit more convincingly than the short (at least for me). Set in a tiny, isolated Iñupiaq town in the frozen tundra of Northern Alaska, On The Ice tells the story of two teenage best friends who kill a friend in self-defense after a drunken brawl breaks out on a seal-hunting trip, just weeks before they finish high school. In many ways the plot plays out like a classic Sundance coming-of-age thriller, but the fantastic use of the landscape and local flavor serve the film exceedingly well, and the film remains taut and believable, in no small part due to the strong performances by mostly first-time or non-professional actors.

I raced from the Library back to the Holiday for a press screening of Evan Glodell’s Bellflower, and it was definitely worth the high-altitude dash. A lot of people have complained about Sundance’s NEXT section over the last year, but if Sundance is committed to the category, than I hope that they are able to track down more films that resemble Glodell’s wild, boozy, twisted, and often experimental feature film debut. Glodell takes LOTS of chances with nearly every single scene from start to finish, and one fellow programmer remarked that it seemed like he was reconfiguring the direction of the film every twenty minutes or so. Nonetheless, the daring visuals remain remarkably consistent and arresting, and the visual logic of the film holds the movie together even when the narrative threads of the tale threaten to stretch and stray. It’s a story about a couple that meet at an insect eating contest and also about best friends who build flamethrowers and install whiskey dispensers in their hot rods. It’s about love and infidelity and friendship and betrayal, about sex and fire and brain damage and revenge and California and the tendency of wild young men to self-mythologize until they destroy whatever it was they believed they wanted to become in the first place. And when I consider all that, I realize that Bellflower is a MESS of a film, without a doubt. But it is a beautifully ugly and well-considered chaotic mess, and it isn’t boring or incoherent for a second. The filmmakers clearly knew they were making a mess right from the beginning and not only did that not bother them–it clearly got them really, really excited. That reckless enthusiasm shows up on the screen and at the end of a long day, I, for one, was pretty happy to be a part of their apocalyptic world for a little while.

Submarine, On The Ice, Bellflower, Bobby Fischer Against the World

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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