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SUNDANCE 2006: FROM THE FBI'S MOST WANTED TEENAGER TO TOBACCO AND BOOZE LOBBYISTS

HERE, IN TEXT PREPARED BY FESTIVAL STAFFERS, IS A SAMPLING OF WHAT'S PLAYED AT THE WORLD'S MOST CELEBRATED SHOWING OF INDIE FILMS. FOR FULL DETAILS, CLICK HERE AND VISIT THE OFFICIAL FESTIVAL SITE.



ALPHA DOG
U.S.A., 2006, 122 Minutes, color

Director: Nick Cassavetes
Screenwriter: Nick Cassavetes
Cast : Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, Ben Foster, Anton Yelchin

Nick Cassavetes captures the driving energy and sordid anomie of contemporary youth culture in his unflinchingly told cautionary tale, Alpha Dog. Based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, a midlevel drug dealer whose ambition and ruthlessness led him to become the youngest man ever to appear on the FBI's Most Wanted list, Alpha Dog offers a glimpse of the rawness and reality of teenage life on the edge. The film stars Emile Hirsch as a teenage suburban drug dealer, Johnny Truelove, whose "gangsta" fueled lifestyle of sex, guns, and drugs is far over the top of customary adolescent restraints. When a competitor/client cheats him, he and his posse "kidnap" the client's younger brother, who is more than willing to spend days partying with little sense or anticipation of his fate. But as events spiral out of Johnny's control, the real consequences of his deadly games become inexorable. Featuring a marvelous ensemble cast that includes Justin Timberlake (shown above), whose work is a revelation, Ben Foster (equally so), Bruce Willis, and Sharon Stone, this is dense, galvanizing filmmaking, seething with tension and culminating in a tragedy that would be shocking if we weren't so aware of the kind of world we live in, a place with kids who live without mores, parents who don't have a clue, and ongoing conflict between the lingering innocence of youth and moral disintegration and dissolution.— Geoffrey Gilmore


ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL
U.S.A., 2005, 102 Minutes, color

Director:
Terry Zwigoff
Screenwriter:
Daniel Clowes
Cast : Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, Matt Keeslar, Anjelica Huston

Art School Confidential tracks an art student who dreams of becoming the greatest artist in the world. Arriving as a freshman at a prestigious East Coast art school, Jerome quickly discovers that talent alone does not get him very far. When he sees that a clueless jock is attracting the glory rightfully due him, Jerome hatches an all-or-nothing plan to hit it big in the art world and win the heart of the most beautiful girl in school. But all is not as it seems, and he quickly learns that sometimes you really should be careful what you wish for. The film reteams Ghost World helmer Terry Zwigoff and cartoonist/screenwriter Dan Clowes. This time they shift their insightful gaze to the world of art schools and their vulnerable inhabitants. Their genius lies in the ability to peel off the layers of these type characters and expose their soft underbellies, leaving them open to be petted or skewered, depending upon how the viewer perceives them. No one is spared in this biting, but hilarious, exploration of the random and subjective nature of art. With a breakthrough performance by Max Minghella as Jerome (shown above with Sophia Myles), and a truly inspired one by John Malkovich as the pretentious and frustrated professor, Zwigoff makes a triumphant return to Sundance (Crumb won the Grand Jury Prize in 1995) with a film brimming with sardonic empathy and infused with an underground comic consciousness.— Trevor Groth For the Variety review, click here.

THE AURA
Argentina, 2005, 134 Minutes, color

Director: Fabián Bielinsky
Screenwriter: Fabián Bielinsky
Cast : Alejandro Awada, Pablo Cedron, Ricardo Darin, Dolores Fonzi

In his elegantly conceived second feature, The Aura, Fabián Bielinsky (Nine Queens) both furthers his exploration of film form and creates a complex genre film firmly rooted in character. Espinoza is an introverted taxidermist perfectly suited to solitary, meticulous work. Though private and unassuming, he's remarkably observant–an attribute that lends itself to masterminding perfect robberies...in his head. After his wife leaves him, Espinoza accepts a friend's invitation to go hunting in Patagonia. When an accidental death presents him with the chance to pull off a real heist, Espinoza naïvely places himself in the center of a scheme to rob an armored van. Unlike those in his imagination, however, this is a real crime with real criminals. As a heist film, The Aura sports a shrewd, serpentine plot, and Bielinsky allows us the fun of trying to arrange puzzle pieces on our own. But he also never lets go of his preoccupation with character and crafts a style that's airy and contemplative; The Aura's gorgeous, deliberate visuals are almost hypnotic. Espinoza is a fascinating protagonist, a quiet, opaque man who suffers from epilepsy. The "aura" refers to the eerie, frozen moment before a seizure when Espinoza knows it's coming but can do nothing about it. It's one of a handful of intertwining metaphors and themes that give The Aura a satisfying sense of wholeness.— John Nein


COME EARLY MORNING
U.S.A., 2005, 97 Minutes, color

Director:Joey Lauren Adams
Screenwriter: Joey Lauren Adams
Cast : Ashley Judd, Jeffrey Donovan, Tim Blake Nelson, Diane Ladd, Stacey Keach

Come Early Morning is a beautifully rendered film about a southern woman in a small-town, rural community, a subject director Joey Lauren Adams obviously knows intimately. Delicately told, and rather efficiently related, it is the story of Lucy, a 30-something woman who keeps waking up with a stiff hangover and a guy she doesn't even want to look at. If coming to grips with why she keeps repeating this pattern isn't enough, Lucy also begins to realize that she needs to get in touch with her familial past and, more importantly, with the person she has become. Fueled by a perfectly nuanced performance from the gifted Ashley Judd, Come Early Morning is about life transitions, the search for love, and the burdens we carry with us. A portrait of simple truths that isn't archetypal melodrama, it steadfastly avoids wallowing in the depths of sentimentality or self-destruction. You can't help but appreciate this kind of storytelling for its directness, honesty, and qualities of toughness and heart that leave you wanting to know more as it plays itself out, following you into that part of your filmic memory reserved for distinction.— Geoffrey Gilmore For the Variety review, click here.

THE DARWIN AWARDS
U.S.A., 2005, 93 Minutes, color

Director: Finn Taylor
Screenwriter: Finn Taylor
Cast : Joseph Fiennes, Winona Ryder, David Arquette, Juliette Lewis, Metallica, Wilmer Valderrama

The Darwin Awards are a real-life phenomenon presented to individuals who improve the human gene pool by removing themselves from it when they accidentally kill themselves in incredibly stupid ways. Writer/director Finn Taylor develops this irony with a deliciously dark comedy that revels in the notion that truth is stranger than fiction...and a hell of a lot funnier. The stories in The Darwin Awards are integrated into a narrative about two characters grappling with their own destinies. Burrows is a brilliant detective with a special talent for profiling criminals. Siri is a hard-nosed insurance investigator whose steeliness and "throw-caution-to-the-wind" attitude is exactly the opposite of Burrows's thoughtful hesitation. When Siri's employer hires Burrows to create a profile for potential Darwin Award winners–who are costing the insurance company a fortune–the two begin a search for the answer to what makes these people tick. Taylor returns to Sundance (Dream with the Fishes, Cherish) with an epic comedy that boasts a dream team of acting talent. Joseph Fiennes exudes an intelligence that is the perfect foil to the absurdity happening around Burrows, while Winona Ryder displays a brazen strength and maturity that is a revelation as Siri. Combining these performances with numerous tasty cameos, Taylor weaves humor, romance, and adventure into a highly entertaining film.— Trevor Groth For the Variety review, click here.

FRIENDS WITH MONEY

U.S.A., 2005, 88 Minutes, color

Director: Nicole Holofcener
Screenwriter: Nicole Holofcener
Cast : Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, Jason Isaacs, Scott Caan

Friends with Money portrays a world we may think we know all too well: the liberal, professional, sophisticated lives of women and their husbands on the west side of Los Angeles. But director Nicole Holofcener's depiction is so authentic and detailed, so exact and honest, that it's like seeing something familiar for the first time. And the film is constructed with a discerning eye and a tone that's both loving and funny, its characters are fully fleshed out by a great ensemble cast, and it boasts a witty, carefully crafted script. Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack, and Catherine Keener are a quartet of lifelong friends; three of them have achieved a certain level of success and financial comfort and now enjoy lives that focus around their husbands and offspring, friends, and various social activities. Olivia (Aniston), however, faces a different dilemma: because she recently quit her job and is cleaning houses in the interim, she is unclear about her future and even the state of her longtime friendships. As all their worlds evolve and then fracture, their comfortable milieu may be facing real changes. Like a great Russian playwright, Holofcener flawlessly addresses the social and the personal, class and gender, and the frustrating aspects of people's day-to-day lifestyles, especially the uniqueness of each couple's relationship. Simply put, this is marvelous filmmaking and a pleasure to watch. Friends with Money's voices and vision will remain with us long after the film ends.— Geoffrey Gilmore To read the Variety review of "Friends With Money," click here.

GOD GREW TIRED OF US
U.S.A., 2006, 86 Minutes, color
DOCUMENTARY GRAND JURY PRIZE

Director: Christopher Quinn


In the late 1980s, 27,000 Sudanese "lost boys"–some just toddlers–marched barefoot over thousands of miles of barren desert, seeking safe haven from the brutal civil war raging in their homeland. Half died from bombing raids and starvation; the others reside together in Kenya's Kakuna refugee camp, with few prospects. Recently, the U.S. invited some of the boys to settle in America. Moving and mind-expanding, Christopher Quinn's God Grew Tired of Us follows three unforgettable young men–John, Daniel, and Panther–on their unbelievable odyssey in a strange New World. The culture shock begins with airplane loudspeakers and processed food and continues as they orient themselves to refrigerators, running water, and fluorescent-lit supermarkets. It's fascinating to witness their wonder at Western customs, and even more gripping when the film monitors their spiritual temperatures. Things are tough as the boys juggle multiple menial jobs; for the first time, they find themselves well fed, yet painfully isolated from the brotherly fellowship that once enabled their survival. They face hints of racism and are perplexed by Americans' obsessive need for privacy and anxious about loved ones struggling in Africa. Yet John, Daniel, and Panther–each radiantly charismatic and thoughtful–meet their challenges, fueled by a desire to help others. Though they were bred in unspeakably dehumanizing circumstances, their integrity and honor are impeccable, raising profound questions about the conditions necessary to create a civilized society.— Caroline Libresco


A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS

U.S.A., 2005, 90 Minutes, color
DRAMATIC DIRECTING PRIZE
SPECIAL DRAMATIC JURY PRIZE FOR BEST ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE


Director: Dito Montiel
Screenwriter: Dito Montiel
Cast : Robert Downey, Jr., Shia La Boeuf, Rosario Dawson, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest, Channing Tatum

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is based on director Dito Montiel's youth during the mideighties in the tough neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. All his old friends have ended up dead, as junkies, or in prison; Dito is the proverbial man who got out. For him, the "saints" are the folks he remembers, the ones he left behind. For better or worse, they made him who he is today. Just the way memories can flood consciousness, Montiel uses the same motif to flood the screen with his stories. The past gets layered upon the present, and the film comes to life. The performances are real because the characters' words are real; they've been said before. The strength of the film isn't looking back through a nostalgic, Vaselined lens; instead, Montiel infuses the memories with both the exhilaration and pain of youth. The outstanding cast members (that's Rosario Dawson above) are dedicated to finding every nuance and truth. They capture the frenetic quality of the time, not only in the streets and on the rooftops but also in the bustling family kitchen. Montiel's New York is steamy with humidity, cooking, and adolescent sexuality. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is an honest account of a bittersweet return to a neighborhood that isn't the same and never will be again.— John Cooper

HALF NELSON
U.S.A., 2006, 106 Minutes, color

Director: Ryan Fleck
Screenwriter: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Cast : Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie

Ryan Fleck returns to Sundance with Half Nelson, a feature-length version of his Jury Prize-winning short, Gowanus, Brooklyn, that looks at an unlikely friendship that brings hope to a man trapped by his own demons. Dan Dunne is an idealistic inner-city junior high school teacher. Though he can get it together in the classroom, he spends his time outside school on the edge of consciousness. He juggles his hangovers and his homework, keeping his lives precariously separated, until one of his troubled students, Drey, catches him in a compromising situation. From this awkward beginning, Dan and Drey stumble into an unexpected friendship that threatens either to undo them, or to provide the vital change they both need to move forward in their lives. Half Nelson neither condemns nor sanctions Dan's actions, but rather depicts characters who are "wrestling" with various aspects of themselves and their roles in the larger world around them. Ryan Gosling perfectly renders Dan, imbuing him with layers and dimensions rarely seen in film. Equally exciting is newcomer Shareeka Epps's performance as Drey; she displays a remarkable ability to convey both wisdom and innocence. Fleck has delicately crafted a film about the universal struggle to achieve vital change in one's life–and also about the role friendship can play in that struggle.— Trevor Groth For the Variety review, click here.


THE ILLUSIONIST
U.S.A., 2005, 110 Minutes, color

Director: Neil Burger
Screenwriter: Neil Burger
Cast : Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell

Are you the kind of person who scrutinizes magic tricks, or do you surrender yourself to the thrill of the moment? Either way, The Illusionist will keep you on the edge of your seat and transport you to a time that embraced the supernatural. Set in 1900 Vienna, this stunning romantic thriller is the story of Eisenheim, a brilliant mysterious magician bent on solving a puzzle that has eluded him since childhood. His ability to mesmerize crowds and his apparent attraction to the crown prince's fiancée–Duchess von Teschen–threatens the prince and ignites suspicion from Chief Inspector Uhl. When the duchess is murdered, Eisenheim summons extraordinary powers in a desperate attempt to overcome Uhl, prove the prince guilty, and bring down the monarchy before it destroys him. At its heart, Neil Burger's film is about social position and the will to challenge it. Eisenheim, a cabinetmaker's son, iconoclastically dares to love a noblewoman and ridicule the prince. Uhl, on the other hand, believes royal fealty is his only ticket to power. From Eisenheim, he learns to listen to his inner sense of justice. With its glowing amber palette, splendid spectacles, and nuanced performances, The Illusionist explores art and technology as populist forces. Eisenheim's otherworldly conjurings, which create a "protocinema," stir his audiences to question authority, while he enlists acts of magic to serve the power of true love.— Caroline Libresco For the Variety review, click here.


KINKY BOOTS
United Kingdom, 2005, 107 Minutes, color

Director: Julian Jarrold
Screenwriter: Tim Firth, Geoffe Dean
Cast : Joel Edgerton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sarah-Jane Potts, Jemima Rooper, Nick Frost, Linda Bassett


With the sudden death of his father, Charlie Price takes up the reins of the family's Northampton shoe factory. But Charlie quickly discovers it is not business as usual, and without new shoe orders, bankruptcy is imminent. As if in a dream, enter Lola, fresh from London and larger than life: sexy, sassy, cabaret-singing man in a dress. These two unlikely friends become allies in a plan that will change the future of the factory and its workers, and the hearts and minds of anyone who crosses their path. Kinky Boots is a whimsical romp spotlighting the very best in British cinema, including an achingly charming performance by Joel Edgerton and a spectacular reintroduction to American audiences of Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things). Julian Jarrold pulls off an auspicious directorial debut by creating a glittering gift of a film about human dignity and compassion. From pub to factory, England to the big shoe show in Milan, two themes ring through: There is much to learn from the people you least expect can teach you; and in life, it is usually best to accept who you are as well as who you are not. Just in case you haven't figured it out, these kinky boots are made for walking.— John Cooper


LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
U.S.A., 2006, 100 Minutes, color

Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Screenwriter: Michael Arndt
Cast : Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano

Meet the Hoover family: Olive, a seven-year-old, slightly pudgy, aspiring beauty queen; her father, Richard, a struggling motivational speaker who can't help but push; and her mom, Sheryl, who has to bring her Proust scholar/brother, Frank, home after his failed suicide attempt. Frank has to stay with Sheryl's Nietzsche-worshiping son, Dwayne, who has taken a vow of silence until he is old enough to be a fighter pilot. Then there's Grandpa, recently kicked out of his nursing home for snorting heroin. When they are all forced to hop into the old VW bus to take Olive to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, this is either a portrait of the most dysfunctional family you've ever seen or the absolutely hilarious tragicomic journey of a family whose lives are in for a change. That this is a first feature by the directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris is stunning, given the film's level of execution. With an exceptional cast, whose "effortless" performances are pure pleasure, this madcap comedy literally transports a Capraesque lunacy to the present. And like the films of that master of farce, this delicious, abundant, comic storytelling sends up American values even as it draws out the humanity hidden in the most misfit of families.— Geoffrey Gilmore To read the Variety review of "Little Miss Sunshine," click here; for details on the film's rapturous reception at Sundance, click here.


LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN
U.S.A., 2006, 104 Minutes, color

Director: Paul McGuigan
Screenwriter: Jason Smilovic
Cast : Bruce Willis, Josh Hartnett, Sir Ben Kingsley, Morgan Freeman, Lucy Liu

It all starts with a horse. Then an innocent man is mistaken for someone who owes money to a bookie. And when Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis), the most notorious assassin around, blows into town, everyone knows something big is about to burst. But what? Paul McGuigan's delectable murder mystery, Lucky Number Slevin, is a fun, fast-paced thoroughbred of a thriller that is a sheer delight to track. Try and crack it, if you can! Slevin (Josh Hartnett) comes to New York to visit his friend Nick, but finds his apartment empty. "I think Nick is in trouble," says Lindsey (Lucy Liu), his neighbor. This becomes clear to Slevin when he opens the door expecting to see cute little Lindsey and gets a henchman's knuckles instead. The boss (Morgan Freeman, and later Ben Kingsley) wants to see Nick, and Slevin can't prove he's not Nick because his pocket got picked that morning. Soon he finds himself in the middle of a high-profile murder being plotted by one of New York's biggest crime bosses. Exactly what kind of trouble is Nick in? McGuigan has crafted a densely stylish film noir from Jason Smilovic's swift, tight, and furious script. Lucky Number Slevin's sly humor leaves you smiling as you contemplate the beauty of a Kansas City shuffle.— Shari Frilot To read the Variety review of "Lucky Number Slevin," click here.


THE NIGHT LISTENER
U.S.A., 2006, 90 Minutes, color

Director: Patrick Stettner
Screenwriter: Armistead Maupin & Terry Anderson, and Patrick Stettner
Cast : Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh, Rory Culkin, Bobby Cannavale, Joe Morton

Gabriel is a celebrated writer and popular late-night radio host. On the air waves across America, he is famous for sharing the many stories of his life, both true and embellished. When a manuscript from a troubled young listener finds its way onto his desk and into his psyche, he is rustled out of his New York brownstone and safe neighborhood. He embarks upon a journey that comes to test the very threshold of his own empathy. Gabriel states, "I will lay the events out exactly like I remember them"; thus begins the story of The Night Listener. Director and cowriter Patrick Stettner returns to Sundance (The Business of Strangers played in the 2001 Festival) and once again ventures into the darker side of human relationships. Adapted from the novel by Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener is a psychological thriller exploring uncharted territories of the bizarre and macabre. As Gabriel, Robin Williams contributes a wonderfully subdued performance, but meets his match in Toni Collette, who portrays the young boy's adopted guardian. With an eerie atmosphere that borders on the creepy, desolate, wintry Wisconsin becomes the locale for a tale that may rattle you to your soul. In The Night Listener, when deception is what you desire, the line between truth and fiction begins to blur.—John Cooper For the Variety review, click here.


NO. 2
New Zealand, 2005, 94 Minutes, color

Director: Toa Fraser
Screenwriter: Toa Fraser
Cast : Ruby Dee, Tuva Novotny, Mia Blake, Taungaroa Emile

Nanna Maria dreams of her youth in the islands of Fiji with nostalgia, remembering sunny days filled with family and celebration. Her memories may be glowing, but Nanna's house, No. 2, is far from it these days. The front door was sealed in Fijian tradition after the death of her husband, and family members have sunk deeply into their daily lives in urban New Zealand, too busy to gather or share in a family moment. But Nanna Maria decides she wants a party thrown in traditional Fijian fashion, with roasted pig, kava, music, and laughter abounding, so she can name her successor as head of the family. The only problem is that some members of the family are too busy, many have never roasted a pig, and others simply aren't speaking to one another. Accomplished playwright Toa Fraser brings his stage play to life in his directorial debut with stylized storytelling and a camera that glides effortlessly through the peaks and valleys of the story. He gives us an effectively emotional portrait of a family trying to pull itself together as it's actually falling apart. Veteran actress Ruby Dee boldly leads a stellar ensemble cast, and even with the frays and loose ends of familial drama exposed, the love and resilience of this family are still inspiring.— N. Bird Runningwater


OFF THE BLACK
U.S.A., 2005, 90 Minutes, color

Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriter: James Ponsoldt
Cast : Nick Nolte, Trevor Morgan, Rosemarie DeWitt, Sonia Feigelson, Sally Kirkland, Timothy Hutton

Ray is a mess. Instead of being a baseball player, he's an aging high school umpire. Instead of being married, he's divorced. Instead of having a real relationship with his son, he makes grandiose video diaries to send him. Instead of being sober and fearless, he's drunk and scared and alone. Ray is the stuttering heart and soul of Off the Black, James Ponsoldt's fearless portrait of small-town lives in crisis, and acclaimed actor Nick Nolte utterly devastates us in the raging lead performance. Coaxing Ray's self-discoveries is the chance friendship he forces on troubled teen David, a local pitcher who can't refuse Ray's demands after being caught vandalizing the umpire's house. Ray's alcoholic and urgent needs escalate until he strikes a deal to wash the slate clean with one last request–David must go to Ray's fortieth high school reunion and pretend to be his son. Perceptions and realities then collide as the men find in each other the surrogate companionship obviously missing from their daily lives. Off the Black develops patiently and rewardingly, pulling us deeper into the inner lives of its characters with each redemptive discovery, and exploring what it means to be a son, a father, a man...sometimes all at once.— Joseph Beyer To read Guy Flatley's 1979 interview with Nick Nolte, click here.


OPEN WINDOW
U.S.A., 2005, 97 Minutes, color

Director: Mia Goldman
Screenwriter: Mia Goldman
Cast : Robin Tunney, Joel Edgerton, Cybill Shepherd, Matt Keeslar, Scott Wilson, Shirley Knight, Elliott Gould

Izzy and Peter seem to have it all. They are deeply in love, challenged and engrossed in their careers as a photographer and an English professor, and have recently become engaged. They feel, gratefully, that in their warmly lit home and contented quotidian rituals, they have managed to carve out a blissful corner where the world's chaos and insanity are held at bay. Then one night, a senseless, random act of violence intrudes upon them from the tree-lined, suburban darkness of their quiet street, shaking them loose from their carefully planned lives. The ripple effects of violence touch hidden tensions within their relationship, and reveal buried facets of their deepest fears and desires. Mia Goldman's assured feature debut is an intimate character study that examines the ways in which a traumatic experience touches all relationships–with lovers, parents, and friends. Perhaps most striking are the quiet moments between Izzy and Peter, which, thanks to sensitive, complex performances from Robin Tunney and Joel Edgerton, carry enormous emotional weight. At once a moving portrait of survival and an intricate examination of a threatened relationship, Open Window underscores the healing power of reclaiming one's own self-determination.— Elizabeth Richardson To read Guy Flatley's 1973 interview with Elliott Gould, click here.

QUINCEAÑERA
U.S.A., 2005, 90 Minutes, color
DRAMATIC GRAND JURY PRIZE

Director: Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer
Screenwriter: Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer
Cast : Emily Rios, Jesse Garcia, Chalo Gonzalez

As Magdelena's fifteenth birthday approaches, her life is consumed by thoughts of her boyfriend, her Quinceañera dress, and the Hummer limo she hopes will show up on her special day. Life seems so simple in her Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, until fate delivers an unwelcome surprise–she is pregnant. Immediately expelled from her religious family home, she is taken in by her great-granduncle Thomas and tough cholo cousin Carlos, who has been rejected by his own father for being gay. Together they form a makeshift family unit that must stand up to social stigmas and encroaching urban gentrification that threatens the only neighborhood they know. Directing team Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer playfully label Quinceañera a "neo-sink drama," and indeed it is a reinvention of the "kitchen sink" dramas that peppered British cinema in the '50s and '60s. They were known for adult storylines, class conflict, and sardonic humor, but to consider Quinceañera so simply is an injustice. This is an authentically rendered glimpse into a world most likely driven through, with doors locked and windows rolled up, on the way to somewhere else. Westmoreland and Glatzer have molded the performances of their mostly unknown ensemble into a tender portrait of a changing world and, in doing so, have illuminated modern realities of family and hope.— John Cooper


THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP
France, 2005, 105 Minutes, color

Director: Michel Gondry
Screenwriter: Michel Gondry
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, Miou Miou, Aurelia Petit, Sacha Bourdo

Life seems to be looking up for shy and withdrawn Stephane when he returns to his childhood home with the promise of a great job. Wildly creative, his fanciful and sometimes disturbing dream life constantly threatens to usurp his waking world. While the job fails to meet expectations, he does strike up a relationship with his neighbor, Stephanie. As their connection blossoms, the confidence he exudes in his fanciful dream life begins bleeding into his real life. But just as everything is looking up, his insecurities raise their ugly head, and he faces a dilemma that the science of sleep may not help him solve. Michel Gondry's science fiction doesn't explore outer, but rather inner, space, playfully reflecting the interaction between the worlds we inhabit: nature, society, and the mind. The Science of Sleep utilizes rudimentary techniques to craft a thoroughly complex vision of the lead character's brain, filled with the anxieties, hopes, fears, and yearnings that lie in all of us. Gael Garcia Bernal perfectly radiates these emotions as Stephane, a man trying to take control of his dreams because his life is slipping away. Densely packed with imagery and symbols as well as soulful emotion and humor, The Science of Sleep weaves a dreamlike narrative ripe for examination and enjoyment and further establishes Gondry as a master of cinematic language.— Trevor Groth For the Variety review, click here.


SHERRYBABY
U.S.A., 2005, 96 Minutes, color

Director: Laurie Collyer
Screenwriter: Laurie Collyer
Cast : Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brad Henke, Bridget Barkan, Ryan Simpkins, Danny Trejo, Giancarlo Esposito

Sometimes life gets in the way of your best intentions. Even if you have everything going for you, an emotional wound from childhood can reemerge as a monster in your adult life and swallow you whole. Director Laurie Collyer returns to Sundance (her documentary Nuyorican Dream played in the 2000 Festival) with Sherrybaby, an emotionally powerful dramatic debut about a young woman struggling to keep her life on the right track–but she doesn't really know how. Sherry Swanson is recently released from prison and dreams of getting a job, settling down, and being a mother to her five-year-old daughter. Big problems arise when she realizes her brother and his wife are invested in raising the child themselves. The constricting realities of unemployment and parole complicate things even more. Sherry is determined to weather the storm that has developed in her life, but she must first find a way to overcome a demon in her closet that holds her hostage emotionally. Collyer's sharply observed characters are brought to indelible life by all-around strong performances, led by Maggie Gyllenhaal's deeply inhabited Sherry. Sherrybaby is an intensely compelling experience and marks an exciting directorial debut.— Shari Frilot For the Variety review, click here.


SOMEBODIES
U.S.A., 2005, 89 Minutes, color

Director: Hadjii
Screenwriter: Hadjii
Cast : Hadjii, Kaira Whitehead, Tyler Craig, Carlos Davis, Patt Brown, David "Nick" Lewis

Somebodies takes a lighthearted jab at what it is to be young, carefree, and reckless in America from a distinctly fresh perspective. Scottie, a 22-year-old African American college student, is just living life as it comes; he and his roommates are more than happy to live up to the standards of typical college students–partying, women, and flat-out fun. But eventually, Scottie's nonchalant approach toward life, combined with his love of a good time and appreciation of a "cold one," lands him in some hot water. Encircled by a wild group of friends, an eccentric love interest, off-the-wall family members, convicts, and a fire-and-brimstone preacher, Scottie's road to recovery ultimately becomes a hilarious journey of self-discovery. And the Lord said, "Let there be Hadjii." ...Can I get a hallelujah? From the alt-rock hotbed of Athens, Georgia, comes an invigorating new comedic voice in independent film. Triple-threat writer/director/actor Hadjii uses the distinct flavor of the South and an immensely talented supporting cast to create memorable characters and lines that will leave you laughing long after the film ends. By portraying young black men who aren't thugs or Mr. Nice Guys, he infuses the film with insightful perspectives on people who are living ordinary lives as they try to make sense of the senselessness that is America today.— Trevor Groth


STEEL CITY
U.S.A., 2005, 95 Minutes, color

Director: Brian Jun
Screenwriter: Brian Jun
Cast : John Heard, Tom Guiry, America Ferrera, Clayne Crawford, Laurie Metcalf, Raymond J. Barry

Films about complex relationships among men are few and far between; even rarer are films about complex relationships among working-class men. Steel City tells the psychologically rich story of a dysfunctional family of men in a depressed midwestern steel town who have been torn apart by years of mistrust, anger, and irresponsibility. In the wake of his father's incarceration for killing a woman, 20-something PJ Lee drifts aimlessly, losing one job, then another, scuffling with his tough, philandering brother, and halfheartedly pursuing a girl from work. Evicted from his house, he accepts an offer to live with his estranged, bossy uncle, Vic. But Vic demands a level of accountability and communication that overwhelms PJ, and, like all the men in his family, he bolts. Just when things seem as intractable as the Illinois winter ice, subtle shifts allow each member of the Lee clan to inch together into a new kind of maturity. What makes Steel City extraordinary are its intelligence and penetrating honesty about human behavior. First-timer Brian Jun never confines his characters or story to neat little formulas; rather, he soulfully embraces the nuances and complications of family, love, and circumstance. Raw performances by a talented and focused cast; an authentic, textured sense of place; and crisp camerawork all make this an exquisite, emotionally satisfying debut.— Caroline Libresco For the Variety review, click here.

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
U.S.A., 2005, 120 Minutes, color

Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriter: Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley
Cast : Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Adam Brody, Sam Elliott, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy

The last time he was at Sundance, we jokingly told Jason Reitman, "After three short films, you can only return with a feature." Ask, and you shall receive. Thank You for Smoking is not only hilarious, but it also demonstrates a confident filmmaking maturity that should skyrocket a long career. Thank You for Smoking is nearly perfect in three ways: First–premise. Nick Naylor, fast-thinking master of media manipulation, is tapped to turn the tide of animosity away from the tobacco industry. Nick can talk his way in or out of anything, but this time he pulls out the big gun–Hollywood Second–pace. Reitman's script is crisp and tight. Every joke and sight gag lands a punch. This hard-hitting satire takes us right to the edge but never over. Setups take place in real-world situations just close enough to the truth to scare us into laughter. Third–casting. The whole ensemble, led by Aaron Eckhart with his smug good looks, could not be better. Maria Bello's liquor lobbiest and David Koechner's gun advocate complete the mod squad of merchants-of-death who meet each week to brag about the spin they have unleashed. Film number four is a charm for Reitman, who achieves the near impossible: making us think and laugh at the same time.— John Cooper

 

THIN
U.S.A., 2005, 105 Minutes, color

Director: Lauren Greenfield

Eating disorders have reached epidemic levels in America–yet only recently have they been recognized as serious mental illnesses. One in seven people with anorexia nervosa will die, making it the deadliest of all psychiatric diagnoses. With Thin, Lauren Greenfield, a photographer acclaimed for illuminating women's and society's attitudes toward the female body, gains unprecedented access to a Florida residential treatment center to observe four anorexic women, aged 15 to 30, struggling to recover over a six-month period. Her intimate, unflinching, yet unobtrusive, camera ventures into private and painful rituals like early morning weigh-ins, one-on-one and group therapy sessions, confrontations with staff, and tormenting mealtimes. As individual dramas surface and convoluted group dynamics erupt, the frightening tenacity and complexity of this affliction emerge. While each woman's fight is unique, abusing the body as a means of asserting control and measuring self-worth seems common to all. One patient shockingly admits that being thin is her greatest ambition: "If it takes dying to get there, so be it." The film's flawless vérité approach engenders closeness and emotional investment in the characters and allows us to draw our own conclusions about the treatment protocol and an insurance system unwilling to accommodate patients' wishes. Thin offers haunting, groundbreaking insight into the tangle of personal, familial, and cultural factors–beyond mere self-esteem or body-image issues–that produce the immeasurable, confounding suffering of so many.— Caroline Libresco For the Variety review, click here.

 

THE TRIALS OF DARRYL HUNT
U.S.A., 2005, 107 Minutes, color

Director: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg

Innocent until proven guilty? Liberty and justice for all? Spanning two decades, this powerful documentary chronicles a brutal 1984 rape/murder case in North Carolina and a wrongly convicted man, Darryl Hunt, who, despite multiple trials and DNA testing that proved his innocence, spent nearly 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. At once a moving human drama and a scathing social commentary, The Trials of Darryl Hunt reveals the insidious way racism still pervades American culture and our criminal-justice system. Hunt's conviction reverberates with African American men throughout his community of Winston-Salem as his trials play out against a backdrop of class and racial bias in the South. Utilizing exclusive footage in varying formats, directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg infuse their visceral film with two decades of perspective on the subtle, elusive impact of crime, race, and law on a community divided along racial lines. This chilling look at a life stolen and eventually redeemed defies our presumption that all Americans have the right to unbiased justice and exposes the need for judicial reforms to prevent other wrongful convictions. Darryl Hunt's shocking story is a searing reminder of the racial chasm that continues to haunt our nation.— David Courier For the Variety review, click here.

 

WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY
U.S.A., 2006, 91 Minutes, color

Director: Goran Dukic
Screenwriter: Goran Dukic
Cast : Patrick Fugit, Shannon Sossamon, Shea Whigham, Tom Waits, Leslie Bibb, John Hawkes

Suicide is no ordinary death, but in Wristcutters: A Love Story, it provides entry into a quirky, quotidian universe that's both strangely familiar and full of surprises. It's an afterlife of menial jobs, dingy bars, and jukeboxes that play only suicide heroes like Kurt Cobain or Nick Drake. And as Zia, a depressed but amiable young man, discovers after he slits his wrists, it's populated solely by unsmiling souls who have voluntarily plunged to the other side. Soon after his arrival, Zia learns that his ex–the inspiration for his own fatal gesture–has also joined the hari-kari club. Still heartsick, he sets out to find her. With him on this Oz-like quest are an eccentric Russian rocker lusting for love and a melancholic, hitchhiking ingenue seeking a way out. In a rickety red station wagon held together with tape, this impromptu family hit greasy diners and decrepit salvage yards until they encounter odd, wonderful Kneller (a deliciously crusty Tom Waits), who shepherds them to his utopia and small, unexpected miracles. Every turn in the road holds witty and poignant revelations for the lovable characters in Goran Dukic's clever, irresistible, and wildly original debut feature. He transplants his Eastern European absurdist humor and existential worldview to the dusty American West and comes up with a small miracle of his own.— Caroline Libresco For the Variety review, click here.