I’ve never sat down to come up with a top ten list before in my life. Thankfully, when the list you’re compiling consists only of 10 films seen for a column such as this, it makes things far easier. While choosing which films to see while braving the weather in Park City, Utah over opening weekend of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (coincidentally celebrating its 25th anniversary this year) one can read all they want into synopses but it may never fully prepare you for what you’re in for.
While some of these have already been picked up for distribution, there are many that may never see a national release and could head straight for a deserved direct-to-video death (at least in one case). A few will undoubtedly be picked up in the long run and rightly deserve so while others probably won’t but more than deserve to. I have tried to come up with the best way to lay out the list and think the best way to go about things is to split it in half and start with the bottom of the heap…
10. Southern District (Zona sur)
The less said about this, the better. Here is a film so rancid, contrived, and flat-out boring that even if writer/director Juan Carlos Valdivia had centered his entire movie around the voyeuristic sex scenes it would rightly earn itself the ultimate death of the MPAA’s much dreaded NC-17 rating. If you think sitting around listening to the rich whine and moan about how hard life is or how much it sucks that your mom would never understand why you would rather live life as a poor outcast lesbian in Bolivia is enjoyable, then you desperately need to have your head examined. This is such a disgusting display of humanity that even a somewhat interesting cinematic technique can't save it. (The camera literally seems to be positioned on a lazy Susan and just slowly spins around the room while characters do whatever they think is necessary to carry the scene to another dull fadeout where you wish it was you fading out instead.)
9. Daddy Longlegs
Thankfully, nothing else seen was nearly as bad as Southern District. While co-writers/directors Ben and Joshua Safdie have not quite created the tell-all about growing up with a crazy father (the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man was far better) it at least isn’t a complete disaster. Ronald Bronstein plays far-from-father-of-the-year Lenny who only gets to see his two boys Sage and Frey (played by real-life brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo) two weeks a year. They all get in trouble together and ramble through life learning nothing from their experiences and try to keep it together long enough that the boys’ mother doesn’t snatch them away early and stop Lenny from having any visitation rights at all. The ending is far too ambiguous and there’s an excruciatingly out of place dream sequence that is even more so due to the hand-held camera style at work for the last 80 minutes. Ronald Bronstein comes off as the second coming of Denis Leary but it is only in voice.
8. 7 Days (Les 7 jours du talion)
The French have definitely been giving America a run for its money when it comes to the horror genre. While some are far better than others, at least they have moments of unexpected poignancy and even better, true instances of reflection on human nature. This is, as expected, the case in director Daniel Grou’s 7 Days. Working from a script by Patrick Senécal adapting his own novel, it makes you wonder if the fact that the original source happens to be a novel is why the film is so contemplative and realistic in the way it deals with doctor Bruno Hamel (Claude Legault) exacting revenge upon Anthony Lemaire (Martin Dubreuil) after Lemaire has raped and murdered Hamel's daughter. While some have culled this into the genre of “torture porn,” it never gets anywhere near as brutal or disgusting as those true torture porn films. Lots of the violence even happens off-screen so you never see it, or even hear much of it either. Legault as Doctor Hamel gives a riveting performance even if the script starts to flounder around by around the fourth day.
7. Get Low
Now that the movies considered for Oscar contention have come and gone and the new year is in full swing, it’s interesting that this film is premiering so far in advance. Director Aaron Schneider may never get picked for his duties behind the camera come this time next year, but there is plenty of good stuff that goes on in front. As good as Robert Duvall is as the curmudgeonly hermit Felix Bush, it’s Bill Murray as funeral parlor owner Frank Quinn and Sissy Spacek as Mattie Darrow, Felix’s unrequited love of 40 years, who command the show. The direction is more than adequate and I’m sure not much was required working with this trio of such seasoned professionals. However, the script by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell tries to offer too much so-called suspense behind Felix’s mystery which means there’s far too much build-up to really make you care what happened when you hear his tale in the end. The trio may get their due next year but that’s about all that makes it worth sitting through this homegrown tall tale.
6. The Red Chapel ( Det røde kapel )
While the atrocious Southern District and Daddy Longlegs may have a documentary feel to them through the cinematography, Danish director Mads Brügger brings a mesmerizingly creepy subject to life in his true documentary The Red Chapel. Danish/Korean-born comedians Simon Jul Jørgensen and self-proclaimed “spastic” Jacob Nossell travel to the uber-frightening land of North Korea. While everyone may hear the rumors about the tightly sealed country’s too-strict-for-comfort regime under Kim Jong-il, nothing can prepare you to bear witness to just how bad things really are. Allowed to travel into the country under the overbearing “hostess” Mrs. Pak, they are in for far more than they bargained for, mentally and possibly physically, as you wait for a spring to snap while everyone is arrested or simply gunned down before your very eyes. Riveting and more often that not highly amusing, it’s never boring and keeps you glued to your seat in anticipation of how it’s all going to end.
Coming up, I take down the top five films I saw opening weekend at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival!