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"THIS IS SUNDANCE," the catalogue explains.
The Obama era
Rousing rhetoric notwithstanding, gloom was the prevailing leitmotif of films this year, as usual. Actually, not quite as usual: the films this time played out in endless spirals downward, rather than in past years when they railed against gender, class, racial, or family injustice. The films of economic dyspepsia have arrived.
The best of the lot, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, is a perfectly realized American Gothic set in rural Missouri. In it, a 17-year-old girl (a brilliant performance by Jennifer Lawrence), stands to forfeit the house her absentee dad put up as bond in a pending drug trial — crystal meth having replaced the genre's traditional corn likker.
It's a perfect Obama-era film, with its depiction of the American lumpen proletariat facing ruin on every front and suffering from illiteracy and paranoia. The film won the US dramatic competition, where nothing else came close to its controlled grimace. It will be released in the US later this year.
Also great: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams give a devastating portrait of a marriage in quicksand in Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine. Greenland's first feature film, Nuummioq, about a man cut down in his prime just as he begins figuring it all out, was a minor revelation. And relief from all of the above came thanks to Kevin Kline and Paul Dano in The Extra Man, a delicate comedy of male manners by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor).
While there were a few films that saw Eisenhower's military-industrial complex as the root of all evil, there wasn't much heart in them. Being globally against the US just doesn't pack the old Zeitgeist punch the way it did when times were fat. At Sundance, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan thrived only as a topic of Americans just trying to survive and mostly losing. Restrepo, for example, by co-directors Tim Hetherington, a Brit, and author Sebastian Junger, won Best Doc for embedding itself for 15 months with US troops in Eastern Afghanistan. The film is flat, however, more like a video diary and perhaps useful as an anti-recruiting tool for its humdrum depiction of battle as a hurry-up-and-wait routine, until a firefight claims a buddy.
There was not much new to be found in the most affecting of these US military stories, I'm Pat Tillman, by Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That), the story of the NFL star who gave up his career and enlisted in 2002 to fight in the "war on terror." Fragged by his own convoy and subsequently exploited by the military as a heroic casualty, Bar-Lev's Tillman transcends the headline of Patriotic Jock. A spiritual grandson of the Iwo Jima heroes in Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, Tillman fiercely resisted being used to sell the war. He read Noam Chomsky but misread Bush's tea leaves: he should've stayed in the NFL, even his father comes to realize. One scene sums up the leaders of the Bush era as being a bunch of lying sacks of expedient crap: former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testifies before Congress that he didn't know anything about rewriting Tillman's death for propaganda purposes and corrects the record on some minor point. One by one, the generals flanking him add in, "Oh yeah, Mr. Chairman, whatever he said goes for me, too."