ten best!:Films I saw at Sundance Film Festival

by Keith Barber



Author’s Note: Last month, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. This year’s fest marked the 10-year anniversary of my very first Sundance experience and my seventh time volunteering overall. The 2009 festival also marked the 25 th anniversary of Robert Redford’s founding of what has become the most prestigious film festival in the US. Each year, Sundance showcases the work of up-and-coming filmmakers from around the globe, and gives these artists an unparalleled platform for their talents.

Over the Hills and Far Away

There are some Sundance documentaries that spur you to action. Other Sundance documentaries make you rethink your preconceived notions about a particular national or global issue. Then, there are those rare films in the Sundance canon that take you on a wondrous journey and leave you with a deep sense of hope and optimism about the future. Michel Orion Scott’s film Over the Hills and Far Away falls into that third category of Sundance films. Scott tells the story of a young couple, Rupert and Kristin Isaacson, who are perplexed and distressed by their son’s autism. When Rupert discovers his son, Rowan’s affinity for horses, he proposes a trip to Mongolia — the one place that combines horseback riding and shamanic healing. Rupert, Kristin and Rowan embark on a journey to Ulaanbaatar find answers to the mysteries of autism, and return home to Texas with a greater understanding of what having autism means, combined with a resolve to help others in their situation.

Boy Interrupted

Perhaps one of the most courageous documentaries I’ve ever seen in all my years at Sundance, Dana Perry’s Boy Interrupted takes a courageous look at bipolar disorder and how it can rip a family to pieces. Perry tells the story of her son, Evan, and his struggle with the illness through home movies, photographs and interviews with his friends, family, doctors and teachers. It is a harrowing journey Perry undertakes to try to grasp why her son took his own life at the tender age of 15. To get to the root of her son’s illness, Perry must delve into another family tragedy — the suicide of Evan’s uncle. She does so with compassion and understanding, but it doesn’t make the film any less heartbreaking. Boy Interrupted is a film all parents of young children should watch with the same unflinching courage from which the filmmaker presents her very difficult subject.

Mary and Max

Hailed as “a wonder” by film critics far and wide, Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max represented the first time an animated film had been selected to be the Opening Night film for the Sundance Film Festival. The claymation animation feature took five years to produce and features the voices of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette and Eric Bana. The film explores a 20-year pen-pal friendship between Mary Dinkle, a shy 8-yearold Australian girl and Max Horowitz, a 44-year-old Jewish man suffering from Asperger’s syndrome and living in New York City. The film, which is alternately heartbreaking and hilarious, is a beautiful tale of the power of friendship.


Director Joe Berlinger returned to Sundance this year with his take on the 13-year-old legal battle between communities in Ecuador nearly destroyed by the dumping of 18 billion gallons of toxic oil waste in the Amazon and oil giant Chevron. Berlinger’s camera captures the cast of characters involved in Crude, a high-stakes drama that features a charismatic American, a salt-of-the-earth Ecuadoran attorney, scientists and lawyers hired by Chevron, and the wife of a famous rock star. The story takes a number of twists and turns, such as the 2006 election of Rafael Correa, who sides with the indigenous people impacted by this environmental disaster. Trudie Styler, wife of Sting, joins the cause of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador and helps turn the international spotlight on this enormous issue that is still a long, long way from reaching a resolution.

The Cove

The Cove is a cross between a Discovery Channel documentary on the senseless slaughter of porpoises in a sleepy Japanese village and Ocean’s 11. Renowned photographer and ardent diver, Louie Psihoyos teams with the man who trained Flipper in assembling a dedicated crew of divers, camera operators and sound recordists to expose the secret of Taiji, Japan. The town of Taiji forbids photography of what takes place in the cove, but Psihoyos’ team overcomes those obstacles to capture horrifying footage that should make everyone think twice before ordering fish in their favorite restaurant. The poisoning of our ocean’s is one of the greatest environmental challenges we face. The Cove drives that point home with powerful images and fantastic storytelling.

An Education

Director Lone Scherfig’s An Education features a phenomenal performance by newcomer Carey Mulligan in this brilliant adaptation of Nick Hornby’s script. Mulligan plays Jenny, a 16-year-old London girl, who is on track to complete her A-levels and enter Oxford the following year. But the arrival of David, an older suitor, throws Jenny’s life into upheaval as she is faced with grown-up choices before she’s wise enough to realize the consequences.


Adam is one of two films at Sundance that addresses the often-misunderstood condition of Asperger’s syndrome. Director Max Mayer does a masterful job telling the story of a young “Aspy,” played by Hugh Dancy, who meets his neighbor, Beth, and begins falling in love. The emotional sincerity of Dancy and Rose Byrne, who plays Beth, elevates this love story to another level that inspires compassion and wisdom on the part of the viewer.

The Glass House Sundance documentaries have a long and proud tradition of breaking through social barriers. Filmmakers from every corner of the globe routinely submit films to Sundance that they could not hope to exhibit in their home countries. Director Hamid Rahmanian’s documentary The Glass House joined that proud Sundance tradition at this year’s festival. Focusing on the lives of at-risk teenage girls in Tehran, Rahmanian tells the story of Marjaneh Halati and her day center that offers these young ladies a second chance at a better life.

No Impact Man

Eco-friendly documentaries are a staple of the Sundance Film Festival, and among this year’s crop, No Impact Man was truly a standout. Directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein chronicle the quest of author Colin Beavan to become the “No Impact Man,” and bring his family along for the ride. What this means for Beavan, his wife, Michelle, and their young daughter is a year without electricity, cars, toilet paper and non-local food. The humor and sincerity of No Impact Man is derived from the family’s interaction as they cope with the drastic changes to their lifestyle. At the end of the year, we find a family that has grown closer as a result of a shared goal. We also find a model for how we should alter our daily habits to achieve sustainability.

Prom Night in Mississippi

In 1997, Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman offered to pay for the senior prom at a small Mississippi high school with one stipulation — the prom must be racially integrated. Freeman’s offer was rejected. Ten years later, Freeman made the same offer and this time it was accepted. Director Paul Saltzman follows the lives of students, teachers and parents leading up to the big night when Charleston High School held its first-ever integrated prom and made history. Saltzman’s camera captures the historic racial divisions in a town where time appears to have stood still for more than a century.