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Jonathan's Sundance Report, 2003 
Table of Contents

I saw 16 movies this year and rated them on a scale of 1-5.   The title of each film links to IMDB for full cast and details.

In America (5) Levity (3.5) Born Rich (3)
Whale Rider (5) Buffalo Soldiers (3.5) The Baroness and the Pig (2.5)
Tom Dowd & The Language of Music (5) American Splendor (3.5) The Beat (2)
Bend It Like Beckham (5) Off the Map (3.5) The Singing Detective (1.5)
Iran, Veiled Appearances (4) Bookies (3)  
The Cooler (4) Bus 174 (3)  
In America (5)
Screenwriters: Jim Sheridan, Kristen Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan
Director: Jim Sheridan

Favorite film this year. An Irish family immigrates to America and attempts to create a new life in Manhattan. Two breathtaking young daughters (and real-life sisters) buoy the family and the movie, and steal your heart. The story is gripping, the characters are imperfect and incredible, and hooks are all superb. This was the most I cried at Sundance all week, and yet it was truly uplifting. See this film!
Whale Rider (5)
Screenwriter & Director: Niki Caro

Close runner up for my personal favorite. I couldn't say it better than Shari Frilot...
All of the Whangara people are asking--even the herd of giant whales at sea wants to know: Who will be chief? Niki Caro's wonderfully inspired feature, Whale Rider, is a lush and radiant tale about a Maori community's struggle to overcome its own limitations and the coming of age of one exceptional little girl. Pai's (Keisha Castle-Hughes) twin brother is in line to be chief of a small tribal village on the New Zealand coast. But when he and his mother die during childbirth and Pai's grief-stricken father flees the village, she becomes a curse and burden in the eyes of her grandfather, Chief Koro. His own son failing him, Koro embarks on a mission to find a successor from the pool of village boys. He starts a leadership class for them which Pai takes an interest in. But what would happen if a girl tried to enter the pantheon of leaders? It is a question that neither Koro nor any other member of the community is ready to answer.
An extraordinarily beautiful film filled with sweeping landscapes, whales, and a breathtaking performance by the stunning young first-time actress Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider is an emotionally powerful story of love, rejection, bravery, and destiny.
Tom Dowd & The Language of Music (5)
Director: Mark Moormann

Wow. Tom Dowd was an engineer with Atlantic Records for over twenty-five years. He worked with the definitive list of who's who in music, from Ray Charles to Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin to the Miles Davis. This is the story of his genius, talents, and his midas touch in the recording room. He was able to bring out the very best in people, their music, and their souls. It also shows how he single-handedly pioneered major advances in recording techniques and equipment, such as multi-track recording and replacing knobs with sliders. Interviews with music giants trace two decades of Tom's career. This is a remarkable tribute and worthy story. I've been "into" music my whole life, from rock to rap to jazz to Windham Hill. This movie presents an aspect of the music industry and creative process that is rarely seen but totally fascinating.
Tom Dowd is one of my new hero's. He made a huge impact in his field while commanding the utter respect and affection of every person with whom he worked, in a field that is never short on ego. That takes a unique person, and this film does him justice.
Bend It Like Beckham (5)
Director: Gurinda Chadha
Screenwriters: Gurinda Chadha, Gujit Bindra, Paul Mayeda Burges

Soccer fans and anyone with a sense of humor and adventure - this is a must see. It is a hilarious, romantic, insightful romp through the challenges a young Indian woman living in England faces when her bursting talent and desire to play football (soccer) conflict with her family and cultural heritage and practices. It is also a refreshing version of the "buddy" film as our heroine, the stunningly beautiful and charming Parminda Nagra (Jess) and fellow knockout and soccer star Keira Knightly (Jules) navigate a friendship. The title refers to how English soccer star David Beckham can "bend" a shot on goal, causing it to swerve around a wall of defenders and find the target. The film does the same by avoiding easy conventions, addressing culture clashes and family issues intelligently and with a delightful humor, and finding the net by delivering a triumph of character. The "feel good" movie of the year.
Iran, Veiled Appearances (4)
Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer: Thierry Michel

You have to marvel at this footage and how it was captured. Belgian documentary film maker Thierry Michel compiled this over several years, most undercover, thanks to the local crew and citizens willing to tell their story, warts and all. It shows first hand how Iran's paramilitary religious sects rule the land, the perils and danger posed by the extremist martyrdom still preached today, and a growing movement in the younger generation that yearns for something different - an open society. Amazing glimpses of religious ceremonies, public police actions, and weekends spent in the mountains where teenagers can just be themselves. It turns upside down the images and messages in today's "Axis of Evil"-obsessed media, at least in terms of Iran's future generations!
(Footnote: the highlight of this film was an hour and a half long conversation my friend Tom and I had afterwards with an Iranian woman who saw the film with us. Born and raised in Tehran, she lived in Iran her whole life until 3 years ago when she moved to California. She indulged all our questions about where the film was on target, what it left out, and her current political views).
The Cooler (4)

Director: Wayne Kramer
Screenwriters: Wayne Kramer, Frank Hannah

William Macy shines as he cools. A "Cooler" in Vegas is someone who brings bad luck to a table. Only a few casino's ever employed coolers, dismissing it as superstition. But Shelly (Alec Baldwin), the ruthless owner of the Shangri-La casino, keeps the tradition alive and clings to his old world views in resisting new management's modernization plans. The film's centerpiece is the unlikely love story that toys with Bernie's (William Macy) luck. Highly entertaining. The delicious cinematography captures you from the opening sequence, and the characters and clever plot are a wildcard that keeps this from being your average Vegas flick. A great performance by Maria Bello (Bernie's love interest) is the icing on the cake.
(Footnote: Alec Baldwin/David Mamet fans - Baldwin's character name "Shelly" is a nod to Glengary Glen Ross)

Levity (3.5)
Director/Screenwriter: Ed Solomon

Don't let the title fool you. This is a captivating story about redemption -- heavy, provocative, but ultimately positive. How do you atone for a sin, and continue to live? Not a light topic. The film attempts to explore the range of emotions involved, and a powerhouse cast delivers the goods: Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, and Kirsten Dunst. Manuel Jordan (Thornton) has completed his prison term, and sets out to make amends, and make peace with his restless soul. A reverend (Freeman) of a local community center shelter takes him in, providing a home base, a bully pulpit, and a mirror of sorts for Jordan's inner journey.
Buffalo Soldiers (3.5)
Director: Gregor Jordan
Screenwriters" Eric Axel Weiss and Nora MacCoby, based on the book by Robert O'Connor

There's a reason this film was made in Australia - no American Studio would have green-lighted it, certainly not as our country prepares for war. Buffalo Soldiers is a colorful, action-packed, unflattering expose of our military. Set at a U.S. military outpost in Europe, drug dealing, black markets, ulterior agendas and politics rule the roost. Accidental murders run rampant, costly and terrifying mishaps are common. Not only is everything highly believable, but the director claims it is based purely on documented facts, and is generous in and polite its portrayal. Top shelf talent from the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Anna Paquin, and Scott Glenn are not to be trifled with. This is a knock-your-socks off counterpoint to all the recent glorifications of our military. If only it were farce.
American Splendor (3.5)
Directors/Screenwriters: Sharon Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Harvey Pekar leads truly the most mundane life imaginable, working as a file clerk in the local VA hospital. He befriends Robert Crumb (famous cartoonist), and inspired by his cartoons, Pekar decides to chronicle his own banal, cynical existence in stick figure comics. Crumb agrees to pen them into full characters, and the resulting comic series, called "American Splendor" becomes a cult hit. He marries an equally sedate, co-dependant fan, develops a loyal following, and appears on Letterman nearly a dozen times. Yet, Pekar's life remains utterly ordinary, bordering on torturous. The film teeters on depressing, but is carried forward with its dry sarcasm and innovative technique of weaving the actual cartoons and animation into the film. A fascinating delivery montage.
Off the Map (3.5)
Director: Campbell Scott
Screenwriter: Joan Ackermann

The peace and tranquility of New Mexico are the gorgeous and nourishing landscape for this drama about an eleven year old girl growing up with a depressed father (Sam Elliott), and classic "earth mother" (Joan Allen), the backbone of the family. The natural beauty of the land is matched by the strength and delicacy of the characters. Bo, the young girl, has a relentless spirit that is just as powerful in conversation with her mother as it is when writing to the manufacturers of processed foods complaining of the ailments they have caused her father, and demanding replacements! Sometimes a bit slow, but thoroughly enjoyable. And Joan Allen does not disappoint.
Bookies (3)

Director: Mark Illsley
Screenwriter: MIchael Bacall

Predictable to a fault, but fun nonetheless. Three college kids, bound by their common status as social outcasts, start an illegal dorm-room business that grows beyond their wildest dreams, and into the unwelcome turf of the local mafia. Quick money leads to predictable problems: drugs, questions of loyalty, and the mafia predicament. The film creates a modest amount of energy, but the characters and relationships fall flat. I would have preferred a better script over the Hollywood effects.

Bus 174 (3)
Director: José Padilha

The topic is riveting: the hijacking of Bus 174 in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The footage couldn't be better - camera's were rolling during the entire 8 hour ordeal, from several angles. And the blundering police response and handling of the situation is remarkable. All this film needs is a skilled and ruthless editor to chop out 30 or 40 minutes. Just because the actual hijacking took forever, doesn't mean the film should. Despite the pace, the sub-story about the abandoned youth culture and dynamics that set kids up for failure and abuse by the system is well told and moving.
Born Rich (3)
Director: Jamie Johnson

How would you get teenagers who come from the absolute very richest of rich families to talk about their views on money, their future, and their lives? Answer: Be one of them yourself and interview your friends. That's exactly what Jaime Johnson, all of 20 years old, does here in his own personal quest to make sense of the fortunes he will inherit in the Johnson & Johnson family The access to this super-elite class is a rare treat, packed with candid footage of their everyday lives. We're talking Trump, Bloomberg, Si Newhouse, and Whitney. It is an amateur production clearly in the spirit of "Reality TV", but it is also a decent insight into the problems, and responsibilities that come with this ultimate privilege.
The Baroness and the Pig (2.5)
Director & Writer: Michael Mackenzie

Over the top weird. And a little forced. But primarily just bizarre and dark. The setting is eighteenth century England. The themes include obsession with technology (in a highly non-technical era), new forms of art, exploring what it means to be human, and the clash between snobbery and the desire to become a salon hostess. Add to this mix the attempted transformation of a "savage" child from living in an animal stable to becoming part of the maid entourage. Despite a few shining moments, I was left over-taxed and under-whelmed.
The Beat (2)
Director: Brandon Sonnier

Weak. You could tell there was a lot of energy and great intention in this project, but the result just didn't have any carbonation. A talented, budding rap artist survives a stabbing that claims the life of his brother, his partner on stage. Paralyzed by this loss, Flip (Rahaman Jamaal) is torn between slumming it on the streets, working a respectable job as a cop, and whether or not to ever rap again. The film attempts to alternate between parallel lives, but instead serves to confuse. The notion of exploring all aspects of the word "beat" is barely realized. The few minutes in the very beginning of the film where Flip and his brother perform an incredible rendition of old school song medley with their own lyrics had my hopes sky-high, but it unraveled quickly after that. Darn.
The Singing Detective (1.5)
Director: Keith Gordon
Screenwriter: Dennis Potter

This movie just didn't work for me. Robert Downy Jr.'s performance was impressive, but couldn't rescue the film from itself. A lofty attempt to remake the classic TV mini-series, and also to tell the story largely through song - left me shaking my head. Perhaps this will seem genius to some people, but I was just bewildered and $8 poorer.
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