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Jonathan's Sundance Reviews, 2004 
Table of Contents

12 films this year. Same rating scale of 1-5.   The title of each film links to IMDB for full cast and details.

Garden State (5) We Don't Live Here Anymore (4) Napoleon Dynamite (3)
Deadline (5) November (4) Open Water (3)
Corporation (5) Word Wars (3.5) The Best Thief In The World (3)
Super Size Me (5) Easy (3.5) Touch Of Pink (2.5)
Garden State (5)
Screenwriter & Director: Zach Braff

My favorite film this year at Sundance, and the first addition to my all-time favorite list since “In America”. Yes, it’s sappy. Once the pacing picks up around the middle you’ll be riveted until the end. It is delicately balanced, constantly making you laugh, cry, nod in appreciation, and cheer for more. Zach Braff is wonderful, and Natalie Portman equals him in cute, quirky, witty, creative, emotion. It is a coming-of-age love story, drama, comedy, all wrapped up in one. And the best part?... the Soundtrack!!!
Deadline (5)
Directors: Katy Chevigny, Kirsten Johnson

One of my favorite documentaries of all time, and reason alone to go to Sundance! The film is bold, artistic, and will astound you with its honesty in presenting both sides of the Capital Punishment issue. The story follows Illinois Governor George Ryan as he struggles with refuting the sentences for all 167 Illinois death row inmates (changing them to life without parole). When it is discovered that 12 out of the previous 25 Illinois executions were indeed mistaken, a Northwestern University Journalism class proves itself more effective at establishing the innocence of death row inmates than their state-appointed lawyers. The fatal flaws of the Illinois judicial system and magnitude of the stakes weigh heavy on Gov. Ryan, who grapples with it up until the very last minute. His monumental decision and ruling comes during his last day in office.

There are no easy answers, and the filmmakers do not pretend otherwise. The film is peppered with summaries of pivotal law cases, statistics, and the judicial history of the death penalty in the United States. There is an abundance of articulate, courageous, spirited debate, and candid insights from victim’s families and convicts alike. One particular segment was utterly breathtaking, as a group of people, spanning all walks of life, race, age, economic class, one by one succinctly state a loved one they had lost to a violent murder and why they were still opposed to the death penalty. Everyone in the house was in tears, and perhaps others also shared the hope I saw in those brave souls.

So here’s the part that makes Sundance magical. The lights come up, the filmmakers take the stage for the Q&A session, and announce that George Ryan is in the audience for this showing, and Governor Ryan joined the filmmakers on stage for the Q&A, and was even available beyond that for further questions. A crash course on perhaps one of the most difficult moral issues that our society faces, complete with a prized guest speaker, all for the price of a movie ticket!
The Corporation (5)
Director: Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott
Writers: Joel Bakan, Harold Crooks

A tour-de-force documentary that traces the origins, evolution, and unstoppable nature of the corporation as a social institution. They might have called it the “Teflon Wrecking Ball”, as the film presents the damage that corporations wreak on so many different levels, as well as the troubling ways that corporations operate above the law. The bevy of recent accounting scandals in major corporations is one of several storylines. The two and a half-hours fly by, and I found myself wishing it were just the first of a multi-part PBS series.
Super Size Me (5)

Director / Writer: Morgan Spurlock

Brilliant! How do you create a film that draws you in immediately, has that underdog/Rocky motif, and keeps you on the edge of your seat while your stomach is turning? Simple – Morgan Spurlock filmed himself! He spent months trying to get McDonald’s to return his calls, and finally went on a month-long McDonald’s-only diet to illustrate the perils of fast food. It may seem obvious that Americans are fat and that fast food is bad for you, however, you’re in for some surprises, ranging from advertising budgets to food coma's. Just ask Spurlock, who was McNauseous after just one week. Imagine what weeks 2, 3, and 4 were like! After this film you still might indulge for the occasional guilty pleasure of a fast food fix, but at least now you’ll know why your cholesterol levels may sky-rocket, your energy level and sex drive may crash, and why a blood test could fool your doctor into thinking you’ve got kidney failure. Yikes!

We Don't Live Here Anymore (4)

Director: John Curran
Writers: Andre Dubus, Larry Gross

A stellar cast delivers this fresh take on infidelity. Mark Ruffalo, Peter Krause, Laura Dern, and Naomi Watts light up the screen. Great dialog, complex characters, and brutally direct confrontations. Two couples spend a weekend on the lake together and nothing will ever be the same.

November (4)

Director: Greg Harrison
Writer: Benjamin Brand

Very cool. The best I’ve ever seen Courtney Cox! Photographer Sophie Jacobs (Cox) is traumatized when she witnesses her boyfriend’s murder in a convenience store. Weaving together various emotions and memory fragments, we see three different versions of the same incident through Jacobs’ eyes, each one replayed as an alternate reality. The element of time is distorted a la “Memento”, but it holds together. The cinematography is rich and artsy, and the film won the award for Best Cinematography (Sundance 2004). Definitely worth seeing!

Word Wars (3.5)

Directors: Eric Chaikin, Julian Petrillo

This documentary profiles 4 elite Scrabble players through a year on the tournament competition circuit, culminating in the National Championships. Who ever thought scrabble could be so intense! The characters don’t disappoint in their quirkiness and obsession, and the film is solidly entertaining.

Easy (3.5)

Director and Writer: Jane Weinstock

This montage of the search for love, fear of commitment, and finding romance in unexpected places was a little too cute for me. I found it unrealistic how every loose end got tied up so neatly. And the last scene – ugh! Give me a break. We all cringed. However, there are some funny scenes and interesting story bits along the way. I'd call this contemporary romance a decent rental.

Napoleon Dynamite (3.5)

Director: Jared Hess
Writers: Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess

I wasn’t crazy about it, but plenty of others were. It is sure to become a cult classic, with huge collegiate followings. It is a first rate parody, with humor drier than the rural, desolate, middle-class, Mormon Utah life that it skewers. And, the lead character, “Napoleon Dynamite” is a gem. Wait until you see him let loose in the final dance scene, which you just knew had to happen. Worth renting, and sure to spawn a few drinking games.

Open Water (3)

Director / Writer: Chris Kentis

Scary?... Yes! Great concept for a film?... Yes! Will it keep me from scuba diving for a while? Absolutely! Will it make me paranoid about going on a dive trip from a poorly organized outfit on a small tropical island?... Duh! But did it succeed in turning this great concept into a great film? Sadly, no. There is plenty of suspense, fear, and footage of sharks, but that’s about it. The film manages to all but ignore the ripe emotional and psychological aspect of being stranded in the middle of the ocean with your spouse, facing your destiny. Oh well. Still a great thriller. Oh, and did I mention the sharks? Lots of sharks.

The Best Thief In The World (3)

Director/Screenwriter – Jacob Kornbluth

Mary-Louise Parker holds her family together in a low-income Chicago housing project after her husband has a stroke. She also holds this film together. Her 5-year old son Izzy is the focal point, rebelling against family dysfunction by breaking in to other people’s apartments in his building, sometimes to steal, and sometimes to simply rearrange their furniture, raid their refrigerator, and leave his mark. His frustration comes across as ennui, to the point where his character lacks depth or even believability. The occasional humorous or poignant moments barely redeem the film.

Touch Of Pink (2.5)

Director/Screenwriter – Ian Iqbal Rashid

Funny, entertaining, and great performances by Giles and Nuru, in this coming-out of the closet, culture-conflict tale. The humor is buoyed by a constant thread of Cary Grant classics on TV. However the “imaginary friend” construct became a bit trite, and while my friends disagree, I thought it was obtrusive and annoying. We all agreed though that the ending was pathetic. Nonetheless, an enjoyable film.

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