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Jonathan's Sundance Reviews, 2009 

Table of Contents

18 films this year!

LOVED... LIKED... Not for me... Wanted to see / Great Buzz...
Precious (Push) Big Fan Mary & Max

Black Dynamite

Sergio Zion and his Brother Everything Strange & New The Greatest
The Cove Humpday   September Issue
William Kunstler Rudo Y Cursi   Prom Night In Mississippi
Endgame When You're Strange  

Burma VJ

Amreeka Unmade Beds   Afghan Star
Nollywood Babylon     Thriller in Manila
It Might Get Loud     An Education
Paper Heart     I Love You Phillip Morris

500 Days of Summer

    Spring Breakdown
      Shouting Fire: Free Speech
      Sin Nombre
Precious (Push) (Netflix)

WINNER! Grand Jury AND Audience Award - Best Dramatic, and A Special Jury Prize for Acting.
Screened at Sundance as "Push". Now called "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire."
In Harlem, an overweight, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction. Powerful, heart wrenching, and yet uplifting. Teary-eyed standing ovation! My favorite film this year.

Sergio (Netflix)

WINNER! U.S. Documentary Editing Award.
Filmmaker Greg Barker's documentary tells the inspiring story of dedicated humanitarian Sérgio Vieira de Mello, his final mission as United Nations ambassador to Iraq and the deadly bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003. Through first-person testimony, chilling film footage and gripping reenactments, Barker's film chronicles the day of the terrorist attack and the attempts to save Vieira de Mello. Sergio's charisma and integrity are irresistable. I had never heard of Sergio prior to this film, and he is now on my short list of personal heroes.

The Cove (Netflix)

WINNER! Audience Award - Best Documentary.
This riveting documentary follows a group of animal activists to a scenic cove in Taijii, Japan, where they use surveillance equipment to capture footage of a secretive and heavily guarded operation run by the world's largest supplier of dolphins. As the daring group risks their lives to expose the horrifying truths behind the capture of dolphins for the lucrative tourist industry, they also uncover an environmental catastrophe. The opening sequence alone is worth the film - Thermal heat cameras in reverse black and white is cooler than any Mission Impossible!

William Kunstler (Netflix)

Filmmakers Sarah and Emily Kunstler delve into the life of their father, William Kunstler, whose controversial career and high-profile clients solidified his place in history as one of the most famous -- and reviled -- 20th-century lawyers. The documentary captures a deeply personal journey as the sisters trace their father's shift from representing civil rights activists to defending accused rapists, Mafia bosses and terrorists.

Endgame (Netflix)

Pete Travis directs this engaging film that dramatizes the secret political negotiations between South African government representative Willie Esterhuyse and African National Congress leader Thabo Mbek. Taking place in a bucolic British country estate, the talks are fraught with tension, but together the two men find a common path that helps hasten the peaceful demise of apartheid. William Hurt and Chiwetel Ejiofor star.

Amreeka (Netflix)

Eager to provide a better future for her son (Melkar Muallem), divorced mother Muna (Nisreen Faour) leaves her Palestinian homeland and takes up residence in rural Illinois -- just in time to encounter the domestic repercussions of America's disastrous war in Iraq. Now mother and son must reinvent their lives in ways they could never have imagined. Cherien Dabis directs this engaging and humorous look at the unexpected paths life often takes.

Nollywood Babylon (Netflix)

Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal's colorful documentary goes behind the scenes with filmmaker Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen -- aka "Da Governor" -- a major player in Nigeria's thriving direct-to-video industry, dubbed "Nollywood" in the early 1990s. Produced on a shoestring budget, the genre's juicy tales of religion, sex, magic and urban culture have created a national craze that's made Nollywood the third-largest movie industry in the world (U.S., India, Nigeria!).

It Might Get Loud (Netflix)

Having grown up weaned on U2 and Zeppelin, I rejoiced in this film. Outstanding archival footage! 182 music clips, all cleared. Davis Guggenheim, creator of the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, directs this fascinating profile of three contemporary guitarists: Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, U2's the Edge and Jack White of the White Stripes. Each talks about their creative process, technique and influences as cameras follow them to key locations in their own music history. A jam session featuring all three musicians is woven into their discussions. The final jam session song, "The Weight" by Robbie Robertson, is awesome!

Paper Heart (Netflix)

Eccentric performer and romantic skeptic Charlyne Yi embarks on a quest to learn the true nature of love -- and gathers some surprising findings when she begins a relationship with actor Michael Cera. Real-life sweethearts Yi and Cera star as themselves in this quirky hybrid of documentary and scripted comedy.

500 Days of Summer (Netflix)

Loved this film, despite its use of every gimmick in the book. It actually uses them well, and is endearing, evoking laughs and tears. When his girlfriend, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), unceremoniously dumps him, greeting-card copywriter and hopeless romantic Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) begins sifting through the year-plus worth of days they spent together, looking for clues to what went awry. As he recalls the good and bad times he spent with the commitment-phobic girl, his heart reawakens to what it cherishes most. Marc Webb directs this uncommon love story.

Big Fan (Netflix)

Parking attendant and New York Giants fanatic Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) must reexamine his life after he's beaten up by his favorite player in this comedy written and directed by Robert D. Siegel, a former editor-in-chief of "fake news" paper The Onion. Also starring Kevin Corrigan as Sal, Michael Rapaport as Philadelphia Phil and Marcia Jean Kurtz as Theresa.

Zion and His Brother (Netflix)

Two Israeli brothers, 14-year-old Zion (Reuven Badalov) and 17-year-old Meir (Tzachi Grad), must repair their once-fiercely close relationship and face the secrets they've kept after an unspeakable accident breaks them apart. Ronit Elkabetz and Ofer Hayun co-star in Eran Merav's coming-of-age drama about loyalty, family dynamics and how complex life circumstances can mercilessly test a person's will to survive.

Rudo Y Cursi (Netflix)

Stuck working on a banana ranch, two super competitive soccer-playing brothers dream of getting off the farm and finding stardom: Beto (Diego Luna) as a pro goalie and Toto (Gael García Bernal) as a singer -- but it might break them. When a professional soccer team ignores Beto's goalie skills in favor of Toto's fancy footwork, Beto signs on to a rival team, and the battle between brothers is on. Carlos Cuarón directs this comedy.

When You're Strange (Netflix)

Composed entirely of original footage from 1966-71, Tom DiCillo's documentary about the Doors filters truth from myth, reveals new insight into Jim Morrison and his bandmates, and captures the essence of the iconic rock group and the era. DiCillo's film pays tribute to the Doors and their music, and to a generation's struggle for individuality and authenticity during an unstable and transformative era in America.

Unmade Beds (Netflix)

The lives of Axl (Fernando Tielve), who's searching for his long-lost father, and Vera (Déborah François), who's recovering from a recent breakup, crisscross -- and eventually collide -- after they both take up residence in a London flat populated with artsy, free-spirited squatters. Director Alexis Dos Santos's intimate and imaginative film about youthful awakenings also stars Michiel Huisman, Katia Winter and Richard Lintern. Great costume party scenes.

Mary & Max (Netflix)

More simnilar to Harvie Krumpet than anything Nick Park has done (Wallace & Grommit, Creature Comforts), I didn't care for the sensibility of this film. Strange pick for the festival opener. Mary Dinkle, a chubby 8-year-old Australian girl, and Max Horovitz, an obese, middle-aged New Yorker with Asperger's syndrome, are a pair of unlikely pen pals in this quirky clay animation feature from writer-director Adam Elliot. Corresponding for two decades, the friends delve into a variety of topics, including sex, kleptomania, psychiatry, taxidermy and more. Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman provide the voices of Mary and Max.

Black Dynamite (Netflix)

Former CIA agent and kung fu-kicking Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) leaps back into action with sweet vengeance on his mind when the Italian mob kills his brother. Before long, he's punching, shooting and nunchaku-ing his way to exposing a conspiracy that leads straight to the White House. Scott Sanders directs this outrageous homage to classic 1970s blaxploitation flicks. Salli Richardson co-stars.

The Greatest (Netflix)

Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon star as parents still mourning the accidental death of their teenage son, Bennett, when the boy's girlfriend reveals that she is carrying his baby. Now Bennett's parents and brother must find a way to release their denial, obsession and anger to make room for the new life coming their way. Shana Feste directs this moving drama, while Carey Mulligan, Aaron Johnson and Johnny Simmons co-star.

September Issue (Netflix)

Director R.J. Cutler's documentary offers a rare look inside Vogue as the fashion magazine's influential editor, Anna Wintour, and creative director, Grace Coddington, produce the highly anticipated September issue. Cutler captures the demanding creative process in action for nine months, following perfectionist Wintour and stylist Coddington as they attend fashion week in Europe, endless photo shoots and intense staff meetings.

Prom Night in Mississippi (Netflix)

With actor Morgan Freeman's support, Mississippi's Charleston High School stages its first senior prom to integrate both black and white students. This documentary examines the perspectives of several seniors as they prepare for this historic event. A group of disapproving white parents, who refused to meet and talk with the filmmakers, organized a separate White Prom for their children to attend.

Burma VJ (Netflix)

Filmmaker Anders Østergaard's gripping documentary profiles the courageous efforts of a renegade band of Burmese reporters who -- in the face of a repressive regime and media censorship -- refuse to be silenced. Calling themselves the Democratic Voice of Burma (aka the Burma VJs), these fierce "video warriors" place themselves in peril as they smuggle footage documenting their government's abuses across the border -- and to the world at large.

Afghan Star (Netflix)

Director Havana Marking's eye-opening documentary captures the resurgence of pop culture in Afghanistan after three decades of Taliban rule. Following four "American Idol"-type contestants from auditions to finals in Kabul, Marking reveals a precedent in this suppressed and war-torn nation: all ethnicities, genders and age groups are equal -- but everyone competing risks their lives to sing for enthused audiences.

Thriller In Manila (Netflix)

In the Philippines on Oct. 1, 1975, boxers and onetime friends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had their third and final showdown, which is at the center of this spirited documentary. Exploring both this notorious rivalry and the multifaceted racial politics of the era, director John Dower uses extensive archival footage and interviews with biographers and journalists to tell the story from Frazier's corner of the ring.

An Education (Netflix)

Jenny's (Carey Mulligan) Oxford-bound teen life is run-of-the-mill in 1961 London until she's given a different kind of education after being immersed in the enthralling -- and oftentimes dangerous -- world of cultured and much-older David (Peter Sarsgaard). Even Jenny's father (Alfred Molina) is wooed by David, but her school's headmistress (Emma Thompson) is compelled to stop Jenny's entire future from crumbling under the boy's influence.

I Love You Phillip Morris (Netflix)

When upstanding Texas cop Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) realizes he's gay, he changes his entire life and pulls a series of bold con jobs that lands him jail -- where he meets his one true love, cellmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). When Morris is transferred to another prison, lovesick Russell mounts a series of jailbreaks just to be with his beloved soul mate. Glenn Ficarra directs this comedy based on a true story.

Spring Breakdown (Netflix)

Desperate to spice up their boring lives, three thirtysomething women (Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Parker Posey) set off for a vacation on a tropical island known for its raucous Spring Break parties. But instead of recapturing their youth, they wind up mothering a senator's shy daughter (Amber Tamblyn). As they help the awkward girl grow more comfortable in her own skin, they, too, learn to embrace aging with wit, joy and grace.

Dare (Netflix)

In their final semester before graduation from an affluent suburban high school, good-girl Alexa (Emmy Rossum), outcast Ben (Ashley Springer) and bad-boy Johnny (Zach Gilford) decide to shed their youthful inhibitions and take some very grown-up risks. A twisty tale of betrayal, heartbreak and unleashed sexuality ensues in director Adam Salky's unique teen drama.

Reporter (Netflix)

Filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar tracks New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007, where the Pulitzer Prize winner seeks to draw international attention to the war-torn country's humanitarian crisis. Metzgar's thoughtful documentary reflects on the current crisis in journalism, with sophisticated reporting being pushed to the margins as fly-by-night bloggers dominate the news cycle.

Shouting Fire: Free Speech (Netflix)

Filmmaker Liz Garbus sheds light on the current state of free speech in America in this documentary, which examines the increase in First Amendment cases generated by both liberals and conservatives in the wake of 9/11. Reflecting on contemporary and historical cases -- including The New York Times's battle to publish the Pentagon Papers -- Garbus explores how fear of an outside enemy has frequently turned Americans against each other.

Sin Nombre (Netflix)

Fleeing retaliation from the violent Central American street gang they have deserted, young hoods Casper and Smiley board a northbound train, where they take refuge on top of the moving freight cars and hope for a fresh start in a new country. Dodging authorities and other dangers, the two find a new friend in Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran girl also making a run for the American border. Cary Fukunaga directs this exciting thriller.

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