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Jonathan's Sundance Reviews, 2011 

Table of Contents

12 films this year!

LOVED... LIKED... Not for me...  
We Were Here The Redemption of
General Butt Naked
Hell and Back Again  
Being Elmo Flypaper  
The Green Wave Pariah    
Senna Skateistan (Short)    
Troubadours Like Crazy    
How To Die in Oregon    
We Were Here (Netflix)

See this film!  Doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is, where you live, or how old you are.  The film is a deeply touching emotional collage chronicling the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, full of compassion and love, the power of community, healing, and persevering history.  It honors loved ones who had the simplest request on their deathbeds, “just don’t forget me.”  

The narrative starts with what was originally called “Gay Cancer,” and covers the political climate, the outpouring of community support (especially from the Lesbian community), and the two decades it took to understand the disease, build effective treatments and finally usher in a mentality of prevention.  Five selfless and beautiful characters tell their stories and paint a rich picture of the events that unfolded in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, the epicdenter of the disease.  Over 15,000 San Franciscans died of AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s.   The universal experience of loss, especially multiple loss syndrome in such a short time period, is intense. 

The filmmakers and cast and crew in the QA brought an additional dimension to the film, talking about how the experience created a “safe space” in which to tell their stories, which in turns creates a safe space for the audience to grasp the emotional weight of this tragedy which might otherwise be overwhelming. 

Eloquent, humble, honest, and moving, this is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in 15 years at Sundance.  I saw the film again in February at the Castro Theater in SF (with Rufus Wainwright opening) and the sense of community was as strong as any college, family, or burning man reunion you can imagine. 

Being Elmo (Netflix)

BRAVO!!!!   What an uplifting, delightful, celebration. 
As a lifelong fan of the Muppets, perhaps I’m a bit biased.  This documentary will leave you grinning from ear to ear.  Kevin Clash grew up in Baltimore in the 70’s and was always a bit different from the other kids – he was obsesses with puppets, Jim Henson’s Sesame Street and muppets to be exact.   Kevin created his own success every step of the way, from his backyard to Broadway, and is now one of the most recognized voices and personalities to little kids worldwide.  Meet the man who created Elmo.  Seeing exactly how a muppet’s persona develops is fascinating.  Seeing all the joy it has brought into the world is contagious.

The Green Wave (Netflix)

In early 2009, a new generation of Iranians hoped for change through the upcoming presidential elections. Fueled by youthful exuberance and media technology, a groundswell—the so-called Green Wave—emerged to challenge the status quo, and caused a seismic shift in the political climate. A new brand of revolution seemed to be at hand. All polls predicted challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi would be the country’s next president; however, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the victor, prompting a backlash of protests, unparalleled government violence and oppression, and a massive surge of human-rights violations that continues today.

In this powerful and urgent documentary, filmmaker Ali Samadi Ahadi integrates animation with live-action footage, testimonials, and posts from courageous Iranian bloggers, who dared to tell the world about the anatomy of the movement and its devastating consequences. The Green Wave is a remarkable portrait of modern political rebellion, an exposé of government-sanctioned violence, and a vision of peace and hope that continued resistance may galvanize a new Iran.

The director, journalists, lawyers, and bloggers who contributed to the film did so at the expense of sacrificing their right to ever return to their homeland.   The video and blog content of the film is entirely derived from the social web.  Twitter, YouTube, blogs, mobile video – the new channels for journalism especially under oppressive governments controlling all traditional media outlets.  The director culled over 1,500 twitter pages, and referred to all the mobile video fragments he collected as broken puzzle pieces.

It was an honor to see this film while sitting next to two gentlemen from Tehran – that’s what I love about Sundance.  How personal it is.  The minority in the country had no idea how strong they were, until they took to the streets and realized they are not  a minority at all.  In the words of the director, hopefully “the rule of weapons will not last.”  He called the events in Iran a seismic change.  Major movement in Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, are all underway (Jan 2011).

Senna (Netflix)

Winner:  World Cinema Audience Award.  (Got my Vote!)
Gifted, top performing athletes can inspire in many ways – through dedication, through overcoming odds, through persevering, and through handling themselves, competitors, and fans with respect and class.  Ayrton Senna demonstrates all of the above.    Senna was perhaps the greatest race car driver ever, and his life story is as epic, exciting, and unpredictable as any course that ever ended with the checkered flag.    He exploded onto the Formula One scene in the mid 80’s, and brought hope and triumph from around the world back to his home nation Brazil.  Much of the footage was shot from a camera mounted on the dashboard of a formula one car, and is absolutely exhilarating.   Buckle up and enjoy!

Troubadours (Netflix)

If you like James Taylor, Carole King, David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and folk music from the 70’s, you’ll love this documentary on the West Hollywood club, “The Troubadour”, where many stars launched their careers.  Club founder and egomaniac Doug Weston provided the prime stomping grounds and venue for the emerging folk rock circuit.   Great interviews, archival and rare footage, and great insights from the big names as well as Elton John, Steve Martin, and Bonnie Raitt.   Timeless.

How To Die In Oregon (Netflix)

Winner:  Grand Jury Best Documentary! 
With a gentle and respectful touch, this film presents a compelling case for legalizing physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.  Don't let the heavy topic scare you away. The personal stories in the film evoke compassion, understanding, and surprisingly peace. Oregon was the first state to legalize it in 1994, and other states have since followed.   

The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Netflix)

This documentary is incredible, almost unbelievable. 
Joshua Milton Blahyi, aka General Butt Naked, murdered thousands and thousands of innocent families and children during Liberia’s horrific 14-year civil war. Today this once-brutal warlord has renounced his sadistic past and reinvented himself as evangelist Joshua Milton Blahyi. In a riveting cinema vérité journey that unfolds over the course of five years, filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion follow Blahyi’s unrelenting crusade to redeem his life. Facing those he once terrorized, preaching where he once murdered, Blahyi is on a quest to save his soul.

Pariah (Netflix)

Get out of your comfort zone in classic Sundance fashion.  Lesbian black teenagers in Brooklyn NY grapple with their sexual identity, peer pressures in high school, and parental expectation pressures.  Peppered with bits of laugh-out-loud humor, great music, and pitch-perfect characters, this film holds your attention and emotion for every second.

Skateistan (short) (Full Short)

Skateboarding in Kabul:  empowering for youth, and particularly girls and young women.  Through rubble in war-torn buildings, in newly erected skateparks, the universal skate vibe shines.  Skateistan represents a vision where the joys and bonds and adventures of childhood can still flourish and give strength to future generations.

Like Crazy (Netflix)

Winner:  Grand Jury Best Drama.!
A piquant and fresh look at young love and long distance relationships.    Touching, funny, and understated, I enjoyed this film very much.  The strains and challenges it explores are universal.

Hell and Back Again (Netflix)

Winner:  World Cinema Jury prize.   (Did not get my vote).
War is hell.  And integrating back into society after serving can be surreal and soulless.  There is no denying the gripping footage from Afghanistan in 2009 as a Marines helicopter is surrounded by Taliban forces.  The film then focuses on 25 year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris, as he fights the psychological and physical rehabilitation battles back home in North Carolina after medical discharge. 

I think there are many better films about war.  I’ll focus on one aspect I thought was particularly well done: This film provides a detailed insight into the incredible challenge and balancing act our our troops face behind enemy lines trying to befriend local tribes-people, families, and village elders to solicit intelligence, while the military presence there has turned their world upside down.   The fighting has forced all their children to flee their homes, most people have diarrhea, there are no doctors and little food.   The U.S. Military tries hard to translate accurately when talking w/ village elders, though it’s unclear how well that works.  The ultimate military goals to improve the quality of life for these locals is directly at odds with the hardships it causes.  

Flypaper (Netflix)

I found Flypaper entertaining but mediocre all around.   Part comedy and part mystery as an amateur bank heist goes awry.  Patrick Dempsey was decent in the lead role, but the film fell flat for me.  

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