Two Days in Sundance: ‘Ai Weiwei’, ‘For Ellen’, ‘Middle of Nowhere’

The Sundance Film Festival is in no way easy to get to. Though it’s only 45 minutes from Salt Lake City, the small town of Park City requires you to steer through a canyon that, like this year, can find itself closed to all traffic due to weather during its busiest weekend. The 10-day festival that happens each January is not only the most coveted of North American film festivals, it’s also the most glorified. Accepted films must prove obvious merit, not only in the form of artistic vision but also in their ability to draw a crowd — and, therefore, bring in some cash. Meanwhile, ticket prices and hotel costs are so high during the festival that you must be a person of means to get there and enjoy it. The irony that somehow this is the epitome of the low budget indie film world is not entirely lost on the festival-goers. They are, of course, indie film fans.

Though these seem like two of the exact opposite ends of the spectrum — and that is the case — in a way it fits the bill perfectly. Sundance is where those indie films (and their indie filmmakers) can turn the page into fame and fortune if they draw the attention of the right person. Only six years ago Little Miss Sunshine was bought for a record $10.5 million at the festival, and then grossed $100.5 million in international box office sales, especially impressive considering its budget of only $8 million — small beans in today’s blockbuster world.

But maybe making the festival so hard to get to isn’t such a bad thing. The town of Park City is estimated at a population of less than 8,000 but grows by 48,000 during the 10 days the festival is on. It’s a different place altogether for those two weeks each January, transforming from an albeit upper class ski hideaway to a gold mine for paparazzo in a matter of seconds. Not that the shop and restaurant owners don’t love it: it’s also nearly impossible to get a table on most days and nights. And the state of Utah surely enjoys the added tourism it receives, especially during its big current push to transform itself into America’s new ski mecca.

But besides the glitz and glamour and the chance to make a buck or two, the Sundance Film Festival has become the draw it is today is for one reason: there are some damn good films at this thing. This year’s festival was no different. The Surrogate and Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film, both got picked up by Fox Searchlight, while Magnolia picked up five of their own with 2 Days in New York, Compliance, The Queen of Versailles, Nobody Walks, and V/H/S. Obviously, it was a year full of desirable pictures.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of films that would have left the average moviegoer speechless: whether they were bought during Sundance or not does not really matter. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is certainly one of those. Directed, filmed, produced, and co-edited by debut feature filmmaker Alison Klayman, this documentary follows one of the most outspoken and high profile Chinese artists living today. Nearly all of Ai’s work, and the majority of his life, is dedicated to exposing the Chinese government for its ills, and trying to gain freedom for his people. The documentary, which was filmed over the past three years and won the Special Jury Prize for Documentary, was completed just before Ai was kidnapped and held captive by the government. It comes at an incredibly poignant moment: during the screening, Ai was on house arrest at his home in Beijing, prevented by the terms of his parole from speaking about his arrest or using any of the social media tools he has become famous for. The transformation of an outspoken man to a stifled and scared voice, if nothing else shows just what the Chinese government is capable of. The film itself shows not only Ai’s work ranging from installations to photographs, but also his activism, social commentaries, and family life.

Then there’s the film For Ellen starring Little Miss Sunshine co-star Paul Dano, and written and directed by So Yong Kim, who is also the mind behind Treeless Mountain, and In Between Days. In For Ellen, Dano plays a struggling musician, home to claim the benefits of a divorce but sideswiped by the impending loss of rights to, and first meeting with, his daughter. Even compared to his other roles, this is probably Dano’s best performance to date. He embodies the narcissistic character of Joby Taylor as if it’s his everyday persona, at time proving that he is to be hated, at others begging you for pity. Shaylena Mandigo plays his daughter, and though she is a young and unseasoned actress picked for the role during a gym class at the local elementary school in Massena, New York where the film was made, she brought to life the strange feeling of meeting your father for first time. Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) also drives a great performance as Dano’s inexperienced, wanting-to-good-but-obviously-failing lawyer. Because of its slow plot and long, drawn out scenes, the film itself may not have the commercial appeal that will skyrocket it to the top, but it is certainly a character study of the finest variety.

On the exact opposite side of the spectrum (do spectrum’s have sides?), is Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, which may be the most ridiculous movie ever to come to be put to film. And yes, that includes Borat, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and anything that Pauly Shore ever made. The plot itself is unimportant — it is only a basis for a beginning, middle and end. It involves a failed movie made for too much money (check the title for a hint), a stupid idea to earn that money back, and a shopping mall. But with absurd parts by John C. Reilly, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, it’s hard to imagine not enjoying it. Of course, if a quarter of the theater hadn’t walked out in the first twenty minutes, you could bet your stock in Facebook that they would have during a scene involving co-star Eric Wareheim, a bathtub, and six young boys who had a little too much fiber in their diet. I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination.

Jumping back into seriousness, Middle of Nowhere received large acclaim as its director Ava DuVernay won the U.S. Directing Award for a Dramatic Film. Nowhere’s heart lies in the everyday lives of African Americans, its characters hardworking and loving though still dealing with the problems of both society and mistakes made. But perhaps the most impressive fact of this film is concerning its star, Emayatzy Corinealdi, who had never before acted in a feature. Her powerful performance, centered on the longing for a husband stuck in jail for too many years, did exactly what DuVernay claimed she wanted it to. As DuVernay noted in a Q&A after one screening, she wanted to make a film that showed African Americans living real lives, not being portrayed as thugs or otherwise. Although at times the script felt a little forced, almost too perfect, the final product is moving and emotional.

Unfortunately, the two days I was there didn’t provide much more time to see all the films I wished I could have, but that’s what the rest of the year is for.

Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: The House I Live In

Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic: Beasts of the Southern Wild

World Cinema Jury Prize, Documentary: The Law In These Parts/Israel

World Cinema Jury Prize, Dramatic: Violeta Went to Heaven/Chile

Audience Award: U.S. Documentary: The Invisible War

Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic: The Surrogate

World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary: Searching for Sugar Man/Sweden

World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic: Valley of Saints/India

Best of NEXT, Audience Award: Sleepwalk With Me

U.S. Directing Award: Documentary: The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield

U.S. Directing Award: Dramatic: Middle of Nowhere, Ava DuVernay

World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary: 5 Broken Cameras, Ernad Burnat, Guy Davidi

World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic: Teddy Bear, Mads Matthiesen

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Safety Not Guaranteed, Derek Connolly

World Cinema Screenwriting Award: Young & Wild, Marialy Rivas, Camila Gutierrez, Pedro Peirano, Sebastian Sepulveda