Friday, July 22, 2005

Sundance Sleepers

I’m attracted to offbeat movies. I love to watch independents—movies that were made despite hardships, a shoestring budget and dim prospects of commercial success. It stirs me to see passionate filmmakers willing to push convention and experiment with their craft. That’s why I love the Sundance Film Festival, although I have learned to be careful in what I choose. I do have to endure a number of clinkers every year. But it’s the hidden gems that you discover through the trial and error of selection that make the experience so worthwhile.

I wanted to share a few of my favorite Sundance sleeper movies with you. My qualifying rules are simple—great movies shown at Sundance in the past five years that did less than $10 million at the domestic box office. Ergo, many filmgoers missed these. One more caveat—there’s often a good reason these films weren’t more commercially successful. (In fact, most on my list did $1 million or less.) They don’t appeal to the tastes of the masses. So I sometimes hesitate recommending them to friends.

American Splendor. The very cleverly told story of cartoonist Harvey Pekar features an extraordinary breakout performance by Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man).

Donnie Darko. This is one unusual movie, imaginative, mysterious and featuring the biggest rabbit since Harvey! Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this film which has become something of a cult classic for movie buffs.

Goodbye Lenin. An exceptionally funny and surprisingly warm German film about the fall of communism. I found it absolutely delightful, but also very enlightening.

Open Water. Director Chris Kentis reenacts the story of two scuba divers left behind by their boat. It almost has a home-movie feel, which makes the experience all the more believable and suspenseful. Kentis used real sharks in the filming, so when the actors look terrified, it isn’t necessarily great acting.

Primer. Speaking of low budget, Carruth shot this for a mere $7000. However, if you like intellectually engaging films, this one will grab you. Like Chris Nolan’s Memento, nearly everyone I know that has seen it has given it a second viewing.

Pieces of April. Part road trip, part Thanksgiving warmth, this film has a ton of heart. Plus, it was a breakout film for Katie Holmes (soon to be Mrs. Tom Cruise) and features a great performance from indie goddess Patricia Clarkson. Reminds me of The Daytrippers, the hilarious 1996 low-budget flick starring Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, Parker Posey, Liev Schreiber and Ann Meara.

Riding Giants. A stunning documentary about the growth of the surfing culture in California. Peralta manages to bring you there, using archival footage and interviews with some of the greats, such as Greg Noll, Jeff Clark and Laird Hamilton. Also check out Peralta’s earlier Dogtown and Z-Boys (the documentary, not the drama released this year), which admirably adopted the same charter for the skateboarding phenomenon.

The Station Agent. Plenty of heart and compassion in this story about friendship, isolation and … trains. Peter Dinklage stars as the strong, silent leading man, who happens to be a dwarf. Dinklage is amazing in this film and so are Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale.

Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman. I’ve never been a samurai or martial arts movie buff. But I happened upon Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi at Sundance, decided to try something different and fell in love with it. Sure, there is plenty of blood (although it seems so staged it never really bothered me.. However, I found the character of the old, blind samurai powerful and compelling. And Kitano tells his story with humor and flair.


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