Sundance 2011: What's Good

by Neil Drumming

Sitting in Salt Lake City's airport, I have roughly twenty-five minutes before the plane boards to whisk me away from the majestic snow-covered mountains of Utah on to the far less majestic snow-covered trash heaps of Brooklyn, NY. I thought I'd take that time to answer Sundance Film Festival's single most popular question, 'So, what have you seen that you like?' (Much better than that junior-paparazzo query that turns my stomach: 'Who have you seen?') The following descriptions were liberally excerpted from the Sundance website.

Old Cats
Isadora and Enrique, an elderly couple, live a comfortable life with their two ample cats in a handsome high-rise apartment overlooking the park. Isadora is struggling with a bout of dementia when her daughter, Rosario, and her butch female lover, Hugo, drop in for a coked-up visit to pitch their latest get-rich scheme--and attempt to snatch the flat right out from under Isadora. Then Isadora does something quite unexpected for a woman with a busted hip, and everything changes.

Teenagers Atafeh, and her best friend, Shireen, are experimenting with their burgeoning sexuality amidst the subculture of Tehran's underground art scene when Atafeh's brother, Mehran, returns home from drug rehab as the prodigal son. Battling his demons, Mehran vehemently renounces his former life as a classical musician and joins the morality police. He disapproves of his sister's developing intimate relationship with Shireen and becomes obsessed with saving Shireen from Atafeh's influence. Suddenly, the two siblings, who were close confidants, are entangled in a triangle of suspense, surveillance, and betrayal as the once-liberal haven of the family home becomes a place of danger for the beautiful Atafeh.

The Interrupters
Living, breathing, modern-day heroes are inspiring hope on the scary streets of Chicago. Meet the Interrupters--former gang members who disrupt violence in their neighborhoods as it happens. Acclaimed director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) working with noted author Alex Kotlowitz, recounts the gripping stories of men and women who, with bravado, humility, and humor, strive to protect their communities from the brutality they once employed. With his signature intimate vérité, James follows these individuals over the course of a year as they attempt to intervene in disputes before they turn violent: two brothers who threaten to shoot each other, an angry teenage girl just home from prison, and a young man on a warpath of revenge.

Win Win
Struggling attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), who volunteers as a high-school wrestling coach, takes on the guardianship of an elderly client in a desperate attempt to keep his practice afloat. When the client's teenage grandson runs away from home and shows up on his grandfather's doorstep, Mike's life is turned upside down as his win-win proposition turns into something much more complicated than he ever bargained for.

From a filmmaking standpoint, Old Cats was by far the most eye-opening. A tightly-coiled family drama unravels and explodes almost completely within the confines of a cramped apartment. The film is appropriately claustrophobic, but you never feel that you are watching an endeavor hampered by limited space or resources. This kind of movie is the reason someone like me comes to Sundance; this is what you can do with a great story and a clear vision.

Alright, the plane is about to board. The TV news is on in the airport as I rush to finish this. Apparently, back in the real world, something terrible and unscripted is happening in Egypt...