PARK CITY, Utah — We descend from the mountain top, not with stone tablets but with ticket stubs. The 2014 Sundance Film Festival is over and as a frequent attendee I can tell you it was the best in years.
The film fest acts a preview for the coming year’s slate of independent cinema and there’s no shortage of good stuff heading your way. Many titles from the best from the fest are by Jews or starring Jews or contain “Jewish themes.” Here are some movies to keep an eye on.
The Green Prince: Israeli director Nadav Schirman looks at the stranger-than-fiction story of Mosab Haasan Yosef, the son of a Hamas’ founder, and his decade-long double life as a Shin Bet informer. The cleanly shot documentary teases out its tale of espionage and psychological manipulation in a way that is equal parts fascinating and entertaining. More importantly, it fights the tide of some recent films with an optimistic outlook towards peace on Israel’s terms. Full review here.
Wish I Was Here: The whimsical “Scrubs” star Zach Braff follows up his ten year-old runaway independent hit “Garden State” with this emotional examination of family, responsibility and spirituality. As Braff financed the film on his own (with the aid of his fans via Kickstarter) the script remains daringly personal. It delves into specifics of Jewish assimilation (and the obscure jokes that come with it) in such a way that would not have been possible if accountable to outside financiers. Despite some funny moments and a great supporting role by Mandy Patinkin, there are many who will find the heart-on-sleeve schmaltz factor to be a tad overwhelming. Full review here.
Obvious Child: Another first time filmmaker, Gillian Robespierre, goes to a place only slightly less exotic than the African bush, the comedy clubs of hipster Brooklyn. That’s where you’ll meet Dana Stern, one of the most striking Jewish characters put to screen in some time. Played by “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Jenny Slate, Stern is a quick-witted and slightly foul-mouthed young woman dealing with the day-to-day troubles of life with a running, hilarious outlook. When an evening of unexpected romance leads to an unwanted pregnancy the film becomes an unpredictable and oddly touching romantic comedy. Full review here.
White Shadow: The first film from Israeli Noaz Deshe is a gorgeous collage about a most ugly topic, a black market that exists in some parts of Africa for albino body parts. Using disorienting techniques to get inside the psychology of a young boy forever on the run, “White Shadow” alternates between documentary-style techniques and painterly scenes of drastic beauty. Deshe presents himself as a total filmmaker by directing, writing, shooting, editing and even creating the score himself. Full review here.
Listen Up Philip: New York Jewish director Alex Ross Perry’s follow-up to cult favorite “The Color Wheel” is a blast from a different era – one that probably never even existed. Inspired by the great mid-century authors like Mailer, Updike, Roth and Bellow, Perry’s self-aware tale of sturm und drang stars Jason Schwartzman as an arrogant and unlovable novelist figuring out how to position himself as his career takes off. His attitudes have a ripple effect, both with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Moss) and his mentor (Jonathan Pryce). Shot on 16mm film and set to an original jazz score, “Listen Up Philip” is a bonafide indie film in a classic sense. It’s also extremely funny, and loquacious narration by Eric Bogosian adds a nice touch.
Hits: David Cross from “Arrested Development” directs a number of recognizable faces from the world of comedy in this amusing tale about the small town of Liberty, New York and its obsession with fame in the age of social media. Brooklyn activists pair with a frothing lunatic who goes to town council meetings to rail about lackluster snow plowing and somehow this becomes the next big thing on the Internet.
Web Junkie: Speaking of the Internet, Israeli documentarians Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia travelled to China to record the goings-on at a camp for teens designed to break Internet addiction. China is the first country to recognize computer addiction as a medical condition and you can see why. The kids are really into videogames – to the point where they can stay glued to their devices for 300 hours straight, only nodding off now and then when their bodies collapse. The film examines some of the root causes from Chinese familial life, and will hopefully inspire you to not worry about making the next board in Candy Crush.
Love is Strange: Jewish-American director Ira Sachs had an indie hit in 2012 with “Keep the Lights On,” a bold look at an on-again off-again romance between two young gay men in New York City. “Love Is Strange” fast-forwards to two much older men, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina (who played Tevye on Broadway!) that decide to marry after a decades-long commitment. Their ceremony leads to job loss at a Catholic school, and the couple finds itself temporarily separated as they hunt for new housing. This is a tender and touching story about relatable obstacles and the transformative power of love that is guaranteed to be a much-discussed film as the year marches on.
White Bird in A Blizzard: I can’t lie and call this a good movie, but Franco-Jewish beauty Eva Green’s performance as a bored young mother who drinks a lot and wears revealing bathing suits around her daughter’s boyfriend is just fabulous enough to ensure some sort of cult following.
No No – A Dockumentary: On June 12, 1970 the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Doc Ellis pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. He was on LSD at the time. This episode and others are examined in this documentary, which features an original score by the New York Jewish musician Adam Horovitz, better known to you as Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys.
Watchers of the Sky: Mixing archival footage, new interviews and animation, “Watchers of the Sky” is a haunting documentary about, in part, the late Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide.” Lemkin’s push for social justice continues to resonate in international agencies who push against regimes who try to keep atrocities in their countries an “internal matter.”
Boyhood: The best film at the festival was Richard Linklater’s truly flabbergasting achievement “Boyhood.” The film stars Jewish-American Patricia Arquette, a single mother raising two children. When we first meet her, her son is six years old. At the end of the movie he is eighteen. In a normal movie this would mean different kids but here it is the same actor (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) as Linklater has been making this movie a few days at a time for TWELVE YEARS. Ethan Hawke and Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei round out the cast, as do a swarm of faces and incidents that weave through this stunning depiction of American life.