With a stunning amount of deals made at this year's Sundance Film Festival, you're likely looking forward to a ton of great, new independent films over the course of the next year. But how many of them are documentaries? How many non-fiction films are even coming out of the fest with distribution? How many of those have either commercial or awards prospects? And overall how did this year's crop of docs compare to last year's?
First, let me address the distribution thing. Of the 35 or so Sundance pickups, less than ten were for docs. That doesn't count the two major remake deals, through which HBO will be adapting the so-so Irish boxing film 'Knuckle' for a dramatic series and Fox Searchlight will fictionalize the terrific, multifaceted 'Bengali Detective' for what's sure to be a quirkier sort of narrative feature focused more on the characters' dance contest aspirations and meant to cash-in on the studio's prior success with 'Slumdog Millionaire.'
As for those films that were picked up to be shown as they are, many ended up going to television and VOD platforms. I guess we can be glad for the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which has been buying films since last year for its new Documentary Film Club. We'll see if this will really do for docs what Oprah's book club did for literature. The network took 'Becoming Chaz' at the start of the fest and just acquired 'Crime After Crime' at the end. I haven't seen either of these films, though Jenni Miller wrote that 'Chaz' "is a perfect fit" for OWN.
Then there are the HBO films. Eugene Jarecki's 'Reagan,' which I heard was not critical enough for the liberals and yet enlightened some conservatives, will be the first title released to the public. It premieres on the cable channel Monday night (February 7). Hopefully Jury Prize winner 'How to Die in Oregon' will air soon after, and hopefully enough people will be brave enough to tune in despite the fact that it will definitely choke them up. HBO is also set to show 'Bobby Fischer Against the World' this summer.
HBO also went into Sundance with James Marsh's 'Project Nim,' which I immediately labeled the first great documentary of 2011. And it's still my favorite film of the festival. You'll get to see the well-produced doc on the big screen at some point thanks to Roadside Attractions. I do believe it has the most commercial appeal of anything I saw in Park City, and it could very easily garner Marsh ('Man on Wire') another Oscar nomination, if not win.
Sadly, 'How to Die in Oregon' does not have similar awards prospects since the film qualified for the Academy Awards last year and so is not eligible again. Other than 'Nim,' it is actually quite difficult to determine what else might earn a slot in the Documentary Feature category. Maybe Jury Award winner 'Hell and Back Again,' which is another very good doc depicting the war in Afghanistan, but I think it pales a bit compared to this year's nominee (and 2010 Sundance alum) 'Restrepo.' Also, it currently lacks distribution.
Meanwhile, 'The Flaw,' a financial crisis film that New Video will release theatrically this year, is absolutely nowhere near the quality of current Oscar nominee 'Inside Job.' I can maybe see National Geographic leading the surprisingly wonderful 'Life in a Day' to awards, as they've done with 'Restrepo,' but I'm thinking it will be disqualified for being available on YouTube prior to opening in cinemas. Perhaps this is the year the Academy revises its rules to accommodate for films being allowed greater exposure through the growing amount of digital venues? Also, it would have to be the year it starts recognizing poetic montage-heavy films since they've traditionally ignored stuff like this in the past. But it also could very well be seen as this year's 'Waste Land' or 'Encounters at the End of the World.'
Of the docs I managed to see, I expect and very much want Steve James' 'The Interrupters' nominated, and not just because he's owed an Oscar after his 'Hoop Dreams' snub. 'Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times' was popular enough at the fest but maybe not strong enough message-wise for the Academy. If Magnolia can keep interest consistently higher than they did with their recent accessible titles 'Client 9' and 'Freakonomics,' maybe they can have another 'Man on Wire' on their plate. I'd love to see 'Page One' scene-stealer David Carr up on the Kodak stage balancing the Oscar on his head, by the way. Or, maybe he'd just bite its head off?
Environmental causes are tackled in 'If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front' and 'The Last Mountain.' I saw the former and think it's another strong contender, though again not as great as Marshall Curry's prior nominee, 'Streetwise.' It lacks a similar strength in characters but it did leave me thinking a lot about the questions it raises regarding domestic terrorism. I haven't yet seen 'The Last Mountain,' and I hear it's a fairly by the book cause doc. But that wouldn't stop the Academy from recognizing it. Dada Films will open that one in June. Other kudos prospects (that I haven't seen) include editing winner 'The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,' which is now one of my most anticipated docs of the year, cinematography winner 'The Redemption of General Butt Naked' and 'Hot Coffee' (another HBO title).
As for commercial opportunities, I hardly see another 'Waiting for Superman' and have a hard time guessing what will end up grossing even a million dollars. With its real-life 'Project X' story and its adorable shots of a chimp in human clothes, 'Nim' is pretty accessible, as is the perfectly edited 'Senna,' though the latter could do with a bit of expositional titles to help out Americans unfamiliar with Formula 1 racing. Otherwise it's a very engrossing film dealing with rivalry, sporting politics and specifically the life of legendary driver Ayrton Senna (and it won the World Doc Audience Award as is). I dozed off for a bit at midpoint, but I blame festival fatigue.
Many Sundance attendees fell for Special Jury winner 'Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey,' but it's probably too short and simple to be a substantial theatrical title. And while kids seemed to enjoy it out in Park City, I don't know that a documentary about the guy who operates their favorite Muppet is as appealing as simply watching 'Sesame Street' or an Elmo home video. I still prefer the recent doc 'Puppet' for a larger look at the artform. Music docs 'Sing Your Song' and 'Troubadours' (now playing in NYC) will primarily appeal to fans of Harry Belafonte and James Taylor/Carole King, respectively, while the excellent 'Beats, Rhymes & Life' should transcend A Tribe Called Quest's audience and could even do well theatrically.
I anticipate Morgan Spurlock will have more success with 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' than he did with 'Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?' But it won't be as big a deal as 'Super Size Me.' The new film, which satirizes the relationship between ads and movies, will neither make as much money nor be nominated for an Oscar. Audiences at Sundance really enjoyed it, yet I just can't see it earning the $10 million required for it to retain all its sponsorship funding. Maybe if it adds some cute animals, Justin Bieber or some Michael Moore-level controversy.
Alas there were no big-buzz docs like last year's elusive duo 'Catfish' and 'Exit Through the Gift Shop.' I wanted so badly for 'Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles' to take their place. I love the film and highly recommend it. It's just a lot more conclusive than those other mystery-based documentaries. If you're a fan of 'Catfish' and 'Exit' for the folklore and storytelling more than the questions they raise, however, you should enjoy 'Resurrect' and its decent coincidental counterpart 'Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure,' the two of which I think would make a great double feature, probably at some future time when they're both popular on an online streaming site.
I can't help but be a little disappointed with this year's Sundance docs compared to last year's. I liked the synergetic 'Connected' more than others did, though I did expect it to be something more prescient. I was enormously dissatisfied with other titles I won't name, by both well-known and newer filmmakers, which begin well and then turn repetitive and ultimately feel unpolished.
But it's very possible I missed some gems, like audience award winner 'Buck' (soon available on Sundance Selects VOD) and the celebrated AIDS profile 'We Were Here,' which I know I must see immediately (once it gets distribution). I also heard really great things about the partly animated 'The Green Wave,' the 9/11 film 'Rebirth,' 'Corman's World' (coming to A&E) and Special Jury Prize winner 'Position Among the Stars,' the third in a trilogy by Leonard Retel Helmrich (I shall visit all three films for an upcoming column on doc sequels).
I only had a chance to see about half of the docs screening this year. As with most film fests it's difficult to get a comprehensive report out of Sundance, even for just the non-fiction works. But here is my tentative top ten of the fest's doc selections, in order of preference:
1. 'Project Nim' (James Marsh) – Coming to cinemas via Roadside Attractions
2. 'The Interrupters' (Steve James) – No distributor
3. 'Life in a Day' (Kevin Macdonald) – Coming to cinemas via National Geographic
4. 'Hell and Back Again' (Danfung Dennis) – No distributor
5. 'Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles' (Jon Foy) – No distributor
6. 'Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest' (Michael Rapaport) – No distributor
7. 'Senna' (Asif Kapadia) - No distributor
8. 'The Bengali Detective' (Philip Cox) – Being remade by Fox Searchlight
9. 'If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front' (Marshall Curry) – No
10. 'How to Die in Oregon' (Peter Richardson) – Airing on HBO later this year
And a special 11th place pick goes to the very popular and enjoyable Slamdance doc 'Superheroes' (Michael Barnett), which is being distributed in part as a festival prize.