Love, economic ruin & unknown singer

6 don't-miss films from Sundance Film Festival 2012 that may have Oscar magic

6 don't-miss films from Sundance Film Festival 2012 that may have Oscar magic

While others spent New Year’s Day watching bowl games and making resolutions, I was focused on movies. For the last four years I have reviewed films at the Sundance Film Festival, the granddaddy of film festivals, which takes place the last two weeks of every January in Park City, Utah.

With bowl games in the background, I took stock of Sundance 2012, the jewels I discovered and where I went wrong — way wrong — in movie choices. And with 2013 Sundance program in hand, I resolved to choose only great films to review for this year’s festival. 

During last year’s Sundance Film Festival, I saw about 25 movies in a 10-day period and reviewed 11 of them — some good — really good — and some not so good. Many of my favorites, which are available on DVD or soon will be, have Oscar potential (nominations will be announced on Jan. 10).  They include:

The Sessions (on DVD February 12)

Known as The Surrogate at Sundance, The Sessions is based on a true story about Mark O’Brien, a disabled man in an iron lung (played by John Hawkes), who wants to lose his virginity. With the help of his priest (William H. Macy), he contacts professional sex surrogate Cheryl (played by Helen Hunt).

The title and subject matter are awkward and squirm-inducing, but the film is funny, charming and poignant. In the hands of a less talented group of actors, it might have seemed contrived and phony.

Hawkes does all of his acting with his face — an impressive performance. Hunt is brave, gentle and courageous, in a film that required no-hold-barred nudity.

The film was a runaway hit at Sundance where it received the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic category. Both Hawkes and Hunt have been nominated for a Golden Globe award and are talked about as Oscar nominees for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild (available on DVD)

Set in a river community outside of New Orleans, Beasts of the Southern Wild catapults viewers into the magical, apocalyptic world of a six-year-old girl (supremely talented Quvenzhané Wallis) who battles prehistoric creatures released by melting polar ice caps.

Winner of the 2012 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, this film has already received more than 20 awards and buzz is that it will be an Oscar contender for Best Film.

Arbitrage (available on DVD)

Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon star in this tale of a troubled hedge fund tycoon who cooks the books of his company and watches as his life spirals out of control as his mistress dies, the accountants discover the fraud and the authorities start closing in on him. 

This could have been a formula movie but turned out to be well-acted with an unpredictable ending. Definitely worth a Saturday night rental. 

Gere is nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama and has an outside chance at an Oscar Best Actor nomination.

My Sister’s Sister (available on DVD)

This romantic comedy focuses on Iris who invites her friend Jack, who is grieving for his deceased brother, to stay at her father’s cabin. Hannah, Iris’ sister, who is nursing a broken relationship, shows up unexpectedly also seeking solitude and healing.

The result is a funny, clever and haunting story of real people dealing with the angst, sibling rivalry and the exhilaration of love and how to put it all together in a complicated world. 

Although the movie has an indie feel with a small budget and improvised dialogue, three superb actors — Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass — coupled with a non-formula ending, make this movie deeply satisfying.

No Oscar chances, but still highly watchable.

Searching for Sugar Man (on DVD January 22)

This documentary about forgotten '60s musician Rodriguez, and the filmmaker’s search to find him and reunite him with his huge fan base in South Africa, has received rave reviews world-wide. It was my first movie at Sundance 2012, and also my last, because it won Audience Award for Best Documentary and I just could not resist the opportunity to again experience its magic.

I was not the only one to be enchanted by Rodriguez’s story. 60 Minutes profiled Rodriguez and he performed on David Letterman. The film is one of 15 on the 2013 Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary.

Queen of Versailles (available on DVD)

This documentary focuses on Jackie and David Siegel, owners of Westgate Resorts, and their family as they build a 90,000 square foot home — the largest and most expensive house in the United States — and the crisis they go through as their fortune is wiped out during the economic bust of 2008. 

Director Lauren Greenfield won top directing prize at Sundance for U.S. documentary. Although this film didn’t score big in general release or make the Oscar documentary short list, it was one of my favorites of Sundance; both a funny and tragic depiction of the 2008 recession.

John Hawkes, The Sessions
Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions, which was called The Surrogate at Sundance. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Arbitrage, movie poster, Richard Gere
Richard Gere stars in Arbitrage
News_Sundance Film Festival_January 2012_The Queen of Versailles
A scene from the Queen of Versailles Photo by Lauren Greenfield
News_Sundance_Searching for Sugar Man
Searching for Sugar Man is on the short list for the Oscar for Best Documentary Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival