The Best Documentaries of Sundance 2014

Sepideh

Sepideh

Given the circumstances, I have to say that I’m very proud of our coverage of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. This was our first year, given that we’ve only been around since the fall, and we mostly only had one critic on the ground in Park City, and he was only at part-time capacity for us. Thank you to Dan Schindel for delivering four outstanding reviews. And thank you to Daniel Walber for being able to cover one film made available to us outside of the fest. And then there were the films I was able to review through various means, and as always I greatly appreciate all the filmmakers and publicists who were able to accommodate us.

Below is just a recap of our coverage in order of their star rating. We’ll probably be adding some to this list over the next week as we finish out our coverage. So stay tuned for that, and also be sure to note my ranking of all the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival docs below. For more on my favorite films of that fest, check out my dispatch for Movies.com.

Life Itself (★★★★★) – “A perfect biographical documentary, possibly one of the classics, this is a lovingly and brutally honest portrait of a famous film critic in the final days of his life.” – Review by Christopher Campbell

Sepideh (★★★★★) – “Everything is in perfect alignment for this extraordinary feature, from the remarkable discovery of the title character to how richly yet naturally plotted her story progresses.” – Review by Christopher Campbell

We Come As Friends (★★★★★) – “A devastating, haunting, but absolutely necessary travelogue of South Sudan. This film is an instructional in how imperialism in Africa has not died off, but merely taken on a new form.” – Review by Dan Schindel

Concerning Violence (★★★★) – “Coming after the freshness of The Black Power Mixtape, Olsson’s new film is less exciting as far as the form it takes. Yet its images are far more stunning and the material as a whole more significant for today as well as for history.” Review by Christopher Campbell

Last Days in Vietnam (★★★★) – “Relates an underreported part of history with considerable aplomb. But the film is held back by not using the full array of available voices to tell the tale.” Review by Dan Schindel

Love Child (★★★★) – “A sad, disturbing film that asks us to consider where we’re headed as the Internet takes over our lives.” – Review by Dan Schindel

My Prairie Home (★★★★) – “Built up from a Greyhound-fueled concert tour, My Prairie Home is part-biography part-visual album, speckled with emotionally resonant musical sequences that set this film apart.” – Review by Daniel Walber

The Overnighters (★★★★) - “brilliantly develops into a snowballing drama of the human condition, a real life morality play involving a pastor facing all sorts of obstacles in his effort to do good — none more difficult to overcome than his own mistakes made along the way.” – Review by Christopher Campbell

Private Violence (★★★★) – “Structural sloppiness pervades this film, but that can’t stifle the sheer force of the emotion it evokes.” – Review by Dan Schindel

Rich Hill (★★★★) – Review forthcoming.

Mitt (★★★) – “Short on insight and discovery, Mitt still shows us a side of the man we may not have known and could find surprising. Basically it seems to ask, why was Romney even running?” – Capsule review by Christopher Campbell

No No: A Dockumentary (★★★) – “Probably the best documentary that could be made about this subject, it’s still a fairly standard work as far as technique and form are concerned.” – Review by Christopher Campbell

Web Junkie (★★) – “Beyond the initial exposition informing us of China’s Internet addiction rehab clinics and a few stirring scenes, there’s not all that much to recommend here. ” Review by Christopher Campbell

 

Slamdance Docs, ranked from best to worst:

1. Elliot (★★★★) – Like Anvil! The Story of Anvil! but with filmmakers, mixed with Daniel Clowes/Harvey Pekar characters. “This is the sort of doc that could do really well at Austin events like SXSW and Fantastic Fest and eventually become a cult hit streaming as an exclusive on Netflix. ”

2. Little Hope Was Arson (★★★★) – “Far and away this is the most polished film of this year’s program…ultimately it’s a very well-plotted story of faith, community, honor and the loss of each, and it’s full of characters who are colorful and raw yet totally genuine.”

3. Glena (★★★) – “As someone who isn’t at all into mixed martial arts, I was surprised at how hooked I found myself during some of the fights in this film, particularly during the climactic bout at the end. ”

4. Sometimes I Dream I’m Flying (★★★) – A fine, nice to look at but not entirely memorable observational work that follows a teenage ballerina over the course of a few years.

5. Kidnapped For Christ (★★) – Phenomenal story and phenomenal access, yet the structure of the film is all wrong all the time, and ending with a title screen indicating the whole thing is a PSA doesn’t help. The most disappointing film of both fests for me.

6. Skanks (★★) – Subject matter that could fill a short film but not a feature. Basically just a behind the scenes look at the making of a play. All of the making of it, which is more than necessary.

7. Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache (★) – The story of the oystermen is interesting, but they’re merely employed for a bigger issue film about the BP oil spill and there’s an overwhelming amount of information in the form of text put on the screen. That’s not what a documentary is for.

8. Huntington’s Dance (n/a) – I couldn’t get too far into this film, and I don’t want to say that makes it bad. I just personally did not want to continue watching people suffering as much as the filmmaker’s mother suffers here.

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  • Mike

    What’s a PSA? This “review” is dreadful.

    • http://nonfics.com Christopher Campbell

      PSA = public service announcement