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Sundance 2012

Standout films and documentaries from this year's film festival

by Max Gold
on 30 January 2012

This year's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, presented the requisite set of features and documentaries with the not-so-surprising general consensus that the smaller, independent works transcended the generally lackluster star-studded blockbusters. Whether speaking to current issues that plague the American conscience or shedding light on new innovators, each film we saw or heard about felt unique to 2012. We've selected a combination of documentaries and narratives that stood out and set a tone for this year's new ideas and political issues.

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Nicholas Jarecki's financial thriller Arbitrage premiered on Saturday. The film presents a novel perspective of the financial crisis through amiable hedge fund executive Robert Miller, played by Richard Gere, as he struggles to cover up a series of his crimes. In spite of Miller's problems—cooked books, multi-million dollar debts, a fed-up mistress and a suspicious wife—he's able to talk his way out of almost every conflict and, most impressively, he ultimately charms the audience. Jarecki leaves us wondering whether we might make the same choices in Miller's position—a tack that filmmakers don't usually employ when examining Wall Street. Jarecki explains, "I didn't want to do a Bernie Madoff story because I had heard something Madoff said in jail: 'Fuck my victims. I carried them for 25 years. Now I'm doing 125.' To me, those were just the words of a sociopath, and I thought that was too limited of a character."

Jarecki collaborated with cinematographer Yorick LeSaux (I Am Love) and composer Cliff Martinez (Drive) to build momentum through landmark locations of NYC's financial world including the Sherry Netherland and Four Seasons hotels and the GM building. Nate Parker and Sundance alum Brit Marling perform on par with their superstar co-stars Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth.

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Finding North

The documentary Finding North premiered on Sunday, offering an eye-opening tale of hunger in America on the heels of its sister film Food Inc. Finding North defines America's problem not as food scarcity, but as "food insecurity"—that is, when one does not know from where one's next meal will come. This condition, which one half of Americans face today, leads to the purchase of processed junk food and cheap carbohydrates, turning obesity into a close cousin of starvation. The film was helmed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, with supporting star power by Jeff Bridges and Silverbush's husband, chef Tom Colicchio. Cinematographer and Sundance alum Dan Gold follows the subjects through their daily life, searching for the source of their next meal. The strong pop score by T-Bone Burnett and The Civil Wars adds a unique emotionality to the film.

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Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

Besides the two features we caught, there were several titles drawing buzz throughout the festival. Reports abounded of audiences being driven to tears by the intensely revealing documentary, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present. During the spring 2010 show at the MoMA, performance artist Marina Abramovic would sit for hours on end inviting audience members to sit down across from her and stare. The lauded film traces Abramovic's quest to "archive" her art by imparting her performances to younger artists, and her heartbreaking love affair with fellow artist Ulay.

Indie Game: The Movie

The documentary Indie Game: The Movie focuses on several independent video game artists as they work for years on a single project outside the confines of a major developer. Launched in May 2010 as a Kickstarter project, first-time filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajote single-handedly produced, shot, directed and edited the film, picking up the award for cinema editing in the festival's grand jury vote.

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