Film Feature: Sundance Film Festival Spotlights #3

by Carrie Kahn on February 18, 2015

Sundance 2015 Spotlights: Six Documentary Films

Spinning Platters completes its coverage of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival with this third and final Spotlights post, focusing on six documentaries that screened at the Park City fest. Keep your eye out for many of these as they are widely released this coming year, and use our handy Sundance Viewing Priority Level (VPL) Guide to help you decide if they are worth your time:


VPL A = An absolute must-see. Monitor film and entertainment news sites religiously to see if this picture will be widely released, and then plan to be first in line to see it.

VPL B = If you’re in a movie mood and your first choice is sold out or not playing at your nearby theater, this picture is a wholly acceptable substitute. It’s not stellar, but it’s perfectly enjoyable, and it won’t be a waste of your time.

VPL C = If you need to escape a family argument, duck out of work to take a break, or fill a few hours on a long and lonely rainy day, there are probably worse ways to spend your time than seeing this picture, though not many. It’s flawed, and you’ll forget about it instantly, but it’s not totally dreadful, and it has at least one or two minor reasons to recommend it.

VPL D = Don’t even think about it. Avoid at all costs. Your time, money, and sanity are too valuable to waste on this dreck.

1.) Meru
(USA 2014, 89 min. Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vassarhelyi)

Climber Conrad Anker checks out the view from his tent on Meru.

This stunning documentary was my hands-down favorite film at the Festival this year (other Festival-goers agreed; it also won the Audience Award for Best Documentary). An amazing story about courage, resilience, and unfailing tenacity, the film follows three world renowned climbers – Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk – as they attempt to climb Meru Peak in the Himalayas via the Shark’s Fin, a route long considered one of the most difficult in the world. Chin, who is also a professional mountaineering photographer, co-directed the film with his wife Elizabeth Chai Vassarhelyi, and the result is both a terrific insider’s peek (or should that be peak?) at the lives of elite climbers, as well as a breathtaking visual tour of a landscape few ever will see in real life. Chin and Vassarhelyi have done an exceptional job creating a remarkable, utterly engaging human interest story that will enthrall even non-climbers. Featuring interviews with all three mountaineers, their friends and family, and writer and mountaineering aficionado Jon Krakauer, this film is a testament to the human spirit that will leave you awed and humbled.  VPL: A+

2.) The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
(USA 2015, 113 min. Directed by Stanley Nelson)

Power to the People!

Movie poster for The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

A PBS Independent Lens production, this film about the history of the Black Panther party will be broadcast on PBS in 2016 (exact date TBD), and the film does indeed feel more like a TV news special rather than a cinematic release. But as a basic introduction to the Panthers, their founding, purpose, goals, and their conflicts, triumphs, and tragedies, the film succeeds well, even if it falls a bit short in its depth and scope (especially compared to Freedom Summer, Director Stanley Nelson’s excellent documentary from last year about the 1964 Mississippi voter registration drives). Bay Area viewers especially will find much of interest here, though, including historical footage of Oakland and Berkeley in the ’60s and ’70s. And if you saw the recent Berkeley Rep play Party People, you will no doubt be absorbed by the details presented here about Panther members Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, and Eldridge Cleaver, among others. Timely and relevant, Nelson’s story of the Panthers’ experience deserves a wide audience. VPL: B

3.) Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
(USA 2014, 93 min. Directed by Douglas Tirola)

Members of the original National Lampoon live show (including a young John Belushi and Chevy Chase).

With Saturday Night Live celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, this documentary about SNL’s forbearers is especially timely. Douglas Tirola’s lively and entertaining picture traces the history of The National Lampoon, from its roots as a Harvard humor magazine back in the 1870s to its live stage shows that eventually gave us some of our most irreverent, edgy, and hilarious writers and comedians, including the likes of PJ O’Rourke, Christopher Guest, Ivan Reitman, John Hughes, and John Belushi and Chevy Chase (who both left the Lampoon in the early ’70s to star in a new TV sketch comedy show called Saturday Night Live). The film provides a fascinating look at the origins of a magazine that risked censorship and cancellation with every issue because of its daring, boundary-pushing content (parallels with Charlie Hebdo are devastatingly apparent). Tirola also paints us vivid portraits of the Lampoon’s brilliant but often troubled founders and writers. As such, the film is a must-see not only for National Lampoon fans (the behind the scenes stories of the Vacation and Animal House movies are just as juicy as you’d expect), but also for everyone who loves and appreciates comedy and parody.  VPL: A

4.) Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
(USA 2015, 132 min. Directed by Brett Morgen)

Who would have thought this little cherub would grow up to be Nirvana’s front man?

Written and directed by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture; On the Ropes), this movie is the documentary that Cobain, as an artist, and as a human being, deserves. Morgen wisely steers clear of the tabloid fodder and sensational tone that has marked previous pictures about the late Nirvana singer, and, instead, gives us a raw, honest, intentionally agenda-free look at who Cobain really was, to his family, to his friends and lovers, to his bandmates, and to his fans. Morgen received unfettered access to Cobain’s archives of journals, tapes, and artwork (thanks, in part, to Cobain’s widow Courtney Love, who cooperated fully with the project). The resulting picture is a virtual treasure trove of previously unseen drawings, journal entries, song lyrics, and recordings that help to paint a portrait of a musical genius whose artistic temperament belied profound issues of insecurity, depression, and sadness that, tragically, would prove fatal. Morgen effectively and uniquely incorporates archival footage (including some terrific home movies), interviews, and animated sequences that bring to life many of Cobain’s journal entries. Video of Cobain and Love singing “Amazing Grace” to their year-old-daughter Frances Bean, for example, is especially moving; it’s a haunting image of a troubled man who had a deep love for his family, despite wrestling with personal demons. HBO produced the film, and will premiere it on May 4th; set your DVR now for this truly captivating celebration of the life of one of our most influential, talented, and revered musical icons.  VPL: A

5.) Tig
(USA 2015, 90 min. Directed by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York)

Comedian Tig Notaro bonds with a little friend.

In 2012, comedian Tig Notaro was diagnosed with an abdominal bacterial infection so serious that she thought she might not live. She did recover, though, and only one week after being released from the hospital, her mother, to whom she was very close, died unexpectedly. Two months after that, Notaro was diagnosed with bi-lateral breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. Finding this sequence of events completely ridiculous, she parlayed her tragedies into a stand-up comedy set at a Los Angeles comedy club that quickly became legendary. Filmmakers Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York followed Notaro in the aftermath of these events, and their resulting film is intensely compassionate, emotionally raw, brutally honest, and yet, thanks to Notaro’s unwavering, wry sense of humor, also very, very funny. A heartfelt look at how tragedy and comedy are indeed closely intertwined, the film would not succeed without a sympathetic and likable protagonist, a role that Notaro easily fills. She’s on camera virtually the entire time, and it’s to both her credit and the filmmakers’ that the viewer is always totally captivated by, and sincerely interested in, Notaro’s triumphs and tragedies, be they personal, professional, great or small. A powerful film about a courageous woman who finds herself unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight, Tig is the best kind of biographical documentary; it uses a single woman’s story to speak to the human experience with empathy, truth, and humility.  VPL: A

6.) Listen to Me Marlon
(United Kingdom 2015, 100 min. Directed by Stevan Riley)

Marlon Brando, in a lighter, playful moment.

Actor Marlon Brando has always been perceived as a bit of an eccentric and a recluse, but you may not realize just how eccentric until you see this sometimes slow – but always insightful – documentary. Brando, it turns out, recorded thousands of hours of musings on tape, and director Stevan Riley has turned these recordings into the only voice-over for his new film about Brando — the actor, and the man. With no other narration aside from Brando’s taped voice and an occasional old broadcast news story, the film at times feels directionless and a bit unfocused. Brando as a subject, however, is always fascinating, and his presence on screen, whether in old movie clips or in old interviews, is compelling enough to make this film worth seeing, especially for Brando fans. Riley not only gives us a look at Brando’s acting process and skill, but also allows us into Brando’s inner life and personal struggles, from his’s rocky relationship with his father, to the tragedies Brando experienced with his children. Ultimately, Riley’s film works best as the story of a wounded man who constantly strived to find meaning in his world and be at peace with his life and work.  VPL: B




Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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