Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, Canada). Easily the best film at Sundance, this moving portrait of Edward Burtynsky’s photographs shakes your views on the progress of humanity to the point of speechlessness. While the photos show how humans have drastically altered the earth through their obstructions — ranging from massive recycling landfills to factory lines with thousands of workers creating millions of tiny plastic objects — Baichwal’s film brings these conflicts to life in a complete, breathtaking manner. The opening shot (filmed by infamous Canadian director Peter Mettler) evokes Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend and is one of the most powerful sequences I have ever witnessed.
Snow Angels (David Gordon Green, US). In a film that’s purposefully more mainstream than his recent masterpieces, Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls) brings his never-ending compassion to stories about a struggling divorced couple and their young child and two high school teenagers whose awkwardly sincere attempts at first love are just about the closest thing to the real thing. Hopefully, he’ll consider condensing the ending sequence; it screams while the rest of the film simply soothes.
It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. (David Brothers and Crispin Glover, US). After viewing Glover’s embarrassingly transparent and ultimately boring debut, What Is It?, I was pretty damn skeptical of the second in his It trilogy. Surprise, surprise — he’s made perhaps one of the most progressive films for physically disabled people to date. Lead actor Steven C. Stewart also scripted the film; the late disabled-rights activist, in a wheelchair most of his life due to cerebral palsy, plays a man whose fantasy is to make love with the long-haired beauties in his nursing home. The film is definitely flawed, and its mixed messages drew uncomfortable laughter from audience members. But though It Is Fine! could be viewed as a Make-a-Wish Foundation film, it genuinely confronts issues untouched by most filmmakers.
Enemies of Happiness (Anja Al-Erhayem and Eva Mulvad, Denmark). With an immediacy similar to that of My Country, My Country, this sensitive documentary about Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections in 35 years follows 27-year-old candidate Malalai Joya, who speaks out for women’s rights and democracy. It’s a real-life Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to inspire even the most jaded.
And one from Slamdance:
Cold Prey (Roar Uthaug, Norway). How about a group of five Norwegian snowboarders who get stranded up in the mountains, where someone starts hunting them down one by one? OK, so the film doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen before, but it’s fun, terrifying, and part of the new wave of mean-spirited stalker films that thrive on the slaughter of privileged white people. Also, it stars two of the hottest ladies you ever did see. *
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches film history at the Academy of Art University and programs "Midnites for Maniacs" at the Castro Theatre.