ven though the newspapers bemoan modern-day, de-indie Sundance, I’m glad the festival sold out. Set the pain of heartfelt filmmakers aside! Without their losses, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to know Park City over the past four years. 2007 is my last trip for another four years, and I’ll definitely miss both getting up at the crack of dawn to stand in the cold and witnessing almost-celebrities like Parker Posey from afar. Also, hearing John Cusack wail about Iraq. Even after wading through a lot of crap (sigh, some of which likely stems from commercialization), I love beginning the year with a bang and a decent top ten list.
I generally like self-pitying autobiographies, but If I’d Known I Was a Genius is simply odious. The life of Markus Redmond: scored at genius levels on the IQ test at a young age, traveled through a series of impressive high schools, ill-advisedly pursued a career in television acting, and then spent several years working at a retail chain. Who is to blame for this impressive waste of potential? The film offers a litany of answers: mean classmates, suspicious teachers (who still garnered him access to the finest schools in Philadelphia), racist casting directors, overbearing mothers, et cetera. Meanwhile, Redmond portrays himself (literally, the man plays the starring role from childhood on) as a cool, eloquent guy blameless for his failures. He constantly turns to the camera, raising an incredulous eyebrow at the blithering morons who surround him (parents and girlfriends alone stand apart from the bovine masses). This ugly condescension grows in scale, until Redmond receives an Employee of the Month award and stares in piteous disdain at his hapless colleagues clamoring for the meaningless accolade. Get the fuck over yourself.
The child as evil incarnate—what an endlessly satisfying premise for the horror genre! In Joshua, the titular tyke resides in Manhattan, where his newborn sister upsets the peace of his wealthy family. Like many scary movies, everyday fears inform the drama, such as inconsolable babies, sibling rivalry, and children’s odd fascination with the macabre. Here’s the catch: Joshua is pure malevolence according to timely, discordant piano notes and ominous violins, but at other times, he’s just a sad little boy begging for the embrace of his suspicious father. Joshua, quite possibly a perceptive and manipulative genius, stands on a precipice; the expectations of the audience and the world align firmly against him. Alas, a well-crafted atmosphere occasionally threatens to derail the movie as long stretches of moody fluff end in cheap jump scenes. But a fascinating and subtle moral struggle, articulated only through a heartbreaking monologue on Egyptian mythology, carries Joshua to a brilliant closing shot.
Like many others, I sometimes doubt the value of a Pollack painting. At first, My Kid Could Paint That, the story of an alleged child prodigy whose paintings fetch thousands of dollars, seems to validate abstract art once and for all. I might be hard-pressed to pick out genuinely good work from a gallery of adult artists, but Marla’s paintings speak for themselves. Light years past finger-painting, the kindergartener makes abstract art look like a quantifiable talent, akin to golfing or playing the violin. However, while this documentary was being filmed, Marla’s parents were accused of unduly assisting their daughter. Storms of controversy arose and, once again, cynicism reigned supreme in the art world. To its credit, the sensitive documentary never fully resolves the question of authorship (today, several surveillance videos depict the girl creating her work from start to finish), but concerns itself with more important matters: the duties of parenting, the price of fame, the relationship between Marla and her ostensibly less-talented brother. With a backbiting backdrop of adults who assign prices and artistic theories, My Kid Could Paint That glorifies a beauty divorced from the corrupting influence of irony, prestige, and cash.
After My Kid Could Paint That repeatedly emphasized that art is a lie—a representation of the thing and not the thing itself, I found myself conflicted over Grace Is Gone. The film is about a man who must tell his young daughters their soldier mother has been killed in Iraq. Thanks in no small part to an excellent performance by John Cusack, Grace Is Gone is undeniably powerful, but would be regardless of the (considerable) talent both behind and before the camera. We are being manipulated, as we are whenever we watch a movie; sometimes the filmmakers strike an overly precious note. But the mere idea of innocent kids coming to terms with death draws tears and, for better or for worse, it’s easier to be swept up in the storytelling. Happily, the film itself avoids a stance on the war (the only perspectives come from two brothers entrenched in ideology, one conservative and one liberal). Ultimately, buying a pack of cigarettes means far more to these people than political pundits. For caring about characters more than ideas, Grace Is Gone deserves praise.
At least Save Me displays a bit more nuance than its audience, who chortled derisively whenever a character mentioned Jesus. In this story about the ex-gay movement, a young drug addict finds hope, love, and (excluding his taste for dick) acceptance in a Christian institution. His transition from insolent bastard to prayerful innocent is unconvincing, but Save Me shows much potential, creating fallible, decent characters caught in mutually exclusive worldviews. Sadly, the movie obliterates its ambiguity by resolutely choosing a side and manipulating us into agreement with contrived suicide attempts, slain children, and deathbed scenes. Most damning, an awkwardly plotted romance, meant to convince us that gay is good, hinges upon no more than affectionate shoulder taps. Despite some very fine performances, Save Me eventually proves to be as challenging as its visual scheme (monochrome lighting = desperation).
Featuring another smashing script by the man behind The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, Longford once again displays Peter Morgan’s talent for combining revealing character pieces with purely ideological rumblings. This time, the writer fictionalizes Lord Longford (wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent), a politician who defended Myra Hindley, an infamous prisoner who tortured and murdered several children. According to his religious beliefs and against rancorous public opinion, Longford believes that this woman can be redeemed. Through a series of conversations with Myra and her thoroughly evil co-conspirator, Longford descends into self-deception and hypocrisy, but also finds redemption and faith. The film is significantly less satisfying than, say, The Queen because its questions are much bigger and less applicable to our own lives. Myra is a fascinating cipher, offering little insight into the fallen human condition she so ignobly represents. However, a movie seeking to offer a definitive answer to the problem of evil would be pat, so Longford’s slightly befuddled naiveté is very wise indeed.
My top five:
01. My Kid Could Paint That
02. Snow Angels