After a flurry of studio-sponsored indie films in last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the big push this year was for more undistributed indies and first-time filmmakers. The hope was to unearth an undiscovered gem or two, or to spotlight the birth of a new filmmaking talent. Unfortunately, I was able to find nothing of the sort. And it wasn’t just me. Every informal survey of fellow press members at screenings or on the shuttle buses dredged up a whole lot of nothing. There were good movies, and adequate ones, but nothing that was awesome or surprising. On the flipside, there wasn’t much that was truly horrible either. It was as though the festival was on some sort of antidepressant medication that took away the crashing lows, but also banished the exuberant highs.

NUDE KITCHEN is Museum of Museum’s weekly figure drawing class.
Interesting models, experienced instructors, Zoom Tuesdays at 7:00.

Once again, the documentaries outshone the narrative features. I was lucky enough to catch my favorite film of the festival early on, giving me one movie I could recommend to others. Iraq in Fragments, a look at the people of Iraq in three different regions, was made by Seattleite James Longley (Gaza Strip). Longley spent two years in Iraq shooting the movie, and the time he invested is completely evident in the final product. He managed to make the subjects of the film so comfortable with his presence that it feels like we’re privy to real conversations instead of being trapped in the point of view of an American documentary filmmaker. When the Sundance awards rolled around, I was happy to hear he won the jury prizes for directing, cinematography, and the new documentary-editing category. You’ll be able to catch the movie here in Seattle when it opens the Arab Film Festival at the Cinerama on March 31.

The other good docs I saw also had some flaws. Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated examines the secretive ratings board created by former MPAA chief honcho Jack Valenti, and exposes the flaws and inconsistencies of the ratings system. He does this by hiring a private investigator and “outing” the anonymous parents who use their guts instead of a guideline to determine what is PG-13, R, or NC-17. The film works best as a private detective’s journey rather than a treatise on the downside of “self-censorship,” but it does make a good argument for more transparency in the ratings process. Meanwhile, Haskel Wexler’s agitdoc Who Needs Sleep? is another film-oriented movie that makes some excellent points but is a bit repetitive. It delves into the deadly effects of sleep deprivation in a film industry that regularly asks its people to work 14- to 19-hour days.

The music docs were okay this year, but also flawed. Awesome: I Fucking Shot That! covered a Beastie Boys show at Madison Square Garden by giving 50 fans cheap camcorders, but the shaky footage they turned in will work much better on the eventual DVD release. Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is centered on a disappointing tribute show, but benefits from some great interviews with the man. And I hear Jonathan Demme’s doc Neil Young: Heart of Gold (which will open in Seattle on February 17) is fantastic, and not only because it locks down the camera rather than trying to use it as some sort of ersatz jazz instrument.

When it comes to the narrative features, things get dodgier. The opening night film Friends with Money tries to make us feel sympathy for some rich L.A. housewives (Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, Joan Cusak) and their friend (Jennifer Aniston), who is now working as a maid. Though it gives the actors some nice scenes together, the movie goes nowhere. The ultimate message is interesting but seems completely unintended: Money does buy you happiness.

The Bruce Willis vehicle Lucky Number Slevin is a glib attempt to capture the spirit of The Usual Suspects, but it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Bobcat “Bob” Goldthwait’s Stay was a movie I was looking forward to, but with ugly cinematography and a script that was based more on “shocking revelations” than story, I was turned off enough to walk out. Then there’s Dito Montiel’s buzz-generating A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, which feels mostly improvised (note: unchecked actors are not great writers) and annoyed me when it charmed many others.

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The true and innovative indie films this year could be found at Slamdance. God bless Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s Grand Jury Award–winning We Go Way Back—produced by the local Film Company—which also won the Kodak Cinematography Award. It brings to life a compelling young woman who has lost her sense of self. The other Slamdance movie I saw and loved was The Guatemalan Handshake, which won a Special Jury award. It evoked a time before Sundance hit it big, when indie filmmakers made films based on instinct and imagination rather than as a way to try and break into the Hollywood machine. The movie is strange and colorful and hard to describe, so I’ll just say that it’s much more Jim Jarmusch than Quentin Tarantino.

Why did Slamdance have more interesting films than Sundance this year? Despite their focus on new talent, it feels like the Sundance programmers were playing it safe. With the thousands of films submitted to the festival this and every other year, I find it hard to believe that these were the best.