For the next 10 days, all Hollywood eyes will turn toward Park City, Utah, at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (January 17 through 26). Here's an early look at some standouts sure to be generating buzz on Main Street:
Charlie Victor Romeo
If France's master post-structuralist filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet had directed Flight, it might look something like this utterly unclassifiable whatsit screening in Sundance's New Frontier section (devoted to works of the avant-garde). Originally produced on stage by New York's Collective:Unconscious theater group, Charlie Victor Romeo consists of six dramatizations of real-life airline emergencies, performed on a spartan set by a small rep company of actors, using transcripts of the actual "black box" cockpit voice-recorder transmissions as the script. Now, CVR is a movie, albeit one shot — in 3-D, no less — during several live performances in front of an audience, the theatrical lighting and set design adding an eerie, disembodied feel to the harrowing struggle between man and machine transpiring before us. For 80 minutes, the movie keeps you in something like suspended animation, waiting to exhale. All told, CVR might be more than some (most?) viewers can bear, but this much is for sure: You've never seen anything like it.
Mother of George
The gifted Nigerian-born photographer and filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu, whose debut feature, Restless City, was one of the most promising discoveries of last year's Sundance, returns with this even more accomplished relationship drama about Adenike (sensational newcomer Danai Gurira), a young Nigerian woman who emigrates to America to wed her fiancé, Brooklyn restaurateur Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé). The film opens with a traditional Yoruba wedding banquet worthy of Visconti, before settling into a richly detailed portrait of African immigrant life in this proprietary corner of New York, all wrapped in a lyrical glaze by cinematographer Bradford Young. When Adenike fails to become pregnant in a timely manner, her formidable mother-in-law proposes a solution worthy of Greek tragedy, but one that Dosunmu and screenwriter Darci Picoult deploy with a minimum of melodrama and a maximum of psychological realism.
Possibly the least likely movie ever to be directed by someone named Shaul Schwarz, this mesmerizing Sundance doc competitor plunges us deep into the world of the Mexican drug wars, mapping a Traffic-like web of interconnected characters that stretches from the violent streets of Juárez to the shadow of the Hollywood sign. Of particular interest to Schwarz is the burgeoning industry of singer-songwriters who perform "narcocorridos" — a mariachi version of gangster rap that celebrates the drug-running "narcos" as modern folk heroes. (Sample lyric: "With an AK-47 and a bazooka over my shoulder/Cross my path, and I'll chop your head off.") Along the way, we meet forensic investigators who put their own lives at risk at each new crime scene, and business-savvy moguls for whom nothing is off limits as entertainment.
Also screening in the U.S. Documentary competition, first-time filmmaker Marta Cunningham's remarkable Valentine Road focuses on the headline-grabbing 2008 case of 15-year-old Lawrence "Larry" King, the openly gay Oxnard, California, junior high student shot and killed by 14-year-old classmate Brandon McInerney. But was it murder? Manslaughter? A hate crime? Or none of the above? Spending three years on the ground in the racially and economically diverse SoCal bedroom community, Cunningham gained extraordinary access to parties and partisans on all sides, including McInerney's family, attorneys for the defense and prosecution, the LGBT activists who quickly mobilized into action and the surprisingly robust constituency (including more than a few teachers and other authority figures) who rally behind McInerney as the real victim here. The result is both a vastly superior work to last year's pro forma Bully, and an unforgettable, troubling close-up of small-town America at a moral and ethical crossroads.