Well, you can't catch a flight from L.A. to Park City today that's not overflowing with Uggs, designer sunglasses, and iPad-minis clad in Kate Spade covers: Sundance 2013 has arrived! This weekend "Young Hollywood" temporarily relocates from L.A. (easing my morning commute just a bit) to Robert Redford's famous mountain fortress of solitude -- ok, solitude's probably not the right word. In reality, for two gloriously infrastructure-impaired weekends, Park City floods with armies of carpetbaggers to become the hipster-cineaste capital of the world.
Sure, Sundance can be frustrating. The selections can feel like they hew closely to a homogenous quality best described in English, tautologically, as "Sundance-y." And the entourages make it seem like a nuclear glitter bomb has been dropped. But there is something infectious about the madness -- this year, literally, as the Hollywood Reporter points out. (Take note starlets: see if your guerilla director's still trembling indoors before air-kissing him.) In all seriousness, the fun of Sundance is finding the gems, the insightful needles among the indie haystacks. So, I'm packing Purell and heading for the heart of darkness in hopes I find something other than Redford athwart an army of half-shaven savages armed with DSLRs and vimeo links.
Slight skepticism aside, I've found at least one small gem so far, and I haven't even landed: Narco Cultura, Shaul Schwarz's fascinating and outright balls-y chronicle of glorified drug-lord culture. The film is split equally between an L.A.-based composer of the popular narcocorridos, which lionize the misdeeds of cartel operatives, and the police investigators on the ground amid the tsunami of violence that engulfed Ciudad Juarez when Chapo Guzman's Sinoloa cartel took on the local Juarez cartel. How Schwarz got the access he did is almost as intriguing as the question as how he had the balls to use it. Suffice to say, this is the ugliest side of the drug war captured with a camera that doesn't flinch, even if you the viewer need to. Frankly, Schwarz might deserve a thumbs up just for coming back alive.
But the real stars are the police investigators, whose resigned dedication to jobs they know are equally futile and dangerous provide a poignant snap-shot of Mexico's violence battered psychology. Little moments, like cops waiting fearfully at a stoplight for an unmarked SUV to pass them, or identifying pistol calibers from the sounds of gunfire in the distance, make this section shine -- and make the drug war emotionally palpable in a way that even laundry-list images of mutilated bodies can't. (There are plenty of those, too.) The section with the Los Angeles narcocorrido singer also captures a compelling authenticity. The singer is candid about his dreams, aspirations, and lack of "real knowledge" of that from which he draws his inspiration. His dangerous search for the real thing takes the documentary into stomach-sinking territory, though I was left curious to dig even deeper into his life. There's probably another documentary there, and of course, you can't fault Schwarz for juxtaposing it with the compelling material he gleaned from his police ride-alongs. The truth is there's too much material and too few filmmakers with the brazen disregard for personal safety to really dive into it.
Sundance's Spotlight selection also offers a guaranteed respite of solid-filmmaking. These selections don't have the same anticipation-factor that the Premieres or In-Competition entries boast, but if you haven't spent the year on the world-festival circuit, you can often catch up on gems you'll have missed. This year, two such gems are Pablo Lorrain's No and Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers: both are Oscar nominees (Best Foreign Film in No's case and Best Documentary in The Gatekeepers') and both will be released by Sony Pictures Classics soon enough. No caps Lorrain's trilogy about the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet with a surprisingly upbeat story about the power of vapid advertising to effect needed political change. Gael Garcia Bernal stars as an 80s-era Don Draper (en español!) who playfully uses his powers of manipulation to trick people into empowering themselves politically. Hopefully, the delight of the conceit is self-evident from that synopsis; equally delightful is Bernal's expressive puppy-dog eyes as he operates a microwave for the first time. Lorrain's artful use of low-def video to capture the feel of the era succeeds, and even though Amour is a near lock for the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, No is a worthy contender, not to be missed.
Just as edifying, though far more sobering, is Dror Moreh's powerful documentary The Gatekeepers. If you think Kathryn Bigelow had insider access for Zero Dark Thirty, Moreh's film redefines the phrase. In a documentary coup, Moreh wrangled six heads of Israel's Shin Bet, the secret service charged with overseeing its war on terror. Even more impressive, the agency heads are engaging storytellers who eschew the usual politically sanitized pablum with their relatively forthcoming accounts of the major incidents in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Yitzhak Rabin's tragic assassination. Universally and eloquently, these former hardliners stress pragmatism over ideology and the failure of force to achieve ultimate peace. It's far too complex to get into at the end of a blog post, but the movie is wholly compelling, fascinating, and yes, at times, depressing. But hey, sometimes you need the downers, even if Sundance's influx of comedy this year tries to change that stereotype of the festival. But really, at its best, Sundance can provide a moment where some of the hype and glitz rubs off on noble projects which, as Moreh told me about his film, aim to "put a mirror in front of [society] -- so it can never be able to run away with excuses -- to put those six people who fought and dedicated their lives to the security of Israel and have those six people speak the way they speak and say what they say. It has to count for something. If it doesn't, then don't say we didn't say that before."