10 Documentaries to Watch From Sundance 2014

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Sundance 2014 is officially in the books, and while there wasn’t any kind of big $10 million distribution deal, films like Boyhood, Whiplash, and Frank had receptions warmer than the bizarre Utah weather over the past 10 days, guaranteeing we’ll be talking about them through the rest of the year.

But that’s the narrative side of things. When it comes to documentaries, Sundance is traditionally one of the most fruitful film festivals in the world. Here are ten of the most interesting and best received non-fiction titles to keep an eye on in 2014:

Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory
The subtitle says it all for this year’s U.S. Documentary Audience Award winner. In Alive Inside, a social worker brings iPods to elderly men and women suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and the sounds of their youth actually “awaken” them. As one might expect, Sundance attendees named these sequences among the most powerful of the whole festival.

The Case Against 8
Another award winner (this one for the U.S. Documentary Directing Award), The Case Against 8 looks at the Supreme Court case that ruled against California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 and the lawyers who took the suit all the way to Washington. The material’s general familiarity might not have taught Sundance’s critics anything new, but that doesn’t make the fight for rights any less important (or compelling) after the fact.

Concerning Violence
Sundance 2014 was hard up for formally unique documentaries—such as Stories We Tell, Leviathan, and Let the Fire Burn—but Goran Olsson’s take on African colonialism fits the bill to a degree. Former Fugee Lauryn Hill narrates the feature using text from philosopher Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. She speaks over archival footage (an Olsson staple, it seems, following the exceptional The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975) of brutal scenes of imperialistic and anti-imperialistic violence. It might not be as challenging or audacious as The Act of Killing, but positive comparisons were made over the course of the fest, which speaks volumes.

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Dinosaur 13
A big acquisition by Lionsgate and CNN, Dinosaur 13 focuses on the fight for control over the largest, most complete T-Rex skeleton ever found. One might not think about paleontological squabbles as the subject of a big, crowd-pleasing documentary, but CNN was at Sundance 2013 to pick up crossover hit Blackfish, so expect to hear more about Dinosaur 13 in 2014.

Happy Valley
This one is bound to get people talking. Director Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) tackles the Penn State football program and all its failings related to Jerry Sandusky’s horrific crimes, but he does so in a way that focuses more on the place and state of mind that is State College, Pennsylvania, than on the specifics of any legal case, but it does so at the risk of infuriating a lot of people. Either he’ll be too lenient on the “Paterno people” or too tough. Either way, it seems fair to say Happy Valley is going to have more eyes on it than maybe any other documentary at Sundance this year.

Life Itself
Beloved film critic Roger Ebert was one of the biggest champions of Steve James’s seminal documentary Hoop Dreams. Almost a year after Ebert’s death, James debuts his latest, about Ebert’s life. As one might expect, a posthumous documentary about arguably the greatest and most influential film critic ever went over gangbusters at a screening full of critics. Ebert, however, transcended that crowd and touched the general public in meaningful ways. Expect this documentary to do the same.

Love Child
Imagine this: a movie about parents so obsessed with online gaming that they neglect their infant who dies of malnutrition. No, it’s not the subject of a hard-hitting narrative feature but rather, sadly, a documentary. The tragedy occurred in Seoul in 2010, and like Happy Valley, its director (Valerie Veatcha) uses it as a springboard to thoughtfully examine the culture of online gaming, as well as that of South Korea.

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Mitt
For anyone too impatient to wait for these films to hit theaters, Mitt is waiting for you on Netflix Instant. Director Greg Whiteley followed U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney during two campaigns—one in 2008 where he lost the Republican primary to John McCain and another in 2012 where he lost the general election to incumbent Barack Obama. It’s a hands-off but intimate look at the guy behind the campaign and an occasionally damning and depressing indictment of the impersonal nature of politics and elections. Republicans and Democrats don’t find common ground in many places, but those willing to give this documentary a chance should agree the Mitt depicted here is funny, genial, and bright.

The Overnighters
Though it went home empty-handed when it comes to the festival’s major awards, this doc was arguably the best received of all of Sundance 2014. Set in deeply rural North Dakota, it tells the story of a town at a crossroads and one man seeking to guide it down the more righteous path. There are plenty of jobs to be had in Williston—the surprising new American oil-drilling capital—but the town’s citizens are naturally skeptical of the sudden influx of strangers, some of whom have sketchy pasts. One pastor puts himself on the line to give these outsiders a bed and a meal, but by doing so, he risks alienating himself from his fellow Willistonians—or worse. Unlike many of the festival’s documentaries, this one remains open-ended from a news perspective, so we’ll see where the story goes. In the mean time, this promises to be a fantastic primer for the uninitiated.

Rich Hill
“Three boys in small town America.” That’s the tagline on the poster for this documentary, and while it’s simple, it seems like the most appropriate way to describe what Rich Hill has to offer. Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo direct the film, which derives its title from the small Missouri town where the three boys live. Their lives are extraordinarily challenging, but the filmmakers strive to depict something more universal. It clearly worked. The film took home the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize.

— John Gilpatrick






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