Live From Sundance Film Festival 2012: Tuesday, Jan. 24

My day at the movies in Park City took some of the sting out of the Oscars' mundanities. I saw two outstanding documentaries and one dramatic feature that undoubtedly will be Oscar-bait at this time next year.
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Anytime I see five movies in a day at a festival like Sundance and have a strong positive response to three of them, a positive response to the fourth and walk out of the fifth, well, that's a pretty good day.

Particularly when the day starts with me and my condo-mates yelling at the TV about the Oscar nominations -- as much for the inept presentation by the local ABC affiliate in Salt Lake City as for the content of nominations themselves.

The nominations that the Academy got right, as always, are outweighed by the films and performances that it snubbed and ignored. Even as the Academy flaps its gums about trying to appeal to the modern audience, its early 20th-century nominators still pick the same old safe choices. Any year in which films like War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are best picture nominees -- while Drive, Shame and Young Adult are essentially shut out of the competition -- is a year in which the Academy is taking strides backward.

But my day at the movies in Park City took some of the sting out of the Oscars' mundanities. I saw two outstanding documentaries and one dramatic feature that undoubtedly will be Oscar-bait at this time next year.

That film was Ben Lewin's The Surrogate, which was in the headlines because Fox Searchlight bought it this week for $6 million. Based on the true story of California poet Mark O'Brien, the film features exceptional performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, as well as soulfully droll supporting work by William H. Macy.

O'Brien was a highly motivated polio victim -- not paralyzed, but with muscle damage extensive enough that he was unable to move anything except his head. He spent his nights in an iron lung and his days prone on a gurney, aided by a health care attendant, who helped him pursue his goals as a journalist and a poet. At the age of 38, he lands an assignment to write a story about sex among the disabled -- and determines that it is high time he lose his own virginity.

With the aid of a sexual surrogate (Hunt) and his parish priest (Macy), O'Brien works to overcome his own guilty fears (mostly based on his Catholicism) and his tendency to overthink things, in an effort to become a sexual being. The relationship between O'Brien and the surrogate is funny but touching, semi-explicit without being prurient or pornographic. There's a great tenderness to the film; Hawkes gives a heroic performance without ever-moving a muscle from the neck down.

I was also intensely moved by Joe Berlinger's Under African Skies, a film that looks back on Paul Simon's landmark Graceland album 25 years after its 1986 release. Berlinger follows Simon as he goes back to South Africa, where he reunites with the original musicians for a celebratory concert.

But there's another agenda as well. Simon was heavily criticized at the time of the album's release for breaking the international boycott of South Africa and its racist apartheid regime. So he sits down with one of the leaders of the boycott and they each tell their story of that time -- one that ultimately comes down on the side of artists as sometimes being beyond political agendas. As Simon points out, he was providing an opportunity for South African musicians to be heard outside of a country that wouldn't let them play, taking them on an international tour that put a human face on the victims of a horribly repressive system for the whole world to see.

Berlinger obviously had exceptional access -- both to Simon on this trip and to archival footage of the original sessions and subsequent tour. Berlinger doesn't just hit this one out of the park -- he takes it to a transcendent level, weaving the politics and the music into a fascinating, compelling and personal story.

The music itself is still an amazing leap, the start of a world-music trend that was completely unself-conscious in its ability to meld South African pop and traditional forms with an American pop sensibility. Simon is incredibly articulate -- but no more so than the other musicians with whom he plays, as well as such witnesses as Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, David Byrne and Philip Glass. It's a movie I'd watch again -- and again.

The other documentary I saw was the alternately irresistible and horrifying The Queen of Versailles, by filmmaker Lauren Greenfield. Over the course of several years, Greenfield followed the ups -- and then drastic downs -- of time-share mogul David Siegel, as he tried to open a lavish time-share tower in Las Vegas at the same time he was building himself the largest private home in America.

The latter, which he and wife Jackie dubbed Versailles, would be 90,000 square feet, with more than a dozen bathrooms and an almost equal number of kitchens. At one point, Jackie takes a friend (and Greenfield's camera) on a tour of the not-yet-complete structure, cooing, "This is what $5 million of marble looks like," while showing a room with so many crates that it could be mistaken for the last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But after the economic crash of 2008, Siegel suddenly finds himself, as it were, upside down on his investments. Even as he struggles to find the money to keep his empire afloat and finish Versailles, Jackie (and their eight kids) keeps spending as though the resources are infinite.

This commentary continues on my website.

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