Don't give away the astonishing beginning!" A slogan that could fit Christopher Nolan's momentous Memento, a twisty thriller starring Guy Pearce as a detective who doesn't have amnesia, but about a 15-minute window of short-term memory. Less astonishing than inevitable, that is how 11 days of Sundance Film Festival movie-going, conversation and logistical mayhem feel each year.
There's always room to argue with the choices the juries and audiences make at Sundance, but the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Memento was deserving, as was the Dramatic Audience Award for the camp rock opera, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which also earned writer, director and star John Cameron Mitchell the Dramatic Directing Award. A consummate confusion of genres, Hedwig is Mitchell's adaptation of his long-running off-Broadway success, charting the journey of a 1970s American rock-loving East Berliner whose failed loves strand him in the U.S. after a botched sex change. Camp yet pinpoint funny, it's Grimm gone dizzy. Mitchell is charismatic, homely as Hedwig with her galvanized crimson metal-flake lips of flame, but alive with lovely wide haunted eyes, a gratified smile that blooms dimples and a beak that could end a swordfight with a single parry.
I was cool toward Henry Bean's Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner, the oft-schematic Jewish-boy-turns-skinhead drama The Believer (although its lead turns in a bravura performance of conflict and self-loathing). Mostly, it was documentaries that thrilled me this year, including Kirby Dick's Chain Camera, in which 10 video cameras were filtered through a west L.A. high school over the course of a school year. Touching, intimate and fresh, it's topped only by Maysles Films' Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, by Susan Froemke, Deborah Dickson and Albert Maysles, with customarily adept cinematography by the 73-year-old veteran (who took the best documentary cinematography nod). Maysles watches compassionately the plight of the extended family of Mississippi Delta resident Laura Lee Wallace, or "Lalee." This directorial triumvirate made several journeys south to chart the ups and downs of Lalee's dozens of kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, whom she toils over all the hours of the day. Yet she's irrepressible.
Video and video projection filtered through the festival, including Bruce Wagner's gorgeously transferred intercut trio of monologues, Women in Film. A woman on film who hypnotized me is in Maelstr & ouml;m, Quebec director Denis Villeneuve's lush, lovely, playful, outrageous second feature. While mannered and elliptical and sometimes downright perverse in its details, its look is immaculately cinematic. But video-as-video offered another of the fest's best, Daniel Minahan's Series 7, a stirring satire of unreality television, a pre-Survivor script about a show in which seven good citizens are selected (unbeknownst to them), given weapons, and are followed by a camera crew through their stalk-and-kill paces. Funny, authentic to the inauthentic devices used to hype human drama on TV, and even touching in spots, it's grandly savage.
Barbet Schroeder's possibly great Our Lady of the Assassins is a startlingly mature work, in all the best senses of the word. A story of impossible love against the backdrop of teenage contract killers in Medellin, Colombia, is a gem of magical miserabilism. Middle-aged writer Fernando (German Jaramillio, intense and wry) returns to his home city after many years, and he's startled by the near-nihilism of daily life, its random shootings and absurd events. The horror of living where life is unlivable is a grandiose spectacle, yet the film is as cool and collected as its characters. Our Lady is one of the great portraits of how the writer talks, lives and invents the greatness of their romantic others.
Michael Cuesta's Long Island-set suburban comedy of terrors, L.I.E., danced along similar territory. Nervy and almost foolhardy, its themes could pass for a variation of Audrey Wells' Guinevere, with an older person using adolescent "awe" to their own pedagogical, seductive advantage. Utterly unsentimental about teenage cruelty, the story is partly about the practice and pathology of pedophilia, inhabited by the great Brian Cox as predatory retired marine Big John. With only a single line of self-reflection, Big John remains a sympathetic character, despite explicit dialogue that will likely drive the self-serious out in the open. A kind of Lil' Rascals for a cold millennium, it shows up Todd Solondz's Happiness as the pretentious fraud that it is.
After a week of hearing the dreams and ambitions of fresh-faced filmmakers, Startup.com, a documentary about dot.com mania, seems at moments like a pitch-perfect parallel to Sundance. Produced by D. A. Pennebaker and directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim, their cameras trail two high school buddies, a pair of smug, foul-mouthed twerps who pitch GovWorks.com, a site that would connect citizens to local governments, or help you pay your parking tickets, or something like that. Dot-communists dearly desiring the redistribution of wealth into their own Dockers, they can't even get their lawyer to return their call on a day they are trying to get $17 million in venture capital. The tenacity of the camera in capturing the absurd and awkward moments of the pursuit of power and money is as accomplished as it was in the filmmakers' The War Room.
"Dream is destiny" is one of the first lines of Richard Linklater's remarkable Waking Life. A philosophical cartoon, it is a daring and loopy singularity. More than an experiment, it's a psychedelic breakthrough. Wiley Wiggins plays a young dreamer whose thoughts spiral across the inner lives of 74 other characters. Shot in hand-held digital video, with eccentric, spacey animation digitally rotoscoped atop it, the effect is indeed lysergic and more charming than one might expect. Although everyone in Linklater's idealized Austin speaks like a fervent 25-year-old filled with knowledge, caffeine and hormones, it is a world, his world, and it speaks to everyone's dreams.