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Film gems stand out at Sundance Film Festival, Palm Springs Film Festival

By Don Marshall

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Feb. 14 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Also deservedly among the best films at Sundance 2010 were the prize-winning feature films "Obselidia," "Cyrus" and "happythankyoumoreplease."

For my money, many of the best at Palm Springs 2010 were also the documentaries — the top being the enlightening "Most Dangerous Man in America," which, as the subtitle reveals, concerns "Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers."

Knowing that it was wrong from the start, five U.S. presidents maintained publicly the myth that we needed to be in Vietnam. And the man who dared to leak the truth to 17 newspapers — told in 7,000 pages he managed to steal from the Pentagon — was in attendance at the screening and received thundering applause and a standing ovation.

A close tie for my festival favorite was "Soundtrack for a Revolution," and I not only teared up the moment it started, but that feeling stayed with me throughout this entire beautiful, dignified and immensely moving documentary about the American civil rights movement and the music that went with it.

Also very memorable — and very gripping as well — is the documentary "Sergio" about the United Nation's diplomatic high commissioner from Corsica, Sergio di Mello, who had been so successful in Bangladesh, Africa, and working with the Khmer Rouge to free 400,000 Cambodians to return to their own homes.

This moving story focuses on his being trapped inside the United Nations building in Iran when it was bombed.

"Nobody's Perfect" — a documentary from Germany that is highly unusual but ultimately immensely fascinating and lovable — concerns several disfigured people who were born in 1961 as Thalidomide babies, now sought out and brought together by one of the group.

Definitely one of a kind, this is a heart-warmer you won't soon forget.

Two other documentaries were also standouts: Narrated by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson, "The Wildest Dream" chronicles the climb of Conrad Anker to the top of Mount Everest. It also features the backstory of George Mallory, who had first reached the top in 1924 but never returned, and whose body Anker discovers.

Ballet fans will want to see "Only When I Dance" — a touching documentary of a young man and a young woman from Rio de Janiero who dream of becoming a part of the world's best.

Still another documentary — this one called "Dumbstruck" — wisely follows the aspirations of five diverse ventriloquists (one just a little boy, one a beauty queen, another the winner of "America's Got Talent" three seasons ago).

It's a charmer.

And speaking of charm, if you're not won over by "The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls," you've got no heart. An audience favorite, this documentary follows the life and career of lesbian twin sisters from New Zealand. Wonderful as both singers and comedians, they've entertained all around the world, with routines featuring two tough men, Ken and Ken; as the Ramsbottom ladies of high society; and as a hilarious Camp Leader and Camp Mother.

My favorite dramatic film at Palm Springs was, hands down, "Letters to Father Jacob," featuring an old, blind and retired priest and the big, sullen hulk of a woman, serving a life sentence in prison, then pardoned and sent, reluctantly, to serve him. I never talked to anyone at the festival who didn't either light up or almost choke up at the mention of this little gem.

A powerful film from the very moment it starts is "Nobody to Watch Over Me" from Japan, featuring the frenzy that occurs when a young boy is arrested for killing two young girls, and a cop is assigned to protect his school-girl sister from the unruly mass of photographers and reporters who fall upon them.

Very off-beat and very unlike any American romantic film is "Nothing Personal," from Ireland, featuring two definite odd balls who link up far out in the Irish countryside. Still one more highly original film at Palm Springs deserves mention: Although the Canadian film "I Killed My Mother" was ultimately not one of my favorites, it nevertheless just may herald the arrival of a new "Orson Welles." Only 17 years old when he wrote it, the now 21-year-old Xavier Dolan both stars in and directs it. Though definitely not for all tastes, this impressive debut film leaves us wondering where this young "wunderkind" will go from here.

Don Marshall is the retired director of the BYU International Cinema Program.

e-mail: features@desnews.com

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