10 Sundance films to entertain, spark family discussion

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Jan. 19 2012 1:22 p.m. MST

Sundance Institute president and founder Robert Redford speaks during a press conference at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)

Associated Press

PARK CITY, Utah — The mission of the Sundance Film Festival is to showcase independent filmmaking from “risk-taking storytellers.”

That objective may not always align with traditional, broad-interest family fare that would receive the support from large studio organizations.

But there have been come-out-of-nowhere films from Sundance that advance family values and offer topics that promise an ample source of rewarding family discussion.

Here’s a list of 10 films to come out of Sundance that easily fit in that category:

“The Brave Little Toaster” (Special Jury Recognition at Sundance 1988; rated G)

Before there was “Toy Story,” there was “The Brave Little Toaster.” Isn’t it fun to imagine what inanimate objects say and do when we aren’t watching?

A story filled with love and courage, the first completed project from Hyperion Pictures follows the Brave Little Toaster, Blanky (an electric blanket), Lampy (a desk lamp), Kirby (a vacuum cleaner) and Radio as they find fun in doing chores each day. But that doesn’t eradicate the void they feel from having long been separated from “The Master,” the bespectacled boy who calls these items his own. “The Brave Little Toaster” made history as the first animated film ever exhibited at Sundance. It’s a charming gem. (Too bad about the mediocre sequels.)

“Visually the movie has a smooth-flowing momentum and a lush storybook opulence that is miles away from the flat, jerky look of Saturday-morning cartoons. … It exudes a sweetness and wit that should tickle anyone, regardless of age.” — Stephen Holden, New York Times

Cautions: Dark and threatening; violence directed at household appliances.

“Buck” (Audience Award Documentary, 2011; PG)

Buckshot Brannaman is an aw-shucks hero who never claims to be more than an ordinary man. Yet he is a living legend in the horse world.

After abuse at the hand of his father and the early death of his mother, Brannaman was rescued by a foster family. He found safety and solace in horses, and became something of a shaman — and a real-life inspiration for the novel and movie “The Horse Whisperer.” Horse owners pay hundreds of dollars when they’re lucky enough to attend one of his four-day horse-training clinics.

“Buck” has the understated eloquence of the man himself.

“You don’t have to be a horse nut to fall for ‘Buck,’ one of those rare documentaries whose subject is so inherently fascinating that a fictional character could hardly compete.” — John DeFore, Washington Post

Cautions: Discussion of child abuse, mild language and an injury.

“For All Mankind” (Audience Award Documentary, Grand Jury Prize Documentary, 1989; NR)

There wasn’t enough room in the Lunar Module for all of us, so the filmmakers behind “For All Mankind” sifted through six million feet of film recorded by NASA throughout the Apollo missions to piece together a cinematic ride through the cosmos. Instead of being a newsy, fact-filled documentary, “For All Mankind” focuses on the human aspects of the space flights. The only voices heard in the film are the voices of the astronauts and mission control. It is easily the most visually stunning and unconventional approach to documenting the nine Apollo missions.

“‘For All Mankind’ is awe-inspiring, proof-positive that with enough talent and determination, even the most seemingly insurmountable task can be overcome.” — Adam Tyner, DVD Talk

“The Great Buck Howard” (2008; PG)

“The Great Buck Howard” is a quirky charmer.

Buck Howard is a fictional, once-famous magician who was Johnny Carson’s favorite guest. But he’s a belligerent has-been who is struggling to resurrect his career. When a law school dropout pondering his next move learns that a “celebrity performer” is looking for a personal assistant, he thinks he’s found the ideal entry-level position.

Howard may actually have some authentic magic powers up his sleeve. But, as “The Great Buck Howard” shows, the true magic is remembering the power of staying true to yourself even if the world around you has changed.

“‘The Great Buck Howard’ is in love with kitsch, the backwaters of showbiz and true magic. It’s a wee charmer that left me enchanted.” — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

Cautions: Minor sexuality, mild language, drinking and a drug reference.

“Hoop Dreams” (Audience Award Documentary, 1994; PG-13)

Everyone can nurture his own dream, but what does it take to transform wispy intentions into reality?

You don’t need to be a basketball fan to enjoy “Hoop Dreams.” Beginning with their participation in playground games and ending five years later, as they start college, two inner city teens mature into men, still retaining their “Hoop Dreams.” The obstacles they face include drugs, poverty and violence, as well as the usual obstacles that arise in competition.

One of the most popular and critically acclaimed documentaries of all time, “Hoop Dreams” wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, but the public outrage that followed rewrote the Academy’s documentary selection process.

“A prodigious achievement that conveys the fabric of modern American life, aspirations and incidentally sports in close-up and at length, ‘Hoop Dreams’ is a documentary slam dunk.” — Todd McCathy, Variety

Cautions: Teen sexuality is discussed in terms of its consequences; some strong language; discussion of drug use, always in terms of its consequences.

“My Kid Could Paint That” (2007; PG-13)

Her art was compared to Jackson Pollack’s, and Marla Olmstead sold more than $300,000 worth of paintings. All of a sudden, everybody had to have “a Marla.” And Marla was all of 4 years old. “My Kid Could Paint That” explores the debate over what makes something art, and questions the media’s creation and subsequent destruction of heroes.

“A documentary that brings to the fore questions of youth exploitation, celebrity culture, the ‘con game’ that is modern art and media’s role in the whole tangled mess.” — Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel

Cautions: Art nudes briefly shown; discussing modern art, a vulgarity is used and flashed in a neon-sign artwork.

“Napoleon Dynamite” (2004; PG)

“Are you guys having a killer time?”

With some sweet moon boots and illegal government ninja moves, Napoleon Dynamite became a new kind of hero — and the largest surprise hit of Sundance. The film also launched BYU alum Jon Heder into stardom. Heder also makes headlines for the films he doesn’t make.

"It's simply about knowing who you are and sticking to what you believe in," he told Time magazine. “Sometimes there's language issues. I'm not interested in sexual content.”

In the small Idaho town of Preston, Napoleon is a high school geek who is always picked on and doesn’t have many friends, except for Pedro, who wants to run for class president. Napoleon’s eccentric family includes his llama-loving, dune-buggy enthusiast grandmother and Uncle Rico, a sleazy door-to-door salesman who is living too much in ’82. The characters are so brilliantly created that, as legions of fans will attest, it takes multiple viewings to truly savor the magnificence that is “Napoleon Dynamite.”

With a Sundance sale price of $3 million and ticket sales totalling $46 million, “Napoleon Dynamite” easily makes the list of top Sundance purchases.

“There are more belly laughs than 10 studio-produced, star-vehicle comedies.” — Bill Muller, Arizona Republic.

Cautions: Occasional exaggerated animated violence for comedic effect; minor sexuality and language; drinking and smoking.

“Saints and Soldiers” (2003; PG-13)

The only festival entry in the loosely defined “Mormon cinema” genre, “Saints and Soldiers” is perhaps also the only film shot near the Sundance resort, with Alpine, Utah, subbing for Belgium’s forests.

“Saints and Soldiers” has the subtle message of faith under trying circumstances. Inspired by actual events, the film follows four soldiers who survived a World War II massacre as they walk back to allied lines. Known to his pals as “Deacon,” Cpl. Greer had served an LDS mission in Germany and finds it impossible to kill without remorse.

Unlike the characters in modern war movies, they don’t use four-letter words. (The famous quote from the New York Times is “War is heck in the clean-scrubbed world of ‘Saints and Soldiers’….”)

“Well mounted, frequently gripping WWII tale of GIs surviving behind German lines.” — Ken Eisner, Variety

Cautions: War violence throughout film with little to no blood; profanity; smoking.

“Shape of the Moon” (World Cinema Jury Prize Documentary, 2004; NR)

In “Shape of the Moon,” a woman struggles to keep her family together — a Christian family in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. The film resonates deeply of faith and gratitude, despite the tightly woven links between Muslim religion and Indonesian politics, and is a good primer on what life is like in a third-world nation. The filmmaker employs a “single shot cinema” technique, which involves long takes with a constantly moving camera, to reveal quiet moments with three generations of a family amid the bustle of the outskirts of Jakarta.

“The ‘Christian in a Muslim Land’ angle doesn't get the attention it deserves, but the film excels at bringing us graphically into this foreign land.” — Eric D. Snyder, ericsnider.com

Caution: Brief partial nudity.

“Waiting for Superman” (Audience Award Documentary, 2010; PG)

The Superman in question is not cape-wearing. But it will take superhuman abilities to improve our children’s education system.

“Waiting for Superman” aims to win the hearts of its viewers and inspire them to social action as it reveals the dysfunction of our public school system with alarming facts and statistics. It’s a riveting watch for tweens and up, especially those who may not be aware of what’s happening in schools besides theirs.

“As (Davis) Guggenheim’s camera gives us a close-up of the Educational Lotto, the implication is clear: Why gamble on the future of America’s children? Instead of helping some kids beat the odds, how do we change the odds for all kids?” — Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

Cautions: Mild profanities; some background smoking.

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