January signifies new beginnings, but for movie goers it means the end of the holiday blockbusters and the beginning of a void before next year’s touted box office hits open in theaters. Very few Oscar-worthy films debut during January.
However, the first month of the new year marks the Academy Awards nominations and the beginning of the film festival season, with The Sundance Film Festival opening Thursday in Park City, Utah. Most of the films premiering at Sundance won’t hit theaters until later in the year, and some won’t hit theaters at all, going directly to cable or download.
However, most of the big hits and crowd pleasers from last year's festival are available on pay-per-view and/or DVD — many are being released for the first time this week. Among my favorites from the last edition of Sundance:
Music documentaries soar
Sundance 2013 will be remembered for is its music documentaries. Twenty Feet From Stardom will likely be up for Best Documentary when the nominations are released Thursday morning. Telling the story of backup singers in their own words, as well as through the comments of Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Mick Jagger, Sting and other superstars who they backed up, the movie is funny, sad and poignant, with soaring vocals. Stardom will be released on DVD today.
History of the Eagles, released in two parts, was another huge hit with both critics and audiences. The Eagles, Part One focuses on the band's early years. Part Two covers the 1994 reunion, with flashbacks of how each band member handled the breakup and concludes with their current tour. I found Part 2 more enjoyable because it focused on the universal theme of second acts, redemption, living clean and sober lives. Available on DVD, it is a must watch for Eagles fans before the band's Houston appearance at the Toyota Center Feb. 21.
Muscle Shoals was a sleeper Sundance entry, debuting at the tail end of the festival. It was made by a first time filmmaker who wanted to tell the story of the many artists who got their start or recorded at the Muscle Shoals recording studios in the small Northwest Alabama town. Steve Winwood, Alicia Keys, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono and legends like Aretha Franklin and Etta James all make an appearance. But the story of the studio unknowns is what makes the movie special. It is available on pay-per-view.
Snowboard and basketball
Training to compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics, snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a near fatal brain injury in Park City. At first glance, The Crash Reel is about Pearce’s recovery and desire to compete again. But it also exposes how far snowboarders (and many other extreme sport athletes) will go and the physical risks they take to stay at the top. As Pearce decides he wants to compete again after being told that even a small bump will kill him, you have to wonder if the brain injury impacted his judgment or he should be admired for his courage and tenacity. A huge hit at Sundance, The Crash Reel is available on DVD on Feb. 4, just before the Winter Olympics begins in Sochi.
Whether you're a basketball fan or not, who couldn’t appreciate the feel-good story of Jeremy Lin as he became an overnight phenomenon in 2012? Linsanity traces Lin's childhood in Palo Alto, where he broke Asian stereotypes by failing at piano concerts and excelling in basketball, and emphasizes his hard work, deep religious faith and dedication to the sport. Linsanity opened in Houston last year and is available on all pay per view outlets.
A sleeper that is a wake up call
On its face Inequality for All does not seem like fun Saturday-night viewing. But former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich makes a passionate and entertaining rgument on behalf of the middle class, and demonstrates how the widening income gap has a devastating impact on the American economy. The filmwon a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2013) and is on the short list for an Academy award nomination for Best Documentary. The DVD was released on Jan. 7 and is available for download.
Drama and comedy
Fruitvale Station follows the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who, on New Year’s Day 2009, was killed by a police officer at the Fruitvale subway station in Oakland as he lay unarmed and handcuffed. The shooting, recorded by numerous cell phone, is the opening scene, before the film flashes back to the partially-fictionalized last day in his life. The film was the runaway hit of Sundance 2013, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and could garner some Academy Award attention. It is available on DVD today.
To end on a lighter note, one of my favorite non-documentaries was a comedy, A.C.O.D., an acronym for Adult Children of Divorce. Starring a talented cast of Adam Scott, Jessica Alba, Amy Poehler and Jane Lynch, the film looks divorce through the eyes of Carter (Adam Scott), a successful young adult who must revisit the pain of his parents’ divorce as the family is brought together for his younger brother’s wedding. While some reviewers did not like the movie, I found it laugh out loud funny, smart, irreverent, little sad but remarkably on point. As one reviewer said last year “who knew divorce could be so funny?” A.C.O.D. is available on DVD today.