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Sundance Film Festival 2014

Real stars of Sundance: Documentaries on dinosaurs, dancers, Romney and legal battles

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Sundance Film Festival, Dinosaur 13
Dinosaur 13 Photo by Todd Miller
Sundance Film Festival, The Case Against 8
The Case Against 8 Courtesy photo
Private Violence, Sundance Film Festival
Private Violence Photo by Rex Miller
Sundance Film Festival, Living Stars
Living Stars Courtesy photo
Sundance Film Festival, Dinosaur 13
Sundance Film Festival, The Case Against 8
Private Violence, Sundance Film Festival
Sundance Film Festival, Living Stars
Mitt Romney, at mic
News_Jane Howze_at Sundance_head shot_column mug

PARK CITY, Utah — Dramas at the Sundance Film Festival can be hit (Little Miss Sunshine or Winter’s Bone) or miss (too numerous to name), but year in and year out the real stars are documentaries, which are consistently outstanding. The 2014 lineup includes stories of social injustice, historical and political issues, and subjects covered only superficially by the mainstream press. And, naturally, there are those that are uniquely Sundance in their weirdness. 

Among the many documentaries are these five that will soon be available on the big or small screen (or perhaps your nearest dance club) :   

Mitt

In the past, Sundance has featured documentaries on Dick Cheney and Ronald Reagan. Moving down the Republican chain of command, Mitt follows presidential candidate Mitt Romney in his two failed presidential runs, beginning in Christmas 2006 through his concession speech on election night in 2012.

 One thing is clear about the film. Romney's bond with his family is incredibly strong. 

Filmed by fellow Mormon Greg Whitely, the film avoids any discussion of political strategy (because Whitely was denied access to advisors) and instead focuses on Romney's relationship with his family (because Whitely had almost unfettered access to Romney, his wife and five sons). It is an intimate, fascinating and sometimes painful film to watch as the family experiences the disappointment of defeat in Romney's final run for the nation's highest office.

Most of the time, though, Romney appears loving, funny and often quirky. He eats spaghetti out of a carton and irons the cuffs of his shirt while wearing it. He also riffs on his favorite movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? One thing is clear from watching the film: Romney's bond with his family is incredibly strong.

In the Q&A following the film, a member of the audience admitted that she wasn't a big fan of Romney but liked him more after watching the film. It's available now on Netflix. 

Dinosaur 13

Featured in the coveted opening night film reserved for Sundance’s strongest documentaries, Dinosaur 13 tells the story of the discovery of the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton (nicknamed Sue) ever found and the custody battle between the government and the paleontologists who loved her.

The South Dakota scenery is dramatic and the film illuminates, without being political, the arcane laws governing fossils, Indian lands and the fate of an average American against the federal government unleashed. It was purchased by Lionsgate and CNN Films, and will be released later this year.

Private Violence

Private Violence follows a professional advocate for abused women as she works with a victim who presses charges against her husband who kidnapped and nearly killed her, only to be released by the police. There are pictures of burns, bruises and lacerations that made me turn my head away, but the film also shows how current laws work against the victims and that the penalties are stiffer for abusing a stranger than your spouse.

HBO will show the film in its summer lineup and it will be introduced in women’s centers throughout the country later this year. More importantly, after the showing, the filmmaker was surrounded by people who were so moved by the documentary that they wanted to help on a local level. That's the beauty of Sundance.

The Case Against 8

The Case Against 8 offers an inside look at the five-year legal battle to overturn California's Proposition 8, passed in 2008, that barred same sex marriage in the Golden state. The film puts a human face on the issue by following two same sex couples whose lawsuit over the initiative eventually was decided by the Supreme Court. The film also focuses on the unlikely relationship between co-counsel Ted Olson and David Boies who had been on opposing sides in the legal battle that resulted in George W. Bush's 2000 election win over Al Gore.  

The film, which received a standing ovation, will probably not change anyone’s mind about gay marriage but is a primer for the time, emotional and financial commitment it takes to argue a case that ultimately ends up before the nation's highest court. It was acquired by HBO and will be shown in June. 

Living Stars

The 63-minute film, Living Stars, is a string of  30-second vignettes of Argentineans from all walks of life who show off their dancing skills. I loved seeing the middle-aged dentist grooving out by his dental chair to Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" with unabashed joy. But after the 20th amateur dancer, it seemed like I was trapped in an audition of So You Think You Can Dance? with dancers who didn't make the cut.

There is no plot or dialogue — just average people dancing. Feel good? Yes, for 10 minutes. Memorable? Not really. Marketable? Maybe, if it's shown at dance clubs nationwide where you, too, can join the danceathon. 

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