Sundance documentaries have had a pretty impressive track record since our Criticwire Picks column began back in March. Before last week’s "The Queen of Versailles," other doc alums from the 2012 festival include "The Imposter," "5 Broken Cameras," and "Under African Skies." We’ve speculated that there might be a few factors contributing to why documentaries favor particularly well with critics who submit grades each week. But whatever the reason, Malik Bendjelloul’s debut film "Searching for Sugar Man" joins their ranks as the Criticwire Pick among this week’s new releases.
Bendjelloul’s film charts the fleeting career of Rodriguez, a folk singer in the early 1970s whose music was appreciated in his day, but never celebrated on the same widespread level as the Dylans and Taylors. Faced with what he saw as a failed career, Rodriguez was rumored to have committed suicide before his work could be fully embraced in a volatile South African climate. When Bendjelloul goes looking to fill in the holes of Rodriguez’ legacy, he uncovers some of the ambiguities surrounding the singer’s demise.
In his review for The Playlist, Todd Gilchrist argues that one of the true strengths of the film is the way that the music from the artists’ two albums is integrated into the narrative. "The soundtrack suggests a deep well of honest pain within Rodriguez that couldn’t be contained, and Bendjelloul masterfully combines that with the rumors about his various methods of suicide to create a buttress of tragedy, off of which the second half of the film builds to a powerful crescendo of validation and success," he writes. Film.com’s William Goss echoes those sentiments, highlighting the power of those tunes, writing, "What’s more is how the songs speak for themselves, dropped in against starkly animated backdrops, easily making the most convincing case for Rodriguez’ talent and his particular evocation of the era." Christopher Campbell, reviewing the film for Movies.com, argues that the more compelling apartheid thread of Rodriguez’ story is underplayed. "Bendjelloul doesn’t concern himself sufficiently with that curious and significant part of the story," Campbell explains, "so the narrative, as it is so dependent on vague and redundant talking heads, is disappointingly shallow and trivial."
The last time Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris teamed up in a directorial capacity, they produced a sleeper hit in "Little Miss Sunshine." This time, adding co-star and screenwriter Zoe Kazan, they’ve ventured into the romantic comedy zone with "Ruby Sparks," a film that certainly has its vehement supporters. Among them is Twitch’s Ryland Aldrich, who applauds the filmmaking team for eschewing the typical wacky and mystical conventions that might accompany a story about a writer who somehow brings one of his fictional creations to life. "Not much time is spent on the hows or whys of Calvin's sudden ability," Aldrich explains. "This is simply an exploration of the relationship triumphs and troubles of Calvin and the woman he creates of his ideal." The Playlist’s Katie Walsh also reiterates how the action is grounded in recognizable territory, despite the elements of the plot that might seem absurd at a reading of the synopsis. "As fantastical and magical as this story is, Dayton and Faris bring a warm realism to the material, and the screenplay rings clear as a bell for anyone who has ever suffered from identity crisis or pressure to live up to an ideal image in a romantic relationship," Walsh writes.
"The Exorcist" director William Friedkin’s recent work has been polarizing, and his latest output "Killer Joe" is no exception. Based on a Tracy Letts play, the action surrounds a quartet of individuals caught up in a Texas-style noir story, with Matthew McConaughey’s titular character notable among them. Despite a handful of D’s (and even an F), some of the reviews have lauded Friedkin for his handling of an impressive cast and darkly comic tone. Eric Kohn’s Indiewire review states that "even as the outrageous material and hyper-pulpy script are made palatable by the theatrical nature of the screenplay, it's the tightknit cast that makes 'Killer Joe' click more than anything else, their dedication to the ridiculous task at hand on constant display." CineVue’s Patrick Gamble writes that the film is "as equally gruesome and disturbing as it is hilarious" and that it "epitomises the midnight movie genre, providing a delectable cocktail of lowbrow laughter and cringe-inducing anxiety." Jason Bailey concludes his DVDTalk review by conceding, "Many people will find it ugly, hateful, and vile. But those who have the constitution for it will find it thrillingly audacious."
Also out this week is another high-performing Sundance doc, "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," Anne Émond’s one-night stand drama "Nuit #1" and the raucous Danish sex comedy "Klown."