Documentaries Top Turan's Must-See Sundance List

Renee Montagne talks with critic Kenneth Turan about some of the standout movies from this year's Sundance Film Festival. Turan is a critic for Morning Edition and the Los Angeles Times.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Sundance Film Festival is in full swing in Park City, Utah, which means time for us to check in with our critic, Kenneth Turan, about some of the must-see movies. So let's get right to it. Good morning, Ken.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: Morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Knowing you, Ken, I think we should just start right in with the documentaries. There is, this year, a documentary that is quite personal to you.

TURAN: Yes. This is a documentary called "Life Itself." It's directed by Steve James, who did "Hoop Dreams" and a number of other excellent documentaries, and it's about Roger Ebert, who was the celebrated film critic. And it's kind of his biography. It covers his whole life, but it also kind of goes in detail through the kind of - they didn't know while they were filming it - but what turned out to be the last months of his life.

You know, it's both painful and kind of heartening to see how Roger struggled against the disease and how he continued to be - there's a phrase by Werner Herzog, the director who called him kind of a soldier of cinema. He just would not let the disease beat him and it's extraordinarily moving to me to see him kind of be victorious in that way.

MONTAGNE: What else stands out for you in this year in the documentaries?

TURAN: Well, there are two documentaries that are about subjects that have been in the news a lot, but when a documentary is really good, as these two are, they take you kind of below the surface. You really see things that you didn't know about. The first one is called "The Internet's Own Boy." It's about a man named Aaron Schwartz, who was an Internet prodigy.

He was an activist for open access. He was a remarkable person, and he got caught in the coils of kind of federal charges. They threatened to put him in prison for 35 years and it just was all too much for him and he committed suicide at age 26. This was a big deal when it happened and this film really shows you why he was important, why this was such a tragedy, why it was so unnecessary. And it's really, in its own way, a heartbreaking film as well being very informative.

MONTAGNE: And then there's another, "Happy Valley"?

TURAN: Well, "Happy Valley" is the name that the residents of State College, Pennsylvania, you know, use for their area, and State College is the home of Penn State, and this film is about the scandal around Jerry Sandusky, an assistant coach at Penn State who was arrested for multiple charges of child sexual abuse. This, you know, sounds like a sensationalistic story and it has some new news elements.

Matt Sandusky, Jerry Sandusky's adopted son, talks about his own experiences with his father as he's never spoken about this before. But really, this is not a sensationalistic film. This is a film that is looking at a much broader picture.

MONTAGNE: Let's leave the documentaries and turn to the dramatic films, the feature films, and I gather there's one in particular, one drama, coming out of a country not really known for making movies.

TURAN: That's true. This is Ethiopia and the film is called "The Threat." This is a film that's based on a true story. There is a custom in Ethiopia, or there has been a custom in Ethiopia of what's known as abduction into marriage, where young girls are kidnapped and raped and then married to their rapist, and what happened in the case of one girl was that she shot and killed her attacker.

And this became a big, huge to-do and a woman came from the city, a lawyer came from the city who specialized in these kinds of things to defend her and really to try and change the way Ethiopians have thought about this custom and it's just a fascinating film and really one of my favorites here.

MONTAGNE: Well, I think we have just enough time to get to one last movie that we can look forward to in your opinion.

TURAN: Yes, well, there's a charming little musical called "God Help The Girl." It's written and directed by Stuart Murdoch, who's the lead singer and writer for a group called Belle and Sebastian. This is a film about three young people coming together to make music in kind of a magical summer in Scotland, and it's just - people break into song and they're young and they're attractive and they have adventures.

It's a tiny film, but it is so, so, so delightful. And, you know, also the screening was at 8:30 on a Sunday morning and the director, Stuart Murdoch, gets up and says, you should be in church, and simultaneously from three different parts of the auditorium, people yelled out: We are. Really, I mean, you know, there's a lot of talk about the commercialization of Sundance and how everything is, you know, not the way it used to be, but that spirit is still here.

MONTAGNE: Well, speaking to us from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Kenneth Turan, who reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. Thanks very much, Ken.

TURAN: Oh, thank you, Renee.

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