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Impressive range of films shown-- strange, touching, charming

PARK CITY, Utah--From despair to victory, the South African documentary "Amandla!" has the widest range of emotion of any film at this year's Sundance. It follows the history of the struggle for freedom in terms of the movement's music--which was, as one singer observes, a weapon the apartheid government could not disarm.

Ten years in the making, it opens with footage of the exhumation of the remains of Vigisile Mini, a protest musician hanged by the government years earlier and put in a pauper's grave. It ends with Nelson Mandela joined onstage by musicians during an ecstatic rally after his release from prison.

The film, made by Lee Hirsch and Sherry Simpson, intercuts footage tracing the rise of apartheid after 1948 with a musical opposition that was like "cracks in the wall." The Sharpeville Massacre, the Soweto uprising, the jailing of Mandela and his ANC comrades, are paralleled by songs, from the uplifting "God Save Africa" to more pointed lyrics like "Watch Out, Verwoerd" and "What Have We Done?"

Hugh Masekela, the jazz musician who spent 1961-1990 in exile in America, smiles as he observes, "We lost the country in the first place, to an extent, because before we fight, we sing--so they knew where they were."

The movie is sorrowful and joyous; the music will no doubt inspire a CD to rival "Buena Vista Social Club."

"Amandla!" (the word is an African National Congress power chant) won the Audience Award as favorite documentary at the closing awards ceremony, and was part of a surge of strong films during the closing days of the Sundance Festival. Others I admired:

"Better Luck Tomorrow," by Justin Lin, is about a group of bright Asian-American high school students who are on two tracks at once--to the Ivy League, and to prison. It is narrated by a gifted but amoral student who cynically signs up for high school activities to make his college application look better, while at the same time selling cheat sheets and dealing drugs. The movie's arc has echoes of Scorsese's "GoodFellas," with its narrator describing a career that began as fun and darkened into a trap. This is an extraordinarily accomplished and thought-provoking film, a statement not just about its Asian-American characters, but about part of a generation that has been taught to value success above morality.

Speaking of profits vs. morality, consider "American Standoff," a documentary about the long, bitter Teamsters strike against Overnite Transportation. Directed by Kristi Jacobson and produced by legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple, it shows the trucking company spending an estimated $100 million to avoid a contract that might have cost it a fraction of that amount. Overnite releases a video showing Teamsters violence against its trucks--gunshots, a brick through a window, a driver dead. Later a man comes forward to say he was paid $10,000 by Overnite to stage the violence.

"Personal Velocity," directed by Rebecca Miller, won the grand jury prize as the best feature in the festival. It is immediately, almost shockingly, intimate in its telling of the stories of three women. Kyra Sedgwick plays Delia, a high school slut who marries a wife-beater, escapes with her children, and tries to survive as a waitress. Parker Posey is Greta, a cookbook editor who attracts the attention of a novelist, threatening her safe but uneventful marriage. Fairuza Balk is Paula, who escapes death only by chance, has to deal with an unplanned pregnancy, and befriends a battered hitchhiker. Such stark descriptions do not begin to hint at the complexities of the movie, which has such an observant eye that each segments has the depth of a full film.

"Hysterical Blindness," directed by Mira Nair, also has three great female performances. Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis star as two working-class women who pick up guys in a nearby bar and deceive themselves that a one-night stand could lead to marriage. Meanwhile, Thurman's waitress mother, played by Gena Rowlands, finds the real thing with a widower (Ben Gazzara). Somebody told me they just couldn't picture Uma Thurman as a low-rent slut. This movie will make him a believer. Thurman and Lewis are right on the money, their dialogue an exercise in shallow desperation.

"Real Women Have Curves," directed by Patricia Cardoso, was a huge hit at the festival, winning the Audience Award as favorite feature, and a jury prize for acting for its two stars. It's a charmer, the story of a Mexican-American high school senior named Ana (America Ferrera), who wants to go to college but has a mother (the great Lupe Ontiveros) who insists she work in the storefront dress factory operated by another daughter. Ana, plump by conventional standards, lights up with warmth and personality; there is a scene toward the end where she invites all of the women in the little factory to accept their bodies, that had the audience laughing and applauding at the same time.

One of the strangest films in the festival was "Secretary," by Steven Shainberg, winner of the jury prize for "originality," starred Maggie Gyllenhaal as a neurotic young woman named Lee with the secret illness of self-mutilation. She finds a job with a lawyer (James Spader), somehow senses they are on the same wave-length, and discovers her hidden tendencies toward sadomasochism. Given a role that in a sense is almost unplayable, Gyllenhaal uses an honesty and guilelessness that makes it work; Lee is strange, but we sense how her mind works.

*One of the festival's most absorbing discoveries was John Walters' "How to Draw a Bunny," about an artist named Ray Johnson who produced thousands of works, was known and liked by almost everyone in the New York art world, never had a gallery show, and was found floating dead in Sag Harbor. He left clues leading his friends to conclude this death was not so much a suicide as a final artwork.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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