The Movies to Know From Sundance -- and the Year Ahead

Park City's Breakouts

Narco Cultura

Possibly the least likely movie ever to be directed by someone named Shaul Schwarz, this mesmerizing Sundance doc competitor plunges us deep into the world of the Mexican drug wars, mapping a Traffic-like web of interconnected characters that stretches from the violent streets of Juárez to the shadow of the Hollywood sign. Of particular interest to Schwarz is the burgeoning industry of singer-songwriters who perform "narcocorridos"—a mariachi version of gangster rap that celebrates the drug-running "narcos" as modern folk heroes. (Sample lyric: "With an AK-47 and a bazooka over my shoulder/Cross my path, and I'll chop your head off.") Along the way, we meet forensic investigators who put their own lives at risk at each new crime scene, and business-savvy moguls for whom nothing is off limits as entertainment. All of it is captured by Schwarz—an award-winning magazine photographer and Israeli air force vet—with a sharp eye for composition and a fearlessness about where he places himself and his camera.

Valentine Road

Also screening in the U.S. Documentary competition, first-time filmmaker Marta Cunningham's remarkable Valentine Road focuses on the headline-grabbing 2008 case of 15-year-old Lawrence "Larry" King, the openly gay Oxnard, California, junior high student shot and killed by 14-year-old classmate Brandon McInerney. But was it murder? Manslaughter? A hate crime? Or none of the above? Spending three years on the ground in the racially and economically diverse SoCal bedroom community, Cunningham gained extraordinary access to parties and partisans on all sides, including McInerney's family, attorneys for the defense and prosecution, the LGBT activists who quickly mobilized into action, and the surprisingly robust constituency (including more than a few teachers and other authority figures) who rally behind McInerney as the real victim here. The result is both a vastly superior work to last year's pro forma Bully, and an unforgettable, troubling close-up of small-town America at a moral and ethical crossroads.

The Institute

Never to be counted out, the concurrent Slamdance festival—once a nose-thumbing start-up—is now, after 18 years, practically an éminence grise itself, and always good for one or two finds of its own. This year, one of those is Spencer McCall's The Institute, a documentary portrait of the Jejune Institute, an elaborate "alternate reality game" that unfolded on the streets of San Francisco from 2008 to 2011. The bait was an est-like self-help org concocted by producer/creator Jeff Hull and advertised through flyers and other guerrilla marketing techniques; the game itself was an elaborate scavenger hunt combining urban exploration with the search for a missing woman and a general promise of heightened self-awareness. Think a somewhat goofier, New Agey version of the gauntlet run by Michael Douglas's self-absorbed businessman in The Game, and you begin to get the idea. Thousands of people for whom everyday life is evidently not exciting enough happily took the plunge. McCall recounts this all in playfully subversive fashion, attempting to replicate in cinematic terms the experience of participating in the game itself. Rarely have I felt so absorbed by a movie about people I found so incredibly annoying.

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