Standout documentaries at Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival has just finished up its 10-day film frenzy in Park City, Utah, for the 38 year in a row. Since the first festival in 1978, Sundance has stuck to the philosophy of only premiering independent films. It serves as a platform for smaller budget film productions to reach a larger audience. Independents are generally less traditional stylistically and don’t have to meet a financial bottom line that large studio films often strive for.

The Sundance Film Festival is held every year in Utah and screens independent movies for the public. (Photograph Niko LaBarbera)

The Sundance Film Festival is held every year in Utah and screens independent movies for the public. (Photograph Niko LaBarbera)

Many of these films budgets come from alternative sources like Kick Starter, sponsors, or sometimes private investors. There are less limitations throughout the filming process, and because of this the directors have more creative freedom when working on their projects. As a result of this creative freedom a majority of the films that pemire at Sundance are often bought by studios or film distributors. They are later aired in theaters, online, or on television programs like PBS or HBO.

The U.S. documentary film competition had a variety of stand-out films this year. The stories ranged from from high-altitude mountain climbing first assents to self-armed vigilantes who evade the law to protect themselves from Mexico’s most violent drug cartels.

The first most light hearted and delicious entree in the U.S. documentary film section was Laura Gabbert’s “City of Gold.” This comical yet captivating documentary focuses on the power and importance of food and food criticism. “City of Gold” chronicles the life and career of Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles-based food critic Jonathon Gold.

The influential food reviewer, who remains the only individual to receive a Pulitzer Prize for food criticism, takes us on his day-to-day critiques of his most favored and respected eateries Los Angeles has to offer.

His choices are less likely than one would expect.

Many of his favorite spots include taco trucks, whole in the wall Thai food restaurants, and hidden Korean dumpling houses. The film shows the unique layout of Los Angeles and how we all find refuge in our most praised eating establishments in each of our respective communities.

With websites like Yelp steering patrons in one direction or another, this film lays out the values of having a knowledgeable and insightful food critic who can break down a meal from its most basic ingredients and explain the culture and history of each dish. This film leaves you hungry and gets you using all your senses when searching for your next meal.

The next stand-out film was director Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land,” which with no surprises took home the Directing Award this year. This film gives the audience a graphic look at the lives and struggles of two separate vigilante groups on both sides of the U.S. and Mexico borders.

Each group shares a common goal in fighting back against the violent drug cartels who control the means for existence both in Mexico and along many portions of our border.

In Michoacan, Mexico, men led by local doctor Jose Manuel Mireles form the Grupos de Autodefensas. The Autodefensas are a self-armed vigilante group who work their way through numerous cities in Michoacan to take back control of towns currently being extorted and controlled by the Caballeros Templarios Cartels.

“Cartel Land”  gives an unbiased and objective representation of each individual’s perspective, from the towns people who suffer these violent living conditions, to the vigilantes fighting back, and even to the cartels and corrupt cops. We see the struggles the Autodefensas experience and the difficulties they have in trying to fight the cartels without integrating and becoming parts of them.

The film also shows the Arizona Border Recon’s day-to-day struggles with cartel violence and control along the Arizona border to Mexico. The Arizona Border Recon is another self-armed vigilante group who works to fight to protect America from the cartel violence coming across our border.

Unlike the Autodefensas, this vigilante group is based in Arizona and violates no laws when operating. Nevertheless they share the same concerns that the Autodefensas have with respect to cartel violence.

This film leaves you shocked at how lawless and corrupt many parts of Mexico appear to be, and opens your eyes up to the drastic measures people will take to defend themselves.

The final film which captivated audiences at Sundance was Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Meru.” This Audience Award winning film takes viewers along on this three-man expedition to summit Meru, a 21,000-foot unaccented peak lying deep in the Gharwal mountain range in Northern India.

The film explores the difficulties in high-altitude climbing along with the personal struggles each climber experienced on their quest for the summit. It chronicles the life of world class climbers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk as they embark on what seemed to be an impossible journey.

The expedition itself is amazing, but when you take into consideration that Chin and Ozturk are lead cinematographers and photographers on this project, you really begin to understand the difficulties in creating this film.

With each climber dragging 200 pounds of equipment behind them and Chin and Ozturk doing all the on-mountain filming in negative 20-degree weather conditions, you really begin to appreciate the cinematic experience.

It was clear that these humble climbers were starstruck while receiving their audience award, but even more excited to be able to share their journey with audience members.