In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs  curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first  and second  entries.
Jeff Orlowski's Chasing Ice, which won this year's Excellence in Cinematography Award for a U.S. Documentary, manages to sidestep the frivolous argument between liberals and conservatives as to whether or not the polar ice caps are melting. In fact, this beautiful documentary is so jaw-droppingly visual, you end up interacting with and understanding the planet's ice structures as if they were your own grandparents. Trekking out to the furthest spots in the Northern Hemisphere, National Geographic photographer James Balog, his hard working-crew, and director Jeff Orlowski have created a document that will force the world to actually see what is happening as opposed to arguing assumptions. What I found even more unnerving is how beautiful I found crumbling ice caps to be. Am I part of the problem?
Doc fans will recognize the name Kirby Dick; his previous works include This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006), which exposed the MPAA (the highly-secretive, surprisingly small group which has been censoring cinema since 1968), and his controversial 2009 film Outrage, which aggressively outed closeted gay politicians who have and continue to vote against gay rights.
At this year's fest, Dick picked up the U.S. Documentary Audience Award for his latest disturbing documentary, The Invisible War. The film launches a massive exploration into the epidemic of rape in the US military, and the unbelievable actions taken within the system's hierarchy to cover it up. It is utterly awful to realize that there are thousands of women and men who have been violated, humiliated, and robbed of justice, all while serving their country. You will leave this film a changed person.
Movies about artists always have the possibility of turning into an extended commercial — which isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just important to not lose sight of that. Two documentaries from last year's festival, Richard Press's Bill Cunningham New York and Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, highlighted not just the artist but managed to achieve something much deeper and more profound. This year, Matthew Akers's Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present  was similarly able to uncover something extremely haunting and even beguiling about its subject.
Abramović, one of the godmothers of performance art, is brilliantly shown to be audacious, committed, and finally successful, yet totally alone. This beautifully-constructed piece knows that what we are really dealing with is a person who wants to connect with every single other person on the planet. Abramović's art is her life, and Akers' film practices what its subject preaches by exporting her message to moviegoers, enabling her to touch even the people that she doesn't come into direct contact with. Easily the best documentary of the Sundance Film Festival, it's also an early contender for best doc of 2012.
Up next: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on even more docs!