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 , second , and third  entries.
Winner of both the World Documentary Audience Award and the Special Jury Prize for its celebration of the artistic spirit is every musicologist's dream film: Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man . This larger-than-life tale is about obscure Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who created two brilliant albums, Cold Fact (1969) and Coming from Reality (1971), which some have compared to Bob Dylan's greatest works. Yet virtually no one bought either of the records ... except South Africans. The film reveals a fan base of millions, comprised of multiple generations who have viewed Rodriguez's songs as political anthems for 40 years. And that's just the first 15 minutes of the film!
Rodriguez's lyrics and lifestyle celebrated a working-class hero mentality that seems to be as precious as the songs themselves, and Benjelloul's film about his impact on a seemingly far-removed audience is a standout. But here's a warning: be careful while reading any reviews of this film before you see it! Every single critic I've read has spoiled major dramatic points in the film, so try your best to catch it before you come into contact with any spoilers.
A few more for your doc queue:
The makers of 2006's Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, picked up the U.S. Documentary Editing Award for their latest, Detropia . It poetically unearths a hopeless, dying city using beautifully dramatic storytelling, though the film itself feels a bit unfinished towards the final act. Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush's Finding North  takes on hunger in America; many left the film wondering how they could take action to help ease the epidemic. David France's superb How to Survive a Plague , about AIDS activists in the late 80s, left me and quite a few other critics totally devastated. France's film is truly an emotional equivalent to last year's U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Award winner about assisted suicide, How to Die in Oregon. This year's World Cinema Documentary Editing Award went to Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky's Indie Game: The Movie , which follows a group of independent video game designers pouring a psychotic amount of hard work into their creation, Super Meat Boy.
But the most memorable among this year's crop of socially-aware docs was Lauren Greenfield's Queen of Versailles , which won the U.S. Directing Award for Best Documentary. The film follows an uber-rich U.S. family whose lavish lifestyle is slowly being toppled by the current recession. The inverted journey invites audiences to begin by scapegoating the couple (as it happens, the paterfamilias, David Siegel, is suing Sundance and the filmmakers  for defamation). But as things onscreen turn sour, director Greenfield masterfully brings things back around, holding up a culture-of-entitlement mirror to the audience. This film stuck with me for days after the screening.
Coming up next: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks on Sundance's midnight movies (duh), and more!