I feel like a piece of shit, to be honest. Two documentaries played on Friday, the final day of press screenings and the first day of the festival proper: The Case Against 8 and Dinosaur 13. The former won the 'Directing Award: U.S. Documentary' at Sundance 2014 and details the recent five year legal battle in California to overrule Proposition 8, which repealed the right for same-sex couples to marry. The latter charts the complex custody battle following the discovery of the most complete T-Rex fossil ever in the '90s. Now, guess which one nearly made me cry and ended up being one more impressive films I saw at the festival? Yeah, the one about the fucking dinosaur. Not the one about the unwavering battle for equality, the tragic denial of constitutional rights and the dehumanisation of a minority group, no, the one about a dead T-Rex called Sue. Good job, brain!

Seriously though, reductive affectation aside, that instinctive reaction was initially surprising to me. You'd expect a film about social justice to register with the emotions in a way a film about palaeontology simply couldn't, right? Taking some time to think about it, however, has led me to conclude my reaction was likely predicated on that kind of expectation. I mean, the two are constructed in very similar ways, so expectation is the only thing that stands out to me. They both conform to the conventional perception of documentary: the viewer is guided through the twists and turns of chronological narrative with the assistance of copious talking-head interviews with those involved, fly-on-the-wall footage, archival materials and re-enactments. They're both told functionally, but never particularly brazenly. Neither film has an overt authorial voice, both in the sense that the filmmakers are invisible at all times and that they're both formally anonymous, but, to be fair, they thankfully lack the shaky edifice of impartiality that bogs down many documentaries - both pick a side and run with it. They are, in other words, equally unremarkable documentaries in terms of filmmaking, some may even say amateur.

What Dinosaur 13 had going for it that The Case Against 8 didn't, however, was the surprise factor. As I alluded to before, it recalls the frankly ridiculous legal saga that erupted when a group of well-intentioned palaeontologists discovered the largest T-Rex specimen ever in South Dakota and planned to put it in their museum. It's the archetypical brouhaha, as something seemingly innocuous escalates beyond all comprehension. Now, I had somehow never come across this story before and had no idea how it would develop, so as it further descended into an absurd legal netherworld, one where digging up fossils can be an offence worthy of over one-hundred-and-fifty indictments from a U.S. court of law, I found myself more and more engrossed. Even though it's not the most formally engaging film, the story is so fucking bizarre that it just sat right with me. I obviously won't go into the fine details to save the surprise, but it's a truly fascinating tale of passion, the quest for knowledge, and government's byzantine legal workings ruthlessly fucking people over. There's a lot more going on than I ever could have imagined, and that's obviously something I appreciate a lot. Its steadfast acceptance of the palaeontologists' account may frustrate those who believe that documentaries have to be impartial (which is ultimately impossible and silly), but I found their words enlightening - I suppose I just get a kick out of people getting really passionate about their niche obsession. The palaeontologists still seem deeply hurt by the whole saga, and, even if it could be slightly put on for the camera, their remarkable commitment to something much larger themselves, history, was inspiring and thought-provoking. To be extremely cliché about it: it was, of course, never about the dinosaur, but the extraordinary journey of the people involved. And in that sense, it succeeds.

Obviously, I could say the same about about The Case Against 8. They're actually very similar on a fundamental thematic level as they're both basically about the little guy fighting against archaic legalities for a higher purpose than just their own. But I expected that from The Case Against 8, not Dinosaur 13. The whole Proposition 8 case is still recent enough to remember, considering that the Supreme Court only deemed it unconstitutional last year. As a result, the film, however well-meaning, never felt particularly urgent or dramatic to me because I knew how it would play out. It hits all the expected beats, and, while the fly-on-the-wall legal stuff is quite interesting, it never transcends its status as a simplistic, crowd-pleasing record of a monumentally nuanced legal battle. While that's okay to some extent, I never felt intellectually or emotionally challenged because it's all a bit obvious. It tells you what to feel, when to feel it and lays it on very heavily with the mawkishness; but as someone who believes in same-sex marriage and social justice, the film only limply affirmed my views while giving very little insight into much else. It's just not the most engaging of viewing experiences, however agreeable a film it is, and I'm really at a loss as to how it won a directing award at Sundance 2014. It must have been a bad year or something.

Mike's Top 5 of Sundance London 2014:

  • 1. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (dir. David Zellner). Read my thoughts here.

  • 2. The Voices (dir. Marjane Satrapi) - A delightfully batshit psychological-slasher that locks you in the brain of a tormented, but often well-meaning, serial killer whose pets talk to him. Because why not? Frankly, it's all over the place, but it's never anything less than bizarrely entertaining and brazenly unique. Beyond the fun of the gimmick, it also manages to be intellectually satisfying, positing ideas about, well, a lot of things. As I said, it's all over the place, but it still really works. Imagine Almodóvar directing Psycho and you'll be about halfway there (thoughts here).

  • 3. They Came Together (dir. David Wain) - Read my thoughts here.

  • 4. Blue Ruin (dir. Jeremy Saulnier) - This is a revenge-thriller at its most primal, its murders messy and difficult to clear up in all senses. This is an incredibly tense, thrilling and gory film about family and the cycle of violence. It's very Coen Brothers-y in that respect, their debut Blood Simple (1984) being the obvious reference point, but there's also a lot of Jeff Nichols' Shotgun Stories (2008) in there too. More impressively, Blue Ruin actually earns these comparisons, which speaks volumes (thoughts here).

  • 5. The One I Love (dir. Charlie McDowell). Read my thoughts here.