Lives on Screen: The Biopic Lineup of Sundance 2013

Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in ‘Jobs’
Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in ‘Jobs’

The Sundance Film Festival kicks off today in Park City, Utah, with a packed schedule of screenings, premieres, and parties. Amid the snowbound schmoozing, there’s the chance to sample a huge range of daring, offbeat features and shorts – most of them created a world away from sequel-and-remake-obsessed Hollywood. Not all the films screened will get distribution deals, but across the board, the lineup shows that the lives of real people are often stranger and more enticing than fiction.

Here are our picks for the festival’s best movies from life.

The biopic with the highest profile at Sundance is jOBS, the first of two interpretations of the life of the late Apple overlord Steve Jobs. Ashton Kutcher, sporting his finest Kenny Loggins beard and high-waisted jeans, plays the young entrepreneur, and although he was a controversial choice for the role, his enthusiasm and commitment to the part are obvious, and he’s ably supported by actor and comedian Josh Gad as Jobs’s partner Steve Wozniak. The film has a documentary quality: The directors filmed scenes in the Palo Alto garage where Jobs and Wozniak started Apple, and had access to Jobs’s childhood home. Whether it’s enough to stand up to Aaron Sorkin’s rival Jobs biopic remains to be seen.

When I Walk
A different kind of inventiveness is on display in the documentary When I Walk by first-time filmmaker Jason DaSilva. DaSilva was a healthy, active twenty-five-year-old until 2006, when he fell over during a family vacation and found he couldn’t get up. His diagnosis of multiple sclerosis felt like a slow death sentence, until DaSilva’s mother bluntly reminded him of his privilege and talent, and urged him to pick up a video camera to chronicle his experience. The resulting film is an intimate, unsentimental exploration of what a chronic degenerative illness does to one young man’s body and his life.

Amanda Seyfried, who most recently played the ingénue Cosette in Les Misérables, takes on a very different role in her portrayal of Linda Boreman, a girl who fled a religious upbringing and reinvented herself as Linda Lovelace -- star of the box-office-record-breaking 1972 porn film Deep Throat. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and co-starring Peter Sarsgaard as svengali Chuck Traynor, the biopic Lovelace promises to be the talk of the festival for its irresistible blend of titillation and tragedy.

The Look of Love
Proving that sex sells at Sundance as well as anywhere, Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love tells the story of Paul Raymond, the London impresario whose empire of glamour and sleaze made him Britain’s richest man. Portrayed in the film by Steve Coogan, Raymond introduced nude revues, gentleman’s clubs, and adult movie cinemas into newly swinging ‘60s London, and moved into publishing pornographic magazines. A hustler from his early teens, the young Raymond -- born Geoffrey Quinn -- got his start as a mind-reader at a seaside resort, before making a fortune by pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on the London stage -- and in Britain as a whole.

Muscle Shoals
First-time director Freddy Camalier was shocked to discover during a road trip that no one had ever made a film about the musical hothouse of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. There was something in the water in this tiny rural town, where two recording studios -- Fame and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio -- attracted an extraordinary jukebox of talent throughout the 1960s and '70s. The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and dozens more traveled to Alabama to record some of the definitive hits of the era with the studios’ powerhouse backing bands. At the center of Muscle Shoals is producer Rick Hall, the son of Mississippi sharecroppers, who just happened to become one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century popular music.

The documentary Anita is a blunt and shocking examination of the charade of justice endured by Anita Hill during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991. Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Freida Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) revisits the twenty-year-old story of the hearings to reexamine the way in which Hill’s testimony was mishandled and turned against her, effectively putting her on trial in Thomas’s place. The documentary brings together contemporary interviews and extensive archival footage in order to place Anita Hill’s experience in a larger context of racial and gender politics, attitudes toward sexual harassment, and women’s ongoing struggles for equal treatment and respect in the workplace.

Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?
In April 2011, British photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington was killed by a mortar blast while covering the revolution in Libya. His longtime collaborator Sebastian Junger explores his work and legacy in the powerful, personal documentary Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? Hetherington’s work was always distinguished by his pursuit of small, intimate moments of truth amid large-scale violence and devastation -- notably in the Afghanistan documentary Restrepo, which he made with Junger. The new documentary, which combines interviews with friends, family, and colleagues with footage of Hetherington at work, is a moving tribute that demonstrates the commitment and bravery involved in war reporting.

Heading to Sundance this year? Check out these five Park City hot spots.