From January 26th to the 29th, I attended the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. There were 119 films at this year’s festival, and I saw 12. It was generally agreed that the films in competition were quite weak, but outside of competition there were some incredible works of cinematic art that will be talked about all year long. Here are the films I saw, a sample of Sundance 2017.
- Person to Person (dir. Dustin Guy Defa)
This is, in the end, a rather dull and thematically incoherent movie. Its top-notch cast – including Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Tavi Gevinson, and Philip Baker Hall – makes the 80-minute run-time watchable, but not memorable. Newcomer Bene Coopersmith is a highlight – his deadpan amateur energy is always welcome.
- Crown Heights (dir. Matt Ruskin)
The survival tale of Colin Warner – one of false imprisonment and institutional neglect – is powerful and moving and deserves to be told. But not like this. Matt Ruskin’s shockingly fast-paced biopic speeds through the facts and prison drama of Warner’s 20-year incarceration (in a manner we’ve seen before, several times), relying on admittedly powerful and subtle performances from Keith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Bill Camp for any and all emotion. I rarely felt the weight of anything going on, and I didn’t learn anything about Warner or the fight to free him that I couldn’t have learned from a quick Google search.
- Lemon (dir. Janicza Bravo)
A weird, weird, truly weird movie that is completely unabashed in its weirdness, Lemon actually really worked for me – for about the first thirty minutes. It’s no surprise that this stretch that worked for me is the one where Michael Cera is present – playing a cartoonishly pretentious actor, he steals the movie in one of my favorite performances of the festival. After his character leaves the film, which instead focuses squarely on Brett Gelman’s absurd and boring lead, the bulk of the laughs go too.
- The Discovery (dir. Charlie McDowell)
I’m going to be honest: this is the most disappointed I’ve been by a movie in a while. It’s not bad, at all, but given the caliber of talent behind it, I expected much more. On a personal note, the talent that was assembled seemed handpicked for me to love it. The Discovery is from Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader, the writer/director team behind one of my favorite films of the past five years, The One I Love, and continues in that film’s strain of speculative, thoughtful science fiction. It stars Jason Segel, an exciting emerging dramatic actor who gave one of my favorite performances of 2015 as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, and Robert Redford, a living legend who has turned in some of his best and most risk-taking work in the past couple years, including the one-man show All is Lost. Rounding out the cast is Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons, and Riley Keough, all actors I adore. The film is even shot by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, the cinematographer behind the one-shot masterpiece Victoria, another of my favorite movies of the past five years. How did I not love this movie?!
Perhaps it’s that Segel, Redford, and Mara all sleepwalk through the film. Perhaps it’s that what starts as an intriguing and unique premise – examining a world in which the afterlife has been proven – eventually becomes disappointingly derivative, and never is as emotional or profound as the film is coding itself to be. Perhaps it’s that the themes of this movie are, finally, so unpleasant that it made me realize movies can only be thought-provoking if people are inclined to sit down and talk about their thoughts, which I can’t imagine happening after this one. Perhaps.
- The Incredible Jessica James (dir. Jim Strouse)
Don’t let the placement here give you the wrong idea – we’re starting to get into the films that I really enjoyed. Jim Strouse’s crowd-pleasing character dramedy The Incredible Jessica James announces former Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams as a commanding, hysterical, soulful leading player. Giving her great support in this lovely little film about the slow, awkward, hilarious steps towards personal growth are Chris O’Dowd, Keith Stanfield, and Noel Wells – all wonderful. But this is Williams’ movie, and she owns every frame of it with grace and depth.
- Gook (dir. Justin Chon)
Actor Justin Chon’s powerful, winning directorial debut feels like it could be at home with the Sundance classics of the 90s. It is black and white and intimate in focus, but vibrant and universal in theme. Set on the day of the infamous Rodney King verdict which incited the L.A. riots of 1992, Chon’s story of Korean-American shop-owners caught up in both personal traumas and the bigger cultural and historical event feels both timely and like a believable capsule of a specific time and place. I’m very excited to see what Chon does next, especially as he becomes more confident behind the camera.
- Menashe (dir. Joshua Z. Weinstein)
An affecting and tremendously acted (by mostly non-actors) father-son drama set in the ultra-insular Hasidic community of Brooklyn, Menashe tells its authentic and simple story almost entirely in Yiddish. Menashe Lustig stars as the title character, a man torn between his religion and his love for his child, when the beliefs of his Judaism threaten to take his child away from him. This is a special film, that does what film does best – puts the audience into a world and headspace that they might never get the chance to peer into otherwise.
- The Force (dir. Peter Nicks)
I knew the Oakland Police Department was troubled, but – holy crap. Over two years ago, before Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter were known by all, documentary filmmaker Peter Nicks was granted access by the OPD to film within their department as they launched several initiatives to rebuild trust with their city. But as protests swept the nation, scandals emerged in the corrupt department, and violence continued to run rampant in Oakland, Nicks is also there to capture the OPD in turmoil. The result is a fascinating verité look into a plagued institution, made all the more disturbing because it’s all real. Nicks doesn’t seem to have a super strong bias either way – he gives plenty of screen time to protestors and dissenters as well as the police – but rather is interested in letting the audience make up their minds for themselves. And as history plays out – in the November election, the city of Oakland voted to create a civilian oversight committee for the OPD, a fact I did not know – the question never left my mind: all institutions are comprised of personalities, so all corrupt institutions must consist of corrupt personalities… but where do we even begin?
- Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees)
This is a film of two halves. The first half is an often painfully slow introduction to the seven central characters of this epic, years-spanning odyssey of two families. We meet the members of the McAllan clan – racist father Pappy, troubled brothers Jamie and Henry, and Henry’s wife Laura. We meet the black tenants on the farmland purchased by the McAllans – loving parents Hap and Florence Jackson, and one of their sons, the idealistic Ronsel. And believe me when I say, we spend the first half of this movie just meeting them. It’s solid filmmaking, but it isn’t exactly inspired. Then – the second half of this movie happens, and we realize that all of that slow character building has grown into explosive relationships and conclusions. The last hour of this film is fascinating, visceral, devastating, and ultimately imbued with a strange sense of hope. Director Dee Rees knows, if we must look to the past to understand the present, then the saga of the McAllans and the Jacksons holds for us a deep well of knowledge.
- Call Me By Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Luca Guadagnino’s last two films, I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, are bombastic, pulpy, and sensual, and I wasn’t a big fan of either. His latest, on the other hand, is a whole other animal. Call Me By Your Name remains sensual (and truly gorgeous in its sensuality), but the bombast and pulp has been replaced by quietude and insightful observation into a young mind and the loving relationship that he is swept up in over the course of one summer on the Italian Riviera. Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer are astonishing as the central lovers, but the film’s secret weapon is Michael Stuhlbarg, playing the father to Chalamet’s character, who caps off the heartbreaking, haunting story with a devastating and genuinely perceptive monologue to his son about coming of age. This is one of the films out of the festival you will be hearing a lot about down the road – it’s going to be big.
- The Big Sick (dir. Michael Showalter)
Knowing this was a film written by and starring Silicon Valley actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani (as a thinly fictionalized version of himself named Kumail), I could confidently predict I was going to laugh. What I could not and did not predict was that I would feel every other emotion on the spectrum. The most unique and accomplished rom-com in many years, The Big Sick subverts expectations at every turn. Written by Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, the film tells the story of the start of their relationship (which has resulted in real life in marriage), with Gordon’s corollary being played by the tragically underrated Zoe Kazan. I hesitate to give away any of the film’s surprising twists, but I will say that the story centers itself around the cultural differences that come between Kumail and Emily, deals with a medical condition that Emily contracts, as well as takes a long detour to bring in Emily’s parents (played with incredible depth and hilarity by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). There are no easy answers to the complex questions raised by Kumail and Emily’s love and the implications it has for both of their families, but The Big Sick navigates their complications beautifully and hysterically. And yes, though I did shed a tear at the end, this is one of the funniest movies you will see this year. To name one moment, there is a 9/11 joke halfway through the movie that had my entire audience in stitches for the next three minutes. It is, without hyperbole, one of the best executed jokes I’ve ever seen on film.
- A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)
The new film from the director of last summer’s Pete’s Dragon! Before you expect to see this one in your local cineplex come June, though, I should say it is a sobering, challenging, playful meditation on death and mortality, that contains a ten-minute unbroken shot of a grief-stricken Rooney Mara binge-eating a pie while ghost Casey Affleck watches in the background from under a sheet. (Certainly this is the better of the two movies about man’s relationship with the afterlife starring Rooney Mara at this year’s festival.) David Lowery shot this film in the ten days after wrapping up Pete’s Dragon, but you would never know from the final product. A Ghost Story isn’t scary, but it is haunting. It isn’t in-your-face, but it is thought-provoking. It’s almost entirely silent, but it speaks volumes to the human condition. It is filmmaking at its finest – surprising, visually stunning, courageously acted and conceived. It packs more ideas into its 87-minute run-time than most whole novels. And I simply cannot wait to see it again.
Images courtesy of Sundance Institute.