Ushering in the new year and right on the heels of a busy awards season, the Sundance Film Festival is anticipated as the showcase for storytellers who are largely new, American, and independent. Scores of films are watched and discussed. Careers are launched or recalibrated. Impressions tweeted and movies acquired … coming soon to a theater or streaming service near you.
This year standing-in-line conversations were dominated by Netflix and Amazon, a record snowfall that turned this mountain resort into a gridlocked hot mess, the VR Palace, and the Women’s March on Main Street—our favorite speaker being that one dope queen, Jessica Williams—that drew celebs and, more impressively, thousands of young locals from Salt Lake City and beyond. But, for over a week, our primary focus was neither national headlines nor the legion of parties and deals but movies. We didn’t see everything we wanted but here, in roughly alphabetical order, are some favorites that stood out.
Bending the Arc
The documentary lineup was packed with literally dozens of works deserving attention. A personal favorite is Kief Davidson and Pedro Kos’s uplifting account of Dr. Paul Farmer and his associates, whose unflagging efforts, beginning in Haiti over 30 years ago, have brought life-saving healthcare to the world’s poorest communities, built Partners in Health, a far-reaching and effective organization, and revolutionized the global health movement. An inspiring demonstration of how committed individuals can truly bend the arc of history.
Call Me by Your Name
A festival highlight (Sony Pictures Classics), this latest from Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, I Am Love) is part sensually romantic coming-of-age story, part lyrical hymn to the luminous Italian countryside. Teenage Elio (a remarkable Timothée Chalamet) and his parents spend their summers at a villa in Lombardy, where his Classics professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) does research. This year, Elio’s languorous routine of swimming, casual flirtations, and endless al fresco meals is indelibly transformed by the arrival of his father’s new assistant, a brash and handsome American (Armie Hammer).
Casting JonBenet; A Ghost Story
Experimentation forms the soul of two surprisingly affecting films, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (A24), a meditative drama on love and loss starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara and Casting JonBenet (Netflix), Kitty Green’s boldly inventive documentary about the infamous and unsolved murder case. Though neither is a perfect work—few films are—both thrill with their audacious embrace of risk and ideas that defy the conventions of their form. It’s the stuff of riveting, intelligent cinema.
Director-writer Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) continues his sly assault on Hollywood’s maxim that a film must have “likeable characters” to succeed. This Brooklyn-set chamber piece features a vivid collection of prickly personalities, whose interlocking, and highly fraught, relationships are precariously unsettled by the arrival of a comely young Australian. The top-notch cast—Emily Browning, Adam Horovitz, Mary-Louise Parker, Lily Rabe, Jason Schwartzman and Chloë Sevigny—bring nuance and verve to the verbal swordplay of Perry’s deliciously serrated dialog.
Manifesto; PATTI CAKE$
The joy of performance—the incandescent Cate Blanchett and dynamic newcomer Danielle Macdonald—fuels two wildly divergent delights: Julian Rosefeldt’s art essay, Manifesto, originally presented as an installation at New York’s Armory and Geremy Jasper’s crowd-pleasing PATTI CAKE$ (Fox Searchlight Pictures), a Jersey-set outsider drama. Blanchett—playing thirteen different roles—and Macdonald as “Killa P,” an aspiring rapper with three strikes against her (race, weight and gender) own every frame.
My Happy Family
A small international gem is from Georgian directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s ironically titled My Happy Family. Wonderfully scripted, acted, and filmed, this deceptively understated everyday-life drama is the story of Manana, a fifty-something schoolteacher, who, after years as a dutiful daughter, wife and mother, decides to move out on her own. With wry and compassionate humor, the film follows Manana as she fashions a new life and her family attempts to come to terms with her decision.
The intimate becomes epic in Dee Rees’ Mudbound (Netflix), based on Hillary Jordan’s best-seller and brought to vivid life by a stellar ensemble cast, including Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, and Garrett Hedlund. Rees explores the hardscrabble life of two Southern farming families, one white, one black, on the eve of WWII. When the families’ young vets return from the front, their newly won perspectives lead to an uncommon friendship that inflames the deep-seeded bigotry of those who remained at home.
With stirring quietude, Jonathan Olshefski’s beautifully observed documentary follows Christopher “Quest” Rainey, his wife Christine’a and their children. Work, school, basketball, block parties, and Quest’s signature “freestyle Fridays” for younger musicians form the rhythms of their life. But this is North Philadelphia whose harsh reality also engenders poverty, violence, and tough times. Spanning nearly a decade, Quest (POV/ITVS) weaves a rich and compelling tapestry threaded with the love, resilience, and steadfast day-to-day kindness and faith it takes to sustain one’s family and community, come what may.
Cries From Syria; City of Ghosts; Last Men in Aleppo
In a league of their own and by far the most important of everything we saw were three portraits of unfathomable courage in the face of the on-going geopolitical tragedy in Syria: Feras Fayyad and Steen Johannessen’s Grand Jury Prize winner, Last Men in Aleppo—that city’s “White Helmet” first responders; Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts (Amazon Studios)—activist journalists waging an information war in Isis stronghold, Raqqa; and Evgeny Afineevsky’s Cries From Syria (HBO)—a viscerally comprehensive timeline of events since 2012. With footage shot largely by ordinary citizens and interviews with Syrians of all ages including children, this searing triptych highlights the phenomenal heroism of a beleaguered but fiercely determined people. Urgent, inspiring, enraging, profoundly moving, and difficult to watch—they are nothing short of essential viewing.