It’s still nothing like the real thing, but virtual film-festival going really seemed to find its footing with this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which managed to combine a (fairly) seamless online viewing experience – hurray for the AppleTV app! – with carefully executed in-person events at drive-ins around the country. It felt like Sundance was actually happening, in a way that it didn’t always with the fall’s prestige fests; here’s hoping that now that we’ve perfected these things, we won’t have to do too many more of them.
If you missed them – and if so, shame on you – Bill Bria did a handful of stand-alone reviews of big Sundance titles, while our old pal Eric D. Snider sent over a pair of dispatches. You can read all of those here, and I put together some thoughts on a few more films I was lucky enough to check out:
One of the true pleasures of film festival-going is the realization, as you’re watching a movie, that you’re also watching the birth of a star. That happens in El Planeta, and the star is Amalia Ulman, a visual artist making her feature directorial debut; she also writes and directs this story of a young woman and her mother, trying to bluff their way through impending poverty in contemporary Spain. The mother is played by her real mother, Ale, so there’s a hint of Tiny Furniture here, as well as a Jarmusch flavor to the bone dry humor and striking, black-and-white cinematography. But those influences synthesize into a truly original voice – Ulman has a wonderful, deadpan way of putting a scene together, and she’s a terrific actor besides (her comic timing is sharp as a tack). As with the most pointed comedies, there’s a layer of pain just underneath, and how casually she unfurls it (and how well it lands) marks her as a filmmaker with real gifts.
Clifton Collins Jr., on the other hand, is an actor who has always seemed on the brink of stardom (he’s appeared in everything from Capote to Traffic to Star Trek), but has never quite closed the gap; perhaps we just no longer live an age where an old-school character actor can also play leads (as Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall could). But he gets a rare leading role in Jockey, as an aging racing jockey who meets a young rider (Moisés Arias) who claims to be his son. You know where all of this is heading – he’ll reject him at first, then take him under his wing, and eventually they’ll face off on the track – but co-writer/director Clint Bentley knows it too, and moseys into that climax almost apologetically. (The execution of the sequence is brilliantly anticlimactic.) What matters here is the authenticity of this world (we really get into the grit and grime of this work) and of Collins’s performance, so grounded and lived-in, taking advantage of the warmth that’s always lurked under even his most dangerous characters.
I Was a Simple Man is a film that seems to be one, specific, beautiful thing, and then keeps reinventing itself in astonishing ways. Focusing on the final days of a dying old Hawaiian man (Steve Iwamoto), it first appears a meditation on aging and regret, working in a modest, observational style, with images of starling simplicity and style. And then the mysticism creeps in, as writer/director Christopher Makoto Yogi folds elegiacally into the past, and explores the difficulties of reckoning that time with the present. And the past is always more complicated than we’d like to think. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, filled with moments of quiet profundity.
Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a risky experiment of a movie, in which a teenage girl takes “the World’s Fair challenge,” hyped as “the internet’s scariest online horror game,” and finds herself going a little bit out of her mind. Much of the picture is from the POV of a laptop cam, but it’s still, somehow, strangely involving – a portraiture of online solitude and self-destruction, powered by Schoenbrun’s gift for creating dark moods, and the stellar leading work by Anna Cobb. Cobb crafts a raw and tricky performance, as the picture blurs the lines between fantasy, reality, persona and performance, and if the picture doesn’t quite pull itself together in the end, the effort and ambition are laudable nevertheless.
“I’m just out here because I wanna f*ck,” Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) announces early in Ninja Thyberg’s porn world exposé Pleasure, and you almost believe her. “Out here” is, of course, California; Bella has just arrived from Sweden, eager to enter the industry, and Thyberg follows her through that process, step by step, getting into the nuts and bolts of a typical shoot and the route to ascension for a would-be ingénue like Bella. Unlike many a voyeuristic mainstream movie, Pleasure doesn’t pull its punches – it’s crystal clear about exactly what this industry is, and what they make. Sometimes candid, sometimes funny, and sometimes genuinely disturbing, with a lead performance by newcomer Kappel that’s mind-boggling in its vulnerability.
Some documentaries manage to create a proximity and intimacy with their subjects that recalls the best fiction, and that’s certainly the case with Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s Cusp, which spends roughly a year with three hard-living, hard-drinking teenage girls in small-town Texas. They’re tricky young women, prone to self-destruction but also propelled by exploitation and abuse, and the Hill and Bethencourt take care to view their world with neither delusion nor judgment. It really is like an extended hang-out, and the way they use their access – and keen eye for astonishing images – to recreate the traumas, heartbreaks, and momentary joys of high school life is frankly awe-inspiring.
We’ve already seen a few documentaries about the pandemic, and likely we’re going to see many, many more. But Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath offers something beyond the expected tick-tock of the spread and indictment of government officials (though there’s plenty of that, and it’s done well). Her primary focus here is on misinformation and propaganda, as befits its focus on the crisis in Wuhan, where state-run television anchors all repeat, word for word, lies like “No clear evidence shows human-to-human transmission.” That epidemic spread as quickly as the virus to our shores – nobody but nobody comes out of this thing looking good – and Wang insightfully pinpoints how “disasters become propaganda tools,” instead of what they should be: instigators of structural change. Thoughtful, meticulously detailed, and exhaustingly powerful.
“What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?” That’s the first question asked in Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, and it haunts every minute of the film that follows, telling the story of “AK,” an Afghan refugee, and his escape from his homeland in the time of the Mujahideen. Rasmussen uses animation not only to protect his subject’s identity, but to dramatize his memories (complete with dialogue, actors, and music – including a winking cue of “Take On Me”). Yet the style, which is striking, never overwhelms or trivializes the harrowing narrative, as he recalls his journey, and those of his family, crossing the border to safety. It’s a powerful exploration of the psychological damage he accrued, in having to change his past to maintain his present, and coming to terms with who he really is.
Bio-docs are a dime a dozen these days, especially at Sundance, so I can understand why director Jamila Wignot wanted to shake up the formula a bit with the framing device for Ailey, devoting chunks of screen time to the creation of a new piece for the 60th anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. But that material isn’t nearly as compelling as the rest of the film, so it becomes more of a distraction than a disruption. That said, the rest of the film is fascinating, unpacking the biography, background, and rise to fame of the groundbreaking choreographer, via interviews with collaborators and breathtaking performance footage. It’s about how the life informed the work, and the complexities of the life itself – with the angels and demons that drove him, and the mental illness that haunted him, vividly recalled by his colleagues and conveyed by the filmmakers.
Summer of Soul (… or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is billed as “A Questlove Jawn,” and there aren’t many other examples of drummers-turned-directors, but that background is abundantly clear here – and not just because it’s a music documentary, telling the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts in Mt. Morris Park in the summer of 1969 (the same season as Woodstock, 100 miles away). Over 300,000 people attended, but the event was all but forgotten, the extraordinary footage – of icons like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, the Staples Singers, and Sly and the Family Stone at the height of their powers – sat in a basement for 50 years. But Quest doesn’t just lean on that footage; he sets the scene, in terms of the state of the country (and of the Black struggle) that summer, resulting in a mini-history of Black music, and Black culture, at a critical impasse.
Director Edgar Wright brings his signature sense of visual playfulness and winking self-awareness to The Sparks Brothers, his documentary portrait of the band Sparks, a “glam rock anomaly” with a career spanning five decades. It’s his first documentary film, and he’s having fun with the form, particularly early on, before settling into his story of the evolution of their sound, and the constant push-pull between artistic ambition and the demands of the marketplace. The problem is that his explicit, stated goal is to introduce people to this band, to share them with people who should know them but don’t, yet The Sparks Brothers is exhaustive in a way that only a fan documentary can be – a dense 135 minutes, running through every single album in their discography, it grows more than a little monotonous (“Every single album you think is going to be the breakthrough album where the world gets wise”). There’s a lot to like here, but it feels more like a first assembly than a finished film.
My Name is Pauli Murray is directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, whose last film was RBG – and that’s something to consider, if you’re one of those who found that to be a too-easy soft-focus resistance-powering pabulum. (I’m not one of them, but I get it.) Pauli is a better film, no doubt benefiting from its more complicated subject: Murray, a Black non-binary lawyer who was fighting the battles of civil rights and gender equality long before they were fashionable. “America, be what you proclaim yourself to be!” she wrote, and her sharp-edged words power the picture, which details her fascinating history, her early activism, her “sense of in-betweenness,” and her struggle to find a place for herself in the Black Power era. Again, Cohen and West aren’t reinventing the wheel here, but this is an important story, told well.
Rodney Ascher has become a bit of a Sundance fave, debuting his previous features Room 237 and The Nightmare at the festival, and his latest, A Glitch in the Matrix, is another penetrating look at popular culture, fringe philosophy, and personal psychology. His subject this time is simulation theory, the idea (first widely posed by Philip K. Dick) that we may all be living in a false reality, a simulation with another – pretty wild stuff for Dick’s time, but popularized in The Matrix and now embraced by a fair assortment of eggheads (and weirdos). As usual, it’s a well-assembled and thoughtful picture, with recurring focal points, clever use of archival materials, and interesting ideas that are about as cleanly organized as possible. The trouble this time is the subjects; most of his talking heads are people you just don’t want to spend this much time with, the kind of guys you’d run into at college parties, talk to for five minutes, and then start looking for the exit. There’s much about this one that works (particularly the inevitably dark turn of its last half-hour), but it’s the least of his features to date.
Theo Anthony’s feature debut, Rat Film, is a fascinating beast, a bit of documentary sleight of hand that seems to be about one specific thing, and then opens up a whole world. His latest, All Light, Everywhere, follows a similar roadmap; it travels in an unexpected direction, and goes off on detours that can seem aimless at first. The ostensible topic is body cameras, and how they’re being (incorrectly) applied as a fix-all tool to the woes of contemporary law enforcement – and Anthony gives that topic its due. But he’s also asking larger questions, about the very act of seeing (“When an image speaks, what does it say?”) and how we’re allowing the notion of surveillance, and all of its inherent flaws, to invade our public spaces. It’s a rigorous, thoughtful piece of work, and though all of the pieces don’t quite tie together, they come close enough to warrant your attention.
The publication of Misha Defonseca’s memoir in 1997 should have been a triumph, a chance to finally tell the world the story of how she survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Instead, it began a stunning cycle of lawsuits, investigations, revelations, and reversals, each twist wilder than the last. Sam Hobkinson’s documentary telling of the story, Misha and the Wolves, is put together like a detective thriller, which it is – a mystery, in which various parties try to determine if this woman was who she said she was, and if not… well, who was she? The turns are compelling enough to satiate true-crime lovers, but there are real philosophical questions being asked here, of what we want to believe, what we choose to believe, and what we can learn (if anything) when we’re wrong.