10 takeaways from the Sundance Film Festival, in person again
PARK CITY, Utah – The Sundance Film Festival’s first in-person gathering since 2020, held Jan. 19-29, delivered on its reputation with a fine number of clever, insightful, aching movies; a handful of special onstage moments; and a fresh passel of first-time filmmakers.
Back in the saddle but also straddling the online/in-person divide created by COVID, indie film’s biggest homecoming had its Park City and Salt Lake City theaters humming but also made nearly all its films available for online screening, which makes good on the Sundance Institute’s commitment to presenting a festival that is accessible to people with disabilities.
“I believe in small stories about really big things,” actor Julia Louis-Dreyfus told the industry publication “Variety.” She was referring in part to her lead role in “You Hurt My Feelings,” one of the festival’s wisest comedies. But Louis-Dreyfus also nailed something vital and authentic about the festival and independent cinema’s sweet spot: So here are 10 (or so) bite-size highlights from the biggest indie film fest around.
1. “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie”: Michael J. Fox still has it. After the world premiere of this touching, entertaining documentary, the star of “Back to the Future,” “Family Ties,” “Spin City” and more took to the stage for a Q&A with director Davis Guggenheim. Having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991, Fox shuffled to his seat onstage, underscoring the challenges that currently incurable disease presents.
The film begins with Fox recounting that after a night of serious drinking, he was awakened by a moth fluttering near his face. But it wasn’t a moth; it was his pinky. Guggenheim and editor Michael Harte do wizardly things, splicing Fox movies with his on-camera interview and using excerpts from the actor’s audiobooks. “Still” is a kinetic, thoughtful, touching account of the actor’s journey from Canada to Los Angeles, from hyperactive movie star to tremoring, falling Parkinson’s patient.
A bravura filmmaking moment comes as Fox recounts the breakneck, career-catapulting time when he shuttled between the sets of “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future.” But the story here is one of a man and his family wrestling with a devastating illness. And the actor’s shoutout to his wife, Tracy Pollan, and their kids was its own kind of tearjerker.
2. “Fair Play”: From its first smart and frisky opener, writer-director Chloe Domont’s debut — about two, newly betrothed, high-finance strivers whose relationship hits a low when one is promoted — is riveting and heralds a talent to track. But then so does writer-director A.V. Rockwell’s first feature “A Thousand and One” – about a mom who snatches her son out of foster care. Oh, yeah, and writer-director Celina Song’s gem of debut: the relationship ode “Past Lives,” about childhood friends (and crushes) from Seoul meeting up in New York City.
Asked what Sundance trends struck him, Denver Film artistic director Matthew Campbell noted that there were “lots of great female empowerment stories and strong, multidimensional women protagonists.” Indeed: Fifty-eight percent of the 101 features were directed by females.
3. “You Hurt My Feelings”: Julia Louis-Dreyfus reteams with writer-director Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”) for this quietly hilarious movie about a writer who hopes to follow up her well-received memoir with a novel, her first. Her agent’s not making much headway selling the book when Beth overhears her beloved husband (a shrink played by Tobias Menzies) say how much he doesn’t like it. Problem is, he’s been encouraging her with praise all along. Boasting a terrific ensemble – with Michaela Watkins and Arian Moayed as Beth’s sis and brother-in-law, and Owen Teague as her son — “You Hurt My Feelings” is a ridiculously observant and witty meditation on love, trust and the trouble with unfiltered honesty.
4. The bio-doc is alive and well and keeps telling us more and more about ourselves as it dives into the archives, trails its subject or engages in revealing interviews (often all the above). Director Lisa Cortés’ “Little Richard: I Am Everything” honors the piano-banging, mascara-wearing, pompadour-sporting performer – born Richard Wayne Penniman of Macon, Ga. – with a celebration of (and argument for) what was cosmic and queer about the icon, what made him the father of Ziggy Stardust and Prince.
5. And Black Arts Movement icon and space lover, poet Nikki Giovanni gets a fittingly inventive and lyrical close-up in Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project.”
6. Author Judy Blume received a standing ovation when she arrived virtually after the world premiere of “Judy Blume Forever.” A YA-lit rock star before there was the Young Adult genre, Blume zoomed in from Key West, Fla. Directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok weave animation, charming insights from a parade of fans (Lena Dunham, Jacqueline Woodson and Samantha Bee to name a few) and interviews with the groundbreaking, rule-breaking author, whose books have been the subject of banning for their frank and authentic take on puberty, sex and life. (It’s a great primer for the spring theatrical release of the film “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”)
7. “Magazine Dreams”: Actor Jonathan Majors – currently streaming in “Devotion” and upcoming in “Creed III” — continues to prove himself as an actor of versatility and remarkable sensitivity. In director Elijah Bynum’s bold (but flawed) and beautiful sophomore feature, the actor disappears into the steroid-tweaked physique and crumbling psyche of Killian Maddox, a deeply wounded man who takes care of his ailing grandfather and harbors dreams of landing on the covers of bodybuilding magazines. Although the movie has a few too many endings, “Magazine” is a gorgeous nod to early Scorsese as well as the heralding of an artistically ambitious and talented director.
8. “Cassandro”: Gael García Bernal is a force, but you knew that. The actor is a wonder in this portrait of Saúl Armendáriz, the gay lucha libre wrestler who went by the name of Cassandro in the ring. When Saúl’s career isn’t going anywhere, he finds a new trainer, Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), and hangs up his mask to become an “exotico.” Those flamboyant wrestlers are typically marked to lose bouts, but Saúl has other ambitions. Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, “Cassandro” also confirms that documentary filmmakers can make the leap from documentary to narrative with sincerity and flash, not unlike the great Cassandro himself.
9. “The Accidental Getaway Driver”: Sure, Sundance Is known for fostering bright young things, but it also routinely features the kind of films that give actors of a certain age a chance to be rediscovered or seen in a new light. Last year, Emma Thompson wowed in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” Ditto Dale Dickey, the romantic lead in “Love Song,” by Telluride writer-director Max Walker-Silverman. And remember “Minari”’s Youn Yuh-jung, who won a Best Supporting Oscar in 2021? This year, 80-year-old actor Hiệp Trần Nghĩa is the festival’s elder quasar, starring in writer-director Sing Lee’s “The Accidental Getaway Driver.” Based on actual events, the tense (and surprisingly tender) movie tells the story of a rideshare driver abducted by three convicts.
10. The (Colorado) producers: Let’s give it up for the oft-unsung but absolutely essential players in indie-movie-making. That two of them live in Denver and work in documentary film shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s welcome news just the same. Tyler Graim photographed and was a producer on “Bad Press,” Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s film about a fight to keep journalism transparent in Oklahoma’s Muscogee Nation. And producer Shane Boris (Oscar nominee for “Fire of Love”) lends his expertise to “King Coal,” director Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s unconventional, elegiac consideration of Appalachia.
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