My Sundance 2019

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We played tag with the polar vortex this year: we barely got out of Dodge and spent an hour on the tarmac as horizontal snow poured, plows worked the runway, and we were de-iced. The next day there were subzero wind chills in New York, but we were already out West, where we missed a huge snowfall and came back just before Park City slipped into the teens. By that time it was damn near balmy back home. I like weather that cooperates.

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THE TOMORROW MAN*** (World Premiere) The first feature by Noble Jones, a veteran of music videos and second-unit crews (including THE SOCIAL NETWORK). It’s a romance, fairly b-flat in structure, but with one interesting twist: the couple are seniors. John Lithgow is an end-of-the-world “prepper” who spends his money on survivalist goods rather than the medications he needs, and Blythe Danner is still suffering from the long-ago trauma of losing her daughter. These sad sacks clearly need some help, and they find it in each other. There are complications, of course — boy has to lose girl in the classic plot — but they’re back together for a startling ending you’ll remember more than the body of the picture. 

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LIGHT FROM LIGHT** An investigator of paranormal events, a single mom who has had dreams that predict the future, is introduced to a new widower who suspects that his wife is haunting their farmhouse. This is a quiet movie which is all about mood, with tightly controlled performances by Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan that fairly blend into the east Tennessee setting. Their characters are full of regret but cling to the possibility of discovering something outside their understanding. This film is less chilling than it is calming, and that can wear on the viewer. 

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SHARE*** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting: Rhianne Barreto) Lately there have been interesting attempts by artists to address the effect of social media on youth culture. It’s a phenomenon that’s still developing, but films like SEARCHING, EIGHTH GRADE and INGRID GOES WEST at least manage to propose the topic. Here, a high-school sophomore has too much to drink at a party, and cell-phone videos of her half-dressed and incoherent go viral but she can’t remember a thing. Who took them? Did anything worse happen? Should she bring the law into this situation? Will she ever be able to live it down? Writer-director Pippa Bianco and a delicate performance by Rhianne Barreto peg the girl’s confusion and disorientation as the situation metastasizes at electronic speed. Compellingly, she is surrounded by people with good intentions, including her parents, but it’s as if you first have to identify a problem before you can begin to solve it offline.

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THE MUSTANG*** (World Premiere) A hulking convict who shuns human contact enters a rehabilitation program in which prisoners train wild mustangs in the Nevada desert. As he becomes a horseman, he discovers that he can see himself in the eyes of a particularly unruly animal. I guess the astonishing THE RIDER spoiled me, because despite the best efforts of all concerned, I had a little trouble buying the training process: to me, it felt like five minutes or so was missing. One moment he manages to touch his horse, then the cut is to him riding with a saddle — we didn’t get to see any gradual progress. Still, Matthias Schoenaerts does a fine job in the lead, even a lot of convincing riding. Though this is a work of fiction, there are actual programs like this in several states in the Southwest. The mustang as metaphor is a bit on-the-nose, but it contributes to a touching conclusion.

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THE FAREWELL***** My favorite movie this year. As a title card explains, it’s “based on a true lie.” The beloved grandmother of an assimilated Chinese-American woman is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, but per Chinese custom her relatives decide not to tell her so that her final days will be happy ones. Instead, they schedule a wedding back in China which will also serve as a reunion — and, secretly, a chance to say goodbye to “Nai Nai.” This situation actually happened to writer-director Lulu Wang (thus the “true lie”), and the notion of grandma giddy with delight at being surrounded by far-off family while everyone else is choking back tears lends itself to both guffaws and sniffles in Wang’s deft hands. Awkwafina is terrific as the director’s surrogate. Much of the picture takes place in China and is in Mandarin with subtitles (the American family is fluent in English but nobody much else is). But despite the exotic location and the language barrier (and of course the central custom which does not translate to the West), you’re constantly made aware of the universality of human experience. You discover much more in common with this Eastern clan than differences: this could be your family. 

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TO THE STARS**** In a small Oklahoma town in the mid-Sixties, a mousy schoolgirl strikes up a friendship with the new girl, a charismatic charmer who coaxes her inner self forward. That’s the bare-bones description, but this beautiful film is far more subtle. At the edge of the coming-of-age story is the role of women in what might as well be the Fifties but is soon about to change. The actress Kara Hayward, who plays the nerd, is actually gorgeous, and is debeautified until she can blossom on camera, but we have come to accept that in the fantasy world of the movies. The sublime black-and-white cinematography makes it look as if the picture had been shot during the period. It’s an actor’s piece, with fine work by everyone, but particularly affecting is Tony Hale, playing way against type.

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BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON**** (Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic) A fictionalized version of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s real-life best friend is a “hot mess” who finally gets tired of fat-shaming and begins training to run the New York City Marathon along with two pals. It doesn’t go smoothly. She is played to perfection by Jillian Bell, who kicks everything off with a brilliant bit of wise-assy rat-a-tat improv as she tears tickets at an off-off-Broadway theater. From there humor and pathos swirl around each other (Colaizzo is an award-winning playwright and it shows) as we cross our fingers in honor of the young woman’s grit and determination. There are some prosthetics used in the earliest scenes, but Bell actually took weight off during the shoot. This is a real crowd pleaser and will be a tonic for anyone who doesn’t yet accept that, yes, you can take charge of your own life.

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TROOP ZERO** (World Premiere) This movie is so derivative that you can actually pitch it as a High Concept: “REVENGE OF THE NERDS, but with Brownies.” We’re in rural Georgia in 1977, and a nine-year-old moppet who’s obsessed with space discovers that the winner of the upcoming “Birdie Jamboree” talent show will get to record a message to any ETs for NASA’s Voyager project. At first she tries to join the existing troop, but she’s far too unhip for the snobbish Birdies, so she uses a loophole in their rules to form her own ragtag troop of lovable misfits, etc etc. The flick’s greatest asset is a glowing Mckenna Grace as the young instigator. The likes of Viola Davis, Jim Gaffigan and Allison Janney (as the snooty school principal) cannot rise above the material, which nevertheless may very well be enjoyable and even empowering for girls of the troop’s age.

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THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND**** (World Premiere) (Alfred P. Sloan Prize) A terrific true story of ingenuity and determination, written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who makes you mad that somebody who looks that good can also be that talented. A young boy in Malawi, raised by hardscrabble farmers (the director plays his father), shows tremendous aptitude in school, particularly in the area of electronics. When forest-clearing and poor weather conspire to cause a famine, he researches a possible solution in the school library, even surreptitiously after he is expelled because his parents can no longer afford tuition. Ejiofor draws a heartbreaking picture of a good man who understands the value of education for his children, but has no time for theoretics when he’s trying to stave off starvation. Dick Pope’s location cinematography is gorgeous, and Maxwell Simba in the title role is a real find. 

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EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE*** (World Premiere) The documentarian Joe Berlinger dramatizes the multi-state rampage of pretty-boy serial killer Ted Bundy, with pretty-boy Zach Efron doing the acting honors. But for the most part the camera averts its eye from murder and mayhem in favor of Ted’s longtime relationship with single mom Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), who only gradually begins to realize that the wonderful, daughter-loving law student she’s been seeing might actually be a vicious sociopath. Efron’s Bundy seems over the top until some of the actual footage (his murder trial in Florida was the first one covered by a camera) during the end-credit roll reveals that, as far as the public appearances, Berlinger is more replicating than inventing. The title comes from the mouth of Bundy’s judge, played here by John Malkovich. This movie is well made but only intermittently interesting, unless you really care to know what it was like to be Ted Bundy’s girlfriend. Bundy’s dual personality (he’s a lady-killer in more ways than one, but only the public face is presented here: you have to infer the monster) gives Efron a lot to chew on, and he masticates his ass off.

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THE REPORT**** (World Premiere) Behind the scenes as Senate staffers investigate the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program instigated after 9/11. Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a driven aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, very fine), who becomes ever more scandalized by the use of “EIT,” or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the CIA’s infamous euphemism for torture. Writer-director Scott Z. Burns shows just enough horrifying EIT in flashback to give us the idea without descending into torture porn, but this is mainly a bureaucratic battle, one yobbo against a powerful army of stonewalling spooks. The great Ted Levine is the film’s smarmy bad guy — the CIA director! As we now know, EIT are brutal, immoral and ineffective, even though there are still some die-hard fans today (Donald Trump seems to be one). I knew very little about the machinations behind how we came to understand the atrocities which were once perpetrated in our names, and though this is not a documentary, it gave me a better idea of the enormity of the struggle.

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LATE NIGHT**** (World Premiere) A charming confection that should be very popular, thanks to star power and a familiar subject: tv talk shows. In this movie fantasy world, there is a female late-night host, played by Emma Thompson with hilarious crotchety imperiousness (she assigns numbers to her writers so she won’t have to remember their names). She has had a long, successful run but is showing signs of creative decay, so is goaded into a writers-room “diversity hire,” a funny young woman of color played by the movie’s screenwriter, Mindy Kaling. You can tell where the story’s going to go within the first five minutes, but it’s still fun to see it happen, and Thompson is obviously having a wonderful time as the Cruella de Vil of television. The script is very sharp and full of insider authenticity. It’s the closest thing to a commercial slam-dunk that I saw this year.

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THE SOUVENIR* (Grand Jury Prize: World Dramatic) One of those jury mysteries that reminded Sundance old-timers of the notorious PRIMER, which inexplicably won two awards fifteen years ago. This turgid, improvisatory goulash is about a naive filmmaker who has the misfortune to share her first love affair with a horrible person who soaks her dry financially and emotionally. The actress is Tilda Swinton’s daughter, and mom also appears. Watching this movie is a debilitating chore; it feels twice as long as it is. And for one final shock, get this: according to IMDb, there’s a sequel in pre-production!

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ONE CHILD NATION**** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary) A fascinating and frightening documentary on the effects of China’s One Child Policy, which forcibly restricted family size for more than thirty years for fear of overpopulation, but was then rescinded when it had the opposite effect. Directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang emphasize the tragedy visited on individual human beings. The concept of being prohibited from raising more than one child is almost incomprehensible to Americans, but the loss of that freedom is only the first of the consequences, many of them horrific. Forced sterilization is rampant. Unauthorized infants, nearly all girls, are abandoned in public markets so frequently that a cottage adoption industry forms. One woman who was responsible for thousands of state-sponsored abortions, even murders, bears such a burden that she became a midwife and now strives to bring forth lives that she once ended. The relentless propaganda machine that supported this policy is on view, with freshly-scrubbed performers spouting the party line in song. Wang, a new mother herself, has her child in tow as she learns secrets from her own family’s past, making her investigation intensely personal. An eye-opening revelation about a holocaust that happened under Westerners’ radar.

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CLEMENCY**** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic) A searing drama about capital punishment. It begins with a botched execution, shown in detail so we get familiar with the procedure, which will be vital at the climax. Alfre Woodard is the female (a nice touch, courtesy of director-screenwriter Chinonye Chukwu) warden of a maximum-security prison, and she has presided over so much sanctioned carnage that it’s eating away at her soul. It’s becoming harder to snap out of it and relate to her husband (a terrific Wendell Pierce). Meanwhile, the next final date is looming for an inmate with whom the warden is forming a personal bond — always counterindicated on death row. Prison dramas are full of meaty parts, but I was really struck by Aldis Hodge as the inmate; he’s been working for some time now but I’d never seen him before. He’s sensational in this flick. Chukwu maintains a foreboding intensity that never lets up, even when we mercifully escape the prison for domestic scenes at the warden’s home. A fine job.

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KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE*** (Audience Award: U.S. Documentary) A fly-on-the-wall look at the long-shot candidacies of four women in the 2018 midterm elections. We watch them campaigning, speaking, working the phones, juggling home life with the all-consuming challenges they have accepted. The bad news is that three of the women — Amy Vilela in Nevada, Cori Bush in Missouri and Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia — lost their elections. The good news is that the fourth is New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I assume there’s lots of unused footage of the first three candidates, but Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory over ten-term incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley was the biggest upset of the year and, with the full benefit of hindsight, she dominates the movie. One thing all four women had in common were patronizing, well-connected opponents; another was the fierce conviction that the system was broken and that the solution was ordinary citizens presenting themselves for office. They were right: even the valiant campaigns of the losers make you feel better about your country.

WISH I’D SEEN: BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, HAIL SATAN?, I AM MOTHER, LITTLE MONSTERS, MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN, RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS, THEM THAT FOLLOW

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