The 2020 Sundance Film Festival wrapped up last weekend in Utah, showcasing impressive, and a few not-so impressive, works from upcoming and established filmmakers, many with roots in the Bay Area.
The prestigious festival gave Park City travelers and residents — along with others in Salt Lake City — a chance to take in buzzy premieres, interactive events and parties.
Here are my short takes on 20 films I saw while there.
“Crip Camp”: Berkeley’s Jim LeBrecht and Oakland’s Nicole Newnham co-directed this inspiring, frisky and often funny documentary that’s ostensibly about a ’70s summer camp for youths with disabilities, but then shows how that liberating experience fueled the tenacious battle to make the Americans with Disabilities Act a reality. Netflix plans to air “Crip Camp,” the latest from Obamas’ Higher Ground production company, later this year. (Winner of the Audience Award for Best U.S. Documentary)
“Boys State”: Palo Alto native and UC Berkeley alum Jesse Moss teams up with the Bay Area’s Amanda McBaine (just as they did for “The Overnighters”) and the result is a relevant, thought-provoking documentary about an innovative American Foreign Legion program in Texas. Thousands of 17-year-old male students mobilize to create their own government, dividing into two parties with governor candidates and an election. It landed not only the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, but a $12 million acquisition deal (the biggest yet at Sundance for a documentary) with Apple and A24. It’ll move you to tears. My favorite documentary from the fest.
“Downhill”: This American tinkering about of the nearly flawless Swedish black comedy “Force Majeure” can be summed up in one word: “Wipeout.” Julia-Louis Dreyfuss deserves a sharper script, this curious adaptation about a marriage — already in trouble — that gets buried after a minor avalanche, just doesn’t work. Will Ferrel is miscast as her hubby. (Opens Feb. 14.)
“Promising Young Woman”: “Killing Eve” fans prepare to get your twists and shocks on. Director/writer Emerald Fennell of the Hulu series helms this clever thriller in which a bar-hopping Cassie (Carey Mulligan, ready for another Oscar nod) gets back at the creeps sexually preying on drunk women. The writing is razor sharp and the performances and casting ideal. It’s one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time that socks it to odious male behavior. (Opens in theaters April 17.)
“Never Rareley Sometimes Always”: Minus parental support and monetary means, a newly pregnant Pennsylvania teen (Sidney Flanigan in a starmaking performance) travels to New York City via a bus to get an abortion. The journey she takes with her cousin (Talia Rider) is a bumpy one. Director/writer Eliza Hittman raises the voices, as she did in “Beach Rats,” of rural characters Hollywood often ignores. Hittman is one of the best filmmakers you probably haven’t heard of. (Due in theaters mid-March.)
“Shirley”: Speaking of substantail thrillers that have an edgy, feminist message, give this inventive take on author Shirley Jackson (played by Elisabeth Moss) a go. Envisioned by the daring and artistic mind of filmmaker Josephine Decker (“Madeline Madeline”), it is loosely rooted in a novel and thrusts into the boozy intellectual life of Jackson and her philandering professorial husband (Michael Stuhlbarg). When an attractive young couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) enter their lives, Shirley becomes inspired to write about the mysterious disappearance of a college student. Worth seeing twice.
“Spaceship Earth”: San Jose native Matt Wolf sifted through vast archival footage to assemble a stirring, heartfelt portrait on how eight adventurers in 1991 set up in the Arizona desert Biosphere 2, a terrarium that created a sensation. Wolf’s feature focuses on how teamwork can lead to change, and how bonds can last forever. A lovely film.
“Welcome to Chechnya”: HBO snatched up the rights to this intense documentary about advocates trying to get LGBTQ people out of a region that could result in them being killed due to their sexuality. Harrowing, but also hopeful, David France’s documentary makes you taste the urgency and immediateness. (Debuting in June on HBO.)
“Wendy”: Following up on your first indie phenomenon such as 2012’s Southern fable “Beasts of the Southern Wild” can be challenging. Benh Zeitlin received well-earned raves and now comes his sophomore effort, which received a so-so reception at Sundance. I disagree. Zeitlin’s of-the-moment adaptation is on equal footing. An imaginative, ingenious take on the Peter Pan fable that serves as a warning to adults. His young cast brings unbridled enthusiasm to their roles. Meaningful, magical and complex. (Opens in theaters Feb. 28.)
“Zola”: Can a series of tweet exchanges between two pole dancers make a movie? You bet, if it’s directed and written by Janicza Bravo. There’s plenty of attitude to this eyebrow-raiser wherein a feud results between the duo on a road trip to uncharted territory (at least for one). It’s shocking, crude and unforgettable. The purient crowd should not dare enter. (Opening in theaters this year.)
“Saudi Runaway”: A young, smart woman films the jeopardizing lengths she will go to in order to escape her homeland and an arranged marriage. Filmmaker Susanne Regina Meures connected with her subject — Muna — through electronic devices and taught her how to secretly film everyday activities while going unnoticed.
“Falling”: Viggo Mortensen puts his heart and soul into this dysfunctional family drama, the Oscar-nominated actor’s directorial debut. Unfortunately, the personal story is a misfire. A racist, homophobic farmer (Lance Henriksen) in fading mental and physical health berates his gay son and his lover, along with his daughter (Laura Linney). The acting is good, but Mortensen stages it often like a play, doing the drama no favors.
“The Climb”: Two bros go through bromance and breakup when one reveals he had an affair with the other’s fiancee. That what-the-hell revelation comes during a bike ride, setting the stage for an exploration on bad clueless guy behavior from director/co-writer and star Michael Angelo Covino and co-star and co-writer Kyle Marvin. It’s comedy gold. (Opens in theaters April 10.)
“Lance”: About as long as “The Irishman,” but coming off like if it’s much shorter, director Marina Zenovich absorbing two-part ESPN series manages to do something extraordinary: Proving that there is more worth looking at cyclist Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall from grace. Zenovich doesn’t let Armstrong get away with anything as she interviews friends, those he disgraced, family and other doping scandal cyclists. It’s a fascinating view into his world. The final interview is filled with fury. (Due out on ESPN this spring.)
“Mucho Mucho Amor”: Netflix gobbled up the rights to this engaging documentary from Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch about the mass appeal of the flamboyant and adored astrologist Walter Mercado. It’s entertaining throughout, as it shows how a trusting soul lost a lot. Lin-Manuel Miranda is featured.
“Uncle Frank”: Ever fall in love with a movie? I certainly did watching the latest dramedy from Alan Ball (“True Blood” and “Six Feet Under”). It’s by no mean perfect, but just snuggle in for this sweet, moving story on the relationship between a gay uncle (Paul Bettany) and his niece. When she moves to NYC from the family’s rural South Carolina home, she meets her uncle’s charming lover/partner Walid (scene- and heart-stealer Peter Macdissi) and discovers his “secret.” At times, you think it might fall into formulaic road claptrap, but Ball takes another path. Amazon acquired the rights. It provides an uplift just when we need it.
“Impetigore”: “Bad Hair” — Justin Simien’s horror commentary — was the hot ticket in the Midnight category at Sundance, but the so-so reviews chilled it out. A welcome alternative for horror fans wanting a message tucked into their carnage is Joko Anwar’s nightmare set in a remote village in Indonesia. Family secrets, curses and gore mingle in this satisfying creep show that’s filled with twists.
“Scare Me”: Ever get trapped at a party by not one but two annoying people? That’s what the experience is like enduring Josh Ruben’s stuck-in-a-cabin yarn where a wanna-be writer (Ruben) and established author (Aya Cash) share scare stories. I left after 50 minutes, so it might pick up but that first 50 is one hard, hard haul.
“And Then We Danced”: In this coming-out story, an accomplished Georgian dancer (Levan Gelbakhiani) falls for another dancer (Bachi Valishvili). It might be conventional in structure, but it is extraordinary in other ways. This tender, realistic and moving beauty from Levan Akin is coming to Bay Area theaters Feb. 21.
“Max Richter’s Sleep”: With our being plugged in constantly, tranquility and sleep are hard to come by. Composer Richter’s 8-hour-plus classical lullaby squeegees the mind and unwinds the tension. Richter performs his piece overnight, and this experimental documentary captures the essence of what he and his orchestra set out to achieve. Director Natalie Johns delves into the process and the purpose, spending much of her time at an overnight performance in Los Angeles wherein concertgoers cuddled up on cots and slept. Provides comfort and joy.