The recently concluded Sundance Film Festival was a lonesome affair — at least IRL, as the kids text it.
The impressive pivot that the fest did in January 2021 was at the time as cool as it was novel. This year’s installment, which ended Sunday near midnight, was, in the ways that mattered, just as engaging, especially given the festival had to ditch the online-and-in-person hybrid it had been planning to return exclusively to an online experience. When the Grammys announced postponement of its show, omicron won out and Sundance alerted attendees, press and guests it was going virtual.
And so the lonesomeness.
This year’s Sundance roundup foregrounds the wonderful or miserable or hilarious or inspiring characters — some imagined, others the real protagonists of documentary — who made their movies memorable. For 10 days, these became my people. Their movies were among Sundance’s best. Seek out their company in the coming months when the films arrive at movie houses, streaming platforms or at an area film festival.
Alexie Navalny. Director Daniel Roher’s documentary “Navalny” was a late add to the festival and the last film screened. What an entrance. The documentary about Putin rival, anti-corruption activist and target of an assassination attempt by poison won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary as well as the Festival Favorite Award. Roher has made a handsome, taut film to be sure. But it is his subject, Alexie Navalny — tall, eloquent, droll and determined — who makes it a star vehicle. Whether he and wife Yulia are feeding a little pony and a donkey in Germany (where he went to recover from the nerve agent attack); or he is sitting for a formal interview brushing off Roher’s most pessimistic question; or, in the film’s most remarkable scene, he is phone punking one of the conspirators of the failed assassination, Navalny is transfixing. And “Navalny” makes it clear that what the imprisoned dissident is up against is diabolical and at times absurd. (HBO Max and CNN Plus, spring 2022)
Aisha. Smart, warm and undocumented, Aisha (Anna Diop) lands a job as a nanny with a solicitous couple in Manhattan. Her new charge is sweet and takes to her caregiver quickly. Aisha’s own young son is 4,300 miles away in Sierra Leone. She has been scrimping, saving and sending money to bring him to the United States. As writer-director Nikyatu Jusu zigs toward a horror story flavored with a West African folklore, Aisha’s situation turns increasingly dark and chilling. While the movie pays homage to the late, great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène’s “Black Girl” (1966), the color, the sound-saturated scenes, the leveraging of domestic space is wholly Jusu. Winner of the U.S. Dramatic competition, “Nanny” heralds a new and gifted film force.
Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud. New Delhi brothers Nadeem and Mohammad love birds. In particular, they have an abiding affection for the black kite. The bird of prey got its name for its smooth soaring arcs through the air. The air and its slow poisoning is a theme in director Shaunak Sen’s tenderly crafted documentary about these bird rescuers. The film is fretful. Not only is the air dropping more and more kites, sectarian tensions in New Delhi are turning lethal. But these brothers — their fondness for each other, their overlapping but different ways of embracing the world — are deeply authentic even as their dedication seems the stuff of great literature.
Andrew. More than a few times, in “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” a jolt of joy lights up protagonist Andrew’s face — so much so that you may wish you could join him on a dance floor. In the audience award-winning dramatic comedy, the recent college grad finds he has a gift for getting the party started at Long Island bar and bat mitzvahs. Writer-director Cooper Raiff, who plays Andrew, infuses his charming and hapless character with easy and endearing aplomb. When Andrew falls for Domino (Dakota Johnson) and befriends her daughter, Lola, who is on the autism spectrum, it’s hard not to root for him — for them — against your better instincts. (Earlier this week, Apple bought the film.)
Omari Maynard and Bruce McIntyre III. In 2019, when Omari Maynard read about Bruce McIntyre and the death of his partner, Amber Rose Isaac, during childbirth, he reached out to his fellow Brooklynite. Maynard was sure he knew what McIntyre was going through: He, too, had lost his young, pregnant partner — Shamony Gibson, 30 — shortly after she delivered their infant son. Directors Paula Eiset and Tonya Lewis Lee’s “Aftershock,” about the crisis in maternal deaths among Black women (regardless of their class status) won the Impact for Change special jury award. Deservedly so. The documentary is riling, riveting and thorough as it lays out the data and engages a number of compelling characters who are asking the tough questions and challenging the biases that ail the heath-care system. But it is these two young men who wrestle their grief into action and provide “Aftershock” its touching fury and deep compassion.
The Janes. The group of women who formed a collective in Chicago in the late 1960s to provide women access to safe abortions got their close-ups in two films, each of them engaging. In “Call Jane,” Elizabeth Banks plays Joy, a suburban wife and mother who slowly gets more and more involved with a clandestine group led by Virginia (Sigourney Weaver). As good as the cast is in the fiction film, the real Janes interviewed in the documentary “The Janes” inspire with their candor and their stories about those years right before Roe v. Wade.
Williams. Bill Nighy is often a pleasure. In the delicately paced drama “Living,” he is a treasure. Here he portrays the well-regarded if chilly bureaucrat Williams, working and quietly intimidating his underlings in post-World War II London. When he learns he’s terminally ill, he begins to thaw — ever … so … slightly. If this set-up sounds familiar, it’s because the movie is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” here adapted by Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day”) and directed with visual grace by Oliver Hermanus.
Nancy Wood and Leo Grande. It’s so good to be a fly on the wall of the hotel room that retired schoolteacher and widow Nancy Wood secured for a tryst, one meant to introduce her to a sexual pleasure that was untapped in her marriage. In the smart and charming dramatic comedy “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” she also secured a male escort whose nom d’amour is Leo Grande. Emma Thompson is terrific as Nancy, but it’s Daryl McCormack as a guy very good at his job who’s a revelation.
Doris Muñoz and Jacks Haupt. Musical act manager Doris Muñoz is riding high at the start of 2020. Her star client, Mexican American pop star Cuco, continues his ascent. Their work together is helping fund her parent’s legal fees and Green Card applications. The youngest of three kids, Doris was the only one born in the United States. Then she and her client parted ways and COVID-19 struck. Isabel Castro’s documentary “Mija” captures Doris’ saga with visual artistry and rich sound design. When Muñoz reaches out to a potential new client, the movie makes a wild and brief leap from Los Angeles to Dallas where Chicana singer Jacks Haupt is nurturing dreams of her own. She, too, is the child of undocumented parents. These daughters, these “mijas,” are the inspiring stars in Castro’s beautifully crafted and uniquely told debut.
Yang: When the titular techno-sapien in “After Yang” goes on the fritz early in director Koganada’s exquisitely hushed drama, it leads to sorrow and uncertainty in Jake and Kyra’s household. (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith portray the couple, who purchased Yang (Justin H. Min) to be the culturally knowledgable, racially similar sibling for their adopted Chinese daughter. In trying to fix what’s wrong with Yang, they discover just how complex being (human) is. It’s a near-future tale that the late master of dystopian literature Philip K. Dick might imagine, but with a tenderness that seems increasingly a Kogonada trait. (In theaters and streaming on Showtime March 4)
Maria and Nevena (or the Wicked Witch and the Curious Witch). In the gorgeous Macedonia-set, fable-teasing horror film “You Won’t be Alone,” a mother hides her daughter in a cave, hoping to elude the claim the witch Maria laid on her infant. It doesn’t work. When Nevena comes of age, the disfigured evil one turns the young woman into a witch. Nevena’s discovery of the world is often touching and just as often lethal. Meanwhile, the dance of need and rebuff between Maria and Nevena is fraught and, yes, occasionally amusing. Eastern European folklore meets Terrence Malick’s poetic splendor in Australian writer-director Goran Stolevski’s impressive debut. (Opens theatrically April 1)
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