I didn’t see every film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but I did see enough to discover that the cliché of the “Sundance film” has ceased to have any meaning. The festival now premieres everything from Italian romances to Georgian family dramas to American historical epics to avant-garde multimedia murder investigations — a tremendous development. Here are my ten favorite films from the invigorated festival.
My Happy Family
Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s masterful family drama begins with a 52-year-old Tbilisi woman leaving her family to go find a quiet apartment of her own, a space where she can finally just be by herself after living for everyone else. The filmmakers astutely follow the ripples and counter-ripples of this decision in a family that loves and argues with equal ferocity. My Happy Family unfolds as a series of long takes following characters in and out of rooms, staying close enough to register individual experiences while always making sure to keep the rest of the world in focus. As a result, the urgency and tension of each scene emerges organically. And there isn’t a second that doesn’t ring achingly true.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Travis Wilkerson’s intense, mesmerizing project probably doesn’t yet technically even count as a film: He narrates live and cues the images and audio as he proceeds, though one can easily imagine the result becoming a single-channel movie at some point in the future. Through home movies, documentary footage, photographs, interviews, narration, and text, the filmmaker tells us about his great-grandfather’s 1946 murder of a black man, a crime for which he got off scot-free. Wilkerson found precious few facts in his attempts to learn more about the murder, but he kicks up lots of ghosts, both historical and familial. It’s hard to experience this without getting shivers up your spine — from fear, from anger, from the beauty of the filmmaking.
Call Me by Your Name
Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel is a lush, rapturous tale of longing, sexuality, and acceptance. Timothée Chalamet is spellbinding as an expat teenager falling for a strapping young grad student (Armie Hammer) who’s come to their Italian villa to help his archaeologist father over the summer. Their relationship begins with stolen glances and glancing physical contact, soon developing into an erotically charged affair filled with discovery, joy, and eventual heartbreak. It plays not like a tale of love thwarted, but like a bittersweet memory — the kind of brief fling that defines a life.
Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, Dee Rees’s historical drama follows the intersecting lives of two families — one white, one black — working the same land in 1940s Mississippi, during and after WWII. It unfolds via multiple perspectives and voiceovers, as the characters’ ruminative, poetic narration stands in sharp contrast to the elemental forces onscreen: Visually, Rees foregrounds the physical cruelty of farm life, of disease and brutal weather, of dirt and grime that won’t wash off. The film’s vision of a world where class, cowardice, and extremism circumscribe our common humanity is devastating.
Where Is Kyra?
Michelle Pfeiffer is often the sole figure onscreen in Andrew Dosunmu’s bleak, beautiful tale of an impoverished woman falling into increasingly dire circumstances. The director is fond of static, off-balance compositions with very shallow focus, but he also likes to point his camera directly into his actress’s face, one of the great visages of modern cinema. Close-ups often show her half-concealed in the gloom, emerging from pitch-black corners of the screen. Rarely on film has the sheer debilitating exhaustion of poverty been so clearly conveyed.
The Big Sick
It’s hard to do justice to The Big Sick‘s weird tonal balancing act: Based on co-writer and star Kumail Nanjiani’s own life, it’s about the romance that develops between a struggling comic/Uber driver (Nanjiani) and a vivacious psychiatry student (Zoe Kazan). But then it heads into surprisingly grim territory. After they break up, she takes ill — and soon winds up in a coma. Somehow, though, the film never betrays its wild sense of humor. Director Michael Showalter and writers Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon find humor in the most extreme, awkward, absurd circumstances without ever losing sight of the suffering their characters are going through. In some weird way, the pain actually heightens the comedy.
Alexandre O. Philippe’s gloriously nerdy deep dive into the infamous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho offers up a wide variety of talking heads — 39 editors, authors, directors, actors, scholars, and sound engineers — discussing how it was done, how it works, why it works, and why it was so seismic in the history of cinema and American culture. Their observations run from the particular to the mythic — from the 27 varieties of melon that were tested to find the right sound of a knife ripping into flesh to the “pointless spiraling of the universe” symbolized by the notorious shot of blood swirling around the shower drain.
Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s documentary, about the people who breed and preserve endangered wild animals and then allow those creatures to be hunted or harvested, is simultaneously gorgeous and unwatchable. Its very form embodies the film’s central, and very controversial, conflict: how to reconcile the cruelty of trophy hunting with the fact that it also helps pay for these farms, puts money back into local communities, and channels hunting activity toward regulated businesses and away from indiscriminate poachers. The filmmakers never flinch from showing us the animals being killed. And, as if to add to the discomfort, they have also made this footage technically lovely. By making the horror beautiful, they dare us to watch.
Beatriz at Dinner
Salma Hayek gives what might be the best performance of her career, playing a kindhearted Mexican-American massage therapist and holistic healer who unwittingly winds up at a dinner party held for a callous, Trumpian billionaire developer (played with smug glee by John Lithgow). That’s a simple setup, but director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White find nuance in the conflict. Beatriz’s inner turmoil is powerfully relevant: How does a person committed to healing — to being principled, empathetic, and good — handle first contact with the devils who think nothing of destroying our world?
City of Ghosts
The citizen journalists of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Slowly, an organization that exposes the horror being perpetrated by ISIS in its Syrian stronghold, risk their lives every day — not just in Syria, but in Germany, Turkey, and other countries, where some members hide out as they try to keep RIBSS’s online efforts going. Matthew Heineman’s film embeds with some of the group’s key members over an extended period. We don’t just see their efforts as journalists and activists, we also see them as people — their reactions to the deaths of comrades and family members, and to the disintegration of the city they once called home. This is a deeply unsettling, gripping, and vital documentary.
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