On my first full day of screenings at this year's Sundance Film Festival, a member of the audience suddenly collapsed during a screening of the Justin Chon film Ms. Purple. There was temporary chaos, as someone sitting next to the afflicted person alerted the theater of the situation. Someone plaintively yelled "Is there a doctor here?" to an audience comprised solely of critics and film industry types -- unsurprisingly, there were no takers. It turned out, the collapsed person was able to recover in due order, and we resumed the screening. Then, on my last day of the festival, it happened again.
This one was a good deal scarier: During a screening of the ultra-intense Jennifer Kent rape/revenge drama The Nightingale, again someone (presumably a different poor soul) collapsed. Again, the person sitting next to them yelled out, only this time, they specifically asked to stop the movie and put the houselights on before the call for a doctor was put out (a public screening, and sure enough, a pair of medical people responded). Various people called 911, various ambulances were requested ... and then, the collapsed person seemed to recover, the 911 calls were canceled, and we resumed the film.
Believe it or not, this is not an uncommon occurrence at the festival. As the volunteers and theater managers were huddled up, it was quickly determined that the person had collapsed from the high altitude (likely coupled with not drinking enough fluids).
Fortunately, for all concerned, both incidents appeared minor, but they only added to the sense of creeping apprehension that seemed to bleed through the festival's edges this year. Despite the relative remoteness of Park City and the all-encompassing nature of festivals, it was impossible to keep the real world out. On the day the festival started, Buzzfeed announced a hardy round of layoffs to their journalism ranks; the government shutdown was temporarily halted -- but with the fear of starting up again in a couple of weeks; and a polar vortex was descending a frigid clutch over the Midwest.
The slate of films largely added to the sense of doom, with a couple of notable exceptions. The festival started with a special screening of the 4-hour Michael Jackson expose, Leaving Neverland, and word had quickly spread from the critics who had managed to secure a seat that it was thoroughly and utterly devastating. Ditto, Untouchable, a documentary about disgraced former Sundance stalwart Harvey Weinstein; Tigerland, the obligatory, depressing animals-driven-toward-extinction doc; and even Kent's drama The Nightingale, set in Tasmania, which is all about the unctuous evil white men do when they feel they have sovereignty over a people.
Despite this depressing backdrop, it wasn't all gloom. There was a selection of lighter films, a couple of which you will definitely hear more about in the coming months, and a range of other possibilities, so let's dive in.
Single Best Half-Hour: The Hole in the Ground. Irish director Lee Cronin's horror film starts out relatively slow and predictable: A young mother (Seana Kerslake) fleeing from an abusive relationship moves into the deep country with her 8-year-old son (James Quinn Markey), hoping for a chance to settle down with a fresh start. Only her son starts acting strangely, ultimately leading her to wonder if he has somehow been replaced by a changeling. For the first two-acts, Cronin's film adheres to a strict formula of tensions and predictable beats. Then, right after the mother finally says "You're not my son," all hell breaks loose. The last third of the film has more scares, creepiness, and unsettling action, metaphoric and otherwise, than should be inflicted on an audience at once. It's not a knockout on the level of The Witch, or Under the Shadow, but that closing act is something special.
Most Maligned Presidential Era: Bush/Cheney. In a huge upset, the embattled Trump administration took a backseat to the previous Republican regime. A pair of fact-based films, The Report, about the Senate inquiry into the notorious "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" of the Bush/Cheney years; and Official Secrets, about a young British intelligence officer who leaks a particularly damning memo about the Bush White House trying to strong-arm other U.N. nations into voting for the Iraq War, are together crippling indictments of the W. era. As more than one critic put it, The Report is what Vice should have been. It would appear the unofficial moratorium on that Republican era has been revoked.
Best Meal: Baked potato. Having dinner with a bevy of engaging critics and industry folks, I was happy to be there; my only reservation concerned the restaurant itself, a steakhouse, generally not the best of options for a vegetarian. But happily they had a more than robust salad bar, and the simple baked potato I ordered, slathered in -- (covers the microphone so the doctors can't hear) -- butter, cheese and sour cream, was absolutely delicious. The night was filled with fascinating conversation and conviviality, but that potato lingered in my memory for days afterward.
Best Use of Autobiography: The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Actually, this is a tie between Joe Talbot's film, written and starring Jimmie Fails, the subject of the narrative, and Lulu Wang's The Farewell (more about that one later). San Francisco is about a young black man and his best friend, as they try to squat at the beautiful mansion in the Golden Gate neighborhood his grandfather built with his own hands in the mid-'40s. Fails makes a fascinating lead actor, and the fact that it is his actual experience he's embellishing is especially impressive.
Most Welcome Return: Emma Thompson, Late Night. I was not a huge fan of the film, a romantic-comedy from writer Mindy Kaling, about a young comedy writer who joins the staid, totally white male writing team of a longtime late night TV show host, only to shake things up and challenge the status quo, but the public screening audience was clearly enamored. There are some funny bits, but I found it too conventional, especially given Kaling's cultural position and wit. None of this takes anything away from Thompson, however, whose performance as the dryly acerbic ("America's least favorite scolding Aunt") Katharine Newbury was one of the best of the festival. Despite the film's weaknesses, it's a great role for her -- by far the best and most worked-out relationship in the film is between Thompson's Katherine and Kaling's Molly -- and wonderful to see the venerable actress tear it up again, given the chance.
Best Exploration of Racial Identity: Luce. This year, Sundance put a great deal of emphasis on diversity, bringing in many more critics of underrepresented backgrounds. As a result, there was a notable and welcome increase of black writers, women, and LBGT representation -- in the press corps and in the films selected -- which was long overdue. In a field of fascinating films dealing candidly with racial politics, Julius Onah's film, about an extremely high-achieving high school valedictorian, brought to America as a child from a war-torn African country by a pair of well-meaning white parents, is a compelling portrait of the particular pressures facing black children in predominantly white enclaves. It's gripping stuff, and got bought by Neon, so you can expect to see it get a wide release probably closer to summer.
Best Use of Ironic Tragedy: The Farewell. Another major breakout (and quickly snapped up by A24), Lulu Wang's autobiographical film stars Crazy Rich Asians' Awkwafina, but in a more dramatic role. Playing a 20-something writer, she is devastated to learn her beloved grandmother in China, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In the Chinese custom, the family all comes together to visit her, but without telling her the diagnosis. Instead, they conjure up a fake wedding with one of the cousins as an excuse to give everyone a chance to say goodbye. It's something of a comedy, a bit like a French farce, but with a base of genuine sorrow: very powerful stuff.
Biggest Disappointment: This would have to be Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz's The Lodge, another of the Midnight Movies series. A pair of young siblings hold tremendous resentment toward their father's new girlfriend (Riley Keough), and the father's beyond brilliant idea is to put all three of them in his remote vacation house in the mountains in the dead of winner, as he leaves for work for a few days. It's a grand setup, and the directors of the atmospherically creepy Goodnight Mommy would seem to be right in their wheelhouse, but, alas, the script starts to fall apart long before the closing act, and a Scooby-Doo-like revelation near the end doesn't help matters. It's a glaring miss.
Best Actor: Mauro Sanchez, This Is Not Berlin. If the category was most compelling, I might have to opt for Adam Driver in The Report, a film so dry (yet very strong) that his unique, forceful delivery is essential to keeping the audience engaged. The most poignant performance, however, is Sanchez, who plays the de facto leader of a Mexico City artist collective in the mid-'80s, all pompous and deliciously contemptuous, but underneath his mannered insolence lies the beating heart of a fragile romantic, very much in love with the film's protagonist. It's subtle and sterling work.
Best Actress: Honor Swinton Byrne, The Souvenir: The cinephiles' choice for the film of the fest, I found Joanna Hogg's delicate, tragic love story, a bit too enigmatic at first viewing, but there's no denying the force of Byrne's performance. The daughter of Tilda Swinton, who appears in the film as her mother, the film very much relies on her emotional range, muted by character and circumstance, and the results are deeply moving. The gene pool in intact.
Best Film: The Last Black Man in San Francisco. A beautiful, lyric portrait of a city, an architecture, and, at last a deeply loving friendship, Joe Talbot's film is an agreeable mix of eclectic styles, with creative storytelling to burn, but it also successfully creates a world very close to the one we inhabit, but off-kilter enough to keep a sense of mystery. It's beautifully refracted and often intentionally underplayed and indirect, but the pair of friends, wonderfully played by Jimmie Fails, the screenwriter playing himself in this autobiographical tale; and his best friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), have roots that feel deep, and their bond is as uniquely moving as any you will see this year. A this year's Sundance, I didn't see a lot of films that I'm certain will remain in my top 10 of 2019, but this was definitely one of them.
MovieStyle on 02/08/2019
Print Headline: Sundance 2019: He left his heart in San Francisco