After feasting on Sundance for more than a week, I can report that the documentaries are far more dramatic than the actual dramas. Scripted films I’ve seen are so agenda-laden that with few exceptions, they trundle weightily to obvious and boring conclusions.
The great news is a slate of documentaries that manage to deliver strong messages with subtlety and grace. Here’s a rundown of the festival’s cinematic stand-outs, stand-don’ts, and stand-downs.
Jihad Rehab is a thought-provoking, controversial, and surprisingly relatable look at a world we rarely get to see. Through a miracle of devoted work, director Meg Smaker was able to film inside a facility in Saudi Arabia aimed at reintegrating terrorists into society through a comprehensive one-year program. We follow men who spent more than a decade in Guantanamo, including one imprisoned when he was 16, as they are taught to deal with a host of thorny problems – including the opposite sex – against the backdrop of a world that seems bent on delivering the opposite of the positive messages they receive in rehab. Some viewers may bring their own agendas and be infuriated for one set of reasons and other viewers for a completely different set. But it’s certainly one you won’t want to miss.
Navalny, a documentary about death-defying Russian democracy activist and Putin antagonist Alexei Navalny, is a fantastic thriller full of romantic and parental love, spycraft, and international intrigue, starring photogenic and heroic figures – along with a very cute donkey. Hello Hollywood! It’s in turn infuriating, heartbreaking, and hopeful. What Navalny says when he thinks the camera off reveals a lot about the dissident’s true character, and Putin’s lack of character shines through as well.
We Need to Talk About Cosby. W. Kamau Bell’s thoughtful exploration of the comedian’s life and complicated legacy has received lots of outsized buzz, and it doesn’t disappoint. Bell interviews comedians, journalists and Cosby’s friends and victims to present a portrait of a trailblazing tyrant You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get angry. And then you’ll want to watch it again.
My Old School: A great story about an imposter. Because Alan Cumming is in it, this funny-ha-ha and funny-strange true tale told through animation and live-action interviews is certain to get a lot of well-deserved attention. But because what Alan Cumming does in it is lip-synch an interview with a man who refused to show his face on camera, I spent far too much time fascinated by the actor’s skill and less on the story.
La Guerra Civil is a straightforward boxing documentary made by the streaming service DAZN, and I hope DAZN learns from its own work: People love to see big fights like this raucous 1996 match between Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez. As a subscriber to DAZN I was disappointed when it lost its contract with Canelo Alvarez and doubly crushed by a recent customer survey asking if I’d be interested in watching tournaments where people play video games against each other. (No I’m not and neither is any other boxing fan.)
The best-scripted film I watched was a Norwegian coming-of-age story that Sundance plucked from Cannes, The Worst Person in the World. Renate Reinsve won the best actress at the French festival for her role in this movie, in which she plays an anxious young woman growing up in an Oslo of eternal summers where nights never end and options abound,
Another good one—which I almost didn’t watch because the title seemed too cutesy—is Cha Cha Real Smooth. Ubiquitous Dakota Johnson delivers another arresting performance under the guidance of the talented actor-writer-director Cooper Raiff. Apple bought the streaming rights for $15 million, but before they air it, I predict an executive will insist on trimming five minutes from the ending and ask Raiff if there’s a sequence that got cut which actually shows the character played by Leslie Mann actually doing the stuff the characters tell about later.
Too many of the others seemed like high-falutin’ versions of Lifetime movies from the 1990s, often referred to as “women-in-peril” films.
In Watcher, a young blond actress moves to dreary Romania with her weak-jawed boyfriend-husband-something-whatever. Maybe she’s being stalked by a serial killer. Or maybe all the men are right and she’s just being crazy.
In God’s Country, an excellent Thandiwe Newton is a college professor in rural Colorado who has her reasons for getting super irked by a pair of pick-up truck driving red-staters in plaid shirts who park in the wrong place. Vengeful Newton was fun to watch, sort like how Joe Don Baker was in the Walking Tall franchise. Insurrectionist-type dudes beware.
Here’s what you don’t want to think when a movie ends: “Why did that get made?” The answer for Resurrection is probably that Rebecca Hall agreed to star in it. I watched it three days before writing this, and I can’t remember anything about the plot. Some short stories, like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” can be made into great films. Not this one.
Call Jane is as entertaining a film as could ever be made about an underground abortion clinic in the 1960s run by women. Everyone’s great in it, Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Wunmi Mosaku, Kate Mara and Chris Messina as an oafishly sexist husband.
What I liked most about When You FInish Saving the World is the reassuring reminder that Julianne Moore will continue to find great roles and new kinds of characters. The message in this harrowing mother-son drama is summed up by the title to the old song Love the One You’re With… Especially Your Own Kid. The film is based on an “audio drama” by director Jesse Eisenberg.
Perhaps a happy medium for Sundance is exemplified by After Yang, a charmingly understated futuristic tale about an AI robot with a complex inner life. The cast is diverse and talented, the characters unique, and the ending invites fresh thinking. More mid-budget sci-fi please!
Noteable shorts include Bugcrush, a creepily well-paced 35-minute combo of The Breakfast Club and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre I didn’t know I’d been craving. Counterfeit Kunkoo sheds light on a pervasive form of gender discrimination in India while delivering an entertaining, visceral punch.
It would be great if 2023 brings a world where Sundance can be in person again, but virtual or meatspace, I’ll be there. It is a window on our culture like no other – always aiming to showcase the best in us, sometimes by displaying the worst.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.