The Best Movies at Sundance Were the Documentaries

Standouts include ”Kim’s Video,” ”The Disappearance of Shere Hite” and ”Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” plus films about Judy Blume and Steph Curry

Sometimes the only thing you really want to say about a film is, “Just watch it. Trust me.” Because, first, this avoids all spoilers. Second, especially when it comes to documentaries, we’re all so overwhelmed with choices that many people are looking for reasons to remove titles from their watch lists. I worry that anything I say about my favorite docs at the Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped over the weekend, will backfire.

This is probably why so many of the documentaries at the 2023 festival in Park City are about well-known people and events. Docs are a bigger business than ever now—they’re relatively cheap to produce and quickly snatched up in the ongoing streaming wars—Like feature narrative films, if you want a guaranteed audience, you go with big names. Millions already love the basketball player Steph Curry and the author Judy Blume, while the groundbreaking musician Little Richard has influenced generations. Fans of the straight-talking poet Nicki Giovanni, the groundbreaking sex researcher Shere Hite, and the visionary video artist Nam June Paik would have to be talked out of indulging in deep-dive documentaries about their heroes. 

No shade. Every one of those documentaries is excellent, except the Steph Curry one, which is very good. I cried fat, rolling tears of joy at some point during every one of them. Thumbs up, Sundance programmers, for delivering another documentary slate that far outshines the festival’s scripted offerings. I’ll get to these below.

However, the best documentary here was none of those. It’s Kim’s Video, which is not about what it seems at first to be about. The premise is that filmmakers Ashley Sabin and David Redmon wanted to know what happened to the 55,000 DVDs and videotapes from a defunct video store in Manhattan’s East Village. Many of the titles are underground classics that were never digitized. Officially, the tapes were sent to a town in Italy that was going to take care of them and make the films in an essentially dead format available to the store’s former customers  (of which I am one).

What Kim’s Video is really about is the magic of intuition, curiosity and art. It’s a very funny, surprising, scary, inspiring, bizarre, and enlightening story about the miracles that can happen when creative people steadfastly follow their guts. Or as Sabin told Variety: “It’s a film for anyone who has lost something and is trying to find it.”

Unlike many of the other Sundance doc-makers, Sabin and Redmon started their journey with no way of knowing where it would go. At one point in the film, Sabin mentions Ross McElwee’s influential 1986 documentary Sherman’s March, in which the filmmaker sets out to make a travelog about the effects of the U.S. Civil War but kept filming pretty much whatever happened to him—especially his romantic misadventures. That film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance a thousand years ago in 1987. 

As with McElwee’s work, Kim’s Video is the kind of project it would be impossible to sell as a concept to a big entertainment company before it’s made. There was simply no way to know how it would turn out. Money might be wasted. Corporate money. And so, off the pair went without much backing. The film careens from archive footage of 1990s New York to current-day Sicily and Korea and back to New York, introducing viewers to unforgettable real-life characters—an out-of-his-depth small-town mayor, a puffed up and nefarious Italian cultural official, and aging East Village hipsters among them. Nearly everyone they meet is skeptical that the filmmakers are producing something worthwhile.

It turns out in the end that Sabin and Redmon pulled off two miracles: one related to the lost tapes, and the other is that what they made, this film, has such a satisfying conclusion. They are film industry outsiders—Americans who have lived in Marseilles for the past six years. As of January 29, when the festival ended, Kim’s Video had not yet sold to a distributor. It deserves to find an audience, not just because outsider artists of all stripes are their own marginalized group who need attention in an era of entertainment industry consolidation, but because Kim’s Video is awesome. People will love it. Gatekeepers please note: Sherman’s March, McElwee said in 2007, was “the 10th-highest grossing feature documentary of all time.”

No such business problems attach to Stephen Curry: Underrated, which will be streaming on Apple+ sometime in 2023. You can’t really go wrong if you pair the likable basketball superstar with an established pro like director Peter Nicks—who gave the longest introduction to a film I’ve seen. Nicks backed it up with an exciting, professionally-made project. But it’s missing elements that could have made it a truly original exploration of the complex mind of a champion. 

Underrated focuses on Curry’s undergraduate basketball career at tiny Davidson College, where he led the team to an NCAA tournament berth in 2008. It then intercuts his 2021-2022 NBA Championship season with the Golden State Warriors. Curry was underrated when he started at every level of basketball, from high school to the pros. The doubters were all wrong, and he became one of the greatest players ever, a thrilling long-range shooter who seems to have magic in his hands. 

We’re shown the keys to success: hard work, supportive parents, and a principled college coach. Archival footage bolsters the point, as does a score that rises to a crescendo when our hero is about to take a big shot in a game. Swish! He usually makes it.

To watch the film, you’d think Curry is a saint, a family man who spends the little free time he has either working to complete his college degree or showing up at charity events.

Ayeesha Curry, who married our hero, is a cookbook author who has occasionally triggered social media users with statements about how women dress. She is barely seen in the film, although their cute and charming children are extensively featured as if to underscore that Curry is  a great father  

As can be seen in the more nuanced biographical documentaries at the festival, showing a hero’s shortcomings can help deepen the audience’s understanding and appreciation of the human being at the heart of the story. Is Curry perfect? No one is. But we see nothing to show the man in full. This otherwise excellent film loses my trust as a viewer because it crosses into hagiography. 

In fact, the night after Curry was in Park City for the premiere, he was ejected from a game in San Francisco, where he was so upset over a play that he threw his mouthpiece into the crowd. If you or your child was in the stands that night and got hit by the star’s gummy, saliva-wet tooth guard, would you consider him a perfect man? 

The NBA didn’t and fined him $25,000. Maybe they can send that money to a struggling documentarian. 

For a warts and all documentary that nevertheless leaves the viewer loving its star more than ever, the festival premiered, Little Richard: I Am Everything. Director Lisa Cortés previously co-directed All In: The Fight For Democracy the 2020 doc on Stacey Abrams’s battle against voter suppression, and had an executive producer credit on Precious. . If you like rock-n-roll, orgies, underdogs winning, Pat-Boone-bashing, queer studies, and a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom, you’ll love this film. “Little” Richard Wayne Penniman could be frustrating, with his shifting stances on the morality of his own homosexuality, but I’ve never come closer to standing up and dancing during a screening than during Little Richard: I Am Everything. (Rocky Horror doesn’t count). Woo-eee! 

Coming soon to Amazon Prime is Judy Blume Forever, a pseudo-memoir—or what used to be called autobiography— as a documentary. In case you’ve never been a child on the planet Earth, Blume is the author of dozens of beloved books, many for children and young adults, including Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and Blubber. Although the film is crisply directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, they basically have Blume tell her story directly to the camera—in her 80s, she looks fit and fabulous—supporting her words and visage with archival footage and standard talking head testimonials, here from young authors. 

As critics in the film point out, some of her books are a bit dated and conform to old views of gender. But emotional moments come when Blume digs into the fan letters she received from children over the years. What she wrote has been of enormous, life-saving importance to countless people for decades. In the film, we meet some of them, and seeing this important writer celebrated in this documentary is moving. 

Another writer gets her due, in documentary form, with Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project. Directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s film, hypnotic and intensely present, portrays a poet known for her steadfast civil rights advocacy. 

Elsewhere, who knew that Kiss’ frontman Gene Simmons was friends and neighbors with Shere Hite, the groundbreaking feminist sex writer? That may be least shocking among the revelations in The Disappearance of Shere Hite. Her 1976 book The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality delivered the news about the workings of the clitoris and other sex matters that shocked, angered, and inspired the world, depending on who was reading the book or making judgments about the massive bestseller. But it’s that Simmons detail that helps round out this terrific portrait of a hard-working, stylish, brilliant woman.If you like orgasms, you need to see this documentary. Director Nicole Newnham’s lush and taut film makes the case that although Hite passed away in 2020, it is time for her work to reappear and educate us all over again. 

In Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV, former Vice Media Creative Director at Amanda Kim delivers a kaleidoscopic ode to the artist who invented the term “electronic superhighway.” Paik lived a huge and influential life where he foresaw a world of constant video bombardment. I’d prefer Kim and her editor had taken this lesson about overload and shaved 15 minutes off the 107-minute run time; nevertheless, the documentary secured theatrical distribution and will also run as part of PBS American Masters.

Going Varsity in Mariachi directed by Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn is a sweeter, gentler version of the controversial and intense Netflix docuseries Cheer. No one is likely to end up in the hospital with a broken collarbone from engaging in high school Mariachi competitions in the region of South Texas next to the Rio Grande. But compelling personalities shine here and I couldn’t help but root for every one of these teenagers and their teachers. Good tears will flow. 

While I was in the middle of writing this article, I got a phone call from my friend Alexandra Pelosi, a documentary filmmaker, who asked me about this year’s Sundance. (Her film about her mother, Pelosi in the House, debuted in December on HBO). When I told her there were a lot of new biographical films, she asked, “Who isn’t there a documentary about? I’m confused about the state of the business. The word documentary means many different things.” 

What’s going on with documentaries becoming big business, she continued, “might be disheartening to people who just want to make a film that’s in their heart and their soul.” 

While Going Varsity in Mariachi might soothe her concerns about what is still possible, I told her to just watch Kim’s Video whenever and wherever it comes out.“Trust me.” 

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