Had the usual 50,000 attendees descended on Park City, Utah, for the annual Sundance Film Festival this year, the Eccles Theatre (one of the fest’s main, and biggest, premieres venues) would have been hushed except for the sound of crying as the end credits rolled for Siân Heder’s “CODA.”
It would have been the kind of crying that people who often try not to cry in public at movies, — i.e., movie people — do. Silence and snuffles. Of this I was certain. After all, I was sitting on my couch with my mate, choking back tears.
Far from being the festival’s coda, Heder’s crowd-pleaser about the coming of agency of Ruby, the hearing child (who, it turns out, is a gifted singer) of deaf parents was just the beginning of an abridged but fulsome fest.
Sundance staked its claims to a well-plotted virtual realm, where it unfolded often seamlessly, often satisfyingly, always smartly. A too-brief seven days — and a lot of coffee and couch-slouching — later, Sundance concluded with a Tuesday evening Zoom gathering to announce prize recipients. “CODA” was among them, having won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic Feature, the directing prize and an audience award.
Also quietly but sincerely feted: U.S. Documentary prize-winner “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” World Dramatic winner “Hive,” and World Doc winner “Flee.”
Not surprisingly, award-winners are reflected in the following list of takeaways but weren’t the only notables of this year’s atypical Sundance Film Fest.
- Inclusion is more than a mantra; it’s modus operandi. The Sundance Film Festival and the year-round Sundance Institute (with its artist-loving, creativity-incubating labs) has become a force in the reshaping of movie culture. The independent spirit continues to be honored, with an increasingly dogged and deft emphasis on underrepresented creatives. Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. — who wrote and directed the sorrowful, gripping thriller “Wild Indian” — sang the praises of the institute and the fest. So did actor Robin Wright, whose engaging directorial debut “Land” — about a grieving woman’s retreat to the mountains — landed at the right place for its premiere.
- Colorado filmmakers always represent. Although his first Sundance experience didn’t take place in Park City (which doesn’t seem fair), animator Joe Cappa, who’s called Colorado his home for eight years, pulled off an in-person celebration with family and friends back in Tulsa, Okla., where Sundance helped organize a drive-in experience. Cappa’s short “Ghost Dogs,” about a new pup surrounded by super disquieting, teeth-baring, four-pawed spirits, is a little bit naughty. It might have you howling or, at the very least, begging for more work from the self-taught filmmaker.
- Archives are a gift that keeps giving. Troves of personal papers, boxes of videotape, and caches of photos continue to be unearthed, providing untold treasure for intrepid filmmakers. Utilizing those materials fills in the blanks of history and adds texture to the stories we think we knew. Amir “Questlove” Thompson’s debut documentary, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Couldn’t Be Televised),” offers a case in point. Woodstock received all the big-screen close-ups during the Summer of Love, but there was another, enthusiastically attended gathering that summer: The Harlem Culture Festival was expertly filmed and then lost to the disinterest of would-be producers, who passed on amazing images of Sly & the Family Stone getting funky, 19-year-old Stevie Wonder nailing a drum solo, and Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples getting sweaty singing “Precious Lord.” Other films that leveraged the found well: “My Name is Pauli Murray” about the too-little-known human rights maverick whose insights nearly always preceded by a few years the great gains of civil rights. And director Jamila Wignot’s illuminating documentary “Ailey,” a deep dive into the life of the legendary dancer and choreographer, Alvin Ailey.
- Nanfu Wang is more than a genius. In October, when the MacArthur Foundation named the documentary director of “Hooligan Sparrow” and “One Child Nation” among its Fellows (aka, the genius grants), it offered this summation of her work thus far: “Creating intimate character studies that examine the impact of authoritarian governance, corruption and lack of accountability on the lives of individuals.” Her latest, “In the Same Breath,” exemplifies that approach with an examination of how China handled the Wuhan COVID-19 crisis. She then looks at the ways in which some version of American skepticism about Big Gov — and no small flirtation with authoritarianism — led to the crisis we continue to face.
- Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield are the real deal – but then you knew that, right? The actors made quite the impression in “Get Out.” Now, they grab hold of the lead roles in a more chilling horror story, the one about a U.S. federal agency bent on destroying the Black Panther Party at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover. Kaluuya smolders as chairman Fred Hampton in director Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Stanfield is wired (in more ways than one) as FBI informant William O’Neal. The film is set to open Feb 12.
- The festival’s virtual platforms were impressive — perhaps never moreso than when attendees could don a VR headset and wander into the fest’s long-standing, ever-evolving New Frontier section. This year — with the sharp leadership of chief New Frontier curator Shari Frilot (Montbello, represent!) — New Frontier had a virtual space that hosted premiere parties, short VR experiences and a movie theater (which was especially touching in that “Boy, do I miss this” way). All of it took place near the International Space Station. Why? Well, why the heck not? When it took me 15 minutes of texting and my avatar 15 minutes of wandering to find a friend, I knew I was having an experience I’d had hundreds of times, that virtual life was imitating actual life and that I’m a knucklehead in both.
- It was a year abuzz with one-word titles, which do have a certain poetic force. Pacho Velez’s “Searchers” pulled off a clever, through-the-looking-glass experience with the folks of the title looking for love – or some riff on it – using a variety of dating apps. “Mass” finds the parents of a high school shooter and the mom and dad of one of his victims sitting down to … well, they’re not entirely sure. Ann Dowd and Martha Plimpton are particularly rattling as moms, each grieving in her own way. The world documentary winner, “Flee,” co-written and directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, movingly tells the often-rending story of Amin, a refuge from Afghanistan’s Russian war with animation and the occasional live-action images. Arguably the best of the one-word movies was “Hive,” winner of the World Dramatic Feature prize. Blerta Basholli’s grim-lovely drama follows Fahrije (the transfixing Yllka Gashi), whose husband goes missing during the war in Kosovo. It’s been seven years and still so many are missing. Seven years and widows and presumptive widows get pushback from the menfolk for any efforts to make a life and a living. It’s based on a true story.
- The fest isn’t merely in good hands; it’s in the right folks’ hands, at the right moment. Last year’s changing of the guard at the top of the festival could easily have been rocked by COVID-19’s tenacity. Instead, Tabitha Jackson’s first installment as festival director carried on the best traditions of Sundance while continuing to broaden and deepen its support of underrepresented stories and tellers of those tales. And it succeeded in reimagining the connectivity — emotional, intellectual, artistic — of a virtual version. For the people who attended Sundance more easily this year, Jackson & Co. might have to figure out what next year on the ground and in the virtual realm might look like. They are so clearly up to it.
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