The Best and Worst Documentaries of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival

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Our shorthand notions of a “Sundance” movie – small-ish, character-driven comedy/drama, usually directed by an earnest first-timer or up-and-comer, and with a cast of indie regulars, screen newcomers, and/or stars looking for recognition as Serious Actors – are almost all tied to the narrative features of the fest’s Dramatic, Premiere, and NEXT competitions. But nearly half of their feature slate is comprised of documentary films, and while they might not be the buzziest movies at the fest, they’re often the best. Here’s a quick peek at what your film editor took in this year.

SWING AND A MISS

Our New President

Maxim Pozdorovkin’s profoundly depressing documentary details, with copious clips, the propaganda campaign waged on Russian television and web outlets during the 2016 Presidential campaign, a parade of Clinton smears and Trump hagiography so flagrantly false, they’re almost hilarious. The outcome makes it a bit less of a knee-slapper, particularly since Pozdorovkin digs up clips of Putin and his “journalists” all but bragging about swinging the election. At its best, President is a witty repurposed media collage, its mixture of juxtapositions, music cues, and archival clips displaying a pronounced Atomic Café influence. But it’s also far too scattershot, with some dodgy digressions and far too many YouTube videos of tributes, testimonials, and (gulp) songs. They’re not institutional, they’re individual – vapor trails, but not the engine – so they’re far less compelling (it feels like the filmmakers were just padding the already-slender 77 minute running time). And it ends far too abruptly, though perhaps because this is still very much a story in progress.

PROFILE DOCS

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind

The title of Marina Zenovich’s bio-doc isn’t just a vague promise (or a clever callback to an early stand-up bit), but the picture’s M.O.; it opens with a discussion on Inside the Actor’s Studio about how, precisely, Mr. Williams’ quick mind works, and spends its running time less interested in the blow-by-blows of his career than in understanding the insecurities that drove him, and what remedies they required. There’s plenty of good stuff for fans – Zenovich frequently bypasses familiar material in favor of rare clips, outtakes, home movies, and other treats – and the strand concerning his friendship with Billy Crystal is genuinely touching. Sure, the style is rote, but Come Inside My Mind does the most you can ask of a film like this: it approaches a beloved public figure, and leaves you feeling that you know them better afterwards.

PROFILE DOCS

RBG

Producer/directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West know they owe the existence of this bio-documentary of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to her recent meme-ification as a straight-shooting, “I dissent”-ing voice of the left, but there’s much more to her than this recent turn of unlikely celebrity. Hers is a fascinating biography, much of it framed by clips from her 1993 confirmation hearing (a structural masterstroke). And the film’s sense of organization is its greatest strength; her life is presented, as it surely is in her memory, as a series of important cases (first as a litigator, then as a judge), including audio of her oral arguments and dissents. The film doesn’t really manage to get at what makes Ginsburg tick, but there are enough charming anecdotes and inspirational sidebars to make it worthwhile nonetheless.

PROFILE DOCS

Hal

Few filmmakers in Hollywood history were subjected to a rise and fall as dramatic as that of Hal Ashby, who produced seven straight masterpieces in the 1970s (including Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, and Being There), and proceeded to make nearly as many misfires in the 1980s. Director Amy Scott hits most of them, and covers them well – but more importantly, she filters all of them through the overarching story of his love for the work. That love is conveyed not only via the usual talking head interviews and clips, but his personal letters (read here by Ben Foster, they’re often charming and lovely, often funny in their ferocity) and inspiring archival audio clips. “The film will tell you what to do,” he insists, and his advice is worth heeding; he made all those great movies all those years ago, and now, indirectly, he’s given us another one.

BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNER-UP)

On Her Shoulders

In August 2014, ISIS descended up on the Sinjar region of Iraq and commenced a gruesome massacre of the Yazidi, a Kurdish religious minority. Nadia Murad saw most of her family murdered; she was herself raped and enslaved, but managed to escape, and now travels around the globe, visiting refugee camps and giving speeches to raise awareness of the genocide in her homeland. She is, obviously, a tremendously inspirational and sympathetic figure, but On Her Shoulders isn’t just about that, to its benefit. Director Alexandria Bombach sees Murad at her most vulnerable and private, and the telling and retelling of this story is clearly traumatic for her. Bombach assembles a montage of the questions she’s asked, all pushing for the gory details of her ordeal, a barrage of inquisition, before cutting to Murad calmly, to camera, running down some of the questions she is not asked. This is not just a snapshot of a brave activist. It’s a savvy bit of media analysis, pointedly questioning the manner in which survivors are exploited and packaged – and how we can often dwell on misery rather than take action to reduce it.

BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNER-UP)

Crime + Punishment

Stephen Maing’s urgent, gripping film is like a non-fiction Prince of the City – a sprawling and intricate look at corruption and intimidation in the NYPD. The specific issue is that of quotas for citations and collars, which have been ostensibly banned since 2010, but are still vigorously used as markers for success (and disciplinary action) – flying directly in the face of the kind of community-based policing that’s far more effective. Maing tells his story through the lens of the “NYPD 12,” a group of officers of color who spoke out against the department’s off-the-books policy (and how it effects black and Latinx neighborhoods), and were unsurprisingly targeted by their higher-ups afterwards. It’s a compelling story, handsomely mounted (it’s a great-looking movie, often a secondary concern in documentary), and if all the pieces don’t quite fit, that doesn’t dampen its considerable velocity.

BEST OF THE FEST

Minding the Gap

A few bold-faced names to watch come out of every Sundance, and here’s a major one: Bing Liu, who directed, co-edited, co-produced, shot, and co-stars in this (often uncomfortably) intimate documentary about a group of friends who discover, as one of them succinctly puts it, “We’re gonna have to grow up and it’s gonna fucking suck.” They’re teenage skater buddies, Liu included, and the way he shoots their rides (with a wide-angle lens on a roving, rigged-up camera) beautifully captures the motion and energy of the sport. But that’s just window dressing; it’s much more the story of their lives, of real tragedy and toughness, and how the most charismatic of the bunch begins a toxic, abusive marriage with his high school girlfriend, seemingly unaware of how his friends are still suffering from the emotional fallout of such upbringings. The cycles of violence and abandonment are captured with uncommon honesty, and the director’s proximity to his subjects presumably allowed them to open up in ways they wouldn’t to a stranger. But Liu has a gift for montage and a confident way with his camera, and the emotional heft of this debut is quietly overwhelming.

BEST OF THE FEST

Bisbee ‘17

The latest masterful mixture of narrative and non-fiction from director Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine, Actress) goes into the city of Bisbee, Arizona, as it approaches the centennial anniversary of the Bisbee Deportation, in which thousands of strikers (most of them immigrants) from the local copper mine were taken from the city by gunpoint, loaded onto trains, and sent into the New Mexico desert. As the city’s current residents commemorate and research the event, Greene extracts their ghost stories and folk tales, and stages a full, cinematic dramatization of the strike and deportation. The compositions, camera movements, and score are forceful – the climactic accumulation of elements is really quite astonishing – and the act of bringing the past to life in the present becomes a meta-textual commentary on keeping history safely distant. But it’s not; he observes even contemporary commenters insisting the conflict was neither anti-labor nor immigration, but a matter of “safety.” Greene doesn’t draw the line to current anti-immigrant rhetoric. He doesn’t have to.

Stay tuned – I’ll be back tomorrow with capsule reviews of 16 dramatic features from the ‘dance.