The Best and Worst Movies of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival

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The Sundance Film Festival closed up shop yesterday, ending 11 days of premieres, competition, and deal-making — and leaving festival-goers and critics to contemplate the independent, foreign, and documentary films that will likely dominate those landscapes for the months to come. Your film editor was among them, and I came away with a strange sense of disappointment; I didn’t fly out of Park City feeling like I’d seen films that I’d still be talking about a year from now, the way I did after experiencing You Were Never Really Here or Private Life last year. Then again, it’s all a crap shoot at these big festivals; due to assignments or poor choices, there’s a very good chance I just didn’t see the best stuff. (The festival awards were dominated by things I missed.) And it’s not like I saw a lot of bad stuff anyway; most of the films I made it to were good-to-great. So here are some thoughts on those:

(Sundance Institute)

BIO-DOCS Sundance’s non-fiction slate has, for the past several years, boasted more than a few feature-length profiles of interesting people — last year’s slate included the summer doc smashes RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. These films rarely break the mold stylistically, but often succeed in engaging and enlightening.

Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins

Early in Janice Engel’s profile of the beloved (and reviled) political commentator, we see her explain why she got into journalism: “To do good and raise hell and learn.” She did all three. This masterfully cut and endlessly funny documentary tells a uniquely American story, and a mini-history of contemporary journalism to boot, following Ivins through various gigs and markets, watching her try (and often fail) to find her place, before settling in as a columnist who became the single most incisive critic of George W. Bush and his administration. But the genius of Engel’s approach is its refusal to cast itself as history, and its best passages intercut her political theory with specific, modern examples. In doing so, she brings Ivins’ words from the past into the present — where we need them more than ever.

Where’s My Roy Cohn?

In considering the rancid garbage fire that our country has become, it’s not only easy but trite to make big pronouncements like, “To understand Trump, you have to understand Roy Cohn.” But in this case, it’s a direct line: Trump met the legendary junkyard dog lawyer at 23 and considered him a mentor, and his lessons are clear: attack, fight, smear, divert, and never admit you’re wrong. This jam-packed, intelligent bio-doc from director Matt Tyrauner (Studio 54) hits the expected high points — the Rosenbergs, the Army-McCarthy hearings, the rise to power in New York City, his closeted lifestyle and death from AIDS-related illness — but the archival interviews and contemporaneous coverage are still shocking and powerful. This is a scorching portrait of a real S.O.B., and an insightful analysis of the darkness he represents.

(Sundance Institute)

VERY GOOD DOCS

Memory – The Origins of ‘Alien’

Alexandre O. Philippe, director of the Psycho shower scene examination 78/52, is back with another deep-dive for film nerds, this time delving into the making of Ridley Scott’s influential 1979 sci-fi/horror classic. The more direct subject can make this one feel, at times, like a Blu-ray bonus feature, but Philippe keeps his fluidity and peculiarity intact, not only contextualizing the film’s creation and release, but delving into the many influences — everything from forgotten comic books to Greek mythology — that manifested themselves in Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s screenplay. Rich with new and archival interviews, rare footage and sketches, and enlightening comparison shots, it’s still definitely for fans (and fans with deep familiarity) of Alien. But boy are they gonna love this.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

A few years back, medical “disrupter” Elizabeth Holmes was showing up on magazine covers and at presidential forums, and her company Theranos was valued at nearly $10 billion. “Four years later, it was worth less than zero,” intones director/narrator Alex Gibney, whose documentary is a post-mortem of a fraud, conducted with surgical precision. He dives deep into the specifics of this company and its CEO/founder, detailing how she fooled investors and influencers, the jaw-dropping secrecy and paranoia that kept the ruse going, and breathtaking speed with which the entire house of cards collapsed. Gibney lays it all out with his usual investigative acumen, but doesn’t stop there; this is also a sly indictment of how big tech is reported on — and often valorized. And that problem isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.

Shooting the Mafia

Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia took striking, forceful images, alternating Weegee-style crime photography with portraits of the poverty and grief left in the wake of that crime. Much of it was organized by the Mafia, and Battaglia loved to upset the power dynamic therein; “Mafia men were so arrogant,” she recalls, “imagine how they felt, being photographed by a woman!” Director Kim Longinotto gives equal time to her colorful past (wittily illustrated with old movie clips) and her photographic philosophy; the result is a a thoughtful examination of this legacy of crime, told by an up-close-and-personal observer.

(Sundance Institute)

THE BIG BUYS Amazon was the big spender at Sundance this year, making lucrative deals in pursuit of the next Manchester By The Sea or The Big Sick. Will this year’s potential crowd-pleasers live up to the payouts?

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Jillian Bell is a stick of dynamite — immediately likable and immediately funny saying damn near anything — and for its first hour or so, Brittany Runs a Marathon looks like the ideal starring vehicle for her specific gifts, telling the story of a New Yorker in an rut (bad health, bad job, bad life) who decides to get her act together. You like her, and root for her, even when (in a nice twist) writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo turns her into a bit of a jerk. But he seems to surrender to formula in the back stretch, which is a huge disappointment; it’s certainly not the first wild comedy to take itself too seriously, but the near-total absence of jokes is odd and distressing, transforming a sharp personality comedy into a serious self-help drama and then, weirdly, a New York marathon infomercial. But the pieces that work, really work — hopefully it will inspire someone to write Bell the full-scale comedy vehicle she deserves.

Late Night

International treasure Emma Thompson and reliably delightful Mindy Kaling team for this inside showbiz comedy about long-running talk show host Katherine Newbury (Thompson) who is on the verge of a network dismissal, and Molly (Kaling) the “diversity hire” for her all-male, all-white writers’ room that helps turn it around. In its rhythms, joke rapidity, and flat style, “Late Night” feels very much like a movie made by TV people. But that’s also a virtue — this feels like a story told from the inside out, wise to the ways of the industry. Thompson is glorious, her crackerjack comic timing turning even her roughest lines into polished gems. (Full review here.)

Katrina Marcinowski

(Sundance Institute)

TEE-VEE Most big film festivals have, in recent years, taken advantage of the rise of television to fill out their slates. Sundance doesn’t offer up as many as, say, SXSW or Tribeca, but what they had this year was choice.

Now Apocalypse

“This show is f*cking insane,” Gregg Araki announced in his introduction to the premiere of the first three episodes of his new STARZ series. “That they even let us do this? It’s amazing.” It’s set in the Los Angeles entertainment industry, and it feels written from inside it; the scripts (written by Araki and Karley Sciortino) have this circle of wannabes and hustlers down cold. It starts out rough — the opening scenes are downright painful, and a couple of the roles were clearly cast for looks over skill (not a new issue for Mr. Araki). But once introductions are made and the director settles in, it’s a lot of fun; quirky, unapologetically queer, and sex-positive (even when, quite entertainingly, exploring bad sex), it finds the right goofy, candy-coated vibe, and sticks with it.

Lorena

This Jordan Peele-produced, four-part docu-series clearly exists because of O.J.: Made in America, and it’s great for the same reason: it’s a nuanced, up-close examination of a sleazy, tabloid-friendly story that was ultimately about more than it seemed. Because the story of Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt wasn’t just the smirky, easy punchline of a severed penis; it was about domestic abuse, marital rape, ethnic stereotypes, pseudo-celebrity, and much more. Director Joshua Rofé uses an inventive, informative structure, minimal and tasteful reenactments, well-chosen archival footage, and penetrating new interviews (and too many drone shots, but that’s neither here nor there) to tell this messy, complicated story with clarity and purpose. It’s a must-see.

(Sundance Institute)

ORDEALS Some movies are easier to watch than others. These are among the latter.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

One of the many real news reports included in Joe Berlinger’s Ted Bundy docudrama includes a description of the trial attendees as “spectators drawn by a fascination with the brutal details of the crime,” and if that’s not a cinematic subtweet, I don’t know what is — particularly when Berlinger’s companion Bundy Netflix docu-series dropped the same weekend as Extremely Wicked’s Sundance debut. Our current true crime obsession means trivializing these acts, and it’s tempting to say that this film does the same thing, fixating as it does on the Dr. Jekyll domestic portion of his double life rather than the Mr. Hyde monster. But that’s the point; this is a psychological profile, just as interested in Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), Bundy’s long-time (and long-suffering) girlfriend. How does someone live a double life like this for so long? What’s it like to stand by him during it? And, most importantly, what kind of residual guilt does one feel afterwards? These are compelling questions, and if Berlinger doesn’t answer them all satisfactorily, there’s plenty to chew on here.

The Nightingale

The latest from director Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) is an unremittingly bleak and brutal work, full of horrifying images and a particular scene of violence and terror so ugly and haunting, it’s hard to recommend the picture at all. But if you can withstand that, there’s no questioning the skill and craft Kent displays here; she tells the story of a young woman’s quest for revenge from a uniquely feminine perspective, placing her squarely in a world where every look and aside is a threat, even before those threats are carried out. Some of the flourishes are heavy-handed, and a key decision by the protagonist is left frustratingly unexplained and ill-defined. But there are scenes of real power here, and a lead performance by Aisling Franciosi that is impossible to shake.

(Sundance Institute)

GOOD TIMES And sometimes you just wanna have fun. These were fun.

Velvet Buzzsaw

The latest from Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) is an L.A. art world satire, so there’s something wonderfully unaware about an audience here, of all places, chuckling at the pretentious ideas, descriptions, and criticisms. And make no mistake, Gilroy is aiming at some very soft target. But there’s a real nutjob playfulness to this one, a giddy willfulness to unexpectedly swerve off the road (literally, at one point), beginning in fairly straightforward territory before introducing elements that feel closer to Final Destination than any of his earlier work. Strong work by an enviable ensemble cast, with particular praise due to Daveed Diggs (who has one of the all-time great reaction shots) and Jake Gyllenhaal as an art critic who can’t even turn it off at a funeral. (“What is with that cheesy organ music? And that casket, what is that color?”)

Blinded by the Light

Gurinder Chadha’s story of a Pakistani teen in Thatcher’s England who finds inspiration and solace in the music of Bruce Springsteen features one of the most joyful sequences in recent memory, a full-on dancing-in-the-streets musical number to “Born to Run” that hit me in the same way “Drive It Like You Stole It” did in Sing Street, three Sundances back. The rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that sequence, but in all fairness, how could it?

BEST PERFORMANCES

Them That Follow

Earnest, and maybe a tad overwrought, this is nevertheless an affecting (and, frankly, sympathetic) portrait of backwoods fundamentalism — and I mean old-school, fire-and-brimstone, speaking in tongues, snake-waving fundamentalism. Alice Englert is Mara, the daughter of the local pastor (Walton Goggins), who gets herself into a bit of trouble with a boy outside the church, just as she’s being married off to a bland dolt within it. Englert is an excellent vessel for this deeply empathetic movie (we’re right there alongside her, all the way), and Goggins is terrific, capturing both the character’s charisma and stubbornness. But the sharpest performance comes from Olivia Colman, who completely disappears into her portrait of the devout woman who mothers the community — and knows all its secrets.

(Sundance Institute)

BEST OF THE FEST (DOCUMENTARY)

Midnight Family

The health of the citizens of Mexico City is, increasingly, in the hands of a loose system of private ambulance companies (there are less than 50 government ambulances in the entire metropolis). Director Luke Lorentzen spotlights one of those companies, the family business of the Ochoas, adopting a fly-on-the-wall approach that captures the chaos of their accident scenes and the wait forever/go-go-go nature of their existence. It’s a harrowing picture, not just in its fast pace and life-and-death stakes, but for the moral ambiguity of its protagonists, which becomes clearer the longer we ride along.

(Sundance Institute)

BEST OF THE FEST (NARRATIVE)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

It is perhaps too easy to draw the line from Joe Talbot’s Bay-based comedy drama to last year’s Sundance hits Blindspotting (focusing, as it does, on a pair of wayward buddies) or Sorry to Bother You (particularly in its splashes of absurdist humor). But there’s clearly something of note happening in San Francisco and Oakland that’s giving us these aesthetically vibrant and emotionally charged work, and I say, let’s see more of it. Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors take over Jimmie’s recently-vacated childhood home (“What if we shouldn’t be here?” “Who should be here? Some millionaire?”), but to front-page the plot is to sell the picture wrong; this is a quiet ode to outcasts, and director Talbot has a strange, funny way of seeing the world. What a rare, borderline-indescribable treat this movie is.