Film Critic Harlan Jacobson on the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
It'’s Sundance film festival time, and this year’s edition, which closes this weekend by announcing winners in both feature and documentary competitions in the US and internationally, showed better than 100 feature length films from 23 countries, of which nearly 95% are world premieres. 32 films are by first time directors, and 17 were developed by Sundance in its own workshop labs.
There’s no way to master anything as sweeping or as complex as the Sundance Film Festival, or really any of the modern A-List international festivals like Cannes, Toronto, or Berlin, among a few others. Each have their flavors, this is true, and since they are market festivals – another way to say that is sales convention – they each manage to launch films into theaters increasingly less near you, or the streaming universe as near as your couch.
To situate Sundance right, it’s worth noting that this past Tuesday the Academy of MPA&S came out with its Oscar nominations for last year. They included the boxoffice soaring Topgun, the mallplex myth Elvis and the arthouse Triangle of Sadness, which all got their start in Cannes –in fact Triangle of Sadness won the Palme D’Or – for best picture. Also Tár came out of the Venice, Telluride and NY film festivals, The Fabelmans from Toronto, the great Exodus remake film Women Talking from Telluride, Toronto and New York, The Banshees of Inisherin from Venice and Toronto, and the darkhorse suddenly underdog favorite, Everything Everywhere All At Once from South by Southwest in Austin.
The Academy is itself a decidedly mainstream organization in demographic flux. In only two top categories, best adapted screenplay and actor, did Sundance 2022 make the Oscar nominee list, and that was for the quietly wonderful Living:
For Kazuo Ishiguro’s script adapted to 1950’s postwar London from Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru about a renegade Japanese bureaucrat
And for Bill Nighy as best actor as the rogue paper pusher who decides to get the people a park before he dies. However, Sundance 2022 documentaries—historically a strong suit – grabbed four of the 5 best doc slots.
Sundance’s still evolving mission in 2023 is to emphasize and cultivate racial, gender and minority storytelling in its selection of films and filmmakers. Oh, there are still films about the emotionally confused upper east and west siders of NYC, like festival favorite Nicole Holofcener’s non-competitive Premieres section film, You Hurt My Feelings – I think this film is why people in my native Ohio call us snowflakes – with a terrific cast led by Julia Louis-Dreyfus that has a wry soundtrack underscoring the emotional bumper-cars of the Millennial descendants of Woody Allen and the Gen X, Y and Z cousins of Jerry Seinfeld, spread out over 60 square blocks of precious real estate. I feel bad saying this, because I can tell by her IMDB picture that if I knew Nicole Holofcener, I’d probably like her. I don’t think I’m going to get the chance.
It's useful to understand that You Hurt My Feelings springs from the receding dominant gene from the original DNA of Sundance, going all the way back to the late 80s with Sex lives and video tape in 1989, which transformed Sundance from a ski with Bob thing to an international market maker, through Alexander Rockwell’s In the Soup, which trounced Quentin Tarantino’s debut film, Reservoir Dogs, for Grand Prize Winner in 1992, and even Holofcener’s own debut in 1996 with Walking and Talking, which in great indie tradition disgorged a boat load of talent including Catherine Keener, Anne Heche, Live Schrieber, Kevin Corrigan, Vinnie Pastore and Todd Field, who directed this year’s culturally daring Tár and five years before he directed his first film, In the Bedroom.
Most certainly, Sundance now and maybe always reflects the leading edge of Other Culture, aimed first at smaller arthouse audiences, but now prominently at home streamers.
I was transported by Little Richard: I am Everything. It's Lisa Cortes’ US competition doc about a black, gay femme guy named Penniman who, like Chuck Berry, carried a lifelong hurt that he launched rock and roll and the white boys ran with it. There’s nothing about process in Little Richard, unlike Peter Jackson’s 9-hour The Beatles: Get Back, which is extensively about what happened in the room where the music was made. We don’t see how Little Richard came up with “Long Tall Sally,” or how he got from his sexual experiences to the headboard shaking “Tutti Frutti.”
Cortes is focused elsewhere and brilliantly documents the theft, grievance and effect Little Richard had on the culture writ large before he died in 2020. Great use of archival footage by Cortes and her editors, and there is no better witness than Little Richard himself in Cortes’ grabs from archival interviews, laced with other testimonials from the likes of Mick, Paul and film charmer John Waters, whose big takeaway was Little Richard’s moustache, which he stole and kept for life.
[Watch WBGO's Jamara Wakefield's interview with Tamar-kali who scored the music for Little Richard: I Am Everything.]
In the art doc category is the provocative Squaring The Circle by heretofore Dutch music video director Anton Corbijn, who tells the story of Hipgnosis, the London based LP Cover art design partnership of Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson. The pair were art school renegades who caught the late 60’s early 70’s wave of psychedelia in their cover designs for Pink Floyd, Wings, Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, and stuck around long enough to get a lick in with the Sex Pistols.
Besides showing how the designs were built, the doc captures the tension especially pronounced then between pure art and corporate rules of engagement first in the music but in Squaring the Circle inside the design team that created the visual signage that has since disappeared in the digital age.
The docs also show a certain thirst for wisdom developing in filmmakers’ pursuit of subjects. Brewster and Stephenson’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project in the US Doc competition sketches out the arc traveled by the poet from her visit to her childhood home in Cincinnati to now in Virginia. As a child of North Avondale in Cincinnati, as was Steven Spielberg, I contemplate how we overlapped in a racially segregated city. Giovanni as a young woman in conversation with James Baldwin, a leitmotif of the film, holds her own. Or here when Giovanni smacks Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer for a missed opportunity to assert metaphorical dignity:
Going to Mars is nothing if not a tour of the evolution of the revolution, both in civil rights and feminism of the last 60 years.
Davis (The Inconvenient Truth) Guggenheim’s star profile doc, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, follows recent docs about Val Kilmer (Val) and Robert Downey Sr (Sr. produced by Jr.). It’s an evolving genre of demythologizing stars, which is only possible on film not in life. There’s a whole generation of Marty McFly kids out there hitting speed bumps in the time machine now. And nobody is more real about his struggle with Parkinson’s than Michael J.