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HomeFestivalsSundance Diary #1: A Tale of Two Documentaries, and Which Festival Films...

Sundance Diary #1: A Tale of Two Documentaries, and Which Festival Films Have Early Buzz

At long last, the Sundance Film Festival returns to an in-person event this year, and while I made the pilgrimage to Park City, I have to be honest and admit that this year’s lineup is rather lacking. That’s why I’m approaching this year’s festival a bit differently, and I’m far more open to a sense of discovery rather than being preoccupied with this year’s major titles, which we’ll get to shortly.

First, we have to rewind to last year’s festival, where Cha Cha Real Smooth made a splash, selling to Apple for $15 million following a heated bidding war. Cooper Raiff’s comedy managed to find a place among my favorite films of the year, but it didn’t exactly set the world on fire, and it has barely been mentioned this awards season, which surely seemed unthinkable 12 months ago. Is the message there, buyer beware, or was that acquisition more about establishing a relationship with Raiff and “owning” Sundance two years in a row?

This year, the trades once again did their due diligence and talked to the major sales agents about what their “hot titles” are, and sometimes the agents are honest, and sometimes they inflate a title to drum up a little buzz heading into a festival, but they typically play it close to the vest and don’t publicize their personal feelings about a film.

So what sales titles are people excited to see?

Magazine Dreams
Jonathan Majors in Magazine Dreams/Sundance Film Festival

For starters, there’s Magazine Dreams starring Jonathan Majors, who is obviously about to blow up between his villainous turns in both Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, where he’ll play Kang the Conqueror, and Creed III, where he’ll play Michael B. Jordan‘s main opponent. He has already earned raves for his turn as a volatile young man who aspires to be a famous bodybuilder and is willing to do almost anything to become one. It’s directed by up-and-comer Elijah Bynum, and co-stars Haley Bennett and Taylour Paige.

Cat Person is a hot one, if only because it’s based on a New Yorker story that went viral, and boasts an impressive young cast that includes Emilia Jones (CODA), Nicholas Braun (Succession), and Geraldine Viswanathan (Bad Education).

Eileen stars Anne Hathaway and Thomas McKenzie, and hails from William Oldroyd, the director of Lady Macbeth, which made a star of Florence Pugh. It was written by acclaimed author Otessa Moshfegh, which may be enough to pique buyers’ interest.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Eve Hewson star in Flora and Son, the new film from John Carney, the director of classic musicals such as Once and Sing Street. It follows a mother and son who form a band with help from his guitar teacher (Gordon-Levitt), and it sounds like it could be a charmer.

The other hot movie here already has distribution, and that’s Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool, which Neon will release in theaters later this month. Cronenberg proved himself worthy of the family name with his most recent film, Possessor, and I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers about his latest effort.

Other individuals to keep an eye on include Cynthia Erivo (Drift), Daisy Ridley (Sometimes I Think About Dying), Ben Whishaw (Passages), Alden Ehrenreich (Fair Play), Brian Imanuel (Jamojaya), director Thembi Banks (Young. Wild. Free.), and first-time filmmaker Randall Park (Shortcomings).

I arrived in Park City on Friday following a connecting flight in Phoenix, and promptly made my way to my condo, which has spotty internet (so much for online screenings) and no refrigerator, forcing me to hide the milk I bought in a nearby snowbank. Off to a good start, right?

Amenities aside, the festival did get off to a good start for me, as I loved Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, which will debut on Apple TV+ later this year. The documentary takes a loving look at the actor’s incredible career, from Family Ties and Back to the Future to Spin City and ultimately, the biggest role of his life — the public face of Parkinson’s disease.

Justice movie
Brett Kavanaugh in Justice/Sundance Film Festival

I’ll further discuss Still shortly, but I followed that film with a screening of Justice, Doug Liman’s documentary about Brett Kavanaugh, which was a last-minute addition to the festival. Liman has said that the film couldn’t have been announced with the rest of the Sundance lineup, as there would’ve been an injunction issued to prevent its release. Sure…

This all makes for good PR that should help the movie find a buyer, but gimme a break… this is just showmanship from an industry veteran. Justice sheds little light on the Kavanaugh case, conflating Christine Blasey Ford‘s harrowing testimony with the story of Deborah Ramirez, and while that story is completely believable, I’m not sure it resonates like Ford’s, and the “smoking gun” introduced in the third act, a recording of Max Stier recalling another abusive incident allegedly involving Kavanaugh, doesn’t exactly change minds. I’m pretty sure that you’ll leave this film with whatever opinion you had before it.

Kavanaugh is likely a pig and a liar who perjured himself on the stand during his confirmation hearing, and perhaps his poor judgment as a young man should be enough for his removal from the Supreme Court, but Liman’s film never really contends with the question of what the appropriate consequences should be. It’s more like a call for further investigation, considering the appalling lack of one from the FBI, which may be the most alarming thing to come out of Justice. If no one is checking out that tipline, I shudder to think how many other tiplines ultimately lead to nowhere and nothing.

While I fully acknowledge Liman’s honorable intentions with Justice, it’s pretty clear that he’s not a documentary filmmaker, as it feels like you’re watching the kind of documentary  that C-Span might greenlight if it had its own streaming service called C-Span+. In that sense, it is the polar opposite of Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, which hails from Davis Guggenheim… a noted documentary filmmaker. The difference is night and day.

Still feels pretty raw, as Fox opens up in a courageous way, not just about his physical struggles, but about how fame gave him something of a big head, and how his wife, Tracy Pollan, helped him deal with both issues. The editing from Michael Harte is kinetic, and the film has real energy, likely because its subject does. Not only will this film make you cry, as the story is fairly heartbreaking, but it’ll make you laugh in equal measure, as Fox remains as charming as ever. I adored this movie, which will also force you to think about your own life, what you want to be remembered for, and who you want to be remembered by.

That’ll do it for our first dispatch from Park City, where last night’s midnight movies, In My Mother’s Skin and Polite Society, each entered the festival with distribution, from Amazon Prime Video and Focus Features, respectively. I’ll be skipping Infinity Pool tonight to see the other midnight movie Talk to Me, and hopefully, I’ll be able to catch Magazine Dreams this afternoon. For now, I’m off to, yes, another documentary — this one about the cult responsible for the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

Grades: 

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie: A-

Justice: C+

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