By KENNETH TURAN - FILM CRITIC
For 50-plus weeks of the year, Park City, Utah, happily presents itself as the home of the world’s largest ski resort and all that that implies. But for the next 10 days, something bigger comes to town, something so consuming that one luxury hotel felt safe promising potential guests there would be “virtually NO ONE on the mountain.”
That would be the Sundance Film Festival, the independent film colossus, which last year attracted 122,000 attendees from 48 states and 35 countries and generated $182.5 million in economic activity, numbers even the massive ski mecca would find hard to match.
Speaking of numbers, a record 15,100 films were submitted for the 2020 event, including 3,853 features, which the festival narrowed down to 118 from 27 countries, all to be viewed by 1,300 accredited journalists, which is a scary number all by itself.
Because Sundance is so good at drawing a crowd, it attracts other entities as well, including media powerhouses intent on showcasing their inclusive sides. Audiobook giant Audible, for instance, will debut at the festival with the Audible Speakeasy, “where stories are stirred, shaken and spoken” and AT&T is behind both the WarnerMedia Lodge (“elevating storytelling with AT&T”) and a three day HBO, TNT and TBS pop-up named Our Stories To Tell.
Those hungry for a throwback to the festival’s earlier, rowdier days will be happy to hear that an 8-foot-tall Bigfoot, a competitor in a World Taxidermy Championship, is scheduled to make appearances on Main Street to promote “Big Fur,” a documentary screening at Slamdance, the rival Park City film festival.
As to what’s screening at Sundance itself, the news is good. Having had the opportunity to sample a variety of what’s in store, I was struck not only by the continued remarkable strength of the festival’s documentaries but also by the involving adult dramas that are rare elsewhere but plentiful here. Here are the films that made the strongest impression on me:
“The Father”: What could be better than superb acting by Anthony Hopkins as a maddeningly difficult 80-year-old dad and Olivia Colman as his trying-to-cope daughter?
“Farewell Amor”: A gift for conveying delicate emotion by debuting director Ekwa Msangi infuses this story of an Angolan family reuniting in New York after a 17-year gap.
“The Last Shift”: Richard Jenkins and Shane Paul McGhie excel as a man leaving a fast-food night shift after 38 years and his unhappy replacement, respectively. Doesn’t at all go where you think it will.
“The Assistant”: Tackles the incendiary subject of workplace degradation with remarkable cool conviction.
“I Carry You With Me”: An impressive Spanish-language narrative debut by documentary veteran Heidi Ewing follows a gay love story over 20 years and two countries.
“Herself”: Irish actress Clare Dunne co-wrote a very moving part for herself as a mother of three facing adversity without end.
“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made”: A Disney+ charmer for kids directed by Tom McCarthy about a super serious fifth-grade detective and his imaginary partner: a 1,500-pound polar bear.
“Lost Girls”: The first drama by documentarian Liz Garbus stars a commanding Amy Ryan as a mother pushing for answers when her sex worker daughter is murdered.
“Ironbark”: Based-on-fact spy dramas are always a treat, especially when starring Benedict Cumberbatch as an ordinary man drawn into the maelstrom of the Cuban missile crisis.
“Nine Days”: As offbeat and enigmatic as speculative drama gets, writer-director Edson Oda posits that personified souls apply for the privilege of being born. One of a kind, though reminiscent of Kore-eda’s brilliant “After Life.”
“Tesla”: Ethan Hawke plays the legendary star-crossed scientist, and electric car namesake, in Michael Almereyda’s unconventional biography of a very unconventional man.
“Charter”: From Sweden, a devastating story of a divorced woman and her fraught relationship with her children and her ex.
“The Glorias”: An unconventional Julie Taymor biopic about Gloria Steinem elevated by having several actresses, including Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore, play the role.
Sundance’s documentaries never steer you wrong, and I found that the ones I especially enjoyed could be divided into capacious categories. Most vivid, perhaps, are films about big personalities, people whose stories fill the screen with no trouble at all.
“Mucho Mucho Amor”: How celebrity astrologer Walter Mercado, who believed “to be different is a gift, to be ordinary is common” became an international sensation and “like a religion” to his followers.
“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind”: Daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner brings her keen, intimate perspective to the life of a powerful actress whose unexpected death “left a hole in our lives.”
“Whirlybird”: L.A.’s pioneering helicopter news pilot Bob Tur, known to be exceptionally aggressive in chasing stories, looks back on his life, having transitioned to Zoey Tur.
“The Go-Go’s”: A thorough and detailed account, made with current and past band members, detailing the rise, fall, and rise again of the beloved L.A. all-female band.
“Be Water”: Great clips and comments from everyone who was anyone in the life of Bruce Lee delve into his career and his concerns with family, culture and identity.
“Lance”: Marina Zenovich (“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”) constructs a blisteringly candid examination of the full-throttle personality of cyclist Lance Armstrong.
“Spaceship Earth”: The outlandish 1990s large-scale science experiment that was Biosphere 2 wouldn’t have happened without charismatic futurist John P. Allen.
“Rebuilding Paradise” A small town with an outsized personality comes back from the devastating Camp fire. Ron Howard directs.
Several of the bigger personalities on screen this year just happen to be involved with criminal activity. For instance:
“The Painter and the Thief”: One of those highly unlikely stories about the long strange trip of a friendship between an artist and a junkie she met after he stole her paintings.
“Love Fraud”: Veterans Rachel Grady and Ewing examine the depredations of a heartless lonely-hearts conman and the determination of the women who decide to take him on.
“Into the Deep”: When a Danish inventor murdered a young female journalist on his homemade submarine, an Australian filmmaker was already working on a film about him. This is the result.
“Assassins”: The story of the two women who took out the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is so bizarre you almost can’t believe it happened.
Though teenagers always factor in Sundance’s dramas, this year documentaries involving them are especially involving as well.
“Giving Voice”: The August Wilson Monologue Competition invites high schoolers to master the playwright’s dazzling writing. Six are followed, and as they explore the power of art to change lives, the results truly stir the soul.
“Boys State”: A high-energy fly-on-the-wall look at what happens when 1,000 Texas high school students gather over a week to wheel and deal and attempt to construct a representative government.
“Crip Camp”: Paradigm-shattering summers spent at an unusual camp in the Catskills had a formative effect on individuals who went on to become disability rights activists.
“The Reason I Jump”: A sensitive attempt to be “an envoy from another world,” to explain the potentially impenetrable universe of autism from the inside.
Always a major documentary category at Sundance are the films that look at society’s attempts to grapple with political and social issues. The best ones this year include:
“The Cost of Silence”: A mystery inside a disaster details how the use of chemical dispersants after 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling explosion caused extensive illness that was covered up.
“The Social Dilemma”: A provocative look, powered by renegade tech insiders, at how “surveillance capitalism” wants to manipulate our lives.
“Collective”: A knockout Romanian doc, already a hit at Venice and Toronto, that shows a variety of citizens who refused to be intimidated by entrenched corruption.
“The Fight”: A surprisingly lively behind-the-scenes look at how ACLU lawyers fight the government to uphold rights.
“A Thousand Cuts” and “Softie”: Two gripping films profiling remarkable journalists, the first in the Philippines, the second in Kenya, who expose government malfeasance at considerable personal cost.
“Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen”: A thoughtful, articulate examination of how Hollywood has portrayed gender-nonconforming people in the past.
“Coded Bias”: The concept of artificial intelligence sounds impressive, but it turns out all too human bias can easily slip into technology.
Finally, every Sundance has those one-of-a-kind, indescribable documentaries that are like nothing else. This year there were two:
“The Truffle Hunters”: Enter the remarkable world of elderly Northern Italians and their wonder dogs, the only individuals who know how to find super valuable white truffles. And they’re not telling.
“The Mole Agent”: Wry, charming, gently observational, this Chilean doc introduces the world’s oldest undercover agent, an 83-year-old man hired to see how a nursing home is doing its job. An AARP version of a John LeCarre film, and none the worse for that.