By Ty Burr
PARK CITY, Utah — No one talks about the magpies at Sundance. They’re everywhere: big, beautiful black-and-white birds with iridescent wings and jet-stream tail feathers, hopping through parking lots and squawking like their cousins the crows. Like crows, they sift through detritus, looking for shiny stuff and tossing the junk. Like festivalgoers, too, who ignore the magpies while rushing from screening to screening.
Sundance 2020 has had a fair amount of shiny stuff and not a lot of junk — it’s a low-energy year for this storied film festival but hardly a bad one. The one major offering the moviegoing magpies have rejected out of hand has been “The Last Thing He Wanted,” a Netflix project adapted from a Joan Didion novel by director Dee Rees (“Mudbound”) and starring Anne Hathaway, Willem Dafoe, and Ben Affleck. Despite all that talent, this political thriller set in the jungles of Central America during the Reagan era is a rare Sundance disaster. The plot is incomprehensible, the dialogue impenetrable, the chemistry between Hathaway and Affleck nonexistent. Plus, a dog gets blown up. Some bad movies can be fun. This is not one of them.
Much better to talk about the unexpected jewels picked off the ground — like “Time,” a translucent tone-poem of a documentary from Garrett Bradley, about the tireless Fox Rich’s 20-year struggle to free her husband from prison. Or “Palm Springs,” a delightful unicorn of a movie starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti that puts the classic rom-com through a “Groundhog Day” Mixmaster. If “Time” moved me to tears, “Palm Springs” made me laugh harder than any other movie here.
Not surprisingly, this comedy from the Lonely Island collective was picked up: by theatrical distributor Neon and streaming platform Hulu for $17.5 million and 69 cents — the latter whimsically tacked on just to break the festival’s previous sales record.
Other than that, it hasn’t been a big year for deals. Seemingly half the movies on the schedule are already owned by Netflix, with smaller fare like “Time” arriving in town looking for distribution. Two of my other festival favorites, Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” and Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” already have deals in place, with A24 and Focus Features, respectively. “Minari” doesn’t have a release date yet, though, and this delicate and at times very funny memory play about a Korean family trying to start a farm in rural Arkansas was here to test audience reaction. You should look out for it: The well-known Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead,” “Burning”) plays the father, but the movie’s stolen by newcomer Alan S. Kim as his young son and veteran Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung as a rascal of a grandma.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will be in theaters in March, and this muted but powerful drama about a 17-year-old girl (first-timer Sidney Flanigan) traveling with her cousin (Talia Ryder) from rural Pennsylvania to New York City for an abortion will hopefully find an audience. The title becomes clear in a remarkable sequence set in a clinic, a prolonged close-up where we see everything the closed-off heroine can’t say playing across her face.
As ever, Sundance remains a place for celebrity-spotting. Ethan Hawke, who’s on the jury for US dramatic film, could be seen popping into screenings, as well as onscreen in the title role of “Tesla,” Michael Almereyda’s impressively stylized biopic of Nicola Tesla, inventor of the alternating-current electric system and rival of Thomas Edison (Kyle Maclachlan, nearly swiping the show). Hillary Clinton was in town accompanying Nanette Burstein’s four-hour documentary “Hillary,” and Gloria Steinem shared audience Q&As with Julie Taymor, director of “The Glorias,” in which four actresses, including Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander, play the feminist pathfinder at different ages.
For a critic, some of the most intriguing suspense involves filmmakers who’ve scored big at Sundance in the past and are back in town with follow-ups. Back in 2012, Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” hit Park City like a folkloric supernova; after eight long years, he returned with his sophomore feature, “Wendy,” a shambolic reimagining of “Peter Pan.” It unfolds with much the same proto-mythic style as “Beasts” but with half the impact, and while there are marvelous things in it “Wendy” feels like a step sideways rather than forward. A disappointment, but a qualified one.
Somewhat more successful was “Shirley,” from Josephine Decker, whose “Madeline’s Madeline” was a highlight of Sundance 2018. A lot of that has to do with the casting: Elisabeth Moss as “The Lottery” author Shirley Jackson, locked in a crazed power struggle with her professor husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), while mesmerizing a young faculty wife played by Odessa Young. Decker’s woozy experimental style works beautifully in some scenes and feels strained in others, but overall the movie serves as an inspired mash-up of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Persona.”
Sometimes you find the shiny stuff just before you leave town. My second-to-last Sundance movie this year — the festival continues to run until Feb. 2 — was “The Truffle Hunters,” a charmer of a documentary about old Italian men carrying on a dying tradition with their beloved dogs. The film could hit the “Honeyland” sweet spot now that Sony Pictures Classics has picked it up, and any movie that includes a high-speed dog-cam really deserves to.
“Nine Days” sent me home on an earnest, provocative high. The meta-metaphysical concept of writer-director Edson Oda’s debut feature could easily go south: Unborn souls are interviewed in a beachfront Limbo by a troubled heavenly bureaucrat (Winston Duke of “Black Panther”). The wit and ingenuity of the details in this imagined inter-world, plus committed performances from Duke, Zazie Beetz (“Joker”), and Benedict Wong transform what might have been a misfired curio into a rich speculative drama on life and destiny. More than anything, “Nine Days” feels wholly original. It’s proof that moviegoing magpies can still find one-of-a-kind baubles if they look long enough.