Three documentaries on cultural figures of near-religious obsession held center stage the first weekend of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Two of them, Susan Lacy’s probing but self-contradictory “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” and Marina Zenovich’s warm but glancing “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” will soon air on HBO. The third, Morgan Neville’s gorgeous “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” about Fred (“Mr.”) Rogers, will be distributed by PBS. Fonda hits its beats predictably, and the sanitized Williams would’ve been better as a “Greatest Hits” of Williams’ stand-up. But “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” gives you the feeling you’ve just come out of a room with Rogers himself — and that is a good feeling. But PBS is PBS, and HBO is HBO, so maybe 30 people, generously, will watch (and cry during) Won’t You Be My Neighbor. And I liked it about 10 times better than the other two put together.
That’s the beauty of Sundance — in the albeit elitist isolation of the Rockies, where everything is a world premiere, movies can be judged neither by their box office nor the notices they warrant, but by their quality, in the crucible of a community of filmgoers genuinely excited to see every picture. The lack of advance notice works to the benefit of some films, like Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher,” based on the 2014 Israeli film of the same name and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as a dissatisfied Staten Island educator and self-styled aesthete. The film’s first half-hour is almost painfully mundane, which is why Gyllenhaal’s performance, which very gradually warps into the terrifying with careful, near-superhuman deliberation, comes as a delicious shock. Other movies don’t do so well in a vacuum, like Ben Lewin’s “The Catcher Was a Spy,” a World War II docudrama so slight it can barely be said to exist. If all one knew about a film was that it starred Paul Rudd (as a baseball-player-turned-assassin), Paul Giamatti (as a physicist), and Mark Strong (a brutish English stage actor playing, for some reason, Werner Heisenberg), and was written by Robert Rodat of “Saving Private Ryan” fame, one might expect something of it. This, unfortunately, would be a mistake. It’s an hour and 25 minutes long, and feels like 15.
If you want a biopic with Sundance street cred, you’d be much better off with Wash Westmoreland’s “Colette,” based on the early life of the French novelist of the same name. It too, starts slow, but thanks to stars Keira Knightley, as Colette, and Dominic West, as Colette’s husband, a phony author for whom Colette ghostwrote, it soon ratchets into gear. I cannot remember the last time a film dealt with fraught sexual politics more satisfyingly, quite apart from the fact that the whole film is a marvel to look at. Carlos López Estrada’s “Blindspotting,” the opening night film this year, is visually splendid too, but has racial politics on its mind. Star and co-writer Daveed Diggs, late of Hamilton, witnesses a police shooting in Oakland and deals with the consequences in a stylish, elevated romp that resembles nothing so much as an extended music video. (That’s meant as a compliment — that medium is where Estrada got his start, and he’s mastered it.) It’s a pity this style minimizes a climactic confrontation for Diggs’ character. I’ll stay mum, but let’s just say the film — though wonderfully, breezily enjoyable — can’t make up its mind whether or not it’s a musical.
The real visual stunner of the festival is Paul Dano’s “Wildlife” (based on the 1990 novel of the same name). Co-written by Dano and Zoe Kazan, Wildlife is disciplined and reserved; it’s miles better than their previous screenplay, Ruby Sparks, which was pretty damn good. Jake Gyllenhaal is tensed and frightening as a husband and father who abandons his wife (Carey Mulligan) and son (Ed Oxenbould, in a thrilling debut) to fight a wildfire in the hills of 1960s Montana. (As an aside—this is the second Jake Gyllenhaal film, after Brokeback Mountain, in which he abandons his wife in favor of the hills of 1960s Montana. Typecast much?) Dano’s directorial debut is almost overwhelmingly beautiful. Courtesy of cinematographer Diego Garcia, every frame is a near-masterwork, lending the film a spare and dangerous, but transcendent, atmosphere.
Duds this year were few and far between. The only stiff of note is Bridey Elliott’s confused “Clara’s Ghost,” a vanity project in every sense of the word. The film stars the writer/director and her immediate family (including Chris and Abby Elliott) as a drunken, warring family of performers beset by supernatural phenomena (maybe) and cruelty-induced insanity (definitely). It sounds a lot better than it is — everyone’s appropriately unlikeable, but so is the film. Family drama is served far better by Elizabeth Chomko’s “What They Had,” a saga of dementia — Blythe Danner plays the affected matriarch — that skirts cliche with alacrity. It helps that everybody in it is great; anything with Danner, Michael Shannon, Hilary Swank and Robert Forster will necessarily be a good time at the theater. But there’s something real and uncomfortable about Chomko’s story that really hits home. It’s a story of a family backed into a corner with no exit strategy, and Chomko gives that reality the space it needs to sink in.
The ultimate question — once out of snowy Park City, UT, is which of these films are most likely to force their way into the public consciousness come awards season, or even the Montclair Film Festival in May? Well, “Wildlife,” for sure, based on the talent behind it and its true staying power, but edging it out for the two best films I saw at the festival were Joshua Marston’s “Come Sunday” and, especially, Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life.” Marston, who gave us last year’s awful “Complete Unknown,” which also played Sundance, turns on a dime for this true story of a Pentecostal televangelist, Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor, characteristically extraordinary), who ceases to believe in Hell, and preaches his discovery — much to the chagrin of his conservative audience. Structurally, it may be the strongest film of the festival; Marcus Hinchey’s script is tight and engrossing, and Marston ensures the story never drags for a second. Most notably, like Pearson’s megachurch in Tulsa, the film’s cast is as integrated and diverse as real life — it’s not a story of racial harmony, but it negates the preconception that racial tension is the default, which is brave in itself. If there’s any Sundance standout that can really be said to be Oscar bait (in the positive sense), this is it.
“Come Sunday” is great, but “Private Life” is a revelation. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn shine as an artistic couple struggling to get pregnant in their 40s, buttressed by Jenkins’ extraordinary achievement as a filmmaker. The work and love she clearly lavished on the film’s complex, frequently hilarious, often touching, consistently brilliant script are evident from start to finish. In the tradition of the great screenwriters, most recently Kenneth Lonergan, Jenkins (whose last film was 2007’s Academy-Award-nominated “The Savages”) proves that upper-tier movies can actually be true to life, without compromise. It is a completely honest work of art.
It bears mentioning that these two films had both been acquired by Netflix before the festival even began. What this means for the industry I’m not equipped to say, but if Sundance merely becomes a showcase for dueling online-only streaming services to peddle their wares, so be it. If it ain’t broke…