Before the 2017 Sundance Film Festival kicked off on January 19, a colleague joked on Twitter that the inauguration of Donald Trump — which occurred on the fest’s first full day — would frame every wrap-up piece. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be proven wrong.
The beginning of the Trump era cast a long shadow over the festival, in ways large and small. A march denouncing the new administration — headlined by celebrities including Chelsea Handler and Charlize Theron — took over Park City’s Main Street on Saturday, part of a series of nationwide protests. The feature documentary Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time was a late addition to the programming, and several other documentary features — including An Inconvenient Sequel, Quest, Dina and Nobody Speak — seemed to have been edited at the 11th hour in order to include Trump’s ascendance. People might have gone to a remote ski town to celebrate the art of film, but they weren’t going to escape the outside world.
When attendees finally made their way into theaters — a challenge nearly all week, as a series of storms pounded Park City with several inches of snow — they saw films that often explored the volatility and uncertainty of that outside world. Possible misconduct by law enforcement was explored from two perspectives: the Ferguson, Missouri, protests of Whose Streets? and the attempts to reform the embattled Oakland, California, police department in The Force. Other documentaries focused on environmental crises, from An Inconvenient Sequel to Chasing Coral. Popular uprisings even made their way into feature films like the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Prize winner The Nile Hilton Incident, which effectively set a film noir mystery of institutional corruption against the backdrop of Egypt’s 2011 Tahrir Square protests.
And, as often happens with Sundance films, they also offered a window into parts of the outside world you might never have known existed. Did you know that the reindeer-herding nomadic Sami people were an oppressed minority in Sweden? You’d learn a lot about them in Sami Blood, Amanda Kernell’s fascinating, heartbreaking drama about a Sami girl desperately trying to integrate herself into the mainstream of her society. What about the phenomenon of Japanese “idols” — mostly teen internet celebrities-cum-would-be-pop-stars — and their largely male, considerably older fanbase? Director Kyoko Miyake provided a wonderful insight into that world in Tokyo Idols, while also offering perspective on a larger Japanese culture perversely obsessed with youthful female innocence. Or perhaps it never occurred to you what unique relationship challenges might face two people in love who happen to have Asperger’s Syndrome, as we found in the sensitive, surprising U.S. Documentary Grand Prize winner Dina.
It was also inevitable — as is ever the case in a movie showcase that coincidentally overlaps with the announcement of the Academy Awards nominations — that people would wonder if they might discover the next Manchester By the Sea, a 2016 Sundance premiere that went on to be an Oscars front-runner. Among the likelier prospects was Mudbound, director Dee Rees’ adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel that crafted an uncomfortably relevant story about the post-World War II friendship between two ex-GIs — one black (Jason Mitchell) and one white (Garrett Hedlund) — returning to segregated 1945 Mississippi. Better still was yet another literary adaptation — director Luca Guadagnino’s version of André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name — which combined a coming-of-age narrative with a beautifully sensitive romance between a 17-year-old boy (sensational newcomer Timothée Chalamet) and his academic father’s summer research assistant (Armie Hammer), and gave Michael Stuhlbarg a lump-in-the-throat “fatherly wisdom” speech for the ages.
Every year, though, Sundance’s greatest appeal is the chance to discover a new filmmaker with that special something. Maggie Betts made the transition from documentary to drama with the uniquely challenging “Catholic nuns in the 1960s” tale Novitiate. Writer/director Cory Finley walked the razor’s edge of social satire in Thoroughbred, a dark comedy about a rich girl (Anya Taylor-Joy), her sociopathic best friend (Olivia Cooke) and thoughts of murder. Then there was the small miracle of Columbus, the feature debut of film critic Kogonada, who turned the unique modernist architecture mecca of Columbus, Indiana, into the backdrop for an unexpected friendship, featuring a stunning performance by Haley Lu Richardson and a breathtaking master class in shot composition.
The festival’s single grandest achievement, however, came from a Sundance alumnus: David Lowery, who reunited his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for the haunting, jaw-droppingly profound meditation on mortality and attachment A Ghost Story. Perhaps there was something particularly fitting, during a festival marked by anxiety about the future, for its one true masterpiece to be about how this, like all things, shall pass.
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