Sundance 2021, Days 6-7: The Best (?) of the Rest of the Fest

7 02 2021

In a normal year, Park City really begins to clear out after about day 5. It gets prohibitively expensive to stick around for diminishing returns, and the only people still around (to the best of my understanding) are usually locals and press members with extensive institutional support. With a virtual festival, however, there are many more reasons to be a Sundance dead-ender.

Sundance previously incentivized attendance in the back half of the festival by providing a much cheaper second weekend pass, where many films played encore screenings based on previous response and demand. If you didn’t mind missing all the big-name celebrities who flew in for the red carpet, it was the perfect way to mainline the best of the fest. 2021 had some equivalent in day 7 being entirely movies that won awards, and the festival offered a special deal to watch just this day.

But before I could get to the big winners, I had to clear two titles getting a lot of online buzz that did not pick up any additional laurels.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland”

First up was Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (C / ), a Nicolas Cage-starring balls-to-the-wall action flick. I’ll be honest: I just never quite got on this film’s wavelength. It managed to be both too simple and too complex at the same time. There are no shortage of ideas and inventiveness on display, and Sono’s verve is undeniable. But this maelstrom of sound and fury essentially becomes “LOUD NOISES: The Movie” without a focus or framework to anchor it.

In many ways, my feelings about “Prisoners of the Ghostland” mirror that of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” another movie I think gets far too much credit for doing something simple in all-capital letters. The story is even somewhat similar as Cage’s ironically named criminal Hero must go on a rescue mission for a governor’s daughter (Sofia Boutella) in an ominous, foreboding universe. The strange peoples and communities with which he interacts add color to the film, but this is a man on a singular mission kind of movie. No amount of anachronistic Jim Croce needle-drops or spirited line readings made that any more exciting for me.

A few years ago, I played a trivia game that asked us to match Nicolas Cage memes or GIFs to the movie from which they originated. I ultimately suspect that being able to recognize “Prisoners of the Ghostland” in such a situation will be the primary value of my having watched the film.

“We Are All Going to the World’s Fair”

The title that seemed to slowly build the most buzz among a discerning set of critics at Sundance was Jane Schoenbrun’s “We Are All Going to the World’s Fair” (B / ), an Internet-focused film I suspect will outlive many of its peers that are laser-focused on topicality. In the film’s opening credits, Schoenbrun surveys the dying embers of commercialism and industry in a small town, which sets up the vibrancy of the Internet as an enticing foil to this bleak physical landscape. This does not explain the decision of lonely teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) to participate in the World’s Fair challenge, an online horror role-playing game, but it does at least contextualize it.

Schoenbrun invites us into the mystery, terror and perverse appeal of these scary spaces online with a distinct eye towards how people consume this content. A man watching a video on his phone while crouched on a toilet is all too real, as is the extended buffering icon before a new video plays. I’m not sure I found the slow-building tension between Casey and a protective, borderline paternalistic stranger (Michael J. Rogers) quite as convincing or compelling as just the way “We Are All Going to the World’s Fair” replicates that hypnotic algorithmic suck of the video-based web. This “very online” element of the film feels transgressive and innovative where the relationship anchors it to a more traditional narrative structure I’m not sure it needs. Of all the films in the NEXT section I screened, this is the one that felt like it was moving to goalposts for the medium.

“Jockey”

On the final official day of Sundance, I managed to squeeze in three award winners. The first, Clint Bentley’s “Jockey” (C+ / ), took home the fest’s only acting prize for star Clifton Collins, Jr. Sony Pictures Classics has already acquired the film, and they look likely to run a familiar playbook for awards glory. CCJ is an industry stalwart and beloved supporting player in titles spanning from “Traffic” to “Waves,” and he’s finally getting a well-publicized moment in the sun as a leading man.

It’s too bad that the film to provide him this narrative is itself quite conventional. Collins Jr. stars as titular aging rider Jackson Silva, a jockey hesitant to step away from the sport even as his body begins to give out on him. Bentley makes it easy to see why he finds the track such a hallowed site. Adolpho Veloso’s luminous cinematography channels that magic hour beauty in every outdoor scene, and the hum of Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s score gives the proceedings an ethereal quality. It’s a shame that little else in the film, chiefly the script, can conjure up that same wonder. “Jockey” wants what Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider” so effortlessly conjures about wounded masculinity in the American heartland.

Bentley and co-writer Greg Kwedar hit just about every predictable beat in the “last hurrah” sports narrative that you can imagine as a new horse in the stable, similarly discounted like Jackson, puts a new spring in his step. He’s also enlivened by the arrival of a young man, Moisés Arias’ Gabriel, who claims to be his son. So “Jockey” dutifully plays through the deadbeat dad and estranged son tropes as well. The film is not without its moments of grace as sequences of bonding between Jackson and Gabriel, with peppy trainer Ruth (Molly Parker) never far away, provide bursts of undeniable humanity. Yet this joviality, while nice, is entirely trite and at odds with the film’s desire to provide a stark look at the grittier side of horse racing that’s hidden underneath the sport’s pageantry.

“Summer of Soul”

Another award-winner found a more natural fit between form and content: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (B / ), equal parts the party movie and protest movie of the festival. This documentary brought down the house on opening night – judging from my virtual peanut gallery of Twitter and Letterboxd – and quickly sold out its on-demand reprise two days later. I had my fingers crossed it would win an award so I’d have the chance to see it at the festival before it got locked away from a release later in the year; the voting bodies delivered by giving it both the Jury Prize and Audience Prize in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

Fans of R&B and soul are in for a real treat with “Summer of Soul,” which brings to light a gobsmacking amount of never-before-seen concert footage from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival. It’s a murderer’s row of generation-defining talents making an appearance: Stevie Wonder, The Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Sly & The Family Stone, Nina Simone. If all Questlove did was string together the performances like D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop,” this would be an incredible documentary in its own right.

But he goes a step further, contextualizing what gives the performances such power and might beyond the raw skill of the performers. 1969 was “the summer we became free,” says one talking head early in the film. The festival known as “Black Woodstock” played a central role in owning Black identity as a point of pride, and the music blaring from the Harlem stages is inseparable from the cultural moment. The 300,000 attendees of the event cared little for the moon landing or the supernova blast of hippie energy occurring upstate. They found liberation and validation in this exuberant celebration of their contributions to New York City’s vitality and America’s culture.

“Summer of Soul” seems certain to change the fact that the Harlem Cultural Festival remains widely underappreciated as a major musical event. As the stage lights start to dim in the documentary, Questlove begins to interrogate just why this might be. Disconnection or distance from Black contributions to history can have the effect of making it seem like those moments were not real, one interviewee suggests. Maybe a more skilled documentarian could thread that thematic needle because the existential pivot does not quite work. To Questlove’s credit, I doubt this hypothetical documentarian would be able to hold court as pace-setter and party-starter quite like he does throughout “Summer of Love.”

“Flee”

But the work that most seamlessly matched story with storytelling style was Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” (B+ / ), an animated documentary that recounts the harrowing journey of gay refugee Amin from Afghanistan to Denmark. Ramussen interviews his friend as he lays prone atop a tapestry blanket with a camera dangling above his head. When he cuts to a wider shot of the setup, with Rasmussen sitting in a chair off to the side, it becomes clear that the arrangement resembles that of a therapist and patient. Simply recounting the traumatizing stories of his life that he’s suppressed has tremendous value for Amin as he prepares to enter into a marriage in which he wants to have no secrets.

But “Flee” serves a purpose beyond just rehabilitating its subject. Rasmussen’s animation viscerally pulls us into Amin’s memories, recreating them as he recalls them. The thinly sketched lines that define Amin’s early years recall the formlessness of youth as our minds can begin to process and store relevant information about the world around us. The film renders Amin’s scariest moments as haunting abstractions stripped of their vitality and detail, but it also recreates moments of joy and connection as reveries of cinematic fantasy. And all throughout, newsreel footage intrudes to ground his recollections in the painful objective reality of a country in turmoil around him.

“Flee” is a reminder of what cinema can do best: bringing us into heightened experiences by distorting them through the lens of artistry and vision. The film’s animation allows us to enter a liminal space between memory and history as we connect to a person in his pains and pleasure alike. From his hurried flight into Moscow to his escape to Sweden with the help of human traffickers, we’re in for the ride because we’re in Amin’s headspace.


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