Amy Taubin on the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

HUSTLED INTO THEATERS, onto streaming services, or continuing their festival tours, the very fine, the undistinguished, and the (unnamed below) abysmal movies from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival are soon debuting in New York. Not to be missed is Babak Jalali’s coolly deadpan comedy, Fremont, in which a former translator from Afghanistan takes a job in a San Francisco fortune cookie factory and discovers, by chance, her path to a new life. It takes nothing away from Jalali’s distinctive filmmaking voice to say that the economy and sorrowful humor of Fremont is reminiscent of Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch. (It will be shown on the opening night of the Museum of the Moving Image’s “First Look” series, on March 15).

For the first time since 2020, the Sundance Film Festival was live in Park City. I was tempted, but took the remote option. Why brave the cold (it was the most frigid Sundance in years), the crowded shuttle buses, and the restaurants that double their prices during the festival when I could stream almost every Sundance movie at home, which is the way most of them will be seen anyway when they’re “released”? That is if most of them ever are. Even at home in New York, I could feel the undercurrent of dread about where moviemaking and movie-viewing are headed. What I loved for decades about Sundance was the sense of new possibilities—new voices, new places to show movies, even new forms, although Sundance has never been a hotbed of formal experimentation. This year, there were definitely new voices, many of them women’s, speaking openly and often about vaginas, placentas, and uteruses, words we’ve almost never heard before, even in horror films, of which there were many. (Besides Marvel and related CGI spectacles, horror is the only genre doing well in theaters.) Anxiety around birth superseded anxiety about death, although the second was far from absent.

Given that women directors were in the majority, I hoped to avoid the male buddy movies and male entitlement narratives to which I’ve become allergic. But much to my surprise, I fell hard for Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s The Eight Mountains, which had tied with EO for the Jury prize at Cannes and will be released April 28 by Janus Films/Sideshow, the distributor behind Drive My Car, the most surprising art film hit of the pandemic years. Set in the Italian Alps and shot in Academy ratio—which paradoxically renders the landscape even more formidable than it would have been in IMAX, and makes one aware of how inadequate any camera is when confronting such massive vistas—the movie spans decades of a complicated friendship between Pietro (Luca Marinelli) whose middle-class Milanese family vacations in the mountains, and Bruno (Alessandro Borghi), who is wedded to the valleys and peaks where he was raised. What they have in common is their alpine experience and their anger at their respective fathers. Interior and exterior challenges fuse and unsettle. Nothing can be resolved; only the mountains endure.

A.V. Rockwell, A Thousand and One, 2023, 16 mm, color, sound, 116 minutes. Inez de la Paz and Terry (Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola).

Another memorable movie that depicts an intimate relationship against a large, multitextured backdrop, A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One (opening March 31) is a realist mother-son drama set in Brooklyn and Harlem during the Giuliani and Bloomberg eras, when the rich got richer and then richer still and the poor were shafted by every city agency that should have come to their aid. Just released from prison, Inez (a mercurial yet rock-solid Teyana Taylor) kidnaps a six-year-old boy from an abusive foster home, refusing to abandon him to the kind upbringing she had suffered. She devotes herself to him and they both thrive, although Inez must hide the boy’s rescue from the authorities. Energetic, emotionally rich, vividly lensed, and directed with enormous confidence, A Thousand and One took the grand prize in the US narrative competition. A more fragmented and visceral depiction of motherhood, Savanah Leaf’s Earth Mama (playing the opening night of Lincoln Center’s “New Directors/New Films” on March 29, and from A24 later this year) focuses on the desire of a young woman to reclaim her two children from foster care while pregnant with a third. Shot on 16 mm, the film is a startlingly clear-eyed look at a woman who resists a system which does not serve her best interests or her pleasures, but on which she nevertheless is forced to depend.

Maternity was the motor for a wide variety of films. I give you the Sundance program blurb for Sofia Alaoui’s Animalia: “A young, pregnant woman finds emancipation as aliens land in Morocco.” Islamic feminist futurism in embryo, the film (another forthcoming A24 release) takes one surprising turn after another, and the heroine’s first contact with the aliens, who begin their invasion by embedding with the working class, is both funny and rapturous. More formulaic in their narratives, Sophie Barthes’s The Pod Generation and Laura Moss’s Birth/Rebirth are horror satires that depict outlandish methods of creating life. Set in the near future, The Pod Generation imagines an AI solution for working women who refuse to be detoured from the fast track by pregnancy while also rendering obsolete stretch marks, morning sickness, and various other physiological indignities. Place your fertilized egg in an artificial womb—translucent, ovular, pastel colored, safer than Humpty Dumpty—and go about your normal life until the company from which you’ve leased the device decides on a convenient due date. There not much more to The Pod Generation than its faltering conception. The placenta replaces electricity as the reanimating force in Birth/Rebirth, a visceral spin on James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its progeny. Although the plotting is flat and predictable, there are compelling performances by Marin Ireland, as a creative mortician with access to corpses of women who died in childbirth, and Judy Reyes, as an ICU nurse whose scruples about the mortician’s practices are overwhelmed by her need to bring her own young daughter—played by pitch-perfect child actor A.J. Lister—back to life.

Amanda Kim, Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV, 2023, black-and-white and color, sound, 107 minutes. Nam June Paik.

This was the first Sundance where I wasn’t blown away by at least one documentary, although Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, which won the US Documentary Grand Jury Prize came close. The extraordinary poet/activist, now nearly eighty, is present in live action and archival footage in almost every frame of the roughly hundred-minute biopic, and my only quibble is that there still is not enough of her. She is a vibrant, prickly, unpredictable presence in both private and public life, and hearing her read her own poetry is even better than reading it on the page. I wish I could be even a quarter as enthusiastic about Amanda Kim’s Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV (Film Forum, March 24). Kim would certainly have made a more lively and intellectually convincing biopic if her subject was still alive (Paik passed in 2006). Although various colleagues—curators and artists—try to explain why Paik was a visionary who had a transformative effect on the art world, all they do is repeat that Paik was great because he was great. The other problem is that there is no way that archival footage can convey the intricacies of either his circus-like video installations or his strategically minimalist TV sculptures, or even his family of robots, let alone the complexity of his belief in the totalizing transformation of art and knowledge by electronic communication. Like Warhol, Paik had a vision of how modernism could be absorbed into the postmodern and beyond. And yes, Paik did indeed invent the phrase “the electronic superhighway” nearly fifty years ago.

Artists’ biopics aside, there were just as many docs devoted to women’s issues as fiction movies. D. Smith’s Kokomo City (an audience award-winner at Sundance and Berlin, to be released later this year by Magnolia) comprises four elegantly shot portraits of trans women sex workers. Smith is herself trans, and perhaps that’s why her subjects exhibit such clarity and candor in on-camera conversation with her. Clarity is a not a virtue of Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s The Stroll. Lovell was one of the many trans sex workers whose beat was the Meatpacking District at the turn of the twenty-first century, just before, seemingly overnight, it was gentrified into a fashion/food tourist trap. Lovell connects with surviving friends, points out landmarks (the pier, the few remaining trucks outside the one or two remaining meatpacking plants). There is some interesting archival footage, particularly of the activist Sylvia Rivera. But The Stroll meanders along, trying to line up some action, and finding nothing more than half-hearted nostalgia. (It comes to HBO Max this spring.)

Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, Mutt, 2023, color, sound, 87 minutes. Feña (Lio Mehiel).

Among the films that I hope will not get lost in the aftermath of Sundance: Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s Mutt, a small, tightly packed character study of a twentysomething trans man (Lio Mehiel) who has to deal with the confusion and anger of his closest friends following his transition; (Mehiel won the best performance award); Jalali’s aforementioned Fremont; and Christopher Zalla’s Radical, based on a true story about a high-school teacher in an impoverished Mexican town whose unorthodox methods unleash the desire for knowledge in formerly apathetic students, among them a teenage girl who is already a science prodigy. I would be remiss not to mention two films that won critical and audience acclaim, Celine Song’s Past Lives (from A24 sometime this year) and Ira Sachs’s Passages. Both films romanticize triangular relationships in which the apex figure is a master manipulator. In Past Lives, it’s a heterosexual woman writer, and in Passages, a bisexual man modeled on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but without any discernible talent. Life experience makes me judge them more harshly than do their respective film’s directors, and I would have preferred not to have spent two hours with either of them.

Nida Manzoor, Polite Society, 2023, color, sound, 103 minutes. Ria (Priya Kansara).

My favorite film was Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society, a wildly imaginative and skillful depiction of punked-out teenage girl subversion. The younger daughter of an upper middle-class Pakistani-British family (Priya Kansara) dreams of becoming a movie stunt woman, enlisting her classmates in what turns into a martial arts musical—well placed use of X-Ray Specs—and spins into the ether with a sci-fi subplot about kidnapped uteruses and mother-in-law cloning. It opens in theaters April 28, and I can’t wait.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival ran from January 19 to January 29.

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