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(1) Eighth Grade
A completely original take on a completely familiar scenario – the gawky teenage girl entering adolescence, lacking confidence and self-awareness, making her way through her final year of middle school. Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, with a winning, star-making performance from Elsie Fisher at its core.
(2) Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Documentary portrait of children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers could easily have been just a sentimental, nostalgic homage, but director Morgan Neville has much more to say about what Mr. Rogers had to say, much of it unexpectedly resonant in these troubling times.
(3) Studio 54
Comprehensive, definitive, gloriously entertaining, and another film that finds the contemporary resonance in its subject. Much has already been said about Studio 54 and its place in New York City history, but this film finds more to reveal and reveals it well.
(4) American Animals
As escapist and fun as a heist film can be. The twist here is that the story is not only true, but it’s told in a way that blurs the line between dramatization and documentary, with the actors and ‘real people’ swirling in and out of the narrative in a way that’s terrifically entertaining, bringing to light how storytelling and memory are just as important as the facts themselves.
(5) Private Life
A perfect example of the type of mature character- and actor-driven Sundance dramedy that’s been woefully missing from the lineup over the last few years. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn have never been better as a long-married couple desperate to have a child. Their fertility adventure is long, painful, and complicated – and at over 2 hours long, this film makes you feel their pain – but it’s a terribly funny and keenly observed journey for sure.
(6) The Kindergarten Teacher
Every bit as good as the Israeli film on which it’s based, The Kindergarten Teacher gives Maggie Gyllenhaal one of her best (and most disturbing) roles as a teacher obsessed with the possible genius child in her midst. Searing and intelligent, but this one’s all about Maggie. Winner of the US Dramatic Directing Award.
A kidnapping mystery plays out entirely on a laptop screen in this clever-to-a-fault film that is brilliantly executed and endlessly resourceful. Unfortunately Debra Messing does not convince (imagine Grace Adler as a police detective, and you’ll get the picture), but it almost doesn’t matter, since the fun of this film is in its concept. Lots to say about our connected world, much of which has been said already, but perhaps not as comprehensively as here. Winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize and the NEXT Audience Award.
(8) Three Identical Strangers
Straightforward documentary about an undenyingly interesting subject – identical triplets, separated at birth, who somehow find each other as young adults. This isn’t just the human interest story you might imagine, though, as the triplets dig further into their past and learn the disturbing truth behind their separation. I’ll say no more. Winner of the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Storytelling.
Obtuse, theatrical, and intellectual in its approach, this film plays out as a series of interconnected short stories about an Israeli family in grief and their son bored by the absurdity of war, who may or may not be alive. The film plays with chronology in a way that kept me on my toes, intrigued to learn what might be going on, and what it all means. Lots to process and think about.
(10) Sorry to Bother You
A bonkers, go-for-broke film that throws out lots of ideas and lets its audience have fun with them. Not really a comedy, not really a dystopian nightmare, not really a comment on racism, and in reality, not really anything other than a bravura calling card for director Boots Riley. I’d call him.
Fierce performances drive this powerful tale about a toxic relationship between two mysterious loners in a remote community on the island of Jersey, off Great Britain. Hugely suspenseful and engaging.
(12) This is Home
Solid, straightforward, and interesting documentary about Syrian refugees making a new home for themselves in urban Baltimore. The focus here is on the support services provided by a local government program, which is informative and valuable, but the film would be even stronger with a deeper focus on the individual families and their backgrounds. Winner of the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award.
(13) The Price of Everything
Like the art history survey course you probably took in college, this survey of the art market visits with collectors, artists, auctioneers, academics, and others to create an interesting portrait of the commercial art world today. A bit of a disappointment for me only because the filmmaker (Nathaniel Kahn) made one of my favorite documentaries of all time (My Architect, which you should see if you have not) more than 10 years ago, and this film is not in that league, but still, this is a solid and interesting piece.
(14) A Kid Like Jake
Without the strength of its cast, which includes Claire Danes, Jim Parsons, and Octavia Spencer, this story of a family coming to terms with their young non-gender-conforming child would be pedantic and instructive at best. Nonetheless, spending time with these actors makes this stagebound piece seem worthwhile.
(15) The Guilty
This Danish film set completely within an emergency services call center could easily be a stage play and is probably already being considered for a Hollywood remake. If you’re like me, you’ll have fun trying to cast the remake while watching this suspenseful tale. Nothing extraordinary here, but enjoyable for sure. Winner of the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award.
(16) A Woman Captured
Modern-day slavery is alive and well in Hungary, and while this observational portrait of one woman held hostage in domestic service raises questions about the filmmaker’s responsibility, the film surely held my interest, hoping for its subject’s escape, freedom, and reunion with family lost long ago.
(17) Generation Wealth
Lauren Greenfield has spent her career documenting the wealthy through her work as a photographer and filmmaker. In Generation Wealth, she tackles her subject with great broad strokes, searching for personal connection and understanding of herself, and coming up a bit short. I would have preferred less about Lauren and her personal journey and more exploration of what it means to be wealthy in our world today.
(18) And Breathe Normally
This highly watchable drama about two women whose paths cross in Iceland tackles immigration issues with humanity. Unfortunately, the script has its share of pivotal turns of events that defy believability, chipping away slowly at the social realism that is surely the filmmaker’s aspiration. Winner of the World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award.
(19) The Tale
A film-of-the-moment for sure. Laura Dern (as good as ever) plays a filmmaker (a stand-in for the director) who is piecing together the history of her abuse at the hands of a sexual predator as a child. I appreciated and respected the intent of this film, but I found the tale itself a bit tedious and the music completely overscored to make the whole affair seem very melodramatic.
(20) The Miseducation of Cameron Post
A drama about gay conversion therapy that isn’t bad per se but could easily have been significantly better. An appealing cast struggles through a story that can’t seem to decide on whether it’s comic, dramatic, tragic, inspirational, or instructive, and in the process ends up being none of these. A highly regarded film this year (it won the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) that was a particular disappointment given the tremendous promise (and great sense of humor) shown by director Desiree Akhavian in her prior film, Appropriate Behavior.
I can’t recommend that you take on the burden of watching this one. With a script that needs a greater sense of dramatic shape, this story of a Ku Klux Klan member and his path to redemption with the help of a pretty girl and an earnest priest has solid landing points at key points in its narrative but is terribly tedious during the long stretches in between. Winner of the US Dramatic Audience Award, which proves once again that the general Sundance audience pays less attention to the details and more to the overall message, whether well-told or not.
(22) Madeline’s Madeline
This one wasn’t originally on my schedule, but after reading several articles touting it as the most original and inventive film of the 21st century so far, I couldn’t miss it. Unfortunately this is one of those projects that scrambles narrative and avoids coherence to the point where I eventually just gave up and let the film wash over me with little impact. I’m sure someone will make sense of it and justify its brilliance, but I’m just not up to the task.
(23) The King
Documentarian Eugene Jarecki has a legacy of making cogent and powerful arguments for the liberal agenda in films like Why We Fight. His ambitions are no less in evidence in The King, but his touch is lighter, as he travels the country in a Rolls Royce owned by Elvis Presley. Seeking to draw parallels between the life of Elvis and recent US history, Jarecki succeeds only sporadically this time, with moments of insight, but mostly just a bunch of interesting ideas thrown at the dart board that has become our country.
Sebastian Silva’s film wants to be this year’s Get Out, as it plants an African American man in the company of a bunch of white dudes, who all appear to be fraternity brothers or something, except for a lone middle-aged man, who never seems to have a reason to be among these bros. While the film wants to be about racism, this group is just unpleasant company by any measure, and while our protagonist is clearly out of place, I wasn’t convinced that racism was at the heart of his discomfort.