The Sundance Film Festival closed up shop yesterday, ending 11 days of premieres, competition, and deal-making — and leaving festival-goers and critics to contemplate the independent, foreign, and documentary films that will likely dominate those landscapes for the months to come. Your film editor was among them, and I came away with a strange sense of disappointment; I didn’t fly out of Park City feeling like I’d seen films that I’d still be talking about a year from now, the way I did after experiencing You Were Never Really Here or Private Life last year. Then again, it’s all a crap shoot at these big festivals; due to assignments or poor choices, there’s a very good chance I just didn’t see the best stuff. (The festival awards were dominated by things I missed.) And it’s not like I saw a lot of bad stuff anyway; most of the films I made it to were good-to-great. So here are some thoughts on those:
Sundance’s non-fiction slate has, for the past several years, boasted more than a few feature-length profiles of interesting people — last year’s slate included the summer doc smashes RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. These films rarely break the mold stylistically, but often succeed in engaging and enlightening.
Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins
Early in Janice Engel’s profile of the beloved (and reviled) political commentator, we see her explain why she got into journalism: “To do good and raise hell and learn.” She did all three. This masterfully cut and endlessly funny documentary tells a uniquely American story, and a mini-history of contemporary journalism to boot, following Ivins through various gigs and markets, watching her try (and often fail) to find her place, before settling in as a columnist who became the single most incisive critic of George W. Bush and his administration. But the genius of Engel’s approach is its refusal to cast itself as history, and its best passages intercut her political theory with specific, modern examples. In doing so, she brings Ivins’ words from the past into the present — where we need them more than ever.
Where’s My Roy Cohn?
In considering the rancid garbage fire that our country has become, it’s not only easy but trite to make big pronouncements like, “To understand Trump, you have to understand Roy Cohn.” But in this case, it’s a direct line: Trump met the legendary junkyard dog lawyer at 23 and considered him a mentor, and his lessons are clear: attack, fight, smear, divert, and never admit you’re wrong. This jam-packed, intelligent bio-doc from director Matt Tyrauner (Studio 54) hits the expected high points — the Rosenbergs, the Army-McCarthy hearings, the rise to power in New York City, his closeted lifestyle and death from AIDS-related illness — but the archival interviews and contemporaneous coverage are still shocking and powerful. This is a scorching portrait of a real S.O.B., and an insightful analysis of the darkness he represents.