It’s great when enterprising filmmakers put their best foot forward; it’s a hard job, and any and all recognition helps their work to achieve at least some notoriety. Here are some films from Sundance—and a bonus pick from Slamdance—that need to be seen as soon as possible.
Keep your eyes peeled for these great films.
“The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me”
Cedric Cheung-Lau has made a film that is hypnosis in motion. Perhaps that’s because the story he tells is so simple yet so relatable. Exquisitely filmed in the Himalayas, “The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me” indeed begins with a dreamlike image as a Tibetan prayer bowl is rung, with its echo continuing over a nearly minute-long long tracking shot of the mountains in one of the most haunting opening images from a film in years (cinematographer Jake Magee deserves every award out there for cameramen.)
The story, such as it is, involves an older Australian woman named Hannah (Alice Cummins) who is trekking up the mountains for reasons that are never explained. She appears to be continually out of breath and frail, but is that due to her health or the horrendous elevation? What would make a woman her age want to hike here? On her walk she meets Tukten (Sanjay Lama Dong), a young Nepali man who is on his way to a new job. In Dubai. On foot. Google Maps tells me a flight trip between those two locations takes nearly eight hours. When I typed in inquiring for driving or walking directions, the web page came up entirely empty.
We find out almost nothing about Tukten and Hannah, and when they leave the narrative, one mysteriously, the other with a laugh, they remain cyphers. It’s a haunting dream logic in the vein, perhaps, of David Lynch—as we even glimpse something walking around the mountains that could be the legendary yeti. Perhaps the lack of oxygen makes coherence impossible.
“There’s no wrong way to watch this film. Feel what you want to feel,” Cheung-Lau said of his beautiful film—a description I hesitate to even add to. “My understanding of the film changes depending on where I am.”
Cheung-Lau, with an easy smile and extremely courteous manner, said that he first visited Nepal when he was younger, believing he would never return. But those mountains kept calling to him, and he began toying with the idea of his simple yet profound narrative.
The filmmakers shot for only nineteen days, and Cheung-Lau said their biggest challenge was physically scaling the mountains, just as the characters do.
The result is a film that is extraordinary and haunting, yet also incredibly soothing. Films too often want to wrap up everything and answer all questions. “The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me” is that rare endeavor that is about a feeling rather than a story. Perhaps the Himalayas have the answers for Hannah and Tiktuk, perhaps they don’t, but it’s the best place in the world for them to look.
And just like Buddha, when all is said and done, one of them will end the film with a laugh and a smile. Maybe it’s not “enlightenment” as Buddha knew it, but it’s something.
Actually, it’s far more than something; it’s everything.
“The Dissident” (featured image)
Washington Post editorial writer Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 to get paperwork so he could marry his fiancee, Hamice. Infamously, he never left. For days the Saudis maintained the convenient fiction that Khashoggi had left of his own accord before changing the narrative to that he had accidentally been killed in a fistfight. But then the truth, more horrible by far, emerged that he had been lured to his death by a Saudi hit squad loyal to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, a frequent target of Khashoggi’s criticism.
Not only was he murdered—CIA Director Gina Haspel confirmed this, even as President Trump continued to give MBS the benefit of the doubt—but his body was dismembered with a bone saw and the evidence transported away.
Fortunately, director Bryan Fogel (“Icarus”) spends far less time on the gruesome details than on the stellar life Khashoggi led as an activist, critic, family man and writer. (Full disclosure: I work part-time at the Post on the editorial desk, where his column appeared.)
“I felt a burden to see to it that the films I was going to continue to make would have resonance and a social impact…not only in the world of cinema but in human rights,” Fogel said following a Sundance screening.
He said it took his team about a year to build up trust with the Turkish government enough that they would allow Fogel and his team a transcript of the audio inside the room where Khashoggi was murdered—the only people to access them besides parties from various intelligence agencies. (Fogel said the transcript became “its own character” in his documentary.)
Given the grisly murder of Khashoggi, Fogel acknowledges concerns for his own safety but said he is motivated by the greater good.
“I have this strange nightmare that [Vladimir] Putin calls Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and asks him to ‘do something,’” Fogel said, affecting a Russian accent. “But I’m hopeful of the U.S. protecting me under this ‘wonderful’ administration.”
Lord Tim Bell was one of the most notorious spin doctors, with his PR firm in England acting as an “image consultant” to some of the most unsavory of characters, including dictators and South African apartheid forces. Documentarians Richard Poplak and Diana Neille, who are both South African, got Bell to sit down and give them frank interviews about the absurd amounts of money he and his firm pulled in from this racket.
To his credit, Bell doesn’t mince words or try to pretend he was anything other than what he was. There is no self-justification beyond the fiscal.
“The film is 100 % conspiracy theory-free. I think it’s our small way of contributing to the conversation about how you deal with reality in a world [baked] in unreality,” Poplak said at the premiere screening of “Influence.”
Neille added that the duo began work on “Influence” in 2017, when it seemed that there were shadow elements seeking to interfere in democracy in South Africa as the election campaign heated up, and incumbent President Jacob Zuma seemed to be benefiting from an orchestrated smear campaign against his opponents. That trail eventually led back to Bell and his operation in the UK.
“We couldn’t at the time put our finger on what that uncertainty was,” Neille said. “There was something underneath it all that began to reveal itself. … This was orchestrated. Someone was creating these tensions. [and] it had a name we could take on. The forces behind these [things] are people and they can be counteracted.”
“Tim knew exactly who I was and that I was part of the team that brought him down,” Poplak said of approaching Lord Bell after his firm went belly-up. “And he said let’s rock ‘n roll.”
Audience members asked if, facing the end of his life, Lord Bell might have turned reflective, if not apologetic. The filmmakers acknowledged that could have been part of his motivation.
“At 65 they’ll tell you anything because their career is over,” Poplak said.
Neille said that our era of “mistrust” requires that consumers become more literate about their media sources and knowing when they can and can’t trust what they are being told—as well as learning the motivations behind those various mouthpieces.
“We made a film about bullshit,” added Poplak without any irony. “We tried to show you a piece of the post-truth era…and see there’s a larger picture.”
Jackson Browne famously sang “I want to know who the men in the shadows are,” and “Influence” brings at least one of them out into the light of day for questioning.
“It’s been an incredible process of understanding how ‘the world beneath our world’ works,” said Neille.
“Higher Lover” (Slamdance)
Documentarian Hasan Oswald deserves an award for daring to point his camera where few others might. Oswald—who according to his Twitter bio, is “a New York, teacher at a crossroads, Trying my hand at this film thing”—has a fine career ahead of him based on “Higher Love,” a documentary that brings the opioid and heroin epidemic down to ground level by showing its effects on just a few members of perpetually down-on-its-luck Camden, New Jersey’s black community over the final three years of the last decade.
Its main subject is a man named Daryl, whose longtime girlfriend Nani is pregnant with the couple’s child, but is also hopelessly in thrall to drugs. With a mixture of incredible hope and understandable rage—his meltdown at Nani at the doc’s halfpoint is painful to behold—Daryl continues to try to push Nani to get clean…even as he keeps giving her money for “one last fix,” thus enabling the problem. We hope for Nani as the couple’s son, Darnez, is born, but can she get the help she needs—and does she even want it?
The film’s other most compelling figure is Iman, a dealer and addict fighting his demons amidst a constant spiral of rehab and relapse. He desperately wants to get clean and start anew, but always the familiar streets and patterns of Camden suck him back. His harshest critic is his own father, a former addict who, in the toughest love possible, refuses to help him until his son helps himself.
“Higher Love” is as much a study in the drug epidemic as it is a requiem for Camden, whose hopes plummeted after the Campbell’s factory closed thirty years ago, leaving this city just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia to suffer and wither. Jobs continue to be scarce, and there aren’t enough police to go around, which led Camden, once a promising blue-collar town, to be dubbed “Murder Capital of the World.”
It’s sad that if there is “hope” in “Higher Love,” it is that one of the doc’s main subjects decides to move to the Midwest. Camden might not survive, but he will.
In what was possibly the most outlandish assassination plot in modern history, forces aligned with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un conspired to murder his estranged half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at the Kuala Lumpur airport in broad daylight. This Kim’s forces accomplished in 2017 not with guns or knives but by having confederates calmly walk up to him and spread VX poison on his face. Kim died within an hour, and his two alleged assassins—seen as clear as day on CCTV as they approached him in the airport—were soon arrested.
It was only then that the true intrigue began. The suspects, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, claimed not that they were professional killers but rather unassuming actresses who had been duped into believing they were part of a hidden-camera prank show. That their actions resulted in Kim’s death is unquestionable, as the footage incontrovertibly shows, but Malaysian lawyers for the two women explain to director Ryan White (“Ask Dr. Ruth”) that they cannot be “guilty” legally given they believed themselves to be acting harmlessly for television.
White spins a fascinating yarn, backtracking from the murder to show Aisyah and Huong’s lives before international infamy. Social media gave them personalities and an audience, and good looks brought them male attention, even from those who would set them up for incredible harm.
Their lawyers also discuss the web of intrigue, including the phony “prank show” producers whose links are at the highest level of North Korea’s state apparatus. We learn also that the North Korean handlers, moments after the murder, calmly passed through airport security, smiled and laughed and then jetted off from Malaysia to Pyongyang by way of Dubai—and thus beyond relevant jurisdiction.
As the two women spend two years in jail, the trial for their lives begin, with a death sentence assured if convicted. But strange turns and twists are still to come, and “Assassins” has what can only be called a “happy,” if bittersweet, ending.
A phenomenal work from White.
Julie Garner from “Ozark” is Jane, a fresh-out-of-college wannabe filmmaker in her first job working at the New York offices of a prestigious production company. We see her at the office long before her coworkers—or the sun—have shown up. She makes coffee, switches out toner cartridges, puts documents on vacant desks, sends emails.
Then the office begins to fill with the types of self-important drones who don’t mind reminding her of her place but likely can’t even recall her name. More emails Jane must send. Trash cans emptied. Lunches ordered. (Anyone who has ever worked in a similar capacity at any job in any field will likely observe several scenes through their fingers.)
All of this writer-director Kitty Green (“Casting JonBenet”) captures with a searing minimalism of only master shots and unfancy editing. There is barely any musical score but during the opening and closing credits—it’s cinema verite of the highest order. There is nothing fancy, and that’s the point: This day is like any other day for Jane. Just like yesterday. Or tomorrow.
Or will it be? Jane faces a moral dilemma when she is asked to whisk a new female admin, fresh off the plane from Idaho, to a swanky Manhattan hotel, to be joined by one of the office executives. This, she feels, must be reported, and off to HR she goes in a scene that begins in one way but then veers off in an excruciating direction courtesy of the ogre who takes down her complaint. A more heart-rending scene in a film hasn’t been seen in quite a while.
Through it all is the incredible, understated performance of Garner, whose face and eyes tell of the untold miseries and indignities she has suffered at this job, but knowing—and being constantly told—that if she wants to advance in her career, she must grin and bear it.
It’s little wonder so many people in terrible work environments feel not only that they have no choice but they can’t even speak about their pain. The psychological abuse comes from the top, with guilt trips decreeing they are “lucky” to have this “amazing” job that so many others would kill for. It’s just a fancy way of saying shut up and take it. And it’s just as wrong in a professional context as in a romantic relationship.
Or leave. Having left many an awful company over my career, I can testify to the levity and relief when walking out that door for the last time. But for countless Janes out there, economic and career concerns make this feel impossible. We all know that person who should have left their crap job 10 years ago but can’t and/or won’t. They suffer in silence, scared to leave behind the familiar.
This is a film for everyone, not just assistants. Green’s film doesn’t end hopefully, and that is the correct choice given her material and her steady hand at showing us not only what Jane decides to do in the end, but why.
“Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on the Exorcist”
“The Fear of God” is one of the great DVD “extras” out there, which carefully detailed the troubled shoot of “The Exorcist,” as well as its rather cold, even hostile, reception by many when it came out in 1973. Filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe goes right to the horse’s mouth with his documentary, with “Exorcist” director William Friedkin the only subject interviewed in this engrossing look back at one of the most unnerving or horror films.
Friedkin, now 84, discusses his fascination with William Peter Blatty’s novel, and some of the best material is how Friedkin “gently” coaxed the author to alter his screenplay to be more cinematic. “I wanted to make a film of the book,” Friedkin explains, adding that Blatty’s initial draft removed the entire prologue of Father Lancaster Merrin (Max von Sydow) set in Iraq. (That they were allowed to film on location there now seems incredible.)
Friedkin’s abusive work ethic on “The Exorcist” was legendary, and he doesn’t dispute firing off guns on set to elicit frightened reactions from his cast, and rather too cheerily does he relate slapping cast member William O’Malley—not only a non-professional actor but an ordained Catholic priest to boot—across the face to get tears in the scene where his character gives last rites to Father Karras (Jason Miller).
“Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on the Exorcist” will appeal to fans of that classic horror film as well as those interested in filmmaking generally but will likely find little traction beyond (“The Exorcist” remains a film that many will simply not watch once let alone again). However, for anyone fascinated with that film from nearly a half-century ago, Philippe’s documentary is a welcome peek behind that much-pea soup-vomit-encrusted curtain.
Visionary director Julie Taymor (“Across the Universe,” “Frida”) brings the incredible life of Gloria Steinem to life with multiple actresses portraying the writer and feminist icon across her lifespan. The lion’s share of the story is devoted to Steinem’s early adulthood and more recent years, with Oscar winners Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore portraying Steinem in those periods. “The Glorias” is loosely based on Steinem’s bestselling memoir, “My Life on the Road,” and the film shows her wracking up as many frequent flier miles and spending as much time on a bus as most rock stars.
Because this is a film by Taymor, whose stage version of “The Lion King” took Broadway by storm some years ago, the screenplay by herself and Sarah Ruhl allows for flights of narrative fantasy, such as all four of the actresses portraying Steinem talking to one another—in black and white—on a tour bus. Naturally, Moore’s elder version is able to impart wisdom to her younger selves in much the way many of us wish we could do so in real life as well—but if we did so, then the younger versions of us would never grow and mature into who we are today.
At two hours and 20 minutes, “The Glorias” can feel a tad slow at times, but that doesn’t take away from its fine presentation of one of our most important intellectuals and fighters for equality.
Lynn Hendee, Sarah Johnson, Elliot Goldenthal, Julie Taymor, Gloria Steinem, Charlie Soap, Geralyn Dreyfous and Alex Saks attend the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – “The Glorias” Premiere at Eccles Center Theatre on January 26, 2020 in Park City, Utah.
Directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing set out to catch a predator. Their four-part docuseries, backed by Showtime, is part documentary and part mission artistry, as the filmmakers interview victims of the notorious serial swindler Richard Scott Smith, whose M.O. entails making overtures to a woman of a certain age, fleecing her for all she’s worth, and moving on, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. This he did for decades in city after city, using new aliases and trolling dating sites for his next victim.
Fed up with Smith’s “success,” his victims and the filmmakers set out to find Smith and make him, if not apologize, at least answer for the misery he has foisted time and time and time again. If there’s any hope, it’s that some of his victims started a website to warn others about his activities, and it was through this that many came together to commiserate, even as Smith was on to his next mark.
The twists and turns in this series are legion, and its most intriguing character is a chain-smoking bounty hunter named Clara, who decrees that after an abusive relationship of her own, she’d be damned if she’d ever allow another woman to be harmed under her watch.
The more fascinating “Love Fraud” becomes, the more you can’t turn away, even as the pain piles up with each passing chapter.
Taylor Swift’s talent is not in doubt, nor is her worldwide appeal. But after a decade-plus of, by her own admission, not wanting to rock the boat, she in 2018 decided she could no longer stay silent as the midterm elections were heating up in her adopted state of Tennessee, where Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn—anti-gay, anti-women’s rights, and very pro-Trump—was poised for easy reelection. Swift decided to make her feelings known, and in the most tense scene in “Miss Americana,” her managers, one of whom is her own father, warn her that taking a political stance could both alienate some of her fans as well as draw the wrath of the president.
“I don’t care,” she says, as it’s the right thing to do.
“Miss Americana,” from director Lana Wilson, is great because it’s not a hagiography of Swift’s still-young career (she turned thirty only a few months ago) but because it presents us a young woman—yes, a very, very famous one—who decides she is tired of conforming to some external schema and how she should act and what she should say. At long last the idol of millions realizes she has a voice beyond her musical one—and that it’s time to use it.
The fact that her songs are insanely good doesn’t hurt, but by her own admission, Swift knew it was time to do a little growing up. Yes, she deals with the trappings of fame, such as fans outside her door every morning, but with a platform like hers, she can reach millions with a tweet or a statement. Might as well use it for something.
I’ve long admired Swift for her songs and her poise, and one can’t help but leave “Miss Americana” with even more admiration for this incomparably talented woman who, despite her wealth, fame and multiple accolades, seems humble and is still peaking. I can only hope that Wilson comes back to chat with Tay-Tay again when she’s forty.
“Miss Americana” premiered at Sundance and is now streaming on Netflix.