On the schedule are no fewer than six dramas set in Brooklyn, three documentaries involving Syria, an entire section devoted to climate change, even a documentary modestly titled “Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time.”
Let it not be said that the Sundance Film Festival neglects the trending hot spots of today’s world.
But you already knew that. That’s why you’re either headed for the event beginning Thursday night in Park City, Utah, or at least planning to read all about it. Because where the independent film world is concerned, whether we’re talking “Brooklyn” or “Reservoir Dogs,” Sundance is the place where the future happens first.
That renown translates into economic as well as aesthetic success, with Sundance reporting that last year’s festival attracted 46,600 visitors and “generated $143.3 million in economic activity for the state of Utah.” Which is not half bad.
All that prosperity means that Sundance has become a bit like Rick’s Cafe in “Casablanca,” the place where everyone with anything to sell or promote shows up. The festival has a full 23 high-profile official sponsors this year from Acura to Adobe to American Airlines, not to mention unofficial commercial presences from Kia to Kickstarter.
Also on the Park City agenda this time around, though not affiliated with Sundance, is the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Main, a parallel event to the post-inauguration political demonstrations set nationwide with Chelsea Handler scheduled to address crowds that are sure to make the festival’s traditionally hectic opening weekend even crazier.
As far as the films themselves, there are 120 features this year, representing 32 countries and selected from 4,068 submissions (a record 2,005 from the U.S. and 2,063 from everywhere else.)
Though Sundance is showing increasing amounts of episodic television like Amazon’s “I Love Dick” from Jill Soloway as well as continuing to showcase virtual reality in its New Frontiers section, these dramatic and documentary features remain the festival’s primary lure. Some of the best English language films showing include the following:
“Crown Heights.” Based on a true story, this is a devastating tale of punishment without crime, of an innocent man arrested for a murder he did not commit who is eviscerated by the legal system at every turn. Ominous, compelling, surprisingly moving.
“Walking Out.” Writer-directors Alex and Andrew Smith return to Sundance with a powerfully convincing father-son wilderness encounter that is as much about emotional connection as survival. Classic filmmaking of the most persuasive kind.
“L.A. Times.” Not an examination of this newspaper but a romantic comedy with a decidedly acerbic tone. Writer-director Michelle Morgan has written herself the leading role in a tale that echoes the sensibility of last year’s Jane Austen-based “Love & Friendship” with lots of amusing 21st century Los Angeles references thrown in.
“The Hero.” With his patented whiskey drawl and courtly manner, Sam Elliott is always a treat, especially playing a veteran cowboy actor coming to terms with his life. A follow-up by director Brett Haley to his Elliott-starring Sundance hit “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
“The Incredible Jessica James.” Also a Sundance follow-up of sorts, as writer-director Jim Strouse has put together a good-natured relationship tale for live-wire actress Jessica Williams, who starred in his 2015 fest entry “People Places Things.”
“Novitiate.” Another kind of emotional relationship, between young nuns, Jesus and each other, is the focus of this drama taking place behind the walls of a convent as the Vatican II reforms were kicking in.
“Columbus.” And now for something completely different, a pleasantly eccentric film that’s the feature debut of visual artist Kogonada. Set in “the Athens of the Prairie,” Columbus, Ind., the unlikely site of a trove of modern architecture, its impeccably composed shots of stunning buildings are as much of a lure as its deliberately paced story.
Strong foreign-language films are also well-represented in Sundance, and this year’s include “Menashe,” a Yiddish-language American drama about a man determined to raise his son on his own, authentically set in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community.
Equally noteworthy are Georgia’s “My Happy Family,” a fine naturalistic examination of a 50-something woman whose desire to live alone scandalizes her patriarchal culture. And then there is “Pop Aye,” about a man who walks across Thailand accompanied by an elephant he hasn’t seen in years. Really.
Vital, involving documentaries are always the heart of Sundance, and this year is no exception. Four of the best, each with the capacity to rearrange the inside of your head, are:
“Icarus.” What started out as director/bicycle rider Bryan Fogel’s personal documentary takes a startling and unexpected turn into nerve-wracking thriller territory as Fogel becomes a key player in uncovering the Russian Olympic doping scandal.
“Trophy.” A boggling look inside the world of big game trophy hunting in Africa that provocatively explores the counterintuitive notion that breeding these animals to be killed in some way helps keep their species alive. Co-directed by “Narco Cultura’s” Shaul Schwarz.
“78/52" All you’d ever want to know, and then some, about the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” this fiendishly detailed documentary is named after the number of set-ups and the number of cuts in that brief scene, which took one week of the film’s entire four-week shooting schedule.
“Step.” A heartening examination of how participating in a step dance team empowers a group of Baltimore high school students. “If you can make it through step,” one young woman says, “you can make it through life.”
As “Step” demonstrates, moving personal stories are essential components of successful documentaries. Some of this year’s most effective examples include:
“In Loco Parentis.” A completely charming visit with two teachers at an Irish boarding school, each with half a century of pedagogical experience, trying to decide if they’ve taught enough.
“Quest.” Filmed over almost a decade, this is a moving and intimate cinema verite examination of a family in North Philadelphia whose members are determined to better themselves and make the most of their lives.
“Take Every Wave.” Rory Kennedy’s in-depth encounter with big wave surfing pioneer Laird Hamilton, a complicated, unpredictable athlete for whom going against the grain is the only way to go.
“Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.” A poetic look at the hypnotic language and singular life of the Kentucky farmer, writer and environmentalist.
“Dolores.” The unorthodox, indefatigable activist and co-founder of United Farm Workers reveals what drives and motivates her.
“Long Strange Trip.” A fascinating deep dive, nearly four hours long, into the history of the Grateful Dead and especially their founder, the protean Jerry Garcia.
“The Mars Generation.” As jaunty and upbeat as its subject, high school kids are bound and determined to be the first folks to walk on the Red Planet.
As always, political documentaries loom large at Sundance. The most involving include:
“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press.” A crisp, cogent examination of the serious threats to free speech involved in cases populated by characters as unlikely as Hulk Hogan and Sheldon Adelson.
“The Force.” Director Peter Nicks’ second fine observational Oakland documentary (after “The Waiting Room”) takes us behind the blue wall, offering a poignant, realistic sense of the difficulties and challenges of modern policing.
“Water & Power: A California Heist.” Water is power in California, and Marina Zenovich’s stirring expose lets us know how and why “Chinatown"-type machinations are still going on.
“Legion of Brothers.” Exceptional access is the key to the saga of Green Beret Team 595, a direct action unit on a secret mission that was one of the first into Afghanistan following 9/11, what they did in country and what their actions did to them.
“The Workers Cup.” A personal look at how participating in a soccer tournament of their own affects the lives of African and Asian migrant workers building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“Cries From Syria.” Ukrainian director Evgeny Afineevsky (the Oscar-nominated “Winter on Fire”) uses disturbing footage from people on the ground to expose the brutality of that country’s war.
“Joshua: Teenager v. Superpower.” How an articulate and determined teenage boy (who’s still an activist today at age 20) became a powerful and determined leader in Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations against China.
Even more good documentaries are, as usual, available across town at rival festival Slamdance. Two of the best this year are “Who Is Arthur Chu?,” an examination of the post-"Jeopardy” life of the controversial champion, and “Strad Style,” a way stranger than fiction tale of how an eccentric Ohio loner plans to built an exact duplicate of the world’s most famous violin.
A story tailor-made for Park City and its dueling festivals if ever there was one.