Love and Crime in the Mountains

In a Year of Mixed Feelings, the Sundance Film Festival’s All-Over-the-Map Programming

The news that An Inconvenient Sequel, the decade-later follow-up to the 2006 Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, would be opening the 2017 Sundance Film Festival came only shortly before the first day, but the pick seemed fitting considering the line-up’s general doom and gloom with twinges of hope and humor. By contrast to its predecessor, Sequel (subtitled Truth to Power) is more a portrait of its protagonist—former Vice President Al Gore—than of the crisis he confronts. It’s a moving picture of the man himself, pushed almost to a breaking point as he shouts into the void—often literally, which is surprising for a man long ridiculed as wooden. Full of fascinating behind-the-scenes stories, especially from the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference at which Gore played a pivotal role, Sequel manages the difficult trick of ending with the election of Donald Trump while still seeming hopeful, which may be wishful thinking.

In the documentary section, another notable film is Bryan Fogel’s Icarus, an inside look at the Russian Olympic doping scandal. It’s a fascinating subject undone by imperfect execution—Fogel started off with a Super Size Mestyle attempt to cheat the system and compete in world-class amateur bicycling while doped up himself but was blindsided halfway through filming with the revelation that his advisor, Russian anti-doping lab head Grigory Rodchenkov, was himself responsible for the farthest-reaching instance of state-sponsored doping in Olympic history. Fogel isn’t adept at handling the change in his initial cinematic plan, and his film descends into hagiography once Rodchenkov defects to the United States as a whistleblower. But the frequent graphics are engaging, and the core of the story remains gripping.

For films to avoid, look to a pair of female-centric comedies that don’t live up to their potentials. Jessica Jones stars in The Incredible Jessica James, a rom-com designed to make her a big-screen star which may, unfortunately, work. As a Daily Show correspondent, Jones shone—her poise and flair for deadpan were the highlights of the show in the final Jon Stewart years. But unfortunately, though supremely likeable, Jones is not a great actress, though her co-star, Chris O’Dowd, is great as always in what’s become his signature role: the slightly befuddled, older love interest in a female comedian’s star vehicle. The script, though, is weak and juvenile. The visual style of the opening scenes, heightening Brooklyn beyond anything Girls has ever attempted, is great but inconsistently applied. This is the kind of film that is very clearly trying hard to be interesting but never really is. Meanwhile, Colossal, an Anne Hathaway monster comedy, makes James look masterful by comparison. It’s piss-poor in almost every respect—terrible dialogue, silly premise, sloppy directing, and a plot with no sense of causation.  One saving grace is Jason Sudeikis, sinking his teeth into the kind of loathsome villain he never gets to play. Otherwise, it’s a hard must-miss.

Thoroughbred, a directorial debut from Cory Finley, is like a less whimsical Heathers—spoiled rich girl Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her sociopathic childhood friend, Amanda (an incredibly strong Olivia Cooke, of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) decide to kill Lily’s stepfather (House of Cards’ Paul Sparks) after he threatens to send Lily to a boarding school for disturbed girls. Lily’s plagiarism got her thrown out of Andover, but Amanda’s guilty of a much more gruesome crime involving the titular horse—so she’s the perfect accomplice. It’s maybe the best-written script at Sundance this year (Finley also wrote it), and it has a wonderful visual style—a tracking shot up a staircase and a chic scene set by a giant outdoor chessboard are highlights. Perhaps most importantly, it’s the final film of the late Anton Yelchin, who delivers the best performance of his career as a wannabe-drug lord, a Tarantino-worthy character that reminds us of the tragedy of the death of an actor who could’ve been one of the greats.

Just as funny and slightly more optimistic is The Little Hours, from Josh Baena, who also wrote and directed Joshy, which I saw at last year’s festival. That film dealt with a bachelor party that goes on despite the fiancé’s suicide, and the unconventional Hours is tonally similar in its explicit humor and underlying dourness. It’s the story of a group of 14th-century nuns at a barely-controlled convent, spewing profanity and anachronistic dialogue with the best of them. It ends up coming to very little but is somehow deeply satisfying (again, much like Joshy). The cast, characteristically for Baena, whose friends are the most sought-after comedians in the business, is incredible. Standouts: Aubrey Plaza, who’s also a producer, plays the same part she always does—a barely likable misanthrope who, in this case, turns out, in a bit of on-the-nose narrative, to be a literal witch. But as always, she’s wonderful. Fred Armisen, however, steals the show as an incredulous bishop worthy of a guest spot on Portlandia. Baena, meanwhile, does the normally overlooked honors of making a sex comedy visually gorgeous—it was shot in Italy, and it shows.

The two overall strongest films of the festival are both comedies that are romantic, if not romantic comedies by the strictest definition. Landline, directed by Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child), stars as her muse, Jenny Slate, doing some incredibly strong acting in a very low-key period film (set in the ‘90s, though it’s unclear why—the titular landline doesn’t factor into the plot) that ends up much more than the sum of its parts. Its characters, members of a New York family for whom monogamy doesn’t come easy, are occasionally inconsistent or cookie-cutter, but Robespierre and her co-writer Elisabeth Holm never cheat—every reaction is authentic, and one particular sequence, near the end of the film, is flawless in its gorgeous sentiment—it crystallizes the meaning of the story in retrospect.

The breakout hit of the festival is and should be Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick, which already looks to be rivaling the record-breaking distribution deal of last year’s Birth of a Nation—I’m hearing eight figures in the offing. Written by Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon and based on their own romance, it is a remarkably assured, inviting, and complete rom-com with great stars (Nanjiani, playing himself, and Zoe Kazan as Emily) and an even better ensemble (Bo Burnham, Holly Hunter, and Ray Romano come to mind). Though Kazan’s character is slightly underdeveloped (not entirely wrongly, since she spends much of the film out of commission with the titular sickness), the movie is so honest and truly funny on so many levels. It’s produced by Judd Apatow, and one after the other it delivers the most laugh-out-loud jokes in any film with which he’s been involved. (One 9/11 crack had the audience at the screening in stitches for over a minute.) But the intimacy and realism of the scenes between Nanjiani, Hunter, and Romano highlight what gives this film its real strength—it’s infused with love, not only for its characters but for its audience and the idea of love itself. Not the worst thing to watch this month—or for the next four years.