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Reveling in diversity: 10 favorites from the Sundance Film Festival 2020

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Taylor Swift at the world premiere of documentary "Miss Americana," that provides an intimate look at the pop star. (Photo courtesy: Cody Pike)

When I set out to cover this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I knew my schedule was going to be limited by my decision to attend mostly public screenings with Q&As, cover a red carpet or two and snag an interview somewhere along the way. I could have watched more films if I simply hunkered down and attended press and industry screening. I’ve done that before; I’d rather not go that route ever again.

Sundance is an experience that goes beyond sitting in a dark theater with strangers watching movies. It’s interacting with artists, talking film with new friends on the bus ride from here to there and back to here. It’s the opportunity to see what cinema might look like in the future. What cinema could look like now if those in positions of power and moviegoers were really committed to diversity.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival experience came with the announcement that Netflix’s Taylor Swift documentary “Miss Americana” would be an opening night film. Immediately following the press release, I became the most popular person in the newsroom. Popular until I told them it was unlikely that I would be able to get them into the screening.

There was no guarantee that I would be able to get a ticket at all.

I did, but not until after I had spent a few weeks convinced it wasn’t going to happen.

The Sundance Film Festival is the sort of adventure that you approach with a fair amount of planning that is more of a starting point than it is a destination. It only took me a day to go off map and let the festival take me where it wanted.

Of following ten films, I only planned on seeing three. The rest were a combination of serendipity and availability. What stands out the most for me is that eight were directed by women. The remaining two told the stories from the Korean American and autistic communities.

It was more abbreviated than I would like, but a marvelous five days.

The 40-Year-Old Version

Radha Blank is an established writer who has contributed to a variety of projects including “Empire” and “She’s Gotta Have It.” With “The 40-Year-Old Version” Blank makes her feature directorial debut. Starring as a 40-year-old playwright struggling to find work while ignoring the loss of her mother, Blank presents explores the mid-life frustration that pushes the once-promising playwright to try and reinvent herself as hip-hop artist.

Shot in gorgeous black and white, “The 40-Year-Old Version” relies on truth, rather than satire, to offer insight to what it like to be a woman of color working in an industry dominated by white men. White men who, despite their best intentions, could learn a thing or two about what is authentic and what is poverty porn.

Crip Camp

I knew I was getting a documentary about Camp Jened, a New York summer camp for teens with disabilities. I didn’t expect a film that showed a side of the civil rights movement that was ignored during its time and forgotten soon after.

Directed by Jim LeBrecht, a former Janed attendee, and Emmy winner Nicole Newnham, “Crip Camp” was the perfect way to kick off this year’s festival. It was a humbling, life-changing experience.

Minari

Steven Yeun stars in "Minari," an intimate portrait of a Korean American family inspired by writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood.

Jacob (Yeun) moves his family from the cramped confines of California to rural Arkansas to follow his dream of being a farmer. It’s a dream that isn’t shared by his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) who initially only stays on the condition that he mother (Youn Yuh-jung) lives with them. However, the heart of “Minari” comes via Alan S. Kim and Noel Cho who star as the family’s young children. It is through their mischievous eyes that we see the absurdity of adulthood.

Sometimes the Sundance descriptions for films can slide into hyperbole, but their comparison of “Minari” to the films of Yasujiro Ozu is 100% true. “Minari” is near-perfect.

Miss Americana

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Lana Wilson's "After Tiller" was one of the more memorable films from Sundance's 2013 line up. Her involvement gave me hope that "Miss Americana" would be more than a self-serving promotional film. She, and Taylor Swift, delivered in spades as the film offers a rare look into the life of a massive artists as she discovers the power and limits of her own voice. You don't have to be a fan of Swift's music to be a fan of what she stands for.

One of my favorite moments came before the film played as fans raced to capture front-row seats. Two arrived at seat 13 (Swift's lucky number) at the same time. Rather than argue over the seat, one fan simply praised the other's passion and fandom and took number 14 for herself. Pure class.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Director/writer Eliza Hittman's "It Felt Like Love" knocked the breath out of me. It story about a young girl desperate to feel attractive remains one of the most vivid cinematic experiences of my life. Hittman's new film, "Never Rarely Sometimes Always," finds a pair of 17-year-old girls who travel to New York City from rural Pennsylvania so that one can discretely have an abortion before her parents learn she is pregnant. Hittman's screenplay is a sparse, brilliant examination of desperation and friendship. Actresses Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, both making their feature film debuts, are fantastic. Hopefully we'll see more from them in the not-so-distant future.

I ran into Ryder at the "Minari" premiere, unaware of who she was or that I would be seeing her in "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" the following night. She was soft-spoken, said she was an actress. She should have been less humble. She's a very talented actress.

Promising Young Woman

2009 was a tremendous year for the Sundance Film Festival. One of the stand-out films was "An Education," a innocence-lost tale featuring Carey Mulligan in what would be her breakout role. "Promising Young Woman" sees Mulligan return to the festival with a ferocious performance as Cassie in director/writer Emerald Fennell ("Killing Eve") tale of a young woman who spends her evenings luring predatory men by pretending to be drunk at nightclubs and bars. Bo Burnham co-stars as a former classmate and future flame.

It's certainly a dark tale, but all the positive buzz that the film is generating at the festival is deserved. Mulligan gives a tremendous performance that balances the vicious and vulnerable aspects of Cassie perfectly.

The Reason I Jump

When Naoki Higashida was 13 years old, unable to speak, he wrote "The Reason I Jump," a book that attempts to describe the way his autistic mind interprets the world. Jerry Rothwell's documentary uses Higashida's writing as a guide as he presents intimate portraits of young people with autism from around the world. Through a gorgeous wash of color and an incredibly immersive sound mix, Rothwell approximates what it might feel like to be autistic . It is simply one of the most divine cinematic experience that I've ever had. When it ended, I wanted it to start again. If I had to pick a favorite, this is it.

Shirley

If you've yet to appreciate the wonder that is Elisabeth Moss, "Shirley" will be the epiphany you've been waiting for. Moss stars as writer Shirley Jackson ("The Haunting of Hill House," "The Lottery"), a woman teetering on the edge of madness. Inspired by real events, "Shirley" dives into the darkness, anxiety and infidelity that may have consumed her consciousness. The story finds newlyweds Fred and Rose (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman), coming to live with Shirley and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of literature at a small Vermont college. It is a temporary arrangement that sees Jackson playing the worst of hosts and Hyman displaying an exaggerated hubris fueled by his emotionally abusive behavior towards his wife.

Wake Up

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This is something of a cheat. "Wake Up," a short film by Olivia Wilde featuring actress Margaret Qualley, technically didn't appear at the Sundance Film Festival. It was shown as part of Chefdance, one of the festivals that takes place during, but has no official connection to the Sundance Institute. When the offer came to interview to Wilde I cleared out my schedule and made my way to Main Street for a private screening and conversation. The 10-minute short follows Qualley's character as she walked through an urban landscape filled with people who can't take their eyes off their phones and computers. It's too on the nose for a feature, but works marvelously as a short. It's also radically different from Wilde's debut feature "Booksmart" in tone and style.

Zola

The buzziest title of the festival goes to “Zola,” a mostly-true movie inspired by an article that was based on a series of tweets. It's a weekend gone terribly wrong as Zola (Janicza Bravo) embarks on a trip with her new friend Stefani (Riley Keough). Stephani has promised an easy and profitable weekend trip to Florida where the pair will dance at a few gentleman's clubs before returning home flush with cash.

Stephani over sold the weekend. What follows is a nightmare. Fortunately director Janicza Bravo and treats the material with a lens that doesn’t feel exploitative and captures the darker aspects of the narrative through Zola's bemused and bewildered perspective. 2019's "Hustlers" was a celebration. "Zola" is a cautionary tale.

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