For the second year in a row, the Sundance Film Festival canceled its in-person plans and went virtual, wrapping up on Sunday evening. It was quite a feast, with more than 80 documentary and narrative features. Here are six our chief film critics especially liked, and one they disagree about.
‘All That Breathes’
Directed by Shaunak Sen, “All That Breathes” is an immersive, haunting documentary portrait of two Muslim brothers in New Delhi who have dedicated their lives to rescuing birds, many affected by humans and climate change. With intimacy, a great score and some fantastic macro cinematography — the birds loom large here — the movie pays tribute to the brothers even as it underscores that individuals alone can’t save nature.
At times, Sen’s emphasis on visual lyricism over information opens up unanswered questions. And while he draws attention to anti-Muslim sentiments, it is never clear how Sen would like viewers to connect these terrifying threats with the grim specter of species extinction. Even so, there is no denying the movie’s power or its subject; there’s also no denying the heartbreak of its images. The raptors perched on mountains of garbage, the monkeys navigating overhead tangles of wires, the solitary turtle struggling to ascend a mound of debris — in the story of interspecies coexistence, the animals have already lost.
In her latest documentary, Margaret Brown tells the story that begins — though doesn’t end — with the discovery of the Clotilda, the last recorded American slave ship. In 1860, decades after the importation of enslaved peoples had been made illegal in the United States, the ship sailed to Alabama. The men who owned and operated the Clotilda arrived at night and, after bringing their captives ashore, torched the ship to hide their crime. The ship sunk, disappearing from view.
Brown tracks the fascinating efforts to recover the Clotilda, but her truer, more vivid subjects are those who survived slavery. Some helped establish Africatown, a community north of Mobile where much of the documentary takes place. There, Brown visits with descendants, people for whom slavery isn’t an abstraction but a living memory that generations have carefully preserved and passed down. The movie loses some of its focus midway, but the story of the Clotilda and where Brown takes this documentary are very moving.
For much of this elliptical, visually arresting Mexican drama, María García (Teresa Sánchez), a stolid and stoic loner, holds the center. María, a monument to an old-fashioned way of life, if one who presents as nonbinary, owns the Jalisco tequila factory that gives the movie its title. But times are tough: a fungus is ruining the agave crops, and foreign-owned companies pose a threat to artisanal producers like María, who’s alone physically and existentially.
The director Juan Pablo González immediately grounds you in María’s life both with the seductive, velvety beauty of the cinematography and by focusing on the material conditions of her everyday life, including the mesmerizing, labor-intensive production of tequila, which you follow from field to bottle. At one point, romance looms, and for a time the story shifts to a hairdresser, Tatín (Tatín Vera) a transgender woman, who with María, and several other characters, creates a vivid, textured, altogether unexpected world.
‘Leonor Will Never Die’
The titular heroine of this wonderfully unclassifiable movie — played by the Filipino singer and theater actress Sheila Francisco — is a sweet-natured, absent-minded woman of around 70. She lives (and frequently squabbles) with her grown son, stays on (mostly) friendly terms with her former husband and is haunted by the memory of her other son’s death. She is also a locally renowned action filmmaker, whose complicated emergence from retirement frames the director Martika Ramirez Escobar’s heartfelt, zany tribute to the magic of movies and the power of love.
Leonor’s final script becomes a movie within the movie, but Ramirez Escobar’s metacinematic shenanigans don’t stop there. I counted at least four distinct layers of reality in “Leonor Will Never Die,” but there might be more. In any case the fun lies in the ways they collide and overlap. This may sound like a too-clever postmodern genre mash-up, but somehow the combination of family melodrama, pulpy violence and surreal comedy add up to the disarmingly tender portrait of an artist on the edge of the afterlife.
‘A House Made of Splinters’
The reality that Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary explores is almost unbearably heartbreaking. In Lysychansk, in eastern Ukraine, an institution provides temporary shelter for children whose lives have been disrupted by alcoholism, domestic violence and unemployment, social problems that war with Russia has made worse. The children find safety and companionship with one another and an endlessly patient staff while waiting to return to their parents or, more likely, to be transferred to orphanages or foster care.
Granted extraordinary access to his subjects, Wilmont proceeds with exemplary tact and sensitivity, weaving a heartbreaking tapestry that also glows with empathy and even shows glimmers of mischief and delight. To be reminded of the vulnerability of young bodies and souls is wrenching, but there is also something thrilling about the honesty and tenacity of the kids and the dedication of their caretakers. It’s as if a Frederick Wiseman film had been reimagined by William Blake.
‘Marte Um (Mars One)’
This Brazilian charmer isn’t especially flashy, buzzy or provocative. It’s a gentle, closely observed family drama, shot in warm colors in Contagem, a city in the state of Minas Gerais. The main characters — Wellington (Carlos Francisco), Tercia (Rejane Faria) and their children, Eunice (Camilla Damião) and Deivinho (Cícero Lucas) — each contend with crises that test their individual sense of identity and their bonds with one another.
Unfolding in the wake of Jair Bolsonaro’s election to Brazil’s presidency in 2018, their stories brush against social and political sore spots (involving race, work, sexuality and religion) that will hardly seem foreign to North American audiences. But “Marte Um,” beautifully directed by Gabriel Martins, isn’t a culture-war polemic or an ideological fable. It’s a stirring example of — and a passionate argument for — the kind of humane realism that keeps movies alive, and that never goes out of style.
Dargis vs. Scott
Dargis I was looking forward to Lena Dunham’s “Sharp Stick,” about the sexual coming-of-age of Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a woman in her mid-20s. But the only thing that kept me watching is Dunham; if anyone else had directed it, I would have bailed.
There’s no point in enumerating all the reasons I dislike it — OK, the unfunny Los Angeles stereotypes were exasperating. But my biggest issue was the cloying and childlike Sarah Jo, whose narratively expedient naïveté worked my last frayed nerve. When I wasn’t overwhelmed with irritation, I did appreciate that Dunham has revisited the vexing, oft-troubling figure of the desiring, desirable young woman, a character that evokes Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Tennessee Williams’s Baby Doll and so on.
Scott My position in arguments about Lena Dunham is always “yes, but.” Yes, Sarah Jo’s unworldliness is overstated, some aspects of her sexual awakening seem like wishful thinking, and the tonal shifts from silly to sexy to earnest to icky can be a lot. But “Sharp Stick” is interesting to think about partly because Dunham herself is thinking, rather than (as so many of her Sundance peers and followers have done) recycling clichés about lust, female empowerment and family dysfunction. The unstable, scattershot quality of this movie is to me evidence of her curiosity and a willingness to push out of her own comfort zone, if she even has one.