Almost every major festival has a hidden holy grail, the one film that will justify trudging through thick snow, the one film that will sustain us through less than ideal conditions, and the one film that will remain in our memory long after the festival is over. But because of how Sundance is programmed, marketed and covered, finding that film is impossible without trial and error, as you probably know all too well by now. Almost everything is positioned as the next something-or-other: the next all-timer, the next Best Picture winner, or the next Juno, Little Miss Sunshine or what have you. Have you been checking Twitter, reading the press releases, keeping up with all the “takes”? When I was here last year, there was the big hoopla over Birth of a Nation, which garnered universal acclaim and was the most expensive acquisition of the festival’s history. The film received a standing ovation even before it premiered. Economic viability and political relevance often trump aesthetic merit here.
I generally avoid documentaries at Sundance for this reason, but because the promotional still for Bryan Fogel’s Icarus intrigued me (yes, this is sometimes how I pick my films here) and because the film was popular enough to have an additional press screening, I went against my gut. An Important film for our times blah blah blah, Icarus is exactly the kind of thing I feared it would be: formally anonymous, didactically constructed, and manipulatively orchestrated. The film starts off interestingly enough as a first person journal of the director’s own science experiment—as an amateur cyclist, he will imitate Lance Armstrong’s doping program, document the changes in his performance and try different methods to avoid being detected on drug tests. But when his advisor Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov is caught up in the scandal over the country’s state-sponsored doping program, the film expands its scope, transforming into a pseudo-thriller as the Russian government seeks to eliminate or distance themselves from Rodchenkov. Unlike Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, which is an apparent influence on Fogel, Icarus doesn’t trust the inherent intrigue of its footage, continually tainting it with cloying music, contrived editing, and trite choices—the most egregious of which is a climactic reading from Orwell’s 1984.
While I grew actively annoyed with Icarus’ dramatics, Dee Rees’ adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel, Mudbound, is less agitating but equally uninspired. The film traces racial tension before, during and after the Second World War between Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke) , a white family, and Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), their black workers. The film eventually closes in on the interracial friendship of Ronsel, the eldest son of Hap and Florence, and Jamie, Henry's brother, who bond over mutual trauma from the war. Positioning itself as an epic of differing perspectives and histories, the film seems to imply a more ambitious version of itself. But Mudbound chugs along without fuss or complication. The characters are sculpted in broad strokes that ratify a universally affirming message, boiling down to a notion of love and sacrifice which next to no one will disagree with.
More challenging is David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Like last year’s Personal Shopper, this impressionistic story of grief is mounted on quasi-genre elements, adopting horror tropes not for the sake of subversion, but to find new meanings in familiar images. This is emblematic of Lowery’s approach as a filmmaker, whose Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon wear their visual influences on their sleeves, mimicking other styles (mostly Terrence Malick in the case of the former and Spielberg in the latter) to fabricate something personal. A Ghost Story is no different, even though it’s the first Lowery film that works as more than a mere regurgitation of past forms. The film’s narrative progression is exceptionally simple: a man (Casey Affleck) dies in a car accident; comes back as a ghost to observe his wife (Rooney Mara) after the accident; searches for meaning throughout time from inside and outside their home; circles back to see himself as he was observing his grieving wife. Lowery’s method is structured around the famous Nietzsche phrase that “time is a flat circle,” but this reference point is less a caricature of philosophical inquiry than a device to find catharsis within these character’s finite existence. Similar to how time works in some films by Malick or Tarkovsky, memory is indecipherable from prophecy in A Ghost Story. Past, present and future co-exist within subjective space: a light on the wall cuts to a shot of the flickering cosmos, a close up on a bed sheet becomes the fabric covering a body in a morgue, pulsating music bridges warm memories and present grief. The most singular, ambitious and poignant work I’ve seen so far, A Ghost Story is more than the next whatever; it is its own beautiful, serene, and transcendent thing.
Have you found your one film yet?