Every year in Park City, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival kicks off the documentary season, with many of the season’s best new works. Even more so than their fiction film cousins, the doc selection at Sundance helps define the entire year’s output of films that vie for critical and audience attention.
With the draw of docs onto big screens even more tenuous with the changing landscape of the business, there remain but a few works that will achieve large audiences and almost none in theatres during regular release. Thus, it’s at festivals, from Hot Docs to smaller regional fests around the world, where people have a chance to see these big-canvas works with a receptive audience. The vast majority of these festivals pick up prime selections out of Sundance, making the films that play in January in the mountains of Utah integral to what works will be talked about throughout 2018.
Below is a look at some of the dozens of works that premiered as part of this years slate. Included are award winning films, hidden gems, run-of-the-mill works that will serve perfectly well when broadcast on CNN or HBO, and others that almost demand to be seen with as large an audience as possible.
A Thousand Thoughts
Dir. Sam Green and Joe Bini
Easily the most extraordinary moment of the entire festival was attending this so-called “live documentary” about the history of the famed modern music performers the Kronos Quartet. Green has done this sort of thing before, blending theatre, projection and live band performance, but with the synergy exhibited with in this new collaboration, he has achieved the apotheosis for his goal of providing a stand alone non-fiction experience. His subject, the brilliant Kronos String Quartet, who have been at the forefront of contemporary music for decades, is ripe for such a fragmented approach, with the group playing while filmed imagery and Green’s narration all intersect within one performance space.
It’s a work clearly elevated thanks to Green’s new collaboration with Joe Bini, the man who for decades sat beside Werner Herzog, editing and co-writing narration in the iconoclastic director’s voice. With footage shot by Kristen Johnson, the visionary director of photography whose own film Cameraperson brought her justifiable public recognition, this is a superstar collaboration bar none, colliding moments of musical epiphany, personal recollections and ruminations upon the nature of art, artifice and everything in between. If a performance of this majestic work is taking place anywhere near you, then you owe it to yourself to experience it.
Dir. Robert Greene
Robert Greene is equally no stranger to the collision between performance and non-fictional documentation, with his last film Kate Plays Christine gaining numerous plaudits from (other) critics. While that work seemed forced and somewhat strident to me, his latest film feels far more profound. Perhaps it’s the echoes to the likes of Oppenheimer’s masterwork The Act of Killing that gives Bisbee ’17 a shot in its arm, telling as it does a similar tale of historic injustice. The scope of the specific tragedy differs vastly, though, and so does the landscape, which is the American West instead of Oppenheimer’s Indonesia.
Although set in contemporary Bisbee, the film is haunted by events which took place a century ago when thousands of striking workers were rounded up by gunpoint at the behest of mining company leaders by a Sherriff out of Tombstone and his deputised vigilantes. The miners were herded into trains that resembled cattle cars and sent to “nowhere, New Mexico,” ending one of the most vibrant labour movements that were taking hold in the early 20th century. Greene’s ambitions outweigh his results, but thanks to a creepy, staccato score and gorgeous lensing this is easily one the most cinematic of documentaries from the slate, perfect for the big screen.
Dir. Amy Scott
A satisfying if slightly superficial travelogue through the highs and lows in the career of Hal Ashby, one of the most fascinating yet misunderstood filmmakers of the 70s, Amy Scott’s film probably would play better as part of a retrospective introduction or inclusion in a box set by Criterion than anything else. Eschewing some of the darker and pricklier aspects of the man’s life, the film to its credit doesn’t spend the entirety of time on his enormously captivating series of films that he edited with Norman Jewison (including his Oscar winner, In the Heat of the Night) or directed solo such as Being There, Harold and Maude and The Last Detail. Re-contextualizing his later works that were both commercial and critical failures such as The Sluggers Wife or 8 Million Ways to Die might be the film’s greatest surprise, but otherwise this is a generally straightforward if entertaining jaunt through the career of a notable filmmaker.
Crime + Punishment
Dir. Stephen Maing
A superb investigatory documentary, the film focuses on the NYPD12, a disparate group of New York police officers who are risking their jobs and safety to expose deep corruption within a force that tacitly continues to use quota systems to unfairly target minority communities. It’s the quickest way to get the right number of summonses and arrests each month, which makes money for the city. This real life David Simon-like look at inner-city police is done with precision, with director Stephen Maing finding charismatic subjects who speak eloquently about both their love of the force and their feelings of injustice and pressure from the authorities who run the department. From our introduction through officer Sandy Gonzales, we’re led into a world often closed off, where we meet the likes of Felicia Whitely and Edwin Raymond of the NYPD 12, police who are fighting the corrupt racist status quo. It’s the arc of Raymond that most enthralls and infuriates: an astonishingly eloquent individual who finds himself both the perfect spokesperson for the cause and lightening rod for confrontation with the powers-that-be (the latest scandal added took place just weeks before the Sundance premiere and is very much still under investigation). C+P is a masterful work of journalistic integrity, presenting the circumstances as facts to be reckoned with rather than an agenda to be argued against.
Hale County This Morning, this Evening
Dir. RaMell Ross
With creative consultation by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Robb Moss, as well as Executive Production by the likes of Danny Glover, Susan Rockefeller, Laura Poitras and former Hot Docs head Charlotte Cook, there are more than a regular share of champions helping to bring filmmaker RaMell Ross’ lyrical vision of life in a Hale County, Alabama to the screen. Through a series of carefully composed images, Ross’ film ruminates upon life in this southern African-American community, concentrating on specifics such as hands against skin, the unbridled enthusiasm of a child running around in circles, or the beautiful repetition of a basketball practice. There is an intimacy and immediacy to the work that serves not just cold ethnographic purposes but rather feels like the amplification of narratives that for generations were simply ignored during the telling of the mainly white American story. An epic at 76 minutes, this poetic film finds itself in that pocket where by focussing so tightly on the details the bigger, more universal elements emerge.
Dir. Laura Nix
The film that’s more spellbinding than Spellbound, Laura Nix’s look at science-fair high school students from around the world who converge in Los Angeles starts off shaky but builds to a triumphant conclusion. Finding compelling characters to follow is key in such stories, of course, but Nix seems spoiled for choice, with the stories of each individual team fascinating enough to carry the story on their own. From high-strung geekery out of Hawaii to environmental crusaders in Mexico and Indonesia, right through to a young woman from India who seems poised to be a true leader in her country, there’s much to be inspired by the stories of these fascinating adolescents. Yet it’s when the film pushes a bit about the realities confronting their ambitions that the work is elevated, never allowing our enthusiasm to overlook that these are big problems needing bigger solutions. But it’s through the work of these intelligent, passionate nascent scientists that one can truly see a glimmer of hope in our future, making Nix’s film an environmental doc that’s inspiring without sugar coating the real work involved in making change.
Dir. Derk Doneen
The Sundance doc winner opens like a true crime drama, with shakycam footage flowing through crowded streets into dank hallways as a group of individuals seek to find child slave workers and rescue them from their indentured circumstances. We soon learn this is under the guidance of Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Prize-winning, charismatic leader of a movement to end such practices globally. He’s an incredible figure, well worth a documentary that celebrates him and his work, but while as a piece of advocacy and encouragement it’s perfectly fine, the film does skate around more than its share of intractable problems at the heart of the situation. The Inconvenient Truth vibe of the film, making it feel more like campaign commercial than cinematic documentary, is no surprise when one sees Davis Guggenheim’s name at the closing credits as both writer and producer. His protégé Derk Doneen’s debut very much follows in a similar vein to Guggenheim’s Al Gore hit, which makes for a film that’s sure to find a wide, rapt audience for a work where the deeper, more dark aspects of India’s tragic economy would likely be off-putting to a general crowd.
Minding the Gap
Dir. Bing Liu
There’s few things more exciting in non-fiction than when a filmmaker is smart and brave enough to take the film where it wants to go, listening to its subject matter and allowing its narrative to enter what may be uncomfortable areas—- driven not by any agenda but by the very messiness of how real lives are lived. Bing Liu’s remarkable film, shot over many years, sets out as a straightforward look at a group of kids that found solace in a skate park, working on their moves while he smoothly captured them on video. Yet behind Liu’s visual tricks in this Linklater-ian saga, the kids have secrets of their own, stories that they even sometimes keep from themselves. Where the film elevates its craft is when Liu recognizes that one of his close friends is exhibiting the same pattern of abuse that the boys were trying to escape to their own partner, making the usual dynamic of victim/victimized even more complex. With guidance by master documentarian Steve James, Liu’s film is both visually impressive and emotionally rich, finding a perfect balance between the liberty of the skating sequences and the more profound elements delving into the family tragedies that continue to haunt Liu and his friends. It’s a heady mix that’s pulled off as dexterously as any of the other skate tricks shown, no less prone to failure and thus equally laudable for its successful execution.
Our New President
Dir. Maxim Pozdorovkin
A gonzo bit of montage mania about Russia’s media manipulation, sitting through Our New President feels at times like looking through a telescope into another reality, and at others like the Ludovico Transformer Treatment in Clockwork Orange. Speaking of orange, this is the uncut-cocaine version of “fake news” as birthed by Putin’s state controlled media and parroted by amateurs on video sites like Youtube, crafting memes and conspiracies with such a brash disregard for journalistic integrity that it’s almost operatic. The film shows how Russia’s television programs and other media have become masters of fake news, making Trump a somewhat dumb good guy and Hillary a villain. It cleverly traces an arc surrounding a cursed mummy and how that ties to local Russian perspectives on a potential Clinton presidency, showing how the narrative shifts sometimes radically to appease any given moment. It’s a stark introduction into how the very institution of media has been subverted to sew chaos. Our New President feels both manic and deeply depressing about how to counter such sophisticated depravity given appalling levels of media literacy.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts
Dir. Susan Lacy
Director Susan Lacey’s last work for HBO was a solid if unexceptional look at Steven Spielberg’s career, detailing the films of the master story teller with interviews interspersed with clips. We get much of the same with her look at Jane Fonda, a character with a far more polarising past and even more fascinating personal story. Fonda’s foibles and fondness for provocation are known to contemporary audiences, making this feel like a competent memoir that tells the actress and activist’s tale on her own terms. Lacey’s work does delve into her more controversial moments such as the 1972 visit to Hanoi and resulting conflict with military families, but the film remains sympathetic to Fonda’s narrative without the inclusion of anyone who would genuinely continue to feel resentment for some of her more provocative stances. As a celebration of Fonda, the movie star, activist, sex symbol and fitness advocate, the film is satisfactory, detailing a singular, fascinating individual who has lived a successful life of considerable variation.
Dir. Betsy West and Julie Cohen
A love letter to a woman that’s become even more iconic as her tenure has continued, the diminutive US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is given a highly sympathetic treatment in Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s latest work. While the film begins with some excoriation, these negative voices just serves as background for what’s otherwise a truly glowing look at the woman and her work. Detailing her life from her Brooklyn upbringing through to her successes as a feminist lawyer through her years on the court, the film provides an excellent overview of what makes Ginsberg one of the most potent voices in the US judiciary. While the work may lack the deep and penetrating analysis that her arguments are known for, or to have the inclusion of any that could dispassionately disagree with any of her judgements or conclusions, the film serves its purpose in providing a work that only questions whether one loves Bubby Ruth or really loves her for all she has done over the decades.
Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
Dir. Marina Zenovich
A detailed if straightforward and sympathetic look at the funny man’s career, from stand-up to Mork to his triumphant career in film and on stage, this is a workman-like bio of a top talent. Talking-head interviews and clips from his various performances, including some rare early footage, do well to celebrate Robin Williams and his remarkable run at the forefront of the entertainment industry. Some of the darker aspects of his personality are touched upon, as is the nature of his untimely death, but these are detours in what otherwise is a clear choice to both preserve his legacy and allow those who were close to him their moment to commemorate their friend.
Dir. Sandi Tan
An absolute highlight of this year’s fest, Sandi Tan’s remarkable feature is the best bargain, for you’re treated to a making-of film, a historic look at a lost Singapore, an film-theft mystery, a coming-of-age tale, a revival of punk rock aesthetic and the recontextualization of a piece of youth-driven outsider art. Above all, this is Tan’s deliciously self-effacing look back at the follies and triumphs of her youth when she and two equally remarkable young women helped reshape the cinema of their nation only to have their work hidden for decades.
What happened to the original Shirkers, the very cool and ever so dark thriller made by them in 1992 and then stolen by their mysterious producer and Tan’s mentor? The story of what took place provides much of the film’s thrills, but it’s the way in which Tan is unafraid to show her own missteps and flaws that makes this even more refreshing (imagine if so many of these first-person docs would lead with the very real possibility that the filmmaker is, in direct words, “an asshole”). A film that’s giddy and glorious, Shirkers is a doc whose time has finally come.
Dir. Matt Tyrnauer
The tales of hedonism on the dance floor in New York’s Manhattan legendary gay discotheque have already been told dozens of times in dozens of ways, including a particularly egregious feature film with Mike Myers, so there was little hope that a new doc would find life from the same-old clips showing throngs of beautiful if sweaty dancers inside and irate customers being refused entry at the door. Yet thanks to a suddenly talkative Ian Schrader, who founded 54 along with the late, attention hogging face-of-the-club Steve Rubell, we’re treated to what’s surely the definitive look at Studio 54 and the people it attracted. For a dance club that lasted for a mere 33 months, the gorgeous former opera house managed to help change the nature of pop music and the views of a countercultural society while mainstreaming underground black, gay, lesbian, transgendered communities by tying them to the allure of celebrity and the unapologetic abandon of a theatrical nightclub. Director Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) has moves that are great to watch as he dances us through excellent behind the scenes footage, fabulous photographs, killer tunes and interviews not only with the patrons but the artisans who helped build the place. The story of Studio 54 is widened in ways that do justice to both its historical importance and the resonance it continues to have.
The Oslo Diaries
Dir. Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan
The ambition of The Oslo Diaries is laudable, to provide first person accounts of the talks that took place back in the early 1990s between Israelis and a delegation from the PLO. This was revolutionary stuff, and the fact that a couple of nebisshy Israeli profs were given the power to explicitly breaking the law by talking with their enemy is given its due. As the talks progressed, and more senior members of the Israeli government became involved, so did the complexity of relationships and negotiating tactics. The Oslo accords eventually allowed for the recognition of the Palestinian authority over the West Bank and Gaza, certainly a consequential conclusion.
Directors Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan do well to cut a through line to make sense of both the political realities of the talks and how they were received outside the rooms in which the negotiations were taking place. Peace in the Middle East is a conundrum a millennia old, and no single doc can hope to make sense of it all, even when slicing off this small moment of hope. The film is a fine introduction to a much larger conversation, and while it skirts around as many subjects as it addresses, it documents a time when peace, so complicated in this region, might have taken place.
The Price of Everything
Dir. Nathaniel Kahn
Far more than a mere documentary about the excitement and allure of auction house shenanigans and the world of modern art, Nathaniel Kahn’s film beautifully navigates subjects as heady as the nature of art itself to the base concerns about valuation and the importance of a diverse investment portfolio that includes works the community agrees has value. With remarkable access to this rarefied world, from artist to collector to consultant, Kahn investigates an entire ecosystem that on the one hand shrewdly shows the machinations of glutinous consumption and while simultaneously dealing with artists and their works, which are central to our civilization. With characters as intriguing and engaging as the works that they either trade or create, The Price of Everything does a beautiful job of laying the groundwork for many questions that arise, from the appreciation of an unknown artist (high investment upside!) ,to how the works themselves are shaped by some genuine investors who love art to a secondary real estate market that exists for those who are looking for objects that are glamorous and will rise in value.
Three Identical Strangers
Dir. Tim Wardle
In the early 1980s three young men, who had been adopted by different parents as babies, found themselves by accident. The personable triplets landed TV appearances, magazine covers and even a New York restaurant where they became tourist attractions of a kind (surely their appearance with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan was peak). Tim Wardle’s well-crafted film moves from a breezy tone, eventually taking the story in a far darker, more sombre direction once the glare of the lights faded and the truth about how and why the boys were raised by different families was revealed. While not quite at Errol Morris’ level, it’s clear that Wardle borrows some aesthetic and narrative elements from the master, including Interrotron-like interviews with the surviving brother. An engaging film with twists, it’s not quite up to the story that inspired it, but Wardle’s film does get beyond the headlines and brings this fascinating tale to the screen.
Won’t You Be My Neighbour?
Dir. Morgan Neville
Take a look at every other biopic doc that played Sundance and you’ll see a fine if somewhat rote way of telling us tales of interesting people in generally uninteresting ways. It’s not as if Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Best of Enemies) does anything particularly radical with his look at Mr. Rogers, save for the simply stunning way he proves the very radical nature of this iconic children’s entertainer. For Neville’s work is so deftly crafted that it provides not only a sympathetic platform for a man that helped shaped generations of children through his long running TV show but a profound reassessment of his work from a mature perspective, seeing how this icon used the tenets of his faith and compassionate conservatism to craft a complex, entirely purposeful reaction to both crassness and consumerism directed towards kids. Emotionally rich, philosophically deep, this film is a treasure, an absolute textbook example of the heights to which a film like this can actually achieve. A rich, definitive testament to Fred Rogers’ life and career, Neville and his team do wonders with this film.