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A Look Back at Sundance 2023: Remote Viewing, Favored Cameras, Standout Films

Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Some set their calendars by January’s Sundance, which like clockwork kicks off each new year of indie releases. For me, these 11 intense days of nonstop screenings are a rich bounty that takes time to digest. Ergo my slow coverage, below.

Usually I manage to see about 30 of the 120 features Sundance typically selects. This has always worked out to a quarter of the program. What are the odds someone else saw the exact same combination? My dictum for years now has been that no two people see the same Sundance. Even the most diligent reviewers and audience members miss 75% of the festival. 

This year I saw 27 of 101 feature-length films programmed, so percentage-wise I did better. I would have seen an additional five films but for a disagreement between my MacBook Pro and online streaming platform Eventive. This year, for personal reasons, I was unable to attend in Park City. So, well in advance, I secured and confirmed virtual tickets for my selection of Sundance films. But when the time came, these films would not stream on my laptop no matter what I tried, including rebooting, reregistering, resetting passwords, and launching alternative browsers to Safari. 

My partner, covering Sundance for another outlet and using the same wireless router as me, had zero problems with any of this on her iMac. (We both used the latest MacOS and Safari.) What to do? My first move was to follow links to Eventive’s own help resources, which proved a time-wasting dead end. The equivalent of working your way down a lengthy phone tree, only to arrive at a useless recorded message at the end. 

Next, I fired off a desperate S.O.S. to Sundance’s press office. Impressively, Sundance’s tech staff jumped on my problem immediately and responsibly followed up to check on my progress. Cue the applause sign!

They told me that I seemed to be the only person experiencing this problem. Figures.

Shortly after the laptop failed to play, I installed Eventive’s Sundance app on my Apple TV with the same results: “Content unavailable.” But after Sundance’s tech staff reset my access to a handful of films that I had missed because of this ongoing snafu, the Apple TV app commenced to work like a charm. (My MacBook Pro never did. Gremlins…)

Eventive’s Apple TV app proved well-designed, and the experience using it, smooth and gratifying. The player can be paused or advanced to any point at will. Returning or scrubbing back to an earlier section is as easy and intuitive as YouTube or Vimeo — particularly helpful to a reviewer taking notes. Eventive’s app also keeps track of the films you’ve already watched, the films you have yet to watch, and the expiration of the viewing window for each. 

It goes without saying, but I’ll say this anyway: Sundance films watched online should be watched on the biggest available flat-panel TV instead of a laptop. How would you feel, as a filmmaker, if you found out a Sundance reviewer had watched your film on their mobile phone? Think that doesn’t happen?

While streaming apps like Eventive will never deliver the electricity of a live audience, this is clearly the future of festival programming liberated from geography, and I’m guessing “attending” film festivals remotely will expand as a popular option going forward.

Turning to this year’s means of production, every feature narrative I saw this year was shot on a compact ARRI Alexa Mini, except for one shot with an Alexa Mini LF. This seemed generally the case for narratives this year. Of the 64 narratives at Sundance, at least 21 were shot with Alexa Mini, which means the S35 format, whether spherical or anamorphic. At least 12 more were shot with the large-format Alexa Mini LF, with only a handful using Sony Venice. (Worth noting is that Alexa Mini is now a discontinued product, recently superseded by ARRI’s similarly compact Alexa 35.)

For the record, Filmmaker’s survey of cameras at Sundance 2023 is here, IndieWire’s look at cameras used in 40 narratives is here, nicely displayed in chart form here. IndieWire’s look at cameras used in Sundance docu’s is here.

This is ground, by the way, I happily to cede to others. For what it’s worth, I began covering cameras at Sundance for Filmmaker 15 years ago, at the advent of a wave of digital cameras that would transform independent filmmaking. The RED ONE had just been introduced and Canon’s 5D Mark II was still months in the offing. I was the first, as far as I know, to analyze the mix of cameras, digital or film, used to shoot Sundance selections, an effort facilitated in 2013 when Sundance began collecting their own data on camera usage in festival films. Covering this topic has always remained a lot of work, though!

This year, as in years past, documentaries were shot with the usual tossed salad of Sonys (FS7, FX9, etc.), Canons (C300, C500, etc.), Blackmagic Design pocket cinema cameras, and the occasional iPhone as B-camera. Surprisingly, the Alexa Mini showed up in several documentaries too, as much if not more so than ARRI’s Amira, a camera expressly designed for handheld work. Hmmm…

The ARRI Alexa Mini, left, no longer in production, will be increasingly replaced by the Alexa 35, right, which is true 4K.

Largely missing from both narratives and docu’s were Panasonic, JVC, and RED — the first two having effectively quit the digital cinema space. If I were to make easy predictions, I’d say the new Alexa 35 will come to dominate narrative work at Sundance — it’s true 4K, unlike Alexa Mini — and that the latest Pro version of the iPhone, as well as future versions, will become workhorses in low-budget and guerrilla documentary-making. Mobile 4K quality steadily improves, and in a world increasingly hostile to journalists, mobile devices can go everywhere a dedicated camera can’t. It’s already common for the occasional clip from a mobile device to get slipped into a well-produced documentary, graded to match the other cameras and lenses which cost exponentially more. The audience never notices.

Also notable this year: perhaps because of the preponderance of Alexa Mini’s used in Sundance 2023 films, a lot of narrative productions have embraced the use of LUTs on set. (I don’t use LUTs, but to each his/her/their own.) In editing, the dominant choice remains Premiere Pro, with Avid hanging in there. In grading and finishing, DaVinci Resolve is the overwhelming favorite. Incidentally, I recently cut the first pass on a feature that I DP’d using the edit page of DaVinci Resolve, which I can report worked extremely well. No issues with media management. I was able to add effects in Fusion and experiment with grading without ever leaving the app. As people increasingly tire of paying Adobe’s subscription fees, I’m willing to place a bet that Resolve becomes a major player in the indie realm when it comes to editing, in addition to grading. 

In discussing challenges during production, many Sundance filmmakers this year cited the pandemic as a major factor, particularly documentary directors, whose productions routinely span several years. DP Nelson Walker of Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV, for instance, described using a remote filming system to protect elderly interviewees from Covid exposure. Other productions took advantage of cloud-based collaborative solutions, turbocharged by the pandemic to overcome limits of geography. This enabled them to marshal crews in different parts of the world at once (Pianoforte), use editors in other countries (Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project and 20 Days in Mariupol), and collaborate with remote colorists (Iron Butterflies). 

Lastly, an impression: widescreen 2.0 and 2.40 aspect ratios continue to trend, especially in documentaries. Widescreen docu’s at Sundance 2023 that I viewed included Pianoforte, The Tuba Thieves, Murder in the Big Horn, The Disappearance of Shere Hite, and Bad Press, and I’m sure there were others. Don’t forget, I saw only 27% of Sundance features this year.

And what of the films I was fortunate enough to see? Some brief notes below about those I consider standouts. In no particular order, but documentaries first, then a few dramas. All of these are very much worth your while.


Bad Press

Muckrakers exposing greed and self-dealing will always find themselves in the gunsights of the powerful, for whom transparency and accountability are inconvenient. That’s why the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of the press. So it’s a shock to learn that freedom of the press is not guaranteed on the 574 federally designated Native American reservations, all of which exist outside the legal framework of the U.S. Constitution due to sovereignty rights. At the outset of Bad Press, one tribal citizen says that for news he relies on his tribal newspaper, reading every issue “back to front.” He also notes, portentously, “When you live in the Indian world, you know everyone.” To legally safeguard working journalists on the reservation, Oklahoma’s Muscogee (Mvskoke) Nation in 2015 passed a breakthrough Free Press Act — only to have it overturned three years later in a furtive, late-night session by a tainted tribal committee. This set the stage for a pitched battle between newspaper publisher Mvskoke Media, led by salty badass journalist Angel Ellis, and a succession of smug male tribal chiefs, which culminated ultimately in victory for the reformers, the 2021 passage by Muscogee tribal vote of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing press freedoms on their reservation — the first tribe to have done this. Directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler were there all along, and have crafted not only a microcosm of American political dysfunction, replete with phony claims of election fraud and needless ballot recounts, but a beautifully photographed, perfectly cast political thriller, all the more stirring because it was real. Sundance winner of the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award (Freedom of Expression).

20 Days in Mariupol director Mstyslav Chernov with his Sony A7S III. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

20 Days in Mariupol

Color came to documentaries in the form of 16mm Kodachrome, notably the WW II works of John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens, who filmed the liberation of Paris and Dachau. Portable sync sound arrived later, in time for Vérité and Vietnam. This time, as total war blights part of Europe once again, we’re better equipped, thanks to digital tech that can readily record and globally expose crimes against humanity with the immediacy of a TikTok. Call it vérité with a vengeance. In 20 Days in Mariupol, Associated Press photojournalist and director Mstyslav Chernov wields a particularly cutting-edge weapon, a compact Sony A7S III with a 10x zoom, equally adept at stills and 4K video. I’m reminded of the message taped to Woody Guthrie’s guitar: “This Machine Kill Fascists.” There are no words to adequately convey the wanton destruction and random violent death captured by Chernov’s camera, which depicts the opening days of the savage Russian siege against this industrial city in Donetsk Oblast. Images that haunt me include a maternity ward shredded by shrapnel, frantic EMTs whisking bloodied gurneys down hospital hallways time and again as if in a loop, and aerial shots that seem to be Hiroshima or firebombed Dresden. When asked on camera by Chernov, “Why are you upset?”, a little boy murmurs piteously, “I don’t want to die.” Intrepid films documenting the truculence and vileness of the present Russian regime such as Icarus and Navalny exist in a class of their own, invaluable gifts to the historical record, and this now joins them. Sundance winner of the Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary.

Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV

A video about a seminal video installation artist might be expected to work the form itself. Paik would no doubt countenance the undulating multicolor loop on a dark background — emblematic of yesteryear’s video synth art, quaint by today’s A.I. image generators — that marks the beginning of Amanda Kim’s film. He would also grok the prickly, angular score by electronic music pioneer and film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, The Revenant), perfectly pitched to Paik’s impish modernism. Paik’s initial obsession, after all, was music; he wrote his college thesis on Arnold Schoenberg and studied music history in Germany before turning to Fluxus in early 1960’s New York. Paik, too, would sanction the kaleidoscope of themes in this imaginatively constructed film, which finds coherence in the aleatory, harmony in atonality, across an unlikely creative life now regarded as iconic, like Duchamp’s or Warhol’s. A life, perhaps, not unlike the broken bits and pieces of various languages Paik picked up, which could turn his remarks into word salads. I’ve looked at Paik’s cathode-ray tube assemblages for years (a friend repairs them…), but from now on I’ll see them differently. What more can you ask from a documentary probing a visionary artist’s trajectory? I look forward to watching this film again when broadcast on a future PBS American Masters. It’s that stimulating.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhhood

At the end of 90 minutes of women shvitzing while baring also their souls, a title card reads, “The smoke sauna tradition of southern Estonia is part of the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of humanity.” Saunas are totemic in Finland and the Baltic states, their use tracing back thousands of years. The Estonian version in this film is distinguished by a small wooden building with no chimney, causing smoke from burning birch wood to mingle with steam. Who would guess this interior is also used to smoke meat? Shvitz-wise, it’s typical after 30 minutes for sweaty bodies to throw themselves into a nearby lake to cool down, or cut a hole in thick ice and dip into freezing winter waters. All of this activity and more transpires in a bucolic rural setting in Anna Hints’ intimately lyrical film, but what is truly indelible is the candor, trust, and laughter among women of different ages and sexual orientations, whose faces we mostly never see in the misty sauna gloom. Instead we overhear shared intimacies about cancer surgeries, bad dates, porn-influenced men, births, abortions, coming out, friction with their mothers, and sadly, inevitably, rape. It’s hard to tell what’s more enveloping, the dank smoky steam or the selfless empathy and acceptance of one another’s lived experiences. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood also ranks as a tour de force of production, with both crew and ARRI Amira camera subjected to the same extremes of heat and moisture as the subjects. Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary

King Coal

It can be hard, in an era of lifestyle choice and digital nomadism, to relate to a people tied for generations to an area whose regional economy was based on extraction of dirty coal and whose culture sprang from the pride of those hardy enough to endure the exploitation and peril. Black lung, anyone? In the case of Appalachia in general and West Virginia in particular, misplaced regional defensiveness and venal mining interests continue to distort national politics. (I’m looking at you, Joe Manchin.) In King Coal, we’re fortunate to have as a guide writer-director Elaine McMillion Sheldon, a child of Appalachia, a filmmaker with a sure narrative-poetic hand, who casts as her onscreen avatars a thoughtful ginger-haired girl along with her Black girl sidekick. In voiceover the redhead says things like, “That’s when I learned the tension between loyalty and truth, I learned to be quiet. I’m still learning…,” or “Coal is ancient, formed of dead things that lived long ago.” Such trenchant musings tonally elevate the quotidian sequences of coal-themed beauty pageants, street festivals, and football teams, connecting them wistfully to sparkles of fireflies at dusk and aerials of the lush riversides that crisscross West Virginia. This is yet another beautifully constructed film, artfully photographed. It’s bookended by a long shot of a traditional funeral procession winding up a mountain road on foot, which you’ll recognize from Robert Mitchum’s Thunder Road. (Full disclosure: I’m from Appalachia too.) 

Beyond Utopia

North Korea, or “utopia” to its citizens — where we’re told guards get extra vacation time for killing those fleeing across the Yalu River to China — is the bête noire of this real-life thriller, comprising phone footage taken in North Korea, China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, as a family of five, having crossed the Yalu — father, mother, grandmother, two young daughters — nail-bitingly makes its way across these countries to non-Communist Thailand, where they are free to continue on to South Korea. (Thailand is no utopia either; its regime is repressively authoritarian.) A second storyline, that of a mother in South Korea awaiting news of her son, who has also crossed the Yalu, ends otherwise, in bitter tragedy. Linking these stories are the efforts of a protestant pastor in Seoul who has dedicated himself to providing material and logistical support to North Koreans defecting via this circuitous multinational route. Madeleine Gavin has made a rare film, a cross between a survival/action-adventure film that keeps you on the edge of your seat and a quiet portrait of a selfless individual who translates his principles into action, like that man once standing in front of the tank. Audience Award: U.S. Documentary

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project

It’s in the title and in the film’s opening sequence: outer space. “I’m a fan of Black women,” says Nikki Giovanni, “because space travel is in our blood.” This is a person who once flew in an SST at 70,000 feet so she could see the curvature of the earth. Space shuttle pilot and NASA administrator Charles Bolden even told her he could take her up, if not bring her back. An irony, to me at least, is that Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project depicts a poet with both feet squarely on the ground: “I’m very fortunate in that I just don’t care what people think about me.” Discussing with James Baldwin how their ancestors had paid too high a price for them to abandon this country, she says, “I’m not interested in movements and ideologies, I just don’t give a damn.” Responding to a question about how others might think she’d changed, she says, “I’m real sorry, but I think my responsibility in my life is to grow.” Directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson have brought us a satisfyingly candid portrait of an intrepid explorer of inner space, which Giovanni has always been. A preeminent American poet by anyone’s measure, her large published body of work in alignment with the Black Arts and Black Power Movements secures her cultural and historical significance, but the power of this (yet another at Sundance) artfully constructed, beautifully photographed documentary is that it brings its audience face-to-face with this evolving, unusually eloquent soul. An admiring shout-out to the subtle and effective score by Samora Pinderhughes and Chris Patishall. U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary 

The Eternal Memory (La memoria infinita)

Fans of Maite Alberdi’s The Mole Agent (2020) will recognize her signature touch, the empathy and earthy humor that suffuse the story of Paulina and Augusto during his declining years due to Alzheimer’s. Never a laughing matter, what makes this Alzheimer’s depiction almost lighthearted at times, at least at the outset, is their evident wit and affection. Both tenderly continue to tease the other with amorous endearments while they can. Later will come the exceptionally intimate scenes filmed by Paulina herself during the pandemic, with the two of them living in their house alone, in which she dresses Augusto or patiently cajoles him to bed. She simply places the camera at the other end of the room and locks it off, creating a sort of two-hander selfie. It’s instructive how revealing a fixed frame such as this can be. Several other elements in Paulina’s and Augusto’s story also set it apart from dementia docu’s in general. Both are camera-attractive and successful. She was a stage actor and cultural official, he spent years in front of the camera as a well-known television presenter in Chile, notably in the aftermath of the Pinochet era. As a result, he had made and had been part of the production of numerous documentaries — and he actively sanctioned the making of this one, his last. It could have been entitled “Swan Song.” World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary

Murder in Big Horn

Wikipedia describes Murder in Big Horn, which premiered earlier this month on Showtime, as a “true crime documentary miniseries.” This hits the nail on the head, in terms of my problem with it. When I began screening it during Sundance, I noticed the demanding 154-minute run time, but hoped for the best. About a third of the way through, another opening sequence suddenly appeared. My bad for being confused. If I had read Sundance’s blurb more closely, I would have seen the film described as a “docu-series.” Setting aside the issue of what a documentary made by a premium TV network owned by Paramount is doing at Sundance, Murder in Big Horn, directed by Matthew Galkin and Razelle Benally (Oglala Lakota/Diné), is a polished yet powerfully damning exposé of the mysterious disappearances and murders of young women from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Nations in Big Horn County, Montana, tragedies that seem to strike the local Native communities every few years with harrowing regularity. Almost reflexively, with each disappearance County authorities appear slow to act, and when they do, their verdict too often is that these young, healthy women fell down and froze to death, despite forensic or circumstantial evidence to the contrary. Murder in Big Horn interrogates several such cases, interviewing family members, local journalists and law enforcement. Production quality is top-notch, thanks considerably to DP Jeff Hutchen’s superb camerawork and lighting. But at some point, the story-telling grows repetitive. The same points get made again and again, using the same thematic and visual beats. Concision is not a thing that miniseries are known for. Maybe stretched out over three separate viewings, this repetitiveness would have melted away. Or perhaps this impressive filmmaking team could have instead made an incisive 90-minute film, more powerful in its distillation. Regardless, in this case the subject trumps the bloat. It’s important that as many people as possible view this series. 

Fantastic Machine

You’ve got to tip your hat towards a film whose original title was And The King Said, What a Fantastic Machine. This quote derives from King Edward VII’s reaction to watching a recreation of his own 1902 coronation, which was filmed beforehand with actors by none other than Georges Méliès, and which premiered in London on the same day as the actual coronation! When King Edward later saw the film, he is said to have exclaimed admiringly, “It’s found a way of recording even the parts of the ceremony that didn’t take place.” (It made him taller than his wife, to his delight.) But I checked the original French account of this remark, and the King never says “fantastic machine.” What he said was, “Mais quel merveilleux appareil que le cinéma,” or “What a marvelous apparatus cinema is.” Here we have perhaps the Edwardian precursor to deepfake videos as well as an innocuous translation slip. Are challenges in translating images comparable to those in translating spoken languages? Language, after all, is a thing of abstraction and context; seeing is simply believing, n’est-ce pas? Semiotics aside, Swedish directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck tell us that we live in a world where “Soon there will be 45 billion cameras in the world. Every single moment over 500 hours of footage are published. We consume more than one billion hours daily.” To wrap our audience heads around this enormity, Danielson and Van Aertryck reach back to the beginning, touching on Niépce, Daguerre, Muybridge, and Riefenstahl; then Telstar, Ted Turner, and The Today Show; then finally YouTube, ISIS, ASMR, and Ted Talks. Lest this timeline be mistaken for a pop history, their tone is mischievous and provocative, serving up disruptive juxtapositions with mordant humor, like a latter-day Ways of Seeing. Although you won’t find mention of DALL-E 2 or Stable Diffusion. 

The Disappearance of Shere Hite

If you’re a certain age, you well know who Shere Hite was, although you probably haven’t heard her name in decades. Hite’s masterstroke, The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, was a 1976 runaway bestseller based on reams of detailed questionnaires she distributed to women only, which plumbed their sexual histories for insights into their real experience of sex. Its publication hit 1970’s popular culture like an earthquake. The big takeaway was that 70% of women in hetero relationships were unable to achieve orgasm through intercourse but perfectly capable through direct clitoral stimulation. Predictably, its sudden cultural cachet was met by a burst of male vitriol, ranging from academia to insinuating TV talk show hosts. Paleoconservative women like Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly also piled on. In addition to giving public voice to fundamentals of female sexual gratification, Hite’s other crimes included her striking Pre-Raphaelite beauty — Hollywood looks, an abiding taste for glamor — and her self-possessed, intellectual wit. Yes, shades of Hedy Lamarr. The Disappearance of Shere Hite, aptly directed by Nicole Newnham, commendably seeks to introduce this feminist trailblazer to Gen X, Millennials, Gen Y, and beyond. Like true heroes through the ages, Hite was dauntless, determined, perhaps a bit of a loner. She appeared at a critical moment and bravely did our blinkered culture a lasting favor. Although you won’t find much about her backstory in this smartly made film — check out this September 2020 New York Times obit for a superb capsule of Hite’s biography and impact  — this film’s remarkable footage of her from her colorful heyday renders her a more intriguing figure than ever. (Watch Mike Nichol’s 1971 film Carnal Knowledge to visit the type of male attitudes Shere Hite was up against in the 1970s. You’ll want to shower afterwards.)

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields

As with Shere Hite in the 1970s and 1980s, the child model and actress Brooke Shields was unavoidable at that time, and unavoidably controversial. The title of this look-back at Shields and her career is an evocation of Louis Malle’s 1978 film Pretty Baby, which featured Shields, who had turned 12 on the set, playing a 12-year-old prostitute in the red-light Storyville section of New Orleans in 1917, months before the end of legal prostitution there. Pretty Baby was written by Peter Bogdanovich’s ex, Polly Platt. It starred Susan Sarandon and Keith Carradine and was photographed by a master, Sven Nyqvist, famed for his landmark Ingmar Bergman films. Despite Sarandon’s and Shields’ occasional nudity and Malle’s penchant for edgy subjects (incest in his prior autobiographical coming-of-age, Le souffle au cœur/Murmur of the Heart), this work of cinema was no exercise in prurience or pedophilia, despite wide condemnation as such at the time. Could such a film be made now? No way. Certainly not featuring a nude 12-year-old. But Shields was always a unique case, a seasoned pro model long before Pretty Baby, groomed for this life from birth by her showbiz-besotted mother. Her first modeling gig came at 11 months. Sarandon told the columnist Earl Wilson, “Look, I don’t see why you are so concerned about me taking off my clothes in front of an 11-year-old child. Brooke Shields was posing nude long before I was.” She also told Rex Reed, “She’s incredibly bright,” referring to Shields. “She’s not at all naive, she’s been on her own longer than I have.” These facts highlight the disturbing paradoxes that define the singular career in the public eye of the remarkably precocious if talented Shields, whose extensive body of work beyond Pretty Baby is explored in this 136-minute film from director Lana Wilson, who previously profiled Taylor Swift in the critically lauded Miss Americana. Unsurprisingly, Shields, now a mom herself in the #MeToo era, has a lot to say here about her professional past.

Kim’s Video

I said above that all of these films are worth your while, but I didn’t say equally. Kim’s Video will be of interest mainly to former denizens of Manhattan’s East Village who patronized the original Kim’s Video store on Avenue A, or the one on 124 1st Ave., or Mondo Kim’s on St. Marks, or the outpost on Bleecker & West 10th. Admittedly this will be a graying audience, as the Kim’s Video empire crumbled in 2008 when founder Yongman Kim announced he was closing shop and seeking to donate Mondo Kim’s inventory of rentable videocassettes and DVDs. (The 1st Avenue location continued until 2014.) To many born since the advent of YouTube, which arrived around the same time Kim’s Video closed, the idea of schlepping to a store to rent a cassette or DVD, however tantalizingly obscure, will seem as quaint as installing a landline or writing a check. But to East Village diehards who sentimentalize the glory days of Kim’s, this love letter from directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin will come as a hoot. Did I mention that Kim donated his inventory to a dodgy village in Sicily with Mafia ties called Salemi, on the condition that the collection remain perpetually available to cinephiles? Salemi, naturally, never followed through once the collection arrived. Therefore Redmon, intrepid camera in hand, decides he must venture there, navigate a host of shady officials, jack a locked building incarcerating the collection, and devise a fanciful heist scheme to lift the entire collection from under the noses of the local polizia in order to return it to New York. He pulls off this outlandish rescue scheme with the zaniness of a screwball comedy, using as a ruse a crewed-up shoot in Salemi of a heist film about stealing a film collection. Along the way, he records his adventures on video and narrates the result in a wry, nonplused tone reminiscent of John Wilson (How To with John Wilson on HBO). Kim’s Video is exactly the type of lo-fi, genre mashup that would have graced the shelves at Kim’s Video.


Infinity Pool

Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, offspring of David, Infinity Pool adheres tightly to the signature family genre of body horror slash audacity slash disconcertment. Since it has been playing in theaters for several weeks now, there’s need to further cover it here. Only I’d like to note that it cements the case that Alexander Skarsgård is a generational talent, among the boldest of working actors. Equally irresistible is Mia Goth’s performance, a master class in seductiveness and manipulative cruelty. This is a work as brilliant as it is flawed, as perverse as it is profound. In other words, a Cronenberg film.

A Thousand and One

A Thousand and One might have taken a leaf from Barry Goldwater’s “extremism in defense of democracy is no vice,” to wit: kidnapping in defense of a child’s welfare is no vice. The story kicks off in 1993, with a brief glimpse of lead character Inez in a Rikers Island lockup. It then fast-forwards to a year later on Harlem’s sidewalks, with Inez all chunky gold earrings and flygirl ‘tude. Across the street from her shelter she spies Terry, a small boy in foster care, playing with others. He was left behind when she went to prison, she says, and she visits him in a hospital after he has had a minor injury. When no one is looking, she furtively slips him out of the building and away from the grasp of the city’s child welfare system. She has no job, no money, no trade, no place to stay, but also no choice, she feels desperately, other than to provide Terry with a loving parent and home. Meanwhile, the authorities continue to pursue the case of the missing boy. What follows is an almost two-decade saga of raising a son, at first alone, then later with a male partner who becomes a father figure to Terry — all the while on the lam, as it were, living in a Harlem apartment under false names. Terry grows up to be an intelligent young man with college prospects, although unsure of himself and what he wants. Over the course of the story’s span, New York City transitions from stop-and-frisk “Giuliani time” to Bloomberg’s gentrification drive. Director A.V. Rockwell casts this urban transformation as yet another character, a villain increasingly pernicious to the well-being of the Harlem community. Multiple-threat Teyana Taylor inhabits the film’s central character, Inez, with determined ferocity and impressive psychological depth. (She’s a singer, actor, dancer, Beyoncé choreographer, and Adidas sneaker designer.) It’s impossible not to describe Taylor’s as a breakout performance. As for writer-director Rockwell, a Sundance Writers and Directors Lab alum, A Thousand and One should do for her what Sex, Lies, and Videotape did for Steven Soderbergh at Sundance in 1989: launch her into the stratosphere. In theaters March 31, courtesy Focus Features. U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic


Writer-director Noora Niasari was five years old when her mother took her halfway around the world to a new continent, culture, and language. Born in Tehran and raised in Australia, Niasari asked her mother five years ago to write a memoir “to fill in the gaps of my childhood memories.” (As adults, we should all be so curious about those flesh-and-blood individuals we first encountered as parental overlords.) The result of her mother’s written recollections is Niasari’s first feature, Shayda, an intimate retelling of her mother’s escape from a violent, controlling husband who insists that Shayda, the mother’s character in the film, adhere to traditional strictures regarding duties of a wife and mother. Instead Shayda takes refuge in an Australian women’s shelter along with her lively 6-year-old daughter, Mona, and seeks legal protection from the father, who is temporarily studying there and will soon return to Iran. After the father, surly and resentful, is granted visitation rights by a judge, Shayda reasonably fears he might abduct Mona and take her back to Iran, which injects a nail-biting tension into the narrative that persists right up to the bracing denouement. Cinematography, for some reason a boxy 1.33, can seem at times murky, evoking a documentary vibe, but the performance of Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who plays Shayda, shines through at every turn, whether evincing quiet panic, rank silliness with shelter mates, or wordless moments of mother-daughter rapport. Which should come as no surprise, given that Amir Ebrahimi won best actress last year at Cannes for the thriller Holy Spider. Hopefully Shayda’s prospects will be enhanced by its Dirty Films logo, the production outfit of exec-producers Cate Blanchett and husband Andrew Upton. Fittingly, the last laugh literally belongs to Niasari, dancing in the credits as a girl in an old video clip taken by her mother. Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic

The Persion Version

Time magazine’s Heroes of the Year in 2022 were courageous Iranian women leading a revolution of resistance and hope, so it’s more than chance that at Sundance 2023 there were three films directed by women in the Persian diaspora that mined the theme of Iranian mothers and their daughters. In addition to Shayda, there were Iranian-American director Sierra Urich’s Joonam, a documentary portrait of her mother and grandmother (which I didn’t see), and The Persian Version, an autobiographical, serio-comedic romp from Iranian-American writer-director and Sundance veteran Maryam Keshavarz (Circumstance, Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic, 2011 Sundance). The Persian Version spans decades, cultures, and countries — at the outset, the U.S. and Iran are flippantly mocked as former lovers having had a breakup — in sketching out the personal lives and circumstances, from girlhood to motherhood, of both Keshavarz’s screen alter ego, Leila, and her real mother’s screen persona, Shirin. Described in this way, The Persian Version might seem to resemble an old-fashioned epic in scope, and in a very real sense it is, but Keshavarz’s touch is wry, contemporary, and light, as she pivots from droll commentary to awkward Girls-like encounters to flashbacks revealing dark parental secrets from the old country so tragic they continue to pay the family trauma forward. Shirin, a child bride at 13, is the overburdened mother of eight sons and one Leila, with a doctor husband chronically in the hospital with heart problems. She is controlling and tough as nails as a matter of survival, having reinvented herself as a real estate agent in New Jersey to support the family. Wisecracking Leila, seemingly Shirin’s antipode, has grown up in New York and New Jersey, is divorced from her ex-wife and straddles multiple identity divides. She’s tough on the outside to protect her soft innards. Predictably, these opposed magnetic poles repel each other through much of the film, at least until Leila farcically gets knocked up by a drag performer from a local production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Looming grandmotherhood, it seems, melts glaciers. Narratively, The Persian Version proves a tour de force in successfully juggling tone and time frames, utilizing extended flashbacks that never feel tacked on, all the while never dropping a story beat. Casting is spot-on, with characters at various ages played by a very appealing cast. André Jäger’s widescreen camera is consistently outstanding, ditto the art direction, the 1980s sets in particular. The exuberant closing song and dance number to a Persian-inflected mix of Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 anthem, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” by the film’s composer, Rostam Batmanglij, is giddily uplifting. Equally satisfying is the photo of Keshavarz’s real mother in the credits. In theaters soon from Sony Pictures Classics. Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic, also Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic

Wired, November 2013, real math whiz Paloma Noyola Bueno, whose #1 math score in México is reenacted in Radical


Blackboard Jungle (1955), To Sir, with Love (1967), Stand and Deliver (1988), Dead Poet’s Society (1989), Dangerous Minds (1995), Freedom Writers (2007) — every decade brings a film or two about a misfit teacher who breaks the mold and refuses to give up on a classroom of unmanageable, alienated kids, instead guiding even the hardest cases toward a potential they never knew they had. Genres succeed as genres, after all, because their reliably familiar plot lines continue to deliver. You may know where the amusement park roller coaster begins and ends, even how long the ride is, but new thrills await each time you climb aboard. Radical, from writer-director Christopher Zalla (Padre Nuestro a/k/a Sangre de mi sangre/Blood of My Blood, Grand Jury Award: U.S. Dramatic, 2007 Sundance), tells the true-ish story of a new teacher at a decrepit primary school in Matamoros, México — yes, that Matamoros, where four Americans were just brazenly kidnapped and two were killed by drug gangs — who, by turning conventional teaching methods inside out — for instance, asking 12-year-olds to decide what he should teach them —  flicks the on switch in the kids’ heads, in the end producing unprecedentedly high test scores and at least one genuine math genius. This story, set in 2011, was inspired by 2013 coverage in Wired magazine of the real achievements of teacher Sergio Juárez Correa in a school with no internet, no computers, no functioning library or usable resources, next to an odiferous trash dump. (Schools directly across the border in sister city, Brownsville, Texas, had these things, of course.) Locals considered the school, per Wired, “un lugar de castigo,” a place of punishment for students and teachers alike. In the film, the father of the girl math whiz is a local scavenger who manages a scrap yard, the contents of which his daughter exploits to fashioned a DIY telescope. From atop the yard’s largest junk pile she can watch SpaceX launches in Boca Chica, Texas. I won’t quibble with Boca Chica’s actual distance of 25 miles, or its late 2014 groundbreaking. This bit of 21st-century context is unexpected and resonates powerfully at every level of the story. The teacher is played by comedian Eugenio Derbez, a go-to Mexican actor these days (he was the high school choir director in Coda), as a vaguely disheveled everyman feeling his way through every situation, intent on bringing new educational thinking in spite of the school’s detrimental conditions and the vicious gang activity just outside. This is a sly performance. At times it’s hard to tell if the teacher is modestly clueless or a wily trickster, or a situational mix of both. I have to admit, candidly, this is the Sundance selection I easily enjoyed the most this year. For this reason alone, I hope English-language remake rights are never sold to Hollywood. Lightning doesn’t strike the same screen scenario twice, and the execution of this film, casting especially, is flawless. Trust me, you want to see Radical in Spanish with English subtitles. Or don’t trust me. I’m a sap for well-made genre films like this and have always liked Mexicans immensely, so perhaps I am not the most reliable guide here. Festival Favorite Award

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