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Critics’ Rearview: Sundance Offers Rich Diversity in 2015

PETER DEBRUGE: Here we are, approaching the end of the Sundance Film Festival, and let me just say, having spent the last year attending festivals abroad, I miss American independent cinema, far too little of which lands overseas distribution. Sundance is the place where we can all stock up on all those squirrely, hard-to-categorize movies that come out between the blockbusters and cookie-cutter releases the rest of the year, and this year’s bounty leaves me optimistic — and for more reasons than just sheer entertainment value.

This is the most diverse Sundance lineup I can remember, featuring new films from black, Asian and LGBT filmmakers set in their respective communities (“Dope,” “Seoul Searching” and “I Am Michael”), and while hardly a minority — except in Hollywood — a wealth of films directed by women, including the terrific, sexually liberated coming-of-age movie “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”

But more interesting than that is a general sense of “color-blindness” we’ve seen in the casting of these films. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but these young directors don’t seem to be hung up on that default assumption that all principal characters might as well be white. In Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s knockout “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (made by a Texas-born Latino), two white teens have a black best friend. In Spike Lee-produced “Cronies,” the ratio is flipped, but no one’s keeping score.

Sebastian Silva’s “Nasty Baby” features a hilarious scene in which a biracial gay couple go to meet the black boyfriend’s parents, while in “Dope,” no one seems to know (or care) what race Tony Revolori’s character is. (Best known as the lobby boy in “Grand Budapest Hotel,” the California-born, Guatemala-descended Revolori also appears in the Hindi-language Sundance movie “Umrika.”) Sure, Joe Swanberg and his DIY cronies are still making movies about middle-class “white-people problems,” though his wife Kris’ “Unexpected” is set in a more mixed Chicago milieu. And the typically insular Duplass brothers produced my favorite movie of the festival, “Tangerine,” set at a Los Angeles intersection where a pair of multiculti transgender prostitutes clash with an Armenian cab driver.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: Not to take anything away from the diversity you mention, Peter — it’s great — but I hasten to add that Sundance has long been a launching pad for such films, dating back practically to its inception. One of Robert Redford’s personal causes has always been advancing the work of Native American filmmakers (reflected in this year’s dramatic competition entry “Songs My Brother Taught Me”), and throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the festival was also ground zero for the explosion of gay, black, Asian and women filmmakers whose work helped to put American independent cinema on the map: directors like Donna Deitch (“Desert Hearts”), Jill Godmilow (“Waiting for the Moon”), Steve Okazaki (“Living on Tokyo Time”), Bill Sherwood (“Parting Glances”), Wendell Harris (“Chameleon Street”), Wayne Wang (“Dim Sum”) and many more.

What remains unfortunate is how few of these filmmakers go on to any measurable success in mainstream Hollywood, whose distressing whiteness and maleness has been discussed so much in recent weeks it scarcely needs another knock. Two years ago, one Sundance alum who has successfully made that transition, Justin Lin, told me in an interview that he still sometimes gets stopped by security when driving on to a studio lot, and that in pitch meetings he still often has the gnawing feeling that he doesn’t “look like a director” to those in the executive suite. Meanwhile, many of the directors mentioned above have struggled to find work since their Sundance heyday. So, while 10 days in Sundance’s rarefied colorblind bubble c‎an be encouraging, the industry at large still has a long way to go.

JUSTIN CHANG: If there’s a reason this year’s lineup seems particularly refreshing, it’s probably because it can’t help but feel like an uncanny corrective to the narrative of the past several months, which has thrown Hollywood’s representational issues into dispiriting relief. True, one festival slate is hardly enough to signify an industry sea change, and there is still much to be done on multiple fronts. But it can be an encouraging marker of progress nonetheless. For those of us still disappointed that Ava DuVernay wasn’t among the best director Oscar nominees for “Selma,” it’s hard not to be heartened by the generally unremarked-upon fact that five of this year’s 16 U.S. dramatic competition entries were directed by women — not as many as in 2013, when the section was evenly split between eight women and eight men. But in a way, this year’s outcome actually feels less forced, and far less self-congratulatory.

And let’s hear it for diversity within diversity: Two of those five female filmmakers are the Beijing-born helmer Chloe Zhao — who made her debut with “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” set on a Native American reservation in South Dakota — and the Chinese-Malaysian-Vietnamese-American director Jennifer Phang, whose “Advantageous” I’m eager to catch up with, as an admirer of her 2008 Park City entry “Half Life.” In keeping with Scott’s point, I’m reminded that in recent years, Sundance has done its part to bring a number of talented Asian female directors into the spotlight — including So Yong Kim, who was here with her moving and delicate dramas “In Between Days” (2006) and “For Ellen” (2012), and also Gina Kim (no relation), whose “Never Forever” was a superb if little-seen highlight of the festival’s 2007 edition.

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Shifting gears ever so slightly, one of my favorite films of the festival, Rodrigo Garcia’s “Last Days in the Desert,” is a movie driven almost entirely by father-and-son Sturm und Drang. It’s also the latest religious drama, after “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” to feature a white actor as a biblical figure — in this case, it’s Ewan McGregor playing Jesus (and the Devil), a casting coup that actually works extraordinarily well. “Last Days in the Desert” may not be a triumph of multiculturalism, but in the context of Sundance, a festival not exactly known for its rich yield of austere art cinema, this slow, hypnotic and quietly entrancing theological mystery couldn’t help but feel like an oasis of visual-spiritual poetry. In a year with no shortage of coming-of-age dramas, sex comedies and other prototypical Sundance fare, but relatively few excursions into the sublime, Garcia’s film was easily one of the festival’s most aesthetically diverse achievements.

FOUNDAS: I like the idea of “aesthetic diversity,” because at the end of the day, regardless of who made a given film or what its content is, what I’m really hoping to see when I go into a movie at Sundance is something that takes chances in terms of how it tells its story, both narratively and visually. On that score, Sundance can sometimes feel a bit too homogeneous — for every “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” you can find a dozen poor-man’s “Little Miss Sunshines” or “The Way Way Backs” (neither of which were very good in the first place). So it was refreshing to see a few films at Sundance 2015 that showed real formal invention, and daring.

Justin, I know we’re both big fans of Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter,” about the life of the social psychologist whose controversial “obedience” studies from the 1960s examined man’s willingness to inflict harm on his fellow man in situations where he believed he was free of culpability for his actions. Coming at the end of an awards season that’s been chock-a-block with famous-scientist biographies that didn’t seem particularly interested in science, it was a thrill to see Almereyda plunge full-bore into the specific details of Milgram’s work and the implications of it both then and now.

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But beyond that, Almereyda has a fascinating aesthetic plan for the film, rooted in the fact that Milgram (superbly played by Peter Sarsgaard) was himself a filmmaker, and ran his experiments as a kind of elaborate theater. So Almereyda draws on all manner of highly theatrical devices — including stylized rear projections and having the actors directly address the camera — that might have been disastrous in the hands of a less skilled director, but here seem fully of a piece with the movie’s subject. Indeed, at the same time it’s talking about Milgram, the movie seems to be talking about the difficulty by which any movie tries to accurately reproduce a historical subject — another very timely topic given all the fact-checking trench warfare around both “Selma” and “American Sniper.”

Even more surprising, in some ways, was “Me and Earl,” which Peter rightly calls a knockout. This is one of those movies that, on paper, sounded like an unbearable, heart-tugging Sundance quirkfest of the first order: cancer-stricken teen, geekily cute filmmaker friend and his black best bud — wash, rinse, repeat. But what the logline doesn’t really convey is that the writer and director of “Me and Earl,” Jesse Andrews and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, are true-blue cinephiles who filter their story through the prism of all the movies they’ve ever seen and how those movies have affected their lives. “Me and Earl” runs so thick with movie references that you immediately want to see it a second time just to catch them all, but what’s important is that those references aren’t just there on the surface; they’re deeply ingrained in what the movie is about and how it’s told. The two main characters, Greg (the wonderful Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler), are loner teens who spend more time watching and remaking famous movies than they do having real life experiences — an accusation, as it happens, that has long been leveled against a lot of Sundance filmmakers.

And over the course of their relationship with the terminally ill Rachel (Olivia Cooke), their filmmaking deepens into something more personal and sincere — even, surprisingly, avant-garde (or, perhaps not surprisingly, in a movie that name-checks American avant-garde masters Ernie Gehr, Hollis Frampton and Stan Brakhage, among many, many others). At one point, we even see Milgram’s work being dramatized as a network television movie with William Shatner playing a version of Milgram, and the hall-of-mirrors effect only lengthens. Weirdly enough, that gives the movie a point of connection to Almereyda’s 2000 version of “Hamlet” starring Ethan Hawke, in which “The Mousetrap,” the play-within-the-play that Hamlet stages to show that he knows the truth about his father’s death, became instead an experimental short film.

DEBRUGE: I certainly didn’t mean to give the impression that Sundance hasn’t been a showcase of diverse voices and styles since its beginning, only that it’s refreshing to see filmmakers looking beyond themselves to tell the most compelling stories they can. A perfect example would be French director Celine Sciamma, whose previous films, “Water Lilies” and “Tomboy,” challenged our assumptions of adolescent sexual identity, a la the aforementioned “Diary.” This year, after the first Sundance screening of Sciamma’s “Girlhood,” a lively portrait set amid a tight-knit group of black Parisian teens, someone at the Q&A voiced her concern that the film might give audiences a limited or incorrect impression of what it means to be a young black woman today in France. At that point, Ava DuVernay, who happened to be in attendance, stood up and said something to the effect of “I’m a black filmmaker, and I love this movie,” going on to express her support and admiration for the film — a reminder of that historic Sundance moment when Roger Ebert spoke up in defense of Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow.”

So it’s nothing new. As a reminder of that legacy, Sundance dusted off Jennie Livingston’s exuberant 1991 drag-ball documentary “Paris Is Burning” — the film that introduced both Madonna and the world to the idea of “vogueing.” I can’t imagine there being a better nonfiction feature in this (or any) year’s festival, and evidently neither could Sundance programmer Charlie Reff, who stuck his foot in his mouth at the “Finders Keepers” screening yesterday. (The film depicts the bizarre true story of two South Carolina men caught in a tug of war over possession of a severed human foot discovered in a barbecue smoker bought at auction.) During his introduction, Reff volunteered that he far prefers narrative features, since he finds most documentaries too “boring” — a backhanded compliment that brought boos from an audience who, like me, are encouraged by such nonfiction selections as “Pervert Park,” which questions the American public’s understanding of sex offenders; “(T)error,” which offers inside access to an undercover FBI sting; and “Racing Extinction,” Louie Psihoyos’ more conventional, yet hard-hitting follow-up to “The Cove.”

On the narrative side, several films have engaged with the slippery notion of truth in interesting ways — although in the case of Rupert Goold’s “True Story,” I feel like they pulled back from how fascinating the film might have been. Based on Michael Finkel’s memoir, written after he was fired from the New York Times for inventing a composite character in a cover story about African slavery, the film finds the journalist trying to get to the bottom of a bizarre murder case perpetrated by a serial liar who stole Finkel’s identity and fled to Mexico. Whereas Finkel attempted to write the book as factually as possible, the movie takes considerable dramatic license, pitting Jonah Hill and James Franco (oddly cast in these non-comedic parts) against each other in a series of untrustworthy interviews.

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I was expecting something even more rigorous from James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour,” based on Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky’s extended interview with novelist David Foster Wallace, which plays almost like the anti-“Almost Famous.” Whereas Cameron Crowe’s rock-tour tag-along shows the rowdy road scene to be every bit as sexy and exciting as fans dream it would be, “Tour” follows the humble and hyper-insecure Wallace along from one dreary Midwestern bookstore to the next, driving past depressing strip malls and eating in sad diners between readings from his magnum opus, “Infinite Jest.” I can’t wrap my head around why Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Margulies chose to omit certain details and invent others (nearly all the dialogue is lifted directly from Lipsky’s book-length transcript, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”). While the book made me weep, when it comes to gaining insight into the human soul, I’ve had far better luck with documentaries, including the standup comedy biopics “Tig” and “Call Me Lucky” (the latter includes a surprise cameo from Franco, doing his best Barry Crimmins impression, over the end credits).

CHANG: The side-by-side positioning of “Tig” and “Call Me Lucky” — plus Kevin Pollak’s “Misery Loves Comedy,” which was acquired by Tribeca Film in one of the festival’s earliest deals — was but one of many examples of “spot the trend” complementary programming at this year’s Sundance. There’s a measure of that in just about every such event, of course, but the ones this year felt particularly deliberate and specific. On Monday, for example, I took in a double bill of “Experimenter,” which I love for all the reasons Scott mentioned and more, and “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s more straightforward yet problematic treatment of the titular 1971 study conducted by Philip Zimbardo, a contemporary of Stanley Milgram’s who was similarly captivated by the human mind and its willingness (or not) to submit to authority.

While we’re on the subject of psychological bondage: I didn’t manage to catch Alex Gibney’s well-received Scientology expose “Going Clear,” arguably the festival’s hottest ticket, but I certainly got my cult-takedown fix with “Prophet’s Prey,” Amy Berg’s coolly disturbing documentary about the horrific legacy of child abuse within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For that matter, it’s not too hard to discern a throughline from the chilling revelations of “Prophet’s Prey,” with its study of a community in thrall to a man claiming to speak on God’s behalf, to the supernatural thrills of Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” an artful historical horror-thriller about a family dwelling in a similar state of physical isolation and religious hysteria.

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Pretty scary stuff. Which is why it was a pleasure to retreat into the robust culinary pleasures of “City of Gold,” Laura Gabbert’s souffle-light documentary portrait of the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold — an L.A. institution unto himself, whose tips on where to find the best pupusas on Pico and the best sul long tang in Koreatown I’ve been avidly consuming for years (along with pupusas and sul long tang, natch). I’m not going to lie: The sweet-potato tacos they served up after the first screening were better than most of the movies I saw at Sundance. But if “City of Gold” made me yearn for home, then “Tangerine” succeeded in showing me a different side of it entirely — a part of town that too rarely gets this sort of intimate, big-hearted, culturally nuanced examination. You have to love a film that turns a Donut Time into the meeting point for such a wild and unruly cross-section of humanity.

A whirlwind of diversity and a welcome blast of vulgarity, “Tangerine” was slotted not in the U.S. dramatic competition, but rather in the Next program. You can sort of see the rationale behind that decision. With its shoestring budget and its ravishingly ragged visual innovation (the entire movie was shot, gorgeously, using iPhone 5s cameras), Sean Baker’s micro-budget fifth feature fulfills that program’s edgy-and-resourceful mandate perfectly. Still, I don’t quite grasp the logic that relegates one of the best, most genuinely independent films in the festival to a noncompetitive sidebar, especially when it has the unfortunate side effect of merely ghettoizing these characters further. I get that transgender streetwalkers are a niche-audience draw at best (let’s hope Magnolia proves otherwise), but really, no more so than Olympic gymnasts (“The Bronze”), personal trainers (“Results”) and recreational-drug-abusing housewives (“I Smile Back”) when you come right down to it. It’s an instructive reminder, perhaps, that for all the impressive strides it’s made over the years — especially this year — even Sundance remains, like all of our most important gauges of the state of the art, a work in progress.

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