After a long week of hurriedly stuffing my face with bad food between screenings, I’m finally back from Sundance. How was this year’s crop of films? Well, it’s a little silly to generalize about so many films, especially when one couldn’t possibly see them all in the space of a week. But of the ones I did see, most were fine, a couple were less than fine, and two blew me away. Certainly, nothing was as bad as Assassination Nation last year, which is… good?
Here’s the rundown:
1. Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Mads Brügger’s latest documentary is a bombshell, that’s the only way to describe it. I echo Mike Ryan in wondering why the findings in this movie aren’t front page news around the world. This was a two-hour film — which Mads actually apologized for before the film, and that’s all we’re really asking with long movies, to know that you really tried to make it shorter and couldn’t — where everyone in the audience stayed for the post-film Q&A. That’s unheard of. It’s possibly the only post-film Q&A that I was sorry to see end.
It was obvious as soon as the credits rolled that there’d be a rush to discredit Brügger, and the New York Times has already questioned whether Cold Case Hammarskjöld “revives dubious conspiracy theories,” or that it could lead people to be suspicious of doctors trying to fight AIDS in Africa. Which is certainly a fair concern, but also doesn’t refute the truth of what Brügger found. The author of that piece also quotes a Times review of Brügger’s last movie “questioning whether Brügger was trustworthy,” though the linked piece (a review) doesn’t offer any evidence of it.
In any case, it’s hard to have this debate without spoiling the movie. Needless to say, it’s worth seeing.
2. The Report
“Is this your homework, Larry?”
Speaking of movies that depict the CIA in nefarious light, there’s Scott Z. Burns’ The Torture Report. Adam Driver plays the Senate staffer who tried to blow the whistle on the CIA’s illegal torture program in what plays out like The Insider for torture. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller about Very Serious Events, but the beauty of it is that even as breathless and as righteously angry as it is, it doesn’t ignore the comedic possibilities of the story. The subplot about the Laurel and Hardy-esque Milo Minderbinders who sold the CIA torture techniques for fun and profit would make a great spinoff. And how can you not love a movie that casts Buffalo Bill as John Brennan?
3. The Pop-Up Magazine Live Show
Okay, I cheated, this one isn’t technically a movie. Pop-Up Magazine does a “live magazine” show featuring stories, music, and performances. It’s non-fiction storytelling using every basically medium available — audio, video, photographs, animations, songs. Sometimes you get to see the characters from the stories right there in front of you! It’s kind of like when you’re reading a book about a place and you go to Google it to look at pictures and video from there, except they do it for you. It’s a great format — better than comedy, better than film, better than theater. I laughed, I cried, I got to enjoy it with an adult beverage. And it was only 90 minutes. They’re in New York and DC this week.
4. I Am Mother
One of the many Australian films playing this year’s fest, you wouldn’t be able to identify I Am Mother‘s country of origin by the accents. It’s set in the days after an “extinction event” inside an automated bunker where the last human on Earth (Clara Rugaard) is being raised by an iPod-faced robot named “Mother,” voiced by Emily Blunt. But is she the last human on Earth?? Directed by commercial director Grant Sputore, it’s an indie that looks like it cost $60 million, and they’re not just empty calories. It’s a smart, sleek sci-fi with very little wasted energy.
5. Official Secrets
Yet another movie about intelligence service malfeasance! I’m sensing a theme here! Directed by Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Official Secrets is about yet another whistleblower, this time British, a GCHQ translator who leaked a memo about a US/UK joint operation in which the NSA would spy on UN Security Council members in order to find information to use to blackmail them into supporting the Iraq War. It’s kind of a lighter, more sugary version of The Report, which lacks some of The Report‘s humor and acting chops (Keira Knightley is no Adam Driver, unfortunately). Though it does have a delightful scene featuring Ralph Fiennes giving the most restrained, British version of “f*ck off and die” imaginable.