The Sundance Film Festival, located in Park City, Utah, is the largest independent film festival in the United States. Having covered it remotely for the last three years, I was anxious to attend in person. The festival started on January 19 and concluded on January 29. I arrived the day before with my agenda, which included; visiting the press office, checking out the location of the film venues while attempting to lock in my schedule. Securing a Hybrid Press Pass, I had access to in-person and online screenings, although not all films were available to view online. I screened 30 films and enjoyed the majestic snowcapped mountain feeling of being in Park City, along with cohorting with fellow journalists.
Luckily, I had flexibility in my schedule as I met Cady Coleman, an astronaut, who was the main subject of the incredible film “The Longest Goodbye,” during breakfast the following day. Her documentary film premiered at the iconic Egyptian Theater opening night of the festival, and I was invited to attend the Press Line (Red Carpet) on the third floor of the theater, along with one-on-one interviews with both Coleman and director Ido Mizrahy. To say my festival experience began on a successful note would be an understatement.
On Friday morning, January 20, I attended the Press Line for “STILL: A Michael J Fox Movie” inside the Eccles Theater in Park City; note to future Sundance press attendees, you will have to wait outside in cold weather until checked in, I’d advise dressing for warmth. Again, meeting film talent and conversing with director Davis Guggenheim reaps benefits in my reporting as these situations can lead to deeper conversations regarding the film. In this case, Guggenheim, (Academy Award winning director for Best Documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth” (2007), shared his personal thoughts on working with Fox; he told me, “Michael has changed my life, his determination and tenacity are a role model for all.”
Again, being in Park City surrounded by snow-capped mountains is an experience I will never forget. I’d also suggest driving to Robert Redford’s Sundance Lodge, as you’ll see the iconic Butch Cassidy original bar, now The Owl Bar, along with the Tree Room built around a live tree. In speaking with staff in the country store shop, they told me that Redford and his wife still dine in the Tree Room. It is decorated with some of his personal native American Indian artifacts. The drive alone is worth the excursion; winding up through the mountain pass garners incredible views.
Below is my list of the films and TV Series I screened. They are in order of my favorites; stay tuned as I’ll be writing or broadcasting reviews of many of these throughout the year.
1. STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie
Director Davis Guggenheim centers his lens on a documentary on the life of Michael J. Fox, the famous 80s star who brought us the TV series, “Family Ties,” and the hit movie, “Back to the Future.” Fox recounts the day he got his first tremor in his hand at age 29, his life struggles with alcoholism, and his continued advocation for more government funding for Parkinson’s research. His marriage to Tracy Pollan and their family are his primary focus in life. An excellent biography with themes of love, persistence, addiction, optimism and hope are portrayed.
2. The Longest Goodbye
Space exploration to Mars is expected to happen in the next decade. Director Ido Mizrahy started out focusing his film on that journey. When visiting NASA, he discovered a NASA psychologist studying the conflict of isolation and the need to stay connected to home. Astronaut Cady Coleman’s three launches into space, each for six months, are featured with videos of how she and her family coped during this time. Coleman told me she took her flute into space for enjoyment and, at one time, played simultaneously with Ian Anderson of the rock band Jethro Tull. Themes of isolation, family, space travel, and human connection are explored.
3. Little Richard: I Am Everything
In “Little Richard,” director Lisa Cortés takes us from the 1930s to Macon, Ga., through underground Black drag clubs to segregated concert halls and, ultimately, international fame. Through never-seen-before archival footage, family, friends, colleague, and historian interviews, his story comes to life. He proclaims the title “King of Rock and Roll,” and by judging the elite musician company he kept, they concur. After viewing the film, I learned so much about a risk-taking musical genius who, by all standards, broke through despite the odds. Truly one of the most comprehensive and remarkable biographies I’ve ever seen.
4. Judy Blume Forever
Most know author Judy Blume books as her name is synonymous with the joy and agony of being an 11- or 12-year-old. Directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok present a full portrait of her life beginning in 1938 in New Jersey, from her transition to adult novels, her letter writing to adoring fans, and her retirement in Key West, FL.
Blume understood adolescence; she wrote bluntly, explaining awkward situations and exploring solutions. She dives deep into puberty, explaining what is happening while slowly guiding through the process.
Blume also wrote books for younger kids as well, “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” “Superfudge,” “Blubber” and “Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great,” were popular books with my fourth and fifth-grade students when I was teaching Gifted Literature. On numerous occasions, I read her books aloud to my students as they are so well-written and engaging.
An excellent biography, showcasing Blume reading her novels while lovingly reminiscing about her characters.
Based on the remarkable true story of teacher Sergio Juarez Correa who turned his students on to learning while dramatically upping their test scores in only a year. Engenio Derbez (Acapulco TV series) stars as a sixth-grade teacher in Matamoros, Mexico, one of the country’s worst-performing and outrageously underfunded schools. With shades of “To Sir, With Love,” an unwavering educator who cares about his students and their quality of education.
Directed by Christopher Zalla, his leading actor’s comedic talents come in handy at times as he tries to expand his disadvantaged horizons with a slight smile on his face and a glimmer in his eyes.
Heartwarming comes to mind in describing “Radical,” it’s a feel-good film for all
6. Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields
Pop icon Brooke Shields’ life and career are told through photos, videos, and Brook herself. A fascinating look at a child model with one of the world’s most beautiful faces. Director Lana Wilson leaves no stone unturned to her nude scenes as a 12-year-old, her alcoholic stage mom, her sexual abuse by a business person at age 22, her failed marriage to Andre Agassi, to her severe post-partum depression after the birth of her daughter and let’s not forget Tom Cruise calling Brook out for taking medication for her depression; it’s all covered and more.
Of everything in her life, I was surprised to know about the nude scenes she did underage, and there is a discussion about that amongst family members and the fact that those films would never be made today as they would be labeled illegal. My recollection of Brook is seeing her lying horizontally on billboards while wearing Calvin Klein jeans. I also met her in New York City at Baltazar restaurant just after her TV Show “Lipstick Jungle” aired—she was extremely pleasant and lovely to meet.
The biopic feels real; Brook goes through the challenging parts of her career and the high moments. The same is true of her personal life. I strongly suggest viewing this excellent film.
7. Polite Society
In London, a high school student in martial-artist in-training, Ria Khan, (Priya Kansara), fears her sister Lena (Ritu Arya) is rushing into marrying a guy she just met. Ria decides she must save her sister by kidnapping her on the day of the wedding.
I enjoyed the unique continued martial-arts training throughout the film; at times, it is constant and nonstop. The sisters are fine; it’s just another day of practicing punches, kicks, and flips. The choreography is swift while strategic, allowing for multiple broken set designs. The action is thrilling and entertaining.
“Polite Society” is unlike any film I’ve seen, with a Bollywood flair yet a wild unrefined tone. The musical score adds to all of the action. The roguishly comical, over-the-top debut film by writer and director Nida Manzoor is non-stop action from start to finish.
8. A Thousand And One
Winning the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic films at the Sundance Film Festival, it’s a poignant story about family and decisions. The New York City setting from 1994 to 2004 serves as the film’s backdrop.
Twenty-two-year-old Inez (Teyana Taylor) was released from Riker’s Island prison in 1994. She secretly takes her son, 6-year-old Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), out of foster care and moves them to Harlem after she learns he was hurt trying to fall out of a window to escape his foster care family.
We view a slice of life for a single mother and her son through the years, one of struggle yet love. She and Terry live under new names so the foster system won’t find them, so they continue to call each other Terry and Inez at home. As a single mom, Inez works through the system, and it is frustrating to see she can’t get the help she needs.
The film follows the duo through Terry’s high school years with a shocking revelation that is best left to viewing unknown. I enjoyed viewing this vital film about survival, love, family, and frustrations.
9. Theater Camp
With a high ‘buzz’ rate, the hilarious mockumentary “Theater Camp” was everything I thought it would be and more. The screenplay and directing duo of Molly Gordon and Nick Liberman created a fun-loving film that has the heart of actors at its core. It’s based on Lieberman’s 2020 short film of the same name. Taking place at a rundown camp in upstate New York, the one-liners land frequently and are hysterical. With shades of “Waiting for Guffman,” this film speaks to every kid who was coerced into attending a theater camp.
Ben Platt (Dear Even Hanson) 2021 stars as a camp counselor, although he shares the spotlight with the other three leads; truly an excellent collaboration between Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, and Ben Platt together. All four also share screenplay credit. The original songs are also hysterical; the dry humor keeps giving, all till the end. The twists and turns add to the spirit, as well as the unpredictability of the script. While waiting in a Press Line for the Anne Hathaway film “Eileen” the crowd from the premiere of “Theater Camp” was exiting the theater with smiles abound and excited banter, some of the kids from the film performed on stage after the screening, and were met with cheers and a standing ovation.
10. 20 Days In Mariupol
Associated Press video journalist Mstyslav Chernov had left Mariupol after covering the first 20 days of the Russian invasion of the Ukrainian city and was feeling guilty about leaving. He, along with his colleagues, photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, had been the last journalists there, sending vital dispatches from a city under a full-scale assault.
The next day a theater with hundreds of people sheltering inside was bombed. Knowing that no journalist was there to film and document the massacre, he decided to create a film of his remaining footage. At times it is difficult to view the people’s suffering, although the footage is historical and a reminder of the horrors of war.
Chernov says, “It’s just a lens through which we see the stories of Mariupol’s residents, the death, their suffering, the destruction of their homes,” he said. “At the same time, I felt that I can do it. I’m allowed to do it because I’m part of the community. I was born in eastern Ukraine and (a) photographer who worked with me was born in the city which is right next to Maruipol, which got occupied. So this is our story too.”
“20 Days In Mariupol” is a film I was looking forward to seeing. It was high on my watch list and did not disappoint. I have a renowned admiration for war correspondents and appreciate Chernov’s dedication to his country and the world for documenting the beginning of the war and risking his own life.
11. Willi Nelson & Family (TV Series)
Willie Nelson, currently 89 years of age, gave his permission for his first authorized documentary on his life—and what a life! In full disclosure, my father, who would now be a year younger than Willie, greatly admired Nelson. I grew up with Willie Nelson songs playing non-stop in my home and in my dad’s car. When I attended Eric Clapton’s guitar festival outside of Chicago in 2007, I called my dad when Willi came on stage and began playing so he could hear him sing and play his guitar live.
With more than 70 years in the entertainment business, he consistently remained current and prolific in his work, his co-founding Farm Aid is indicative of his love for his country, and its people. He was never a person that talked the talked; he’s a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of guy who gets in there and does the hard work. It’s fitting that nearly 4.5 hours of programming across five episodes are dedicated to his story, as you’ll be surprised just how much he has done for our nation.
Opening with a little bit of Luck, the faux Western village Nelson built on his ranch in the Texas Hill Country, saying, “When you’re here, you’re in Luck. And when you’re not, you’re out of Luck.” Nelson also hosts an annual barbecue and concert each spring during Austin’s South By Southwest Festival. Luck is the key word at the heart of his life, as many times he’s been out of Luck. With three divorces, the suicide death of his eldest son, parents who abandoned him and his sister Bobbie, a Christmas Eve fire that wiped out his Tennessee farmhouse, and a $32 million tax bill that saw the IRS temporarily seize the Luck ranch, his studio, and other properties—yup bad Luck has also reared its head.
So, sit back, relax, put your feet up, and enjoy “Blue Skies,” “Always on My Mind,” and “Crazy,” all of these songs bring me pleasant memories of my father, who wanted to share Nelson’s music with his family.
Directors: Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman
12. The Persian Version
It’s the tale of two corresponding life stories; starting in New York, we meet Leila (Layla Mohammadi), a first-gen Iranian-American and the ‘f**k up’ of her family. She introduces us to her life in the US and the mixing of both cultures. We view her dressed in a “burka-tini” (a burka on top, bikini on bottom) as she attends a Halloween party and also finds out she’s a Lesbian.
We meet Shirin (Niousha Noor), her mother, and view glimpses of how different their two lives are. We discover that Shirin and Leila have had a stressed relationship. Shirin kicked Leila out of the house for being a lesbian. Although Leila’s reaction is, ‘what’s the matter with you? I’m simply living my life.’
In flashbacks, secrets from grandma (Bella Warda) about why Shirin and her husband were forced to leave Iran become known, creating other stories.
Writer/director, Maryam Kesharvarz’s film, is women-centered, opening the mystic behind the lives of both sisters, which is enlightening, humorous, and empathic. Stay for the ending credits; dedication to Iranian women is front and center.
“Victim/Suspect” is a shocking documentary film to view; it investigates how some detectives and police authorities try to prosecute sexual assault and rape cases by shifting the blame away from the accused and onto the victims.
Rachel De Leon from the Center for Investigative Reporting began researching an alarming number of cases where the victims are charged with the crime of false reporting, handcuffed, and arrested, typically after hours of interrogation without a known friend or family member by their side.
Near the film’s beginning, we view a case where a college girl is shown in camera footage walking in an intoxicated fashion. Yes, she’s underage and drunk. The film asks, is it okay to charge her with underage drinking instead of focusing on her rape? Sadly, this girl confesses she made the story up. Ultimately, she commits suicide after being maligned by the police and social media. Her death is the reason journalists are now interested in this crucial topic.
The empathy director Nancy Schwartzman shows for the traumatized victims and their right to justice is clear, although reform in our system is needed to have better support for the victims. Hopefully, this excellent film is a call to action for people.
14. The Pod Generation
Writer/director Sophie Barthes’ offbeat futuristic sci-fi film touches on how our lives may change in the near future. With an all-star cast, rising tech executive Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and her longtime partner Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a botanist, live in their well-appointed New York City home. Deciding upon bringing a child into their lives, Rachel meets with an agency that can help them deliver a baby with the burden of pregnancy. A pod (thus the title name) is used to house a couple’s embryo. An interesting concept, to be sure, I haven’t studied the concept, nor do I know if such an idea is possible, although I wouldn’t be surprised.
The film also looks at our disconnection from nature, which I am aware is happening. That’s why I make sure to make time in my life to tour our local arboretum and enjoy the beauty of nature.
Do you try and use Alexa or Siri for your therapist? “The Pod Generation” investigates that as well.
I enjoyed the film and the reserved performances by Clarke and Ejiofor, although the latter’s rolling of his eyes at her constant suggestion, which comes off more like nagging, is comical.
Working from the 2013 novel by Alexander Maksik, “A Marker to Measure Drift,” the author and his co-writer Susanne Farrell tackled a challenging narrative. Singapore director Anthony Chen set himself an arduous task in this ambitious adaptation; he has also notably succeeded in making viewers see the world through very different eyes.
With a setting in Greece, this cryptic tale of a Liberian refugee stars British Oscar-nominee Cynthia Erivo (“Widows,” “Harriet”) and “Arrested Development’s” Alia Shawkat as an American tour guide who befriends the shell-shocked survivor.
Tragedy, grief, friendship, and humanity are dealt with through an insightful lens. Again, seeing the world through someone else’s mind is not an easy task, yet all is clear in “Drift.” During the premiere, it was reported that tears were seen by Chen and his fantastic cast. A powerful and important film for sure.
16. Going To Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project
17. Plan C
18. All Roads Taste of Salt
19. The Starling Girl
20. Squaring the Circle (The Story Of Hipgnosis)
21. Rye Lane
22. Run Rabbit Run
23. Magazine Dreams
26. Fancy Dance
27. A Little Prayer
28. It’s Only Life After All (Indigo Girls)
30. Rotting in the Sun
Sarah Knight Adamson© January 30, 2023