Sundance roundup: 6 movies we love and one we disagree on

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For the second year in a row, the Sundance Film Festival canceled in-person plans and went virtual, ending Sunday night. It was quite a feast, with more than 80 feature-length documentaries and narratives. Here are six our chief film critics particularly liked and one they disagreed on.

Directed by Shaunak Sen, “All That Breathes” is an immersive and haunting documentary portrait of two Muslim brothers in New Delhi who have dedicated their lives to rescuing birds, many of which are affected by humans and climate change. With intimacy, an excellent score, and fantastic macro cinematography – birds feature prominently here – the film pays homage to the brothers while emphasizing that individuals alone cannot save nature.

At times, Sen’s emphasis on visual lyricism rather than information opens up unanswered questions. And while it draws attention to anti-Muslim sentiments, you never know how Sen would like viewers to connect these terrifying threats to the dark specter of species extinction. Even so, there’s no denying the power of the film or its subject matter; there’s also no denying the heartbreak of his images. Raptors perched on mountains of garbage, monkeys navigating tangles of cables, the lone turtle struggling to climb a mound of debris – in the story of interspecific coexistence, animals have already lost.

In her latest documentary, Margaret Brown tells the story that begins – but does not end – with the discovery of the Clotilda, the last recorded American slave ship. In 1860, decades after the importation of slaves was made illegal in the United States, the ship sailed to Alabama. The men who owned and operated the Clotilda arrived at night and, after bringing their captives ashore, set the ship on fire to conceal their crime. The ship sank, disappearing from sight.

Brown follows the fascinating efforts to recover the Clotilda, but his truest and most vivid subjects are those who survived slavery. Some helped establish Africatown, a community north of Mobile where much of the documentary takes place. There, Brown visits descendants, people for whom slavery is not an abstraction but a living memory that generations have carefully preserved and passed on. The film loses some of its focus halfway through, but the story of the Clotilda and where Brown takes this documentary is very moving.

For much of this elliptical and visually arresting Mexican drama, María García (Teresa Sánchez), a deadpan and stoic loner, holds the center. María, a monument to an old-fashioned way of life, if one who presents herself as non-binary, owns the Jalisco tequila factory that gives the film its title. But times are tough: a fungus is destroying agave crops and foreign companies are threatening artisanal producers like María, who is physically and existentially alone.

Director Juan Pablo González immediately immerses you in the life of María both through the seductive, velvety beauty of the cinematography and by focusing on the material conditions of her daily life, including the hauntingly laborious production of tequila, which you follow from field to bottle. At one point, romance looms, and for a time the story shifts to a hairdresser, Tatín (Tatín Vera), a transgender woman, who, along with María and several other characters, creates a living, textured and quite unexpected.

The titular heroine of this wonderfully unclassifiable film – played by Filipina singer and stage actress Sheila Francisco – is a sweet, absent-minded woman in her mid-70s. She lives (and bickers frequently) with her adult son, stays (mostly) on good terms with her ex-husband, and is haunted by the memory of her other son’s death. She’s also a locally acclaimed action filmmaker, whose complicated emergence from retirement frames director Martika Ramirez Escobar’s heartfelt and wacky homage to the magic of cinema and the power of love.

Leonor’s final script becomes a movie within a movie, but Ramirez Escobar’s meta-cinematic shenanigans don’t stop there. I counted at least four distinct layers of reality in “Leonor Will Never Die,” but there could be more. Either way, the fun is in how they collide and overlap. It might sound like an overly clever postmodern genre mash-up, but somehow the combination of family melodrama, pulpy violence and surreal comedy all add up to a disarmingly tender portrait of an artist at the edge of the beyond.

The reality Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary explores is almost unbearably heartbreaking. In Lysychansk, in eastern Ukraine, an institution temporarily takes in children whose lives have been turned upside down by alcoholism, domestic violence and unemployment, social problems that the war with Russia has aggravated. The children find safety and companionship with each other and an infinitely patient staff while waiting to return to their parents or, more likely, to be transferred to orphanages or foster homes.

Benefiting from extraordinary access to his subjects, Wilmont proceeds with exemplary tact and sensitivity, weaving a harrowing tapestry that also shines with empathy and even shows glimmers of mischief and fun. Remembering the vulnerability of young bodies and souls is heartbreaking, but there is also something thrilling about the honesty and tenacity of the children and the dedication of their caregivers. It’s as if a Frederick Wiseman movie had been reimagined by William Blake.

This Brazilian charmer isn’t particularly flashy, buzzy or provocative. It is a soft and observed family drama, shot in warm colors in Contagem, a city in the state of Minas Gerais. The main characters – Wellington (Carlos Francisco), Tercia (Rejane Faria) and their children, Eunice (Camilla Damião) and Deivinho (Cícero Lucas) – each face crises that test their individual identities and their bonds between them. with each other.

Set in the wake of Jair Bolsonaro’s election as President of Brazil in 2018, their stories touch on social and political pain points (involving race, work, sexuality and religion) that will hardly seem alien to audiences. North American. But “Marte Um”, beautifully directed by Gabriel Martins, is not a culture war polemic or an ideological fable. It’s a moving example of — and a passionate argument for — the kind of human realism that keeps movies alive and never goes out of style.

Dargis I was looking forward to “Sharp Stick” by Lena Dunham, about the coming of age of Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a woman in her twenties. But the one thing that made me watch was Dunham; if someone else had run it, I would have bailed out.

Needless to list all the reasons why I don’t like it – OK, the unfunny stereotypes of Los Angeles were infuriating. But my biggest problem was the sickeningly childish Sarah Jo, whose timely narrative naivety worked my last frayed nerve. When I wasn’t overwhelmed with irritation, I appreciated that Dunham revisited the vexing, often unsettling, figure of the eager and desirable young woman, a character reminiscent of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll, etc

Scott My position in the arguments regarding Lena Dunham is always “yes, but”. Yes, Sarah Jo’s non-worldliness is overstated, some aspects of her sexual awakening feel like wishful thinking, and the shifts in tone from silly to sexy to serious to icky can be a lot. But “Sharp Stick” is interesting to think about in part because Dunham herself thinks, rather than (as so many of her Sundance peers and followers did) of recycling clichés about lust, female empowerment and family dysfunction. The unstable and dispersed quality of this film is for me proof of its curiosity and its willingness to step out of its own comfort zone, if it even has one.

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