As I write this I am into day two of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City Utah. I have been coming to Sundance since the early ’90s. It is my favorite film festival in the world. Yes, we are fortunate to have had in New York City two major film festivals—the much loved and appreciated New York Film Festival and the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival. There are more screens in NYC than any other City in the world. Almost on a weekly basis, there is a specialty Film Festival to enjoy. Among them are The Human Rights Watch, The Athena Festival (women), The Cuban Film Festival, the Black Diaspora festivals, two first class Jewish Film Festivals, the queer and the LGBT+ NEWFEST/OUTFEST NY and the experimental MIX to name just a few. But it is this yearly journey to Park City that most excites me. No, not because I see people like Robert Redford walking around this mountain town, but because of Redford and his programming team’s eclectic vision and dedication to independent filmmaking and cinematic story telling. Sundance’s underlining focus from the beginning has been on mentoring new American (and now world) directors. When it first started out it was about independently produced, narrative films and documentaries. While that remains the core of Sundance, over the years it has added the best of world drama and documentary film and added larger, more highly financed films in its Premier and Spotlight and its most recent category called Next. Next features very small budget films that prove creativity, not money, is the key to successful storytelling. I welcomed the new categories, especially NEXT. Sundance has stepped up to play a more critical role now that theatrical release and distribution has changed with the advent of streaming platforms and the birth of a new studio system—Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and a highway of streaming platforms that seem to expand weekly.
Today critics like myself play a role in pushing forward narrative and documentary films of merit we see at festivals that could have gotten lost in the deluge of new and inexpensive digital technology births.
People who follow me know I have a bias for seeing films in a dark room collectively with strangers. I recognize that the cost of seeing films theatrically in NYC is a serious factor in why people do not go to theaters more frequently. I also recognize that the importance of digital channels like TMC cannot be underestimated. These channels educate and re-educate a viewer’s eyes and provide a sense of history to what constitutes a worthy film. Festivals are wonder opportunity for the public to see films that may not make it to their home town and in attendance may actually engage the creative team including directors, writers, cast and producers in engaged conversation in post-screening Q&A’s or on a shuttle bus from theater to theater.
Sundance, now under the qualified leadership of of John Cooper, continues to add new categories. This year it is episodic television.
Sundance has been in the foreground of showcasing new technology that will create the “cinema” of the future—VR, AR, Immersive, etc. It is one of the most exciting parts of the Festival. Redford always encouraged and supported senior programmer Shar Frilot to think “future”! It is a must stop for me. This year the emphasis is immersive theater where a film, live actors and digital puppetry seduce an audience into a real-time fantasy world. I got lost and was wonder-smacked being immersed by NYC TLD theater environmental pieces.
In my first two days of the ten day Sundance, I have already seen documentaries on the musician David Crosby Remember My Name (Byrds, CNS, CNSY). It is a generational film about music (Dylan, Joni Mitchell etc), politics and 60s drug culture. (at points had me in tears of memory); Halston, the brilliant American fashion designer felled by cocaine, Studio 54 and corporate assault and identity theft; Hail Satan?, serious film about the separation of Church and State; Where is My Roy Cohen, Donald Trump’s mentor and Roger Stone’s role model of trickery and bully tactics in politics. The Great Hack shows how data manipulation made voter targeting with false and fake news extremely personal. This is the new Fox News—Hack documents the new power tools in politics. It is the most important film I have seen so far. It is essential in the same way a Sundance premier three years ago, Alex Gibney’s Zero Hour (watch on Netflix); Untouchable, a portrait of a serial, sexual predator named Harvey Weinstein, and the launch of the Times Up/ Me too movement.
The first film I saw was The Edge Of Democracy, a documentary that explores the political crisis in Brazil from the very personal, point-of-view of the director Petra Costa. She is a child of generational privilege. Her mother and father were revolutionaries who fought to bring Lulu de Silva’s working class Peoples Party to victory. She examines how corruption in politics and manipulation by privately owned media (8 families) with CIA support encouraged the corporate-bought and sealed General Assembly to depose Dilma Rousseff, the democratically elected President. Rousseff was a people’s hero who had been tortured by the dictatorship she helped overthrow. She was Lulu’s supported replacement. The coup is now supported by the US government after the CIA actively funded the election of an ultra right wing demagogue. I saw it the day that US government declared the democratically elected President of Venezuela illegitimate. The US used the tactics of sanctions to cut off supplies to the poorest sectors and froze over a billion dollars a year of earned money that was held in US banks to create a political crisis. Trump supported the self-declared, middle class leader. He is the legitimate President despite not being elected by the voters but supported by the CIA. Is history repeating itself, not only there but perhaps here, was in my mind as I left the the screening.
Let me express the sadness that I and many of you are feeling at the transition of Jonas Mekas from realtime to memory stream. Over the years I had many personal encounters with Jonas. His fierce defense of film art and his suspicion and resistance to video as cinema is legendary. I think of the dialectical “discussions” Dee Dee Hallack and he would have if video work would be welcomed at the Anthology.
I did recently interview him for an article in Westview about his dream to expand the Anthology. I remember well my first encounter with Jonas in the 60s when I went to a screening in what I remember as a door front theater run by the (I think) Filmmakers Cooperative of Genet’s Chant D’Amore.The police raided the theater. They stopped the screening of what I still consider the most beautiful gay love story ever filmed. The New York District Attorney labeled it pornographic! I remember this angry man with a strange accent confronting the police saying this is “film art.”
At the age of 95 scandal suddenly erupted. Mekas was confronted with his youthful past in Germany during the war. He was a identified by the New York Review of Books as a Nazi sympathizer. This spread like wildfire on the internet. With a sharp mind and restrained anger, Mekas responded by going to the NY Holocaust Museum to be filmed giving a 4 hour digitally recorded interview. Rarely has such an honest look back of “where was I in the war” been captured. You can watch or read the transcript online at the archive of the NYC Holocaust Museum.
Jonas was engaged as a critic, a curator and a filmmaker. He has been eulogized for the institutional accomplishments. He is responsible for opening Filmmakers Anthology on the Lower East Side at 2nd Street and 2nd Avenue. Jonas called it experimental cinema that was dedicated to work of the emerging community of underground filmmakers—first here in New York and, later, across America. His role as a critic was invaluable to the documentation and public awareness of the experimental film. I will miss him.
In addition to my top ten films of the year, space did not allow me to list my Honor Role of 2018 films: Use this list when looking for a good movie to watch.
1985—director: Yen Tan
A Star is Born—director Bradley Cooper
A Quiet Place—director John Krasinski
BlacKkKlansman—director Spike Lee
Boy Erased—director Joel Edgerton
Burning—director Lee Chang-dong
Beautiful Boy—director Felix van Groeningen
Destroyer—director Karyn Kusama trailer
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far—director Gus Van Sant
Happy As Lazzaro—director Alice R
Leave No Trace—director Debra Granik
On The Basis of Sex—director Mimi Leder
Return of Mary Poppins—director Rob Marshall
Roma—director Alfonso Cuarón
SHOPLIFTERS—director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Tully—director Jason Reitman
You Were Never Here—director Lynne Ramsay
Vox Lux—director Brady Corbet
Widows—director Steve McQueen