PARK CITY, Utah — Picture it: a small, ski town on the top of a mountain in Utah. It isn’t very big, there aren’t many public facilities, and the sidewalks are always icy. Yes, Park City, Utah, is surely the best place to hold an internationally renowned film festival.
I gripe because I love. 2020 was my 11th straight year attending the Sundance Film Festival, and while this wasn’t one of its breakout years, it’s still a marvelous place to come. (But please don’t come, it’s crowded enough.)
This year saw 118 feature-length films, representing 27 countries and 44 first-time feature filmmakers, most of them world premiers. Rather than report back on everything I’ll let the rule of three help out (it worked for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it’ll work here) and tell you about three really good non-documentaries with a Jewish bent.
I can hardly recommend “Worth” as a fun night out at the pictures, but it is a very strong and considerate story about a difficult subject. It is also extremely Jewish, and not just because two of the main characters are members of the Tribe. The film’s central conceit — whether or not one could ever place a numeric value on a human life — has roots in tales of King Solomon and leads to grand philosophic debate. It is Jewish in its very bones.
Michael Keaton submerges himself in the role of Ken Feinberg, a lawyer and professor who, as a “Special Master,” oversaw the 9/11 Victims Fund. Feinberg, feeling the need to “do something,” offered his very specific legal experience to the Bush administration, who were justifiably terrified that the terrorist attacks might bring lawsuits to airline companies, thus crippling the economy. Feinberg (a “Jew lawyer” according to one angry albeit grieving litigant) knows he can only achieve his goals by being dispassionate, but when widower Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) challenges him, they come to a more humane understanding.
Tucci, in his supporting role, breezes in as if from the pages of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. He is a decent, dignified man, looking only to make things just. He does not raise his voice, but he does not hide his displeasure. He is the very picture of a righteous man.
The scenes between Keaton and Tucci, featuring remarkable dialogue from writer Max Borenstein, are eternal in nature. Sly remarks about edicts handed down from Sinai add an extra, Jewish bent. The director Sara Colangelo’s previous project was the fantastic adaptation of the Israeli film “The Kindergarten Teacher” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Set on what may as well be a different planet from “Worth” is “Kajillionaire,” written and directed by Miranda July (née Miranda Grossinger).
A family, consisting of two Jewish-American actresses (Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood) plus Richard Jenkins, are low-level grifters living in a surreal version of Los Angeles. When we first meet them, the two parents know how to deploy their oddball daughter into a post office at the exact moment the cameras won’t see her in the hopes of yanking a package when no one is looking. If there’s anything good inside they’ll find a store that will accept a return and get a few bucks. In between, they enter sweepstakes and return stolen objects looking for a reward.
They live basically rent free by taking up residence in a condemned office next to a rubber factory, which means pink slime bubbles through the walls at regular intervals.
It’s silly and weird, but underneath is a rather touching look at family dysfunction, if you can get past the thick layer of strangeness up top. (Many people can not. Miranda July is like the cilantro of filmmakers; she’s not for everyone.)
I personally found it fantastic and was especially taken with Evan Rachel Wood, a beautiful young woman, wearing ridiculously baggy track pants, her hair hanging down like Cousin Itt, completely uncomfortable in her own skin. At first it is funny when she drastically flinches the moment a masseuse lightly touches her shoulder, but then it grows increasingly sad.
Sitting in an audience and not quite understanding why you are feeling what you are feeling is part of the family business for the Cronenbergs. Brandon Cronenberg is the son of one of Canada’s most wonderfully strange Jews, David Cronenberg, and he has (wisely) decided not to avoid accusations of following in his father’s footsteps.
“Possessor,” his second film after the similarly weird/gross/kinda-funny “Antiviral” from 2012, has the barest of science fiction premises. A shadowy mercenary company has an elite kill squad who can, through technology never explained, send the consciousness of an assassin into someone else, and then take out a larger target.
As such, we watch the group capture Christopher Abbott, the schnook boyfriend of Tuppence Middleton whose father is a powerful CEO played by Sean Bean. Andrea Riseborough (the actress you get when you want to go even weirder than Tilda Swinton) enters Abbott’s consciousness to make the hit. What follows is an orgy of moody lighting, strange camera angles, absurdly over-the-top violence and startlingly frank sex. It’s great.
Like his father’s early work (“The Brood,” “Scanners,” “Videodrome”) it has the veneer of being intelligent (and maybe it is!) but it is mostly just an exploitation film. And we need those. It is very important to blow off steam with something that is “bad for you” but made in a creative manner. I’ve long held the belief that if you do not have a problem with addiction, all adults must get piss-drunk one time a year as a release valve (see: Purim), and, if possible, it should be done with quality libations, not Bud Light. Seeing a movie like “Possessor” achieves a similar cinematic goal.
Other Jewish notables
There were a few other Jewish successes at Sundance this year. “Palm Springs,” a dopey comedy with Andy Samberg, broke a record for the amount of money an independently produced movie sold to a distributer during the festival. NEON and Hulu cut a check for $17,500,000.69. The added change was there to make the history books, but also as an immature joke.
Also, one of the best performances in any film I saw was from Michael Stuhlbarg as critic and professor Stanley Hyman, opposite Elizabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson in “Shirley.” Directed by Josephine Decker, this is an unusual and disorienting biopic, in which the spouses bicker and torment one another until finally a brilliant work of art is born.
All of these movies will sprout up at some point during the year, and are definitely worth checking out.