Critics' Conversation: At Sundance 2017, One Movie Soared Above the Rest

THR film critics discuss the extraordinary gay love story 'Call Me by Your Name,' race relations saga 'Mudbound,' Iraq war drama 'The Yellow Birds,' and more loves, hates and hopes from Sundance 2017.

JON FROSCH: One of the questions looming over Sundance 2017 was whether the movies could penetrate the pall cast by politics (i.e., the inauguration and Week 1 of the extremely alarming new presidency). For a day or two, festivalgoers seemed dazed and anxious, and I heard more expletive-laced angst about Trumpelstiltskin than chatter about films seen or anticipated. Slowly but surely, though, the movies started to matter. The Big Sick finds director Michael Showalter and writer-star Kumail Nanjiani spinning Nanjiani's real-life relationship with co-writer Emily Gordon (played by an incandescent Zoe Kazan) — including her brush with a life-threatening illness — into an infectious (no pun intended, I swear) cross-cultural crowd-pleaser. Dee Rees' sweeping, World War II-era Southern saga Mudbound starts off slowit takes a while for the self-consciously literary alternating voiceovers to click — but pulls you in with rich characterizations and poignant performances by Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige.

But towering above anything else I saw was Luca Guadagnino's sublime Call Me by Your Name, a drama of staggering sensuality and feeling, as well as sly wit, about a summer love affair between a teenage boy (Timothee Chalamet) and his father's research assistant (Armie Hammer) in early '80s Italy. I'm a fan of Andre Aciman's novel — let's just say it "spoke" to me as a gay Jew raised by academics — and I can't imagine a better adaptation. The two leads, both extraordinary, have a chemistry that feels not only sexy, but deep and authentic. What's most impressive, though, is how much of the protagonist's roiling, raging inner life Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) and Chalamet (who played Dana Brody's boyfriend on Homeland and Matthew McConaughey's son in Interstellar) succeed in conveying sans voiceover; the movie visualizes conflicted desire with as much precision, power and moment-to-moment suspense as any I can remember. It's a true thriller of the heart. Not even the snickers of the elderly man behind me — probably a moneyed local patron who bought a ticket without reading the plot synopsis — broke the spell for me.

TODD MCCARTHY: I'm with you, Jon. Along with Alex Ross Perry’s exceptional Golden Exits, which is already gathering an ardent following but has little chance of breaking out beyond hardcore purists, Call Me by Your Name provided the greatest pleasure of any of the narrative films I saw here this year. Through close to half the film, Guadagnino steeps the viewer in the delicious atmosphere of summer in the Italian countryside, and if one is prone to become even slightly intoxicated by thoughts of long outdoor meals, bike rides on country roads and summer romances, the film provides a full menu of vicarious delights.

All the same, it’s the two main guys that make it special. Ever since his big splash in The Social Network, we’ve been waiting to see if the impossibly handsome and appealing Hammer would emerge as a real contender. This is the film that shows he’s got everything it takes: He’s entirely convincing as an academic, sportsman, sophisticated man of the world and, in the end, a sensitive and fun lover. And Chalamet is indeed extraordinary; his sudden mood swings are amazing to behold, as are his abilities with languages and the piano. The entire affair is conveyed with exceptional sensitivity, insight, humor and perspective. Also deserving of praise is Michael Stuhlbarg as the Chalamet character's professor father. The actor commandeers a climactic scene that is both a classic of parental understanding and a tour-de-force monologue. But even that is topped by a final, long-held close-up of Chalamet that brilliantly conveys how much the young man has changed in the course of a summer. David, I'm willing to wager you loved this one as much as we did.

DAVID ROONEY: Yep. It’s remarkable how one film can reshape your takeaway from a festival. I had spent most of this year’s Sundance waiting for that shot to the heart that comes with majestically elevated filmmaking coupled with urgent, emotionally vital storytelling. Call Me by Your Name, which I caught on my last night, filled that gap and then some. I can recall few films that evoke that dizzying intoxication of a transporting first love with such potency, in terms both of its ecstasy in the moment and the lacerating sorrow that comes in its wake. Since it's a gay love story set in 1980s Italy, the element of secrecy only adds to the intense intimacy.

I suspect the performances of Hammer and Stuhlbarg will stay with me for a long time, but the revelation, as you guys said, is Chalamet, whom I had been impressed by onstage in an otherwise unmemorable John Patrick Shanley play, Prodigal Son, last year in New York. Here, he’s simply astonishing, stripping himself raw in ways that seem audacious, even dangerous, for such a young actor, and bringing a tensile physicality to the character’s turbulent inner life. If anyone had been in doubt about Guadagnino’s unerring command of the material, that daringly sustained shot of Chalamet’s face at the end of the movie alone should be reason to silence them. 

FROSCH: That last shot destroyed me, and also filled me with joy — talk about a movie sticking the landing! I wonder, though, if Call Me by Your Name will "cross over." It doesn't have the topical sociopolitical dimension of Moonlight, for example — and after the screening, I talked to a bunch of buyers who insisted that it must have an hour shaved off before Sony Pictures Classics releases it later this year (that would basically make the movie just slightly longer than your average Netflix drama episode; sigh). But the movie really shouldn't be touched, and I'm hoping that the ecstatic reviews will help it become an indie — and awards — sensation a la Moonlight. Whether it succeeds in doing so may be a test of how comfortable (or not) America has become with gay-themed cinema, but also with a kind of filmmaking that — while accessible — is distinctly European in its attention to nature, bodies and unexpressed thoughts rather than plot and big emotions. Moonlight, which is "arty" by U.S. standards, passed that test — but again, it had an inside hook here thanks to its timely themes of African-American male identity, bullying and mass incarceration.

MCCARTHY: I think you're right that stateside audiences — today, at least — might be more interested in a gay-themed film about a young African-American man than a story set in 1980s Italy. Sony Classics will have to do an adroit job to convince people to turn out for Call Me by Your Name, and I think the key lies in the brilliant lead performances. Still, because of its emotionally (and physically, up to a point) frank gay love story within the context of a reasonably approachable narrative, people are saying it “could be the next Brokeback Mountain,” given the presence of one well-known actor, Hammer, and the surefire breakthrough of his co-star, Chalamet.

FROSCH: I'd say the Brokeback comparison is apt in terms of emotional impact, too. These are extremely different works — Ang Lee, in Brokeback, is a mournful classicist, while Guadagnino is a giddy sensualist — but like that modern masterpiece, Call Me by Your Name is one of those rare movies that lingers, expands and aches inside of you long after the lights go up. Guys, we should probably stop gushing about it, lest we hasten the arrival of the inevitable backlash.

ROONEY: Wait, one last thing! Why on earth wasn’t this film held for a Cannes competition slot? No doubt the Sundance launch will serve Sony Classics well enough with the release, and it certainly got the critical momentum going. But a jewel like this ends up seeming out of place in the overstuffed Premieres section, with all its shaky star vehicles and courtesy “Sundance family” return invites — I'm thinking of movies like Craig Johnson’s Wilson, a miscalculation on almost every level, and The Last Word, a pedestrian weepie comedy redeemed only by the indomitable Shirley MacLaine.

On the other hand, I much admired Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, a near-future drama that probes its themes of mortality and memory with greater nuance than the play on which it’s based. Hallelujah that the wonderful Lois Smith got to reprise her stage role, partnered here with Jon Hamm in an arresting turn as the sentient hologram version of her late husband. And like you, Jon, I appreciated Mudbound's slow burn, its fine-grained, novelistic sweep and its gallery of well-drawn characters. And for a period movie about racism, it has a subtle contemporary edge that scalds.

FROSCH: Yes, it's probably no coincidence that the movies that seemed to connect most powerfully this year — Mudbound, Call Me by Your Name, The Big Sick — deal with identities (respectively, African-American, queer, Muslim-American) that may find themselves particularly under siege in the age of President Trump. On a not-unrelated note, I hear I missed all the good docs. Fill me in!

ROONEY: Among the ones I most enjoyed was Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral, an argument in favor of renewable energy that's given an unexpected emotional kick via an unlikely on-camera star, a “coral nerd” from Colorado, who witnesses reef decimation with the kind of personal investment usually reserved for a dying loved one; Rory Kennedy’s Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, a highly entertaining portrait of an extreme-sports star fueled by unstoppable drive as he broke the mold for big wave surfing; and Amanda Lipitz’s soaring STEP, about seniors at a high school for girls from low-income, predominantly black Baltimore families, who find a means of self-expression via a step dance team.

We should also say a word about the satisfying growth of Sundance’s Next section (a hub for emerging artists and unconventional work). I was captivated by Joshua Z. Weinstein’s Yiddish-language father-son tale Menashe, set in a Brooklyn Hasidic Jewish community, which immerses us in a milieu we don’t often get to visit onscreen. And I found David Lowery’s minimalist A Ghost Story (starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) transfixing with its marriage of Asian slow-cinema style and time-hopping indie Americana spirit. The fact that Lowery, with his microbudget, shot-on-the-fly project, turned up in Next after making a studio feature and being in the main dramatic competition in 2013 with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints suggests a healthy fluidity across the programming.

MCCARTHY: I was lukewarm on A Ghost Story, but I did really like another Next entry, Janicza Bravo's Lemon, an idiosyncratic, highly stylized film about a drama teacher (Brett Gelman) coming undone. It's an original, and one to keep an eye on for a successful specialized release.

In terms of the buzziest U.S. Dramatic Competition and Premieres titles, I wasn't as enthusiastic as you two about Mudbound, though the main question I had after seeing it was: Why is Garrett Hedlund not already a big star? Maybe this performance will raise his profile a bit and get him the roles he deserves. Hell or High Water scribe Taylor Sheridan's directorial debut Wind River features some of Jeremy Renner's best work, as a Wyoming man who helps the FBI on a local murder case. It's solid and satisfying, despite a couple of wrong moves toward the end. And one of the most invigorating movies I saw was Patti Cake$, about a young female rapper in New Jersey (the extraordinary Aussie breakout Danielle Macdonald). On the other hand, The Yellow Birds, Alexandre Moors' adaptation of Kevin Powers' very fine book about the Iraq War, was disappointing; unlike the source material, it concentrates disproportionately, and less interestingly, on the homefront (namely the military mothers played by Jennifer Aniston and Toni Collette).

FROSCH: The Yellow Birds is familiar in its subject matter and message, and it's uneven for sure, but I actually liked it. The director is French, and I think he brings a refreshing — perhaps typically European — detachment to the kind of story that too often gets the square, semi-jingoistic Hollywood treatment. Instead of pummeling us with speeches and emotion-triggering music, he coaxes a simmering anguish out of his two leads, Alden Ehrenreich and especially the terrific Tye Sheridan as the troubled soldier who goes missing. The movie also has one of the most gorgeous endings of any film I saw at the fest.

I had mixed feelings about several other Dramatic Competition and Premieres entries. I enjoyed the bonkers first half-hour of I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore — the start-stop dance Melanie Lynskey does with a car backing up in the parking lot made me guffaw — before the film gets a bit too enamored with its own shock-weirdness (That dislocated finger? Er, no thanks). Salma Hayek gives a career-best performance in Miguel Arteta's Beatriz at Dinner, a bracingly relevant satire that's not quite as clever as it thinks or as complex as it should be. And Charlie McDowell's The Discovery, with Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford and Riley Keough, is an elegant and involving slice of sci-fi that fumbles the final act.

Of the World Dramatic premieres, a high point was Francis Lee's excellent God's Own Country, about two young sheep farmers (a tough Brit and a tender Romanian). Yes, it's a sort of rougher, smaller British Brokeback Mountain, but the movie has a tone and texture all its own and works beautifully as both a love story and a lived-in look at the rites and rhythms of farm life. Between this film, Call Me by Your Name, and Eliza Hittman's Beach Rats, Sundance really delivered this year when it comes to queer-themed films (#SundanceSoGay, anyone?). It's easy to caricature the festival — earnest docs, white-people-problem ensemble dramedies and the like — yet Sundance often proves itself capable not just of launching interesting careers, but also of nudging the needle forward when it comes to onscreen diversity and representation.

ROONEY: I echo your endorsement of God’s Own Country. The movie’s soulful sense of place would be enough to recommend it, but then there’s the beautiful handling of the love story between a closed-off, self-loathing drunk and a man of the land who awakens feelings in him not just of desire, but of home and heritage. The movie is a potential minefield of cliches and writer-director Lee sidesteps every one of them with grace and sensitivity. And how heartening to see a non-soapy gay drama that ends — spoiler alert! — on such a note of healing and wholeness. Could Lee be the next Andrew Haigh? 

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