The Best Documentaries at Sundance - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Watch and learn. Repeat.

By Libby Coleman

The good. The bad. The must-see. 

This year, the Sundance Film Festival has a particularly strong crop of documentaries about subjects from around the world. Japan? Got it. Hong Kong? Yup. In the past, the massive fest has been the perfect platform to vault many docs into fame, including The Wolfpack, The Invisible War and What Happened, Miss Simone?

Here’s a list of the best docs this year. Meanwhile, start twiddling your thumbs until you can see them. 

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (Hong Kong)

The Skinny

Bought by Netflix, this documentary follows Joshua Wong, Hong Kong’s most infamous dissident of China. The film takes place during Wong’s teenage years (he’s 20 now), when he begins an activist group against National Education, a pro-China curriculum that was successfully stopped, and later ignites a movement to bring true democracy to Hong Kong. 

What to Say at a Party to Sound Smart

  1. Not discussed in the film, there was a controversial art installation in 2016 — a countdown that ticked down to the end of the promise between China and Hong Kong to remain one country, but two systems. That installation was promptly shut down. 
  2. Try to Google this movie in China and you’ll likely come up with … nothing. China reportedly has blocked searches for the term “Joshua Wong.”
  3. Wouldn’t it be great if Wong and Malala got married? 
  4. The footage is incredible — long shots of the protests, up-close interviews with Joshua and his fellow activists — mixed in with news clips.
  5. Though the film compares Tiananmen Square and Joshua’s own protests, it’s kind of wonderful — Joshua wasn’t even alive for the 1989 Tiananmen Square events.  

STEP (U.S.) 

The Skinny

This will possibly be the most endearing documentary of the year. Two plotlines drive the story simultaneously. The first: The high schoolers are attending a new school that has pledged to send all students to college; the year being documented marks the first graduating senior class. The second plotline: There’s an end-of-year step competition that the young women desperately want to win. The film was acquired by Fox Searchlight for distribution and also for remake rights, reportedly.  

What to Say at a Party to Sound Smart

  1. This movie reminds us a little bit of Mad Hot Ballroom (2005), which actually premiered at the alternative festival, Slamdance. Thank God it did, because we’d completely forgotten this movie and now have to go back and watch.
  2. The director, Amanda Lipitz, is a double (triple, even?) threat. She also has cred in television and Broadway as a producer. 
  3. Freddie Gray and Black Lives Matter are the backdrop of the film, distinguishing the young women’s confidence and fortitude even further.

Tokyo Idols (Japan) 

The Skinny

This examination of pop culture — J-Pop and “Idols” (young girls who perform, often for obsessed older men, and then hold meet-and-greets afterward) — delves into fame, gender, romance and even the economy in Japan. The story mainly follows Rio, an Idol with a few (but not a ton of) huge fans, who wants to become a singer. The male fans spend their income on her and her CDs — one says he could get an apartment if he wasn’t supporting Rio — toeing the line between being paternalistic, brotherly and perhaps a bit sexual. 

What to Say at a Party to Sound Smart

  1. By the end of the film, it’s less like the men are creepy and more like they’re just sad and lonely.
  2. We take it back. The scene where men are cheering on adolescent girls as they parade around in costume is absolutely creepy.  
  3. This is the first Sundance for director Kyoko Miyake, who grew up in Japan but moved to the U.K. to study the history of witchcraft and has lived outside of Japan since. Seriously. 
  4. This is probably a movie that will do far, far better in America than in Japan.

Whose Streets? (U.S.)

The Skinny

This film documents two years in Ferguson in the aftermath of Michael Brown Jr.’s killing, and absolutely skewers the media coverage of the events. When I saw it, part of the crowd gave it a standing ovation — a reaction that should make anyone excited about this film. 

What to Say at a Party to Sound Smart

  1. “This ain’t yo’ daddy’s civil rights movement” is the quote of the film. Potentially the best quote for this year.
  2. One of the film’s two directors grew up in East St. Louis, right across the river from Ferguson.
  3. A ton was filmed. Not everything of the estimated 400 hours made it into the movie.
  4. This is part of an emerging trend in documentary film — one that tells the truth(s) of the world by using social media, cellphone footage and more to tell all the different sides. 

Casting JonBenet (U.S., but directed by an Australian) 

The Skinny

This documentary is about the conspiracy theories around who killed JonBenét Patricia Ramsey, a beauty pageant queen who was killed in her home in Colorado at the age of 6. You’ll be able to watch it on Netflix.

What to Say at a Party to Sound Smart

  1. The film’s form is becoming increasingly popular. It tells the story of JonBenét, but through a frame of “casting” the film about her and her family. Other docs that have followed a similar method include Kate Plays Christine from last year’s fest.
  2. The director, Kitty Green, is Australian and says she’s always been interested in the case — and that lots of people in Australia are. 
  3. The beauty of the film is that it was shot in Colorado, near the killing, so all the actors trying to get the roles are well aware of the case and provide their own thoughts on what happened.
  4. The case occurred more than 20 years ago and it’s never been solved. 

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