Because of the number of films I'm screening at Sundance this year, I'll be doing full-length reviews of some titles and capsule reviews of others. Below is the fourth and final wave of capsules.
Nanny - Nikyatu Jusu's horror film won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic award, making it the fest's big winner. Anna Diop gives the best performance I saw during Sundance this year, playing Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant who lands a job as the nanny for a wealthy white couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector). Watching their daughter is difficult, given that her own child is still back in Senegal. Then, to complicate matters, a supernatural entity begins taunting her – or is it warning her, as her new flame's grandmother (Leslie Uggams) suggests? I think I'd need to see Nanny a second time to absorb all the nuances of the story, due to the intricate way it marries horror elements and cultural themes. There's a lot to digest in its 97 minutes. But that's a good thing! This is a bold, striking film that immediately pegs Jusu as a director to watch.
Navalny - This year's winner in the Audience Award: U.S. Documentary category was Daniel Roher's look at Alexei Navalny, the famed Russian opposition leader and sworn enemy of Vladimir Putin. Most of the film is set in the period after he was famously poisoned with a nerve agent. Roher's cameras are there as Navalny and his team attempt to figure out who, specifically, did it. Their investigation plays with the same level of intensity as a well-crafted Hollywood thriller. In a jaw-dropping scene, he actually dupes one of the perpetrators into making what amounts to a full confession during a cell phone call. The subject is also on hand for interview segments where he discusses his motivation for pushing ahead in spite of the constant danger of assassination attempts or prison time. Navalny is a riveting examination of a seemingly fearless public figure.
Something in the Dirt - Filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Synchronic) brought Sundance what was arguably the most creative movie to screen this year. They star as Levi and John, two guys who meet in an L.A. apartment complex. When they witness Levi's crystal ashtray floating in midair, it seems that something paranormal is occurring in his unit. As they begin to document that and other strange goings-on, the two fall into a conspiracy theory rabbit hole involving everything from numerology to mind control. I couldn't follow Something in the Dirt, but I think that's the point. The guys get so wrapped up in using conspiracies to explain or justify other conspiracies that it all swirls into one big paranoid jumble. I love the risks Benson and Moorhead take with their work, and this is their most ambitious movie to date. Even if you get lost in the details, it's a shrewd cinematic recreation of how conspiracy theories have a way of obliterating one's sense of logic and reason.