Sundance screened less independent and international TV series in 2020 than years past, but the carefully curated crop nonetheless bore strong fruit. One, unsurprisingly, shines brightest in the bushel: Steve James’ “City So Real,” which marks the filmmaker’s first project since kicking off the festival’s inaugural Indie Episodic section in 2018 with the excellent docuseries, “America To Me.” His follow-up is shorter, but still substantive — like the festival’s lineup around it. Check out the best of Sundance’s 2020 TV crop below, and make sure to forward this memo to the proper distributors, should you know how to bend their ear.
“City So Real”
Join. The. Movement! Steve James’ return to Sundance may be six hours shorter than his 2018 debut of “America to Me,” but the new Chicago-set docuseries is nonetheless substantial, engrossing, and declarative. Ostensibly chronicling the contentious 2019 mayoral election — which saw an unprecedented 21 candidates vying for Rahm Emmanuel’s vacant chair — the four-hour documentary seizes upon a critical moment in the city’s history, as well as our country’s. James’ cameras capture change as it’s happening, not only illustrating the divides among Windy City citizens, but the progress they make together and the demand for action from leaders who care about the world around them. As watchable as it is timely, “City So Real” is built for a wide audience. On a more accessible platform and with a more experienced distributor, his last project, “America To Me,” could’ve become a regular on the red carpet, dominating awards shows throughout its qualifying run. “City So Real” has the same potential — it leaves a mark on anyone lucky enough to see it.
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Yes, it’s another cancer-focused comedy-drama, and yes, it’s also another arrested development coming-of-age story told from a man’s perspective, but Danish filmmaker Kristian Håskjold still crafts an enjoyable, efficient, and well-acted short-form series. The pilot is smartly framed around what would’ve been another average day-in-the-life of Oliver (Adam Ild Rohweder), who hops out of bed with his not-going-to-call-her-his-girlfriend girlfriend and gets almost immediately diagnosed with testicular cancer. His life is turned upside-down in the time it takes for her parents to pop over for lunch, and his initial reluctance to meet them is playfully mocked by the far-worse reality he faces from a hospital bed. Rohweder makes an empathetic yet backboned lead, while Håskjold’s tonal balance and comic timing carry things forward smoothly. Its length may keep it off primetime, but “Chemo Brain” would rack up plenty of views, and its creators deserve further opportunities.
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“Untitled Pizza Movie”
Shaggy and sprawling — matching aesthetics with its 1990s New York City setting — “Untitled Pizza Movie” uses found footage and found objects to tell the story of a childhood friendship that spanned decades. In their early 20s, Leeds Atkinson and David Shapiro (the docuseries’ writer-director) set out to find the best pizza parlor in the Big Apple. One problem: They didn’t have enough money to sample every slice. So the duo concocted a small con, carrying video cameras into various restaurants and telling the pizza makers they were filming a TV series titled “Eat to Win.” But when they got more than just a bellyful of pizza, the project was abandoned and the two drifted apart. Now, while digging through an old storage locker filled with memories, Shapiro revisits the lost recordings and pieces together a story of lost time and fractured planning. A tad over-cooked, the pieces recovered come together to form, if not the best docuseries at Sundance, then still a darn good pie.
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You know how, once they reach a certain age, some people just stop giving a shit? They may hide it with a coy smile or feign ignorance due to their age, but really, at their core, they’ve just decided to do whatever they want. Our fearless elders like these appear to be the inspiration for Lady, played by Jayne Eastwood, a sassy senior citizen who wants nothing more than to stir up some shit, day in and day out. Be it framing her son or racking up a big bill on her daughter’s credit card, Lady is living life as large as possible while she still can. Co-directed and executive produced by Sarah Polley, “Hey Lady!” is a meta lark that could use a bit more backstory for its main character, but remains entertaining throughout. With a twist that Lady thinks (knows?) she’s living in a TV show — and can control how it plays out — there’s plenty of potential in this Canadian production, especially given the spirited star.
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A good fit for any network with an adult audience eager for true crime stories, “Laetitia” opens with a particularly brutal pilot that introduces a unique mystery. After the scooter of a French student is found outside her foster parent’s home, her twin sister calls for help. The police put together a timeline for her disappearance and pin down a suspect quickly, but one problem persists: There’s no victim. From small town gossip to national news by the day, the case comes from a true story originally documented in Ivan Jablonka’s acclaimed book “Laëtitia or the End of Men,” and has been adapted by Academy Award–winning director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (“The Staircase”). With its violence toward women and young female victim, “Laetitia” plays into the worst tropes of the genre, but its assured presentation and basis in fact elevate the series enough to merit consideration for the right viewership.
Sales contact: email@example.com (co-produced by CPB Films and L’Ile Clavel)