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Four Sundance Films That Should Have Been Recognized For Their Extraordinary Craft

"Time," "Sylvie's Love," "Shirley," and "Nine Days" represented extraordinary achievements in editing, design, cinematography, and score.

"Shirley" DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen and director Josephine Decker

“Shirley” DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen and director Josephine Decker

Thatcher Keats

Sundance Film Festival juries often hand out special prizes to recognize work that doesn’t win one of the two prescribed awards (Grand Jury Prize and Jury Prize for Directing) in each of the competition categories. This year, Sundance found some… well, let’s say, unusual ways to celebrate some tremendous films.

There was the head-scratcher of Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” winning the “U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Neorealism,” and Josephine Decker’s “Shirley,” competing in the same category, winning the “Award for Auteur Filmmaking.”

While we don’t want to take anything away from those achievements, IndieWire would like to recognize the practical elements that went into some of this year’s best competition titles. Here’s four examples of extraordinary craft that helped bring a handful of films to cinematic life this year… and might have made for better jury prizes.

IndieWire Jury Award for Editing: “Time

A still from Time by Ursula Garrett Bradley, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Time”

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The U.S. Documentary Competition Jury recognized Garrett Bradley with the much-deserved Directing prize, but this incredible film warranted (much like “Honeyland” the year before) multiple prizes, and one of the most obvious is for its editing.

When Bradley shot with her subject, Fox Rich, she was making a short film — specifically, a portrait of what a loved one goes through, from the mundane to the infuriating, in battling the cruel indifference and blatant injustice of the bureaucracy as she tries to free her husband, Rob, after he served 20 years in prison. At the very end of production, when Bradley told Rich she was about to start editing, Rich handed the filmmaker an incredible DV archive she filmed of her six children and their 20 years of growing as a family while Rob was incarcerated.

That archive narratively, cinematically, and emotionally opened the door for Bradley’s story in a number of key ways, including its evolution from short to feature. It also gave a specific sense of Rich’s journey to becoming the strong activist and leader she is today. “Time” is not a standard-issue documentary; its structure, and Bradley’s style, is far more specific and poetic. Bradley and editor Gabriel Rhodes, through endless experimentation, found a way to make Rich’s arc crystal clear, but in a way that allows the viewer to experience it emotionally rather than A-B-C logic. We cut through time in a way that past and present become one, the film flowing like water, and the ideas behind the film’s apt title deepen and resonate in profound ways.

IndieWire Jury Award for Cinematography: “Shirley”

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young appear in Shirley by Josephine Decker, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Thatcher Keats.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Shirley”

One of the best-shot Sundance films since director Josephine Decker’s 2018 Sundance film “Madeline’s Madeline” (cinematographer Ashley Connor).

The interiors of horror author Shirley Jackson’s (Elisabeth Moss) off-campus Bennington home are so textured I was convinced for the first half of the film it was shot on film stock, when in fact with was shot digitally with an ARRI mini and old Baltar Lenses.

Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who also had “Wendy” at this year’s Sundance, often uses the home’s windows to motivate his light, but the nuance and evocative nature of the lighting schemes creates a psychological and internal sense of space. Combined with the film’s top-notch production (Sue Chan) and costume design (Amela Baksic), the look of the film goes beyond an incredible sense of being a specific time (1964) and place, but perfectly tracks the 19-year-old house guest’s (Odessa Young) and the audience’s fascination with Jackson as we pulled into her world. Conversely, Grøvlen shoots exteriors with crispness that creates a contrast between Jackson’s story world, the reality of her interior world, and life outside her home.

One of the things that’s most exciting about “Shirley” is how Decker maintains her distinctive, improvisational sense of staging and camera movement and framing, while working with her first tightly written and structured script (screenwriter Sarah Gubbins’ adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel). Grøvlen’s ability to light and create such thick atmosphere, but keep things loose and inventive so that Decker could remain visually improvisational, is vital to film’s distinctive storytelling.

IndieWire Jury Award for Period Design: “Sylvie’s Love”

"Sylvie's Love"

“Sylvie’s Love”

A low-budget Sundance film that successfully pulls off a multi-location New York city jazz scene between 1957-1962 — one that detours into domestic lives, house parties, TV production, a Harlem record shop, as well as the suburbs and Detroit — is a remarkable achievement of low-budget ingenuity. But there’s something transportive about the period look of this film that goes beyond the film’s resourcefulness.

Introducing its low-key approach, the film opens with (assumedly) period stock footage of the era, which seamless transitions into the film’s distinct 16mm palette. A Black love story from the time period is something we don’t often see on the big screen, but “Sylvie’s Love” also has its own jazz-induced ease. It’s an entrancing film, from Fabrice Lecomte’s music, to the way Declan Quinn’s cinematography and Mayne Berke’s production design channels both the period and conventions of melodrama, to the way costume designer (Phoenix Mellow) and hair & makeup team (Carla Farmer, Angie Wells, Linda Villalobos) transform Nnamdi Asomugha and Tessa Thompson into 1960s movie stars.

We watch this film through a kind of filter, but it never feels artificial. “They don’t make them like this anymore” isn’t quite accurate, because Hollywood never really made Black jazz love stories like this in the first place, but you can slip into this film with comfort of flipping on TCM on a rainy afternoon.

IndieWire Jury Prize for Score: “Nine Days

"Nine Days"

“Nine Days”

Michael Coles/Mandalay Pictures

One of the filmmaking challenges of director Edson Oda’s screenplay, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, is it grounds us in the world of Will (Winston Duke), a former living human who avoids the emotions of being alive. Will is charged with picking, then monitoring, the souls whom have what it takes to make it as beings on Earth. His day-to-day routine, by design, can be a mundane slog.

What triggers the events of “Nine Days” is the unexplained death of Amanda (was it suicide?), a talented violinist who clearly was Will’s hand-picked favorite, and whose vulnerable inner emotional life both reminds and scares Will of his time on Earth. It is first through Amanda’s music, but then through the continued use music via composer Antonio Pinto’s minimalist score, that Oda unleashes the emotions that lay beneath the surface of Will’s cool, evenly paced existence. Pinto finds themes and instruments (violin, cello, bass, guitar, and piano) that help tell each character’s story, but in a subtle and evocative way that never overwhelms what is ultimately a quiet film. While the music itself is lovely, it’s also vital to the storytelling — and that makes it one of the best uses of craft at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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