Edson Oda’s “Nine Days” is one of the most unexpected experiences I’ve had in almost a decade of going to Sundance. The description read like something that could be too precious with its high-concept, turning into little more than pretentious pondering on the meaning of life. But Oda and his team have delivered a knockout piece of filmmaking, a movie that deserves its comparisons to Hirokazu Kore-eda, while also announcing a major new talent and affirming those suspicions you had that Winston Duke is going to be a special actor. “Nine Days” is moving, graceful, and powerful storytelling.
The concept is simpler than you might think. We meet Will (Duke), who lives in an old-fashioned house in what looks like the middle of nowhere. He spends his days watching old tube TV screens from a first-person POV. He takes detailed notes, and is clearly attached to all of them, from the bride-to-be to the bullied kid, although he seems particularly fond of the violinist. So when she kills herself on her way to a concerto, Will is shaken to his core. How could he not see this coming? And how can he make sure it doesn’t happen again in her replacement?
You see, Will is in charge of a collection of souls on planet Earth—sort of a high-tech guardian angel. So when the pianist dies, he meets nine people “auditioning” to be born next to take her place. Think of it as a high-concept take on reincarnation – a film that imagines before-life as a purgatory instead of after-life. Will has a friend named Kiyo (Benedict Wong, doing career-best work) who helps talk him through the interview process, but the bulk of “Nine Days” is Will choosing someone to experience the wonder of life. Candidates, including those played by Tony Hale and Bill Skarsgard, have to answer quizzes and, most of all, have to watch the screens, picking out what they like and dislike about living. It’s a vision of guardian angels fine-tuning humanity based on how we’re living it. And then Will meets a free spirit (Zazie Beetz), who challenges his detached style, pointing out that he’s lost the thread of what life is all about too.
“Nine Days” could have been a series of overwritten conversations about the value of existence, but it’s a very tactile, grounded experience. One candidate wants to feel the sand between his toes and the water lapping the shore; another longs for wind in her hair as she rides a bicycle. The antique store approach to Will’s life keeps “Nine Days” from becoming a cold, sci-fi experience. The emotions people feel watching this movie come deep down from sense memory instead of more obvious, manipulative choices. A hearty laugh, an unbridled yell, a buried smile—“Nine Days” sketches a picture of humanity that transcends what we’ve often seen in films like this. It is an incredibly ambitious film that’s able to move you while also providing enough ambiguity to discuss what it means when it’s over.
Something that’s not ambiguous at all is Winston Duke’s skill level. So entertaining in “Us” and “Black Panther,” he finds a completely new register here, portraying Will almost like an angel dealing with trauma, balancing serene detachment with a growing well of blame. How could he not have seen this coming? “Nine Days” becomes Will’s arc more than anyone, teaching the teacher about what really matters and reminding him that humanity takes happiness and sadness in equal measure. This is a beautiful movie.
That’s also a word I would use to describe Lee Isaac Chung’s tender and nuanced “Minari,” one of the biggest hits of Sundance 2020. Already picked up by A24, this gentle, personal story works because of its specificity, bringing forth the kind of detailed storytelling that is much harder to pull off than it looks. From the way these characters interact with one another to how they carry themselves to how they work—there’s a level of realism here that we don’t often see in major movies anymore. Lee avoids the biggest trap of biographical filmmaking—sentimentality—and delivers a film that’s all the more moving and powerful by feeling real.
If “Nine Days” earned its comparison to Kore-eda, “Minari” earns the Sundance parallel with Yasujiro Ozu. Like the master director, Lee Isaac Chung is interested in family dynamics, opening as young David (Alan Kim), a charming seven-year-old, is transplanted from the West Coast to rural Arkansas. Mother Monica (Yeri Han) is aghast at the living situation—their house has wheels!—but Jacob (Steven Yeun) is insistent on building a life here. Stretching out in front of that house on wheels is a gorgeous plot of land, where he will grow “Korean vegetables” to sell to major cities. Putting everything into his farm, Jacob walks that fine line in which his dreams could either save or destroy his family. Yeun, always so good, gives another incredible performance here, subtly capturing a man as even he begins to question if he’s made the right decisions for his family.
That last sentence might make “Minari” sound like a melodrama, but it’s far from it. If anything, “Minari” sometimes feels a little too reserved and slight, episodically moving through events in David’s life from his hysterical relationship with his grandmother to trying to make new friends at school. “Minari” plays out like a memory of childhood, one in which we remember seemingly average days alongside the major ones. It has a cumulative power thanks to the grounded commitment of everyone involved—Han matches Yeun in terms of acting, finding an increasingly frustrated grace in Monica. This is a movie that some people will hold very close to their hearts, and one I'm eager to see again out of the pull of fest exhaustion.
Sadly, the worst competition film I saw at Sundance 2020 had the misfortune of being sandwiched between “Nine Days” and “Minari” on my last full day in Park City. Director Braden King adapts Carter Sickels’ novel about modern life in rural America and the opioid crisis that has decimated large swaths of it, but he does so with the gaze of an outsider, never even trying to get under the skin of this loosely-sketched characters who never move from actors to anything that feels genuine. Ultimately, I just didn’t buy any of “The Evening Hour,” a film praised in its Sundance introduction as being lyrical and authentic. I found it neither.
Cole (Philip Ettinger) works at a nursing home in Appalachia, from which he pilfers drugs and helps feed the local trade. When a childhood friend (Cosmo Jarvis, giving easily the best performance in the film) returns and tries to move his way into a very dangerous world, Cole’s delicate ecosystem collapses. It doesn’t help that Cole’s estranged mother (Lili Taylor) has suddenly returned too—the ghosts of this man’s past about to wreck his present.
“The Evening Hour” strikes me as the kind of material that works better on the page, but King simply never dug his nails into it to make it feel genuine on the big screen. This is one of those films in which people on the edge of poverty and battling addiction still look like they walked off a Hollywood set. There’s simply no way a movie like “The Evening Hour” has any power at all if we don’t buy what’s happening or the very existence of its characters. Jarvis has a nervous energy that could be interesting in a better film, but that’s a tiny glint of sunlight in a film that you’re better off leaving in the dark.