"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" appeared at Sundance.
Fred Rogers appears in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” by Morgan Neville, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. COURTESY SUNDANCE INSTITUTE/JIM JUDKIS

By BOB FEINBERG
For Montclair Local

Bob Feinberg is founder and chairman of Montclair Film, a community-based 501(c)(3) corporation that produces the annual Montclair Film Festival.

Submissions for “Town Square,” our space for essays on topics of interest to the town,
should be emailed to letters@montclairlocal.news for approval at least one week in advance of publication.

Ten years ago, while skiing with my family in Park City, Utah, I stumbled onto the Sundance Film Festival. Sundance wasn’t hard to find — every lamppost on Main Street in the old-mining-town-turned-world-class-ski-resort was adorned with a festival banner; traffic on the streets and the sidewalks was chock-a-block; restaurants and coffee shops were filled; the high school auditorium town library and community gym had been turned into movie theaters; and the slopes were empty. (No one, I learned, goes to Park City during Sundance to ski.)

Back then, I was a newcomer to film festivals. The only film I could manage to get us tickets to was an 8 a.m. screening of a French movie whose name I’ve long since forgotten.

But I was hooked. I loved the excitement and the colors on the streetscape, to say nothing of the hundreds of stories being told behind closed doors, in the dark.It felt as though the circus had come to town. And I wanted to bring some of that creative luster home with me. Cut to the Montclair Film Festival (and our first tagline, “Sundance, only Jersier”).

Bob Feinberg at Sundance
BOB FEINBERG

I’ve gone back to Sundance almost every year since then, joined (in the last three years) by Tom Hall, executive director of MFF, in search of thought-provoking films to bring to our audiences here in Montclair. At MFF 2017, some 26,000 people from 35 states and 11 foreign countries attended screenings of more than 150 feature-length and short films at venues all around town.

Many of these movies had premiered at Sundance and been scouted by Tom and his staffers. MFF 2018 (Thursday, April 26, through Sunday, May 6) will be the largest and longest festival we have produced.

So did I see anything great at Sundance this year?

Three films immediately come to mind. Each in its own way brought me back to a particular time in my life.

The first of these comes from gifted filmmaker Morgan Neville, whose documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” – the story of backup singers, the unsung heroes of rock & roll – premiered at Sundance, opened the 2013 Montclair Film Festival, and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary that year. Neville’s latest doc is “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and anyone in my demographic will know the subject of this film: Mr. Rogers, whose public television program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” launched in 1968 and ran for more than 30 years.

I was 6 when Mr. Rogers traded his sport jacket for a cardigan and his loafers for tennis shoes, and his stories of caring and self-worth, told with hand puppets and cardboard castles, brought me comfort and clarity. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” had me cheering as Mr. Rogers preaches the gospel of educational television before a hostile congressional committee seeking to cut PBS funding.

Robin Williams appears in “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”by Marina Zenovich, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. COURTESY SUNDANCE INSTITUTE/MARK SENNET

Ten years after Mr. Rogers invited us into his neighborhood, television brought us a visitor from light years away — Mork from Ork — and introduced us to Robin Williams. Marina Zenovich’s heart-wrenching “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” tells the story of this extraordinary talent, whose career took him from Juilliard to stand-up comedy, from “Mork and Mindy” to “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Boulevard” (which screened at MFF 2014). For anyone who came of age in the 1980s and ’90s, as I did, Robin Williams was a unique and irrepressible presence. Zenovich’s doc delivers all that, along with insights into the addictions and health problems (both physical and mental) that led to his suicide.

Tamara Jenkins’ touching and semi-autobiographical “Private Life” is a drama/comedy set in New York City. It stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a young-ish couple struggling with infertility and the strain their efforts to have a child place on their marriage. We’ve all been there — or have friends/acquaintances who have. Jenkins’ writing and direction are smart and realistic. The performances of her actors — Hahn, Giamatti, veteran comedian Molly Shannon and newcomer Kayli Carter — are spot on.

Will any of these three Sundance premieres screen at this year’s Montclair Film Festival?

You’ll have to wait until April, when we announce our line-up for the 7th annual Montclair Film Festival.

I hope you’ll join us at the movies.