The Sundance Film Festival 2019

While Park City has moved away from its rowdy history as a freewheeling party town where swarms of celebrities bubble in hot-tubs while film distributors throw money around in all-night bidding wars, the Sundance Film Festival still remains the pre-eminent showcase for American independent film.

Having screened some of the most groundbreaking films over the past few decades, including “The Big Sick,” “Precious,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “sex, lies, and videotape,” the Sundance Film Festival continues to draw rapt attention.

All told, 112 feature-length films have been selected out of 14,259 submissions for this year’s event— a 6 percent increase from 2018. Forty percent of the movies chosen were directed by one or more women, while 36 percent were helmed by filmmakers of color, and 13 percent came from directors identifying as members of sexual and gender minority communities.

As usual, the heart of the festival is the slate of films vying for attention in the Dramatic and Documentary categories — 32 films from the US, and 24 in the foreign program.

Dramatic Interpretations

The US Dramatic Competition is set to premiere 16 narrative films including “Native Sun.” Starring Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) as Bigger Thomas, and directed by the newcomer Rashid Johnson, “Native Son” tells the seminal story of a young black man whose bleak destiny has been determined by society.

The rising-star cast includes Kiki Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and Nick Robinson (Love, Simon”). A24, the hip independent company behind “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird,” has already acquired distribution rights for the film, a contemporary reimagining of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel.

A collaboration between screenwriter/star Shia LaBeouf and director Alma Har’el also intrigues, working together to make “Honey Boy.” The film also fights for recognition in the U.S Dramatic Competition while painting a painful yet inspired portrait of growing up. LaBeouf’s script dives deep, mining uncomfortable truths about the lasting effects of abuse. Two impressive young actors, Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe, play Otis at different ages.

“Honey Boy” promises to ruffle feathers as it follows two threads of time, watching father and son’s contentious relationship and their attempts to mend it over the course of a decade. “The Sound of Silence” also intrigues in the narrative section. Peter Sarsgaard plays a successful “house tuner” in NYC, calibrating the sound in people’s homes in order to adjust their moods — until he meets with a client with a problem he just can’t solve. “Clemency” also appeals, a film following a female prison warden burdened by years of death-row executions.

A still from Knock Down The House by Rachel Lears, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Rachel Lears

Documentaries—Layered and Authentic

As ever, documentaries will give Sundance much of its heat:

Progressive-leaning audiences will undoubtedly rally behind “Knock Down the House,” a brave film from Rachel Lears in the US Documentary Competition, and one of 16 world-premiere American documentaries vying for attention.

The film follows a group of insurgent political candidates including Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected Democratic congresswoman from Queens. John Cooper, the festival’s director, has stated that the film is, “layered, intense and authentic.”

Indeed, a flock of intense films fills the docu category: “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is a nonfiction portrait of one of the true dark artists of American politics. Directed by Matt Tyrnauer (“Studio 54”), the film has been touted as a thriller-like exposé revealing how a, “deeply troubled master manipulator shaped our current American nightmare.”

Also in this category sits the much-anticipated “Apollo 11,” a film touted as 50 years in the making. It promises to show never-seen footage of the 1969 mission to the moon after director Todd Douglas Miller discovered a trove of 70mm Panavision film at NASA, much of it undeveloped, footage originally shot for an MGM feature on the Apollo program — but when the studio dropped out weeks before launch day NASA decided to keep filming the event.

Stored in vaults for decades, the buried film has now found its way to the silver screen, bringing with it what promises to be pristine hi-res color and never-heard audio to replace those blurry TV transmissions we recall from NASA’s 1969 first flight to the Moon. Other documentaries deal with subjects such as the legacy of lynching in the south, a cult named the Satanic Temple, the Mafia, and life on the Gaza strip.

Premieres And Comebacks

While it’s anyone’s guess what movies will break out this year, one good bet is “Late Night” showing in the Premieres category. Films that have premiered here over the years include “The Big Sick,” “Boyhood” and “Mudbound.”

“Late Night”  comes from newcomer Nisha Ganatra, here directing a sassy comedy starring Emma Thompson as a legendary late-night-talk-show host who — to smooth over diversity concerns — hires her only female staff writer (played by Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the script). The film’s producers include Scott Rudin.

“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is also on show in the Premieres category. The film stars Zac Efron, dropping the whey protein and dumbbells in favor of a meaty acting role playing serial killer Ted Bundy.

The Oscar-nominated director Joe Berlinger returns to narrative directing for the first time since his disastrous, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” peering into the life of Bundy as seen through the eyes of his girlfriend (played by Lily Collins). While Efron has stated in interviews that the film does not glorify Bundy (who murdered over 30 women back in the 1970s), one Sundance programmer has called his performance, “warm, heartfelt and lovely.”

The art-world thriller “Velvet Buzzsaw” is also on people’s minds. It sees Jake Gyllenhaal re-teaming with his “Nightcrawler” director Dan Gilroyfor in a film dubbed an ‘art-world horror thriller.’ Renee Russo also stars. Meanwhile, Chiwetel Ejiofor directed, wrote and stars in “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” a heartwarming story of a Malawian boy whose invention saved his village from famine.

Poster image of TIGERLAND by Ross Kauffman, an official selection of the US Documentary program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

New Directions: World Cinema and Wild Life Conservation

Part of the festival’s high-profile World Cinema Dramatic Competition includes “We Are Little Zombies” joining 11 other films from countries including Ireland, Britain, Australia, Denmark, Chile, Argentina, and Germany.

The widening of the festival’s aperture to include international features reflects the influence of Kim Yutani, who became director of programming last May. “We Are Little Zombies,” rolls as an intriguing adventure following a group of orphaned teenagers that come together to form a kick-ass band. The film comes from Japanese director Makoto Nagahisa, previously a Short Film Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance 2017 for, “And So We Put Goldfish in The Pool.”

Also in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition sits “Cold Case Hammarskjold,” a film that examines the 1961 air disaster that killed UN Secretary-General and promises to reveal a much larger crime.

One theme emerging from this year’s festival is wildlife preservation. “Tigerland” follows efforts to save the last Siberian tigers; “Honeyland” is about saving bees and restoring the natural balance in Macedonia; and “Sea of Shadows” follows the struggle of the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale, near extinction in its natural habitat due to Chinese and Mexican mafia harvesting the animal’s bladder for what is touted as the “cocaine of the seas.”

Poster at Sundance for the movie MEMORY: The Origins of Alien

Intense, Imaginative And Inventive: Midnight And NEXT

The Midnight category is perhaps the most notorious Sundance program that is sure to screen work that defies genre classification. Films here are guaranteed to provoke a reaction.

The rags-to-riches success story of “The Blair Witch Project” has its roots and buzz in this Midnight section, while recent years have also seen spectacular films on show including “Hereditary”, “Assassination Nation”, and “The Babadook”. Over the top comedies, gory horror, and surreal drama are always on show.

“MEMORY — The Origin of Alien” is sure to attract attention here, revealing the untold story behind Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, a film rooted in Greek and Roman mythologies, underground comics, the art of Francis Bacon and our collective unconscious.

Also of interest are ten films in the NEXT category, aiming for bold subject matters and innovative, forward-thinking approaches to storytelling. Open to US films only, this section includes “Light from Light,” featuring a single mom/paranormal sleuth, and “The Infiltrators,” a rag-tag group of undocumented youth who deliberately get detained by Border Patrol in order to enter a shadowy detention center.

A plethora of recognizable actors appear in this year’s slate of films including thesps Alec Baldwin, Shia LaBoeuf, Danny Glover, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Julianne Moore, Zac Effron, Tim Roth, Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, Jim Gaffigan (who stars in two films), Emma Roberts, Miller Jovovich, Hillary Swank, John Lithgow, Jeremy Irvine, Bruce Dern, Viola Davis and Tilda Swinton.

Offscreen, panels and events include the longstanding Power of Story series that will feature Jackie Chan, Lena Waithe, Jane Campion, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Boots Riley and others onstage, while the New Frontier section promises to expose audiences to alternative forms of filmmaking, screening experimental films, media-based performances and installations that revel in the convergence of art and media.

Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan appear in Light From Light by Paul Harrill, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Greta Zozula.