If you, like everyone else on the planet, we’re hoping for a few days of respite following the announcement of the 2019 Academy Award nominations, given all the wtf omissions and snubs (no “Mr. Rogers” doc??), well, guess again. The Sundance Film Festival is upon us, it starts today and there is absolutely no rest for the wicked.
Sundance is evolving as a platform. Once a launching place for smart American indies, it’s now also being seen as an early place to start a Best Picture Oscar campaign; or at least, some films have earned so much praise and buzz out of Utah, they’ve gone on to become legitimate Oscar contenders (see Richard Linklater‘s “Boyhood“). However, the problem with that reasoning is expecting that lightning bolt to strike every single year and the fact of the matter is it doesn’t. Awards and Oscars are nice, but generally, Sundance in Park City is a springboard for independent films from auteurs that are likely going to make some of your top 10 lists, but not necessarily break in with the Academy and that’s 100% ok.
Still, as Netflix and Amazon become hungrier for content and as streamers like Apple, Facebook, and Disney+ get into the acquisitions game trying to get their own services up and running, Sundance filmmakers could end up being in an enviable position this year, and the indie market could be radically transformed again. Of course, this further disrupts the current indie film studio eco-system, but what isn’t affecting that at the moment?
Regardless, enough circuitous rambling. The 2019 Sundance Film Festival is here, it’s incredibly diverse this year, leaning harder into up-and-coming filmmakers (and women and persons of color) than it is starry premieres and that could make for some excellent breakout directors, actors, and talents to keep an eye on throughout the year and beyond. The Sundance Film Festival runs Thursday, Jan 24 through Sunday, Feb 3. Let’s take a look at what sounds the most intriguing.
Hot indie tastemakers A24 is looking for their next “Moonlight,” and “Native Son,” based upon the novel of the same name by Richard Wright, could be it. The directorial debut of American artist Rashid Johnson, known for producing conceptual post-black art, his work, mostly music, video, and sculpture art, has been exhibited all over the world and at some of the biggest museums in the world. “Native Son,” the book, told the story of 20-year-old African American living in utter poverty in a poor area on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s, but the film version will be a contemporary reworking. The drama stars Ashton Sanders (one of the three leads in “Moonlight”) Margaret Qualley (“Novitiate“), Nick Robinson (“The Kings Of Summer“), KiKi Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk“), Bill Camp, Sanaa Lathan, and superstar DP Matthew Libatique shot the film. It’s definitely one to watch and while already under the A24 banner, the company will surely release it sometime in 2019. The question, for them, will be: is it an awards contender. “Native Son” is also in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition section so if it wins any major prizes, that’s definitely going to shape its narrative too.
“After The Wedding”
You know Susanne Bier now for directing “Bird Box” and possibly the TV miniseries “The Night Manager,” but she came to major international acclaim with 2006’s “After The Wedding” which also made a global start out of Mads Mikkelsen after the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The movie centered on a manager of an orphanage in India who is sent to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he discovers a life-altering family secret. Naturally, it’s finally been remade for American audiences and by none other than Julianne Moore’s filmmaker husband Bart Freundlich (“The Myth of Fingerprints,” Amazon‘s “Mozart in the Jungle”). This version transposes Copenhagen to New York and stars Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Billy Crudup, and Abby Quinn.
An intriguing contender in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section, “The Farewell” is the sophomore effort from a classical-pianist-turned-filmmaker, Lulu Wang, the director behind the 2014 indie drama “Posthumous,” starring Jack Huston and Brit Marling. “The Farewell” centers on a Chinese family who discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies. While dark sounding, the film is apparently something more of a heartfelt, grounded comedy and boasts what is said to be a breakout performance by Awkwafina, who turned a lot of heads in “Crazy Rich Asians” in the summer of last year. That movie also demonstrated an audience underserved and starving for Asian American stories that reflect their experience, so “The Farewell,” could be a big indie breakout of the same shape if it connects.
Anticipated at #Sundance: Lulu Wang's (@thumbelulu) #TheFarewell with @awkwafina, Tzi Ma and many more. #SundanceFilmFestival2019 #SundanceFest #Sundance2018 https://t.co/sLMeVCZX13 pic.twitter.com/BJtImkr4Q8
— The Playlist ???? (@ThePlaylist) January 18, 2019
Are you interested in a pseudo-biopic about the young life of actor Shia LaBeouf as a boy before he became famous, written by LaBeouf and starring LaBeouf as his own father? Why yes, you are, of course. LaBeouf obviously never does anything half-ass, so the meta/art project-ness of “Honey Boy” isn’t exactly a surprise. To help him with his story, LaBeouf recruits director Alma Har’el (documentary “Bombay Beach,” on Adweek’s 2018 list of “disruptors”). The logline is simple: a child actor works to mend the relationship with his hard-drinking, law-breaking father and it co-stars Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, and FKA Twigs. Note the score by Alex Somers, one half of Jónsi & Alex; the side project from Sigur Rós frontman Jón Þór Birgisson. A stunt of a movie? Something more sincere? All eyes will be on it regardless.
Here’s a nice combination of talents: Nisha Ganatra, a director/producer of the acclaimed series “Transparent,” plus Emma Thompson Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Paul Walter, Hauser Reid Scott, and Amy Ryan. They all come together for “Late Night,” a comedic drama about a late-night talk show host (Thompson) who suspects that she may soon be losing her long-running show. What’s interesting about the project are its ideas of “woman-on-woman” crime as the pioneering late-night host is allegedly a “woman who hates women,” and is forced to hire a female (Kaling) in her all-male writer’s room. It’s certainly a topic worth exploring and as written by Kaling, who began her career as an intern on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and a writer/performer on “The Office” following many well-received plays and a blog, it hopefully could be bitingly funny. Ganatra has also directed episodes of “Mr. Robot,” “Married,” “Shameless,” “Brooklyn 99,” “Girls,” and you guessed it, “The Mindy Project,” so they’re likely on the same page and presumably going to deliver something with complexity and nuance.