The Sundance Institute announced almost its entire slate for the 2019 Sundance Film Festival this afternoon and there was a lot of good news amongst the movies selected. First off, 45 of the 112 features selected were directed by women, 40 were directed by people of color, 15 who identify as LGBTQ and over 40 of the selections are by first time filmmakers. That should, in theory, lead to fresh voices and new perspectives at what is becoming one of the industry’s venerable cinematic institutions. Of course, that’s “in theory.”
Scanning through the U.S. Dramatic, U.S. Documentary, World Cinema, Premieres, NEXT and Midnight selections there are some of those obvious and familiar indie formulas still on display (and, no, we cannot remember the last time the festival announced almost all its selections at once so we hope you’ve already booked your lodging). We won’t point out the obvious because, hey, maybe some of these filmmakers have found ways to inject new life into those genres, right? Right?
Moreover, this is the year we discover whether Sundance will rediscover its Oscar mojo. It’s still the only major festival without a Best Picture winner despite having nine nominees this decade alone. “Call Me By Your Name” and “Get Out” earned Best Picture nods while winning major awards last year, but the 2018 festival may end up only truly impacting the Best Documentary race.
Keeping all this in mind, we’ve scoured through the 112 features and plucked some narrative titles that we think deserve your attention whether you’re attending the festivities in Park City or watching the play by play from home.
“Clemency” – U.S. Dramatic
Director and screenwriter: Chinonye Chukwu
Producers: Bronwyn Cornelius, Julian Cautherley, Peter Wong, Timur Bekbosunov
Official Synopsis: Years of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on prison warden Bernadine Williams. As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill.
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks.
Pay Attention: Chukwu’s second narrative feature is clearly an actor’s showcase for Woodard and, frankly, that’s enough to warrant “must-see” in our book.
“Troupe Zero” – Premieres
Director: Bert & Bertie
Screenwriter: Lucy Alibar,
Producers: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, Alex Siskin, Viola Davis
Official synopsis: In rural 1977 Georgia, a misfit girl dreams of life in outer space. When a national competition offers her a chance at her dream, to be recorded on NASA’s Golden Record, she recruits a makeshift troupe of Birdie Scouts, forging friendships that last a lifetime and beyond.
Cast: Viola Davis, Mckenna Grace, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Epps, Charlie Shotwell, Allison Janney.
Pay Attention: Let’s see, Davis and Janney on screen together again? Check. Bert & Bertie just named to Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch list? (Which means, cough, they’ve already seen it) Check. Davis also a producer alongside movers and shakers Black, Blumenthal and Tish? Check. Amazon Studios having the confidence to release at Sundance? Check. Yep, that’s enough for us.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” – Premieres
Director and screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Producer: Jennifer Fox
Official synopsis: A thriller set in the contemporary art world scene of Los Angeles, where big money artists and mega-collectors pay a high price when art collides with commerce.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer.
Pay Attention: One of just two narrative Netflix titles at this year’s festival, “Buzzsaw” features the long-awaited reunion of Gilroy and Gyllenhaal following their spectacular collaboration “Nightcrawler.” If Netflix didn’t think it would score at Sundance they simply wouldn’t let it screen here (well, maybe).
“The Farewell” – U.S. Dramatic
Director and screenwriter: Lulu Wang
Producers: Daniele Melia, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Chris Weitz, Andrew Miano, Anita Gou
Official synopsis: A headstrong Chinese-American woman returns to China when her beloved grandmother is given a terminal diagnosis. Billi struggles with her family’s decision to keep grandma in the dark about her own illness as they all stage an impromptu wedding to see grandma one last time.
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo.
Pay Attention: Awkwafina has proven she’s a cinematic star with supporting roles in “Ocean’s Eight” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” Can she continue that run in her first leading role?
“Honey Boy” – U.S. Dramatic
Director: Alma Har’el
Screenwriter: Shia LaBeouf
Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Anita Gou, Christopher Leggett, Alma Har’el)
Official Synopsis: A child TV star and his ex-rodeo clown father face their stormy past through time and cinema.
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe.
Pay Attention: Well, it’s a semi-autobiographical film about LaBeouf’s life with LaBouef playing the role of his “father.” That’s fascinating in and of itself.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” – U.S. Dramatic
Director: Joe Talbot
Screenwriters: Joe Talbot, Rob Richert
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh, Khaliah Neal, Joe Talbot
Official Synopsis: Jimmie Fails dreams of reclaiming the Victorian home his grandfather built in the heart of San Francisco. Joined on his quest by his best friend Mont, Jimmie searches for belonging in a rapidly changing city that seems to have left them behind.
Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Danny Glover.
Pay Attention: Beyond the fact it’s the second A24 title in competition, all you need to do is spot the names of Plan B’s Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner. The producers of “12 Years A Slave,” “Moonlight,” “Selma,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “The Big Short” and “Vice,” among others, have impeccable taste.
“Native Son” – U.S. Dramatic
Director: Rashid Johnson
Screenwriter: Suzan-Lori Parks
Producers: Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman
Official Synopsis: In this modern reimagining of Richard Wright’s seminal novel, a young African-American man named Bigger Thomas takes a job working for a highly influential Chicago family, a decision that will change the course of his life forever.
Cast: Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, KiKi Layne, Bill Camp, Sanaa Lathan.
Pay Attention: The third A24 title in competition is one of the more hyped films of the festival. This is Johnson’s first narrative feature, but he’s already made a name for himself as a celebrated artist.
“Them That Follow” – U.S. Dramatic
Directors and screenwriters: Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage
Producers: Bradley Gallo, Michael Helfant, Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Danielle Robinson
Official Synopsis: Inside a snake-handling church deep in Appalachia, a forbidden relationship forces a pastor’s daughter to confront her community’s deadly tradition.
Cast: Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Alice Englert, Jim Gaffigan, Walton Goggins, Thomas Mann.
Pay Attention: You had us at “Favourite” and “The Crown” star and an Oscar nominee by Sundance Olivia Colman.
“The Souvenir” – World Cinema
Director and screenwriter: Joanna Hogg
Producers: Luke Schiller, Joanna Hogg
Official Synopsis: A quiet film student begins finding her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man. She defies her protective mother and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship which comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton.
Pay Attention: A sequel (?), “The Souvenir, Part II” is already in pre-production and, more importantly, Swinton has a knack for finding filmmakers.