As published on LinkedIn Influencers on February 18th, 2019.
Before I moved to Utah I had only briefly heard of the Sundance Film Festival, and I had never actually attended a film festival of any kind. If you know me, you might find this news shocking, because I absolutely love movies. I mean really love them. Few things make me happier than heading into a dark theater with a big bag of popcorn and taking in a just released feature. Now that I live in Park City and have become a Trustee of the Sundance Institute, the non-profit organization that organizes the Sundance Film Festival, I am becoming a film festival champion to the highest degree. Why? Because it is beyond exciting to see the work of extremely talented filmmakers, actors, producers, and more be shown to an audience for the first time. Furthermore, at festivals, you often have the opportunity to have a Q&A with the people associated with the film, and therefore the experience feels that much more precious.
In 2019, Sundance received over 14,000 submissions across all categories being presented, and the programmers managed to boil them down to just over 200 works that were shown. Over the course of just 12 days, audiences got to see not only the best of the best in independent filmmaking, but also a glimpse into what today’s talented and emerging storytellers think is interesting, compelling, and timely. Of course, it is impossible for anyone to see every film shown at the festival, but I did manage to see a lot, and the films I saw were too awesome not to share. Below is a list of some of the nearly 30 films I saw this year at Sundance, and where possible I’ve included where and when you might be able to see these works in the coming year. The descriptions are pulled from the program. The comments in italics are mine.
However, if you want to go straight to the esteemed jurors and audience members for the best of the fest (and I would), you can access the list of award recipients here. Of note is that of the 28 prizes awarded to 23 films – comprising the work of 27 filmmakers – 13 (56.5%) were directed by one or more women, eight (34.8%) were directed by one or more people of color, and one (4.3%) was directed by a person who identifies as LGBTQI+. Now that is worth celebrating!
US Dramatic Competition
Brittany Runs a Marathon
Directed by: Paul Downs Colaizzo
Principle Cast: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock, and Alice Lee
Brittany Forgler is a funny, likeable, 27-year-old hot mess of a New Yorker whose trashy nightclub adventures and early-morning walks of shame make her late for work every day. But when she stops by a Yelp-recommended doctor’s office in an attempt to score Adderall, Brittany gets handed a series of diagnoses instead—elevated heart rate, high blood pressure … the list goes on. Suddenly forced to get a grip, Brittany laces up her Converse sneakers and runs one sweaty block. The next day, she runs two.
Winner of the Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic – Not surprising, as I absolutely loved it.
Amazon acquired the rights to the comedy for $14 million January 30th. Set to be released August, 2019.
Directed by: Chinonye Chukwu
Principle Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn and Danielle Brooks
How do you salvage your marriage when you are struggling to salvage your soul, your sense of self, and your sense of right and wrong? Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a prison warden who, over the years, has been drifting away from her husband while dutifully carrying out executions in a maximum security prison. When she strikes up a unique bond with death-row inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a layer of emotional skin is peeled back, forcing Bernadine to confront the complex—and often contradictory—relationship between good intentions, unrequited desires, and what it means to be sanctioned to kill.
Winner of the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. This was a very difficult film to watch because you witness inmates being put to death. A must see for anyone who cares about the matter of the death penalty, which should be everyone.
Directed By: Lulu Wang
Principle Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong and Jiang Yongbo
After learning their beloved matriarch has terminal lung cancer, a family opts not to tell her about the diagnosis, instead scheduling an impromptu wedding-reunion back in China. Headstrong and emotional writer Billi rebels against her parents’ directive to stay in New York and joins the family as they awkwardly attempt to rekindle old bonds, throw together a wedding that only grandma is actually looking forward to, and surreptitiously say their goodbyes.
A24 acquired distribution rights to the film for $7 million dollars, over Netflix, Amazon Studios, and Fox Searchlight. Release date still to be set.
I loved this film so much, because not only was it hilarious, but it reminded me of my grandma so much, and how hard it was to leave her in Canada and move to the United States.
Directed by: Alma Har’el
Screenwriter: Shia LaBeouf (based on his childhood and his relationship with his father.)
Principle Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, FKA Twigs
When 12-year-old Otis starts to find success as a child television star in Hollywood, his ex-rodeo-clown father returns to serve as his guardian. When Otis isn’t on set charming audiences, he spends his days with his father at an extended-stay motel on the edge of the city, enduring his overbearing father’s abuse. Honey Boy follows two threads of time, watching father and son’s contentious relationship and their attempts to mend it across the course of a decade.
Winner of the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Vision and Craft. Holy Moly, and I mean Holy Moly. It was unbelievably brave for Shia to tell this story, let alone play his father, which he does brilliantly. To be clear, this is a complex story of addiction and abuse, and therefore hard to watch, but so so powerful.
Amazon purchased the film for global rights in the $5 million range. Release date to be set.
US Documentary Competition
Directed by: Penny Lane
Just a few years old, the Satanic Temple has risen from the depths to become one of the most controversial religious movements in American history. Hail Satan? bears witness as the temple evolves from a small-scale media stunt to an internationally recognized religion with hundreds of thousands of adherents. Naked bodies writhe with snakes on altars as protesters storm the gates of state capitols across the country. Through their dogged campaign to place a nine-foot, bronze Satanic monument smack dab next to the statue of the Ten Commandments on the Arkansas State Capitol lawn, the leaders of the temple force us to consider the true meaning of the separation of church and state.
Magnolia Pictures acquired the rights to the film prior to Sundance on Nov 29, 2018. The distributor plans a spring 2019 theatrical release, and it will sell international rights at Berlin’s European Film Market.
This was a strangely compelling film that speaks to the power of documentary films to tell a very unusual story.
One Child Nation
Directors: Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang
In order to expose rampant human-rights abuses, filmmaker Nanfu Wang fearlessly confronted Chinese government agents in her 2016 Sundance Film Festival documentary, Hooligan Sparrow. Her goal in One Child Nation is no less daunting: unmask the tightly held secrets of China’s one-child policy and in so doing, free the voices of millions irreparably harmed by the practice.
Winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary. Of course we all know about this policy, and in fact it is currently in the news as the Chinese government is now aggressively marketing its new two child policy for fear of the long term economic and social impact of their one child policy. A true must see for so many reasons.
Amazon Studios has acquired worldwide rights to this film excluding U.S. TV, and TV rights in Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, U.K., Netherlands, and Scandinavia (excluding Finland).
World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Directed by: Sacha Polak
Country: Netherlands/United Kingdom/Belgium/Ireland
Principle Cast: Vicky Knight, Katherine Kelly, Eliza Brady-Girard, Rebecca Stone, Bluey Robinson and Dana Marienci
After a vicious acid attack leaves half her body covered in scars, Jade (Vicky Knight) must come to terms with the new life ahead of her: a life in which her young daughter refers to her as a “monster,” co-workers and strangers hurl nasty slurs her way, and physical intimacy seems to be a thing of the past. As an antidote to her rocky home life, Jade revels in South London’s pulsing, rhythmic club scene, but still can’t escape the emotional trauma that accompanies her scars. Desiring the face—and life—she once had, Jade looks into plastic surgery as a quick fix.
Dolce Fine Giornata
Directed by: Jacek Borcuch
Principle Cast: Krystyna Janda, Kasia Smutniak, Vincent Riotta, Antonio Catania, Lorenzo de Moor and Robin Renucci
Maria Linde, a free-spirited, Jewish Polish Nobel Prize winner, lives in Tuscany surrounded by warmth and chaos in her family’s villa. A loving mother and grandmother, she also fosters a secret flirtation with the much younger Egyptian man who runs a nearby seaside inn. After a terrorist attack in Rome, Maria refuses to succumb to the hysterical fear and anti-immigrant sentiment that quickly emerge, deciding in her acceptance speech of a local honor to boldly decry Europe’s eroding democracy—but she is unprepared for the public and personal havoc her comments wreak.
Winner of the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting
Directed by: Joanna Hogg
Country: United Kingdom
Principle Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke and Tilda Swinton
Between script pitches and camera setups, Julie hosts a film-school cohort party where she meets a mysterious man named Anthony. A few days later, Anthony invites Julie to a grand hotel and asks to stay with her for a few days. Thus begins Julie’s first serious love affair. Ignoring her friends and borrowing large amounts of money from her parents, Julie surrenders to the relationship and prioritizes Anthony’s needs.
Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic.
A24 bought North American rights to the film in December, 2018, prior to the festival.
World Cinema Documentary Competition
The Edge of Democracy
Directed by: Petra Costa
Once a nation crippled by military dictatorship, Brazil found its democratic footing in 1985 and then, in 2002, elected a hugely popular political disrupter: steel-worker-turned-activist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Under his watch, 20 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty, and his country rose to international prominence. In 2010, “Lula” passed the presidential baton to his prodigy, a fierce female guerrilla named Dilma Rousseff.
After the Wedding
Directed by: Bart Freundlich (The Opening Night Film)
Principle Cast: Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Billy Crudup and Abby Quinn
Isabel (Michelle Williams) has dedicated her life to working with the children in an orphanage in Calcutta. Theresa (Julianne Moore) is the multimillionaire head of a media company who lives with her handsome artist husband (Billy Crudup) and their two adorable twin boys in New York. When word comes to Isabel of a mysterious and generous grant for the financially struggling orphanage, she must travel to New York to meet the benefactor—Theresa—in person. And when Isabel is spontaneously invited to Theresa’s daughter’s wedding, Isabel discovers a connection to Theresa that takes her on an unexpected journey into her own past.
Cornerstone Films will handle international sales and distribution and will commence sales at the European Film Market during the Berlin Film Festival. CAA will oversee the U.S. rights.
Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Directed by: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Principle Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Lily Banda, Noma Dumezweni, Aïssa Maïga and Joseph Marcell
Young William Kamkwamba lives with his family in rural Malawi, where he attends school regularly and shows great aptitude for his studies. Yet after land development and poor weather lead to a meager harvest, famine strikes the village, alarming the community and forcing William to drop out of school when his father (Chiwetel Ejiofor) can no longer afford the fees. Determined to find a way out of the life-threatening situation his family is facing, William sneaks into the school library to research—and soon conspires to build a windmill pump to irrigate the land. Caught between his father’s close-minded skepticism and the difficulty of creating a machine out of bicycle parts and scrap materials, William races against the clock to fight for his community’s survival.
Winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. The filmmakers received a $20,000 cash award from Sundance Institute with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Netflix acquired the film in November, 2018, prior to the festival. It will launch in 2019 on Netflix and in select cinemas in the U.S. and U.K.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Directed by: Joe Berlinger
Principle Cast: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Haley Joel Osment, Kaya Scodelario, John Malkovich and Jim Parsons
1969. Ted (Zac Efron) is crazy-handsome, smart, charismatic, affectionate. And cautious single mother Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins) ultimately cannot resist his charms. For her, Ted is a match made in heaven, and she soon falls head over heels in love with the dashing young man. A picture of domestic bliss, the happy couple seems to have it all figured out … until, out of nowhere, their perfect life is shattered. Ted is arrested and charged with a series of increasingly grisly murders. Concern soon turns to paranoia—and, as evidence piles up, Liz is forced to consider that the man with whom she shares her life could actually be a psychopath.
Netflix acquired the rights to the film on Feb 4, 2019 at an estimated $9 million. While there’s no news yet on when the film will be available on Netflix, there are plans for a theatrical release in fall 2019.
Fighting With My Family
Director and Screenwriter: Stephen Merchant
Principle Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson
Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) is a teenager, and her favorite thing about her family is that they are all obsessed with wrestling—an unusual family pastime by any measure, but especially so in Great Britain. While her parents (Lena Headey and Nick Frost) aim to book wrestling matches in tiny venues around the country for Soraya and her brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), true fighting stardom has always eluded them. That all changes when the WWE sees one of their tapes and offers the siblings the opportunity to audition for coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn). As Saraya steps into her new WWE persona, Paige, and glory starts to seem just within her and Zak’s grasp, it also threatens to change their sibling dynamic forever.
Is scheduled to be released in the United States on February 14, 2019 in select theaters and February 22, 2019 in wide release, and on March 1 2019 in the United Kingdom.
Directed by: Nisha Ganatra
Screenwriter: Mindy Kaling
Principle Cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Paul Walter Hauser, Reid Scott and Amy Ryan
Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a pioneer and legendary host on the late-night talk-show circuit. When she’s accused of being a “woman who hates women,” she puts affirmative action on the to-do list, and—presto!—Molly (Mindy Kaling) is hired as the one woman in Katherine’s all-male writers’ room. But Molly might be too little too late, as the formidable Katherine also faces the reality of low ratings and a network that wants to replace her. Molly, wanting to prove she’s not simply a diversity hire who’s disrupting the comfort of the brotherhood, is determined to help Katherine by revitalizing her show and career—and possibly effect even bigger change at the same time.
Amazon acquired the rights to the comedy for $13 million. Release date TBD. I loved this movie so much! I would describe it as a bit of Devil Wears Prada, meets Working Girl, meets something entirely modern and fresh. Mindy Kaling you are a rock star!
Directed by: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Principle Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Connie Britton, Bruce Dern, Jason Mitchell, Gideon Adlon and Josh Stewart
Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a tightly wound convict fresh out of solitary confinement at a maximum security prison in the Nevada desert. Still wary of human contact, Roman enrolls in a tough but rewarding rehabilitation program learning to train wild mustangs. Under the tutelage of grizzled trainer Myles (Bruce Dern), he takes charge of an ornery horse in the hopes of preparing it for an annual auction. With the wild animal acting as a mirror for his own raging emotions, Roman must learn to tame not only the mustang but also the beast within.
Focus Features is set to release the film in March, 2019. This
Directed by: Alex Lehmann
Principle Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano and Christine Woods
An unlikely bromance between two misfit neighbors becomes an unexpectedly emotional journey when one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Suddenly facing their mortality, the two bros (who spend their free time playing a game they made up called Paddleton) decide to go on a trip. Yet their literal journey turns into a metaphorical one as their experiences reveal the true bond of friendship—and what that means between two men who use humor to avoid expressing any real emotion.
Netflix acquired the film and is set to release February 22, 2019.
Director and Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra (Sundance Board of Trustees)
Principle Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra
Rafi works as a street photographer in frenzied Mumbai, snapping improvised portraits for tourists at the city’s landmarks. When his ailing grandmother—who has always hoped that Rafi would start a family—comes to visit, he scrambles to appease her. A chance encounter with kind-hearted and lonely Miloni offers the perfect opportunity, since she is happy to play along when Rafi asks her to be his pretend companion. Yet even as the scheme throws into sharp relief the class differences and obstacles that would stand in the way of such a union, the line between hypothetical and real affections grows ever hazier.
The film is scheduled to release in India on March 8, 2019 and to be released in several countries including UK, USA, Spain, France and Australia through Amazon Studios.
Director and Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns
Principle Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall
Senate staffer Daniel Jones is assigned the daunting task of leading an investigation into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. After analyzing extensive evidence, he learns about the “enhanced interrogation techniques”—proven to be brutal, immoral, and ineffective—that the CIA adopted after 9/11. When Jones and the Senate Intelligence Committee attempt to release the results from his investigation, however, the CIA and White House go to great lengths to prevent the truth from getting out.
Amazon acquired the rights to the film for $14 million. Release date TBD. Mind blowing.
The Tomorrow Man
Director and Screenwriter: Noble Jones
Principle Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher and Eve Harlow
Retiree Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) spends his quiet days watching the news, checking internet forums, and preparing for the end of the world. As a self-proclaimed “prepper,” Ed is constantly making arrangements for the future, often at the expense of things in the here and now—such as his waning health and his strained relationship with his adult son. But then he spots Ronnie Meisner (Blythe Danner) and knows there is something different about her. The two form an unlikely bond and are happy together despite their combined emotional baggage—until, one day, it all spills out before them.
Bleecker Street acquired distribution rights to the film and is set for a May 17, 2019 release. Yes, that is me having dinner with John Lithgow.
Directed by: Bert&Bertie
Principle Cast: Viola Davis, Mckenna Grace, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Epps, Charlie Shotwell and Allison Janney
Nine-year-old oddball Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) is obsessed with space and making contact with the aliens of the universe. When she finds out the prize at the 1977 Birdie Jamboree is getting her voice on NASA’s Golden Record, Christmas forms her own misfit Birdie troop. Nothing can prepare them for the painfully perfect world of the legit Birdies. But, led by their reluctant yet fearless troop mama (Viola Davis) and Christmas’s dad (Jim Gaffigan), they find glory in the most unexpected circumstances—much to the despair of the ever-judgmental school principal, Miss Massey (Allison Janney).
Director and Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Principle Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge and Natalia Dyer
In the cutthroat world of fine-art trading and representation, up-and-coming agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton) stumbles across a secret weapon: hundreds of dazzling paintings left behind after an elderly tenant in her building dies. Ignoring the instructions the clandestine artist left to destroy his work, she promptly starts circulating the paintings, which soon attract the attention of the heavy hitters around her—including her boss Rhodora (Rene Russo), art critic (and Josephina’s sometime lover) Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), and competing collectors, managers, and curators like Bryson (Billy Magnussen) and Gretchen (Toni Collette). Yet as the deceased artist’s portraits gain posthumous acclaim, they also awaken something imperceptible and sinister that threatens to punish those who have profited from his work.
Netflix acquired the film and it is currently streaming on the platform.
The Great Hack
Directed by: Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim
Have you ever filled out an online survey? Do you wonder why you receive ads for products that you happened to research the day before? Be afraid. Be very afraid. Data has surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable asset, and it is being weaponized to wage cultural and political wars. We’re in a battle for control over our most intimate personal details. The Great Hack uncovers the dark world of data exploitation through the compelling personal journeys of players on different sides of the explosive Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data breach that rocked the world.
The Netflix Original Series film. It is still a work-in-progress and release date is TBD. I am honored to be friends with these two amazing directors and people. I plan on writing an article about this movie. So much to say.
Directed by: Ursula Macfarlane
The inside story of the meteoric rise and monstrous fall of movie titan Harvey Weinstein, Untouchable reveals how Weinstein acquired and deployed his formidable power over the course of decades. Former staffers, college friends, and reporters reflect upon the public perception of Weinstein as a visionary, while detailing his ruthless attempts to preserve his power as scandal threatened to engulf him. In candid, emotional, often-harrowing testimony—with many accusers speaking on camera for the first time—Untouchable exhumes both the method and the collateral damage of Weinstein’s alleged abuse. As the criminal case against him continues, the film questions whether meaningful change in the justice system—and in the film industry—is really possible.
See my post about Untouchable here.
Directed by: Alex Homes
In the late 1980s, amateur British sailor Tracy Edwards decided she’d had enough of being dismissed and belittled as the only woman on the seafaring crews she’d participated in. Setting her sights on the upcoming Whitbread Round the World Race—a staggering 40,000-nautical-mile circumnavigation of the earth that few boats dared tackle—Tracy assembled the world’s first international all-female sailing crew and entered the competition. As they weathered not only life-threatening high seas but also a storm of sexism in the media, this inspiring group of women had to rely on their own pure resilience—and each other—to prove the naysayers and skeptics wrong.
Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival early 2018. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film after the TIFF premiere. The film is set to release June 28. I LOVED THIS FILM SO MUCH!
This is Personal
Directed by: Amy Berg
The Women’s March mobilized millions of women to protest after the inauguration of President Trump, but working across ideologies to combat injustice has its challenges. Academy Award–nominated director Amy Berg returns to the Sundance Film Festival with an insider’s look at the struggle for intersectional activism among the Women’s March leadership. Berg captures the collaborative organizing process and hopeful energy of the first marches in 2017, and spends time behind the scenes highlighting the sustained work that happens after the crowds subside. For Women’s March co-president, Tamika Mallory, and community-organizing leader, Erika Andiola, the march is only the tip of the iceberg of their broader activism—Andiola championing immigration rights and Mallory protesting gun violence. When Mallory comes under fire for her affiliations with Minister Louis Farrakhan, a powerful conversation between Mallory and Rabbi Rachel Timoner opens up a dialogue about intersectional leadership.
In an era that has continued to reimagine and refresh storytelling forms, Pop-Up Magazine initially emerged as a rethinking of the journalism form. It introduced the idea of placing a wide range of stories—news, history, culture, art—into a live setting, one in which an audience consumes them as a shared experience. The result is a touring, “live magazine” show, created for a stage, a screen, and a live audience. Its contributors—including filmmakers, best-selling authors, popular radio and podcast voices, and artists—perform vivid multimedia stories accompanied by illustration, animation, film, photography, and an original live score.
This special featured stories and performances from Chris Colin, Stephanie Foo, Vann R. Newkirk II, Veena Rao, Albert Samaha, Juliana Schatz Preston, Leanne Shapton, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Phillip Whitely.
Cool, innovative, hilarious, insightful, just amazing! Here is the schedule for their live performances if you want to experience it for yourself, and I cannot reccomend it more highly.
New Frontier programs virtual and augmented pieces. I was able to see a number of pieces but the below was my favorite.
VR Screening: Traveling While Black
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Principle Cast: Sandra Butler-Truesdale, Virginia Ali, Courtland Cox and Samaria Rice
The Green Book, first published in 1936, was a survival guide that African American travellers relied on to avoid brutal discrimination, because it listed safe places that would fulfill their basic needs. In 1958, Ben and Virginia Ali’s new restaurant, Ben’s Chili Bowl, joined the list. This installation invites viewers into Roger Ross Williams’s emotionally moving VR experience about race and restricted movement in America, and afterwards connect in an intimate booth at Ben’s Chili Bowl.