Highlights from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival

This year’s Sundance Film Festival recently concluded.  [pullquote]The celebration of independent cinema has been going strong for 41 years[/pullquote].  Even though the Oscars for 2019 haven’t been handed out yet, the Oscar race for 2020 has officially begun.  Past Oscar nominees and winners Little Miss Sunshine, Manchester By the Sea, and The Big Sick, among others, have premiered at Sundance.  This year, 121 films were screened over ten days in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Here are some of the highlights from this year’s Sundance Film Festival:  

The festival opened with After the Wedding, director Bart Freundlich’s adaptation of the 2006 foreign film of the same name.  The drama starring Julianne Moore and Michelle Moore got disappointing reviews.

Chinonye Chukwu became the first black woman to win the Grand Jury Prize for her film Clemency.  In the movie, Alfre Woodard plays a prison warden haunted by all the death row executions she’s carried out.    

The Souvenir won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize.  The movie is about a film student finding her voice, while dealing with a complicated relationship that threatens her future.  Written and directed by Joanna Hogg, the movie stars Tilda Swinton and her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne. A sequel is already planned that will add Twilight star Robert Pattinson.    

One Child Nation, directed by Zhang Lynn and Nanfu Wang, won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary.  The movie focuses on China’s one-child policy and the effect it had on generations of families.

Honeyland (not to be confused with the drama Honey Boy) won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary.  It focuses on the last female bee hunter in Europe who must save the bees and restore natural balance when something goes wrong.   The movie was directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.

Brittany Runs a Marathon won the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic film.  The inspirational comedy, written and directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo, stars Jillian Bell as a woman trying to take control of her life by running.  

 Queen of Hearts, directed by May el-Toukhy, won the Audience Award for World Cinema Dramatic film.  The movie is a tragedy about a woman who seduces her stepson.

Knock Down the House, directed by Rachel Lears, won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary.  The movie follows four young women, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who dare to challenge incumbent candidates for their seats in Congress.  Rep. Ocasio-Cortez was not able to attend the screening of Knock Down the House due to complications with the government reopening.  However, she surprised the audience by joining a Q & A after the film, via web conference.  The movie provoked an emotional response from the audience and received a standing ovation. 

 Sea of Shadows, directed by Richard Ladkani,  won the Audience Award for World Documentary. The film is about efforts to save the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale, and end criminal practices that are damaging its habitat.  

The most anticipated film going into the festival was Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, a biopic of serial killer Ted Bundy starring Zac Efron and told from the POV of Bundy’s girlfriend.  Although the movie received mixed reviews, Netflix purchased it for $9 million dollars after the festival.

Blinded by the Light was this year’s most expensive acquisition.  It was sold to New Line for $15 million and set a new festival record for the most money spent on a film.  The movie is about a teenage Pakistani boy in England in the ‘80s who’s obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. The film was directed by Gurinder Chadha, who directed the feel-good hit Bend It Like Beckham.    

Amazon spent the most money, setting a record with $46 million dollars total.  Amazon bought one of the movies with the most buzz going into the festival, The Report, for $14 million.  The Report is about an investigation into the CIA’s torture practices following 9/11. It stars Adam Driver, Jon Hamm, and Annette Bening, and was written and directed by Scott Z. Burns.  

Amazon also bought two of the biggest comedies at the fest: Brittany Runs a Marathon, acquired for $14 million, and Late Night, acquired for $13 million. Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra,  stars Emma Thompson as a TV talk show host who clashes with a new writer, played by actual writer-producer of the film, Mindy Kaling.

In addition, Amazon paid around $5 million for the Shia LaBeouf film Honey Boy, directed by Alma Ha’rel.  LaBeouf wrote the autobiographical film, in which he plays his own father, as a way of exorcising his demons.  The movie got a standing ovation at its premiere.

The most controversial film at the festival was the documentary Leaving Neverland, a four-hour two-part documentary about two men who claim to have been sexually abused by the late pop star Michael Jackson, as children.  After death threats and talks of protest, extra security and police presence were added to the screening. There were also counselors available at the screening. The premiere only attracted two protesters.  A premiere in Salt Lake City the next day attracted eight.  In early January, Jackson’s family decried the film as “just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations.”  After the screenings, they released an official statement speaking out against the film.  Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, will air on HBO this spring.  

The dramedy The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang, was one of the most popular films at the festival.  It was acquired by A24 for an amount rumored to be around six or seven million dollars. The movie stars Awkwafina from Crazy Rich Asians.  It’s about a family that decides to keep a matriarch’s cancer diagnosis from her, to lessen the sting of death. The movie will probably get a theatrical release this summer.

Documentaries did well at the festival, too.  

Ava DuVernay’s company ARRAY acquired the documentary MERATA, about the Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, who was the first indigenous woman to direct her own movie.  Hulu acquired The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary from director Ben Berman. The film focuses on the stand-up comic/magician of the title.

Sony Pictures Classics acquired the documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name.”  A.J. Eaton is the director. Cameron Crowe, director of Almost Famous and Singles, known for his love of rock and roll, is a producer.  Crosby is best known for his work with the band Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Hail Satan? was acquired by Magnolia Pictures in November and is planning a spring release in the U.S.  The humorous documentary follows The Satanic Temple as they try to uphold religious pluralism.

Magnolia Pictures is also the distributor for the documentary Ask Dr. Ruth.  Ask Dr. Ruth may not have made as big a splash as expected.  I could not find much reporting on it from the festival.  We will have to wait and see if it becomes as popular as RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 

Liza Mandelup won a special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker for Jawline, a documentary about social media fame.

Mads Brügger won  the Directing Award for World Cinema Documentary for Cold Case Hammarskjöld.  The twisty documentary focuses on the investigation of the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Warning: This trailer is a little bit graphic.

Jacqueline Olive was presented with a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency for her film Always in Season.  The film deals with the subject of lynching.

Warning: disturbing content.

Luke Lorentzen received a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography for Midnight Family.  The documentary follows a Mexican family who run a private ambulance service, as they struggle to make ends meet in a competitive market.  

Netflix acquired American Factory for $3 million dollars.  The documentary is about a Chinese company that opens a factory in a shuttered General Motors plant.  The movie follows the culture clash of Chinese and American workers working together, as well as the American workers trying to adapt to newer technology.  

Ursula Macfarlane’s documentary Untouchable, which chronicles Harvey Weinstein’s years of alleged sexual abuse of women, also debuted at Sundance.  The festival is where Weinstein picked up many of Miramax’s hits including Clerks, Reservoir Dogs, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape. However, he is now no longer welcome there.    

Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11 got a Special Jury Award for Editing.  The film recreates the space mission, including audio and video the public has never experienced before.  

 

Alexandre O. Phillipe screened his film Memory: The Origin of Alien which examined Ridley Scott’s horror classic.   I couldn’t find any information on whether this film has a distributor or not. However, Phillipe is an established director who made 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene about Psycho a few years ago.  I predict this movie will be playing on the big or small screen by the end of the year.

Showtime acquired the four-part documentary Wu-Tang: Of Mics and Men ahead of the festival.  

Directed by Sacha Jenkins, the docu-series tells the history of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan.  The first two parts of the series premiered at the fest. The living members of the group were in attendance.  

Warning: adult language.

Netflix premiered The Great Hack as a work-in-progress. The documentary from directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer focuses on the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data breach.  

Sony Picture Classics acquired the documentary Where Is My Roy Cohn? about the lawyer whose clients included Joseph McCarthy and even Donald Trump.  The movie was directed by Matt Tyrnauer.

Halston, a documentary about the American fashion designer, and sold to the company formerly known as The Orchard Film Group, has yet to be renamed.  The film will get a theatrical release this spring, be broadcast on CNN in the third quarter of the year, and later stream on Amazon.  The movie was directed by Frédéric Tcheng.  

Other notable Sundance films include:

Patrick Brice premiered the horror movie Corporate Animals, starring Demi Moore and Ed Helms. Polygon described it as “The Office, but gory.”  It does not appear to have a distributor yet.

Neon and Topic Films went in together to acquire the film Luce.  Luce was directed by Julius Onah and adapted from JC Lee’s play. The psychological thriller stars Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, as parents whose adopted child’s identity is called into question.  

Netflix premiered the new Dan Gilroy film Velvet Buzzsaw.  Like his critically acclaimed movie Nightcrawler, it stars Jake Gyllenhaal.  It’s a horror movie set in the art world. It got mixed reviews at the festival, but now that it’s available on Netflix, Twitter is having fun with it.  

Warning: graphic images and disturbing content.

Apple bought its first film, writer-director Minhal Baig’s Hala.  It is unclear whether the movie is going straight to iTunes or will have a theatrical release.  The film is a coming of age story about a teenage girl trying to reconcile her Muslim faith with her love of skateboarding, and her crush on the boy next door.  

Harmony Korine’s latest film, the much-anticipated Beach Bum starring Matthew McConaughey as a Florida poet who seems too busy drinking and doing drugs to write, screened at the festival.  It has a cool lineup of a supporting cast, including Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett. I could not find any reviews of the film, however. It entered the festival with a distributor already (Neon), and will hit theaters in March.  That’s when we’ll find out if the McConaissance continues.

Warning: contains language, drug use, and naked McConaughey butt.

Pete Davidson of Saturday Night Live fame got rave reviews for his performance in Big Time Adolescence, written and directed by Jason Orley.  Unfortunately, the film has not been picked up for distribution.

HBO bought the movie Native Son ahead of its premiere at Sundance.  The movie was directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson, and adapted from Richard Wright’s classic novel by playwright Susan Lori-Parks (best known for her Broadway play Topdog/Underdog).  It updates the tragic story of Bigger Thomas to a modern setting.  Native Son will play on HBO sometime later this year.  

A24 premiered Joe Talbot’s film The Last Black Man in San Francisco.  The movie stars Talbot’s friend Jimmie Fails. The two of them wrote the film together, loosely basing it on Fails’ attempt to move back into and restore his childhood home.  The movie deals with the theme of gentrification. It received a standing ovation at its premiere and won the Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic film.

Neon acquired the horror film The Lodge for around $2 million.  It is the English language debut for directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz.  The pair previously made the movie Goodnight Mommy (which is creepy as hell and one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen).  The movie stars Riley Keough from American Honey and will be released later this year.  The movie is about two children trapped in a cabin with their future stepmother, the survivor of a religious cult.  

Neon and Hulu acquired Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters in a mid-seven-figure deal.  The horror comedy stars Lupita Nyong’o as a kindergarten teacher defending her class against zombies.  

Neon also acquired the U.S. rights for Monos,  a thriller about a group of Latin American rebels and their American hostage.  The movie was directed by Alejandro Landes and stars Julianne Nicholson.  It received a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award.  

HBO acquired Share, for seven figures.  It was written and directed by Pippa Bianco, who received the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.  The film is about a cellphone video that appears to show a sexual assault, which gets widely shared.  The movie was also honored with a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting.

IFC Films bought the drama Official Secrets, directed by Gavin Hood.  The movie stars Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, and is based on British secret service officer/whistle blower Katherine Gunn, who tried to stop the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  

Babak Anvari premiered his new horror film Wounds, starring Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson.  It’s about a bartender who starts to suffer from supernatural phenomena once he picks up a stranger’s cellphone.  Some reviewers hate it. Some hate the ending, but like the mood of it. All agree it is deeply weird. So was Hammer’s way of promoting the film: dropping fake dead cockroaches on the floor at parties around the festival.    

Amazon premiered crowd-pleaser Troop Zero starring Viola Davis, Allison Janney, and Jim Gaffigan.  Directed by Bert & Bertie, the movie is an underdog story about a girl who wants to win a national competition to get her voice on NASA’s golden record, and rallies her scout troop to help her.  

Paradise Hills might be the most surreal movie to come out of the festival.  It sounds like pure eye candy.  Vulture called it this year’s “most bonkers” Sundance movie.  It stars Emma Roberts, and features Awkwafina in a dystopian world.  

Which of these films will make it to next year’s Oscars ceremony?  

Check this blog to find out. We’ll have more news and reviews of 2019’s hottest films.  In the meantime, you can check out our coverage of this year’s Golden Globes and see how well I did at predicting the Oscar nominees.  And always remember to use the RunPee app to get Peetimes for the latest movies.

RunPee and the 2019 Oscars – Predictions for the 2018 Movie Awards

Highlights, Comments, and Acceptance Videos for the 76th Annual Golden Globes

Full List (and comments) for the 2019 76th Annual Golden Globes Nominees & Winners

Golden Man’s Top Ten Films List for 2018