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Polygon is at Sundance to discover movies you should know about

Comedy, horror, drama, and strange cinematic experiments collide at the biggest festival on the planet

sundance film festival 2019 David Becker/Getty Images
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

More than 40 years after Robert Redford oversaw the first Sundance, the film festival still maintains a singular goal, reiterated by festival director John Cooper at the 2019 edition’s kickoff on Thursday: “We go out to find the most interesting, authentic voices from around the world.”

Polygon is on a similar mission, both in the ever-expanding gaming landscape, and increasingly, in the worlds of movies, streaming television, comics, and internet culture. In a digital landscape where Fortnite, Netflix, YouTube, Marvel Unlimited, and other sources of entertainment all share the same screen space, there is room for Polygon to grow into a haven for everything our readers consume. If people are talking about it, we want to talk about it, too. If we’ve discovered an under-the-radar movie to watch, a comic scorching our cerebrums, a meme with a haunting backstory, or just a rabbit hole worth falling down, we want to share it with you.

Which brings us to Sundance: the biggest film festival on the planet, and a destination that doesn’t seem all that Polygon on the surface. But look again.

Right out of the gates are two premieres that exist on opposite ends of the what-movies-can-do spectrum, and yet are total catnip for the eager moviegoer. Native Son marks the directorial debut of American artist Rashid Johnson, who adapts Richard Wright’s 1940 novel for modern times with a cast that includes Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) and KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk). Debuting in the same opening-night slot is Memory - The Origins of Alien, a kind of theatrical video essay on the 1979 science-fiction masterpiece that drills down into the artistic references (painter Francis Bacon!), literary inspiration (H.P. Lovecraft!), and sexual undertones (here’s looking at you, Facehugger!).

Lupita Nyong’o in Little Monsters
Lupita Nyong’o in Little Monsters.
Ben King/Sundance Institute

Memory, and Sundance’s other midnight movies, have a gravitational pull on our genre-loving hearts. We’ll be all over Little Monsters, starring The Force Awakens’ Lupita Nyong’o as a kindergarten teacher defending her young pupils from a brain-hungering zombie invasion, and the nightmarish satire of Corporate Animals, which traps a bigwig CEO (Demi Moore), her assistants (Jessica Williams and Karan Soni), the tour guide (Ed Helms), and nine others in a cave and imagines what happens next. Pure sci-fi has its place, too; I Am Mother finds a robot repopulating a devastated Earth with test-tube embryos, only to be interrupted by signs of humanity.

Hovering between prestige drama and what-the-hell-am-I-watching surreal fantasy is Velvet Buzzsaw, the latest team-up between Nightcrawler writer-director Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhaal. Set in the ravenous art world, the film follows a fresh-faced agent who makes her mark when she discovers, then unloads for fame and fortune, a collection of paintings left behind by a recently deceased artist — whose instructions call for the destruction of the art. Based on the trailer, the agent’s cavalier choice to tour the art has ... supernatural consequences. Here’s another twist: On Feb. 1, just a few days after Velvet Buzzsaw melts a few brains at Sundance, the film will premiere on Netflix.

Sundance is a buyer’s market, which means indie filmmakers and producers not only come to show off their latest work, but court buyers for potential distribution (i.e., not everything arrives with a Netflix release date locked and loaded). Films hope to stir up excitement and hold onlooking audience attention until they’re eventually released, and — with fingers crossed — become the next Little Miss Sunshine, Saw, The Big Sick, Napoleon Dynamite, or Hereditary. Coming into the festival, a few films earned big-ticket status on pre-premiere whispers alone.

Three star-studded events fit the bill. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile stars certified hunk Zac Efron cranking up the creep to play serial killer Ted Bundy for filmmaker Joe Berlinger, who just dropped a Bundy documentary series on Netflix. Riding the scene-stealing high of Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, actress Awkwafina toplines The Farewell, a comedic drama about throwing a wedding reunion for a family matriarch who is in the dark on her terminal lung cancer diagnosis. And Shia LaBeouf returns to Sundance, as both screenwriter and co-star of Honey Boy, an autobiographical look at the life of a child actor surviving his abusive, overbearing stage dad. We may never look at Even Stevens the same way again.

Zac Efron, Macie Carmosino, and Lily Collins in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile - Sundance 2019
Zac Efron, Macie Carmosino, and Lily Collins in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
Brian Douglas/Sundance Institute

For every Saturday Night Live cast member leaning on their dramatic skills for an indie (this year it’s tabloid-friendly Pete Davidson starring in Big Time Adolescence, a coming-of-age drama about a 16-year-old whose best friend is a party-hardy college dropout), Sundance delivers a bevy of films that don’t scream mainstream breakout on paper, but could easily be the talk of the town (and year) by the end of the fest.

That could be Adam, a romantic drama about mistaken sexual identity, and the first film from Transparent producer Rhys Ernst. Or it could be Selah and the Spades, a Mean Girls-sounding look at the clashing factions of a boarding school that promises to encapsulate “just how intoxicating power can be for a teenage girl who acutely feels the threat of being denied it.” We’re really hoping The Sound of Silence, which stars Sundance stalwart Peter Sarsgaard as a “house tuner” who combats residents’ anxieties with a tuning fork, and The Death of Dick Long, a whoops-we-accidentally-killed-our-band-member thriller from Swiss Army Man director Daniel Scheinert, are as genuinely quirky as they sound.

Then we just have questions we need answering: Can The Cloverfield Paradox director Julius Onah bounce back with Luce, a film about the rippling effects of a high school student’s vocal stance on political violence? Will the haunting images of Koko-di Koko-da, described as a “savage riff on Groundhog Day” with “bursts of sadistic imagination and twisted slapstick” keep us up at night? Can Adam Driver keep his streak alive with The Report, a docudrama about post-9/11 “interrogation techniques” from Contagion writer Scott Z. Burns?

Last year, companies like Netflix, HBO, Sony Pictures, Lionsgate, Shudder, and YouTube descended on Sundance to nab the highest-profile films — Sorry to Bother You, Searching, RBG, and Blindspotting, just to name a few — off their celebrated premieres. They’ll do it again this year, and we’ll be right there to discover if a documentary about the Church of Satan (Hail Satan?), a Mindy Kaling-led comedy about late-night writers (Late Night), or a spooky mystery thriller about a man who receives phone calls from his murdered niece (Relive) can mount a successful campaign for your eventual attention in the snowy hills of Park City, Utah.

What do you need to know to have a successful moviegoing year in 2019? We’re here to figure out. Polygon is at Sundance — follow along.

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