The 2019 Sundance Film Festival has come to an end — but not before shaping the next year in movies.
While Hollywood’s release calendar is fully loaded with anticipated blockbusters, horror sequels, Marvel epics, and end-of-the-year awards bait, Sundance offered a slew of alternatives that big name distributors will unroll throughout the year. With the streaming wars in full swing, and the big studios sticking to what they know, this year’s festival became a land grab for small- to mid-budget comedies, dramas, and documentaries that could go on to be the next Sorry to Bother You, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? or Hereditary.
Amazon was the big winner of the festival, shelling out over $40 million to acquire Mindy Kaling’s Late Night, The Report, Brittany Runs a Marathon and Honey Boy. HBO made deals to acquire the Richard Wright adaptation, Native Son, and Share, a tense, high school drama which won multiple accolades at Sundance’s awards ceremony. Meanwhile, Neon, which arrived to the scene two years ago with I, Tonya, picked up an array of films, which included the Lupita Nyong’o-led horror comedy Little Monsters to the challenging, social-issue drama Luce, which is sure to be an awards contender at the end of the year.
With many movies plucked from obscurity and many more deals yet to be made, these are the Sundance titles that knocked us back in our chairs, and ones we can’t recommend enough when they eventually make their way to the big and small screens later this year.
In 2014, the Chinese glass company Fuyao came to the rescue of Dayton, Ohio: A shuttered General Motors factory that once employed hundreds of locals would reopen as the first location of Fuyao Glass America, a East-meets-West collaboration that, in theory, would bring prosperity to the midwestern city. Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert are flies on the wall from the very beginning, as new equipment and jobs bring the factory back to life, then when chairman Cho Tak Wong visits the site for the first time, and eventually months into production, as American locals and imported Chinese workers alike realize that conflicting business ideologies doom a fairy tale ending.
Confronting every labor issue big and small, American Factory is not Michael Moore-style muckraking, but an astonishing work of access journalism. Bognar and Reichert should earn awards for talking their way behind closed doors, as all they do is point their cameras to witness the most shocking turns. - Matt Patches
Netflix will release American Factory later this year.
Rising star Awkwafina, last seen as comedic relief in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, anchors the most heartfelt film we saw at this year’s Sundance. When Billi’s parents learn of her grandma’s terminal cancer, they adhere to a Chinese tradition of not conveying the diagnosis to the matriarch. Instead, they depart for China, to stage a fake wedding that serves as one last gathering for the extended family.
Like early Ang Lee, who melded the modes of East and West, writer-director Lulu Wang weaves humor, discomfort, tragedy, and introspection into her story of inevitable loss. Wang’s camera is always in the right place, establishing effortless tableaus that would make Alfonso Cuarón drool, and the adroit filmmaking allows The Farewell to swing from stagey Hollywood moments — the karaoke-filled “wedding” should earn Wang an Apatowian blank check alone — to moments of absolute tenderness, built off the deep love that Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen, the grandmother, summon. There’s so much going in every frame of The Farewell that even the perpetually blinded entertainment business should take notice of Wang, a major new talent, and her familial masterpiece. - MP
A24 will release The Farewell later this year.
Penny Lane’s documentary about The Satanic Temple is as charming and strange as the self-proclaimed Satanists showcased in it. Starting with the organization’s founding in 2013, Lane charts the growth — and growing pains — of The Temple while also grappling with how, given the way its fundamental tenets emphasize empathy and equality, its very name suggests a certain degree of wickedness and chaos. Though the film ultimately falls a little short when it comes to examining that particular struggle, especially with regards to schisms within the group, it’s still an enlightening look at The Satanic Temple, and a reminder that appearances can be deceiving. - Karen Han
Magnolia Pictures will release Hail Satan? later this year. For more, read our full review.
Before he was the lead in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, and even before he was a breakout wunderkind of Even Stevens fame, Shia LaBeouf was a child actor wowing the adults in his life with his precision goofball antics. Behind the act was a boy being crushed by circumstance — mainly, a stage dad struggling with alcohol, abusive tendencies, and Vietnam nightmares. LaBeouf funnels his memories into Honey Boy, a potent drama in which the actor plays his own father. Few screen stories that depict abuse feel this personal, this alive, this gut-wrenching. As LaBeouf said on stage, Honey Boy was like an act of therapy for him. That sums up the viewing experience, too. - MP
Amazon will release Honey Boy later this year. For more, read our full review.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley maven Elizabeth Holmes was, by multiple accounts (including this new HBO documentary from Taxi to the Dark Side director Alex Gibney), full of shit. After quitting college to found Theranos, a health technology company claiming to be able to run every blood test under the sun with just a prick of the finger, Holmes became the starlet of startup culture, giving Ted Talks and gracing the cover of Forbes by the age of 30. But Theranos was all smoke and mirrors; as Holmes gobbled up venture capitalist funds, her engineers struggled to make their do-it-all device work, while scientists employed old practices to deliver shoddy test results. How the young CEO swindled the medical world, and the startup aura that protected her every step of the way, is the drama that pumps through the veins of this model doc. - MP
HBO will release The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley later this year.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Calling Joe Talbot’s debut a love letter to San Francisco would signal the wrong cadence; what he and his leading man Jimmie Fails have cooked up is closer to epic pop poetry, vivid and silly and real as hell. Fails plays Jimmie, who drags his playwright friend Montgomery across town on the regular to touch up an old Victorian home once owned by his grandfather. The house’s current owners don’t much care for his visits — Jimmie’s appearances burst their gentrified bubble — but when they eventually move out, the flâneur sees an opportunity to reclaim his rightful property through the art of squatting. Humorous, sensitive, but directed with the right amount of hellfire, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a tour you can only take through one perspective, and it’s been captured for our empathetic viewing pleasure. - MP
A24 will release The Last Man in San Francisco later this year.
We’re declaring The Cloverfield Paradox a fluke: with Luce, director Julius Onah proves he has the patience and steady hand required to tug at — but never completely untangle — the knotted social issues of 2019. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is an all-star track star, a debate-team icon, a future valedictorian, and a class president fit for an actual presidency. His parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), a white middle-aged couple without kids of their own who adopted Luce from war-torn Eritrea as a small child, could not be prouder. But the family’s life implodes when Luce’s history teacher suspects him of harboring politically prickly thoughts, then finds illegal fireworks in his locker. As each player in the chamber piece, based on screenwriter J.C. Lee’s own play, raises questions about the model student, fear and anger crack the squeaky clean suburban facade. A meticulously crafted study of race, relationships, and personal politics, Luce, is a discussion-starter shaded with shadows, figurative and literal, that positions Harrison Jr. as one of the next generation’s greats. - MP
Neon will release Luce later this year.
Surreal, stark, and visually stunning, this grand action movie from Brazilian director Alejandro Landes brines the innocent-but-vicious psychology of Lord of the Flies in the horrors of modern warfare. The “monos” are a group of teenage-to-twentysomething soldiers who live atop a mountain in a nondescript, South American jungle. Taking orders from “The Organization,” the monos patrol the surrounding jungle, guard their American prisoner (August: Osage County’s Julianne Nicholson), and goof off with their M-15s. Landes’ picks up with the warriors at their most vulnerable, their most juvenile, as the urges of sex and the stench of death send them spiraling out of control. Warped by an oscillating new soundtrack from composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin), Monos is a dark fantasy drawn at the scale of Apocalypse Now, in which the kids’ perilous life of boot camp drills and human hunting hovers on the fringes of a safer society. - MP
Neon will release Monos later this year.
The directorial debut from Scott Z. Burns, the writer behind Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and Side Effects, has the integrity of a New York Times A1 investigation. That he translated his research into the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture practices into movie form is a risk he was willing to take with Adam Driver, who commands the screen as researcher Daniel Jones. A commitment to telling the truth about what really happened at Guantanamo, and behind-closed-doors at the CIA in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, makes Jones a thorn in the side of just about every politician in Washington. But for five years, he dug and dug, dredging up damning facts that make the perfect monologue fodder for Drier, who gives the performance of his career. - MP
Amazon Studios will release The Report later this year. For more, read our full review.
After a video depicting her semi-conscious and surrounded by boys makes the rounds with her friends, Mandy embarks on a low-key investigation to figure out what happened. The truth and the healing don’t go as planned. As writer-director Pippa Bianco chronicles with maddening accuracy, a survivor’s trauma only begins with an incident. As more accounts spill out, as her parents and authority figures take action, as whispers travel around the halls of high school, Mandy becomes increasingly isolated and lost. Relative newcomer Rhianne Barreto internalizes the tremendous weight on her shoulders to deliver a performance that first bursts with color then erodes into grey. Share joins the recent Eighth Grade as an honest portrayal of adolescent life, albeit with a tumultuous, all-to-common angle. - MP
HBO will release Share later this year.
Though Rosina (Romina Bentancur) catches a glimpse of a dorsal fin early on in Lucia Garibaldi’s The Sharks, the creatures referenced in the film’s title have more to do with Rosina’s burgeoning sexuality than any many-toothed monsters. Her desire for agency (in her life as well as in her relationship with a neighborhood boy) is dismissed by those around her, creating a pressure cooker of an environment that grows ever more unstable. The Sharks is a fascinating portrait of a young woman growing up, especially as Garibaldi makes no effort to make Rosina more readable, or more likable. Bentancur also possesses a remarkable poise, and her inscrutability further blurs the line between what it appears that Rosina wants to and may actually be capable of doing as blood begins to flow in the water. - KH
Visit Films will release The Sharks later this year.
With the quarreling tension and immaculate camera work of Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent Phantom Thread, British filmmaker Joanna Hogg tackles a familiar dramatic eruption (a relationship soured by drug use) with specificity and button-pushing severity. Hogg’s discovery is actress Honor Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton and playwright John Byrne, who she casts as a privileged, wayward film student sucked into the vortex of charm that is the pinstripe-suit-wearing, galaxy-braining, too-cool-for-school government peon, Anthony. Romantic on the surface, a disaster underneath, Swinton-Byrne’s Julie falls hard for his passive-aggressive hipsterisms, a love she can’t escape even as heroin destroys his life. Filled with personal, ’80s-era quirks, and crimped with film grain, Hogg’s slow burn expands a microcosmos to macro view and, to be honest, will fuck your shit up. - MP
A24 will release The Souvenir later this year.
To the Stars
Martha Stephens’ old-souled, black-and-white story about of two young women kicking the shins of the establishment in hyper-conservative 1960s Oklahoma would be every 18-year-old’s favorite if old-souled, black-and-white stories were all the rage. Cross your fingers they find this one; Kara Hayward (Moonrise Kingdom), as an ostracised bookworm dubbed “Stinky Drawers” by the worst of her class, and Liana Liberato (Light As a Feather), playing a midwestern firebrand whose urges don’t align with her god-fearing family’s beliefs, form a symbiotic relationship as they ramble towards the absolute worst teenage gauntlet: prom. What they discover on their terms is genuine, and Stephens dustbowl compositions steer To the Stars clear of cliché or period-piece artifice. You’ll never be as mad at modern politicians who want to take us back to the “good ol’ days” as you will watching this adept coming-of-age tale. - MP
Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary
In his ’90s and early 2000s heyday, magician-comedian John Edward Szeles aka The Amazing Johnathan commanded Vegas venues and TV special airtime. But in 2007, Szeles received a life-threatening heart diagnosis that kept him off stage, and as tabloids will often report, on the brink of death. Now The Amazing Johnathan gets the documentary treatment — but it’s not at all what you think. Ben Berman, a contemporary of Tim and Eric whose previous directing credits include Comedy Bang! Bang! and Lady Dynamite, follows Szeles like any guy-with-a-camera might, but what the two encounter (partially by The Amazon Jonathan’s design) is a scream that’s too easily spoiled. The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary does justice to its subject using a little sleight of hand and big questions on the nature of reality. - MP
Hulu will release The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary later this year.
Everyone in Dan Gilroy’s scathing art-world satire is up their own ass. Luckily, the horror-thriller unfolds with the murderous glee of a Chucky movie, and Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), snobbish art critic, ruthless gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), and sellout agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton) all get what’s coming to them. After a deceased artist’s pure, uncelebrated work is brought to light for the first time, all three fine-art connoisseurs piggyback off the dead guy’s name, then become the victims of his vengeful spirit. A total gas, spun with the vehemence of someone clearly over the commodification of creativity, Velvet Buzzsaw is a midnight movie with an A-list pedigree that we’ll be rewatching scenes of for years to come. - MP
Velvet Buzzsaw is out now on Netflix. For more, read our full interview with writer-director Dan Gilroy.