Sundance 2019 & The Movies Which Will Soon Shape Contemporary Cinema

2018 saw movies from last year’s Sundance Film Festival having tremendous success, with films such as Eighth Grade, Hereditary, and Sorry to Bother You surpassing financial expectations and getting attention during awards season. As a result of those success stories, more eyes were on the 2019 festival perhaps than ever before, with movie fanatics eager to see what films have the potential to achieve similar feats in this coming calendar year. The eleven-day film festival is hosted annually among the Utah cities of Park City, Salt Lake City, and Sundance, and features 112 feature-length films, 60 short films, and a handful of virtual reality media experiences.

This was my first time attending Sundance, as well as my first time at a festival of this magnitude. I made a last-minute decision to travel to Utah for the second weekend of the festival, from January 31st to February 3rd, showing up without any tickets to films and no real idea of if I were going to have any luck getting into screenings and events at all.

Luckily, my smartphone agility has never been sharper, and I managed to get into five of the six films I attempted to attend using the waitlist feature in the Sundance app. Here are my brief reviews of those five movies, ranked from my favorite to my least favorite, along with some information regarding the people involved with them and their awards and distribution success at the festival. All five are currently owned by distributors, and should all hit theaters sometime in 2019, so keep an eye out for them!

1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Director: Joe Talbot

Featured Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover

Purchased: Owned by A24 before the festival

Awards: U.S. Dramatic Directing Award, Special Jury Award for Creative Collaboration

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Joe Talbot’s feature-length debut is a collaboration with his lead actor and best friend Jimmie Fails, who plays a character based on himself (also named Jimmie Fails) that has become obsessed with his fight to protect his family home from the dark cloud of gentrification that is rapidly taking over San Francisco. The movie is partly a collection of vignettes designed to portray the bizarreness that makes the city so unique, and partly a deeply emotional drama about family, identity, and the bond between two friends. The other of the two friends is Mont, played by a face relatively new to the big screen: Jonathan Majors. Majors gives a performance so simultaneously funny, complex, and heartbreaking that I have no doubt that in two years, he will be one of those actors who is suddenly in everything. It’s not a perfect film. There are some third act problems, and some first-time-filmmaker problems, but those shortcomings are only worth mentioning because they are the only minor flaws in an otherwise brilliantly constructed film. The underrepresented perspective and subversive bricolage of cinematic style that Talbot brings to the table is delightful, and makes for a movie that I think is going to be a big hit with the under-30 crowd when it comes out in theaters.

2. Honey Boy

Director: Alma Har’el

Featured Cast: Shia Labeouf, Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges

Purchased: Bought at Sundance by Amazon for $5 Million

Awards: Special Jury Award for Vision and Craft

Shia Labeouf’s cinematic therapy session, Honey Boy, is one of the most personal, emotionally vulnerable movies I have ever seen. Written by Labeouf, the story is a flashback-driven drama based on the Transformers star’s court-mandated rehab in 2008 and the reflection on his childhood – in particular, his relationship with his abusive ex-rodeo clown father – that occurred while in the program. Director Alma Har’el makes her narrative film debut with Honey Boy, having only directed documentaries prior to this. The understanding of emotion and the ability to connect with others that are essential to the craft of documentary filmmaking clearly contribute greatly to Har’el’s direction in this movie, as she manages to capture three absolutely stunning performances in a way that is so raw and unobtrusive. Lucas Hedges, playing the Shia-based character Otis Lort at the time of rehab, does a good job as usual, although he is unfortunately not given much to work with range-wise and his segments of the film don’t do much except provide context for the flashbacks. Noah Jupe, of A Quiet Place fame, gives what is likely the best child acting performance I have ever seen as the twelve-year-old Otis; his obviously genuine comprehension of complex human emotions is mind-blowing for a person of any age to have, let alone someone who is only thirteen. As good as these two are, the real star here is Shia himself, who delivers a performance far more powerful than I thought he was capable of giving. He plays the character who is his father’s counterpart, reenacting the period of his life which led to his clinically diagnosed PTSD. The task of taking on the role of his own abusive father, one that requires sincere sympathy for the person who caused such intense mental turmoil for him, is a challenge that I think very few people are capable of handling, and Shia does such a brilliant job with it that I think he will inevitably receive recognition next awards season. It is hilarious without being cheap, painful without being nihilistic, beautiful without being overindulgent, and I can’t wait until I can see it again. A monumental achievement by Shia Labeouf.

3. Queen of Hearts

Director: May el-Touhky

Featured Cast: Trine Dyrholm, Gustav Lindh, Magnus Krepper

Purchased: Bought February 10 for an undisclosed amount by TrustNordisk

Awards: World Cinematic Dramatic Audience Award

I am quite frankly shocked that Queen of Hearts took home the Audience Award in the World Cinematic Dramatic division, not because of a lack of cinematic merit, but because it is one of the most unrelentingly brutal movies I have ever seen. The story about a middle-aged woman who has an affair with her stepson spends an hour lulling its audience into false security, getting us on the side of its protagonist, Anne, before pivoting completely into a barrage of madness which descends deeper and deeper, dragging Anne with it and turning her into one of the most contemptible characters ever captured on film. Another actor-driven film, all three leads deserve credit for their performances. Technically this is a triumph as well, with gorgeous 35mm cinematography and a score that knows exactly when to be pleasant and when to be haunting. All in all, I would say that I was very impressed with the craft, but I’m not sure I would recommend it without extreme forewarning. It is incredibly bleak and hard to watch, but thankfully not just for the sake of being so.

4. Late Night

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Featured Cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow

Purchased: Bought at Sundance by Amazon for $13 Million

Awards: Ineligible

Mindy Kaling’s first feature film script is a light-hearted dramedy about aging talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), who has fallen out of touch with the qualities that brought her show national acclaim, and is faced with the threat of being replaced by the network. In response to criticisms that she has contempt for women, she hires her first female writer, Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling). Patel has never worked in comedy before and struggles with her new position at first, but her fresh perspective ends up proving valuable to the show, and more importantly, to Newbury. Late Night is a fairly safe mainstream comedy, so anyone expecting it to do anything really boundary pushing or challenging will be left disappointed, but it does what it sets out to do pretty successfully. The two-hander story is a tough act to balance, and Kaling’s script does it well, giving us just the right amount of time with both Newbury and Patel for the more serious aspects of the narrative to be effective. The jokes are not all great, some are painfully overdone, but a few shine through brighter than I expected from a movie of this nature. There are complaints that have been made regarding the middle ground the script takes with its political commentary, and while I understand those criticisms to some degree, this is a crowd-pleaser by definition, and I don’t think that every piece of media has the responsibility to be taking hard stances in that regard. Its light fare, and flawed, but going in with the right expectations, I believe this can be a fun 100 minutes for just about anyone.

5. Troop Zero

Director: Bert & Bertie

Featured Cast: Mckenna Grace, Viola Davis, Allison Janney

Purchased: Owned by Amazon before the festival

Awards: Ineligible

The only real disappointment of the festival for me, Troop Zero is a movie that we have all seen before – many times – dressed up in different clothes and presenting itself as entirely original and unique. The structural archetype of a rag-tag group of kids coming together under the leadership of a reluctant adult with problems of his own in order to beat out the far better equipped team has been beaten into the ground so much since 1976’s The Bad News Bears, and Troop Zero doesn’t attempt to do anything new with the clichéd structure besides substitute a group of girls for the typical group of boys as its protagonists. The script is so obviously a pre-structured list of broad emotional beats that are strung together so haphazardly that the vast majority of those beats don’t feel earned in the least. This is a glorified Disney Channel Original Movie trying to hide its derivativeness behind a star-studded cast and some early hype about its rookie directorial duo. Look, representation is very important, and we need a lot more films that give young girls the on-screen counterparts that young boys have been privileged to have for as long as movies have been made, but just because it is necessary to shift this dynamic doesn’t mean that the way to achieve that representation is by recycling old, worn out stories and simply inserting girls into boys’ roles. It is more than possible to create completely original stories that feature female protagonists; we need not lower our standards for films simply because we are so starved for more diverse representation.