It may not look so on the surface, but the Sundance Film Festival has been in a state of transition the last few years. It wasn’t long ago that it served as a solid launching pad for some of the year’s more prominent Oscar contenders; talk of future awards glory regularly accompanied many of the festival’s high-profile premieres. (Think Birth of a Nation, Manchester by the Sea, Call Me by Your Name, Brooklyn …) Last year, however, was deemed a “quiet” one by the cognoscenti. Gone was the premature awards hype around high-profile projects, not to mention breathless speculation around big-money acquisitions.
But the movies themselves were great. Indeed, Sundance finally seemed to be getting back in touch with its independent roots. The movies emerging from the festival were smaller, though no less accomplished. Last year’s big titles were pictures like Leave No Trace, Private Life, Hereditary, Mandy, and Eighth Grade — not so much Oscar contenders as titles one holds up to prove how much the Oscars suck.
This year’s lineup may well be similar. Though there will still be plenty of star power and controversy at the fest, not to mention some awards-contender documentaries (last year gave us Hale County This Morning, This Evening; RBG; and Minding the Gap) the most promising movies could prove to be among the lower-profile efforts. Here are some of the titles we’re most excited about at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Any new documentary by Penny Lane (NUTS, Our Nixon) would be of interest, but the subject of this one is genuine cause for celebration: It documents the rise of the Satanic Temple, which began as a social provocation designed to draw attention to the hypocrisy of America’s coddling of faith-based institutions, but has in recent years become a bona fide movement focused on issues of social justice and equal rights. The director is quite adept at taking odd subject matter and using it to explore deeper political and cultural issues, and this might be her most fascinating subject to date.
Mindy Kaling wrote and stars in this story of a young female writer who is hired on the staff of a late-night talk show to help its legendary host (played by Emma Thompson) improve her reputation and flagging ratings. Interesting setup, to be sure: The idea of one of the greatest performers of our time getting to sink her teeth into the part of a veteran late-night host is too delicious to pass up.
Okay, this could be terrible, but still. Mean Creek director Jacob Estes delivers a thriller about a Los Angeles cop (David Oyelowo) investigating the death of his niece (A Wrinkle in Time’s Storm Reid) aided by … cell phone calls from her ghost? The premise is crazy, and supernatural cop thrillers don’t have a great track record. But here’s the thing: If it’s an outlier and proves to be artful and deep, great; and if it proves to be just as insane as its premise, even better. This is a Blumhouse movie, so it’s likely to be more thrilling than thoughtful, but here’s hoping it’s both.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Danish documentarian and provocateur Mads Brügger is one of those filmmakers who likes to make himself partly the subject of his stories — à la Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore — and he’s tackling a doozy of a whodunit this time: the mysterious 1961 plane crash that killed U.N. secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld, which many believe may have been the result of a vast international conspiracy. Early word suggests that this one will be talked about.
Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins
It’s a shame that the late columnist Molly Ivins, who died in 2007, isn’t around to opine on the nuttiness of the Trump administration; her scalpel-sharp wit and keen eye for the absurdities of modern politics would no doubt have worked overtime to make sense of today’s landscape. This documentary looks at the writer’s life and career, and if it manages to convey even a fraction of her passion and energy, it’ll be well worth a watch.
Selah and the Spades
Sundance’s Next program has, in recent years, produced some of the best, most innovative works of the festival, including such modern classics as The Fits and Madeline’s Madeline. This film may continue that tradition: It’s a look at warring factions in a Pennsylvania boarding school, but it promises to be an unorthodox effort. Director Tayarisha Poe’s bio says she believes “that all stories are inherently multisensory and multidimensional and thus should be told that way.” I couldn’t agree more.
Writer-director Scott Z. Burns wrote films like Contagion, Side Effects, and The Bourne Ultimatum, so we know he does paranoia and tension well. This real-life drama has Adam Driver leading a congressional investigation into the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques in the wake of 9/11, and promises to bring one of the more shameful chapters of recent American history to the screen. Oh, and Annette Bening plays Dianne Feinstein.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
For those of us who’ve felt that Zac Efron was essentially playing sociopaths even when he was cast as romantic leads, this movie may well prove to be sweet vindication. Efron is notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, but the film is less about his crimes and more about Bundy’s fraught relationship with his long-suffering girlfriend, played by Lily Collins. And it’s directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills), who has made a career of exploring extreme pathologies. In fact, this is something of a narrative companion piece to Berlinger’s documentary series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which premieres this week on Netflix.
The Wolf Hour
Naomi Watts plays a woman in 1977 New York who, paralyzed with fear at the violence, blackouts, and serial killers out in the streets of the collapsing city, has shut herself inside an apartment. The premise recalls the classic Repulsion, but what’s most tantalizing here is the prospect of Watts — who does desperate, unraveling characters so well — getting a chance to truly command the screen.
Afghan director Hassan Fazili got a price on his head after the subject of one of his documentaries was assassinated, and spent years trying to flee Afghanistan with his family and seek asylum in another country. This first-person story charts the director and his family’s journey across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe as they try to survive. As such, the film also promises to make the vital connection between the refugee crises rocking the world and the chaos sown by the war in Afghanistan.
Jake Gyllenhaal has quietly (if you haven’t seen Okja, that is) been wading deeper and deeper into his Baroque Character Actor phase over the last five or so years, and Velvet Buzzsaw feels set to be a defining moment for a guy who has unpredictably become our least predictable thespian. The art world horror-satire reunites him with Dan Gilroy, his director on 2014’s Nightcrawler, and follows an art critic (Gyllenhaal) who discovers the work of a deceased, unknown artist, and makes him posthumously famous. Then the paintings start eating people? The cast also includes Toni Collette, Rene Russo, John Malkovich, and Daveed Diggs — and, lucky for those of you not headed to Park City, it will be streaming on Netflix February 1, the same week it makes its debut at the festival.
British director Joanna Hogg isn’t terribly well-known in the states, but she’s been a longtime, before-they-were-famous collaborator with actors like Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. In The Souvenir, she reunites with Swinton and her daughter Honor Swinton-Byrne for a coming-of-age tale about Julie (Swinton-Byrne), a young woman whose 1980s film school education is made tumultuous by a love affair with an older, possibly untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). Coming-of-age tales are a dime a dozen in Park City, but the added layer of a woman finding herself in the context of a film education (said to be heavily based on Hogg’s own experiences) is curiosity-piquing to say the least.
For those of you not caught up on your Shia LaBeouf lore, or only know him as the guy from the Transformers movies who put a bag on his head at some point, Honey Boy is here to build the mythos. The film, directed by Alma Har’el and written by LaBoeuf, is based on LaBeouf’s chaotic adolescence, becoming a child TV star while growing up with an abusive addict rodeo-clown father. Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe play Otis, the hardscrabble kid from Echo Park, at different ages; LaBeouf himself plays Otis’s father. The film could be a public exorcism for LaBeouf’s oft-talked-about demons, but with the always-promising Hedges onboard, it could also be a revelation. Don’t sleep on Shia!
Arguably the biggest Silicon Valley story of the past decade that didn’t involve election meddling, the saga of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos screamed for a big, stately, “What the hell happened?” documentary treatment, and here it is. Directed by veteran documentarian Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Taxi to the Dark Side) the film investigates Holmes’s company, which claimed to have the technology to overturn the entire medical-testing industry and turned out to be one big massive fraud dressed up in Silicon Valley innovator drag. But it also promises to look at Theranos in the context of the mythos of the entrepreneur, and our historical willingness to believe in the smoke and mirrors in the name of novelty.
Awkwafina had a major 2018 with a couple of multiplex breakouts in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8. She’s starting off 2019 with a pivot to more indie fare, and the buzz is already very hot for The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang. The film tells the story of a Chinese-American family who learn that their grandmother has a terminal diagnosis, and, rather than telling her, arrange a giant family reunion/wedding to say their good-byes. We’ve heard more than one person in a position to know call The Farewell “a masterpiece” — not to set expectations unreasonably high or anything, but this is one we’ll be first in line to see at its Sundance premiere.
The Midnight section has arguably become the most fertile ground at Sundance, with films such as The Witch, Hereditary, and The Babadook becoming big deals after their Park City premieres. But it’s not all horror and gore in this year’s section, and the porn-industry drama Mope is an intriguing entry from first-time director Lucas Heyne. It tells the story of two low-level male adult actors (called “mopes” in industry slang) who team up together for a big break that goes horribly awry. Misfits’ Curtis Donovan and Awkward’s Kelly Sry star, and if you’re wondering, as we are, how explicit this thing gets, Heyne’s festival bio says his next project is a biopic of GG Allin, so we’re guessing … very.
Another potentially buzzy breakout from the Midnighters is this thriller from Babak Anvari. Dakota Johnson and Armie Hammer star as Carrie and Will, a couple whose world goes sideways when a fight breaks out at the bar Will works at, exposing something “unspeakable” going on in the underbelly of their town. While we wait for that Hammer-and-Johnson–starring Call Me by Your Name sequel Luca Guadagnino promised us, we might as well tide ourselves over with this creepfest.
Director-actor Justin Chon last came to Sundance with Gook, a tiny indie with a ton of confidence that told a story of race relations during riot-era L.A. from an Asian-American perspective. Now he’s back with Ms. Purple, another tale of making it as a Korean-American in the City of Angels. Tiffany Chu plays Kasie, a hostess who works the karaoke bars of L.A.’s Koreatown at night in order to pay for her ailing father’s medical bills. Chon is clearly a director who knows and cares about Koreatown stories — and he’s definitely a director to keep an eye on.