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Sundance 2019: 21 Must-See Films At This Year’s Festival, From ‘Honey Boy’ to ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is mere days from unspooling in Park City, Utah, heralding a brand new year of indie filmmaking.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is mere days from unspooling in snowy Park City, Utah and, with it comes a brand new year of indie filmmaking to get excited about. As ever, the annual festival is playing home to dozens of feature films, short offerings, and technologically-influenced experiences, and while there’s plenty to anticipate seeing, we’ve waded through the lineup to pick out the ones we’re most looking forward to checking out.

From returning filmmakers like Joe Berlinger, Justin Chon, Daniel Scheinert, and Rashaad Ernesto Green to new-to-the-fest names like Dan Gilroy, Alma Har’el, Paul Downs Colaizzo, Nisha Ganatra, and Rashid Johnson, this year’s festival promises a bevy of big treats and perhaps even bigger surprises. Here’s what we can’t wait to see.

This year’s festival runs from January 24 – February 3 in Park City, Utah. Check out the full lineup, plus all of our coverage of the festival, right here.

“American Factory”

Documentary Competition feature “American Factory” is the anticipated follow-up to 2009’s Oscar-nominated documentary short “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant,” directed by veteran filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who are based in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The feature follows the Fuyao Glass auto glass plant as it opens a new factory inside the same abandoned General Motors plant in Moraine, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton. Fuyao hires two thousand blue-collar locals, but all does not proceed smoothly as high-tech China tries to impose its workplace norms on American workers who have complained and filed lawsuits, resulting in a culture clash. —AT

“Apollo 11”

Todd Douglas Miller’s Documentary Competition feature is a feat of archival reconstruction, revealing never-seen 65 mm Panavision footage (the same format used for “Cleopatra”) that brings pristine hi-res color and never-heard audio to replace the blurry video transmissions we recall from NASA’s 1969 first flight to the Moon. On its fiftieth anniversary, this narrative (shot without talking heads) brings the mission (recounted in “First Man”) back to vivid life. —AT

“Brittany Runs a Marathon”

Jillian Bell has been due for a leading role for years, thanks to the strength of her breakout supporting turns in comedies like “Rough Night,” “22 Jump Street,” and “The Night Before,” and playwright-turned-filmmaker Paul Downs Colaizzo (not be confused with “Rough Night” co-writer Paul W. Downs) has given her just that opportunity with his feature debut. As the eponymous Brittany, Bell is cast as a lovable hot mess, a New Yorker with no sense of direction and little in the way of “healthy” habits who is suddenly forced to reckon with the damage long nights and big drinks have done to her physical form (and, let’s be honest, probably also her emotional state). When she starts running, she finally finds a purpose, but it’s unclear how it will pan out for her (we’re guessing amusingly, at the very least). The film costars a murderer’s row of other comedic big talents, including Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Lil Rel Howery. —KE

“The Death of Dick Long”

Three years ago, a filmmaking duo named Daniels knocked Sundance on its ass with their wild, flatulent “Swiss Army Man.” The two Daniels are hard at work on their follow-up, but one of them — Daniel Scheinert — must have gotten a little impatient, as he’s back in the saddle with a solo feature set in rural Alabama. “The Death of Dick Long” tells the story of, well, the death of Dick Long, whose indie rock band is left in the lurch when he keels over after practice one night. Actually, the circumstances around his death might be a bit more complicated than that, as Dick’s bandmates (Michael Abbott Jr. and Andre Hyland) are eager to hide the evidence as the news begins to spread through their small town. What happens from there is anyone’s guess, but no one should expect Scheinert to pivot towards a sober-minded thriller. On the contrary, you should brace for a heartfelt but morbidly hilarious look at some very uncomfortable human truths, as Scheinert digs into the story of yet another exquisite corpse. —DE

“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Vile and Evil”

“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”

When serial killer Ted Bundy was tried in 1979 for a number of heinous crimes committed at a Florida sorority house (after he had already been charged and convicted for other dastardly deeds, managing to escape custody twice), the event became a circus of almost unimaginable scope. The trial was the first to be nationally televised, which allowed viewers around the world to witness not just Bundy’s bizarre performance, but also the throngs of admirers who showed up to support the alleged murderer. It’s this period of Bundy’s life that Joe Berlinger’s feature follows, with no less than Zac Efron stepping into the complex role of a public figure who allured the very people who should have been most afraid of him (young women). And yet Berlinger’s film takes a fascinating twist: instead of leaning into the lurid and salacious, the film is framed by the experience of Bundy’s long-time girlfriend Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), who was planning on building a life with Bundy just as his many misdeeds finally brought him to justice. It’s heartbreaking, bolstered by nuanced performances from both Efron and Collins, but it’s also packed with shocking pieces of information and fine-tuned storytelling. —KE

“The Farewell”

Awkwafina is on an absolute roll: following up her blockbuster success in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s Eight,” she has two major new features at Sundance – the Alice Waddington-directed “Paradise Hills” and “The Farewell.” The latter film, directed by Lulu Wang, is a bittersweet family dramedy about a young woman named Billi, played by Awkwafina, who travels with her family to China to see her grandmother, who only has a short time left, one last time. To give her a final joy, Billi’s family decides to throw a lavish wedding but all while keeping from the elderly woman that she really has a terminal condition – something that Billi isn’t exactly comfortable with. Wang’s only previous feature was “Posthumous,” which dealt with an artist deciding to reinvent himself by assuming his brother’s identity after he’s been falsely declared dead. For her part, Awkwafina never fails to deliver the laughs – in “The Farewell,” it will be interesting to see if she can tug on our heartstrings a little bit too. —CB

“Honey Boy”

“Honey Boy”

In other hands, “Honey Boy” might appear to be a cringe-worthy goof, or a disaster in the making. The premise sounds like some kind of Sundance Mad Lib gone wrong: Shia LaBeouf — who first started writing the script at rehab — plays a version of his own abusive father in this time-hopping story about a flawed man and the budding movie star he struggled to raise (Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges plays LaBeouf’s proxies, taking the character from his time on “Even Stevens” to the set of “Transformers”). While some people may have lost patience with LaBeouf’s experimental antics, “Love True” director Alma Har’el has a gift for channeling the actor’s energy into tender and meaningful artistic expression. More importantly, she’s a major talent in her own right. “Bombay Beach,” her 2011 breakthrough, evinced a rare talent for mining sincere beauty from scorched earth, and there’s no telling what she might be able to do with the fertile ground of LaBeouf’s wild life. —DE

“Honeyland”

Sometimes documentary filmmakers in pursuing one story stumble on something even more intriguing. That would seem to be the case of what happened when Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevskastarted were exploring the Nature Conservation project in Macedonia and discovered Hatidze, the last female bee hunter in Europe, and her effort to save the bees from a family of nomadic beekeepers who have invaded her land and threaten her livelihood. Yet what seems most promising, according to those who have seen it, is how “visually sumptous” the vérité promises to be. The Sundance guide describes every frame of “Honeyland” as pulsing “with the cycles of life and glows with Hatidze’s magical vitality and optimism.” —CO

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

The San Francisco of Jimmy Fails’ youth – the Fillmore district, which was once dubbed the “Harlem of the West” – is today unrecognizable as the artifacts of wealthy white culture have taken over. Fails, homeless and restless, dreams and schemes of ways to reclaim the Victorian home his grandfather built and he grew up in. Based on the real-life story of the film’s star, Jimmy Fails himself, director Joe Talbot (Fails’ childhood friend) brings the unusual journey to life in what Sundance called an “astonishing” directorial debut that transfigures “one man’s intimate despair into a timely story that questions who has a rightful claim to a city’s identity.” The film, which was backed by Cinereach and SFFilm, has already been acquired by A24, as it enters Sundance with the promise of greatness. —CO

“Late Night”

“Late Night”

Top ten reasons to see “Late Night”? We’ll give you one — Dame. Emma. Thompson. When Mindy Kaling shared the first official photo of Emma Thompson sitting behind a late night desk (beaming with so much swagger it’s hard to believe her feet weren’t kicked up on it), film fans could hardly contain their excitement. So starved are we for an actual woman to host a primetime late-night show that the possibilities of a fictional one — no less one played by the charming and witty Thompson — were almost too much to bear. But nothing is perfect in this fantasy, as evidenced by a premise that sounds as pointed as it is (unfortunately) plausible. The script, written by Kaling, follows the relationship between a late-night host (Thompson) with dwindling ratings and her first female writer (Kaling), who revitalizes her show and her life. It’s been touted as “The Devil Wears Prada” meets “Broadcast News.” With “Transparent” director Nisha Ganatra, a queer woman of color, at the helm, “Late Night” has the potential to upend the status quo in more ways than one. —JD

“Knock Down the House”

Of the four women profiled in Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick’s documentary following insurgent candidates challenging establishment politicians during the 2018 midterm election, only one successfully made it past her primary race. In a lucky break for the filmmakers, she happens to be rock star progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bronx-born record-holder for youngest woman ever elected to congress. Per the film’s Kickstarter page, the filmmakers were on hand to shoot AOC’s primary win as well as key moments during the general election, including when Ocasio-Cortez and her family learned official news of her decisive victory. Her meteoric rise to prominence helped the film gain media attention as well as industry support, including several high-profile documentary grants. It doesn’t hurt that Ocasio-Cortez will attend the festival promote the film, so look out for Instagram dispatches from Park City. —JD

“Midnight Family”

“Midnight Family”

Mexico City is a sprawling urban metropolis of nine million people, but it only has 45 official emergency ambulances to deal with its entire population’s needs. That alarming statistic sits at the center of Luke Lorentzen’s intimate verite documentary, which follows members of the Ochoa family as they track emergencies around the city and dash around trying to offer their services before the competition gets there first. As they speed through traffic and contend with hospitals not always willing to pay for their services, the Ochoas emerge as fascinating embodiments of a country working overtime to correct its shortcomings and keep the lights on. This bracing U.S. competition documentary is poised to provide a personal window into the fast-paced mayhem of Mexico after dark. —EK

“Miles Davis: Birth of Cool”

Despite his artistic legend, there have been very few onscreen projects on the life of Miles Davis, considered one of the most innovative and influential figures in the history of jazz, and 20th century music overall. Despite actor Don Cheadle’s unconventional 2016 fictionalized dramedy, and director George Tillman Jr.’s in-limbo feature to be based on the book “Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis,” an encyclopedic chronicling remains ostensibly fanciful, 28 years since Davis’ death in 1991. But that error has been corrected thanks to veteran, multiple award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, who will debut a documentary on the life of Davis at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, made with full access to his estate. The film will feature never-before-seen footage, including studio outtakes from Davis’ recording sessions, and new interviews that will shed light on the life and career of the visionary and innovator, who defies categorization. With this film, director Nelson aims to unpack the mythology that surrounds Miles Davis, as well as his methodology, relationships, and demons, to present a definitive account of the man behind the legend. And it’s one that’s not to be missed. —TO

“Ms. Purple”

Writer-director Justin Chon is returning to Sundance this year following the breakout success of his 2017 feature directorial debut “Gook,” which won the NEXT Audience Award at Park City and earned Chon the Kiehl’s Someone to Watch Award at the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards. Chon’s latest, “Ms. Purple,” brings him into Sundance’s U.S. Competition lineup with the story of a hostess at a karaoke club in Los Angeles’ Koreatown who must overcome her rocky relationship with her brother in order to care for her ailing father. With Chon continuing to refine his dramatic storytelling voice and a likely breakthrough performance from Tiffany Chu, “Ms. Purple” should have no problem breaking out of the Sundance pack. —ZS

“Monos”

Anyone who saw Julianne Nicholson in “Who We Are Now” will be glad to learn that she’s a leading lady once again courtesy of “Monos,” which one hopes lives up to its strange logline: “On a faraway mountaintop, eight kids with guns watch over a hostage and a conscripted milk cow.” Why a milk cow, you ask? There’s only one way to find out, dear reader, and that’s to see Alejando Landes’ new film in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Given that it’s a co-production of Colombia, Argentina, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and Uruguay, said mountaintop could be just about anywhere in the world and the actual narrative could likewise lead anywhere. —MN

“Native Son”

Courtesy of Sundance

“Native Son”

With “Native Son,” a film adaptation of celebrated author Richard Wright’s 1939 novel, making his feature film debut, director Rashid Johnson joins a short list of acclaimed visual artists turned filmmakers, including Julian Schnabel and Steve McQueen. Those elements already make the film a curio, but that it was scripted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks ups the ante, making this one of Sundance 2019’s most anticipated titles. With a cast led by “Moonlight’s” Ashton Sanders and “Beale Street’s” KiKi Layne, Johnson’s take on Wright’s novel is a contemporary one, telling a modern-day Chicago-set story of a young black man’s struggle into adulthood. A challenge in front of the filmmaker is how to cinematically render Wright’s divisive “protest novel”  its main theme being how racism affects the psychology of its black victims, following its lead character’s downward spiral into violence and criminality  as an intrinsically American story. Describing his abstract art as a “post-black” exposition of the complexities of the black experience, Johnson’s initial foray into filmmaking promises a work that should delightfully provoke. —TO

“Sister Aimee”

Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann’s fascinating fact-based feature follows America’s “most famous evangelist” from 1926, who just so happened to be a woman. While the eponymous character’s story did happen, the directors take a wonderfully free-wheeling approach to the material — its official Sundance synopsis even winks, “Based on true events. Mostly made up.” — elevates the story beyond run-of-the-mill biopic to something whimsical, weird, and utterly unique.—KE

“The Sound of Silence”

The thrill of Sundance is how little tends to be known of the films that play there. So when you see an attention-grabbing premise like this — “A successful ‘house tuner’ in New York City, who calibrates the sound in people’s homes in order to adjust their moods, meets a client with a problem he can’t solve” — you get to wondering about the movie attached to it. “The Sound of Silence” could be a comedy that plays its off-kilter setup for laughs, or it could be a strange sort of thriller. With a cast led by Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, and Tony Revolori working with a first-time feature director in Michael Tyburski, “The Sound of Silence” could end up making some noise. —MN

“Velvet Buzzsaw”

“Velvet Buzzsaw”

Getting Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, and writer-director Dan Gilroy together again following the acclaimed response to “Nightcrawler” easily makes “Velvet Buzzsaw” one of the biggest world premieres hitting Sundance this year. Backed by Netflix, which is making the title available to stream just days after its Park City debut, “Buzzsaw” stars Gyllenhaal as an art critic who becomes haunted by a series of paintings that have the power to commit murder. Yes, the plot sounds a bit ridiculous, but by putting their feet on the gas petal and taking madness to a greater level than what they delivered in “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal and Gilroy are going to have everyone talking. —ZS

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?”

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer has demonstrated a strong ability to reveal the hidden figures who from behind the scenes have connected the dots on major events. “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” revealed how much the activism of Jane Jacobs to oppose the disruptive building projects of New York City planner Robert Moses ended up saving Greenwich Village and other Manhattan neighborhoods. “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” pulled back the curtain on the gas station attendant who ran a high-profile prostitution ring that catered to Hollywood’s A-List elite. And now at Sundance, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” sheds light on the lawyer who weaves together an extraordinary range of events in American history: Cohn advocated for the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg getting the electric chair, helped boost the profile of Joe McCarthy, and served as a lawyer and mentor to Donald Trump when he was first making moves in Manhattan in the ‘70s and faced legal pressure for discriminatory real-estate practices. Cohn was immortalized in Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” having died in 1986 of AIDS after combatively denying what everyone knew: that he was gay. Tyrnauer’s doc shows how, through Trump, this one man is still casting a large shadow over American life today. —CB

“Wolf Hour”

It’s been eight long years since Alistair Banks Griffin’s lyrical directorial debut “Two Gates of Sleep” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. At long last, the filmmaker is back with a long-gestating project that promises to take his cinematic ambition to new heights. Naomai Watts stars in this high-concept drama as a woman stuck inside her Bronx apartment during 1977’s Summer of Sam and contending with a sweltering heat wave that eventually lead to blackout riots. Reportedly set entirely within the constraints of the apartment, this entry in Sundance’s NEXT section promises a claustrophobic character study with the potential to provide its beloved star with the unique challenge of holding our attention the whole way through. It may not be for viewers seeking traditional crowdpleasers, but festival audiences intrigued by original filmmaking and audacious acting will want to take not. —EK

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