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Sundance 2019: The 13 Best Movies of This Year’s Festival

It was another strong year in Park City for veterans and breakouts alike. Here are the highlights from the lineup.

“Leaving Neverland,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Clemency”

As this year’s Sundance Film Festival comes to a close, a familiar question has come up: What happens now? In a record-breaking year for both diversity and deals at the festival, Sundance didn’t lack for plenty of exciting new works from veterans and newcomers alike, and across every section. Now comes the hard part, as many of these movies will trickle into the marketplace in the months to come, without the context of a film festival to celebrate them. One can only hope that future audiences remember where the buzz started.

Here are the highlights from this year’s lineup.

“American Factory”

american factory

“American Factory”

“The Office” meets “The World is Flat” in Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert’s probing look at the efforts of Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang to run a glass factory in an old GM plant in Dayton, Ohio. The chairman may have good intentions, but there’s no way in hell that he’s going to let his workers unionize, and therein lies the rub: Shot over the course of several years and capturing every layer of the factory’s complex ecosystem, “American Factory” blossoms into a fascinating microcosmic look at the incompatibility of U.S. and American industries. Small details are littered throughout, with a blend of cringe-comedy and anthropological precision: Chinese work ethic deems the Americans lazy; American labor history deems China unsympathetic, and the rampant propaganda downright intrusive. “American Factory” doesn’t chart a path to solving this dilemma, but it leaves you with the impression that the tensions won’t be going away anytime soon. —EK

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

The latest film in a proud tradition of Bay Area gentrification narratives that includes Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy” and last year’s “Blindspotting,” Joe Talbot’s funny, heartfelt, and achingly bittersweet debut feature tells the story of someone who can’t bear to leave his hometown behind (it also won him a directing award at the Sundance ceremony). Jimmie H. Fails IV (a character named for the first-time actor who plays and inspired him) just wants to move back into the old Victorian mansion that his grandfather built, but the housing crisis has raised the place out of his price range. Maybe, with the help of his artsy best friend (a phenomenal Jonathan Majors), Jimmie might find a way to make things right. Then again, maybe he’s about to subvert a rich history of stories about people who scratch and claw to win back where they came from.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

Shot in a woozy, unreal, and dryly comedic style that splits the difference between Spike Jonze and Spike Lee, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” slows the world down just enough for you to feel it changing. Both a spiteful love letter and a hilarious surrender, Talbot’s debut is as much a requiem for the things we lose as it is a pointed reminder that nothing is really ours to keep. This is a special film for how bravely it steels its characters for a future where most of us can only belong to each other. It’s a film that’s as sad for its city as it is for all of the people who can no longer afford to live there. — DE

“Blinded By the Light”

Seventeen years after her exuberant cross-cultural coming-of-age movie “Bend It Like Beckham,” which broke out high-kicking tomboy Keira Knightley, UK filmmaker Gurinder Chadha has finally made an even better movie. The DNA is there: the brainy teenage scion (breakout Viviek Kalra) of poor Pakistani immigrants mired in 1987 Thatcher-era recession wants more — including writing for the high school newspaper and a faraway college — and finds a way to express his identity via the working-class ethos of Bruce Springsteen.

Viveik Kalra, Nell Williams and Aaron Phagura appear in Blinded by the Light by Gurinder Chadha, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nick Wall.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Blinded by the Light”

Nick Wall

Chadha expertly steers the movie from high school angst, immigrant bullying and parental conflict through a stunning musical version, with lyrics streaming across the screen, of “Thunder Road” which serves as the moment when our young hero declares his feelings for the pretty activist in his class. Based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, the movie deploys Springsteen deftly, without overplaying the concept. The movie will play for multiple audience demos, beyond Bruce fans. New Line, which paid $15 million for the romantic musical — the festival’s biggest buy — in this case at least, will make their money back. —AT

“Brittany Runs a Marathon”

Anyone who has seen former “Saturday Night Live” writer Jillian Bell steal a scene in movies like “22 Jump Street” and “Rough Night” knows she’s built for comedic glory, and while the basic plot of Paul Downs Colaizzo’s directorial debut “Brittany Runs a Marathon” — what if your funniest, least healthy friend decided to change her life and run the New York City Marathon? — sure sounds amusing, the film also allows Bell to tap into some genuine pathos.

Jillian Bell appears in Brittany Runs A Marathon by Paul Downs Colaizzo, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jon Pack. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon”

Jon Pack / Sundance

That’s not to say that the Audience Award winner isn’t funny, because of course it is, this is a movie starring Jillian Bell, but the inspired-by-real-life story — Colaizzo really does have a very funny, very unhealthy friend named Brittany who turned it all around to run 26.2 miles — is also deeply human, wonderfully warm, and not afraid to get really messy along the way. A sports movie that’s also about someone not at all interested in sports, it’s the kind of delayed coming-of-age film you think you’ve seen before, but the generosity and honesty that Bell and Colaizzo pour into make it something special. Eventually, new buyers Amazon will likely put out a commercial or clip that encourages audiences to run to the theaters, and puns aside, you should. —KE

“Clemency”

Clemency

“Clemency”

NEON

Chinonye Chukwu’s Grand Jury Prize-winning death row drama “Clemency” is presented with such directorial precision and narrative matter-of-factness that the viewer is forced to experience the character’s emotional torture. Those willing to endure will find plenty of rewards, mainly towering performances from Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, and Danielle Brooks that are bound to go down as some of the year’s best. Woodard plays a prison warden whose life has derailed because of her job, which includes prepping and barring witness to executions. Hodge’s Anthony Woods is the warden’s next execution, and Chukwu unforgettably tracks the two characters as they brace for an inevitable ending. The writer-director doesn’t present either figure as a hero or villain; they’re almost identical souls simply looking for freedom in a world where both their fates are painfully sealed. The final 10 minutes will break open your heart like few movies this year, maybe ever. —ZS

“David Crosby: Remember My Name”

So many rock documentaries are just as ludicrous and fictionalized according to a revisionist agenda as “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Which is what makes “David Crosby: Remember My Name” such a striking counterpoint. This is no hagiography. Crosby opens up with painful honesty, to interviewer Cameron Crowe (who serves as a producer as well) and director A.J. Eaton, about his many regrets. Some of them very recent: his tumultuous partnership with bandmates Stephen Stills and Graham Nash officially foundered after a painful performance of “Silent Night” at the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in 2015. The footage of Barack and Michelle Obama visibly cringing at the tuneless, discordant performance is almost heartbreaking – Crosby, Stills and Nash have not performed, or even spoken to each other, since. Sometime collaborator Neil Young has long since written Crosby off. Through it all, guided by Crowe’s sensitive but never softball questions, Crosby directs blame at himself with gutsy candor. Crowe said at the IndieWire Sundance Studio that Crosby was the very first interview he wanted to conduct for Rolling Stone as a teenage journalist back in 1974, and their 45-year relationship has yielded a rich cinematic portrait. —CB

The Farewell

“The Farewell”

A24

Anyone with a large Chinese family going back several generations will probably appreciate much about the one depicted in tender detail in “The Farewell,” director Lulu Wang’s touching and understated second feature. For everyone else, Awkwafina’s performance is a terrific gateway. The rapper-turned-actress’ best performance takes a sharp turn away from her zany supporting roles for a restrained and utterly credible portrait of cross-cultural frustrations. As a Chinese-American grappling with the traditionalism of her past and its impact on the future, she’s an absorbing engine for the movie’s introspective look at a most unusual family reunion. Based on a 2016 episode of “This American Life” drawn from Wang’s own experiences, “The Farewell” centers on Billi, an out-of-work New York writer who learns from her parents that her beloved grandmother — that is, her “Nai Nai” (Zhao Shuzhen) — has terminal cancer. While this premise could have birthed a quirky dramedy, Wang’s restrained approach instead yield a remarkable slow-burn immersion into her character’s life, as she struggles with the conflicting emotions of loyalty and resentment that define her adult life. It’s a remarkable window into Asian American identity to which future audiences will surely relate, and a welcome introduction to a filmmaker who’s just getting started. —EK

Leaving Neverland

“Leaving Neverland”

Sundance / HBO

Later this year, Dan Reed’s searing, gut-punch of a documentary will be available for broadcast viewers on both HBO and Channel 4, but that didn’t stop the two-part series’ Sundance premiere — a special one-time-only event held at Park City’s own Egyptian Theatre — from dominating the first weekend of the festival. Beset early on by controversy, including a group of dedicated Michael Jackson fans who attempted to get it pulled from the event and rumors that the screening would be deluged by protestors, the four-hour project unspooled relatively quietly to a packed house. At turns grueling and sensitively told, Reed’s project focuses on the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, long-time fans of Jackson’s whose own career aspirations brought them into the singer’s orbit, unspooling strikingly parallel stories of childhood abuse that have continued to impact their adult lives. Both Robson and Safechuck previously advocated on Jackson’s behalf — as young boys, they were both interviewed during a 1993 case in which Jackson’s first accuser, Jordan Chandler, went public with allegations of abuse; later, Robson very publicly testified during a 2005 trial involving yet another accuser — and have only in the last six years come forward with their own accusations. While some might argue that such stories are essential in the “#MeToo era,” the power of “Leaving Neverland” is that it makes it clear, these stories always needed to be told. —KE

“Greener Grass”

greener grass

“Greener Grass”

Sundance

Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) has it all. Like her neighbors in her perfectly color-coordinated neighborhood, she has a closet full of pastel sun dresses, hosts parties in her backyard, has a pool so clean you can drink its water, and, of course, wears braces — because everything is either perfect here or about to become perfect. Jill has so much she even gives up her baby to Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) as a neighborly gesture. And not for the weekend, it’s a permanent decision, though a seemingly casual one: that baby is a goodwill gift. The world of “Greener Grass” that DeBoer and Luebbe, who directed the film together as well, have created, looks and feels a lot like ours, but certain key surface details are… off. The underlying truth of this placid suburban biome is exactly the same as in our world, though: our lives are controlled by often arbitrary but rigidly enforced codes of conduct and, more often than not, we judge ourselves by comparing ourselves to others. When Jill’s son turns his piano recital at a school talent show as an opportunity to just smash the keys and act out, Jill is mortified – embarrassment at a school talent show is the worst thing that could happen in her mind. Yet her friend Lisa is just as self-flagellating: why wasn’t her child as original and outside the box as Jill’s son? DeBoer and Luebbe’s vision is so strong you don’t just watch “Greener Grass,” you visit it. And weirdly, you may never want to leave. —CB

“Honeyland”

Shooting "Honeyland"

Shooting “Honeyland”

Courtesy of Filmmakers

A perfect piece of nonfiction filmmaking, the Grand Jury Prize-winning “Honeyland” is the story of how a bee hunter’s life, which revolves around caring for an elderly mother and honey, is upended when a family moves into her abandoned village. The struggle between a woman’s connection with nature and a reckless patriarch becomes an allegory of everything wrong with our world. It’s impossible to not feel for the quiet, lonely decency of Hatidze, an early candidate for 2019’s best protagonist, but it’s the way her journey is filmed that makes this such a special film. Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov capture both character and conflict in verite moments shot with lush beauty and yet surprising formal rigor.  —CO

“Monos”

monos sundance

“Monos”

“Monos” takes place in the dense jungles and foggy mountaintops of northern Colombia, but it may as well be another planet. Director Alejandro Landes’ thrilling survivalist saga tracks a dysfunctional group of young militants as they traipse through perilous terrain, engaging in savage behavior while toying with their mortified American hostage (Julianne Nicholson), but they never reveal their motivations. Equal parts “Lord of the Flies” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” Landes’ third feature distills guerrilla warfare into sheer anarchy. By stripping away the sociopolitical context, “Monos” provides a window into power-hungry mayhem on the fringes of society that could happen anytime, anywhere — but depicts its hectic showdowns with a you-are-there intensity that could only take place in the present. —EK

“The Report”

Adam Driver appears in The Report by Scott Z. Burns, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Atsushi Nishijima.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“The Report”

Atsushi Nishijima

Amazon Studios paid $14 million for writer-director Scott Z. Burns’ post-9/11 political thriller, which is a feat of well-paced dramatic writing for smart audiences that imparts reams of info about the CIA’s enhanced detention and interrogation techniques and makes heroes out of Senate investigator Dan Jones (Adam Driver) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), who fought against the White House and the CIA to get the truth out to the world. Steven Soderbergh collaborator Burns (“Contagion”), making his directing debut, emerges as not only an ace screenwriter but a filmmaker. This well-reviewed movie will hold for rebranding in the fall as an Oscar contender. —AT

“The Souvenir”

Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne appear in The Souvenir by Joanna Hogg, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Agatha A. Nitecka.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“The Souvenir”

Agatha A. Nitecka

There isn’t much of a story in Joanna Hogg’s Grand Jury Prize-winning, and wholly heartfelt and searingly honest “The Souvenir.” The British director, somehow a breakthrough talent for the last 30 years, has always been less interested in plot than condition. Nevertheless, this elliptical, semi-autobiographical study of creative awakening lands with the weight of an epic. Set in the early 1980’s, shot with the gauzy harshness of “Phantom Thread,” and named after an 18th century rococo painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Hogg’s most affecting work to date to charts the doomed romance between a young filmmaker (the remarkable Honor Swinton Byrne) and the troubled older man (Tom Burke) who sparks her potential. More than just a tender self-portrait, “The Souvenir” becomes a diorama-esque dissection of that volatile time in your life when every molecule feels like it’s restlessly vibrating in place, and even a brief encounter with another person has the power to rearrange your basic chemistry; when you’re so desperate to become yourself that you’ll happily believe in anyone else you happen to find along the way. And the best thing about it might be the fact that a sequel (pairing Byrne with Robert Pattinson) is set to shoot this summer. —DE

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