This year’s Sundance market was filled with questions, but buyers didn’t waste any time. (Browse the full list of acquisitions here.) By the end of the first weekend, it already featured the biggest sale in the festival’s history (“Palm Springs,” to Neon and Hulu) as well as the biggest documentary sale (“Boys State,” to Apple and A24). Countless other buzzy projects landed homes at companies ranging from Searchlight (“The Night House”) to Sony Pictures Classics (“Truffle Hunters,” “I Carry You With Me”) and Magnolia (“The Fight,” “Assassins”).
Nevertheless, with a lineup this vast, even the most aggressive distributors can only move so fast — and many of this year’s gems remain homeless. Here are the ones we think deserve to sell ASAP.
Lawrence Michael Levine’s razor-sharp comedy “Black Bear” is a big step forward for the indie stalwart: a clever, twisted black comedy that skewers both contemporary culture and the film industry in two distinctly different (but related) parts. Fans of Levine’s wife Sophia Takal’s work will vibe to what Levine’s throwing down, as “Black Bear” would make a hell of a companion piece to Takal’s “Always Shine” (which Levine wrote and appeared in). Both films involve stories about creative types pulled into dark spaces while stuck in the middle of nature’s great splendor. Levine is gifted with three game performers in stars Christopher Abbott, Aubrey Plaza, and Sarah Gadon, assembled here as a long-time couple and an unexpected interloper (and no, our resistance to saying who plays who is entirely on purpose; such is the wicked pleasure of Levine’s feature). To say much more about the script-flipping that happens halfway through the film would be to rob audiences of a true delight, but it’s a story-expanding trick that allows the film, its big ideas, and its performers to dig even deeper. A clever distributor looking for an indie comedy toplined by some of the festival world’s favorite performers could have some major fun with the film, which often defines simple explanations but is a total scream with an engaged audience. —KE
Sales Contact: CAA
“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets”
At first glance, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” unfolds as a brilliant work of cinema verite. Bill and Turner Ross’ boozy hangout movie captures the last raucous night at the Roaring Twenties, a grimy bar on the outskirts of the Vegas strip where various inebriated outcasts bury their sorrows in a blur of anger and poetic laments. It’s late 2016, and with the presidential election about to change the world, the pub serves as a fascinating microcosm of America’s fractured, browbeaten underbelly on the verge of self-destruction.
But here’s the thing. The Roaring Twenties is in New Orleans, not Vegas, and the characters populating its interior didn’t just wander in. Though nothing in the movie acknowledges as much, the Ross brothers cast people to populate the bar, recording the drunken antics of their chosen performers throughout a debaucherous night. The result is both a grand cinematic deception and a bold filmmaking experiment from two of the most intriguing directors working in non-fiction today. Tapping into a kind of alienation to which much of 21st Century America can relate, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” may not be the straight-faced documentary it looks like, but it’s a sober-eyed document of our times nonetheless. The movie would work wonders in the hands of a savvy distributor able to play up its fact-versus-fiction concept while presenting its raucous narrative as the crowdpleaser everyone can enjoy. —EK
Sales Contact: Cinetic
Director Bryan Fogel’s followup to Oscar-winner “Icarus” makes up for its conventional approach with the pressing nature of its subject. When Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, the global outrage was instantaneous. Nevertheless, a year and a half later, the murky circumstances behind his death remain a source of constant speculation, and despite the Saudi Arabian government’s decision to execute several unidentified men for the crime, it remains unclear just how much justice has been served. Fogel’s somber, eye-opening account works overtime to correct the record, with explosive revelations about Saudi hackers targeting exiled activists with direct links to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS, as he’s often known, seems to have played a key role in hacking Jeff Bezos’ phone). “The Dissident” is both a continuation of Khashoggi’s work and a trenchant exposé of the forces that conspired to take him down; it’s essential viewing that deserves a distributor with the guts to take on its target before more damage can be done. —EK
Sales Contact: UTA
Bruce Francis Cole
The reunification of war-torn families is a stirring and familiar tale, but Ekwa Msangi has a different take: What happens the morning after, when people long separated by circumstance must contend with each other and who they have become? “Farewell Amor” is a story that’s been hiding in plain sight, and this directorial debut announces Msangi as a fresh new voice. The cast also deserves note: It’s the feature debut of Jayme Lawson as a teen who can communicate lifetimes with an eyeroll; she’s also a stunning dancer, and will be featured in next year’s “The Batman.” Ugandan actor Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (“The Chi”) creates empathy as Walter, a hard-working cabdriver who’s confused and overwhelmed when his dreams come true, and Zaniab Jah (“Deep State,” “Homeland”), as a long-suffering wife and mother, understands the complexity of immigration first hand. (She emigrated from Sierra Leone to the UK as a child.) “Farewell Amor” takes an emotional tale and delivers it with honesty and without melodrama. While this is the work of a first-time filmmaker, it also represents a ground-floor opportunity: We will hear much more from Ekwa Msangi in the years to come. —DH
Sales Contact: Film Constellation (international), Endeavor Content (North America)
“On the Record”
Courtesy of Jane Doe Films
Let’s get the messy stuff out of the way: Just days before its scheduled Sundance premiere, executive producer Oprah Winfrey pulled her support (and its accompanying Apple TV+ deal) from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s latest searing exploration of sexual assault, leaving the documentary (and its subjects, many of whom lay bare horrifying details about their alleged assaults in the film) open to serious questions (and plenty of derision). Yet the vast majority of people who saw the film at Sundance walked away with a different set of questions, few of which centered on the veracity of the claims or Dick and Ziering’s methodology, mainly: why the hell did Oprah abandon this project? The film is primarily centered around the accusations leveled at Russell Simmons by former Def Jam A&R executive Drew Dixon in a 2017 New York Times article, which included similar claims of sexual assault by two other women. That article was meticulously veted, and Dick and Ziering’s film only adds more evidence to the many accusations against Simmons, from Dixon and elsewhere. The film also bravely (and smartly) expands its reach to touch upon other issues related to reporting sexual misconduct within the music industry, which has proven to be more resistant to change than the film world, and what it means that so many of Simmons’ alleged victims are black. —KE
Sales Contact: UTA
“The Mole Agent”
There’s a certain immersive thrill that comes from documentaries that hide themselves, and “The Mole Agent” epitomizes that appeal. Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s delightful character study unfolds as an intricate spy thriller, in which a sweet-natured 83-year-old widower infiltrates a nursing home at the behest of a private detective. The plan goes awry with all kinds of comical and touching results, so well-assembled within a framework of fictional tropes that it begs for an American remake. But as much as such a product might appeal to companies hungry for content, it would be redundant from the outset, because “The Mole Agent” is already one of the most heartwarming spy movies of all time — a rare combination of genres that only works so well because it sneaks up on you. This movie works for many audiences, young and old, with a range of sensibilities; a savvy distributor (and one capable of navigating a tricky situation with the film’s broadcast rights) would be able to transform “The Mole Agent” into the word-of-mouth phenomenon it deserves to be. —EK
Sales Contact: Dogwoof
“The Nowhere Inn”
Some 40 years after “This is Spinal Tap,” the prospect of another mockumentary on self-involved rock stars might not sound so appealing. Fortunately, “The Nowhere Inn” goes beyond the call of duty with a mesmerizing seriocomic descent into the madness of modern fame. This unclassifiable whatsit from singer-songwriter St. Vincent and BFF Carrie Brownstein works overtime to reinvent itself every step of the way, in a hilarious (if sometimes baffling) means of illustrating its outré point. On its surface, “The Nowhere Inn” centers on St. Vincent’s road trip as she struggles to reconcile her onstage persona with her more grounded identity as Annie Clark. It’s a journey that’s absurd and eerie, ridiculous and deep. Pitched somewhere between traditional rockumentary tropes and a heap of zany Adult Swim shorts, it dips into the deadpan folksy satire of Brownstein’s “Portlandia” before veering into a shapeshifting psychological thriller worthy of vintage De Palma. Fans of St. Vincent’s vivid rock compositions won’t find much new information about her persona, but the movie provides a welcome extension of her artistry nonetheless — and should win her some new fans as a result. A smart distributor would be able to bring “Nowhere Inn” to anyone eager to get their St. Vincent and/or Brownstein fix while exploiting the weirder aspects of the narrative to craft a midnight-movie phenomenon. —EK
Sales Contact: Endeavor/Paradigm
“The Painter and the Thief”
Director Benjamin Ree just happened to be researching art thefts in Norway when two of painter Barbora Kysilkova’s new works were stolen from an art gallery. When Kysilkova sees her thief, a drug addicted Karl-Bertil Nordland, in the courthouse and decides she wants to paint him, it sparks an intense, rollercoaster relationship between two lost souls. The movie oscillates between their dueling perspectives as it dives deeper into the nature of their bond and what it says about the way we tell our own stories. It’s a relationship being performed for the camera to some degree — but the magnetic pull between these two fascinating characters is captured with such raw intimacy, vulnerability, and formal beauty that it transcends the characters’ own desire to control the narrative. With Ree there from day one, we watch as Barbora and Bertil bond over three years, resulting in a twisty yarn that’s deeply engaging throughout. A surprising two-sided detective story, “The Painter and the Thief” has the potential to become a genuine word-of-mouth discovery however it gets out into the world. —CO
Sales Contact: Autlook Films
For those who have followed Garrett Bradley’s work over the last few years, this Sundance breakout moment is as deserved as it is inevitable. In telling the story of Fox Rich’s arc toward activism – fighting to get her husband out of jail while raising their six children – Bradley has found the perfect partner and canvas for her unique political poetry. A story of a seemingly impossible love, “Time” is a film stripped down to its cinematic and spiritual essence, allowing the audience an emotional window into the deep pain of our rotting justice system and the resilience it demands to survive it. Weaving Rich’s treasure trove of DV home movies with her own distinct black and white compositions, Bradley finds a structure that lets Rich’s story flow like water. By tapping into a major social justice issue through an exciting and fresh cinematic lens, “Time” stands a good chance at becoming one of the year’s genuine breakouts. —CO
Sales Contact: Cinetic
Before the lights went down at the world premiere of “Tesla,” writer-director Michael Almereyda said that his unconventional biopic of the famously enigmatic futurist was inspired by “Derek Jarman, Henry James, and certain episodes of ‘Drunk History.’” He wasn’t kidding. What starts as an earnest (if lyrical) profile of the man who invented Elon Musk soon explodes into something more appropriately postmodern when Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) and Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) get into a heated ice cream fight, and a woman’s voice comes over the soundtrack to inform us that it probably didn’t happen this way.
Working from a script that he first wrote in 1983 (and has obviously updated since), “Hamlet” director Almereyda reunites with his favorite leading man for a scientist biopic so anachronistic and unmoored that it makes his “Experimenter” seem like a Ken Burns documentary by comparison. “Tesla” adheres to the same kind of emotional logic as that 2015 effort, likewise retrofitting a playful structure over the life of a decidedly serious man. “Experimenter” was a tough sell — grossing only $224,145 worldwide — but an engaged distributor should have no trouble surprising that with “Tesla.” Between the current value of the inventor’s brand, an increasingly broad interest in his life, and a handful of ultra-memeable scenes that should drive plenty of interest long after the film leaves theaters, Almereyda’s latest could spark a tidy profit in the right hands. —DE
Sales Contact: Millenium Films
When the news first broke that “Madeline’s Madeline” filmmaker Josephine Decker would be making a starry movie about the author Shirley Jackson, it was hard not to be disappointed (or at least caught by surprise) that one of the most feral, elastic, and vividly singular artists of contemporary American cinema was following her first masterpiece with something that might be classified as a biopic. Shudder. Not to worry: For one thing, the sawtoothed and delirious “Shirley” is no more of a biopic than “Bright Star,” “An Angel at My Table,” or “Shakespeare in Love.” For another, the best elements of this movie — its poisoned eros, its secrets in shallow focus, its steadfast determination to distill the “thrillingly horrible” process of a young woman’s self-awakening — conspire to embarrass the idea that Decker wouldn’t be able to explore her truth in someone else’s fiction.
Adapted from the Susan Scarf Merrell novel of the same name, Decker’s film takes place sometime after “The Lottery” has become the most controversial story ever published in The New Yorker, as a young woman named Rose (Odessa Young) and her academic husband (Logan Lerman) come to stay with Jackson and her menacing husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) for the semester. Comfortably inhabiting all sorts of haggard makeup that she wears like a layer of cobwebs, Elisabeth Moss embodies the author as an irritable grandma who’s been cooped up for long enough to haunt her own house. But Rose unlocks something in the reclusive writer, and vice-versa, and these two “lost girls” make each other visible in unexpected ways. No simple portrait of empowerment, “Shirley” is a dizzying, complex, and frequently toxic piece of work that may prove a harder sell than its cast and subject first suggest. But there could be ample rewards for anyone who takes up the challenge, as the film will surely resonate with readers, continue to pick up rave reviews, and stir well-deserved awards buzz for its actors, creative team, and transportive below-the-line talent (especially cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen). —DE
Sales Contact: Cornerstone Films
“The Social Dilemma”
Perhaps the single most lucid, succinct, and profoundly terrifying analysis of social media ever created for mass consumption, Jeff Orlowski’s “The Social Dilemma” does for Facebook what his previous documentaries “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral” did for climate change (read: bring compelling new insight to a familiar topic while also scaring the absolute shit out of you). Constructed from interviews with the very concerned people who designed these platforms, and laced with funny scripted segments that illustrate the effects of social media on a more life-sized scale, Orlowski’s well-argued doc breaks down how a free-to-use business model has become an existential crisis for all civilization, and why logging off might be the only way to save us from ourselves.
While “The Social Dilemma” is relevant to every person on the planet, and should be legible enough to even the most technologically oblivious types (the Amish, the U.S. Senate, and so forth), its target demographic is very online types who think they understand the information age too well to be taken advantage of — zoomers, millennials, and screen junkies of any stripe who wouldn’t have the faintest interest in a finger-wagging documentary about how they should spend more time outside. The question for potential distributors is “how do you reach them?” A traditional theatrical release has its appeal, as the promise of people sitting in a dark and room and watching the same content together would help resist how the internet has siloed us all into our own realities. On the other hand, this is a movie that needs to hit its audience where they live: on the internet. But any algorithmically-driven platform would be too hypocritical, so Netflix and other major streamers are out. Unless… Netflix isn’t hypocritical enough. Apple could always be an option, but it would be amazing if Orlowski could find a financially sensible way to release “The Social Dilemma” directly on Twitter and Facebook. Post it as an endlessly segmented story on Instagram! Release it as 200 Tik Toks! Break the internet once and for all. —DE
Sales Contact: Submarine/UTA
One part character study, one part journey through bureaucratic bullshit and political machinations, Sara Colangelo’s sturdy legal drama “Worth” brings to life the story of lawyer Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) and his seemingly unwinnable mission to compensate the victims of 9/11. Portrayed by Keaton in an unflashy, wholly impressive turn, Feinberg is a reason-driven legal wonk who, despite not believing that anything can ever be truly fair, still thinks the law and rational thinking can get people at least part of the way there. He’s joined by the ever-reliable Amy Ryan as his slightly more emotive legal partner and Stanley Tucci as a heartbroken widower who sees flaws in the so-called ” September 11th Victim Compensation Fund” that hurt more than help the very people it aims to serve.
Along with a supporting cast made up of less well-known standounts, including Laura Benati, Chris Tardio, Tate Donovan, and Shunori Ramanathan, the film offers up plenty of sterling acting to bolster its very human stakes. It’s not just the appearance of Keaton that makes the film — only Colangelo’s third and already her best — feel like a companion piece to Best Picture winner “Spotlight,” it’s the intelligent writing, deeply emotional center, and disinterest in dumbing things down for an adult audience that set it a cut above. Any distributor looking for a satisfying and smart mid-tier drama with some serious awards potential would do themselves a big favor by snapping the film up right now, and ramping it up through the 2020 awards season. —KE
Sales Contact: MadRiver Pictures