Right after Thanksgiving, as awards season gains traction and top 10 lists start being posted everywhere, the Sundance lineup arrives to provide a sneak peak of what’s around the corner for next year. The 2019 program is one of the most ambitious yet: The slate of 112 features just announced from 152 countries contains a range of promising new work, much of which was surveyed in IndieWire’s Sundance wish list. While there are plenty of familiar names in the program, however, this year’s Sundance already looks markedly different from previous editions, in large part due to the way fewer big titles pop out as the obvious sources of hype. Instead, there’s a cohesiveness to a program bursting with potentially compelling new work that reflects a fresh sensibility overall.
That’s a testament to new programming director Kim Yutani, a Sundance veteran who replaced longtime programmer Trevor Groth earlier this year. While Groth excelled at luring some of the festival’s biggest breakouts over the years, Yutani has drawn on her experience at niche festivals like Outfest to look for opportunities to give the festival a cohesive vision.
While festival programmers are often forced to invent talking points to explain their disparate programming decisions, Sundance 2019 actually has several unifying ingredients. Yutani used her background as a shorts programmer to track many talented filmmakers poised to make a big impact with their features this year, from Pippa Bianco (with the disturbing teen thriller “Share”) to Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”). “So many of my relationships with short filmmakers have been instrumental in leading up to this moment,” Yutani said.
“Kim has proven an understanding of taking a refined approach to festival curation as opposed to movie by movie, what plays for audiences,” said festival director John Cooper, who oversees the final selection. Yutani added a few new members to the programming staff, which achieved gender parity this year, and described her experience programming the 2019 festival as the result of many experiences she has gleaned over the years focusing on various sections of the festival, including LGBT and short films. That allowed her to consider the big picture in piecemeal. “It’s been an adjustment to step into this role, but also exciting,” she said. “Now is the time when everything falls into place.”
Here’s a look at some of the biggest takeaways from the lineup released so far, with some input from Yutani and Cooper.
Sundance has spent the last several years trying to build up the reputation of its world cinema competitions, despite being so closely associated with American independent film. Sales agents have been wary about premiering international titles at the festival, as opposed to more globally-oriented festivals like Berlin and Cannes, but the current world cinema competition is its most promising one since the festival launched international sections over a decade ago. “We got every single film we wanted,” said Yutani, who drew on her experiences traveling to international co-production markets to draw in notable international films, several of which also surface in the Premieres section. “We’re very tuned into the notion of representing the world we live in, and not just with the American gaze on it,” said Cooper. “To have bigger conversations about that you have to have international cinema.”
Notable foreign titles at Sundance this year include the Colombian feature “Monos,” director Alejandro Landes’ look at a hostage situation gone wrong, which includes a score by “Jackie” composer Micah Levi. From Brazil, Gabriel Mascaro — whose expressionistic rodeo drama “Neon Bull” was a festival breakout two years ago — returns with “Divine Love,” which explores a religious woman who helps couples avoid divorce while struggling with her own marriage. Then there’s British filmmaker Joanna Hogg (“Exhibition”), who has been appreciated in her own country for ages for her innovative deadpan character studies but has yet to break out in North America. That may change with “The Souvenir,” the first of a two-part feature project starring Tilda Swinton and her daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne in an intense drama about a film student in a relationship with an enigmatic man. “I feel like Sundance is such a great place for her to be exposed to a wider audience,” Yutani said.
However, Yutani was even more psyched to single out “We Are Little Zombies,” which she viewed on a trip to Tokyo earlier this year. The story of siblings who deal with the unexpected death of their parents by forming a rock band, the movie draws on writer-director Makoto Nagahisa’s short film, “And So We Put the Goldfish in the Pool,” which won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in 2017. After seeing the new movie, “we just felt like there was no way we aren’t showing this,” Yutani said. She and Cooper were also keen on U.K. selection “The Last Tree,” which revolves around a British teen of Nigerian descent forced to contend with a sudden lifestyle change in London. “I thought it was going to be a certain kind of movie by the first third and then it switched and then it switched again,” Cooper said. “There are films that I’m dreading to watch and then I love when they totally engage me and turn me around.”
Sundance has been a haven for African-American filmmakers long before the cries for industry diversification reached a fever pitch, with everyone from Ryan Coogler to Lee Daniels unleashing prize-winning titles in Park City. The current lineup has plenty of promise on that front. Cooper and Yutani said the very first film they accepted for 2019’s program was “Luce,” the latest feature from Julius Onah, tackling very different material than his last film “The Cloverfield Paradox,” which premiered on Netflix out of nowhere earlier this year. Onah’s promising new work stars Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as a couple who adopt a teenage son from Eritrea whose future is compromised when new information about his past comes to light. “It’s exploring that grey area of what people choose to believe,” said Yutani. “We were so intrigued by it.”
Joining Onah in the U.S. Competition, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” suggests a spiritual sequel to Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy,” with another Bay Area tale of an African-American man contending with the gentrified landscape of the city. Produced by “Moonlight” supporters Plan B and A24, writer-director Joe Talbot’s debut is likely to be a major breakout at the festival. “There’s a freshness to the filmmaking in this that’s exciting,” said Cooper. “It’s really about the American dream.”
The programmers didn’t skimp on Asian-American stories, either. One of the most intriguing of these is “The Farewell,” the debut of Chinese-American director Lulu Wang, which stars “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8” scene-stealer Awkwafina as a woman who travels back to her native China to visit her ailing grandmother. The charismatic rapper is ripe for a complex vehicle to take advantage of her screen presence and every indication about this production suggests she’s found it. “This is such a personal story, based on the director’s own family, and you can feel that in the texture of the film,” Yutani said. (Awkwafina also surfaces in the cast of NEXT selection “Paradise Hills.”)
Another major entry on the Asian-American experience, “Ms. Purple” finds director Justin Chon graduating to competition after his beloved “Gook” was a discovery in the NEXT section two years ago. The story revolves around a karaoke hostess in L.A.’s Koreatown contending with a range of family issues. “I’ve never seen a film like this, and Justin in only the person who could’ve told it,” Yutani said. “There’s real authenticity in a lot of the films we chose this year.”
For the first time in history, Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition is dominated by women, with 53% of the entries. “We didn’t track this quite as intensely as we do in the world we live in now,” Cooper said of previous editions. “We are always programming with parity and representation in mind. I think that the truth is that it was a pretty organic way we ended up here. We chose the ones that were moving, interesting, challenging for the competition.” Nevertheless, “when you’re fine-tuning the program, you really look at those numbers.” Promising entries from women directors this year include the aforementioned “The Farewell,” Pippa Bianco’s “Share,” and “To the Stars,” an Oklahoma-set period piece from Martha Stephens, whose “Land Ho!” was a NEXT breakout. But one female-directed competition entry will be generating a lot of attention right out of the gate…
…and its name is “Honey Boy.” Director Alma Har’el has been generating enthusiasm on the festival circuit for years, with innovative poetic documentaries like “Bombay Beach,” but she steps into narrative feature directing mode with another intriguing riff on real life: Shia LaBeouf’s personal story of the falling out and reconciliation he experienced with his father, with the actor playing his dad and Lucas Hedges playing LaBeouf at different points throughout the movie.
If it sounds like a meta gimmick, just wait: “It’s a very raw movie,” said Cooper. “There’s a truth to it that most people don’t do when telling their own stories. It’s very brave. I have so much respect for Shia for making this film.” Yutani added that Har’el — making her Sundance debut — has been on the festival’s radar for years. “Her vision is so complimentary to Shia’s story and the work that he’s expressing here,” she said. “This was one of these films that we unanimously loved.”
Sundance remains a launchpad for some of the biggest non-fiction achievements of the year (summer breakouts “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” both launched in Park City. This year’s offerings are an especially timely bunch. Buzzy titles include Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “American Factory,” which revolves around the efforts of a Chinese billionaire to employ Ohio factory workers in an old General Motors factory, and seems poised to cast a new light on blue-collar struggles. And as American journalism continues to struggle with the “fake news” dilemma, “Mike Wallace Is Here” promises to use the story of the iconic broadcaster to put honest reporting in the context it deserves — while “Jawline” will show how much the media landscape has changed. Liza Mandelup’s documentary focuses on 16-year-old Austyn Tester, who live-streams virtually every moment of life in rural Tennessee to an active fan base while dreaming of ways to escape his surroundings.
Of course, no documentary will generate more attention leading into Sundance 2019 than “Untouchable,” Ursula Macfarlane’s look at the rise and fall of Sundance regular Harvey Weinstein. As Weinstein’s trials continue to unfold, this portrait will help bring additional context to his crimes, and fuel debate about his actual impact on independent film at the very festival where his career took root.
However, the “fun” factor of this year’s nonfiction offerings sits outside of the festival’s documentary sections altogether. “MEMORY – The Origins of Alien” finds director Alexandre O. Phillipe returning to the midnight section, where “78/52” — his playful dissection of the shower sequence from “Psycho” — first took off. His new movie is a similarly-minded deep dive into a cinematic phenomenon: the origins of Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” the complex mythological roots of the story, as well as its long-term impact. “It just needed to play in midnight,” Cooper said. “It has all these fun clips of horror movies and people talking about gore.”
Sundance’s NEXT section has been its most exciting program in recent years, where it has delivered future successes ranging from “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” to last year’s “Searching.” NEXT is essentially a platform for offbeat or innovative storytelling that might not be quite the universal crowdpleaser that competition demands, but could find its footing as a discovery. This year’s lineup includes a few familiar names, but only to people who are really tracking outré American cinema. Alice Waddington’s debut “Paradise Hills,” about a woman who uncovers the dark secret of the high-class family she’s forced to live with, was written by Nacho Vigalondo the cult director of “Timecrimes” and “Colossal.” Then Daniel Scheinert, one half of the directing duo behind Sundance hit “Swiss Army Man,” returns to the festival with “The Death of Dick Long” — another unusual-sounding story about a dead guy, this time in small-town Alabama, and two men who try to cover it up.
But Sundance programmers are especially keen on making sure people see “Give Me Liberty,” the debut of writer-director Kiril Mikhanovsky. The movie revolves around a race-fueled riot in Milwaukee, where a medical transport driver attempts to help both an elderly Russian family attend a funeral and assist a young black woman with ALS. “This is the one that should be the breakout of the section,” said Cooper. “It’s one of those films that’s such a delight to see in our programming season. It’s a film that’s so authentic and you just don’t know what’s going to happen from scene to scene. We wanted to position it the right way so it doesn’t get lost.”
Despite all the changes this year, Sundance is still a major marketplace, and buyers attend in the hopes of finding a good reason to open up their wallets. Whether heavyhitters like Netflix and Amazon decide to spend big or boutique outfits like A24 and Neon beef up their slates, they’ll have plenty of options. Cooper singled out “Blinded By the Light,” the latest from “Bend It Like Beckham” director Gurinder Chadha, as having real potential in the typically commercial Premieres section. The 1987-set movie deals with the cultural impact of Bruce Springsteen’s music on an angst-riddled teen. “It’s going to be a real crowdpleaser,” he said.
He was also keen on seeing the reaction to “Velvet Buzzsaw,” the latest from “Nightcrawler” director Dan Gilroy, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in a satire of the L.A. art world. “It just spoke to me in some crazy way,” he said. “It’s hard to make a parody of the art world, because it’s such a parody of itself, but those actors make it such a fun romp, and it’s a horror movie on top of that.”