The films! Sundance is all about the films! Why else go to the most famous, most prestigious film festival in America if not to catch the premieres of some of the best and most talked-about movies of the year months before their release?
This year, running solely on bus fumes, nature valley bars and red bull, I managed to hit thirty films before flying out of Salt Lake City. However, there is not a single bone in my body willing to cover each and every film I saw/didn’t see. Therefore, I decided to just go through my absolute favorites. Of the thirty, I selected the ten best, or at least my ten favorite, must-watch-if-you-have-any-taste-whatsoever films from this year’s Sundance lineup.
The Best of the Fest
Monos – dir. Alejandro Landes
When the line-up came out for this year’s festival, Monos was one of the first films to really grab my attention; it was close to home for me, literally, as its writer and director is Colombian. However, as the festival approached, it would fall further down the list as other films presented themselves as bigger or more interesting contenders.
Ultimately, It was the buzz it received upon its premiere that really put it back on my radar. It was praised as a brutal and stylish Lord of the Flies-esque story told in the mountains and jungles of Colombia, and that is exactly what it is. Monos is relentless, terrifying and mesmerizing at the same time. The score is insane, the visuals are beautiful and the tensions are palpable. If I had to pick a favorite out of this year’s festival, this would be it.
The film received a Special Jury award in the World Dramatic category and has been played at many other festivals, it was picked up by NEON and is rumored to release in September.
It’s also worth noting that Rico from Hannah Montana is in it and does an insanely great job.
Honey Boy – Dir. Alma Har’el
Honey Boy is beautiful and Shia Labeouf’s portrayal of his father is easily the best performance of his career.
Throughout the process of preparing and researching the films at this year’s festival, Honey Boy always stood out to me. I knew it starred Lucas Hedges so it already featured more starpower than some of the other films within the U.S. Dramatic Competition, however, Director Alma Har’el was unknown to me so I didn’t really know what to expect on the aesthetic/stylistic side; nonetheless, I was excited and luckily for me, it delivered on nearly every front. It’s a very warm film visually but ice cold thematically and tonally.
During the Q&A portion, Shia revealed that he wrote the script during his time in rehab and began to tear-up when asked about the relationship with his father; the whole film feels like his stream of consciousness, like he’s letting out his frustrations and inner demons, all the while, making up for lost time or mending his wounds. This is his sigh of relief.
The film was picked up by Amazon Studios and will be coming October 11th, just in time for an awards season run.
The Nightingale – Dir. Jennifer Kent
The Nightingale premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2018 and was met with some pretty controversial, mixed reactions. Mainly detailing the story’s overtly unsparing and graphic violence. The mixed reception made me consider skipping it altogether but I figured Sundance would probably be the best circumstances I’d ever see it and decided to see it then…
If the fact that a man had a seizure during my screening of this film proves anything, it’s that The Nightingale IS as brutal and intense as the early reviews led you to believe, this brutality, however, is sprinkled throughout an otherwise epic tale of revenge through the Tasmanian wilderness in the 1800s.
It’s a slow-moving, methodical journey that carries more emotional weight than shock. I was physically sick watching certain scenes and absolutely enraged watching others. This is definitely a hard one to recommend simply because of how relentless and unflinching it is in its portrayal of violence against women; but still a very well-made and praise-worthy second film from The Babadook director Jennifer Kent.
The Nightingale is set to release in early August and a trailer is now available. I cannot wait to hear what people will have to say about it.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco – Dir. Joe Talbot
As soon as I bought my tickets and booked a flight to Sundance, I went online to find some clues and predictions for the festival’s lineup months before its announcement. I found an article that listed a few projects in the works that could potentially be finished by Sundance time, among the films predicted, some didn’t make it, while others did. Among the correct picks was The Last Black Man In San Francisco which the article described as an A24 produced film being in a similar vein as a Barry Jenkins project. Sold.
The film was an instant success and one of the most popular films at Sundance this year. Guess I wasn’t the only who got the memo. The film had very few screenings throughout the festival but I managed to get on the waitlist for one of them; this is when I almost passed out from starvation. Not to mention that I didn’t even get into the screening at all. I was fortunate enough to catch it during its Best of Fest run as the film won two awards, one for directing and a Special Jury prize for “creative collaboration”.
Last Black Man feels like a stage play adapted to the screen. I’m a sucker for cinematography and the film certainly delivers some of the most beautifully-shot moments of the entire festival. This movie lives and breathes in its own nostalgia, however it’s the kind of nostalgia you feel when looking through a faded, worn out photo album with pictures missing and faces blurred. It’s a letter of unrequited love to San Francisco and a poetic statement on gentrification and legacy.
The film is set to release in June and A24 has released a trailer.
Little Monsters – Dir. Abe Forsythe
Lupita Nyong’o is this year’s Queen of Horror. Though much more comedic and much less horrifying than her performance in Jordan Peele’s Us, Little Monsters sees Lupita knocking it out of the park yet again. In Little Monsters, Lupita stars alongside up-and-comer Alexander England and the insanely hilarious Josh Gad, as a kindergarten teacher responsible for keeping her class safe and unknowing of the zombie outbreak in full effect outside.
The most hilarious film I caught at the festival, Little Monsters effortlessly treads the line between adult humor and childish innocence. It’s one of the films I’m most excited to rewatch and one of the easiest films to recommend to almost anyone looking for a great time. It’s the new Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland except, admittedly, nearly better than both.
Though it was picked up by NEON and Hulu, a release date has yet to be announced, but I genuinely hope it gets a theater run before it becomes available for streaming. Either way, don’t miss this insanely good time.
Greener Grass – Dir. Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe
Greener Grass is a fever dream. It really is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It feels like one really long improv sketch, or a bizarre SNL skit. It’s a parody of real life that makes real life seem crazy. When I found out it was playing at a local festival, I just knew I had to rewatch it and quite honestly, it was even better a second time.
At their Florida Film Festival appearance, I managed to meet the directors and praised them for the insane job they did making this. This is the kind of film you start sober and end seeing double. The attention to detail is exceptional, there are one-liners and gags everywhere; some are in your face, while others I didn’t pick up on until the second time, and even then I still feel like I missed some jokes or other subtleties.
As far as I’m aware, the film was picked up by IFC Midnight so I hope it gets a wide-ish release. It’s a soon-to-be cult classic and I’m glad I caught it before it can go on to mesmerize the rest of the world.
Late Night – Dir. Nisha Ganatra
Late Night is the biggest crowd-pleaser at this year’s festival. It’s a wholesome, hilarious story about female empowerment, finding your voice and taking risks, especially in an industry as cut-throat as prime-time television.
Mindy Kaling wrote and stars alongside Emma Thompson who in my opinion deserves at least a Golden Globe nomination for her role in the film. It’s definitely a movie I can see up for a few awards if not at least one of the more popular comedies to come out this year.
It was picked up by Amazon and is set to release in June so I’m hoping this gets the same treatment and attention The Big Sick did a few years back because this is a must-watch.
You can check out the trailer here.
Blinded by the Light – Dir. Gurinder Chada
Not to be outdone as a front runner for the festival’s biggest crowd-pleaser, Blinded by the Light may be cliché and cheesy at times, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the cutest most-heartwarming film at Sundance. Set in 1980s London, the film focuses on the son of Pakistani-immigrants who finds a hero and sense of purpose in The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen.
I walked into this at nine in the morning, running on four hours of sleep and walked out floating on air as “Born To Run” reverberated through my brain. Director Gurinder Chada is no stranger to making overwhelmingly heartfelt films as her 2002 film, Bend It Like Beckham was a critical and box office success at its time that helped launch a young Kiera Knightley’s career.
The film was picked up by New Line Cinema and is releasing in August; a trailer is out now.
To The Stars – Dir. Martha Stephens
The underdog. The sleeper-hit. The most underrated.
I genuinely hope this film gets some sort of cult status because it is a sweet, quiet little film that deserves endless praise.
Admittedly, I didn’t expect to watch this film, but I’m very glad I did. To The Stars is a somber tale of a budding friendship in a 1960s Oklahoma town. It’s a gay, sad Lady Bird and anyone who knows me can attest to how massive of a compliment that is. It’s much more serious and much more gut-wrenching at times but delivers a beautiful message about self-identity, friendship and empowerment.
I haven’t been able to find much info about the film’s distribution but I’m hoping it gets picked up and released soon.
Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary – Dir. Ben Berman
Outside of the list of films I was excited for before departing for Utah, I knew for a fact that there would be some films not on my radar that would end up making a splash, much like this one.
Please God, let its current title be its official one because it would match the level of absurdity and self-awareness that made the whole thing so brilliant. Sundance has recently seen a resurgence in great docs and documentaries as a genre have been gaining more popularity in recent years. Though I planned on focusing more on narratives than documentaries at this year’s festival, I planned to see at least one doc and I believe I made the best choice possible.
I prefer to not say much about the subject at hand because going into this with little to no idea about what to expect is honestly for the best, what I will say is that even if you’re not normally a fan of documentaries, you should still give this one a try. The film was picked up by Hulu so hopefully we’ll see a release announcement sooner or later.
The Rest of the Fest
There were over 120 films in this year’s lineup but a man can only lose so much sleep in a week’s time and due to conflicts in scheduling or cash, I obviously was not able to see everything I wanted or planned to.
There’s now been plenty of time since Sundance, and some films have already been released in theaters or have become available to stream; many others have been picked up by a multitude of distributors and should be coming out before the end of the year. For the sake of brevity, I’ve chosen to only highlight my four most anticipated films that I missed.
The Farewell – Dir. Lulu Wang
This is coming out in July soon via A24. Throughout the festival it was one of the most acclaimed and talked about films and i was really upset that I missed it but It’s set to release in July so I’m really hoping it lives up to the hype. I loved the trailer and the film has gotten endless amounts of praise so no doubt my most anticipated.
Luce – Dir. Julius Onah
Luce was also buzzed about, but to a lesser-degree. It was mostly the definitive sleeper hit of the festival; it didn’t win any awards but ended up topping quite a few people’s lists as the best film at the festival. It was picked up by NEON during the festival but no release date, trailer or other news have been released. It stars Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, and while I don’t know much about the plot, most of my excitement comes purely from the overwhelmingly positive word of mouth.
Clemency – Dir. Chinonye Chukwu
Winner of the Grand Jury Dramatic Prize, Clemency is a dramatic film centered around a prison warden working on death row and that alone is enough to make me excited. The film won the biggest prize of the night out of the Dramatic competition which should automatically put it on everyone’s radar. The distribution rights were also bought by NEON which seemed to buy out lots of this year’s bigger hits. The film is set for a late December release.
Big Time Adolescence – Dir. Jason Orley
Ariana Grande’s ex stars in what my friend Art considers one of 2019’s many spiritual successors to Superbad. (Among the other films on the list is Booksmart which is out in theaters so go watch that if you haven’t because that movie is brilliant) This was a definite hit among my Sundance crew but seemed to go relatively undetected throughout the festival. Still, their excitement and hype managed to make this yet another addition to my list of missed opportunity from the festival. There haven’t been news about its release but I’m hoping the film got picked up and will be released this year.
Lastly, I would like to make a few other honorable mentions.
I want to give a special shout out to The Souvenir which must’ve gotten two different versions played at the festival since I clearly didn’t see the one deserving of a 90+ Metacritic score.
I would also like to apologize personally to the cast and crew of Brittany Runs a Marathon for having to leave just as Brittany ran a marathon. I will definitely watch that one again.
I’d like to apologize to those who watched Velvet Buzzsaw at the festival and didn’t know that they’d be able to watch it on Netflix less than a week later. Though really, I apologize to anyone who watched Velvet Buzzsaw period.
I’d also urge everyone to go watch Knock Down The House available on Netflix now, it’s an incredibly inspiring documentary that had me welling up at work like an idiot.
Finally, I forgot to include The Report on here among the films I missed. It continues to be a movie I always end up overlooking. It’ll probably have a holiday season/awards season run, let’s just hope it doesn’t get overlooked there as well.
Though I obviously would’ve loved to see every film playing at this year’s festival, I only saw a fraction of what Sundance had to offer. I appreciate anyone who took time to read through this whole list, definitely try and check out a few of the films on here as they’re all worthy of some support (including Booksmart). I’m hoping to match, if not double my count at next year’s festival.