Highlights from Sundance 2019

Highlights from Sundance 2019

Park City, Utah is currently buzzing with film lovers, filmmakers, and celebrities for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. As the first major film festival of the calendar year, Sundance often hosts the premieres of movies that will go on to become box office hits and critical darlings and start to give a sense of where the cinematic world might go throughout the ensuing year. Now at roughly the halfway mark of the festival which began on January 24th and will end February 2nd, there has already been much to get excited about.It can be a nearly impossible task to stay up to date on all things Sundance, so here I offer a few highlights gathered from the reviews and reporting done by those actually on the ground at the festival. Enjoy!


Robert Redford steps aside

The Sundance Film Festival is, among many other things, Robert Redford’s brainchild. Named after the Sundance Kid, whom he portrayed in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it has become one of the most prominent film festivals worldwide since its debut in 1978 as the Utah/US Film Festival. Each year the festival begins with an opening press conference where Redford traditionally speaks about the festival and its mission and fields questions. This year, according to reporters covering the event, he stuck to brief remarks in which he told the audience that he doesn’t think “the festival needs a whole lot of introduction now,” and that “it runs on its own course and I’m happy for that.” After announcing his retirement from acting earlier last year, this move to step away from the festival spotlight seems in line with a shrinking public image for the aging Redford. Nonetheless, it is a move that marks the end of an era both for himself and for Sundance.

Shia Labeouf and Honey Boy (2019)

One of the titles that drew the most pre-festival buzz was Honey Boy (2019). Directed by Alma Ha’rel and drawn from a semi-autobiographical script penned by Shia Labeouf, the movie follows the early years of a child actor in Los Angeles as he deals with his loose cannon of a father, and navigates the pitfalls of Hollywood. Apart from providing the script, Labeouf also plays the character he based on his father, and so many wondered how he would navigate playing a part in such a personal story. Furthermore, after a few years of scandal and an inconsistent public image for Labouef,  Honey Boy had all the markers of a ‘comeback’ piece. Early reviews suggest that the movie is an inconsistent but overall successful endeavor. Indiewire’s Eric Kohn writes that it is “best appreciated less as movie than cinematic confessional, a quest for catharsis,” and that “even as “Honey Boy” settles into the tropes of a familiar coming-of-age saga, it’s an admirable variation.” Brian Tallerico of Rogerebert.com adds that the movie is “riveting drama, always existing as a personal, meta piece for a man openly and artistically dealing with his past while also being a study of child stardom, addiction, and abuse.”

Leaving Neverland (2019) stuns audiences

For decades now there have been rumors and accusations of pedophilia aimed at the late Michael Jackson. These first came to a head in 2004 when Jackson was charged with molesting Gavin Arvizo, a young man who was 13 at the time of alleged sexual abuse. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty on all counts, and so the accusations quieted for a time. Now 14 years later, Dan Reed has directed a four-hour documentary focusing on the stories of Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, two men who allege Jackson molested them during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Multiple articles covering its Sundance premiere attest to the fact that audience members and critics alike were shocked and disturbed by the piece and how convincingly it lays out its story. Writing about the “reasonable doubt” that the 2004-5 trial left with its “not guilty verdict,” David Ehrlich of Indiewire attests that “there’s no longer a reasonable doubt. There’s no longer any doubt at all. Not only do the documentary’s two main subjects perfectly corroborate their separate accounts in all of the most tragic of ways, but they do so with a degree of vulnerability that denies any room for skepticism.” In a statement, Jackson’s family decried the documentary as a “public lynching,” alleging that there were no grounds for the accusations to have such a public stage. HBO will premiere the movie for the general public this spring, and at that time those of us unable to see Leaving Neverland at Sundance can decide for ourselves.

Mindy Kaling’s Late Night (2019) makes waves

It may still be rather early on in Sundance’s run but the Mindy Kaling-penned Late Night (2019) may have already set the high point for acquisition cost after Amazon shelled out $13 million for it this past Saturday. Starring the indomitable Emma Thompson as Katherine, the sole female late night television host in a realm normally dominated by men, the movie follows Katherine’s attempts to bump up the ratings by hiring a woman, played by Kaling, to step into the writer’s room. According to a piece by Meagan Fredette in Refinery29, Kaling told the audience that “her inspiration for the movie comes from ‘being an outsider and a real fan of things.’” Amazon is no doubt betting on the name recognition of Thompson and Kaling, as well as the current popularity of movies such as Late Night that challenge the status quo of the entertainment industry, to deliver them another The Big Sick (2017)-sized comic hit. If the first reviews are to be taken as a litmus test, it seems like they just might. Over at Indiewire Kate Erbland writes that “Anyone who hates diversity, inclusion, or the possibility that a straight white man isn’t always the best fit for any job will likely hate the film, which uses classic comedic beats to tell a thoroughly modern story,” concluding  that “every comedy should hope to be this timely and clever.”

Jennifer Kent returns to Sundance with The Nightingale (2019)

Four years ago, Jennifer Kent rocketed to Sundance celebrity and international prestige with her directorial debut The Babadook (2014). It scored rave reviews and a respectable box office haul, and has found continued success as many return to it as a movie that signaled the beginning of our modern horror renaissance. Kent is back this year with The Nightingale (2019), a period piece set in 19th century Tasmania that follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi) as she seeks revenge against an Irish convict who savaged her family. In terms of plot it seems a far cry from the claustrophobic haunted-house style horror of The Babadook, but if Kent’s comments are to be any indicator, it seems to follow many of the same thematic beats of her earlier work. In an interview covered by Deadline, Kent notes that “[The Nightingale] was driven by my response to violence that was in the media. I’d also had some loss in my own life, so I was in a place where I was really looking at, what’s it all about?” Early critical response also suggests that this new film will be just as successful as her freshman feature. As A.A. Dowd writes for the A.V. Club, The Nightingale is “the kind of major work whose supposed drawbacks, like its nonstop barbarity and exhaustingly extended running time, feed right into its uncompromising vision. We were all warned about the film’s violence. There was no preparing for its awful power.

Chiwetel Ejiofor makes directorial debut with The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019)

This past year saw Bradley Cooper inhabit the slot of ‘who knew he could direct?’ when he stepped into the role for A Star is Born (2018), and 2019 may very well be the year for Chiwetel Ejiofor to do the same. Best known for his stirring performance in Steve McQueen’s Best Picture winning 12 Years a Slave (2013), and more recently in Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016),  Ejiofor unveiled  his directorial debut The Boy who Harnessed the Wind (2019) over the weekend. Adapted from William Kamkwamba’s searing memoir of the same name, the movie tells the story of the famine, family strife, and perseverance that was Kamkwamba’s childhood in Malawi. Like Cooper with A Star is Born, Ejiofor pulls triple duty as writer, director, and actor, as he plays Kamkwamba’s father. The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee gives it ⅘ stars, writing that “it’s a conventional film in many ways but one that slowly and effectively builds to a remarkably rousing climax, displaying an act of overwhelming ingenuity that’s hard to deny,” and also noting that “Ejiofor has long been a charming presence on screen but here he’s stripped back of his more obvious star presence and is no less impressive as a haunted, beleaguered and not always likable man.” The film will premiere on Netflix March 1st.

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