The Sundance film festival may have come and gone but the memories still linger thanks to the several impressions left by the films on this list. Many of these films were critical hits, some were audience favorites. Either way they got people talking and a good number of them will be setting the agenda for how this year’s edition will be remembered. How many of them will have staying power?
Time will tell.
- Uncle Frank
Alan Ball, the writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under and True Blood makes a pivot back to film with Uncle Frank, this well-meaning but mawkish story of repression and discrimination in small town white America. Paul Bettany is in top form as the titular character, a university professor who connects with his naïve niece when she moves to the big city to study. Uncle Frank occasionally feels manipulative but the life-affirming, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along messaging should be able to connect with crowds everywhere.
Based on a Twitter thread that went viral a couple of years back, Janicza Bravo’s Zola is a puzzling new creation. There is something to be said for taking a Twitter storm and having it work as a movie and Zola’s gimmicky multi-sensorial approach suits the story to a tee. But look more closely and Zola is an unsatisfying cautionary tale about youth, trust, betrayal and the unpalatable aspects of the flesh trade. He-said-she-said never seemed more exciting.
- Miss Americana
When one of the biggest pop stars on the planet decides to make a documentary film for Netflix, what do you expect? Carefully polished propaganda? Revealing portrait of an artiste in her prime? Perhaps a mix of both. In Lana Wilson’s surprisingly effective documentary, it is hard to know or even relate with Taylor Swift. She moons about being snubbed by the Grammys- despite winning Album of the Year twice previously- and worries about falling into political activism a little too late. But take away the sheen of privilege and Miss Americana is the story of the all-American girl who doesn’t stop working until she makes it big. And even that isn’t enough.
- Farewell Amor
Ekwa Msangi’s insightful feature length debut divides its attention equally between three family members who reunite in America after seventeen years apart. Bolstered by strong, affecting performances from the trio of Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson, Farewell Amor is a quiet, unfussy documentation of the immigrant experience. Msangi is alive to the tensions, the frictions and the regrets that happen when people who have been forced apart by circumstances for so long suddenly find themselves coexisting in a limited space.
- A Thousand Cuts
Filipino-American documentarian Ramona S. Diaz borrows the title from Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond’s 2019 observation that “the death of democracy is now typically administered in a thousand cuts.” Ray documents Maria Ressa’s fearless work as co-founder and CEO of the news website Rappler, thorn in the flesh of President Rodrigo Duterte as he executes his violent, bloody war on drugs. Diaz’s cameras do not just linger on Ressa and her ladies’ heavy team, they also follow some key political players in Duterte’s Philippines.
- Dick Johnson is Dead
Forget the title, Dick Johnson is Dead is one of the most delightful Sundance entries this year. An inventive performance of acceptance and healing, this documentary directed by Kirsten Johnson has a specifically meta set up that is both gimmicky and touching. After receiving news that her beloved dad, the titular character, suffers from dementia, filmmaker Kirsten immortalizes him by conscripting him in a form of cinematic therapy in which she kills him off on screen, several times and in a diversity of ways. Dick Johnson is Dead is funny and sad and reflects a daughter’s anxiety towards the inevitable.
- Welcome to Chechnya
Since 2017, the Chechen government has been kidnapping, torturing, and killing gay people. The urgent and transfixing documentary, Welcome to Chechnya chronicles this horror, but also the heroic efforts of on-the-ground activists who smuggle affected persons to safety, look after them and help them seek asylum elsewhere. Directed by David France (How to Survive a Plague,) Welcome to Chechnya makes use of cutting edge technology to digitally disguise the identities of people who would rather not appear on screen for safety concerns.
- Giving Voice
Viola Davis has won an Oscar and two Tonys for playing characters imagined by playwright August Wilson. It is only right that she produces and appears as a talking head in the feel good doc Giving Voices, directors James D. Stern and Fernando Villena’s inspiring look at Wilson’s legacy through the eyes of young theater students across the country. The talented group of high school students that appear in Giving Voices are filmed competing in the 2018 August Wilson Monologue Competition and the scenes of these young hopefuls performing onstage are as impactful as those revealing the minutiae of their lives.
- The Fight
Executive produced by Kerry Washington and co-directed by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres (the team behind the acclaimed 2016 film Weiner) The Fight zeroes in on the long haul work put in by the frontline lawyers working in the storied American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The filmmakers follow five ACLU lawyers resisting the Trump administration on four separate hot button issues. A minor being blocked from having an abortion, family separation at the border, the transgender military ban and the controversial inclusion of a question about citizenship in the 2020 census.
- Miss Juneteenth
Miss Juneteenth is an annual pageant held in various Black American communities to commemorate Juneteenth, the day the last of the slaves were freed in Galveston, Texas- two years after the rest of the country. For her feature film debut, Channing Godfrey Peoples tells the story of Turquoise (a ravishing Nicole Beharie), a single mom and former Miss Juneteenth pageant winner, raising a teenage daughter who she hopes will follow in her footsteps. Miss Juneteenth is a finely observed study of regrets and second chances, and the needless burden that parents often place on children.
The top prize winner, Minari is tenderly observed and exquisitely acted. Bristling with lived in performances and an aching heart, Minari follows a Korean family uprooted by patriarch Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) from California to the Arkansas Ozarks, where he hopes to start a vegetable farm. Based on the autobiographical recollections of director Lee Isaac Chung, the bulk of the film is seen through the eyes of the family’s younger kid David (an endearing Alan Kim). Minari deals on familiar sentiments- family, alienation, coming of age- but Chung breaks them down in freshly compelling minute details.
- This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection
An elderly woman’s grief at losing her son and fear of losing the only home she’s ever known prompts the eventual, hopeful radicalization of a rural Lesotho community in writer/director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s stunning new film. It may be unintentional but Mosese’s feature length fictional debut mirrors Vitalina Varela, that other towering piece of realist fiction by Portuguese master Pedro Costa as it offers a vivid, unforgettable reflection on identity, loss and immigration. Like the community at the center of his film, Mosese is torn between the push and pull of tradition and modernity and his film clearly holds no answers.
Winner of the Special Jury Award for Editing in the World Cinema Documentary competition, the Sam Soko directed Softie is the first indigenously produced Kenyan film to screen at Sundance. Bold and politically charged, this documentary follows photojournalist and activist Boniface Mwangi as he attempts to shake the political system by running for legislative office. Far from being a vanity project, Softie is a fine showcase of community on-the-ground mobilization as well as an inspiring record of one man’s struggle to deliver a better future for his family.
- Boys State
Boys State follows a number of politically inclined Texan teenagers as they engage in a week-long series of political machinations ostensibly in order to improve education in civics. Mirroring real world politics, the kids are divided into two separate parties and then tasked with picking party leadership, crafting a message and electing a governor that represents the entire group. Skip the Ryan Murphy produced Netflix series, The Politician and come to Boys State instead for a fascinating peep into what a new generation of American leaders will look like. Hint: not so different from their parents.
- Promising Young Woman
To imagine the peppy revenge fantasia that Emerald Fennell dreams up with Promising Young Woman, her debut feature length, think Gone Girl but a lot more triggering. Carey Mulligan turns in an explosive performance in this provocative drama that comes directly for the “good guys,” those who identify as allies to the feminist cause but fail to hold up to even the faintest scrutiny as they hide creepy tendencies beneath a mask of concern. Watch out for the flurry of think pieces when this one lands in theatres in April.
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old girl winds up pregnant and alone in small town Pennsylvania. She wants an abortion but is prevented from getting one by the state’s parental consent laws. Insistent on exercising her right to choose, Autumn takes off for New York City accompanied by her fiercely loyal cousin. Eliza Hittman’s subtle yet emotionally complex drama isn’t interested in being overtly political even when its subject matter clearly is. Finely argued and compassionate to the plight of its heroine, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a cinematic rarity, a moody achievement content with just letting girls be girls.
Acquired by streaming giants Netflix ahead of its Sundance debut, Senegalese-French director Maïmouna Doucouré’s controversial feature length debut is bound to kickstart an explosive conversation on social media and beyond when it eventually lands. Cuties is a j’accuse that follows Amy, an 11-year-old daughter of Senegalese immigrants as she comes of age in the Paris suburbs. Cuties has a lot to say about the sexualization of children especially in the social media age and Doucouré dares you to look away while forcing you to own up to your own role in this malaise.
- Nine Days
It is hard to explain at first try, what Edson Oda’s Nine Days is all about and the film is one of those enthralling, original visions that demand to be seen to be appreciated. Black Panther scene stealer Winston Duke does career best work in this metaphysical, wondrous drama packed with plenty of human emotions. Duke plays Will, a reclusive man who interviews a bunch of human souls personified and determines whom among them gets the privilege of being born as a human being. Sold yet? You bet!
- I Carry You With Me
I Carry You With Me (Te Llevo Conmigo), the narrative feature length debut of director Heidi Ewing, an Oscar nominee for the 2006 short film Jesus Camp, is an epic story of love discovered, lost and regained. A heartbreaking immigration chronicle, sweeping across two countries and spanning several decades, and a wondrous meditation on family and the places that we call home. This quietly devastating yet uplifting film finds the ways that people can build up and break themselves down. I Carry You With Me interrogates the extents of our humanity while explicitly detailing a person’s right to exist, to be seen, to love and to actualize their agency.
- The 40-Year-Old Version
Radha Blank won the best director award in the U.S Dramatic competition for this delightful debut which she also wrote, produced and starred in. Shot in earthy black and white tones, The 40-Year -Old Version is an inspiring and utterly relatable tale of perseverance and staying true to the bits of living that feed your soul. Warm, funny, arresting and bursting with all the wit of Woody Allen in his prime- and I mean this in a deeply respectful way- The 40-Year-Old Version announces the arrival of a major talent in Radha Blank. Know her name.
Ps: This list is based on films I saw at the festival