Sundance 2019: Most Anticipated Films by Ashley Menzel
As a first year attendee, Sundance 2019 holds a lot of excitement for me. I am eagerly awaiting the bitterly cold weather, frostbitten fingers, and the sure to be incredible films to come out of Sundance 2019. This is a list of my personal most anticipated films of the festival. Below are the descriptions of the films from the Sundance site.
U.S. Dramatic Competition
Big Time Adolescence
Brittany Runs a Marathon
Brittany Forgler is a funny, likable, 27-year-old hot mess of a New Yorker whose trashy nightclub adventures and early-morning walks of shame make her late for work every day. But when she stops by a Yelp-recommended doctor’s office in an attempt to score Adderall, Brittany gets handed a series of diagnoses instead—elevated heart rate, high blood pressure … the list goes on. Suddenly forced to get a grip, Brittany laces up her Converse sneakers and runs one sweaty block. The next day, she runs two. Soon she runs a mile. Brittany finally has direction—but is she on the right path?
Award-winning playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo makes his directorial debut with this bright, brisk comedy, with Jillian Bell leading an irresistible cast that infuses Brittany’s story with heart and soul. Brittany Runs A Marathon is a film as entertaining as it is inspirational, the tale of how a woman known for being the life of the party finds real friends—and a real life—by taking control of her herself, one city block at a time.
Something about this film speaks to me and I anticipate it being a big hit at the festival this year. An inspirational film that focuses so heavily on self-discovery and self-betterment is a great way to start of 2019.
For Cathy, life as she’s always known it seems to be slipping away. Her sense of significance is crumbling as she worries that her husband is having an affair and her 13-year-old daughter is becoming estranged. Desperate to regain some semblance of order, Cathy retreats to her sister’s home, where she cat sits, compulsively cleans, and spies on a neighboring family. One by one, these bizarre neighbors—mom, dad, and teenage son—lure Cathy into their lives and ignite her rebellion. Yet when Cathy becomes the object of the teenage son’s obsession, he threatens to unravel everything—from her precarious marriage to her daughter’s innocence to her own wavering sanity.
Imaginary Order is a deliciously witty and disarmingly funny film that marks distinguished writer/director Debra Eisenstadt’s Sundance Film Festival debut. Buoyed by an exceptional supporting cast, Wendi McLendon-Covey (TV’s The Goldbergs) delivers a career-defining performance as Cathy. You will laugh out loud and squirm in your seat as complications escalate in this wild and bumpy ride of one woman on the verge.
Wendi McLendon-Covey is one of my favorite comedic actresses working today. She is fresh, funny, and real and I can’t wait to see her in a role that looks like nothing she has ever done before.
Bigger “Big” Thomas, a young African American man, lives with his mother and siblings in Chicago. Half-heartedly involved with a girlfriend, he sports green hair and a punk jacket, smokes weed, and carries a pistol—but rebuffs his buddy’s “easy-money” scheme to knock off a corner store. Full of self-determination, Big accepts a job as the chauffeur for wealthy businessman Will Dalton’s family. Moving into their mansion, he begins driving Dalton’s vehemently progressive daughter, Mary. But his involvement in an accidental death places Big on a collision course with the powerful social forces pitted against him.
A thoroughly contemporary reworking of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son asserts the story’s persistent relevance by bringing its interrogation of fear, violence, race, and circumstance into a critical modern context. The film’s enviable creative team includes screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks (the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright of Topdog/Underdog); director Rashid Johnson (a renowned visual artist whose practice consistently engages African American history and culture); and Ashton Sanders (teenaged Chiron in Moonlight), who delivers an electrifying performance as one of the most complex, morally convoluted characters in American literature.
Native Son has been required reading in school as long as I can remember and it was one of the best books I read in high school. I can’t wait to see it brought into a modern context. I’m also excited to see Ashton Sanders in another film after his stunning performance in Moonlight.
U.S. Documentary Competition
Bedlam is the first major documentary to explore the crisis in care of severely mentally-ill citizens. Set in Los Angeles, the film tracks wrenching individual stories of mentally-ill patients caught on an endless merry-go-round of ineffective care, exposing the anatomy of a broken healthcare mill.
What was once a system built around long-term asylum care has essentially become a crude horror show for thousands who are detained, medicated, and tossed onto the streets with no means of recovery. There, petty crime and drug addiction land many in prison, where they are detained and medicated again, creating a tragic loop. As one psychiatrist points out, this government-sanctioned loop is the actual definition of insanity. Add to that the fact that few psychiatrists are even willing to treat those most severely afflicted, and you’ve got an all-out crisis that’s also a major source of homelessness and incarceration.
With a mixture of pained intimacy and sweeping historical context, Bedlam shows how deep-seated shame, stigma, and decades-long political negligence have led to the single largest social catastrophe of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
It is a crime how poorly the mentally-ill are treated in this country and it’s ridiculous how few resources are available to help those struggling. I think Bedlam will open up a much-needed dialogue exposing something we have chosen to ignore for far too long.
Knock Down the House
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young, bold Puerto Rican bartender from the Bronx, works double shifts to save her family’s home from foreclosure. Struggling with her own financial problems, she knows many of her neighbors are also hard-pressed to make a living. In order to bring representation to one of the most marginalized constituencies in America, Alexandria runs for office.
This film follows four women—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin—who join a movement of insurgent candidates to topple incumbents in an electric primary race for Congress. At a moment of historic volatility in American politics, these four women—all political outsiders—unite to do what many consider impossible. Their efforts result in a legendary upset.
This seamlessly edited and heart-wrenching character story captures these four women’s unlikely journey to inspire Americans to get fired up about the new faces of politics. Director Rachel Lears gives viewers intimate and unprecedented access to the first days of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, revealing the candidate’s fierce fight to be elected the country’s youngest member of Congress.
I have been watching Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez since her appearance in Fahrenheit 11/9 and I am in awe of her and I’m excited to see her and other women’s journey to change American politics.
Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition
The Magic Life of V
Wizards, magic spells, and heroic sword battles are just fantasy for some, but for Veera they’re a meaningful part of conquering her inner trauma. When Veera transforms into her LARP (live-action role-play) persona V, the game’s fantasy battlefields give her a space to combat her psychological turmoil. Tormented by her past, Veera finds in LARP the support and solace she needs to become the hero of her own story.
Tonislav Hristov’s elegant film is an intimate representation of an epic emotional journey. Wielding a tight camera, Hristov deftly translates Veera’s internal struggle into nuanced cinematic moments. Images of Veera traversing snowy landscapes offer transitional reprieve between her battlegrounds. Flashes from home videos offer impressionistic glimpses into her childhood. Discussions about her father are a source of tension between Veera and her disabled brother, whom she cares for. Therapy sessions slowly reveal the complexities of Veera’s struggle. Yet remembering and speaking about these memories goes only so far—Veera will need V’s courage if she’s going to confront her most intimidating challenge of all.
I secretly or not so secretly love fantasy and sci-fi relates things. Knowing what it is like to retreat into a world of fantasy when faced with difficult things, I think this film will really speak to me.
Blinded by the Light
1987, Margaret Thatcher’s England. Javed, a 16-year-old British Pakistani boy, lives in the town of Luton. His father’s recent job termination and the neighborhood skinheads are a daily reminder of the difficult times he’s living in. What young Javed really wants is to be a writer—something his father doesn’t approve of or understand—and when a new friend loans him a few Bruce Springsteen cassettes, Javed is changed forever. The Boss’s working-class anthems and affirming lyrics seem to speak directly to Javed, emboldening him to find his own voice as a writer, stand up to the racism around him, and challenge his father’s rigid ideals.
Based on the memoir Greetings from Bury Park by journalist/writer Sarfraz Manzoor, Blinded by the Light is a comedic, joyous musical companion piece to writer/director Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 hit film, Bend It Like Beckham. Heartwarming and inspiring, Javed’s story reminds us of the transformative, universal power of music to transcend race, class, and nationality and bind us all on a human level.
I’m sold just on the words “musical” and “Bruce Springsteen.”
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
1969. Ted (Zac Efron) is crazy-handsome, smart, charismatic, affectionate. And cautious single mother Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins) ultimately cannot resist his charms. For her, Ted is a match made in heaven, and she soon falls head over heels in love with the dashing young man. A picture of domestic bliss, the happy couple seems to have it all figured out … until, out of nowhere, their perfect life is shattered. Ted is arrested and charged with a series of increasingly grisly murders. Concern soon turns to paranoia—and, as evidence piles up, Liz is forced to consider that the man with whom she shares her life could actually be a psychopath.
This is the story of Ted Bundy, one of the most notorious serial killers of all time. Collins shines as Liz, while Zac Efron gives a performance that could redefine his career. Renowned filmmaker Joe Berlinger, best known for his true-crime documentaries, proves to be the perfect match to bring this Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Viletrue story to the screen.
Zac Efron has the potential this year to break away from those raunchy comedies and really solidify himself as a serious actor. Following his performance in The Greatest Showman, we are reminded that he can do serious work. Taking on the role of Ted Bundy, this is a big moment for Efron and in a sense, could be career defining.
I Am Mother
Shortly after humanity’s extinction, in a high-tech bunker deep beneath the earth’s surface, a robot named Mother commences her protocol. Designed to repopulate the earth with humans born from test-tube embryos, Mother raises a baby girl to become an intelligent, compassionate teenager (Clara Rugaard). But the arrival of a wounded woman (Hilary Swank) at the bunker door soon casts doubt on Mother’s account of the earth’s fate and threatens the unique bond between Mother and her “daughter.”
Grant Sputore’s first feature, I Am Mother is a dazzling, character-driven sci-fi thriller that builds a smart philosophical framework around the “man vs. machine” trope and deftly questions what it means to be human. Based on Michael Lloyd Green’s Black List script, it interrogates Mother’s motivations, and it twists unexpectedly to culminate in a gripping dilemma about who the heroine can trust: a fellow human or the robot who raised her. Voiced by Rose Byrne, Mother is a curiously loving presence in this post-apocalyptic story that also explores the imminent age of autonomous and moral machines.
Sci-fi, robots, and the extinction of humanity is right up my alley. I’m excited to see how this story plays out.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Young William Kamkwamba lives with his family in rural Malawi, where he attends school regularly and shows great aptitude for his studies. Yet after land development and poor weather lead to a meager harvest, famine strikes the village, alarming the community and forcing William to drop out of school when his father (Chiwetel Ejiofor) can no longer afford the fees. Determined to find a way out of the life-threatening situation his family is facing, William sneaks into the school library to research—and soon conspires to build a windmill pump to irrigate the land. Caught between his father’s close-minded skepticism and the difficulty of creating a machine out of bicycle parts and scrap materials, William races against the clock to fight for his community’s survival.
Renowned actor Chiwetel Ejiofor makes his directorial debut with this inspiring true story. Based on Kamkwamba’s autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind brings the title character’s ingeniousness, perseverance, and hope to the big screen, reminding us how boldness and innovation can unlock seemingly impossible solutions.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut can’t be missed. Combined with an inspirational true story, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is likely to be a breakout film at Sundance.
The Sunlit Night
Summer is off to a terrible start for Frances (Jenny Slate). Her art project fails, her boyfriend unceremoniously kicks her out of his Hamptons home, and, to top it all off, her younger sister reveals she’s engaged just moments before her parents announce their separation. Out of a mixture of panic and frustration, Frances hastily takes an opening for an art residency in Norway and heads off to an isolated island where the sun never sets.
Buyer’s remorse kicks in when she meets the cantankerous Norwegian artist she’ll have to spend nearly all her time painting a barn with. But even as this strange man and the town’s relentlessly bright light keep her up at night, Frances finds herself falling for its surreal Viking landscape and, in particular, for a cute, mournful Russian American drifter (Alex Sharp).
Director David Wnendt (Wetlands) returns to the Sundance Film Festival with a playful, absurdist transatlantic romp that showcases not only Norway’s striking beauty, but also Slate’s ability to inhabit complex comedic roles with unmatched timing, charm, and intelligence.
I love Jenny Slate. She has spectacular charisma on screen and brings a genuineness to the characters she plays. I feel that this is going to be along the lines of her stunning performance in Obvious Child a few years back.
The Tomorrow Man
Retiree Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) spends his quiet days watching the news, checking internet forums, and preparing for the end of the world. As a self-proclaimed “prepper,” Ed is constantly making arrangements for the future, often at the expense of things in the here and now—such as his waning health and his strained relationship with his adult son. But then he spots Ronnie Meisner (Blythe Danner) and knows there is something different about her. The two form an unlikely bond and are happy together despite their combined emotional baggage—until, one day, it all spills out before them.
In his debut feature, writer/director and cinematographer Noble Jones candidly explores modern society’s unacknowledged fear of aging and the erroneous assumption that getting older means losing control. John Lithgow and Blythe Danner wholeheartedly embody Ed and Ronnie’s divergent yet complementary convictions about life and love. And as these two headstrong characters learn to embrace one another’s quirks, they also learn to accept each other’s outlook on what tomorrow holds.
John Lithgow may have made his first impression on me with Third Rock from the Sun years ago, but since has been featured in fantastic dramas with The Crown, Miss Sloane, and Dexter. This film may very well be one of his best roles in years.
In the cutthroat world of fine-art trading and representation, up-and-coming agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton) stumbles across a secret weapon: hundreds of dazzling paintings left behind after an elderly tenant in her building dies. Ignoring the instructions the clandestine artist left to destroy his work, she promptly starts circulating the paintings, which soon attract the attention of the heavy hitters around her—including her boss Rhodora (Rene Russo), art critic (and Josephina’s sometime lover) Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), and competing collectors, managers, and curators like Bryson (Billy Magnussen) and Gretchen (Toni Collette). Yet as the deceased artist’s portraits gain posthumous acclaim, they also awaken something imperceptible and sinister that threatens to punish those who have profited from his work.
Master of suspense Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) has assembled an all-star cast for this dark, uproarious, and painfully accurate spoof of the art world. With strong supporting turns by John Malkovich, Daveed Diggs, and Natalia Dyer, Velvet Buzzsaw invites us into a traditionally insular world that’s suddenly splattered wide open, where art and commerce collide with dire consequences.
Dan Gilroy and Jack Gyllenhaal are back together again after their spectacularly gripping film, Nighcrawler with a film that hilariously spoof’s the art world. Alongside Toni Collette, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton and more, this film is sure to be one of the best to play at Sundance this year.
Nine-year-old oddball Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) is obsessed with space and making contact with the aliens of the universe. When she finds out the prize at the 1977 Birdie Jamboree is getting her voice on NASA’s Golden Record, Christmas forms her own misfit Birdie troop. Nothing can prepare them for the painfully perfect world of the legit Birdies. But, led by their reluctant yet fearless troop mama (Viola Davis) and Christmas’s dad (Jim Gaffigan), they find glory in the most unexpected circumstances—much to the despair of the ever-judgmental school principal, Miss Massey (Allison Janney).
Directors Bert&Bertie and screenwriter Lucy Alibar take the audience on a journey of surprise, human connection, and acceptance in a world that tells young girls how and who to be. Alongside Christmas and her band of outsiders, every character offers a clever twist on their own archetype, pushing the boundaries of what we as viewers have come to expect. In the end, through ridiculous mishaps and unflinching honesty, we realize that what everyone needs is to find their place—and their people—in the universe.
Troop Zero has an interesting premise that has the potential to be a real crowd pleaser with the band of outsiders and the ever-present struggling of the underdogs. Coupled with a really intriguing cast including Viola Davis, Jim Gaffigan, and Allison Janey, I’m really excited to see this film at Sundance.
Sundance Documentary Premieres
Prolific young actor Anton Yelchin was wise beyond his years and influenced everyone around him to strive for more. Love, Antosha tells the story of Yelchin’s creative persistence. His devoted Russian parents nurtured his love of acting, exposing him to works of the masters. Filming himself became a tool for his transformation; reflecting on his own performance, he pushed himself to find depth in every role. Often the youngest actor on set, Yelchin’s intense focus inspired many actors around him—Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pine, and John Cho share revealing insights into his character. Though he kept it a secret, Yelchin lived with a dangerous health condition, but he never became discouraged. As he grew into his craft, he continually enriched his understanding of the world, embodying an incredible authenticity.
As a vivid part of the Sundance Film Festival community, Yelchin premiered in numerous independent features at the Festival: Alpha Dog (2006), Like Crazy (Grand Jury Prize in 2011), and Thoroughbreds (2017). Filmmaker Garret Price crafts a heartwarming and profound coming-of-age story of a singular young artist taken from us too early.
Anton Yelchin was a talent lost far too soon and I can’t wait to see a film that celebrates the incredible actor he was.
The inside story of the meteoric rise and monstrous fall of movie titan Harvey Weinstein, Untouchable reveals how Weinstein acquired and deployed his formidable power over the course of decades. Former staffers, college friends, and reporters reflect upon the public perception of Weinstein as a visionary while detailing his ruthless attempts to preserve his power as scandal threatened to engulf him. In candid, emotional, often-harrowing testimony—with many accusers speaking on camera for the first time—Untouchable exhumes both the method and the collateral damage of Weinstein’s alleged abuse. As the criminal case against him continues, the film questions whether meaningful change in the justice system—and in the film industry—is really possible.
Director Ursula Macfarlane crafts a sinister cinematic landscape exposing the underbelly of the storied, Hollywood fairy tale. Joining forces with acclaimed producers Emmy Award winner Jonathan Chinn and two-time Academy Award winner Simon Chinn, Macfarlane creates a brilliant, haunting parable for our times and a beacon call for future generations.
Everyone wants to see this film after the very public fall of Harvey Weinstein. It is sure to be very emotional but I also believe will ask audiences if we are capable of changing the film industry.
Awkward, self-conscious Adam (Nicholas Alexander), a high-school teenager, jumps at the chance to spend the summer with his hip older sister Casey (Margaret Qualley) in New York City. Since leaving home, Casey has integrated herself into the LGBTQ+ community, openly embracing her sexuality and making activism a part of her daily life. When Adam tags along to a marriage-equality march, he sees the beautiful, savvy Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) and is instantly smitten. Gillian mistakes Adam’s gender identity, and he can’t quite bring himself to correct her error as the two grow closer. Before long, what started as a simple misunderstanding evolves into a comedy of errors that lays bare how out of his depth Adam truly is.
First-time feature director Rhys Ernst brings Ariel Schrag’s funny and unconventional boy-meets-girl novel to life with razor-sharp wit and honesty, nailing a satirical look at the nuances of sexual identity and the details of this early-2000s period. Nicholas Alexander carefully imbues Adam with vulnerability, complicating easy assessments in this unapologetic, playful, and raw coming-of-age comedy.
After a rough breakup, directionless Dave (Alexander England) crashes at his sister’s place and spends his days expanding his young nephew’s questionable vocabulary. When an opportunity arises to chaperone an upcoming school excursion alongside the charming and enigmatic teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), Dave jumps at the chance to impress her. What he wasn’t anticipating was Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), an obnoxious children’s television personality who shapes the excursion’s activities. What he was expecting even less was a zombie invasion, which unfolds after an experiment at a nearby military base goes awry. Armed only with the resourcefulness of kindergartners, Dave, Miss Caroline, and Teddy must work together to keep the monsters at bay and carve a way out with their guts intact.
Doused with a generous helping of absurdity, and pitch-perfect in its timing, this genre comedy forges a path all its own, blending gore and wit like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Writer-director Abe Forsythe has crafted a wild, frenetic ride with Little Monsters, bolstered by a knowing self-awareness and an uproarious cast.
Little Monsters is going to be the breakout horror film of Sundance. The whacky and out there premise has the potential to really make a splash with audiences.
Sundance is notorious for being one of the best film festivals of the entire year and I’m overjoyed to be able to attend this year. Don’t forget to check back for our ongoing coverage of Sundance on the website here, Twitter, and Instagram.