Sundance 2019: Alex's Favorite Films - The Best of This Year's Festival
by Alex Billington
February 7, 2019
The 2019 Sundance Film Festival has finally come to an end and to put a wrap on the fest and finalize our nearly two weeks of coverage, it's time to present our Best of the Fest list. I was able to see a total of 44 films across 10 days, but I couldn't catch everything and missed a few films getting lots of good buzz from critics (e.g. The Souvenir, Them That Follow, Queen of Hearts, Monos). I saw around 12 documentaries this year, so instead of separating docs and features this year, I decided to present one big list of my 8 favorite films - a mix of docs and features. All of these films below are worth seeing, and I highly recommend seeking them out. I am so happy that Sundance continues to program some of the best films all year, as well as more innovative, unique, challenging, fascinating, and enchanting features from all over the world. Below are my favorites, the films that stuck with me and have remained on my mind throughout the festival. Let's dive in.
While I saw many films that I liked (my full list of 44 here), there were quite a few I missed even though I heard good things about them. But these are my favorite films from this year's festival that I did get to see.
Alex's Top 8 Favorite \Sundance 2019/ Films:
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Directed by Joe Talbot
I LOVE this film. Love love love it. So much. It really hit the spot. Jimmie Fails (who stars and co-writes this) is my new favorite person and I wish I was friends with him. This is the feature debut for director Joe Talbot and it puts him on the map in a huge way. This is one of those films that I can't wait to watch again; I would've started over and watched it a second time after my first viewing. From my review: "It's so fresh, so original, with an amazing score (I need it now I want to listen over and over) by Emile Mosseri. So rich and stunning… with an uplifting vibe that makes you feel like you can conquer the world, despite some depressing aspects. It's not so much a complete story, but something you can get into and drift through. The opening 10 minutes are brilliant. It wraps up in the most satisfying way. It's as close to perfection as [most films] can get, which is even more impressive to consider this is the first feature from Talbot." It's the best.
Directed by Julius Onah
Luce is the most provocative film of Sundance, and a huge step up for director Julius Onah (since his last film was the dismal The Cloverfield Project - this one is entirely unlike that one). It's one of a few films at Sundance this year that can be endlessly discussed, inspiring conversations about prejudice and distrust and our own biases. I also love how this film made me feel - it challenged me in deeply unsettling ways, making me question my own feelings and wonder whether I'm just as prejudice as some of the characters. From my review: "This propellant, energetic film pulls you right in and keeps everyone shockingly aware that they don't know everything. They don't always know the truth. And that includes us, as the audience. There's so many crazy, frustrating, annoying things going on with the characters in this film but as I'm watching it I'm realizing - holy shit that's what makes this so good." Some of the best conversations I've had are about this film, and why it's so provocative and brilliant. If you love challenging, upsetting films - you need to see Luce.
Blinded by the Light
Directed by Gurinder Chadha
Rock on! "Madman drummers bummers, Indians in the summer, with a teenage diplomat in the dumps with the mumps, as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat." Blinded by the Light! It's the best feel-good film of the festival! It's so much fun, and makes you want to run around and dance all night and put headphones on and smile. This film gave me euphoric feelings of joy much like Sing Street did at Sundance in 2016, but it has plenty to offer on its own. From my effusive review: "This joyful, upbeat, optimistic film is about a Pakistani teen living in a small town in Britain in the 80s who instantly falls in love with Springsteen the moment a friend introduces him to his music. As he struggles with family and racism, he lets the music guide him through adolescence." I think we all need this kind of uplifting optimism right now, and as cheesy as it may be, it's the kind of smart, spirited filmmaking that will encourage more hope and happiness again.
Directed by J.D. Dillard
This film is awesome. Screw the haters, it's seriously badass. There's not much here but that's the point. It's simple but it's incredibly awesome for being so simple yet also so thrilling. Sweetheart is the second feature from filmmaker J.D. Dillard, who launched his career at Sundance in 2016 with Sleight. This follow-up is a huge step forward - proving that he's very talented as a minimalistic and engaging filmmaker, committed to delivering convincing and compelling films. This is one of the best creature feature films I've seen in a long time. It's almost like Predator meets "Lost" but made on a much smaller scale. The first major reveal of the monster is a shot that will be reference for years, the action is intense, and best of all, Kiersey Clemons rocks her role as the woman stuck on an island in the middle of the ocean fighting off some creature that comes out at night to hunt her. That's all you need to know going into this - don't read anything else about it, and try to steer clear from any other marketing material. Go see this film as soon as possible and enjoy it.
Directed by Lulu Wang
This is a major film. It's a major film for filmmaker Lulu Wang, who's going to earn an immense amount of recognition for her work. And it's a major film in terms of diverse, modern filmmaking - this very heartfelt, very charming story is about a Chinese family that comes together to spend more time with their grandma when they learn she's dying. It's a story that we can all connect with, and everyone can relate to, no matter where you're from or what kind of family you have. The Farewell has grown on more after first seeing it at the beginning of the festival, and is easily one of my favorites this year. From my review: "It's an engaging comedy, with humor that comes from honest moments of expression and awkwardness. All the jokes aren't too cheesy, they're inspired by and based on reality. And it's also a passionate drama, built up with authentic performances and sincere emotions that come through in many unexpected but moving, meaningful ways."
This documentary blew me away. It's the kind of film that encourage endless discussion and also perfectly, objectively takes us into the lives of regular people telling both sides of an important story. I had a chat with Minding the Gap director Bing Liu during the festival, and he called this film a "masterpiece" and he was right on the money. American Factory is a documentary film that is as good as anything master filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has made, giving us ringside seats to see what happens when a Chinese company buys an old GM factory in Dayton, Ohio. The resulting culture clash when the Chinese management takes over and rehires the laid off workers is cringe-worthy to watch, but magnificently revealing to see how different cultures work. And how business and manufacturing has changed as the world marches towards globalism, leading to more competitive capitalism and stressful conditions for everyone. I've been recommending this doc to everyone and will continue to do so. I wrote that "it's an astute, unbiased look at the changing times."
The Edge of Democracy
Directed by Petra Costa
This is one hell of a shocking and surprisingly personal documentary - featuring stunning footage (including one iconic drone shot) and incredible access to the many people it's following. The Edge of Democracy is an expensive, all-encompassing look at the politics of Brazil - and how the country finally moved smoothly into democracy and then regressed - taking a huge step backwards in the most recent election. What makes it so extraordinary is not just the footage, but how filmmaker Petra Costa works in her own personal story. It never gets in the way of things and actually enhances the story, referencing her own experiences with those of all the other citizens of Brazil. And by taking us deep into the world of politics, telling (and showing) very clearly how it all went wrong. And how the right wing took over and stole power from the citizens, riling up the public and convincing them that what they are doing is right. It's a frightening, impressive documentary about how easy it is to manipulate politics, but also a real time capsule capturing history as it's happening.
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller
An exhilarating, spectacular documentary experience that must be seen on the big screen. I was told I have to see this in the cinema and it's true. The footage is jaw-dropping and feels like it was shot yesterday, and it's almost impossible to believe this is all real footage from the 1960s (And it is - no conspiracies - this is all the raw, real stuff and this actually happened which is mind blowing). I love how the film is put together, I love that it's just footage with no talking heads or anything else, I love how cinematic and enthralling it is to watch. The sound design is amazing, it all looks better than ever, the actual audio recordings (which they restored from the archives) are awe-inspiring to hear. From my review: "This is and will always be one of humankind's greatest accomplishments, and this film does its best to honor that epic achievement by letting us see for ourselves – as clearly as possible – how remarkable it was that we truly did all this in 1969." Yep.
To find all of Alex's Sundance 2019 reviews and updates: Follow @firstshowing
For other Sundance 2019 best of the fest lists mentioning more films we didn't see or didn't include here, check out: The Film Stage's Best Films of Sundance Film Festival 2019, Polygon's 14 Best Movies We Saw at Sundance 2019, Rolling Stone's 10 Best Movies of Sundance 2019, Salt Lake Tribune's The 10 Best Movies, Thrillist's The Best Movies from Sundance 2019, The Guardian's Souvenirs, Secrets and Springsteen: The Best of Sundance 2019, plus SlashFilm's The Best Movies From The 2019 Sundance Film Festival Podcast. Our list isn't the only list of favorites from Sundance! There are many other fine indie films from this year that deserve your time & attention whenever they show up in your neighborhood. Keep an eye out for these.
You can find all our Sundance 2019 coverage and reviews in this category. This wraps up our coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, my 13th year in a row in Park City. We'll be back again next year as always. You can also find my thoughts on every film I saw during the festival posted on my Letterboxd account here. Read my final blog post recap: Discovering Films About Our Changing World. Nothing like the best cinema.