Sundance 2019 Recap: Discovering Films About Our Changing World
by Alex Billington
February 4, 2019
"What I want out of art is to be disturbed. I want to be confused… I want the same thing out of a movie as a painting or a book or a conversation with someone smart." This quote, from director Penny Lane given at the "Power of Story" discussion at Sundance this year, is exactly how I feel as well. There's so many safe, middle-of-the-road films that cover stories and topics we've seen covered so many times before. But every once in a while someone comes along and shakes things up, challenging us with something that breaks the mold, goes against the grain, and forces us to confront our own prejudices or demons or fears. With the 2019 Sundance Film Festival finally wrapped up, I wanted to recap my experiences in snowy Park City this year and briefly chat about how I'm always impressed by the films that play this extraordinary festival.
I keep coming back to Sundance year after year because it's all about the films (and I honestly love watching world premieres up in the mountains with enthusiastic audiences). I can't say this about every festival, but at Sundance I want to see pretty much every last film playing at the festival. Even the bad ones are actually interesting in some way or another. There's always something to them, a unique edge, something that makes them stand out. This is, of course, thanks to the programming & selection team who sifts through thousands of submissions to find the ones that truly deserve to play at the festival. And they end up choose about ~120 films, from all over the world. It doesn't matter where they come from, they always have so many fascinating films to share with us every year and I'm always honored to have a chance to jump in and experience them.
There were a few feature films that premiered this year that are entirely original and fresh and innovative: Joe Talbot & Jimmie Fails' The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a true revelation; Julius Onah's Luce is brilliantly provocative; and Lulu Wang's The Farewell is a lovely, moving film that has universal appeal despite being about a Chinese family. There's always a few sci-fi films that I love stumbling across - this year they played: Grant Sputore's I Am Mother, a thrilling film about a robot that raises a young girl inside an underground repopulation facility; and Gabriel Mascaro's Divine Love (aka Divino Amor), set in Brazil in 2027 about how religion still has an important role in society. At the end of last year's fest, I wrote about how "artists can help confront the issues of today's times" by expressing themselves through art, and that Sundance is the place where many of these films have finally started showing up (see: Blindspotting, Monsters and Men). This continues to be the case and many of 2019's films also reflect our troubled times.
Out of the 38 films I chose to see, the topic that was most prevalent at Sundance 2019 was how our world is changing, in both good and bad ways (and in inevitable ways), and how these changes affect people. In particular, the documentaries at Sundance this year really stood out - almost all of them that I watched impressed the hell out of me. There is one quirky feature film, however, that I can toss into this category as well - Mirrah Foulkes' Judy & Punch. This funky, brazen comedy is set during medieval times and follows a talented puppeteer woman (Mia Wasikowska) who decides to fight back against the normalized misogyny in her tiny town, getting back at her asshole husband in the process. It's an obvious reference to how we're flipping the tables on all this normalized toxicity nowadays, and it's an amusing take on this topic reflecting what needs to happen in modern society anyway. It's not my favorite film, but I can't get it out of my mind.
In terms of all the documentaries, the most stunning and impressive portrayal of how the world is changing is without a doubt Petra Costa's The Edge of Democracy (read my full review). This phenomenal doc film examines the recent political history of Brazil, showing us exactly how democracy is being undermined and how many people in Brazil are just going right along with it. With some remarkable access and jaw-dropping footage, Costa calmly walks us through how democracy is dying and fascism is rising by telling the story of Brazil's modern government (and the recent right wing coup). This ties right in with Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played with Fire, a doc that is not really about the journalist/author Stieg Larsson as much as it is an alarming profile of the rise of neo-Nazism in Sweden in the 1980s & 90s showing how Larsson fought against this through journalism and fearless truth-telling/spotlighting. Both of these films are exceptional.
There's so many other docs that impressed me at Sundance. Hassan Fazili's Midnight Traveler is an eye-opening story of a family that illegally travels from Afghanistan into Europe, showing us exactly why & how the Middle East refugee crisis is unquestioably the greatest humanitarian crisis of our age. Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov's Honeyland is both a gorgeous and haunting portrait of the last female beehunter in Europe whose entire life (and all the bees she cares for) is threatened when a careless family drops their caravan nearby and recklessly sucks up all the natural resources. Luke Lorentzen's Midnight Family is about a family in Mexico City that runs a private ambulance business, working incredibly hard to provide a vital service to citizens because the government is unable to handle anything themselves. Alex Gibney's The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley is less about society, more about how the business world has changed - profiling a manipulative, deceitful woman who thinks she can change the world (but really isn't).
Then there's the two terrific docs that were the most talked about of the festival: Mads Brügger's Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and the incredible American Factory, from directors Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert. Cold Case is about events that happened in the past, but the revelations in it (if they are true) could change everything today. It's a film that everyone is talking about because the implications are relevant today (read my full review). I could even reference Todd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11 in this same conversation, because it feels like all the footage was shot this year, even though it's about an event that already changed the world 50 years ago. American Factory, though, might be the most iconic and profound film that shows how times are changing, and how hard it is for globalism to actually take root. It's an astute and magnificent film about how American workers and Chinese workers are vastly different. And that we must learn to adapt or perish.
What's the point of all this invigorating, bold filmmaking if not to provoke discussion? If not to encourage more thoughtful conversation? If not to make us examine ourselves in greater detail, and ask how we can be better? That's why I go see these films, that's what I'm looking for. Even if I don't agree with what I'm seeing or how the filmmaker is presenting the story, I'm nonetheless fascinated by the storytelling. And it gives me a chance to think, to consider different view points, and to imagine a better world. During the Q&A after the documentary Bedlam, about the mental health / homeless crisis, someone asked whether they expect this film to actually cause change. The response given was that - it's about awareness. We can only begin to have a conversation once we are aware of what's going on. Only after they shine a light on what's happening, and present it in a way so we can understand there is a problem. One that needs to be solved, one that we can solve if only we work together to solve it. Easier said than done, but at least that's the aim. That is the goal.
Looking back on this year's Sundance - it's a wealth of wonderful films that have left me with much to think about. I saw films that challenged my inherent feelings in ingenious ways, that forced me to reconsider my initial thoughts and beliefs. I saw films that showed me a place I had never seen before, and told stories I had never imagined possible before. I love that there are so many filmmakers out there just making films because they can't help it, they have to tell their story. The million dollar question: are Netflix and Amazon changing the film industry? Yes, because it is encouraging filmmakers to just get out and make their film, because no matter what it'll eventually find an audience. Just look at Minding the Gap from last year - more people are discovering this stellar doc every day. So go against the grain, tell your story, risk independence.
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. Our best of the fest will be posted soon. You can also find my thoughts on every film I saw during the festival posted on my Letterboxd account here.
Up next I'm headed to the Berlin Film Festival starting on February 7th. Until then, my full list of films that I screened at Sundance 2019 is included below - in the order in which I saw them during the fest. Bis später!
Alex's Sundance 2019 Films:
1. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (dir. Alex Gibney) - Just Okay
2. Memory: The Origins of Alien (dir. Alexandre O. Philippe) - Loved It
3. Apollo 11 (dir. Todd Douglas Miller) - Loved It
4. The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang) - Loved It
5. Honey Boy (dir. Alma Har'el) - Liked It
6. Late Night (dir. Nisha Ganatra) - Loved It
7. I Am Mother (dir. Grant Sputore) - Loved It
8. Untouchable (dir. Ursula Macfarlane) - Liked It
9. Hala (dir. Minhal Baig) - Loved It
10. The Report (dir. Scott Z. Burns) - Liked It
11. The Sunlit Night (dir. David Wnendt) - Hated It
12. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil & Vile (dir. Joe Berlinger) - Liked It
13. Selah and the Spades (dir. Tayarisha Poe) - Just Okay
14. Photograph (dir. Ritesh Batra) - Liked It
15. Blinded by the Light (dir. Gurinder Chadha) - LOVED It
16. Velvet Buzzsaw (dir. Dan Gilroy) - Loved It
17. Little Monsters (dir. Abe Forsythe) - Loved It
18. Brittany Runs a Marathon (dir. Paul Downs Colaizzo) - Liked It
19. Big Time Adolescence (dir. Jason Orley) - Just Okay
20. Official Secrets (dir. Gavin Hood) - Liked It
21. Animals (dir. Sophie Hyde) - Hated It
22. Sweetheart (dir. J.D. Dillard) - Loved It
23. Clemency (dir. Chinonye Chukwu) - Hated It
24. Luce (dir. Julius Onah) - Loved It
25. Light From Light (dir. Paul Harrill) - Liked It
26. Judy & Punch (dir. Mirrah Foulkes) - Liked It
27. The Sound of Silence (dir. Michael Tyburski) - Liked It
28. Before You Know It (dir. Hannah Pearl Utt) - Hated It
29. The Tomorrow Man (dir. Noble Jones) - Liked It
30. Bedlam (dir. Kenneth Paul Rosenberg) - Liked It
31. Cold Case Hammarskjöld (dir. Mads Brügger) - Loved It
32. The Mustang (dir. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre) - Just Okay
33. The Edge of Democracy (dir. Petra Costa) - Loved It
34. American Factory (dirs. Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert) - Loved It
35. Ms. Purple (dir. Justin Chon) - Hated It
36. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (dir. Joe Talbot) - LOVED It
37. Honeyland (dirs. Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov) - Liked It
38. The Death of Dick Long (dir. Daniel Scheinert) - Just Okay
(I also screened the following films before or after the festival from a screener so I don't count them.)
0. Maiden (dir. Alex Holmes) - Loved It
0. Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played with Fire (dir. Henrik Georgsson) - Loved It
0. Midnight Traveler (dir. Hassan Fazili) - Loved It
0. Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (dir. Hepi Mita) - Liked It
0. Hail Satan? (dir. Penny Lane) - Loved It
0. The Disappearance of My Mother (dir. Beniamino Barrese) - Liked It
Those are the
38 44 films I saw this year. If you're interested in any, ask me for more thoughts on a specific film, as there were so many I watched and I can discuss more pretty much any of them. See you next year.