The Best Movies of Sundance 2019

Another fantastic Sundance Film Festival has come to an end, and while many of the fest’s films will be pouring out into the public eye over the next year or two we wanted to highlight the ones worth the wait. By “we” I’m referring to the four of us who left the warm confines of the FSR offices to brave the single-digit temperatures, icy sidewalks, and high altitudes of Utah’s Park City.

Brad Gullickson, Luke Hicks, Carl Broughton, and I saw nearly a hundred films between us, and we’re sharing our favorites below.


Apollo 11

Everything about Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary is astonishing. Imagine Stanley Kubrick and John Alcott being hired to shoot the Apollo 11 launch in all of its wondrous detail with unrestricted access. They’re free to roam about the control room at Houston headquarters in the heat of the countdown. They can invade the intimate proximities of the launchpad, the inside of Collins, Armstrong, and Aldrin’s rocket, and the eventual quarantine room that would hold them. The costume and production design work are as immaculate as that of Mad Men except it isn’t a production. It’s all real. The highways lined with people, the mid-century modern space-age architecture, the surface of the moon. It’s all real and presented in stunning film photography. In short, it is an essential piece of U.S. history. You simply must see it. (Luke Hicks)

Bedlam

We have no place for the mentally ill. As a result, we either dump them on the streets to die in the gutters or lock them away in a prison system incapable of treating their condition. Psychiatrist-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Paul Rosenberg experienced this conundrum firsthand when his sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia. While he was called to his first profession as a result, he sought his second profession when he encountered grotesque governmental indifference. There is no money to be made in helping the most desperate folks and psychiatrists only treat those still capable of maintaining bank accounts. Bedlam screams alongside our outcasts, but is it enough to break through our culture of willful ignorance? (Brad Gullickson)

Blinded by the Light

The Bend It Like Beckham director, Gurinder Chadha is back in the spotlight with one of the most feel-good films of Sundance, Blinded by the Light. Based on the memoirs of a man whose life was inspired by Bruce Springsteen, the film focuses on racial tension and family obligations in the U.K. Whether you are a Springsteen fan or not you will be swept up by the passion on display, and don’t be surprised if your theater turns into a sing-a-long experience. (Carl Broughton)

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut is a lush and loving adaptation of William Kamkwamba’s memoir of heroism. While his village was on the verge of economic and agricultural apocalypse, Kamkwamba dreamed of dominating nature’s power to rescue his people from oblivion. All that was required was a book from a library no larger than the average American’s walk-in closet. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind highlights the horror of denied resources but finds hope in the will of a mind that refused denial. To hell with anyone that takes their book collection for granted. (Brad Gullickson)

Clemency

What does making business out of death do to the soul of the executioner? The death penalty debate is not new to cinema, but addressing the question from the POV of the warden that delivers the final order gives a fresh perspective on the grim action. We are a nation of an eye for an eye, but we fool ourselves with notions of objective justice. Writer/Director Chinonye Chukwu spent years working within the prison industry researching for her creative moment and Clemency is her righteous reaction to the barbarism she experienced inside and outside those walls. Here is activist cinema at its finest. A truly empathic experience that doesn’t take political sides just humanity’s. (Brad Gullickson)

Cold Case Hammarskjöld

I don’t make a habit of seeing documentaries at film festivals — along with shorts, episodic screenings, etc — as my main focus is exclusively narrative features. Exceptions slip through sometimes, though, and this year’s wild card turned out to be among my favorites with its true story of murder, conspiracy, and a history-altering revelation… that may or may not be real. Filmmaker Mads Brügger is a legit madman both in his pursuit of the truth and in his presentation, but even as he risks becoming the focus here the details of the story retain a wide-eyed hold on our attention. The story turns are both ridiculous and shocking, and as Brügger himself says, “This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.” Either way it’s immensely entertaining and never less than fascinating. (Rob Hunter)

The Farewell

Writer-director Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature is already a favorite for end-of-year lists. It has everything you could want, executed with stunning poise: a sharp screenplay, exquisite direction, rich characters, lush cinematography, a great sense of humor about its subjects and itself, familial love with just the right dose of familial shit-talking, sincere depth, thoughtful socio-economic discussion, intelligent cultural distinction, a through line of pure charm, and Awkwafina. That it didn’t win the top prize at Sundance is honestly a bit shocking. As far as plot details go, I’ll let you discover its beauty for yourself. And A24 bought it, so you won’t have to worry about future availability. In earnest, this is the kind of movie we might still be talking about this time next year. It’s that good. (Luke Hicks)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

“Have you seen The Last Black Man in San Francisco?” the poster prompts us. The question creates a sense of urgency that is wholly deserved. This movie is not to be missed. Writer-director Joe Talbot and writer-actor Jimmie Fails have made something exceptional. Some people will try to discredit it as a pandering product of the times. Others will try to dismiss it on the semantics of screenwriting credits, claiming that it is a black film made by white men. Write them off before you waste your precious time figuring out that’s all bullshit. This is a fantastic film that boasts diverse representation, striking ingenuity, decade-best performances, and the arrival of a brand new powerhouse writer-actor-director team in Fails and Talbot. The score is remarkable enough to look forward to almost as much as the film. And that’s not to take anything away from the film’s extraordinary visual accomplishments, which channel the symmetry, color, and quirk of Wes Anderson without compromising originality. As proof of its singularity, Tessa Thompson, Phyllis Nagy, and Dennis Lim (US Dramatic Jury) awarded it a Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration. (Luke Hicks)

The Lodge

Slow-burn horror films get a bad rap sometimes as being boring or dull, but as with any film style or format they work well when they’re made well. 2014’s Goodnight Mommy is made well,and now the filmmakers behind the disturbing tale are back with a follow-up. Happily for everyone but the film’s characters, they’re still very good at delivering an unsettling and disturbing slow-burn horror film. We’re once again trapped in a big, remote house with two children and a young woman, but this time the tables may be turned and never stop spinning. The past will always retain a fierce grip on the present if we let it, and if we give it too much power we may never see a future. (Rob Hunter)

Luce

One of the best films at Sundance happens to be from the director of The Cloverfield Paradox, Julius Onah‘s Luce. Starring Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, and breakout star Kevin Harrison Jr., Luce grabs the “white savior” trope and puts it in a headlock as it addresses black identity, white guilt, and systematic racism. As much a thriller as it is a complex drama, audiences will be talking about the subject matter of Luce long after it hits theaters. (Carl Broughton)

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Anyone who has sat through a movie’s end credits knows that there are hundreds of talents that go into any cinematic creation. While the director accepts most of our adulation we respect everyone who helped bring our favorite film to fruition: from gaffer to production accountant. Alexandre O. Phillippe has made a career out of celebrating these individuals, but his latest effort digs even deeper into the creative well by tracking the origins of Alien’s ideas. The Chestburster owes as much to Francis Bacon and the Greek Furies as it does Ridley Scott, H.R. Giger, and Dan O’Bannon. However, in highlighting these ancient connections at no point does Phillippe dismiss those folks in the end credits. Phillippe is ultimately interested in extending the conversation of film beyond the Tweet review. Our great works deserve more than reactionary first impressions and his long-form cinematic essays are revelatory in the relief they offer movie obsessives. (Brad Gullickson)

Ms. Purple

After Ms. Purple, it is safe to say Wong Kar-wai and Edward Yang might have a worthy successor in Justin Chon. The camera work, dazzling cinematography, and breathtaking score will remind anyone of In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, and Happy Together but Ms. Purple isn’t just gorgeous visuals and score. The intense performances of Tiffany Chu and Teddy Lee will bring you to tears in this melancholy of a sister and brother reconnecting as their father lies on his deathbed. (Carl Broughton)

Native Son

Normally you save the best for last, but the opening night feature at Sundance changed that. Native Son is wildly thought-provoking and doesn’t hesitate to dive into the deep end when it comes to the subject matter of racial tension and African American youth. Adapted from the Novel by Richard Wright of the same name, newcomer director Rashid Johnson respectfully changes the story to reflect 2019 America. Native was sold to HBO, so expect this to be one more the talked about films of the year. (Carl Broughton)

The Nightingale

This is the kind of movie that feels impossible to capture in a blurb, which is why I wrote a 3,000-word essay on it. But I can start with two things you need to know. First, it is incredibly violent. Second, it is not “fun” violence (e.g. Mandy or Dead Alive). Writer-director Jennifer Kent’s second film after The Babadook is not horror, but it is more horrifying than you can imagine. It just exists on realistic terms. Set in 1829 in the Tasmanian forest, it is a rape-revenge tale that portrays personal and institutional violence towards women and people of color on an extreme scale, sparing the audience little room to breathe. It’s not for everyone, but it’s important for all of us who can stand to watch it. (Luke Hicks)

Paddleton

Some of us are impossible. We barely know ourselves, let alone are capable of understanding another person. Like many Duplass-produced works, Paddleton is a collaborative endeavor that strives to explain what connects one individual to another. The improv elixir is a miracle that should result in disastrous dreck, but director Alex Lehmann and stars Mark Duplass and Ray Romano birth one of the single most beautiful expressions of platonic romance I’ve ever encountered. (Brad Gullickson)

The Sharks

My favorite film out of this year’s Sundance may have initially caught my attention with its promise of a shark offshore a small coastal community, but it earned its place in my ranking by delivering a beautifully crafted coming of age tale about a teenage girl uninterested in your bullshit. There’s suspense, drama, and humor because there’s life in its brief, 80+ minute running time, and it builds to a pitch-perfect final shot tying together both the literal and metaphorical nature of its title. Writer/director Lucia Garibaldi won Best Director at the fest for the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, and it’s hopefully just the first of the film’s accolades. (Rob Hunter)

Sweetheart

Horror movies are as prevalent as ever these days, but despite their ubiquitous nature there’s a distinct shortage of creature features — just a good, old-fashioned monster movie. This indie delight is here to patch that hole, and it does so beautifully by landing Kiersey Clemons on a deserted island that’s visited by a carnivorous, bipedal sea monster each night. Clemons commands the screen as the sole survivor of boat accident, and she kicks into even higher gear with her face-offs against the beast instantly landing her among the genre’s best and most memorably kick-ass women in horror. The film embraces character ingenuity and practical effects with equal energy and excitement resulting in a fast-moving,cheer-worthy slice of survival horror. (Rob Hunter)

Them That Follow

Strict religious faith, no matter the specific religion, can be a fascinating and frustrating topic for those of us on the outside, and this feature debut from co-writers/directors Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage does a fantastic job with the conceit. We’re dropped into a small, Appalachian community whose Christian faith involves the mad act of snake-handling, and the story unfolding here piques our interest with humanity, suspense, and a challenge to discern the intimacy of faith from the tools of oppression. It’s a beautiful story championing free will, integrity, and the value of true love, and it ends exactly where it should. (Rob Hunter)

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