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26 Sundance 2019 Movies We Can’t Wait to See

From outlandishly distorted nursery-rhyme antagonists to mothering robots after the apocalypse to Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, Sundance 2019 has a lot to look forward to
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By  · Published on January 24th, 2019

A Shia LaBeouf autobiography, plenty of Naomi Watts, Babak Anvari’s sophomore horror, and Tilda and Honor Swinton(-Byrne) in mother-daughter meta-roles — 41 years into its run as one of the biggest and most anticipated film festivals in the world, Sundance is as strong as ever. 122 features (81 narrative features and 41 documentary features) have been chosen out of an astonishing 4,018 submissions. It holds its reputation as a showcase for newcomers with 45 films from first-time filmmakers on the docket this year. It continues to be a glowing example of the diversity that the world of film could and should encompass with 45% of the feature slate directed by women, 36% directed by people of color, and 13% directed by LGBTQ+ filmmakers. And, as always, bizarro plot schemes are abundant.

In essence, Sundance is a mecca for who all who adore independent film and everything it has to offer, which — in 2019 — is a healthy gust of fresh air from the studio-driven market of your average weekend releases and the sometimes droning buzz of awards season. Snowy Park City, Utah awaits us in all of its fantastical wonder, and Rob Hunter and I have chosen the 26 films that we simply cannot stop looking forward to in order to give you a little taste of what the festival has in store this year. If things go as swimmingly as we hope, most of these will trickle out to the masses throughout the year in which case we’ll be talking about them again and again. Without further ado, our Sundance preview of the 26 films we’re anticipating most.

Honey Boy | dir. Alma Har’el

This is a film written by Shia LaBeouf about Shia LaBeouf with Shia LaBeouf playing Shia LaBeouf’s father and Lucas Hedges playing Shia LaBeouf. Has “The Beef” outdone himself with one of his meta-projects time? Are his trending avant-garde ways off-screen starting to bleed into the cinema for the better? Regardless, it’s a fascinating premise for any of you LaBeouf lovers out there (I am one of you), and it’s easily one of the most anticipated projects of the festival. Late-stage production trouble left most thinking it wouldn’t be able to wrap up in time for the fest, but lucky for us, it’s on the schedule. (Luke Hicks)

Corporate Animals | dir. Patrick Brice

2014’s Creep was a very funny and often creepy debut for director Patrick Brice, and he repeated the feat with his sophomore effort The Overnight (2015). The former is a found footage flick while the latter is a more traditional narrative format, but both show a filmmaker with an eye for laughs, wit, and the unusual. His sequel to Creep is a bit more familiar as it hews too close to its predecessor, but he’s back this year with another original tale promising laughs and cringes as an odd gathering of people face the unexpected. Demi Moore and Ed Helms headline this time around in a story about a corporate retreat gone awry, and it’s an event I won’t be missing. (Rob Hunter)

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Luce | dir. Julius Onah

Let’s be real for a second: Julius Onah really fucked up The Cloverfield Paradox. That movie was a miss among misses. But maybe it wasn’t really his fault. Who knows if it was ever supposed to be anything more than a Super Bowl ad stint. He’s too early in his career for us not to give him a fresh start, but frankly, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tim Roth, and Naomi Watts is an ensemble that has my attention no matter who is directing. The film tells the story of a white couple coming to terms with the identity of their adopted Eritrean son, so ready your tear ducts. (Luke Hicks)

Little Monsters | dir. Abe Forsythe

Zombies and children go together like peanut butter and brain matter-like jelly, but not nearly enough films take advantage of the pairing. This horror/comedy got the memo, though, and pits an oddball group of adults and the children in their care against the undead. Yes, please. The premise reminds of 2014’s Cooties and seeing as that movie is a bloody delight I’m hoping for more laughs and thrills this time too. Lupita Nyong’o headlines, and I’m stoked to see her cut loose in a comedic horror romp. Josh Gad stars too, and while that can go either way I’m hopeful he’ll shine in a fight against zombie hordes. (Rob Hunter)

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Native Son | dir. Rashid Johnson

Fiends of modernity will flock to A24’s first film of the fest, which debuts on opening night. Modern art painter, experimental sculptor, bold exhibitioner, essayist, photographer, Chicago-native, and now filmmaker, Rashid Johnson will debut his first feature to much anticipation. Remember when Julian Schnabel came to film? It’s kind of like that. The modern re-telling of the formative Chicago-set Richard Wright novel of the same name was adapted for the screen by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and the cast is loaded with beloved character actors (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Bill Camp) and rising stars alike (Ashton Sanders, Kiki Layne, Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson). (Luke Hicks)

Memory: The Origins of Alien | dir. Alexandre O. Phillippe

I don’t see many documentaries at film festivals as I feel like my time is best served by narrative features, and while there’s no real justification beyond that it’s my own cross to bear. I do make exceptions, though, and this look into the creation of the film we know as Alien (1979) sounds fascinating. Ridley Scott is a sometimes fascinating filmmaker, but I’m more interested in the ideas and intentions flowing from the late Dan O’Bannon. As a writer, O’Bannon gifted the world with films like Alien, Dead & Buried (1981), Lifeforce (1985), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), and more, and I’m excited to see what he originally had in mind for the Alien franchise. (Rob Hunter)

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The Sound of Silence | dir. Michael Tyburski

The Sundance-sanctioned premise reads: “A successful ‘house tuner’ in New York City, who calibrates the sound in people’s homes in order to adjust their moods, meets a client with a problem he can’t solve.” We cry for originality in film, and here it is. What more do we want? Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, Tony Revolori, Austin Pendleton, and indie darling Kate Lyn Sheil fill out a strong cast, and first-time director Michael Tyburski will head the screenplay he co-wrote with Ben Nabors. (Luke Hicks)

Sweetheart | dir. J.D. Dillard

I’m a sucker for deceptively simple setups, and Dillard’s follow-up to 2016’s Sleight just might fit the bill. The always terrific Kiersey Clemons plays a young woman who washes ashore on a seemingly deserted island only to discover something is waiting to come out each night. Is it a monster? A metaphor? Co-star Emory Cohen? I don’t know, but I’m definitely excited to find out. (Rob Hunter)

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The Souvenir | dir. Joanna Hogg

If you aren’t familiar with Joanna Hogg, now’s the time to get on board. The little-known writer/director’s been making great small films since 2007, and her fourth, The Souvenir, is about to break that trend. It’s anything but small. It is the first meaty role for Honor Swinton-Byrne. And mother/Goddess of Cinema, Tilda Swinton will be playing her real-life daughter’s fictional overprotective mother. Richard Ayoade, Ariane Labed, and Tom Burke also star. In related news, The Souvenir: Part II is already in pre-production (with a Robert Pattinson addition!), so don’t go in expecting a satisfactory resolve. (Luke Hicks)

Wounds | dir. Babak Anvari

Under the Shadow is one of 2016’s best horror films, and it’s made all the more impressive knowing it was Anvari’s feature debut. The film introduced western audiences to new fears, and while his follow-up is an English-language feature I’m guessing there will still be plenty of scares and unease coming our way. He’s certainly not fooling around with his cast which includes Armie Hammer, Dakota Johnson, and Zazie Beetz in the story of a bartender who makes the mistake of picking up an abandoned cell phone. (Rob Hunter)

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After the Wedding | dir. Bart Freundlich 

Hollywood has had a knack for greenlighting remakes of great non-English films with well-known American personnel of late (e.g. Toni Erdmann, Force Majeure). While some fall utterly flat in replicating brilliance (Secret in Their Eyes), others translate from culture to culture and pinpoint relatability in American ideals (The Kindergarten Teacher). Sundance kicks off with the newest installment in this series, a remake of Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding—a Danish Mads Mikkelsen vehicle centered on a bizarre wedding scenario. With Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, and Bill Crudup on center stage, it boasts one of Sundance’s starriest casts. But director Bart Freundlich is 22 years deep into a career that has yielded little success. Hopefully frequent Freundlich collaborators Moore and Crudup will finally deliver something worth raving about. (Luke Hicks)

The Hole in the Ground | dir. Lee Cronin

Sundance’s Midnight section is my home — yes I see all kinds of movies (aside from docs) while I’m there, but my focus and personal tastes always point me towards the fest’s darker, weirder selections. Ireland is home to some solid genre efforts in recent years with films like Wake Wood (2009) and The Hallow (2015) digging up scares in local legends and nightmares, and Cronin’s feature debut looks to be pulling from a similar well. I’ll be jumping in with both feet. (Rob Hunter)

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Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile | dir. Joe Berlinger

Few of us saw it coming, but over the past several years Zac Efron has proven that he is a bonafide talent. His Disney days are far enough behind him to be an irrelevant talking point of his career. He has held fast to the easily lovable comedies of the Seth Rogen generation with the occasional dip into more artistic fare. But 2019 will begin a new chapter, and Extremely Wicked is the first page. Efron will portray Ted Bundy in what will surely be a grisly, dramatic close-up on the serial killer. The film is directed by renowned documentarian Joe Berlinger and will be told from Bundy girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer’s perspective. Lily James plays Kloepfer alongside a terrific cast consisting of John Malkovich, Jim Parsons, Kaya Scodelario, and (please, welcome back) Haley Joel Osment. (Luke Hicks)

The Lodge | dir. Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz

I mean, have you seen Goodnight Mommy (2014)? There’s no way I’d miss this duo’s long-awaited follow-up to that cruel, icy, and blackly comic chiller and the addition of Riley Keough and Alicia Silverstone make it all the more of a must-see. The plot looks to blend isolation, children, and religious terror into a very special concoction, and I am here for it. (Rob Hunter)

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I Am Mother | dir. Grant Sputore

What would Sundance be without some intimate cerebral sci-fi standouts? I Am Mother takes place in a world wiped of human existence, in which a robot called “Mother” (Rose Byrne) is tasked with re-populating the Earth. We know the robot is raising a child underground, but that’s about all, which is fine. It’s best that sci-fi thrillers remain relatively plotless in their marketing. That’s where the surprises and thrills come in. Hilary Swank plays an injured woman who shows up unannounced with bad news, and debut director Grant Sputore will probably have to embrace or reject parallels to Alex Garland all week long. (Luke Hicks)

Relive | dir. Jacob Estes

A man loses his family to a vicious murder only to receive a phone call from one of the deceased asking for his help? And the man is played by the great David Oyelowo? Shut up, I don’t need to hear another word. And it’s written by the guy behind 2017’s abysmal Rings? I said shut up! Oyelowo is an actor I’ll watch in anything, and high concept plots like this are like sweet, sweet honey for my genre-loving heart. (Rob Hunter)

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Late Night | dir. Nisha Ganatra

Mindy Kaling’s most recent screenwriting effort will come to life in this dramedy about a Late Night talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) who adds a woman named Molly (Mindy Kaling) to her writer’s room after the mass hive mind accuses Newbury of sexism for having no female writers. Nisha Ganatra is in the director’s chair for a feature for the first time in 14 years, managing talent like John Lithgow, Amy Ryan, Reid Scott, and Paul Walter Hauser, along with the leading ladies. If it’s anything like Kaling’s other work, it will have a little bit of everything and pull off her trademark slice-of-life sitcom realism that began on The Office. (Luke Hicks)

Velvet Buzzsaw | dir. Dan Gilroy

2014’s Nightcrawler is a deliriously good descent into blackly comic darkness, and it shows a filmmaker willing to take his story and cast in directions that threaten to be over the top while still finding emotional weight. Gilroy’s latest looks a little more aloof and directly horror-related but in the best possible way as supernatural terror strikes the absurd world of modern art. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Billy Magnussen, John Malkovich, Toni Collette, and Daveed Diggs co-star in one of our most anticipated films not just of the fest but of 2019. (Rob Hunter)

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The Report | dir. Scott Z. Burns

Stellar screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, Contagion, Side Effects) comes to Sundance with his sophomore directorial effort, the story of Daniel Jones, the U.S. Senate-staffed investigator who dug into unethical interrogation techniques in post-9/11 America. If you haven’t heard, corrupt government is a mighty relevant topic these days. The political thriller is an A-list affair with the likes of Jon Hamm (thank god he’ll be back in a suit), Jennifer Morrison, Annette Bening, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney and Adam Driver (as Jones). Burns has a knack for writing brilliant thrillers, but can he direct them, too? (Luke Hicks)

Fighting with My Family | dir. Stephen Merchant

Merchant’s best known these days as a supporting actor in numerous comedies, but his biggest credit remains as writer/co-creator of The Office. He’s dabbled in directing before too, but his latest, while a small film, is his biggest go of it yet. The film follows a small-time wrestler dreaming of making it big, and he’s gathered a cast including Nick Frost, Dwayne Johnson, Lena Headey, Florence Pugh, Vince Vaughn, and of course, Merchant himself to help bring what looks to be a funny, sweet, and touching tale to the screen. (Rob Hunter)

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Ms. Purple | dir. Justin Chon

After a quirky comedy in Man Up in 2015, writer/director Justin Chon came out of the gates swinging with his second film Gook, a Sundance premiere two years ago that wrestled with familial ties between Korean and African-American folks amidst the Rodney King riots in L.A. With Ms. Purple, it looks like he’ll continue his deep directorial dive into concepts of family and race. It’s centered on the reconnection of estranged siblings in the final days of their father’s life in L.A.’s Koreatown. (Luke Hicks)

The Wolf Hour | dir. Alistair Banks Griffin

New York City’s Summer of Sam in 1977 saw sweat and terror drip from the city’s residents in equal measure, but while other films have focused on what was happening in the streets this little thriller looks to center on a woman who long ago decided to hole up in her apartment. Naomi Watts headlines, and she’s never less than an engaging presence. It’s unclear how much of the perceived threat will be real and how much will simply be her paranoia, but we’ll find out together this week. (Rob Hunter)

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Koko-di Koko-da | dir. Johannes Nyholm

By far one of the most bizarre premises of the whole festival, Koko-di Koko-da is a Swedish film by writer/director/producer Johannes Nyholm, in which a couple ventures into the woods in hopes of rekindling their love only to “find themselves in an endless loop of torment, humiliation, and tangled dream at the hands of a troupe of outlandishly distorted nursery-rhyme antagonists.” Yeah, “what the fuck?” is right. Which is what gives this feature such strong potential from the outside. It’s the kind of film I’m anxious to watch, in fear of an utter disaster. But if Nyholm can pull off the directorial originality to match his screenplay, we might have another “The Daniels”-esque filmmaker on the loose. (Luke Hicks)

The Death of Dick Long | dir. Daniel Scheinert

The title is more than enough to put my butt in a seat — what can I say, I’m an easy mark for wordplay — but the film also marks the solo feature debut of one half of the directing duo behind 2016’s brilliant Swiss Army Man. Sure, it might turn out that he’s the lazy, less creative half, or it might be that he’s every bit as creative and celebratory of risk on his own. I don’t even know what the plot is about! Synopses are for Nazis! Bring on the dead Dick Long! (Rob Hunter)

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Greener Grass | dir. Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe

Screenwriting and directing duo Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe bring their 2015 short story to the feature-length club with their surreal tale of familial competition in dystopian-sounding suburbia where all adults wear braces and everything is a bit screwy. On the surface the cast is humble—D’Arcy Garden and SNL cast member Beck Bennett being the most recognizable—but a deeper dive reveals performances from a few terrific young directors, such as Jim Cummings (Thunder Road), Janicza Bravo (Lemon), and DeBoer and Luebbe themselves (who starred as the two leading soccer moms in the original short). (Luke Hicks)

The Nightingale | dir. Jennifer Kent

2014’s The Babadook almost cost me my marriage as its terror and atmosphere were to much for my lady friend. Seriously, that was one incredibly awkward drive home that night let me tell you.) It was also one hell of a feature debut, and while Kent’s follow-up leaves supernatural horror behind for a bloody tale of revenge set in the early 19th century it’s a sophomore effort I’m every bit excited about. I’m picturing a far less funny and far more violent Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and that is most definitely my jam. (Rob Hunter)

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.