What does the Sundance Film Festival even mean in this the year of our Dark Lord 2019? Robert Redford’s little party in Park City, Utah, turns 40 with this edition, running from Jan. 24 through Feb. 3, and more than ever the question of what defines “independent film” remains open to debate. Is it anything not created, commissioned, or co-opted by a major studio? Sure, but since those entities have wholly given themselves over to franchise properties and CGI daydreaming, that leaves the rest of the field wide open.
The movies that debut at Sundance still serve as alternative theatrical fare, counterprogramming meant to run between the paws of the slow-moving blockbusters. But they’re also the midrange-to-surprise-hit products of the sort the studios once turned out as a matter of course. They’re bulletins from abroad and news from home; crowd-teasing metaphors a la 2017’s festival hit “Get Out,” and uneasy reports on the state of young womanhood, like the 2018 crop of “Eighth Grade,” “Madeline’s Madeline,” “Skate Kitchen,” and “Leave No Trace.”
Increasingly — and this is getting to the heart of the matter — Sundance is a risk/reward pipeline to the streaming theater that now lives on everyone’s television, laptop, and smartphone. Of the 112 feature films playing Sundance this year — chosen from more than 4,000 submissions — most will never see the light of commercial theatrical release but many will be available in some electronic form somewhere, sooner or later.
Netflix has already made deals for “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” the directorial debut of “12 Years a Slave” actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and for “Velvet Buzzsaw,” the latest collaboration between director Dan Gilroy and star Jake Gyllenhaal. Whip-smart indie distributor A24 has bought Joanna Hogg’s psychological romance “The Souvenir” and “The Death of Dick Long,” a deadpan indie-rock mystery. Amazon will certainly be skulking around with an open checkbook.
The stereotypical Sundance movie — an ironic coming-of-age story with a world-weary young cast, a foxy grandpa, and a hipster’s dream of a soundtrack — is a thing of the past, even if edition 2019 has its versions. (Write what you know, I guess, even if it’s all you know.) But several festival micro-genres have been crowding it out in recent years.
There’s the paranoid technological freak-out, evidenced in “Share” (teenage girl vs. a mysterious video from the night before), “Jawline” (teenage boy becomes an Internet star, tries to retain his soul), and “The Great Hack” (the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook story). There’s the environmental alarm-bell documentary (“Tigerland,” “Sea of Shadows,” “Honeyland”). There’s the Midnight Whatsit (“Little Monsters,” which combines Lupita Nyong’o, kindergartners, and zombies).
And there are lots and lots of bio-docs; a partial list includes “Mike Wallace Is Here,” “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” “Ask Dr. Ruth,” “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” (about Leonard Cohen), “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins,” “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” and “Untouchable,” about — gulp — Harvey Weinstein.
One more thing that sets this festival apart from Hollywood: Nearly half (42 percent) of the directors in the four competition categories (US and World Cinema Dramatic and US and World Cinema Documentary) are women and more than a third (39 percent) are filmmakers of color. The studios may still make most of the money, but Sundance reflects the world in which we live. Here are 10 entries I’m most eager to see.
“Apollo 11” — Maybe you liked that bit in Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” where Neil Armstrong steps onto the moon and the screen goes full IMAX? Maybe you’d like more? Todd Douglas Miller’s deep dive into the NASA archives replaces the blurry video of our cultural memories with never-before-seen wide-screen Panavision footage of the mission launch and moon landing.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” — The 1979 Ted Bundy trial, as told through the eyes of his unknowing girlfriend (Lily Collins). One-time teen idol Zac Efron goes for a really major change of pace as the infamous serial killer. Documentarian Joe Berlinger (“Paradise Lost”) has a mixed record when it comes to features (cough, “Blair Witch Project 2,” cough), but this sounds too queasily fascinating to miss.
“The Farewell” — Awkwafina has been a raucously funny fringe benefit in movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8,” but she’ll have a chance to show her leading-lady bona fides in this bittersweet comedy-drama about a woman faking a wedding to please her dying grandmother back in China.
“Hail Satan?” — Filmmaker Penny Lane (“Nuts!,” “Our Nixon”) has a playful documentary touch and a taste for Weird Americana; this peek into the doings of the Satanic Temple, PR-savvy devil worshipers who challenge local ordinances and protest such pop sell-outs as “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” promises to be right up her stranger-than-fictional alley.
“Honey Boy” — In which former child actor and current tabloid fixture and/or situational meta-artist Shia LaBeouf plays his own abusive father in a self-penned film that also stars the ubiquitous Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place”) as LaBeouf at different ages. Could be a train wreck. Could be a staggering work of genius. Could be both.
“The Infiltrators” — Where do the Dreamers go? In this timely suspense drama from directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra, immigration activists recruit an undercover detainee to get nabbed by ICE agents on purpose and investigate a mysterious for-profit prison.
“Knock Down the House” — Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick chose four women candidates to follow from the very start of their longshot 2018 House of Representatives campaigns. Lucky for the filmmakers one of them was New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The film promises a look at both the new politics of resistance and the emergence of a progressive rock star.
“Late Night” — This one sounds like a pip: Dame Emma Thompson as a legendary talk-show host facing falling ratings and Mindy Kaling (who scripted) as her feisty new writer. Sparks, tempers, and bon mots fly. We love Kaling as much as anyone, but, boy, have we missed the divine Miss Emma.
“Native Son” — Richard Wright’s seminal 1939 novel of racial protest gets a modern-day makeover courtesy of celebrated artist Rashid Johnson, directing his feature film debut from a script by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Starring Ashton Sanders (the middle of the “Moonlight” triptych) and KiKi Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), it promises to rework a past classic with new and necessary force.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” — The last time Jake Gyllenhaal got together with writer-director Dan Gilroy, the result was “Nightcrawler,” featuring one of the actor’s eeriest performances. Here Gyllenhaal plays a dealer in modern art who comes across paintings that may have lethal powers. May lightning strike twice.