Sundance is this week, which is impossible because New Year’s was just like, yesterday. January is going so fast! (After the ninety-year slog of 2018, this is a blessing.) For once, sparing everyone, Oscar nominations were before the festival, so we’ve dealt with that, and now we can move onto focusing on Sundance. After a few years of streaming services spending wildly at the festival, that trend seems to be over. Amazon is getting out of indie film in a big way—and hurting truly indie productions in the process—which is not to say they won’t buy ANYTHING, but the salad days are over. Amazon’s new film model is focused on crowd pleasers, and Sundance rarely produces broad-appeal mass hits (Get Out is, obviously, a massive exception). Netflix, too, seems past its big spender phase. They have a pre-paid option in the fest already, Velvet Buzzsaw, and while their spending is, generally, laughably insane, last year they didn’t buy anything at Sundance (neither did Amazon). The feeling now is that Sundance is going back to its roots as a showcase for indie and emerging talent, and their program reflects that, with less obviously Hollywood offerings and a truckload of new and emerging filmmakers. Let’s take a look at ten movies looking for headlines, if not blockbuster deals.
Brittany Runs a Marathon
Jillian Bell has been a stand-out comedic gift in movies like Rough Night, 22 Jump Street, The Night Before, Workaholics, and Eastbound and Down. She’s long overdue for a leading role, and now she finally gets just that in Brittany Runs a Marathon, a movie about a woman getting her life in order by taking up running. The main draw here is Bell as a lead, but Michaela Watkins and Lil Rel Howery are also along for the ride. Sundance is usually good for a solid comedy breakout (What We Do in the Shadows premiered here, once upon a time), and it would be great to see Jillian Bell get to be that breakout star.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Zac Efron has made attempts at being taken seriously before (see also: The Paperboy, We Are Your Friends), but this time it might actually work. Efron stars as Ted Bundy, and the film is set at the time of his trial for the 1978 murders committed at the Chi Omega house at Florida State University. Lily Collins co-stars as Bundy’s girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer, and honestly, it’s HER story I’m interested in. This is being sold as a vehicle for Efron, and Bundy has always been a media magnet, but I would be pleasantly surprised to find out this film is secretly about Liz Kloepfer. This is one of the most blatantly Hollywood titles at the festival, and it is seeking distribution. It will be interesting to see who picks this up and how they decide to play it to audiences.
53% of the filmmakers represented in the US Dramatic Competition this year are women, and that includes Lulu Wang, writer/director of The Farewell. Awkwafina stars as Billi, a woman travelling to China with her family to see her terminally ill grandmother, only to end up participating in a wedding and not telling grandma about her condition. (The movie is inspired by events in Wang’s own life.) This is being touted as a comedy, but it also seems like the kind of premise that comes with a dose of drama, too. And it’s one of two starring vehicles for Awkwafina at the fest, she also stars in Paradise Hills.
First still from THE FAREWELL for @sundancefest . This ensemble is a dream! Oh and that’s my real Little Nai Nai... I cast her in the film to play herself and soon you will all love her as I love her! ♥️ pic.twitter.com/8sJrIgBOzc— Lulu Wang (@thumbelulu) December 16, 2018
Music video director Alma Har’el makes her feature film debut with Honey Boy, the movie based on Shia LaBeouf’s real-life relationship with his dad. LaBeouf stars as his own father, Lucas Hedges stars as LaBeouf, and let’s be honest, that is the reason we’re all curious about this one—it has the potential to be a disaster. “Shia LaBeouf plays his own dad in a movie he wrote in rehab” sounds like the premise of an SNL sketch, so we’ll see how this one plays out.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Director Joe Talbot makes his feature film debut with this film, based on his real-life friend Jimmy Fails, who stars as himself. Last Black Man is in the (recent) tradition of Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting and focuses on issues surrounding gentrification in San Francisco. It follows Fails as a homeless man in the Fillmore District, a gentrified section of San Francisco where Fails’ grandfather built a home. This has already been bought by tastemaker A24, so this could be a title we’re talking about all year.
Mindy Kaling wrote it, Nisha Ganatra directs, and Kaling and Emma Thompson star. Do we really need anything else? Just look at this photo of Dame Emma on set. There is a definite Devil Wears Prada vibe, which is boosted by the setup of Kaling playing a writer brought in to revitalize a late night show hosted by Thompson (there is also a dash of Broadcast News in there somewhere). This movie probably doesn’t even need a Sundance launch, so it will be interesting to see how that audience reacts to it.
Artist Rashid Johnson makes his film debut directing this adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel (the adaptation is from playwright Suzan-Lori Parks). If Beale Street Could Talk star Kiki Layne stars alongside Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders, as well as Sanaa Lathan, Nick Robinson, and Margaret Qualley. Native Son is a sad, tough novel about systemic racism and marginalization, so this will be a difficult watch perhaps but necessary and, hopefully, also good.
The second of Awkwafina’s starring films, Paradise Hills is Spanish filmmaker Alice Waddington’s feature film debut. The cast includes Emma Roberts, Eiza Gonzalez, and Milla Jovovich, and the script comes from Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Vigalondo (shout out to Joanna, who is a fan of Vigalondo’s film Colossal). It’s about a boarding school that reforms girls to “fit their surroundings’ exact desires”. Sounds a little Stepford Wives, Get Out, and Picnic at Hanging Rock. This is in the NEXT section of the fest, which is a breeding ground for emerging talent.
Speaking of NEXT, Twilight human Justin Chon broke out of that platform as a filmmaker with Gook in 2017. This year he’s in the US Dramatic Competition with Ms. Purple, a family drama set in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Everyone is watching star Tiffany Chu as a potential breakout, and Chon is steadily scaling up as a filmmaker. Gook is a strong piece of work, and if he gets any better, he will quickly become one of the best young American filmmakers working. The fact that he was in Twilight will become a fun piece of trivia for when he starts winning major awards.
This is Ursula Macfarlane’s documentary about Harvey Weinstein. There will be many eyeballs on this one, and it will be super super fun to see who ends up distributing it. Weinstein is out, but everyone who enabled him is still around. Let’s see which of them puts out this doc. If it’s even halfway good, we’ll be talking about this doc about this time next year, too.