What a trip. My second round at Sundance was a smash hit, and the most prestigious US film fest raised their diversity and inclusion game BIG TIME for their 2019 edition.
Sundance shook up its critical ranks to the point where 63% of the press is from underrepresented groups. It is about time. Sundance is definitely taking the lead in a time where there’s no other choice to be inclusive.
112 films were in the official competition this year, and 40% are directed or co-directed by a woman, up 3% from 2018. Among the directors in the four primary competition categories (56 of 112), 39% are people of color — that’s also up 3% from the previous year. Those who identified as LGBTQ directed 13% of the year’s films (it is the first year the festival has reported the stat).
While these numbers are exciting to see. It should not have taken this long nor should anybody be patting themselves on the back. However, Phoebe Robinson, co-creator of “Two Dope Queens,” said it perfectly: “That’s the game changer, we’re telling our own stories instead of auditioning for someone else’s. When you have that power, it’s harder to take it away, especially from creators.” Having agency over your creative vision is a powerful resource and one that was apparent throughout the fest.
Shoutout to multi-faceted artist Mindy Kaling for locking down a landmark deal of $13 million for her film Late Night, which she wrote, stars, and produced. Original producer and financer Fox 2000 had moved on when it was time to start production on the film. Instead of giving up, Kaling lined up independent financing and tapped Nisha Ganatra (“Chutney Popcorn”) to direct. Ganatra impressed Kaling with her personal connection to the material. And the rest is history.
This year was definitely a moment of growth for me, where I was able to engage with other people at the festival rather than keep to myself and race to the different theaters across Park City and Salt Lake City. Don’t get me wrong, I still saw some awesome films, but I was also able to meet new people and create experiences out of the theaters. Which only makes watching the films at Sundance even better.
Check out my thoughts on some of the gems I caught at Sundance Film Festival 2019!
I had the privilege of catching an exclusive event screening of not just one but TWO episodes of the new Showtime series, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men.
Directed by Sacha Jenkins, Of Mics and Men is a 4-part documentary series that chronicles the history and cultural impact of hip hop artists, Wu-Tang Clan. It’s an unexpected journey, to say the least. First off, I didn’t even have tickets to see the double-bill screening. I was on the waiting list, also the last person on the waiting list and didn’t realize I needed cash on me to pay for the ticket if there ended up being the slight chance for me to get a seat. EVERYONE was trying to catch this once in a lifetime experience. A couple of the members of Wu-Tang Clan were actually there I would later find out. Sooo I was pretty hopeless, but then the universe took care of the rest. A beautiful human gave me $20, and I was the last person to GET A SEAT. Boom!
The first two episodes are stirring and thrilling, seeing this iconic group speak about their lives and passions, almost telling it through the likes of Greek tragedy. Their music is an extension of their voices, and I realized how much sadness and melancholy there is in their music. A distinct mark in the industry, Wu-Tang Clan surpassed expectations and rose to glory independently without a major label backing. The show is an entertaining and eye-opening experience that should get fans and newcomers to the group’s music, running to their TV (but probs laptops) on May 10th for the season premiere of the enticing documentary.
A gorgeous and visually expressive tale of misfits finding each other, and possibly saving, in 1960s Oklahoma. To The Stars is sensitively directed by Martha Stevens, but is a story we’ve seen before. This film was quite predictable, to say the least, but didn’t make the performances any less enthralling. The performances were actually the major highlight of the film, aided by the patient direction and striking poetic imagery.
The impeccable performances included Kara Hayward as main character Iris Deerborne (Moonrise Kingdom was no fluke), Liana Liberato, and in particular, one of my favorite new filmmakers, Jordana Spiro who directed last year’s Sundance-winner Night Comes On, as Iris’ loving, but controlling and just-short of an unlikeable mother. Shoutout to the casting director for really going all out in finding the best actors for these parts – even the clique of mean girls at Iris’ school are pitch perfect (Lauren Ashley Stephenson is a firecracker, look out for her). It’s films like this, while not fully an original piece of cinema, that have more than enough elements for a solid movie recommendation – especially if you’re in the mood for beautiful shots of the 60s midwest and sensational performances from a mostly all-female cast.
What else more is there to say about the Columbian epic-crime saga, Birds Of Passage. Directed by Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra (Embrace of The Serpent), this glorious and gorgeous film is not just a crime movie. It’s a portrait of an indigenous family’s legacy being torn from the inside out between the 1960s-1980s, it’s a striking and surreal vision of Columbia, with a lot of blood.
Don’t like subtitles? No problem – this film doesn’t require words. It’s what isn’t said or seen that unsettle and deepens our understanding of the lives of this family over the course of 20 years. Social realism, that could inspire a documentary or docu-series, at its finest and most artfully realized.
The Australian-produced film, Little Monsters is a HELL YES. The joy that this movie contains is not even a question – this will be a future classic. I can’t wait for this hilarious zombie horror-comedy to find its way to theaters and then streaming (s/o to the theatrical studio NEON, and streaming giant Hulu, for winning this bidding war at Sundance).
Little Monsters is a beautiful ode to teachers – especially those who teach children. Writer/Director Abe Forsythe even said before the screening that his five-year-old son’s kindergarten teacher is the sole inspiration for this movie. Hilarious and quite moving film in its exploration of “dreaming” both as adults and children. Oh, and did I forget that Lupita Nyong’o’s star turn is a blast, and holds the whole film on her back, even with the flaws, Nyong’o makes this vision believable every step of the way. Little Monsters was one of the highlights of the fest.
Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale was the best feature I saw at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The Nightingale is a horror film with blood and beauty to spare. Jennifer Kent is a fearless filmmaker, who is showing no signs of slowing down after her bonafide masterpiece (and feature-film debut) a few years back, The Babadook.
After picking up prizes at its Venice world premiere, this lauded film made its North American premiere at Sundance. As crazy as it sounds, a man actually had a cardiac arrest during one of the bloodiest and violent scenes in the film. A minor warning for folks who have weak stomachs and hearts. This is an uncompromising and unsettling cinematic vision of revenge. If a man would have written or directed this movie, there would have been some major issues with this film’s story. But because The Nightingale is told through the eyes of Kent, our rage and trauma as a viewer are present every moment of the protagonist Claire’s (a revelatory Aisling Franciosi) journey to avenge her family. The male gaze isn’t close to being anywhere near this film’s perspective. We are either looking right into or behind Claire’s eyes in every scene. The audience is a firsthand witness to her horrific experiences. It’s gruelling but vital cinema. The Nightingale is a brutal, beautiful force of fury — and an urgent battlecry.
By Eden Sapir, 2019
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