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The Best Films of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival

Another Sundance Film Festival is in the books, leading critics around the world to look into their crystal ball and predict how this year’s line-up will be received when these films come down from the Utah mountains. The general consensus seems to be that this was a down year for Sundance. Everyone loved the increased representation behind the camera in the program, but critics felt a lack of stand-out films. Of course, there were some excellent films but don’t expect a "Call Me By Your Name," "Brooklyn," or "Manchester by the Sea" from this crop. However, our team of intrepid, sleep-deprived critics did see a number of works that you should put on your watchlist now. You don’t want to miss these twelve:

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Animals

How odd that female friendship—real female friendship that is; not the kind about backstabbing or rivalry—is still a scarcity in cinema. For attempting to fill that gaping hole alone, Sophie Hyde’s “Animals” (an adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel with the same title) deserves all the praise it can get. But thankfully, “Animals” doesn’t stop there and pushes things even further than “Frances Ha.” Refreshingly frank and non-autocratic about sex, drugs and the uniquely female desire to be free of judgment, “Animals” dares to love the pair of imperfect friends that lead the way into their messy and undeniably fun world of consequence-free hard-partying, where men can be disposable and things will just work out. Shout out to the exceptional duo Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat, as well as the costume designer Renate Henschke, who rightfully runs away with some auteurship claim on the film. (TL)

“Clemency”

I am still a bit shocked that “Clemency” won the highly coveted U.S. Dramatic Competition award, given that it’s a character study about a prison warden and the death penalty, but I hope that further expands the chances of it being seen by a large audience outside of Park City. The script by Chinonye Chukwu is a true marvel, using a select amount of characters, a gentle tone and reoccurring themes to highlight the major elements that populate the world around the death penalty. This leads to incredible, pained performances from its actors, especially Alfre Woodard as the warden and Aldis Hodge as a death row inmate desperately waiting on a life-changing call from a governor. “Clemency” declares an incredible ambition—you can see so many ways this could have fallen apart—but it displays the work of a master dramatist, who remains in control of every filmmaking element of her challenging story. (NA)

“The Farewell”

It may not have won the U.S. Dramatic Competition award with the jury members, but the critical darling from that program was clearly Lulu Wang’s poignant and personal story of a young lady (Awkafina) dealing with the imminent death of her grandmother, who doesn’t know she’s dying. It premiered early in this year’s Sundance, and critics all weekend were comparing it to masterful filmmakers like Ang Lee, Edward Yang, and even Yasujiro Ozu in the way it blends cultural specificity with universal emotions. It was also this year’s “ugly cry” of the Sundance Film Festival, but it earns that title by never once feeling manipulative or melodramatic. It’s a true empathy machine of a movie, a film that tells a very specific story that’s not your own but allows you to see yourself within it. (BT)

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“Jawline”

Step into a world of teen live broadcast stars for a different look at fandom and online culture as director Liza Mandelup follows Austyn Tester, an aspiring social media star, as he dreams of using his fame to escape his small town. Mandelup captures the rapid rise and crash of what it’s like to be plucked out of obscurity, put on tour in front of hundreds of screaming girls and the isolation that sets in when the show’s over. But Mandelup doesn’t just stop with Austyn’s story. She also interviews numerous young girls who adore these young social media heartthrobs and gets some insight of a manager staking his claim in this new digital gold rush and provide some insight into this new incarnation of Beatlemania-like fan culture. (MC)

“Knock Down the House”

With a renewed activist spirit, numerous women and people from underrepresented communities took to the polls in record numbers for the 2018 midterm elections. One of the shining stars of the new wave of elected officials is Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York, and she’s one of four women profiled in Rachel Lears’ inspirational documentary, “Knock Down the House.” The film documents the grassroots campaigns behind Ocasio Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearingen and Amy Vivela, giving an all-too-rare look at the scrappier side of American politics as they challenge the established powers in their states. It’s a film that’s deeply personal and moving, pieced together over the course of less than a year leading up to the frenzy of the 2018 election season. (MC)

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

A lyrical elegy on a city’s vanishing character, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” raises urgent questions around racism, gentrification and humankind’s deteriorating values through its offbeat rhythms and vivid cinematography as warm as the friendship at its heart. But to merely praise Joe Talbot’s artful film for its timeliness would do it disservice. With his directorial debut (co-written by Rob Richert, with a story credit to co-lead/Talbot’s childhood friend Jimmie Fails), Talbot has made an ageless film as dignified and dependable as its central character Jimmie; one that is proudly in touch with its roots and history and spiritually undefeated by the ceaseless injustices that aim for what one holds dear. This is bound to go down as one of the all-time-great San Francisco films. (TL)

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“Late Night”

While this movie has earned some comparisons to “The Devil Wears Prada,” I believe that “Late Night” is in a category of its own. Mindy Kaling plays Molly, an aspiring comedy writer who’s earnest to a fault. Although she works for another woman (a marvelous Emma Thompson), Molly’s writers’ room is made up entirely of white men who see her feminist jokes and her diversity as a threat. It’s one of the few comedies I’ve seen that so smartly tackles what it’s like to be called the “diversity hire” around the office. Kaling, who also wrote the script, and director Nisha Ganatra find humor in these awkward workplace situations by playing on generational differences and the experiences of working in male-dominated world of late-night comedy shows. (MC)

“Luce”

The conversation starter of Sundance was Julius Onah’s brilliant dissection of privilege and expectation at a prestigious high school. The incredible Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the title character, a star student whose life is turned upside down after a teacher suspects he may not be exactly what he seems. Harrison leads one of Sundance’s best ensembles, including one of Octavia Spencer’s best performances. Ultimately, this is a film designed to get people talking about its themes, and I can’t wait to be able to talk about it more when it comes out, courtesy of Neon. (BT)

“Midnight Family”

One of the best documentaries that played Sundance this year concerned Mexico City’s economy of freelance ambulances, following around a family in their vehicle as they race from one life or death scenario to the next, in order to make their payday. Director/editor/cinematographer Luke Lorentzen appropriately was given a special award this year for his cinematography—his on-the-fly framing is impeccable—but the editing is also incredible, capturing the ebb and flow of a few nights in the Ochoa’s business. “Midnight Family” is the kind of documentary that feels fully realized as the camera is rolling, making the movie all the more thrilling and heartbreaking with its cinema verité presentation. (NA)

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“The Report”

I’m kind of a sucker for ensemble-driven government procedurals like “All the President’s Men” and this is the best film in that subgenre in years. Amazon has picked it up for a likely awards season run, and it’s easy to see how this could become the biggest hit out of Sundance 2019. Adam Driver gives one of his best performances as Daniel Jones, the Senate staffer assigned with determining exactly what happened with the EIT program – you know, the one that said it was OK to torture if it stopped a terrorist attack. What’s so great about Scott Z. Burns’ film is how tightly wound the whole film is, cinematically representing its protagonist’s increasing outrage at what he discovers. Even in just the ten days since I saw this, I keep reading stories of questionable governmental activity and hearing Maura Tierney’s CIA character in my head, shouting, “It’s only legal if it works!” People are going to be outraged, enlightened, and angered by this movie. I can’t wait for it to drop into the national conversation. (BT)

“The Souvenir”

It’s time for British auteur Joanna Hogg to be better-known stateside—with films like “Exhibition” and “Archipelago,” she has been cinematically untangling domestic knots for quite sometime now. With the gorgeously shot, delicate period piece “The Souvenir,” her best film yet, she brings a fictionalized version of her own story onto the screen, giving it the signature Hogg treatment: precisely composed, patient and poetic. Her Julie (soulfully played by Tilda Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton-Byrne), whose artistic awakening gets hampered by a dysfunctional, increasingly toxic relationship, is heartbreaker of a character. You will weep by her side, thinking of that one person who broke you, but also enabled you to rise again with strength and a renewed sense of self. (TL)

“Wounds”

Babak Anvari fashioned himself as a classic horror director with his 2016 film “Under the Shadow,” which mixed a nightmarish force with a political story of Iran under attack. But he’s become a mad scientist with his sophomore effort “Wounds,” a Lovecraftian thrill-machine designed to jostle and challenge horror nuts. Anvari uses a story that might sound familiar of jump scares but focuses it around the moral misadventures of a cranky bartender played by Armie Hammer. “Wounds” is a great showcase for his comedic side, especially as his dopey character essentially finds himself in the middle of plot straight out of “The Ring,” as if he were a shit-out-of-luck innocent bystander looking through a dorm room window when a bunch of Millennials fired up that fateful VHS. A parody of jump scare lunacy that stands on its own, Anvari creates infectious fun out of the deliciously nasty and surprising events that come his way. The last shot is pure madness, but in the emotional and playful sense of “Wounds,” it makes perfect sense. (NA)

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