Almost in direct response to critics’ grumblings—who claimed a lack of any true “hits” at Sundance ‘18—Sundance ’19 delivered a near-perfect batting average. The crisp Park City air was electrified by a hopeful undercurrent, with explorations and insights that news-cycle echo chambers don’t give us. How do you define a good film? In one word, maybe truth. An authentically-told story, identifiable characters, a strong sense of authorship … entertainment by way of honesty. This doesn’t require realism; instead, it encourages imagination, experimentation and risk-taking, with real-world strife as the template. Emboldened voices. This year, documentaries in particular rose to the occasion, while nearly all of the most resonant narrative films were based on true stories as well.
In sum, Sundance 2019’s credo “RISK INDEPENDENCE” was well-chosen: this has been a year of increased self-awareness. As pain proliferates, we grow better at expressing it. Challenging it. Finding ways to use it and change it. In fact, it pains me to winnow just a few films from so many memorable movies – but here are my ten standouts.
#10. Greener Grass – Jocelyn DuBoer and Dawn Luebbe –★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Writer/director/star team DuBoer & Luebbe have impressive world-building skills. Even if you know going in that Greener Grass is a comedy, that still won’t prepare you for their eccentric laugh-fest. One of Sundance 2019’s biggest surprises, Greener Grass is an absurdist satire of suburban life complete with golf carts, offspring-swaps, and the impulse—but never full motivation—to start doing yoga. And, yeah, children can even transform into golden retrievers (to the delight of their parents).
Even more impressive is this film’s consistency. Sketch comedy’s greatest bits usually crumble when slapped onto a two-hour narrative format, but Greener Grass’s world of subsurdia is remarkably cohesive: never has such a random, eccentric movie made so much sense; even the weirdest jokes feel rooted in truth. When a TV advertisement suggests calling “1-800-SPIT-BROTH,” you can’t help but buy into this wacky universe.
There are shades of Adult Swim shock value, Everything is Terrible campiness, and Jim Hosking randomness—but thankfully, Greener Grass is 99% bizarre in its own unique way. As a result, this film may not be for everyone. It’s not funny in the predictable broad style of most comedies; but for moviegoers sick of hearing the same stories re-told ad infinitum, it will feel like a breath of fresh air. This is Sundance at its best, when artists get a platform to share their most delightfully unexpected impulses with the rest of the world. Check out my interview with the film’s producer Natalie Metzger.
#9. Late Night – Nisha Ganatra –★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
While most easily described as The Devil Wears Prada set in the world of late-night comedy, a reductive characterization of Late Night doesn’t do this film justice. A Sundance ’19 hit with so much mainstream appeal that it almost belongs in another festival, Late Night deserves all the hype. Mindy Kaling’s mordant and timely script merits high praise; her performance as heart-on-her-sleeve aspiring comic Molly Patel is also pitch-perfect. She holds her own against talk show host Katherine Newbury—a commanding Emma Thompson in the Meryl Streep-equivalent role (oops, did I just compare it to Devil Wears Prada again?)—along with Katherine’s dutiful husband, Walter (a delightfully tender John Lithgow).
In terms of winsome, on-the-edge humor with something to say, Late Night recalls The Big Sick; it may reach even greater heights at the box office. Always on key, it tackles sticky subjects, but leaves you feeling good. Gentle workplace satire and gender-role zingers deliver the message that humanity needs to evolve—and by the film’s end, even dunderhead male comedians learn the error of their ways. Ironically, Late Night does “Late Night” better than most actual TV shows out there (is anyone else getting bored by clapter?). Perhaps it’s time for more real-life female late-night hosts—and perhaps we need to look no further than Kaling & Thompson.
#8. The Edge of Democracy – Petra Costa –★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
“History always has more imagination than we do,” Petra Costa mournfully narrates in her shocking new documentary, The Edge of Democracy. Brazil, as Costa tells it, is a country founded on slavery, coups, and forgetful democracy, where the bad guys win in the end—and indeed, this sweeping account of political shifts plays like a veritable Game of Thrones power struggle. Through Costa’s well-informed lens, we see democracy devolve into a playground fistfight: scenes of endemic corruption; treacherous coups; families torn apart by political strife. There’s even a tracking shot of mounted police attacking rioters that recalls GOT’s “Battle of the Bastards.” And when a coup is staged against a female political leader, former allies blame the attack on her coldness: “she never gave hugs or shook hands!”
Even if you’re not from Brazil, this film is a must-see. Costa’s access is amazing; the historical footage is impressive; the intrigue never lets up. The meat of her story begins in the early 2000’s, when progressive leaders brought Brazil’s democracy to political prominence—and the crux of her drama is when these strides are undone by partisan differences and populist outrage. At its core is humanity’s tendency to destroy its own freedom: a painful parallel to today’s U.S.A. Let’s hope that The Edge of Democracy will serve as a wake-up call for more than Brazil.
#7. Knock Down The House – Rachel Lears –★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Knock Down the House is a rousing documentary about the future of our country, guided by the emboldened voices of four progressive female congressional candidates in the 2018 primary. Chief among them is beacon-of-hope Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC), who tells us, “For every 10 rejections you get one acceptance. And that’s how you win everything.” Her words resonate especially when the other three candidates—Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin, each worthy of coverage in their own right—lose out to the old guard. Producers Sarah Olson (see interview), Robin Blotnic, and producer/director Rachel Lears achieve a mix of optimism and heartbreak by juxtaposing these three unsuccessful campaigns with AOC’s DC-shaking victory.
Among the film’s most astonishing moments are AOC’s two “debates” with establishment bigwig Joe Crowley. In the first, Crowley doesn’t even show up, forcing the young candidate to debate against an underprepared local representative; later, he does show, but with withering condescension. Both debates are pitiful displays of the insidious apathy — and lack of respect for women in general — that has infected our nation’s political system.
By far the most interesting ‘making-of’ doc at Sundance this year, Knock Down the House lives up to its title. When Representative Ocasio-Cortez skyped in after the screening for a fiery Q&A, an interactive element was added to this David-and Goliath struggle. (You can check out the Skype Q&A here). FYI, AOC’s battle is far from over: as she is learning the hard way, once you win an election, that’s just the beginning.
#6. Honey Boy – Alma Har’el – ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Honey Boy is a shockingly personal movie where Shia LaBoeuf plays his own dad. Baked with layers of raw emotional truth, Honey Boy (you can read my full review here) separates itself from the growing cadre of movies-about-movies, and delivers a spellbinding—and refreshingly ruminative—character study. Working through LaBoeuf’s script, Director-turned-confidante Alma Har’el (Bombay Beach) strikes a masterful balance between raw emotion and dreamy stylization. And as for LaBoeuf himself, as both writer and actor, this is his best work yet: a mix of disturbing reality and cartoonish cringe. But be forewarned. While Honey Boy has some laugh-out-loud moments, it’s mostly an exorcism of deep-seated trauma, an onscreen cry-for-help that shoves you past shape-shifting demons to the light at the end of the tunnel. Happily, it’s the light that saves it: as both a challenging artistic statement and a historic moment for movie-star therapy, Honey Boy is guaranteed to win hearts—especially those affected by child abuse … or by Shia LaBoeuf.
#5. The Farewell – Lulu Wang – ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
“Based on an actual lie,” Lulu Wang’s The Farewell lifts events from her own complicated family history into the filmic sphere. In this captivating sophomore feature, a Chinese family’s grand matriarch gets a terminal diagnosis, and they choose to hide it from her. Then Billi—her Chinese-American granddaughter and family black-sheep—rejects the family’s decision, and shows up unannounced in China. Hilarity and heartbreak ensue. Despite the morbid subject, The Farewell doesn’t lean too far into melancholy. While allowing its characters time to process emotions, this story feels both truthful and full of life, with finely-rendered, hilarious individuals. Using the pretense of a wedding to gather relatives for a last goodbye, the family’s ruse hangs by a thread while Billi observes in disgust. The soon-to-be-married couple are the best ‘worst actors’ in the film: the strength of the lie rests on their shoulders, yet they’re barely comfortable kissing each other.
As a whole, The Farewell is Eastern vs. Western philosophy, made personal and bittersweet, with an ensemble cast that, for better and worse, pulls you into their idiosyncratic life. It’s also a thoroughly enjoyable family romp—and a fantastic ice-breaker for those trying to hide things from their families. Just save your own big reveals till after the screening: this film will soften you.
#4. Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary – Ben Berman – ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Ben Berman’s Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary will catch you off-guard: the less you know the better. Berman begins by covering “The Amazing Jonathan,” a cantankerous magician given one year to live—but when his story derails in unexpected ways, the film delivers the greatest trick of all. Just keep an open mind: this film’s eccentricities belie the ingenuity within; if you like documentaries and laughter, duck the hype, mark your calendars and go in fresh.
Or, if you’re still dubious, use this spoiler as incentive. When Berman’s subject, the Amazing Jonathan, enlists a second documentary crew to cover his “farewell tour”—midway through Berman’s own production—the young filmmaker finds himself up against a doc crew with an Oscar pedigree. How can you compete, when it’s you vs. the film crew she tells you not to worry about? Should there be rules to prevent the usurpation of in-progress intellectual property? Contracts will be re-thought after this film.
After this not-so-subtle middle finger to Berman’s project, he decides to forget all the rules. As a result, his filmmaking style becomes a fluid experiment in stoicism: the obstacle is the way to a better subject. It’s a doc about making a doc, but it’s hardly a ‘making-of.’ It’s more like an unmaking: a spark of gonzo journalism meets a subject so dry that it triggers a blaze of intrigue. Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary not only challenges the documentary medium—it will surely enthrall viewers with mind-bending, manipulative hilarity.
#3. Cold Case Hammarskjöld – Mads Brügger – ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Leave it to a documentary to create more genuine suspense than any recent thriller. While investigating a 1960’s political assassination cover-up, rogue docu-provocateur Mads Brügger uncovers an even more sinister web of conspiracy. Mass-murderous plots and real-life James Bond villains abound in Brügger’s gripping saga, where truth is more chilling than fiction.
Cold Case is also incredibly clever. Throughout the film—in order to catalogue his growing list of evidence—Brügger employs two separate typists, stand-ins for the audience who can ask questions whenever the plot gets murky. He also includes key interpersonal moments outside of his formal interviews, to suggest the reliability of certain sources. Brügger uses himself well. As an on-camera persona, this Danish-born director is engaging, witty and brutally honest; like Michael Moore, he’s such a perfect conduit for his chosen material that, at times, he becomes as interesting as the story itself. That is, until Cold Case heats up and leaves us on tenterhooks until its final frame.
#2. Monos – Alejandro Landes – ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Alejandro Landes’ Monos is a tour-de-force, offering a simultaneously gorgeous and grimdark depiction of the futility of war. Thematically in-league with last year’s excellent Foxtrot—except where brutal violence replaces the humor—Monos chooses to satisfy only after our feelings have been ravaged. The idle, insidious, philistine bestiality of Lord of the Flies-meets-Apocalypse Now is channeled from the director’s own national history: Colombia’s Civil War, where squads of teenagers are given rifles, and trained to fight a phantom enemy. Pretty soon, when no enemy appears, they find one amongst themselves.
A warning to the faint-of-heart: Monos is a disturbing film. Some may even find its use of violence among children exploitative. But even so, this film is far subtler than a sensationalized Mel Gibson flick: Landes targets darkness because, hell, it’s out there. Strong performances, taut pacing and visionary originality—including Jasper Wolf’s breathtaking visuals; Mica Levi’s jarring, alien score; plus the unexpected bursts of violence that punctuate tender character moments—make Monos an exceptionally immersive work of art … with an indelible message.
#1. We Are Little Zombies – Makoto Nagahisa – ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies is a pure and delightful work of art. Crafted with love and creative abandon—and stylized like a JRPG for the NES—this is the closest you may get to a “Mother” film adaptation. Cleverly structured in 13 levels, this bizarre, hysterical, tragic and imaginative game-film will take you through a full range of emotions. For starters, the titular Zombies are an oddball quartet of newly-orphaned 13-year olds. Their ostensible narrator, 13-year old Hikari (Keita Ninomiya), knew familial love only in the form of video games, thus sparking the film’s 8-bit take on life, grief and redemption. Their journey is truly Homeric. A frequent director of commercials and music videos, Nagahisa keeps it fresh by channeling his own inner child, zipping between snarky self-awareness and profound observations: the kind made only by the young-at-heart … or characters in Haruki Murakami’s fiction.
In We Are little Zombies, style is substance. In the same way a child uses blocks and pictures to explain feelings to a doctor, this film is rife with visual poetry, inventive directorial choices that suggest feelings buried within. In fact, Nagahisa’s approach should be taught in film school, because it’s so antithetical to formal film structure: a full-throated graphic poem, it commits wholeheartedly to each moment of riotous irreverence. Instead of posturing as a self-conscious experiment, We Are Little Zombies is a natural ode to childhood—unable to hide its wildly beating heart. You can read my full review here.