Sundance Announces Its 2019 Features Lineup

Rashid Johnson’s Native Son (2019)

Inclusion might well be the theme of next year’s Sundance Film Festival. Announcing a roster of 112 features lined up to screen from January 24 through February 3, the programmers are quick to point out that forty percent of them have been directed by one or more women, while thirty-six percent come from filmmakers of color and thirteen percent have been directed by people who identify as LGBTQIA. “This year, it was completely organic,” Kim Yutani, who succeeds Trevor Groth as director of programming, tells Variety’s Peter Debruge. “Different people are telling stories, and I think that is indicative of the time we are living in right now.” Festival director John Cooper adds that, if there’s a common thread running through the 2019 lineup, it’d be “the whole notion of empowerment, of rising to the challenge, and the role truth plays in that.”

Yutani also stresses the particularly strong international selection for a festival primarily known for launching American independent filmmakers. Broadening the scope beyond what Cooper describes as “the American gaze” has been “a personal goal” for Yutani since she joined the team as a features programmer ten years ago, notes Debruge. “While Groth excelled at luring some of the festival’s biggest breakouts over the years,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, “Yutani has drawn on her experience at niche festivals like Outfest to look for opportunities to give the festival a cohesive vision.”

Debuts in the 1990s by the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino are the stuff of Sundance legend, but in recent years, the festival has launched fresh talents such as Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You) and Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), whose Can You Forgive Me? is a critical favorite this year. “Sundance has moved away from its history as a freewheeling bazaar where swarms of hanger-on celebrities come to hot-tub hop and film distributors throw money around in all-night bidding wars,” writes Brooks Barnes in the New York Times. “But the festival remains the pre-eminent showcase for American independent film.” We can’t yet know who’ll be breaking out in a couple of months, but here are just a few of the titles that catch the eye at first glance:

  • Sixteen world premieres are featured in the 2019 U.S. dramatic competition, which will open with Rashid Johnson’s Native Son, a “modern reimagining” of Richard Wright’s novel starring Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) and KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk).
  • Reverse Shot cofounder Jeff Reichert is one of the producers of Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory, an extraordinarily timely film in the U.S. documentary competition. “High-tech China clashes with working-class America” when a Chinese billionaire reopens an abandoned General Motors plant in Ohio.
  • Penny Lane (Our Nixon, Nuts!) returns to the festival with Hail Satan, which tracks the rapid rise of the Satanic Temple.
  • Another rapid rise: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, freshly elected to represent New York’s 14th congressional district, is one of the subjects of Rachel Lears’s Knock Down the House, which also follows two other female candidates who campaigned this year.
  • Divine Love, directed by Gabriel Mascaro (Neon Bull) and focusing on a crisis confronting a religious woman in Brazil in 2027, is one of twelve films ripe for discovery in the world cinema dramatic competition.
  • One of the most exciting titles in the entire lineup is Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. The director of Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013) has cast Tilda Swinton and her daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, in the story of a film student who falls for a mysterious man.
  • Eric Kohn notes that Yutani is “psyched to single out” Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies, in which four thirteen-year-olds who’ve lost their parents form “a kick-ass band.”
  • A highlight of the world cinema documentary competition will be Shooting the Mafia, a portrait of Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia from renowned director Kim Longinotto.
  • Danish director Mads Brügger (Red Chapel, The Ambassador) teams up with Swedish private investigator Göran Bjorkdahl to investigate the mysterious death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, in Cold Case Hammarskjöld.
  • Kiril Mikhanovsky’s Give Me Liberty, set against the backdrop of a riot in Milwaukee, will premiere in the NEXT program of the festival’s edgier fare. “This is the one that should be the breakout of the section,” Cooper tells Kohn. “It’s one of those films that’s such a delight to see in our programming season. It’s a film that’s so authentic and you just don’t know what’s going to happen from scene to scene.”
  • Paul Harrill, who won an award at Sundance in 2001 for his short, Gina, an Actress, Age 29, and whose Something, Anything quietly won accolades in 2014, is back with Light from Light about a possible haunting in Tennessee. The film features a dramatic turn from comedian Jim Gaffigan.
  • The Premieres program spotlights work by more established directors, including Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), whose Photograph is a tender romance between a street photographer and a stranger in Mumbai.
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor makes his directorial debut with The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, based on the true story of a thirteen-year-old boy in Malawi who saved his village from famine.
  • Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, and Maura Tierney star in The Report, which focuses on an investigation into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. It’s directed by Scott Z. Burns, whose written a handful of screenplays for Steven Soderbergh.
  • Dan Gilroy reunites with his Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo for Velvet Buzzsaw, a satirical thriller set in the contemporary art world.
  • One of the most exciting documentary premieres will be Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, directed by multiple award winner Stanley Nelson (Freedom Riders).
  • The Midnight program will feature The Lodge, a cabin fever thriller directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy).

Meantime, the Slamdance Film Festival, founded in 1995 as a sort of alternative to Sundance, has also announced its 2019 lineup. This is the festival that counts among its discoveries Christopher Nolan, Oren Peli, and Sean Baker. Also staged in Park City, next year’s edition of twenty features will run from January 25 through 31.

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