A Guide to the Winners at Sundance 2019

The Daily — Feb 4, 2019
Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (2019)

Of the 250 top-grossing films in the U.S. last year, only eight percent were directed by women. The message coming out of Sundance this year is that the festival is working hard to address that shameful imbalance. All four of the top prizewinners announced this weekend have been directed or codirected by women. Of course, it’s the juries that make these decisions, but the festival’s programmers set the stage. Women directed or codirected forty-six percent of the films lined up for the main competitions and thirty-six percent of the films in the entire program were made by people of color. “Over the years, the diversity has deepened, become more layered, partly because, I imagine, ambitious filmmakers of increasingly different backgrounds know that Sundance will be receptive to them,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

The reception of these films, that first wave of reviews and buzz, can also be a determining factor when it comes to the long-term fate of a film once the festival is over. As Sean Burns notes in a dispatch from Park City to WBUR, “it can get pretty white up here.” Burns adds that Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, has reached out to an array of foundations to provide stipends “to assist some writers with what can be a prohibitively costly trip,” ensuring that over sixty percent of press passes were issued to critics from underrepresented groups this year.

As for how the 2019 edition has fared overall, tracking the reviews and dutifully listening to the daily episodes of the podcasts that Film Comment recorded at the festival over the past couple of weeks, I picked up on a consensus beginning to gel during the first week or so: 2019 was turning out to be a weak year. But in the final lap, critics seemed to agree that the festival had found its second wind. Happens nearly every year. As Burns points out, “last year’s allegedly ‘disappointing’ lineup” served as the launching pad for Eighth Grade, Mandy, Hereditary, Madeline’s Madeline, and Blaze, while four of this year’s five Oscar nominees for best documentary premiered at Sundance 2018. As the following overview of what the critics have been saying about this year’s award winners seems to show, more than a few of them could well have legs.

U.S. Dramatic

In 2011, Troy Davis, charged and convicted for the murder of an off-duty police officer, was executed in Georgia despite recanted witness testimony, questionable evidence, and pleas from the Pope and a former U.S. president. Director Chinonye Chukwu, born in Nigeria and raised in Alaska, tells Vanity Fair’s Nicole Sperling that, on the morning of Davis’s execution, “I asked myself, if so many of us were navigating these complex emotions surrounding his execution—frustration, anger, sadness—what must it be like for the people whose livelihoods are tied to taking human life? I knew at that moment I really wanted to explore the emotional and psychological complexities of the prison staff, particularly a warden.”

In Clemency, winner of the grand jury prize in the U.S. Dramatic competition, the warden, Bernadine Williams, who’s already overseen twelve executions before the case of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) nearly breaks her, is played by Alfre Woodard. If Woodard is “hoping for her overdue second Oscar nomination after 1983’s Cross Creek, she’s got a decent shot with this excruciating character arc,” suggests Amy Nicholson in Variety. The NYT’s Manohla Dargis finds that with “visual austerity and not an ounce of sentimentality, Chukwu transforms a character study into an indictment of institutionalized murder, the horror of which is made harrowingly palpable as Bernadine’s face becomes a rictus of pain.”

Joe Talbot has won the directing award for his debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which has also scored a special jury award for “creative collaboration.” Jimmie Fails, a skateboarding hospice nurse, is played as an only slightly skewed version of real-life nonprofessional actor Jimmie Fails, who rolls up and down the city’s hills with aspiring playwright Montgomery (Jonathan Majors). “Amid the sly non sequiturs and picaresque encounters, laughs as well as tears are mined from the subject of Bay Area gentrification,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “At times, the leisurely quality of the pacing and the delicacy of the gags put me in mind of Aki Kaurismäki.” For Rolling Stone’s David Fear, one of the film’s most evangelical champions, this “rage-filled valentine to a metropolis” feels “singular, righteous, heartfelt.”

Share is another double winner, scoring the screenwriting prize for writer-director Pippa Bianco and the competition’s acting award for Rhianne Barreto. She plays Mandy, a high-school sophomore who wakes up disheveled on her lawn one morning and soon discovers that videos that seem to capture the night she was sexually abused have gone viral. Share is “an uncommonly knotty and fiercely intelligent story of assault and blame in the social media age,” writes Jason Bailey at the Playlist.

The screenplay for Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy, winner of a special jury award for “vision and craft,” evolved from an assignment Shia LaBeouf was given while he was in rehab. “Even if you don’t know this going in,” writes Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins, “you’ll sense the uncanny discomfort of lived reality in its best scenes, which beautifully, harshly depict the embittered ties between a boy and his father: one a recovering alcoholic struggling to stay that way, the other a young man struggling to survive the boomeranging emotional whims of his father.”

Global rights to Honey Boy have gone to Amazon, which went on a buying spree in Park City this year. Amazon not only picked up two films in the Premieres program—Nisha Ganatra’s comedy Late Night, in which a talk show host (Emma Thompson) hires a token woman writer (Mindy Kaling) to add to her all-male stable, and Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, depicting an investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation techniques” led by a Senate staffer (Adam Driver) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening)—but also playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo’s directorial debut and winner of the audience award in this competition, Brittany Runs a Marathon. When a doctor warns party girl Brittany (Jillian Bell) that her lifestyle is killing her, she sets out to whip herself into shape. It’s an “endearing and earnest comedy about self-acceptance and body positivity that sidesteps cheesy pitfalls,” finds Tomris Laffly at Time Out.

U.S. Documentary

Just yesterday, Amazon added a fifth and final film (so far) to its roster of Sundance acquisitions, Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation, an investigation into China’s one-child policy (1979–2015) and the winner of the grand jury prize in the U.S. documentary competition. “Densely informative yet always grounded in deep personal investment and clear-eyed compassion, this is a powerful indictment of a traumatic social experiment, made all the more startling by the success of the propaganda machine in making people continue to believe it was necessary,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney.

The effects of China’s global economic power on the rest of the world, and more specifically, on factory workers in Dayton, Ohio, are examined in American Factory, which has won the directing award for Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. In 2014, a Chinese billionaire reopened an abandoned GM plant, and the film “offers a remarkably candid, fly-on-the-wall account of what transpired over the following three years between top management and toiling workers, Americans and Chinese, all working together, for better and for worse,” writes Anthony Kaufman for Screen. “It’s a deceptively lighthearted look at one of the most significant cultural and economic conflicts of our times.” In the NYT, Manohla Dargis suggests that American Factory and One Child Nation would “make a knockout double bill.”

Jacqueline Olive’s Always in Season, which draws parallels between the 2014 death of a seventeen-year-old African-American in North Carolina and the 1946 Moore’s Ford Lynchings in Georgia, has won a special jury award for “moral urgency.” Keith Uhlich, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, suggests that the “moral” here, “very much in keeping with its gut-wrenching title, might be ‘same as it ever was.’”

The emerging filmmaker award goes to Liza Mandelup for Jawline, a study of the business of influencer culture that focuses on sixteen-year-old Austyn Tester, who’s counting on his Instagram followers and YouNow streams to pay for his way out of rural Tennessee. “It may be cringingly funny at times, but Jawline transcends easy schadenfreude,” writes Matt Cipolla for Film Monthly.

A team led by director Todd Douglas Miller has made the most of a recent discovery in the National Archives of never-before-seen 65 mm footage documenting the NASA mission that put the first human footsteps on the moon. “It took Damien Chazelle’s First Man a long time to make audiences forget they knew how this story ends,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich.Apollo 11 accomplishes that same feat in milliseconds.” Miller, who’s won the editing award, “places an unmistakable emphasis on the thousands of people who toiled in quiet synchronicity, pulling off America’s greatest mission without a hitch,” writes Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf.Apollo 11 will bring you to tears—it’s a reminder of national functionality, of making the big dream happen without ego or divisiveness.”

Luke Lorentzen, who’s won the cinematography award, not only directed and shot but also edited Midnight Family himself. It’s a portrait of a father and son who drive a private ambulance in Mexico City, where only forty-five government-run ambulances serve a population of nine million. “Portraits of institutional dysfunction don’t come much more urgent, and quietly bleak, than this,” writes Nick Schager in Variety.

Rachel Lears’s Knock Down the House, which follows four women—Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin, and yes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—as they challenge incumbents in last year’s congressional primaries, has won the audience award. “Everyone likes an underdog story,” writes Jordan Hoffman for the Guardian, “and when the underdog is as eloquent, passionate and righteous as these four women are, the final reels of this film feel like a Rocky movie.”

World Cinema Dramatic Competition

In 1986, when Tilda Swinton was a relatively unknown member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and had just begun working with Derek Jarman, Joanna Hogg cast her in her graduation film, Caprice, which Hogg has called “my own miniature homage to Hollywood musicals and fashion magazine culture.” Her first features, Unrelated (2008) and Archipelago (2010), starred a fresh graduate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Tom Hiddleston, and her third, Exhibition (2013), featured former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine and conceptual artist Liam Gillick. Hogg has now reunited with Swinton for one of the most anticipated films of 2019 and the winner of this year’s grand jury prize in the world cinema dramatic competition. The Souvenir appears on just about every best-of-Sundance list drawn up so far—see, for example, the lists from the Film Stage, Simran Hans (Observer), and IndieWire.

Swinton’s daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, plays Julie, a version of Hogg’s younger self, a filmmaker from a well-to-do family in the London of the 1980s. As David Rooney puts it in the Hollywood Reporter, she’s “a champagne socialist who aspires to be Ken Loach.” Julie falls for Anthony, a troubled older man played by Tom Burke. “Achingly well-observed in its study of a young artist inspired, derailed, and finally strengthened by a toxic relationship, it is at once the coming-of-age story of many women and a specific creative manifesto for one of modern British cinema’s most singular writer-directors,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety, adding that “there’s a sinuous, elastic tone here that’s excitingly new to her oeuvre, as brittle social satire gives way to romantic whimsy and swollen-hearted emotionalism.” For the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, “the parallels [Hogg] suggests between Julie and Anthony’s relationship and Britain at the time give The Souvenir the edge and oomph of a state-of-the-nation work, even as its focus becomes pricklingly intimate.” A24 went into Sundance already holding North American rights, and a few days before the premiere, it picked up The Souvenir: Part II as well. The Souvenir now heads to Berlin, and Part II will begin shooting this summer.

With her debut feature, The Sharks, in which a fourteen-year-old (newcomer Romina Bentancur) sparks a panic in a beachside town, Lucía Garibaldi, who’s won the directing award, “crafts an atmospheric picture which provides a transgressive twist on the coming of age picture,” writes Screen’s Wendy Ide, who also suggests that “tonally the picture shares something of the inchoate unease of early Lucrecia Martel.”

The A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd has put Monos, a portrait of teenage commandos in the mountains of Colombia and the winner of a special jury award, at the top of his best-of-the-fest list. “Alejandro Landes’s gripping, pressure-cooker drama creates a whole social ecosystem, clarifying the relationships and personalities and interpersonal conflicts of its adolescent soldiers,” he writes. “Propelled by a primal Mica Levi score and hallucinatory images of a war-torn natural world, Monos has the anarchic power of a Werner Herzog jungle odyssey.” Neon has picked up U.S. rights.

Another special jury award, this one for originality, goes to Makoto Nagahisa for We Are Little Zombies, “one of the most exciting premieres at Sundance this year” for Vulture’s Emily Yoshida. The Little Zombies are a rock band formed by four unrelated teens who’ve met at a crematorium where the bodies of all their parents are being turned to ash on the same day. What binds them is their inability to cry or to feel much at all. “The film sends you out bopping along to the Little Zombies’ adorable four-on-the-floor dance-rock theme song,” writes Yoshida, “but also feeling as if you’ve been on a tough, honest-to-goodness journey of personal growth.”

In Jacek Borcuch’s Dolce Fine Giornata, Krystyna Janda, known of her work with Andrzej Wajda and the winner of this year’s special jury award for acting, plays a Nobel Prize–winning, Polish-born Jewish writer living in Tuscany who sparks an uproar when she calls a terrorist bombing in Rome a work of art. Variety’s Dennis Harvey suggests that “another film or two this strong could make [Borcuch] as significant an arthouse name as fellow countryman Pawel Pawlikowski.”

This competition’s audience award goes to May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts. Trine Dyrholm plays a successful, happily married lawyer who strikes up an affair with her troubled teenage stepson. Variety’s Guy Lodge finds that Dyrholm’s “finely shifting body language and simultaneously knowing, querying gaze go a long way toward making in-the-moment sense of an intelligent character’s most brazenly stupid decisions, even as we begin to suspect that the script, by el-Toukhy and Maren Louise Käehn, may be as bemused by her as we are.”

World Cinema Documentary Competition

Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s debut feature, Honeyland, is the big winner in this competition, taking the grand jury prize, another for “impact for change,” and a third for Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma’s cinematography. The documentary begins as a portrait of Hatidze Muratova, a Macedonian beekeeper of Turkish descent whose harmonious lifestyle is disrupted by what Sheri Linden, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, calls “a raucous clan of itinerant herders consisting of a couple and their seven kids, arriving with their cattle and much clamor.” Ultimately, Honeyland “tells a story with universal resonance, even while uncloaking a forgotten place so specific and strange that most contemporary westerners could never imagine it.” It’s also one of the films most discussed and admired by Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold, Devika Girish, and Eric Hynes.

The directing award goes to Mads Brügger for Cold Case Hammarskjöld, an investigation into the plane crash that killed United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961. Brügger’s discoveries have made headlines in the Guardian and the New York Times, and Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov sums up “the film’s larger investigative conclusion” thusly: “the CIA has much, much more to answer for than we (already) know about, and we haven’t nearly entered the ‘post’ part of ‘post-colonial history’ yet.” For David Katz, writing for Cineuropa, by “eclipsing the recent works of similar doc-provocateur Michael Moore, or his more serious and intellectual brother in arms Adam Curtis, Brügger’s film reminds us how feature filmmaking can be a consciousness-raising force. And as a bonus, it’s also hilarious, charming and deeply humanist.”

By necessity, Hassan Fazili and his family shot Midnight Traveler, winner of a special jury award for “no borders,” on three mobile phones. They were on the run. In 2015, Fazili’s Peace in Afghanistan, a portrait of a commander who left the Taliban and swore off violence, aired on Afghan television. The Taliban assassinated the commander and put out a bounty for Fazili. He and his family spent two years wandering Europe in search of asylum. “Fazili’s musings when paired with the staggering imagery he collects of the family’s treacherous journey gives human dimension to a migrant crisis so often only seen from a macro perspective,” writes Stephen Saito.

The audience award here goes to Sea of Shadows, in which Richard Ladkani spotlights the disastrous consequences of the reckless harvesting of a valuable fish called the totoaba from the Sea of Cortez by Mexican drug cartels in league with the Chinese mafia. For the Salt Lake City Weekly’s Scott Renshaw, the film plays like “a political thriller. But the real success of Sea of Shadows is conveying an existential threat created by pure greed, and how hard it is to achieve change when there’s so much money at stake in making sure that nothing changes. The heroes are those who refuse to stop shouting, even when everything suggests they’re wasting their breath.”


One more award needs mentioning. Alex Rivera (Sleep Dealer) has teamed up with Cristina Ibarra (The Last Conquistador) to make The Infiltrators, a documentary that’s won the NEXT program’s Innovator Award. It focuses on the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), a group of activist Dreamers who allow themselves to be captured by ICE in order to enter this country’s network of for-profit detention centers, where they’ll work to free other detainees along with themselves. In the Hollywood Reporter, John DeFore argues that “this is a necessary film; but rather than feeling like homework, watching it is a thrill.”

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