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.
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.”