The more time your film editor spends working this particular beat, the clearer it becomes that the movie calendar simply never pauses. Two days ago, with the announcement of the Oscar nominations, we entered the final phase of 2018 at the movies – but today, more than a month before they’ll hand those trophies out, the starter pistol fires for 2019. Yes, friends, the Sundance Film Festival is kicking off in Park City, unleashing a tidal wave of the independent movies, foreign films, and documentaries we’ll likely be talking about until this time next year. And there’s a reason that Sundance – which began in 1978 as the Utah/US Film Festival, moved from August to January three years later in an effort to lure Hollywood types to Utah because they could ski while they were there, and renamed itself after chairman in Robert Redford in 1985 – has become the preeminent showcase for off-studio filmmaking: they have their pick of the litter, and often pick the very best. (Four of my top five movies of 2018 screened there this time, last year.)
So what will be this year’s Leave No Trace, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, or Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Who knows, but here are a few of the titles we’re anticipating most.
So what’s Mindy Kaling been up to since the conclusion of The Mindy Project? Apparently, using her years as a show-biz insider to write a media satire for director Nisha Ganatra (whose directorial credits include Transparent and hey, look at that, The Mindy Project). To be clear, Late Night is a work of fiction; it’s about a female late night talk show host, which network heads keep treating like Tolkien-level fantasy. Said host (played by Emma Thompson) finds herself in the hot seat for her all-male writers’ room, so she brings in Molly (Kaling), who determines to prove herself as more than a diversity hire. John Lithgow, Amy Ryan, and Reid Scott co-star.
This viewer is very, very here for any and all collaborations between director Alma Har’el and star Shia LaBeouf; as he tells it, he stumbled across her mesmerizing documentary/fiction hybrid Bombay Beach, fell in love with her style, and decided her work was the best use of his Transformers money. He produced her marvelous 2016 film LoveTrue ; he writes and co-stars in her latest, alongside Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, and FKA twigs.
Penny Lane is, quite simply, one of the most thoughtful and inventive filmmakers working in the non-fiction form today. Her 2013 film Our Nixon found a fresh approach, and thus new things to say, about one of the most exhaustively documented figures of our time; 2016’s Nuts! begins as a wacky tall tale and transforms, subtly but surely, into an examination of the documentary form itself. Her latest takes on perhaps her juiciest target, following the Satanic Temple from its humble beginnings as a media stunt into an internationally recognized religion (or, perhaps, anti-religion).
The Sunlit Night
David Wnendt made a splash at Sundance ’14 with Wetlands , a one-of-a-kind sex comedy with more on its mind than titillation. Jenny Slate’s big Sundance moment came that very same year with Obvious Child , a whip-smart comedy/drama that recast the SNLcast-off as a full-fledged indie leading lady. So there’s a lovely circularity to the duo teaming up with a movie at this year’s fest, with Slate starring as a frustrated artist who takes on a residency in a remote island off Norway, and immediately regrets it. Zach Galifianakis, Gillian Anderson, and David Paymer are among her co-stars.
Screenwriter Dan Gilroy made one of the more impressive directorial debuts in recent memory with his 2015 hit Nightcrawler ; his 2017 follow-up, Roman J. Israel, Esq., was, um, not as well-received. So, perhaps understandably, he’s playing it very safe with movie number three, attempting to recreate the magic of Nightcrawler by reuniting with its stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Part suspense and part art-world satire, the picture also stars Toni Collette, John Malkovich, Daveed Diggs, and Natalia Dyer, and if you’re mad about waiting to see it, don’t worry; it’s a Netflix original, landing on the service on February 1.
Sometimes these festival titles require extensive explanations – summaries of themes, CVs of those involved, situation within the current indie landscape. And sometimes you can sum it up in a line and that’s all you need to know. Little Monsters is about Lupita Nyong’o, Josh Gad, and a bunch of kindergarteners fighting zombies, so yeah, it’s one of the latter.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Nyong’o’s 12 Years a Slave co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor is back at Sundance, and he got ambitious: he not only stars in this Netflix original, but writes and directs as well (it’s his feature debut in those arenas, following two short films). He tells the true story of William Kamkwamba, a brilliant young man from rural Malawi whose academic brilliance could lead to a better future than that of his farmer father (Ejiofor). When the drought and flood cycle of the area puts his schooling on pause and their entire community in danger, William’s mechanical ingenuity could save the day.
Few things on this earth were considered squarer than liking Everybody Loves Raymond, and sorry, guilty as charged; that series excelled in the increasingly rare form of the three-camera family comedy, and in had an invaluable asset in Ray Romano, whose oddball charisma and sprung timing came to full flower over its long run. It’s been a pleasure to watch him stretch in the years since, taking chances with more serious work like Men of a Certain Age, Vinyl, and The Big Sick, forming nuanced characters while maintaining the shaggy likability and crackerjack comic sensibility that makes him unique. And this Netflix original – co-starring Mark Duplass, who co-writes with director Alex Lehmann (Blue Jay) – looks to add some interesting ripples to his persona.
Blinded by the Light
One of the finest movies of Sundance ’16 was Sing Street , director John Carney’s intoxicatingly charming story about pop music-obsessed Irish teens in the mid-1980s. Blinded by the Light sounds, simply put, like the British version of that story, set in Thatcher’s England circa 1987 – but with the added wrinkle of race thrown into the mix (its protagonist is a British Pakistani teen). The comparison isn’t meant to minimize; hell, I’ll take an ‘80s pop teen movie from every country that wants to make one, and this one comes to us from Gurinder Chadha, the skilled director behind Bend It Like Beckham.
Another intriguing follow-up from a promising alum, Ms. Purpleis the work of actor-turned-director Justin Chon, whose Gook premiered two Sundances ago. That film, an intimate character study set on the day of the 1992 L.A. uprising, had some young-filmmaker flaws, but enough energy and intensity to make you wonder what he could do with more resources. We’ll find out with this story of a Koreatown hostess desperately trying to earn enough money to care for her sick father, while attempting to realign her disconnected family.
Watch this space for more from this year’s festival, including a round-up of capsule reviews at its conclusion; follow me on Twitter for reactions from the ground.