Hollywood Reporter Critics Pick the 20 Best Films of Sundance 2019

6:30 AM 2/3/2019

by THR Staff

A doc on the King of Pop, star vehicles for Alfre Woodard and Awkwafina and a thriller starring Annette Bening as Sen. Dianne Feinstein are among faves from the fest (below in alphabetical order).

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

  • 'Clemency'

    Eric Branco/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Alfre Woodard gives an extraordinary performance of deep feeling and admirable restraint as a prison warden internalizing the weight of her responsibility over state executions in writer-director Chinonye Chukwu's powerful drama. But it's the humanity and compassion invested across all the principal characters that make this contemplative examination of the terrible burden of taking a life so commanding. Elegantly shot in widescreen compositions loaded with meaning, the film is never less than engrossing and often acutely affecting. — DAVID ROONEY

  • 'Cold Case Hammarskjold'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Danish provocateur Mads Brugger's funny, gripping new doc takes him to Africa as he investigates the death of Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish economist who became Secretary-General of the UN in 1953. In 1961, Hammarskjold died in an airplane crash, but almost immediately, rumors began that the accident was no accident. Brugger's most satisfyingly unsatisfying effort is a conspiracy-fueled murder mystery with some hilarious meta-commentary. — DANIEL FIENBERG

  • 'David Crosby: Remember My Name'

    Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

    Looking back not in anger, but with wry amusement, regret and a big, fat joint at the ready, rock star David Crosby reflects on his life and career in A.J. Eaton’s doc, produced by Cameron Crowe. The result is a touching, nostalgia-infused portrait that’s imbued with affection for its horny, ornery but consistently charismatic subject. Remarkably, it never comes across as hagiographic; it feels honest and insightful about a talented dude who hit the 1960s-'70s L.A. music scene just when the city became the hippest place on Earth for a while. — LESLIE FELPERIN

     

  • 'The Disappearance of My Mother'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Italian filmmaker Beniamino Barrese helms an alternately tender and tempestuous doc about his mother, feminist fashion model and intellectual Benedetta Barzini, who was discovered at 20 on the streets of Rome by an editor of Italian Vogue. Barrese wants to enshrine the woman who raised him at the same time as he wants to embalm her, and she's willing to indulge him only to a point.  His obsession and her resistance intertwine, sometimes gently, sometimes explosively. It’s a slippery, ultimately very moving film. — KEITH UHLICH

  • 'Divine Love'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro (Neon Bull) tackles sex and religion in his latest, a futuristic drama about a devout evangelical office clerk (local star Dira Paes) who is involved with a cultish self-help group and struggling to get pregnant. Gorgeously shot and produced, impressively acted and with a lot of fascinating things on its mind, this is yet further proof that the 35-year-old is one of Brazil's most audacious and gifted filmmakers of his generation. — BOYD VAN HOEIJ

  • 'The Farewell'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Awkwafina brings her trademark insouciance plus lots of soulful feeling to her role as the daughter of Chinese immigrants forced to go along with the family's deception of her terminally ill grandmother in Lulu Wang's bittersweet, poignant comedy-drama. The filmmaker's deep personal investment and keen-eyed observation of complex cultural dynamics make this a gentle delight. — D.R.

  • 'Give Me Liberty'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Russian emigre writer-director Kirill Mikhanovsky's comedy, based on his experience as a transport driver shuttling people with disabilities around Milwaukee, is wonderfully anarchic, welding its farcical structure to a humanistic portrait of marginalized communities — immigrants, low-income African-Americans, the handicapped — coming together. — D.R.

  • 'Honeyland'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Set in a desolate corner of the Balkan Peninsula and shot over a three-year period, the exceptional debut doc from Macedonian directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska is an unforgettable vérité character study and an intimate look at an endangered tradition: wild beekeeping, or bee hunting. The film's central character, Hatidze Muratova, is said to be the only woman in Europe still carrying on the practice in the old-school way, in harmony with the insects. Her trust in the directors is evident in the remarkable access she's granted them. — SHERI LINDEN

  • 'The Infiltrators'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Mixing interviews, real-time action and reenactment in exciting ways, Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra's doc tells the inspiring story of a group of undocumented teens who, in 2012, let themselves be caught and put in a for-profit detention center, with a bold plan to get other detainees (and themselves) out. As debates over immigration continue to rage, the film is urgently essential and a thrilling watch. — JOHN DEFORE

  • 'The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Oscar-winning documaker Alex Gibney weaves a riveting tale of hubris and deception around Elizabeth Holmes, who built a $9 billion business, news-making startup Theranos, out of her overreaching dream of a biomedicine revolution. It’s an astonishing case of idealism morphing into egomania, unpacked in a briskly compelling narrative enlivened with sharp interviews, resourceful footage and terrific computer graphics. — D.R.

  • 'Judy & Punch'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Utterly bonkers but also sort of brilliant, writer-director Mirrah Foulkes’ film creates an origin story for the traditional British puppet show (usually known as Punch and Judy), resulting in a tonally complex comedy-drama about spousal abuse, infant mortality and misogyny told with magic tricks, puppets and slapstick. That he manages to pull this off, with assistance from a strong cast — led by Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman in the lead roles — and a smart technical team, is even more impressive given this is also the Australian actor's first feature. — L.F.

  • 'Knock Down the House'

    Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

    With seductive emotional power, Rachel Lears' doc follows four progressive women, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ran against incumbent Democrats in the midterm elections of 201 8. It's a vibrant snapshot of the left's fastest-rising star and also limns an extraordinary juncture in American politics when the landscape terraformed in a way that we still haven't finished mapping. — L.F.

  • 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

    Peter Prato/A24

    This joins the ranks of great San Francisco films with the fresh, original story of two black outcasts (Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors) navigating the city they grew up in, one that has changed so dramatically. Joe Talbot's artful, often quietly hilarious debut feature powerfully ponders the question of whether you can find home again once you've lost it. — TODD MCCARTHY

  • 'Leaving Neverland'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Wade Robson and James Safechuck accuse Michael Jackson of years of molestation in Dan Reed's harrowing, persuasive four-hour HBO docuseries, which shows why sometimes it takes a long time and some missteps to finally tell your truth. Part of what makes the doc so fascinating, and so distinctive, is that it's as much about victims covering up what happened as it is about the alleged crimes themselves. — D.F.

  • 'One Child Nation'

    Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

    Documakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang peel back the propaganda legitimizing China's now dissolved population-control policy to expose a history of human rights violations in this shattering account of collective trauma. Densely informative yet always grounded in compassion, it's a powerful indictment of an experiment whose success was making people believe it was necessary. — D.R.

     

  • 'Premature'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Rashaad Ernesto Green's lovely slice of NYC naturalism focuses on a black teen (spiky, radiant Zora Howard) and her transformative fling with an older man, but it also offers a broader look at Harlem today — both its vibrancy and the entrenched systemic challenges faced by many of its residents. The result is sweet, sexy and quietly wrenching. — JON FROSCH

  • 'The Report'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Audaciously cerebral and granular, Scott Z. Burns' dramatization of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee's 2014 probe into the CIA's use of torture post-9/11 is practically porn for policy wonks. Starring a focused Adam Driver as Dan Jones, the researcher who compiled the report, and Annette Bening as his boss, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, this fascinating film offers counterprogramming for anyone who felt Vice was too juvenile and lightweight. — L.F.

  • 'Selah and the Spades'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    This debut feature from writer-director Tayarisha Poe immerses us in the world of the cunning yet charming senior head of one of five underground factions that dominate social life at a prestigious boarding school. Like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom or even Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, it’s a film that takes the world of its young characters seriously, but doesn’t feel like a YA drama. Quietly confident in its unconventional yet clear point of view, this visually sharp film signals a bright future for a its promising young maker. — BEANDREA JULY

  • 'The Sound of Silence'

    Eric Lin/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Peter Sarsgaard plays a "house tuner," providing sonic harmony to troubled Manhattan clients in Michael Tyburski's lovely contemplative drama, which deftly balances the cerebral with the soulful in a story of transfixing originality. There are echoes of the work of Michael Almereyda (Marjorie PrimeExperimenter) here in the coolly intellectual approach, graced with roiling emotional undercurrents and sly humor. — D.R. 

  • 'The Souvenir'

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda Swinton's daughter) gives a richly layered turn as an aspiring filmmaker drawn to Tom Burke's shifty stranger in Brit auteur Joanna Hogg's piercing, personal latest. The quiet Hitchcockian strains, revealing observations and confident technique will snag some deserved attention for this A24 acquisition. — D.R.

    This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.