Critics' Debate: What Is a "Sundance Movie"? 2019 Edition Broadens the Picture

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Clockwise from top left: 'The Farewell,' 'Give Me Liberty,' 'Selah and the Spades' and 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco.'

This year's Sundance Film Festival featured movies both good and bad, but was — with one conspicuous area of exception — a model of inclusivity, continuing to expand and challenge its own identity.

JON FROSCH  Now that we’re recovering from the whirlwind of screenings, schlepping and sleep deprivation that is the Sundance Film Festival, let’s look back. The question frequently posed among friends and colleagues during the fest is: Is it a good year?

It’s a tricky one to answer. While some editions are almost indisputably strong (2017 comes to mind, with exciting breakouts like Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, Mudbound and The Big Sick, as well as lower-profile beauties like God’s Own Country and the doc Quest), most are harder to define qualitatively. The volume and variety of selections at Sundance is such that two people can see two entirely different sets of movies and come away with two entirely different impressions.

Perhaps a smarter question to ask at this point is how relevant the festival feels: how fully it engages with the issues currently preoccupying the industry; how much space it allows for interesting voices we haven’t heard enough of; and whether it sets compelling new priorities and standards not just for festival programming, but for independent film in general.

By those metrics, it would be hard to argue that Sundance 2019 didn’t deliver. This has become a markedly different festival over the past several years. For proof, one need only consider how the implied meaning of that sometimes disparagingly employed term “Sundance movie” has changed. It used to connote a certain kind of lily-white angst/quirk-athon a la Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine or Napoleon Dynamite. Of course, there have been Sundance hits that didn’t fit that description — Beasts of the Southern Wild and Precious, to name two semi-recent ones. But the festival and the kind of cinema it exemplifies have evolved and expanded in large part as a result of the programmers’ resolute focus on diversity. This year, across the four competition categories, 39% of the filmmakers were people of color, and more than half the directors in the U.S. Dramatic Competition were women.

So what does a “Sundance movie” look like in 2019? Maybe something like The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s bittersweet, winningly crafted autobiographical crowdpleaser about a young Chinese-American woman (Awkwafina, flaunting impressive dramatic range) who travels to China to visit her ailing grandmother and finds herself tangled in a family plan to hide the dire diagnosis from the patient. With an almost exclusively Asian and Asian-American cast and a story that delicately explores the complexities of immigrant experience and identity in America, The Farewell, rapturously received and picked up by A24, is both a fine movie and a vibrant embodiment of the inclusivity that’s now the fest’s defining ethos.

DAVID ROONEY  I think the spirit of the festival to some extent has always been about inclusion. But 10 or 20 years ago, that primarily meant simply embracing work from outside the mainstream, the majority of which nonetheless was still being made by white, male filmmakers. I can remember more than one year coming away from Park City and feeling somewhat exhausted by the narrowness of the perspective — starved for a culturally distinct point of view. That paradigm has shifted over the years, particularly in the last few, when it’s been happening at an accelerated rate. The push for diversity may have been ramped up partly as a corrective response first to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and second to the double whammy of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, but it's borne fruit across the entire field of the main competitions, the NEXT discovery platform and the increasingly lively World sections.

African-American and/or women filmmakers have been the key beneficiaries, but the festival has become more receptive also to Asian/Asian-American, Latino, Arab-American and Middle Eastern voices. As evidence of how the old notion of a "Sundance movie" has become obsolete, I'd point to two films I thought were among the standouts of this year's U.S. Dramatic and Doc competitions: The Farewell, which Jon mentioned, and One Child Nation. Both are uniquely personal stories that draw a line connecting the American vantage point of the filmmakers to their family histories in China.

The tender, ultimately joyful The Farewell considers the clash between old-country traditional values and Westernized new-world attitudes in ways that feel entirely fresh. And the shattering force of One Child Nation is due in part to the emotional transparency with which one of the female filmmakers, Nanfu Wang, puts herself in the picture — not in any attention-seeking way, but as an immigrant settled in America and experiencing motherhood for the first time, sifting through family secrets that barely intruded on her consciousness as a child in China. That intimate jumping-off point then expands to take in the tragic ripple effects of a restrictive national policy that even Wang’s mother still refuses to criticize. For a movie running just 85 minutes, this is an incredibly dense and shocking reflection on living under the all-seeing eye of a controlling government. It really shook me.

BEANDREA JULY  As a first-time Sundance critic, I can't make comparisons with past years. But I did notice that some of the most talked-about films were well-written, deeply personal stories that centered women and people of color. The Last Black Man in San Francisco was the last movie I saw at the fest, and it completely blew me away. Having lived in Oakland for several years and being familiar with the locations in the movie, I found it very authentic and just so, so beautiful. I loved the portrayal of this close friendship between two black men (played by Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors) and the love of the main character for his city; the movie really nails how important a sense of place is to a person's identity and well-being — and how much that isn't factored into conversations about gentrification. I hope we'll be talking about this movie all year, that it has a trajectory similar to Moonlight in terms of reception by audiences and Hollywood (A24 is releasing it). 

I’m also excited to see how audiences receive Late Night, a comedy (bought by Amazon) about the difficult relationship between an acerbic late-night host (Emma Thompson) and her new writing staff hire (Mindy Kaling). I think it's going to start some interesting conversations about Hollywood. (Also, I haven't been able to stop thinking about that scene where Thompson's character talks about her experience with clinical depression. Get your think pieces ready!)

TODD MCCARTHY  Beandrea, I’m delighted to read your reaction to The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which was by far the best narrative film I saw and stands as a perfect blend of a very particular personal story and a larger expression about a city, social change and an individual's reckoning with family and where he grew up. Every scene is fresh and unpredictable, visual poetry and realism are exquisitely woven together and for quite a long time there's no way to know where it's going. Not so many films these days are so expressive of their specific settings. Here, the observations about the city and how it’s changed — from the team of director/co-writer Joe Talbot, co-writer Rob Richert and the "story by" team of Talbot and his lifelong best friend and the film's star Jimmie Fails (Talbot is white, Fails is black) — are very keenly expressed. It’s one of the most distinctive debuts I've seen in a long time.

As far as portraits of a city go, you don't get to see too much of Chicago in modern artist Rashid Johnson's ambitious, resourceful but nonetheless problematic adaptation of Richard Wright's landmark 1940 novel Native Son. It's always interesting to see creative people established in one field try their hand at another, and Johnson clearly has a feel for cinema, an instinct for avoiding cliche and does well by his actors. There are too many unreconciled narrative issues for the film to really succeed, but I hope Johnson tries again with more workable material for the current day.

JON FROSCH  I’ll happily echo your love for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, one of a half-handful of movies I saw at this year’s fest that gave me that adrenaline-shot sense of discovery which is, ultimately, why we come to Sundance.

My absolute fave, though — and a film that also richly and boldly epitomizes the diversity Sundance has embraced — was Kirill Mikhanovsky's Give Me Liberty, a glorious comedy of chaos, solidarity and unsung heroism. Premiering in the NEXT sidebar, the movie follows a Russian-American medical transport driver in Milwaukee (the quietly charismatic Chris Galust) as he shuttles around various intellectually and physically disabled passengers — including a young black woman with ALS (Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, sensational) — as well as a rowdy group of elderly Russian immigrants. Rough but deceptively sophisticated, full of heart but never sentimental or calculated, the film pulls you right into the roiling mess of the American melting pot with an immediacy that’s by turns uncomfortable, joyful and joltingly hilarious. This is a movie that never flinches at grim realities (the story unfolds on a day of protest against police brutality), but locates unexpected resilience in a societal fabric that often seems, these days, to be unraveling at a frightening pace. As of now, it has no distributor; I hope that changes soon.

Another movie I loved at Sundance this year portrayed people on the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum. In Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (a World Dramatic title to be released by A24) a bashfully posh British film student (a revelatory turn from Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda’s daughter) falls for a worldly chap who also happens to be a drug addict. With a formal precision and coolness that come off as organic and honest rather than fussed-over and affected, the movie is a deeply intelligent tale of emotional and artistic coming of age. It’s also about how class and culture inform our choices and shape our experiences, filling us with guilt and fueling us with hunger for things we don’t know. In other words, it’s about that ubiquitously batted-about concept, “privilege.” Which means that, as odd a fit as it might seem for a festival that’s increasingly making room for stories of struggle or marginalization, the movie, in its way, feels timely and topical.

LESLIE FELPERIN  Jon, as you note, we all end up having very different festivals because of the way the programme has grown, but there are a few titles I think we overlap on — and The Souvenir is one of them. I’m still digesting, it and I can’t wait to see the next installment in this semi-autobiographical series (which reportedly will pair Swinton Byrne with Robert Pattinson). I think it may be Hogg’s best film yet. It certainly has the richest, broadest emotional palette, which is not to dis the earlier films that had their own exquisite austerity. But with The Souvenir, the filmmaker literally gets the story out and about far more than in her earlier works, which tended to stay stuck largely in one place. The cast is bigger, and there are more edits. Even the cinematography is different, perhaps because she’s working for the first time with a brilliant upcoming DP, David Raedeker, who shot Brit films My Brother the Devil and Hector. I just loved it and felt moved to tears at moments.

Another quasi-Brit film I loved at the fest this year — I say quasi because it was actually entirely filmed in Australia — was Judy & Punch, from Aussie actor-turned-writer-director Mirrah Foulkes. Like The Souvenir, this was in the increasingly impressive World Dramatic Competition, the programming of which gets better every year. Judy & Punch is a sui generis delight, a film that riffs on Blighty’s traditional, misogynist and monstrous Punch and Judy shows and turns the material into a live-action feminist revenge story starring Mia Wasikowska as Judy, the put-upon wife of alcoholic puppeteer Punch (Damon Herriman). I was impressed by the film’s control of abrupt tonal shifts, and I dug the way it (similarly to quite a few films these days, like The Favourite) doesn’t give a hoot about obeying period convention. 

DAVID ROONEY  I completely share the enthusiasm for the brilliant The Souvenir, which manages to be both aesthetically cool and surprisingly raw in its illuminating insights into being a young artist in dangerous romantic thrall to an overpowering influence. And on the exhilarating discovery of Give Me Liberty, I’ll just add: How often do we get to witness the freewheeling collision of three different marginalized communities — elderly Russian immigrants, low-income African-Americans and people with disabilities — in a real-world story that treats all of them with such humanistic generosity? I came away from that really wanting to know what happens between the van driver and the young black woman with ALS, but the ability to create a life for his characters that goes beyond the crazy, absurdist frame of his story is just part of what makes Mikhanovsky’s sublimely scrappy little movie so special.

BEANDREA JULY  Give Me Liberty showed in the NEXT section, which also featured one of my favorites from the fest: Selah and the Spades, about competing student factions at a Pennsylvania boarding school. This movie was so refreshing. It had such a clear point of view, and didn't waiver from it. It also had a stellar overall team: writer-director Tayarisha Poe, DP Jomo Fray, production designer Valeria De Felice, editor Kate Abernathy, the sound team — each contribution really elevated a film that could've easily fallen flat without proper execution. In the Q&A after the premiere, Poe and Fray talked about this concept of "savage formalism" (“savage,” as in channeling Rihanna — not the anthropological term), and it was clear they had developed a strong visual language and collaborative dynamic. I hope this film gets distribution, but nothing's been announced yet. This is what I hope Sundance is today: a place that helps filmmakers get through that career hump of their first film without sacrificing their unique vision for commercial considerations. 

TODD MCCARTHY  One debut feature I saw that felt a bit like a “Sundance movie” of yore was playwright-turned-writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon, about a heavy young woman (played by Jillian Bell) who loses weight and starts training as a runner. The filmmaker definitely knows what he's doing, writes excellent glib and funny dialogue and scored a huge sale to Amazon. And the movie is indeed hilarious in the early-going. But then it becomes more serious and plays its politically correct cards too thoroughly.

Late Night was another movie that I thought showed its politically correct cards a bit too obviously. Is it not pre-ordained how a story like this is going to play out? Is there going to be anything unexpected whatsoever? Watching an agenda-driven film (especially at Sundance) is almost like watching a comedy with a laugh-track, because you know exactly where the audience is going to whoop and holler based exclusively upon some character saying or doing the right thing. Let's just say the surprise factor in films like this is minimal.

BEANDREA JULY  I’m not sure I agree about Late Night, Todd. Sure, we know that Kaling’s Molly is going to succeed in some way by the end. But looking at how Thompson's character initially clings to the status quo (including a writers’ room that’s literally a boys’ club) for her survival makes you wonder how the hell that's going to happen. I was drawn to the way Kaling (who wrote the film) and director Nisha Ganatra peel back the layers revealing how Thompson's character became the dinosaur she is, how she succeeded as a unicorn in a male-dominated industry. Certain famous male late-night hosts have been known to have a habit of sleeping with their female staff, and I thought it was interesting that Late Night examined this very situation but with the tables turned (Thompson’s character has an affair with one of her male writers). And let's face it, that writers' room made up of all white dudes in the beginning of the movie is pretty accurate if you look at most staffs on late-night shows today.

DAVID ROONEY  The challenge of getting to anything beyond your own review assignments means I missed both Late Night and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, perhaps the movie about which I heard the strongest consensus. But I was quite taken with a U.S. Dramatic Competition entry that flew under the radar but got under my skin: First-time feature director Michael Tyburski’s The Sound of Silence. On paper, this is a drama that sounds arid and rarefied — about a “house tuner,” who uses science and music theory to remove the sonic kinks causing depression, anxiety or stress in the homes of New Yorkers. And upon initial approach, Peter Sarsgaard’s Zen-like performance in the central role might make it seem even more remote and unrelatable. But as his shell of composure is slowly pierced by a tentative relationship with Rashida Jones’ lonely Ohio transplant, and then by a series of betrayals and disappointments, the film becomes a haunting contemplation of how we perceive the world around us and how that impacts our ability to connect with others. 

I also want to single out Grand Jury Prize winner Clemency, the remarkable character study of a death-row prison warden by writer-director Chinonye Chukwu that acquires a great deal of its power through restraint and stillness. It’s interesting that despite her extensive work in programs involving incarcerated women, Chukwu chose to make her primary focus not a character behind bars but a person on the other side of the picture, living with the corrosive moral conflict of her role in the taking of human lives. There’s not an ounce of preachiness in this movie, because everything is stated so plainly in the haunted eyes of Alfre Woodard in a towering performance that ranks easily among her best. And while the drama deftly sidesteps overt discussion of race, centering the story on a black prison warden whose detachment begins crumbling as she prepares for the execution of a black man who may be innocent (played by Aldis Hodge in a searing performance) speaks volumes about the imbalances of the American justice system.

LESLIE FELPERIN  Speaking of imbalances, injustice and institutional dysfunction, how about the docs this year? Ursula Macfarlane’s Untouchable offered a solid overview of the Harvey Weinstein scandal — which oddly made no mention, nor did anyone at the Q&A I attended, of the fact that he was such a big macher here at Sundance (and, as it turns out, the town was a venue for some of his alleged sexual assaults). Amy Berg’s portrait of Women’s March activists Tamika Mallory and Erika Andiola, This Is Personal, was serviceable, though deprives the viewer of girl-power uplift as it ends on a troubling note of dissent among the founders of the movement.

On the other hand, the genuinely consciousness-raising Knock Down the House, Rachel Lears’ doc about four insurgent Democrats (including charismatic rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) challenging incumbents in the last U.S. midterm elections, was a knockout — and not just because it’s hard not to fall in love with smart, sassy, super-geek AOC. The filmmaking was just great in general. 

TODD MCCARTHY  Sundance is always loaded with terrific documentaries, and the most bracing one I caught was unquestionably Cold Case Hammarskjold. It seems to be in the blood of crazy/brave maverick Dane Mads Brugger to always push one step further, and then another, beyond where other people would go, and here he reaches back into the past to resurrect the mystery of the death of U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in a plane crash in Africa in 1961. Whether Brugger actually gets closer to the truth than anyone else has or was simply on a wild goose chase is open to question, but the spectacle of a smart and resourceful guy like this pushing, questioning, pushing again and then some more is both exhilarating and sometimes very funny.

BEANDREA JULY  I was relieved that I enjoyed the Toni Morrison doc, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a white man, directed it and that annoyed me at first because Morrison's work is so unapologetically black. But he seemed to anticipate that criticism and worked hard to interrogate blind spots, although I wish the film had delved a touch more into her personal life. That said, the doc is already chock-full; Morrison is almost 90 years old, and Greenfield-Sanders is thoughtful in figuring out how to present an overload of info. He also uses a perhaps unexpected visual motif: art from contemporary black artists like Mickalene Thomas, Lorna Simpson and Glenn Ligon, which grounds the film in a really nice way.

What about disappointments? My biggest Sundance letdown this year was Blinded by the Light,  about a British-Pakistani teenager in Thatcher’s England who falls in love with Bruce Springsteen’s music. Gurinder Chadha is one of my favorite filmmakers (mainly for Bhaji on the Beach), so I hate writing this. But I think you had to come into the film with a prior love of Springsteen to really feel moved by it. Bruce is fine, but I'm no superfan and so it really was uninteresting to me.

JON FROSCH  There were several entries I saw that I found underwhelming, which is not a big deal; even the best film festivals program some mediocre movies. I think the most disappointing thing for me about Sundance 2019 was what a lackluster edition it seemed to be for queer cinema. (You know it’s an off year in that regard if the Roy Cohn doc is being touted as one of the LGBT-themed selections of interest.) Sure, there was Rhys Ernst’s Adam (in NEXT), a tiny but very sweet comedy about a teenage boy (the terrific Nicholas Alexander) who goes to spend the summer in New York City with his older sister — and ends up, via a major misunderstanding, passing as a trans man. Besides that, though, there were few films centering LGBT lives (and even Adam is primarily about a cisgendered, straight person).

It’s hard not to feel that — apart from the ongoing discussion about authenticity and fairness in the casting and portrayal of trans characters — issues of queer representation tend to be sidelined in conversations about inclusivity. (And sorry, saying Bohemian Rhapsody wasn’t gay enough does not qualify as a particularly useful contribution to the dialogue in my book). This is a blind spot, even for “woke” critics who admirably devote a lot of space to arguing for the importance of movies by and about women and people of color, but somehow leave LGBT folks out of their calculus.

DAVID ROONEY  I agree that queer films tend to be overlooked in the diversity conversation — almost as if we’re now considered part of the mainstream in the “post-equality” world, but don’t get me started on that — and given the important role Sundance has played in launching the careers of so many talented LGBTQ filmmakers (Lisa Cholodenko, Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Dee Rees, Ira Sachs, just to name a handful), representation this year did seem meager. Maybe the selection field just didn’t yield many gems in that area? Either way, it’s dispiriting when, as you say, the highest-profile “queer” film in the festival is a doc profiling a self-loathing closet case known as “The Killer Queen,” whom none of us want to claim as one of our own, least of all for his role in the making of Donald Trump.

Other than that, my chief disappointments at Sundance this year were in the Midnight section. There doesn’t appear to have been a breakout on the level of, say, The Babadook or Hereditary. Based on two boldly assured and distinctive first films, Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow and Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy, I had high hopes for those directors’ second features, respectively Wounds and The Lodge. But despite the fun of watching Armie Hammer stretch himself into the mind-warping body-horror territory of a cockroach-infested living hell in the former and Riley Keough keeping you guessing as to whether she’s victim or aggressor in the latter, both were letdowns. But they were infinitely preferable to another quintessential Midnight movie that somehow found its way into the Premieres section, Grant Sputore’s I Am Mother, which squanders its impressive design work and a fabulous robot (voiced by Rose Byrne) on a derivative mix of everything from the Alien and Terminator movies through the far superior Ex Machina.

TODD MCCARTHY  The worst film I saw was a biopic of the celebrated Norwegian ice skater Sonja Henie, called Sonja: The White Swan. Yes, it is the story of a woman who won multiple Olympic gold medals (under Hitler's approving eye) in Berlin and then became, for a time in the 1940s, one of Hollywood's biggest stars. It's questionable how interesting this story would have been to today's public even under favorable circumstances, but Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky doesn't have a clue: The film has no feel for the Hollywood of the period, the music is violently electrified, which allows for no sense of what Henie's shows were like, and none of the characters are well-defined. This is a film about one of the most famous and wealthy women of the first half of the 20th century, yet we learn nothing that feels true about her, except that she was a user of the first order. Sorry to close this conversation on a negative note, but even good editions of the best festivals feature their share of stinkers.