119 movies were lucky to be selected as part of the 2019 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. Of the 119, I was able to watch 15. 15 films in four and half days isn’t anything to be ashamed of, but it might have been higher if I didn’t go on a mission to find The Rock and tell him he is my hero.
Unfortunately, I didn’t complete that mission, but I did see some great films and I am excited to tell you about my top 5.
There was a wide range of films I saw during my five days in the mountains of Utah: From films about serial killers to girl scout troops to post-apocalyptic robots repopulating the human race. There really is something for everyone at Sundance. This year might rank among the best Sundances I have been to in terms of the amount of good, entertaining films that I think have a chance at great success. Of the 15 I saw, I believe over a third of them have a relative shot at becoming breakout hits. In terms of marketability, accessibility, and entertainment wise, the potential of these films are limitless. Usually, at Sundance there are two to three movies that can become crossover hits like The Big Sick, Get Out or even an Eighth Grade. This year there are at least six movies that I truly think people could get behind and make them massive hits.
Honey Boy – Shia Lebouf announced his career resurgence with this incredibly moving, disturbing semi-autobiographical take on his childhood and recent time in rehab. Lebouf wrote this crushing script, and also delivers the best performance of his career as a character very reminiscent of his Father. The rest of the cast is outstanding, Lucas Hedges inhabits modern day Shia Lebouf, and it’s almost scary the resemblance, but it’s young actor Noah Jupe who plays child actor Otis, that really brings to life the tragedy that was Lebouf’s childhood. I hope this is just the beginning of many great things from Lebouf.
The Death of Dick Long – Swiss Army Man might be the greatest experience I have ever had at Sundance. The pure surprise and shock of what was happening on screen was cinematic magic. I couldn’t stop laughing and the joy I felt in that theater is nearly unrivaled. So when I heard that one of the Daniels who directed that film had a new movie at Sundance there was no way I was going to miss it. While it isn’t as shocking as Swiss Army Man, The Death of Dick Long is definitely unlike anything I have ever seen. The film follows two best friends in Alabama with a love of the worst music ever after their best friend is accidentally killed. What follows are the dumbest attempts to cover up their involvement in the murder and the best/worst soundtrack in memory that includes songs from Staind, P.O.D. and a moving rendition of “How You Remind Me” by Nickelback. I can’t stop thinking about this movie so I guess director Daniel Scheinert did it again!
5) Big Time Adolescence
Somewhere between Saturday Night Live and Ariana Grande, Pete Davidson became a pop culture icon and massively famous. When I discovered he was starring in a movie at Sundance I was skeptical but also very interested. From the first moment Davidson appears on screen it is certain he has what it takes to be a comedic star. Davidson completely nails his character as a low life kid in his early twenties who refuses to grow up and latches on to a young 16-year-old who worships the ground he walks on. This film has the best on-screen chemistry of the fest between Davidson and Griffin Gluck, who plays high-schooler Mo. The film provided some of the biggest laughs of the fest thanks to its hilarious screenplay, but it also hits home with a wonderful performance by Jon Cryer as Mo’s father. This film was definitely a cruder version of Eighth Grade but definitely touches on similar themes. With Davidson, I definitely think it has the chance to be seen by a lot of teenage girls, and it might just become a breakout hit.
4) The Farewell
Someone definitely had to be cutting onions in this theater, and yes, I definitely had something in my eye during about four scenes of this film… OK! I admit it! This film made me cry hard! It also resulted in my running out of the theater when it was over to call my Nana and tell her how much I love her. The Farewell, set in NYC and China, is led by Awkwafina, in a very surprising dramatic turn. Awkwafina learns her grandmother has cancer and her family has decided to all travel back to China to visit her. One catch though, they are staging a wedding of one of the cousins and everyone is sworn to secrecy that they will not tell the grandmother she has cancer. What results is a hilarious and touching take on family, life and different cultural traditions. Awkwafina is great along with a fantastic supporting cast and solid writing. There are some wonderfully touching moments in this film that will speak to just about everyone on this planet. It’s like My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets Crazy Rich Asians, it could definitely be the biggest mainstream hit of the festival.
3) Brittany Runs a Marathon
This is probably the most fun I had at any movie during the festival. The humor was right down my alley, Broad City meets Workaholics. Jillian Bell is an absolute revelation as the titular Brittany who discovers in a meeting with her Doctor she is considered obese and her lifestyle choices are damaging her health and could possibly become fatal. So Brittany puts down the bottle and VIP passes to nightclubs and picks up a pair of running shoes and joggers and heads for a run. What follows is a hilarious take on self-discovery and a great comedy as she decides to train to run the NYC marathon. The message this film has is empowering and the performances led by Bell are pitch perfect.
2) Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
This was definitely the most controversial and divisive film of the festival. For a more in-depth review, you can read my take on the film here. Efron’s performance was mesmerizing and this film is told in a way that most filmmakers would never have the courage to attempt. The decision to tell it from the perspective of Ted Bundy’s longtime girlfriend instead of giving a gruesome, dramatic retelling of his murders was bold and in my opinion a fantastic choice. It remains to be seen what traction this film gets and I wouldn’t be shocked if Efron gets Academy Award consideration. Perhaps the push back on the glamorization of a monster will keep that from happening, but hopefully the public can learn to appreciate what the film is trying to say.
1) Late Night
I am 100 percent confident in saying this will be a giant hit in theaters. The outstanding workplace comedy Late Night is written by and stars Mindy Kaling and it is the best thing she has ever done. This is definitely high praise for a writer and star of The Office and The Mindy Project. The comedy centers around Katherine Newbury, played by the incredible Emma Thompson. Newbury is the host of Late Night with Katherine Newbury, and is the female rival to Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon. However, Newbury refuses to adapt to the times and modern pop culture and this inability to evolve causes her ratings to slip and she is threatened to be replaced by a young, newer, fresher comedian.
Right around this time, Newbury decides to hire her first female writer. That woman is Molly Patel, played by Kaling, and somehow scores her first writing job even though her only previous work experience was working at a Chemical Plant. What follows is a hilarious film that touches on women in the workplace, changes in culture, and many more serious issues.
Late Night might be the best pop-corn, crowd-pleasing movie I have ever seen at Sundance. It has the right amount of laughs, star power and across the board accessible themes that catapult a movie to the top of the box office. Kaling is poised to be a massive superstar and Thompson gives a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. If this is the first time you are hearing about this movie I guarantee it will not be the last.
Full Slate of films I saw at Sundance:
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, Native Son, After the Wedding, Troop Zero, Honey Boy, Adam, Late Night, Sound of Silence, I am Mother, The Farewell, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Death of Dick Long, Big Time Adolescence, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Luce