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Sundance Film Festival's 2019 lineup leans toward diversity, discovery and (hotter than usual) documentaries

Sundance Film Festival's 2019 lineup leans toward diversity, discovery and (hotter than usual) documentaries
Michelle Williams, left, and Julliane Moore in a still from "After the Wedding," directed by Bart Freundlich, Moore's husband. A remake of the 2006 Danish film directed by Susanne Bier, the new movie will have its world premiere as part of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. (courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

With an unusual air of freshness and consolidation feeling like a newfound strength, the Sundance Film Festival unveiled its 2019 program Wednesday. The festival is banking on launching more than the usual number of discoveries, with sections ranging from the U.S. Dramatic competition to the adventuresome Next to the world cinema competitions dominated by new or emerging filmmakers.

Among the higher-profile entries from more established names in the Premieres section are Bart Freundlich’s “After the Wedding” with Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams; Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night,” starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling; “The Report,” with Adam Driver and Annette Bening; Bert & Bertie’s “Troupe Zero,” featuring Viola Davis and Allison Janney; and Dan Gilroy’s “Velvet Buzzsaw,” a Netflix thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo.

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From a record high of 14,259 submissions — including 4,018 feature films — 112 features from 33 countries have been selected to screen when the event unfurls in Utah from Jan. 24-Feb. 3.

At the end of last year’s festival, there was a prevalent feeling in the industry that it was an off-year, and no films seemed to dominate the conversation around the festival’s Park City hub. The festival did launch its share of commercial disappointments including Gus Van Sant’s biopic, “Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot,” the social satire “Assassination Nation,” Paul Dano’s critically hailed directorial debut “Wildlife” and dramatic competition prizewinner “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”

But the 2018 slate also produced multiple box-office winners, from wide-release successes for horror breakout “Hereditary” and the John Cho-led thriller “Searching,” to smaller-scaled wins for “Sorry To Bother You” and “Eighth Grade” and the startling results of powerhouse documentary trifecta “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “RBG” and “Three Identical Strangers.”

The 2019 festival will be the first under new director of programming Kim Yutani, a programmer with the festival since 2006, who had also been director of programming and artistic director at LA’s Outfest. Yutani noted the learning curve of her new position — “it’s been a lot more meetings” — and sees her work in continuity with the longstanding mission of the festival.

“Sundance is a place for independent voices and for people who are taking risks and people who are telling stories in a different way — that's always what I'm looking for,” Yutani said in an interview from the LA offices of the Sundance Institute earlier this week.

“And I'm always looking for the voices of people who are not part of the mainstream,” she said. “So whether that be the women in our program, the people of color, LGBTQ voices, I think that these are all of real interest to me. And to be able to be in this position and to give those voices a platform is an honor.”

The festival recently announced that it is making its submission and acceptance data transparently available for a research project in partnership with Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The festival included more detailed demographic breakdowns of its filmmakers as part of this year’s announcement.

Of the 61 directors of the 56 films playing across four competition categories, 42% are women; 39%, people of color; and 23%, people who identify as LGBTQ.

In the 16-film U.S. dramatic competition section, arguably the centerpiece of the festival, 53% of the directors are women; 41%, people of color; and 18%, LGBTQ.

“I think it is always our goal for gender parity throughout all our sections,” said Yutani. “So in that way, it is intentional, but also, the work has to hold up on its own. And I think that our U.S. dramatic competition is really strong, the strongest we've had in many years. And so I'm happy that it organically worked out that way too.”

In the U.S. Documentary Competition, which also includes 16 films, 44% of the directors are women, 22% are people of color and 5% identity as LGBT.

“I always go back to the core that we like films that represent the world we live in,” said festival director John Cooper. “And the world we live in is diverse … there's lots of stories that haven't been told; there's lots of cultures in America that haven't really been represented yet. I just think they make good stories; they're just interesting.”

Geraldine Viswanathan in "Hala," about a Muslim teen torn between two cultural identities.
Geraldine Viswanathan in "Hala," about a Muslim teen torn between two cultural identities. (Sundance)

Filmmaker Minhal Baig’s “Hala” premieres at the 2019 festival as part of the U.S. dramatic competition. The film stars “Blockers” breakout Geraldine Viswanathan in the story of a Muslim teen torn between two cultural identities.

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“It's pretty exciting,” said Baig of getting into the festival, on the phone in Los Angeles this week while taking a break from her job as a story editor on the animated series “Bojack Horseman.”

“Sundance manages to really celebrate the independent spirit of filmmaking,” she added. “And so I'm especially grateful to have my film premiere there, because I went this past January for just two days and it was really just a very different environment. The atmosphere is very much charged with making your own movies and sharing your stories. There's a different energy there.”

The U.S. Dramatic competition will also include Jason Orley’s “Big Time Adolescence,” starring Pete Davidson; Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” starring Awkwafina; and Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy,” written by and starring Shia LaBeouf.

Other U.S. competition titles include Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Justin Chon’s “Ms. Purple,” Pippa Bianco’s “Share,” Michael Tyburski’s “The Sound of Silence,” and Martha Stephens’ “To the Stars.”

Playing as part of the Premieres section, “Late Night,” written by Mindy Kaling, stars Emma Thompson as a TV talk show host who hires her only female staff writer (Kaling) and the two women eke out a friendship. The story is rooted in Kaling’s own experiences as a fledgling comedy writer.

“I felt like that was something I would really want to watch,” Kaling said, from a parked car in London, where she is shooting a series adaptation of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” for Hulu. “And I think that was a story that Emma really wanted to watch… And because the two of us are the storytellers in this movie, we get to tell the story the way that we see it, which we don’t get to see a lot.”

Mindy Kaling in "Late Night."
Mindy Kaling in "Late Night." (Sundance)

Traditionally spotlighting titles with higher profile talent, the Premieres section is where many of the most acquisitions-ready titles appear. Also playing in the section this year is Freundlich’s “After the Wedding,” a gender-swapped remake of the Oscar-nominated 2006 Danish film of the same name directed by Susanne Bier. The new film stars Moore, Williams, Billy Crudup and Abby Quinn.

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The director was first at Sundance with his 1997 debut feature, “The Myth of Fingerprints,” which also featured Moore. (The two are now married.).

“What I really remember is the incredible audiences,” said Freundlich, from a parked car on New York’s Upper West Side a few days ago. “In a way, it spoils you because it's not necessarily like that in the outside world.”

Other titles looking to generate buzz in the Premieres section include Joe Berlinger’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” in which Zac Efron plays serial killer Ted Bundy; Jacob Estes’ sci-fi thriller “Relive,” starring David Oyelowo, Storm Reid and Brian Tyree Henry; and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s feature directing debut, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”

The breakout success of several of last year’s documentary premieres is sure to draw even more attention to the festival’s perennially stellar nonfiction premieres. This year’s slate includes docs about or featuring such high profile names as Dr. Ruth, David Crosby, Mike Wallace, Toni Morrison, Miles Davis, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the late Anton Yelchin, as well as docs profiling Harvey Weinstein and Roy Cohn.

In the Midnight section, which frequently is home to some of the festival’s biggest commercial breakouts including “The Blair Witch Project,” “Saw” and “Hereditary,” titles include Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe’s suburban satire “Greener Grass”; Abe Forsythe’s “Little Monsters,” starring Lupita Nyong’o; Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary “Memory – The Origins of Alien”; JD Dillard’s “Sweetheart” and “Goodnight Mommy” directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s “The Lodge.”

Among the most notable titles in the Spotlight section, which features films that have premiered at other festival’s is the North American premiere of Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale.” Kent’s previous film, “The Babadook,” premiered as part of Sundance’s Midnight section in 2014.

For Yutani, this year’s mix of personal stories, political themes, fresh discoveries and known faces feels just right.

“Everything has kind of crystallized, we got all the films we wanted,” Yutani said. “And it felt like all the hard work finally just clearly just paid off this year. I'm really proud to just be here, for there to be so many exciting films and filmmakers that people are going to discover. This year, it's very exciting.”

Additional titles and more information on this year’s lineup can be found on the official Sundance site.

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