Sundance 2019: From actress Mindy Kaling to sex guru Dr. Ruth, 35 must-see films

Film Critic

They don’t mine for ore in Park City, Utah, anymore. The days when the $50-million Ontario strike was considered the greatest silver mine in the world are gone. But people still come to this former mining town hoping to hit it big.

It is the Sundance Film Festival, starting its 2019 edition Thursday night, that draws the hopeful year after year the way these snowy hills lured miners once upon a time.

Instead of prospectors from places as far away as Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and even China, Sundance attracted 14,259 film submissions from a whopping 152 countries, almost double the 87 nations who compete for the foreign language Oscar.


All these films attract quite a crowd of free spenders. According to the festival in 2018, the event “drew 124,900 attendees from 49 states and 26 other countries, generated $191.6 million in economic activity for Utah and supported 3,323 local jobs.”

With all this hubbub, you can bet people are paying attention, as brands, organizations and celebrities pour into town in hopes of getting festival-goers to notice them and only them.

FULL COVERAGE: 2019 Sundance Film Festival »

It’s not only companies with movie connections but also the widest variety of entities, from Planned Parenthood and the Atlantic to Charlotte’s Web, involved in “innovative hemp-based CBD wellness products,” that feel the need to have a presence.

In addition to all this hoopla, obviously, films are shown here. Lots of them. Having had the chance to sample a wide selection, I feel this is an especially strong year, not only in documentary, always a Sundance strength, but in drama as well. Here are the dramas that made my day:

“Late Night.” Mindy Kaling wrote and costars with a knockout Emma Thompson as a diversity hire who goes to work in the writers room of a legendary talk show host. Genuinely funny with something on its mind, it’s the kind of smart entertainment that’s always in short supply.

“Photograph.” Indian writer-director Ritesh Batra, best known for “The Lunchbox,” brings his trademark unforced intimacy to the gentle connection that forms between two young strangers who meet by chance and have nothing in common besides families that are pushing them to get married.

Mia Wasikowska appears in "Judy & Punch," an official selection of the world dramatic cinema competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Mia Wasikowska appears in “Judy & Punch,” an official selection of the world dramatic cinema competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
(Ben King / Sundance Institute)

“Judy & Punch.” A savage and stylish satire, this Mia Wasikowska-starring debut by Australia’s Mirrah Foulkes places husband-and-wife puppeteers in an anarchic world, a bravura cross between Elizabethan England and “Clockwork Orange.” A film that feels deliciously dangerous to know.

“Blinded by the Light.” A delightful coming-of-age story by “Bend It Like Beckham’s” Gurinder Chadha, this tribute to rock ’n’ roll’s power to change lives marries the music of Bruce Springsteen to a bit of Bollywood style. Unmissable.

“Them That Follow.” Filmmakers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage convincingly create mood and place in this slow-burn story of taboo romance involving an Appalachia-based snake-handling cult. Look for Olivia Colman in a key supporting role.

Maxwell Simba appears in "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," an official selection of the premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
(Ilze Kitshoff / Sundance Institute)

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” Potent work by Chiwetel Ejiofor as writer, director and star lends gravitas and emotional intensity to this based-on-fact story of an African boy genius who keeps his village alive.

“Big Time Adolescence.” Even if you’ve seen one high school film too many, the exceptional rapport between costars Pete Davidson and Griffin Gluck as wildly age-inappropriate friends holds us and takes us where filmmaker Jason Orley wants to go.

“Clemency.” A commanding performance by Alfre Woodard as a hard-nosed prison warden who starts to feel she has overseen one execution too many anchors a thoughtful, powerful film written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu.

“Queen of Hearts.” This brooding Danish drama (directed by May el-Toukhy) is an intense, convincingly done family story detailing what happens when a teenage stepson moves in with his father and his second wife.

“The Sound of Silence.” Peter Sarsgaard in a trademark understated eccentric role as a New York “house tuner” who corrals aberrant sounds and tries to make sense of the city’s cacophony. Michael Tyburski directs.

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As to the Sundance documentaries, by sheer happenstance many of the best this year could fit into one or the other of a pair of distinct and in some ways opposing categories.

Category one consists of films focusing on strong women who have achieved extraordinary things despite the resistance of society. These include:

“Ask Dr. Ruth.” The tonic power contained in the presence of Dr. Ruth Westheimer can’t be overstated. The world’s most famous 90-year-old sex therapist turns out, among other things, to have been a sniper for Haganah decades ago. What a life.

“Maiden.” The exhilarating saga of Tracy Edwards, who in 1989 captained the first all-women crew to compete in the 33,000-mile Whitbread Round The World Yacht Race, the longest race on earth. This one will have you in tears.

“Shooting the Mafia.” The story of Letizia Battaglia, an extraordinary Sicilian woman whose powerful and disturbing photographs of the death, poverty and corruption surrounding the Mafia helped change Italian society.

“Knock Down the House.” This look at the campaigns of four individuals who challenged incumbents in 2018 hit the jackpot when it got early access to the charismatic — and victorious — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“Advocate.” This doc spends compelling time with Lea Tsemel, for close to half a century the go-to Israeli lawyer for Palestinians accused of terrorist acts.

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.” The powerful and articulate presence of the Nobel prize winner is central to this examination of her life and work.

“Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins.” Captures the take no prisoners sensibility of the legendary political columnist who suffered fools, especially those in the ruling class, not at all.

“The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.” Though she founded a company at one point valued at $9 billion, Elizabeth Holmes is the outlier in this group as Theranos became engulfed in allegations of fraud. Alex Gibney as always does a thorough investigation.

On the other side of the ledger is the group of Sundance docs about men being men, either acting genuinely horribly or in a way that unnerved observers. These include:

A still from "Untouchable," an official selection of the documentary premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
(Barbara Alper / Getty Images / Sundance Institute)

“Untouchable.” A somber, disturbing look at Harvey Weinstein and his ability to “use his power to exploit women’s dreams.” The interviews here are heartbreaking.

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” A chilling examination of the New York lawyer who was both a protégé of Joseph McCarthy and a mentor to Donald Trump. “He was like a caged animal,” someone says. “If you opened the door, he would come and get you.”

“The Brink.” A gripping cinéma vérité portrait of Steve Bannon in his post-White House incarnation, a disarming presence whose nativist ideas are anything but.

“Mike Wallace Is Here.” Effectively using only archival footage to show the origins and influence of one of the most feared and respected interviewers of our time.

“Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.” An intensely dramatic look by documentary veteran Stanley Nelson at the charismatic musician whose life as as astonishing as his legend.

“Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story.” Playing over at Slamdance is the fascinating tale, self-recounted at age 93, of the man who put skiing movies, and skiing, on the map.

“Love, Antosha.” The outlier in this group is the loving, affecting tribute to the gifted actor Anton Yelchin, only 27 when a freak accident took his life.

Finally there is a third group of docs that deals with societal problems and/or individual situations in a compelling and informative way.

“American Factory.” Culture clash is writ large in this thorough, compelling investigation of what happens when a major Chinese firm starts a factory in heartland Dayton, Ohio.

“Bedlam.” An urgent, disturbing film about the neglected crisis of what it means to be mentally ill and unable to afford care.

A still from "Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements," an official selection of the U.S. documentary competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
(Irene Taylor Brodsky / Sundance Institute)

“Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.” The heartfelt story of a son and a grandfather dealing with deafness intertwined with the music Beethoven wrote as he was losing his hearing.

“Always in Season.” Agony is writ large as a mother who suspects that her son was lynched is effectively tied to a more general look at lynching’s history.

“One Child Nation.” Also personal and muckraking, this film uncovers the pain and horror resulting from China’s former one-child policy.

“Midnight Family.” We watch wholly involved as a Mexico City family business of private ambulance providers tries to balance genuine care with the need to earn a living.

“Tigerland” and “Sea of Shadows.” Two strong environmental docs. The first explores efforts to save a regal species in serious decline; the second reveals in almost crime thriller fashion the powerful international forces dooming a species of porpoise.

“Pahokee” and “Jawline.” A pair of involving documentaries focused on teens. The first is an affectionate portrait of a Florida high school’s senior year, while the second takes us inside the always unnerving world of teen live streaming. Like Sundance itself, the future is here whether we’re ready or not.