Best of 
Sundance 2019

The winds blew cinephiles into Park City once again last January, drawn by promises of new discoveries and welcome additions to the film canon. With hundreds of films from all over the world, this ski-town festival has grown steadily to become one of the most definitive, A-class showcases anywhere on the planet.

—By Jason Gorber

This year continued to mark considerable change in the industry, with the VOD companies like Amazon and Netflix dominating the feeding frenzy for content, when in decades past such behaviour was the stuff of the brothers behind Miramax. With a continued focus on giving voices from all over the world attention, Sundance continues to help lead the way in bringing to light projects that shape our year in film.

From the humble origins as an excuse for Robert Redford and friends to show off the best of what was being left out of the cinemas, there’s now a feeling that the festival has moved well beyond the founder’s direct involvement, this year the iconic performer making a bit more explicit his intent to step back even further. There were many films that lived up to the high expectations – these being the cream of this year’s crop.

 

LUCE
Directed by Julius Onah

A film that flew under the radar for many, this extraordinary work by Julius Onah tells the tale of a well-respected high school student of African descent (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who is nearing graduation. Raised by his white parents (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts), Luce is confronted by one of his teachers (Octavia Spencer) when she believes there may be something beyond his impeccable reputation. J.C. Lee’s script is based on his play, yet the resulting film is bravely cinematic. Bravura performances buttress a script that’s searing and deeply provocative, its intelligence and refusal for easy answers exactly the kind of rich, intense, unforgettable discoveries one can hope for from festivals like this.

 

THE LODGE
Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala

With the “secret” screening of Get Out in 2017 and 2018’s genre hits like Mandy and Hereditary, Sundance has proven of late to showcase many of the year’s most thrilling films. The Lodge is a creep-tastic family drama that proves, above-all, the most horrifying things aren’t found in the supernatural but in the base instincts of humans as they behave badly with one another. Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone, Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, and Lia McHugh join directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy) on this dark trip. Shot in and around Montreal, this frigid film gets under your skin, yet is told with such precision that it can’t help but hearken to the likes of Kubrick’s style.

 

THE Nightingale
Directed by Jennifer Kent

Jennifer Kent upended horror films with her 2014 film The Babadook, and her latest film that premiered at Venice is in many ways more harrowing. The Nightingale is a period piece, a jet-black tale that uses the tropes of the American Western to look at Australia’s dark past. Owing to the revenge films like The Searchers, this film is not an easy watch, the violence realized in a way that’s profoundly affecting. Yet, Kent’s talent lies in having every brutality be narratively significant – there’s no fat to trim here, and nothing verges on the gratuitous. More than that is Kent’s insistence on never letting the tale get away from her, finding the actions of all believable even as they shine a light into the darkest corners of humanity.

 

Memory: The Origins of Alien
Directed by Alexandre Philippe

Sundance has several key dramatic entries every year, but it truly is the home of documentaries, showcasing many of the major contenders that help define the year of non-fiction cinema. Alexandre Philippe follows his previous ruminations on the Psycho shower scene (78/52) with a deep dive into our collective unconscious and how it helped shaped Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi film. Beyond looking at Alien’s chestburster scene, the film goes further to explore how we understand films in general and how deep-seeded obsessions and pathologies shape our myth-making. It’s cerebral stuff and easily could have devolved into pompous nonsense, but Philippe’s inquisitive nature is inviting rather than off-putting, drawing audiences into the world of O’Bannon, Gieger, and Scott as we explore the darkest crevices of our fears and experiences.

Written on: October 18, 2019