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The Best Films of Sundance Film Festival 2019

Written by on February 4, 2019 

With over 50 films viewed and more coverage coming from the Sundance Film Festival, it’s time to wrap up the first major cinema event in 2019. We already got the official jury and audience winners (here), and now it’s time to highlight our favorites.

One will find our favorites (in alphabetical order), followed by the rest of our reviews (from best to worst, including previously premiered features). Check out everything below and stay tuned to our site, and specifically Twitter, for acquisition and release date news on the below films in the coming months.

American Factory (Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert)

When the Rust Belt was hit hard in the financial crisis of 2008, the blue-collar workers of Dayton, Ohio found a savior in a Chinese billionaire. Six years after the lifeblood that was a General Motors plant was shut down, the car-glass manufacturers Fuyao opened up their first American factory in the town, meaning thousands of new job opportunities. The promise of a steady income lifts the spirits of the workers, but an East vs. West clash of working methods quickly emerges, causing labor division, personal strife, and some unexpected camaraderie amongst the workforce. Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert–who were Oscar-nominated for another look into the recession, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant–capture this conflict in it all its complications, humor, and heartbreak in their thoroughly engrossing documentary American Factory. – Jordan R. (full review)

Cold Case Hammarskjöld (Mads Brügger)

In 1961, Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash in Africa under mysterious circumstances. Beginning as an investigation into his still-unsolved death, the trail that Mads Brügger follows in Cold Case Hammarskjöld is one that expands to implicate some of the world’s most powerful governments in unfathomably heinous crimes. Without revealing the specifics of the jaw-dropping revelations in this thoroughly engrossing documentary, if there’s any justice, what is brought to light will cause global attention and a demand for some kind of retribution. – Jordan R. (full review)

Divine Love (Gabriel Mascaro)

Last year’s Sundance Film Festival opened with Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life, a thoughtful, witty drama exploring the struggles of infertility faced by a couple in New York City. Premiering at this year’s festival, Gabriel Mascaro’s strange, alluring Divine Love examines similar hardships, albeit in an entirely different place, time, and aesthetic conceit. Set in the near-future of 2027 in Brazil, Joana (Dira Paes) is a deeply religious woman who is trying to conceive a child by any means necessary. Through his exquisite vision, Mascaro tells a curious tale of spiritual commitment, marital strife, and the blurred separation of church and state, leading to an ultimately surprising, powerful conclusion. – Jordan R. (full review)

The Farewell (Lulu Wang)

There’s something special about The Farewell. Written and directed by Lulu Wang and starring Awkwafina, this is the kind of film that feels specific and universal all at once. The film opens with the title card: “Based on an actual lie.” Wang builds this narrative from personal experience: her family chose to hide a cancer diagnosis from her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) and spend the final days celebrating instead of mourning. Or at least that was the idea. A fairly elaborate plan is hatched, involving a sham wedding that forces an abrupt reunion back in China. – Dan M. (full review)

Hail, Satan? (Penny Lane)

Amusingly, Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan? is interested in clarifying one critical misconception about the Satanic Temple: its members don’t, in fact, worship the Devil at all. Rather, the organization—or religion, as they’d prefer to be called—is, essentially, an ultimately altruistic group of people, typically self-proclaimed misfits, who wish to highlight the double standards of the so-called separation of church and state—all while co-opting Satanic iconography to get a rise out of Christian conservatives. – Jake H. (full review)

Hala (Minhal Baig)

Geraldine Viswanathan, welcome to the rest of your career. The young star, who stole scenes in last year’s comedy Blockers, is the lead in Hala, written and directed by Minhal Baig. She plays the titular character, a Muslim teenager coming to terms with her parents’ expectations, her religion’s expectations, and the expectations she has for herself. Sundance has offered plenty of coming-of-age stories throughout the years. Few are as effective as this one. – Dan M. (full review)

Knock Down the House (Rachel Lears)

Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House is a fun, emotionally powerful, inspiring look at the incredible wave of would-be politicians that sought, in 2018, to challenge status quo Democrats and enact meaningful change—all while refusing money from Wall Street fat cats and big business super PACs. Jake H. (full review)

Light From Light (Paul Harrill)

If the jump scares and horror set pieces of Paranormal Activity or The Conjuring franchises were exchanged for an authentic reckoning of the tangled emotions the departed may leave behind, you have something close to Light From Light. There’s a palpable tension to this story of paranormal investigating, but rather than injecting the expected terror, the film’s power lies in never seeing ghost hunting depicted so grounded and character-driven before. This is the kind of film where the minutiae of insurance policies are discussed before any haunting may begin. Those going into Paul Harrill’s second feature looking for frights will be rewarded with something more substantial: an experience rich with atmosphere and humanity, and drama ultimately more enlightening than the cheap thrills that pervade the dime-a-dozen ghost stories we’ve seen before.Jordan R. (full review)

Luce (Julias Onah)

Star of the debate team, straight A student, soon to be high school valedictorian: from his handsome looks and stellar CV, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the shining example of the all-American teenager—minus, of course, his history as a child adopted from war-torn Eritrea. As a name, Luce means “light” in Latin, the idea being Luce, a now-beaming youth in the Arlington, Va., area, was removed from unimaginable darkness. But there’s another spin on the allegory here that’s just as meaningful: when people are placed into boxes—stereotypes, to be clear—only so much light can filter in and out of them.Jake H. (full review)

The Mustang (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre)

Can we talk about Matthias Schoenaerts? The Belgian actor made a splash on the festival circuit with Bullhead in 2011, leading to roles–both lead and supporting–in everything from Rust & Bone to Red Sparrow. Since his breakout though, he’s never matched the same attention despite a decade’s worth of good work. With Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang, let’s hope that changes. The prison drama is a well-worn sub-genre, ripe with predictive beats and expected narrative turns. Those behind this picture are determined to subvert those expectations, and the attempt–though not fully realized–is much appreciated. – Dan M. (full review)

Native Son (Rashid Johnson)

In Native Son—artist Rashid Johnson’s feature film debut and adaptation of the 1940 Richard Wright novel of the same name—Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders finds himself once again in a similarly complex, utterly electrifying coming-of-age triptych. Fortunately, in this 2019 Sundance highlight, Sanders is given a canvas all his own: one that’s spacious enough for him to fully let loose and create that rare sort of character that feels like a force of nature. – Jake H. (full review)

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