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Sundance 2019 In Review

Once again, Sundance has come to an end. This year I was lucky enough to see 22 films, and while there wasn't one I'd deem this years Hereditary, Sing Street, or Manchester by the Sea, Sundance once again still had quite a lot to offer. Here's Part 1 of my Roundup, in order of what I liked the best.


In Clemency, Alfre Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a warden who has spent her career working on death row. After years of watching prisoners sent to death, the work is beginning to take its toll, particularly in the case of a man whose lawyer works relentlessly for a clemency appeal. Woodard delivers career best work here and the film ponders some really tough questions, and leaves viewers with the same burden Bernadine feels on her shoulders. This was my favorite film I saw during the festival.


The Nightingale follows the tragic tale of Clare, an Irish convict in Australia who loses her family in an unspeakable tragedy and sets out for revenge. Before the screening, volunteers were warning festival goers of the intense nature of the film and advised anyone who couldn't handle the graphic violence and trauma depicted in the film to stay away. Going in with that sort of warning, I must say I had a very certain set of expectations for what I was about to see. The Nightingale was in fact shockingly and heartbreakingly brutal. I must say, I even shed a few tears for our heroine. The film is excellent, though I had some frustrations with some of the pacing. The film could have probably lost a good half hour and been much stronger.


In The Hole in the Ground, young mother Sarah and her son Chris have just moved to a new town with an odd next door neighbor...and a mysterious hole in the woods near their apartment. One evening Chris goes out to explore the area, but comes back not quite himself. Soon his mother suspects he may be an impostor. As a horror film, there's nothing really new that The Hole in the Ground has to offer, but it sure executes the familiarity of the genre quite well. The film plays like a best of hits album for the horror genre with minimal remix of the usual tropes, but it never comes off as tired.


With lots of solid horror movies coming out of Sundance this year, The Lodge was the one that got the instant comparisons to last years big hit Hereditary. The story follows two young children trapped in a snowed-in cabin over the holidays with their soon to be step-mother. There's an eerie feeling that pervades this film and creates a slow burn of dread for the viewer. The scares never reach the level of Hereditary, but its finale is incredibly chilling all the same.


I Am Mother takes place in a world where mankind has been erased from the planet, save for a robot tasked with raising a new generation of humanity. In the film, we view the robot known as Mother, as she attempts to raise a human girl. This film was absolutely fascinating and a great entry into the post apocalyptic film genre. I Am Mother pays homage to lots of other sci-fi greats, while still feeling wholly fresh and its own thing. The film could have been a bit tighter, but it was pretty fantastic and thrilling all the same.


In Late Night, Mindy Kaling writes and stars in this film about a female writer named Molly hoping to get her big break in late night television all while butting heads with the tv show's veteran star Katherine Newbury. When Katherine discovers she's about to be replaced, she reluctantly turns to Molly to help revitalize her show. If you've ever watched The Mindy Project, you'll find more of the same work place humor here. I happen to love Mindy Kaling's work, so I was similarly charmed with Late Night, and found myself laughing quite a bit. The film is a little weightier than your usual comedy as it attempts to tackle gender and racial discrimination in the work place, as well living in the post "Me Too" world.


As the lone survivor of a sailing trip, Jenn finds her way to a small deserted little island. Everything seems fine during the day, but once night comes she discovers something very sinister in the shores near the island. If you've ever wondered what Cast Away meets Cloverfield would look like as a movie, look no further than Sweetheart. Sweetheart is a blast of a creature feature horror film all packed into about 82 minutes. It's never dull nor does it outstay its welcome as the pace keeps things moving constantly. The film is an absolute thrill ride and Kiersey Clemons does a lot of heavy lifting here, as she has to nearly carry the entire film on her back. I can't wait to see it again!


In After the Wedding, Michelle Williams plays Isabel, the manager of an orphanage who is brought to New York by a mysterious benefactor with a generous offer (Julianne Moore.) After the Wedding was the first feature film I saw at this year's festival and I just absolutely love the way it was told in withholding important information from the audience, even though it's clear the characters know more. There's this moment during the wedding when you just KNOW that something is going on that we are not yet privy to that the characters are all too familiar with, and the intense drama in the moment is almost unbearable for the audience. After the Wedding is a “life is complicated” drama that carefully (and impressively) never really veers into full blown melodrama when it easily could.


Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile follows the life of well known serial killer Ted Bundy during the years he was in a relationship with his long-time girlfriend Liz. While the film isn't completely from her perspective, we see Ted more as she does... in a way that doesn't confirm truly who he is. Zac Efron gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as Bundy and is truly effective at channeling the serial killer. Lily Collins turns in a solid performance as well as Liz. The film is interesting throughout, but never fully reaches its potential.


In Them That Follow, a preacher's daughter of a zealous religion must choose between her heart and duty. Their religion is a unique one in which its members believe in the sanctity of snakes in determining who among them is actually righteous. If you can hold a vicious snake without it attacking you, you are then deemed pure of heart. To most people such a concept is bizarre, but for the people of this film it is their honest way of worship. Them That Follow is a truly unique film portraying a window into a way of life I never really knew existed. I thought these people were fascinating and the heart of the story earnest and sincere. It's one of those films where you're not quite sure who to recommend it to, but yet you want to tell everyone about it anyway.

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