2019 Sundance Film Festival Recap

  • Publish Date: February 3, 2019
  • Comments: ↓ 3 user comments

Big bucks, few whammies


A year ago, the 2018 Sundance Film Festival produced three films that landed in the top eleven of our collection of film critic top 10 lists (Eighth Grade, Hereditary, Leave No Trace), and two more cracked the top 30 (Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting). Discerning which films from this year’s festival will be there at the end of 2019 might be a little more difficult in what turned out to be a relatively quiet festival with little controversy and plenty of crowd-pleasing films.

If the festival was “safe” from a filmmaking perspective, as IndieWire critic Eric Kohn characterized it, there were some big swings on the acquisition side. Apple made its first purchase (the coming-of-age drama Hala), and Amazon dished out record-breaking, eight-figure sums for the comedies Brittany Runs a Marathon and Late Night, as well as the political thriller The Report, plus smaller amounts for Shia LaBeouf’s family drama Honey Boy, and the Jury Prize-winning documentary One Child Nation, which currently has the highest Metascore of any festival film this year. The other film with a Metascore above 90, A24’s The Souvenir, already has a sequel in production.

Both of those films were the work of female directors, who had another good year at Sundance, with Chinonye Chukwu becoming the first black woman to take home the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize (for Clemency).

What did critics think about these and other Sundance films? Below, you find entries on this year's festival highlights, followed by recaps of additional noteworthy films as well as those that disappointed critics at this year's festival. First, we begin with this year's biggest award winners.

This year's major award winners

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic)
Drama | USA | Directed by Chinonye Chukwu

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Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu's second feature stars Alfre Woodard in what many critics believe is one of the best performances of her career. Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, the warden at a maximum-security prison where she forms a bond with a death-row inmate (Aldis Hodge) who is scheduled to be executed. IndieWire's Eric Kohn praises Clemency as a “mature star-driven vehicle elevated by a brilliant performance that deserves all the awards it can get,” and in her Sundance wrap-up for The N.Y. Times, Manohla Dargis writes, “With visual austerity and not an ounce of sentimentality, Chukwu transforms a character study into an indictment of institutionalized murder, the horror of which is made harrowingly palpable as Bernadine’s face becomes a rictus of pain.”

U.S. Audience Award (Dramatic)
Brittany Runs a Marathon
Comedy | USA | Directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo
Acquired by Amazon for $14 million

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Previous Audience Award winners:
2018: Burden 63
2017: Crown Heights 64
2016: The Birth of a Nation 69
2015: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 74
2014: Whiplash 88

Playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo makes his debut as writer-director with this comedy starring Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street, Rough Night) as Brittany Forgler, a hard-partying New Yorker whose attempt to get Adderall from a random doctor leads to a more serious prescription: she must alter her lifestyle or die from a heart attack. Just like the real-life person Colaizzo based his script on, Brittany takes up running, which leads to a series of surprising changes. Variety's Dennis Harvey claims it’s a “whip-smart comedy with some real emotional depth,” and Bell is the key to it all. She’s a “wonder in the role — self-effacing, tart, funny as hell and deeply sympathetic,” writes Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter.

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary)
One Child Nation
Documentary | China/USA | Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

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Previous Grand Jury doc winners:
2018: Kailash 66
2017: Dina 75
2016: Weiner 84
2015: The Wolfpack 75
2014: Rich Hill 75

The acclaimed new documentary from directors Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow, I Am Another You) and Jialing Zhang is an uncompromising investigation into China’s controversial one-child policy (effective from 1979 through 2015, when it was replaced with a two-child policy). Wang makes the impact of the law personal by returning to her home village and talking to members of her family and the local community about the policy’s enforcement through sterilization, child abandonment, kidnapping, and propaganda. It’s a “startling account of collective trauma,” and “the heartfelt personal connection heightens the material's impact,” writes David Rooney of THR. In IndieWire, Eric Kohn agrees, writing, “As a brilliant combination of cultural reporting and interpersonal reckoning, One Child Nation manages to encapsulate decades of underreported events within a palatable narrative accessible to even to viewers with no prior understanding of the policy’s history.”

U.S. Audience Award (Documentary)
Knock Down the House
Documentary | USA | Directed by Rachel Lears
To be acquired by Netflix for an unspecified amount (deal pending)

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Previous Audience Award doc winners:
2018: The Sentence 69
2017: Chasing Coral 86
2016: Jim: The James Foley Story 73
2015: Meru 77
2014: Alive Inside 67

According to Jake Howell of The Film Stage, this documentary offers a “fun, emotionally powerful, inspiring look” at four women (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin) running for Congress in 2018. Documentarian Rachel Lears (The Hand That Feeds) has produced what THR's Leslie Felperin describes as a “pretty extraordinary cinematic artifact.”

Best of the festival

Below are the films (and TV shows) generating the most positive buzz at this year's festival. That's followed by a list of the remaining notable festival debuts, and another of this year's biggest disappointments. Note that a few Sundance films which previously debuted at other festivals (such as The Mountain and The Nightingale) are excluded, as is the Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw (which is already streaming and has a full set of reviews available).

Apollo 11
Documentary | USA | Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

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Forget last year's First Man; this is the real thing. This documentary from Todd Douglas Miller (Dinosaur 13) takes newly discovered 65mm footage and 11,000 hours of NASA audio recordings to make a film THR's Dan Fienberg describes as “experiential rather than informative” and “utterly breathtaking.” Without narration or talking heads, the film chronicles Apollo 11’s flight to the moon and back in 1969, resulting in what Anthony Kaufman of Screen Daily calls a “meticulously conceived documentary” that is “both a definitive account of the voyage as well as a creative, cinematic you-are-there unfolding of the events that transpired.”

Ask Dr. Ruth
Documentary | USA | Directed by Ryan White

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While it didn't pick up many reviews at its festival premiere, Ryan White's film was one of the buzziest documentaries at this year's Sundance, thanks in no small part to the in-person appearance of its 90-year-old subject. The doc traces the life and career of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, from her escape from Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport (depicted in part through animation) to her increasing fame as a sex therapist and media personality in America in the 1980s and beyond. THR's Dan Fienberg thinks the first half of the film is superior to the portion focusing on her professional life, but still calls Ask Dr. Ruth a "crowd-pleaser" about a "remarkable" subject. The film is expected to receive a theatrical release prior to debuting on Hulu later this year.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Documentary | Denmark/Norway/Sweden/Belgium | Directed by Mads Brügger

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As with his previous documentaries The Red Chapel (winner of the World Cinema Documentary Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival ) and The Ambassador, Danish director Mads Brügger takes a unique approach to his latest subject—the 1961 death of Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld. Hammarskjöld, who was pushing for Congo’s independence at the time, died when his plane mysteriously crashed in what is now Zambia. Brügger joins Swedish aid worker Goran Bjorkdahl, who has been investigating the conspiracies surrounding the crash since 2011. The film’s findings have been challenged in the NY Times, but as Dan Fienberg of THR explains, “Cold Case Hammarskjold is either a stunning piece of investigative reporting that builds to a revelatory climax or a wily trickster's dark critique of the audience's desperate need for answers.” Screen Daily's Jonathan Romney calls it a “category-defying investigative documentary that’s also a playfully self-reflexive essay on political truth and the difficulty of establishing it,” and in his review for Variety, Owen Gleiberman finds it to be “a singular experience that counts as one of the most honestly disturbing and provocative nonfiction films in years.”

David Crosby: Remember My Name
Documentary | USA | Directed by A.J. Eaton
Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for approximately $1-2 million

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First-time director A.J. Eaton teams with producer (and former rock journalist) Cameron Crowe for a look at the eventful life and career of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (and CSN&Y) member. Interviews between Crowe and an entertainingly cantankerous Crosby form the bulk of the film, which appears to be a must-see for fans of Crosby's work. TheWrap's Steve Pond praises Name as "an affectionate and moving chronicle of a story well worth telling," and THR's Leslie Felperin admires how the result "never comes across as fawning or hagiographic" but is instead "insightful," even if it doesn't quite spend enough time on "the musical nitty gritty of Crosby’s work." The only hiccup, according to IndieWire's Kate Erbland, are a few animated recreations of events from Crosby's life, though those are "swiftly forgotten in the face of long-form sequences in which Crosby gets deep about some of the most horrific portions of his history."

The Death of Dick Long
Sci-fi/Comedy | USA | Directed by Daniel Scheinert

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Daniel Scheinert, one-half of the “Daniels” directing team behind Swiss Army Man (or, as it's better known, "the farting corpse movie"), returned to Sundance this year with this story of how buddies Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland) try to hide the fact that their friend Dick is dead. Writing for Vulture, Bilge Ebiri finds this small town, Alabama-set comedy to be a “delirious and entertaining dumbshit backwoods noir.” And Film Threat's Bradley Gibson is impressed by how “Scheinert adroitly conveys both the pathos and the humor of the situation. As dumb as the main characters are, the film itself is very clever.”

Divine Love
Drama | Brazil/Uruguay/Denmark/Norway/Chile | Directed by Gabriel Mascaro

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The latest from Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro (August Winds, Neon Bull) takes place in 2027. Evangelical values have taken over Brazil, where raves praise God and drive-through chapels abound. The story focuses on Joana, a notary who encourages divorced couples to stay together, and her husband as they struggle to have a child. The Film Stage's Jordan Raup believes the film “subtly shows the beauty that can be found when we tell a story of struggle with an open, earnest perspective.” In THR, Boyd van Hoeij raves, “Gorgeously shot and produced, impressively acted and with a lot of fascinating things on its mind, this is yet further proof that the 35-year-old Mascaro is one of Brazil’s most audacious and gifted filmmakers of his generation.”

The Farewell
Comedy/Drama | USA/China | Directed by Lulu Wang
Acquired by A24 for $6 million

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Writer-director Lulu Wang’s excellent second feature is based on an autobiographical story she told on a 2016 episode of This American Life. After learning that her grandmother had terminal lung cancer, her family decided not to inform her grandmother of the diagnosis and instead throw a wedding to reunite the family. In this fictionalized version of the story, Awkwafina’s Billi is in the same position Lulu was in—wanting to tell her grandmother about her illness and comfort her. The result is one of the best-reviewed films of Sundance 2019. L.A. Times critic Justin Chang calls The Farewell a “funny, moving, sensitively wrought dramedy,” and THR's David Rooney finds it to be “bittersweet, poignant” and a “gentle delight.” Writing for The Playlist, Jordan Ruimy claims it’s an “immaculately impressive film which tackles its themes of love, loss, and family with such touching profundity; its simple manner makes for a knockout of emotional resonance.”

Drama | USA | Directed by Minhal Baig
Acquired by Apple for an unspecified amount

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Writer-director Minhal Baig’s follow-up to her feature debut, 1 Night, is an expansion of her 2016 short film about a Pakistani-Muslim high school senior trying to balance life as a teen with her obligations to her faith and family. Geraldine Viswanathan (Blockers) stars, and, according to David Ehrlich of IndieWire, she’s “incredible; as much of a witness to her character’s situation as she is an active force in changing them, her performance is vulnerable and self-possessed in equal measure, and often at the same time.” Film Threat's Norman Gidney calls Hala a “wonderfully insightful, poignant film,” and The Playlist's Jason Bailey agrees, writing, “Hala is keenly observed and quietly powerful, and we’ll be hearing much more from the talented women on either side of its lens.”

The Jada Pinkett Smith-produced film is the first Sundance acquisition for Apple, which plans to launch its new streaming service in April. (It is unclear whether Hala will head to theaters or be exclusive to Apple's service.)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Drama | USA | Directed by Joe Talbot

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Director Joe Talbot was named best director in the U.S. Dramatic competition (with his film also picking up a Special Jury Award) for his feature directorial debut, which is inspired by the true story of Talbot’s friend and star, Jimmie Fails. A lifelong San Franciscan, Fails’ main desire in life is to reclaim the Victorian house built by his grandfather. When he gets his chance, he struggles to reconnect to his family and the community that has disappeared around him. The Guardian's Benjamin Lee finds that the result offers a “melancholic yet vibrant ode to a rapidly gentrifying city,” and Peter Debruge of Variety calls it a “gorgeous and touchingly idealistic movie.” In her Sundance wrap-up for The N.Y. Times, Manohla Dargis claims it’s a “plaintive, gorgeous and finally exultant” film.

Late Night
Comedy | USA | Directed by Nisha Ganatra
Acquired by Amazon for $13 million

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Directed by Nisha Ganatra from a script by Mindy Kaling (who also stars), this crowd-pleasing comedy follows Kaling’s Molly as she becomes the one woman in the all-male writers’ room of legendary late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). THR's Todd McCarthy praises Thompson, who “carries the pic with customary flair.” Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair agrees, calling Thompson a “radiant force, more winning than any actor ought to have the right to be.” In his review for The Film Stage, Dan Mecca regrets that the film doesn’t spend more time with Thompson and Kaling together, because when they’re “playing off each other, Late Night sings.” But, in the estimation of Kate Erbland of IndieWire, the film is the “one thing that any and every late night talk show has to strive for: funny as hell, and with something to say.”

Leaving Neverland
TV (Documentary Miniseries) | USA/UK | Directed by Dan Reed

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This two-part, four-hour documentary (which will air on HBO later this year) may be the most controversial film to debut at this year's festival. Neverland spends its entire running time examining the claims by two men—Wade Robson and James Safechuck—that they were raped by pop star Michael Jackson when they were young boys. Obviously, Jackson isn't around to give his side of the story, and Jackson family members and fans of the singer were unhappy with Sundance's decision to screen the film. But critics found Reed's film devastating and effective. While THR's Dan Fienberg wonders whether a shorter film could have been equally effective, Screen Daily's Tim Grierson notes that Neverland "more than justif[ies]" its length, adding, "It’s hard to think of a film about abuse, denial, acceptance and recovery more affecting than this one." In a "B+" review, Awards Campaign's Gregory Ellwood calls the film "impressive" despite a few unnecessary stylistic choices and some minor omissions. Variety's Owen Gleiberman describes Neverland as "a kind of true-life horror movie," and Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang seems to agree, noting that the film is "both riveting and grueling, impossible to turn away from and the definition of a tough sit."

Light From Light
Drama | USA | Directed by Paul Harrill

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Something, Anything director Paul Harrill’s second feature is a “gentle, humanist drama that uses the idea of a haunted house to explore themes of doubt, wonder, and the search for meaning in the modern world,” writes Joe Blessing in his "A–" review for The Playlist. Light's story revolves around Shelia (Marin Ireland), a paranormal investigator and single mom, who comes to the aid of Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a widower who believes his wife may be haunting his farmhouse. David Rooney’s THR praises Harrill’s film: “Modest in scale but rich in sensitivity, this is an unassuming film, made all the more transfixing by its defining delicacy and understatement.”

Drama | USA | Directed by Julius Onah
Acquired by Neon (with Topic Studios) for an unspecified amount

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Rebounding from The Cloverfield Paradox, director Julius Onah directs screenwriter J.C. Lee’s adaptation of his own play, a psychological drama that chronicles the fallout from an accusation made by an African-American teacher (Octavia Spencer) against the Eritrea-born son (Kelvin Harrison Jr. of It Comes at Night) of two white, adoptive parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). Though THR's John DeFore finds it “overstuffed and problematic,” other critics disagree. Matthew Passantino of Film Threat believes the film to be a “quiet stunner, ready to unnerve you in unexpected ways.” And, in his "A–" review for The Film Stage, Jake Howell calls Luce a “major work of contemporary American cinema: complex, beguiling, and full of meaty discussion points that will challenge audiences throughout 2019 and beyond.”

Midnight Family
Documentary | Mexico/USA | Directed by Luke Lorentzen

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Documentarian Luke Lorentzen follows the Ochoas, a family of private paramedics, as their ambulance provides vital service to the people of Mexico City. Variety's Nick Schager claims “portraits of institutional dysfunction don’t come much more urgent, and quietly bleak, than this.” And, in her review for TheWrap, Monica Castillo writes, “Midnight Family is both a compassionate portrait of a working-class family and a frightening ride through a broken healthcare system that risks the lives of both patients and providers like the Ochoa family.”

Drama | Colombia (+ 5 others) | Directed by Alejandro Landes
Acquired by Neon for an unspecified amount

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Winner of a Special Jury Award, the latest from Colombian-Ecuadorian filmmaker Alejandro Landes (Porfirio) is “propelled by a primal Mica Levi score and hallucinatory images of a war-torn natural world,” writes the A.V. Club's A.A. Dowd, who can’t believe he saw the film at Sundance because it’s a “Cannes movie all the way.” Though not to everyone’s taste (Keith Uhlich of THR claims it “suggests Larry Clark's alternately hectoring and leering Kids (1995) as cast with bloodthirsty, horned-up child soldiers), the film still has strong supporters, including IndieWire's Eric Kohn, who describes it as a “thrilling survivalist saga” that is “equal parts Lord of the Flies and Aguirre, the Wrath of God.”

Comedy/Drama | USA | Directed by Alexandre Lehmann

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Director Alex Lehmann reunites with his Blue Jay star, Mark Duplass, and pairs him with Ray Romano for a surprisingly deft buddy/cancer comedy. The Playlist's Jason Bailey believes “Duplass and Lehmann’s screenplay indulges in gallows humor and running gags without sacrificing the overall humanity of the story." Nick Schager of Variety agrees, finding the script “insightful,” and Lehmann’s direction “attentive and considerate,” resulting in a film that locates “both pathos and comedy in a raft of small grace notes.” The film streams on Netflix beginning February 22nd.

The Report
Thriller | USA | Directed by Scott Z. Burns
Acquired by Amazon for $14 million

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Several critics are comparing this fictionalized look at Daniel Jones’ real-life investigation into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program to Spotlight and The Post. Writer-director Scott Z. Burns’ procedural starring Adam Driver as Jones is “a movie as square and professional and ultimately noble as its main character—a portrait of American heroism as a job carefully, thoroughly done,” writes A.A. Dowd of the A.V Club. In Variety, Owen Gleiberman concurs, calling The Report a “large-scale saga of corruption, justice, and overwhelming relevance that’s at once gripping and eye-opening, even if you’re the sort of news junkie who thinks they already know the story.”

The Souvenir
Drama | UK | Directed by Joanna Hogg

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The best-reviewed narrative film at this year's festival—and, potentially, one of 2019's best films, period, should that Metascore hold up when it heads to theaters—the latest from British writer-director Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, Archipelago, Exhibition) also collected the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Competition via a unanimous vote.

Pulling from her own experiences, Hogg tells the story of Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne, whose real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, also portrays her mom in the movie), a cinema student who falls for the troubled Anthony (Tom Burke). LA Times critic Justin Chang believes “Burke and Swinton-Byrne give beautifully harmonized performances, catching the slightly askew rhythms of a fatally lopsided relationship.” Jordan Raup of The Film Stage has similar praise for Swinton-Byrne, writing, “[She’s] in every scene, and steals them all.” Over at The Playlist, Carlos Aguilar calls the film an “introspectively awe-inspiring stroke of virtuosity.” And Variety's Guy Lodge vividly describes it as a “work of memoir shattered and reassembled into a universally moving, truthful fiction.”

A24 acquired the film prior to the festival, and—apparently liking what they saw—promptly picked up rights to the sequel, which will film this summer. (Part one will head to theaters later in 2019.)

State of the Union
TV (Comedy) | UK | Directed by Stephen Frears

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A new, minimalist comedy series from noted British filmmaker Stephen Frears (The Queen) and novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity), State of the Union runs for just 10 minutes an episode, each following a married couple (Chris O'Dowd, Rosamund Pike) as they grab drinks at a pub prior to heading to a couples' counseling session. (What you see in the photo above is basically what you get.) Critics saw—and enjoyed—all 10 episodes at the festival. Variety TV critic Daniel D'Addario admires how the series "pulls off a neat trick" of making the pair's frequent arguments entertaining rather than tiresome, while IndieWire's Ben Travers notes that the stripped-down show "still manages to entertain and enlighten as thoroughly as most traditional half-hour comedies," with the two leads, writer, and director all turning in "magnificent" performances. His only complaint: "[Y]ou’re left wishing there was more." SundanceTV will air (and/or stream) the series in the U.S. later in 2019.

Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men
TV (Documentary Miniseries) | USA | Directed by Sacha Jenkins

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The first two episodes of Showtime's four-part miniseries about the seminal New York hip hop outfit screened at the festival, and critics loved what they saw. Directed by Mass Appeal's Sacha Jenkins, the documentary traces Wu-Tang's history beginning with their formation in the early 1990s, combining never-before-seen footage with new interviews with all nine surviving members. In THR, Dan Fienberg calls the first two episodes "pretty super," aided by the fact that the Wu-Tang members are "first and foremost, exceptional storytellers." Similarly, IndieWire's Ben Travers calls the show a "must-see" for fans. So does RogerEbert.com's Brian Tallerico, who says that while he was already a fan of the group, "Sacha Jenkins allowed my respect and love for them to deepen. That’s all you want from a music doc." Of Mics and Men makes its Showtime debut on May 10th.

Additional festival debuts of note

Comedy | USA | Directed by Rhys Ernst

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Transparent producer Rhys Ernst’s debut feature tells the story of sheltered high schooler Adam (Nicholas Alexander) and how his knowledge of gender and sexual identity expands when he spends time with his sister Casey (Margaret Qualley), a LGBTQ+ activist in New York City. Working from Ariel Schrag’s adaptation of her own 2014 novel, Ernst has fashioned a film TheWrap's Dan Callahan believes suffers from “first-film problems” despite there being “a lot here that feels fresh and original.” Writing for Variety, Dennis Harvey’s assessment is a bit kinder: “Brisk and astutely assembled, 'Adam' makes something educational and playful rather than insulting out of that character’s brief walk in another gender construct’s shoes."

American Factory
Documentary | USA | Directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar
Acquired by Netflix for $2-$3 million

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Snapped up by Netflix near the close of the festival, this occasionally funny and often insightful documentary from a pair of veteran filmmakers examines the escalating clash of cultures and the changing nature of labor within an auto-glass factory in Dayton, Ohio that is populated by American workers but owned and managed by a major Chinese company. The Film Stage's Jordan Raup is one of several critics impressed by the documentary, calling it "an intimate portrait of the change to come" in America and adding, "The way the directors are able to provide a portrait of empathy on all sides is astounding." Screen Daily's Anthony Kaufman similarly praises the film's candor, topicality, and construction and calls it "a deceptively lighthearted look at one of the most significant cultural and economic conflicts of our times." But THR's Dan Fienberg is less impressed, pointing out that none of the American subjects "becomes a realized character with an emotional arc" and warning that "there's a vein of xenophobia baked into [the film's] premise."

Drama/Comedy | UK/Ireland/Australia | Directed by Sophie Hyde

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At the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Sophie Hyde won the World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award for 52 Tuesdays. This year she returned with an adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel about life-of-the-party best friends (Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat) growing apart in Dublin. IndieWire's Kate Erbland believes the two stars are “wonderful together, conveying the depth of a 10-year relationship with affection and honesty,” and Benjamin Lee of The Guardian praises Hyde’s “wonderful, utterly lived-in film about two women at a crossroads, one that attendees should be breathlessly, excitedly discussing around town, urging everyone else to see immediately.” But THR's Leslie Felperin finds the result "inert and contrived," even as it is "exceedingly pretty to look at."

Big Time Adolescence
Comedy | USA | Directed by Jason Orley

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Jason Orley’s feature directorial debut stars SNL's Pete Davidson as Zeke, a college dropout who proves to be a bad influence on Mo (Griffin Gluck), the 16-year-old kid who looks up to him. Owen Gleiberman of Variety claims the film “isn’t bad, but it’s a trifle,” though IndieWire's Eric Kohn finds it to be a “sturdy dramedy that makes up for its lack of depth in scrappy charm, and a willingness to admit that sometimes the best characters are ones destined to screw everything up.”

Blinded by the Light
Comedy/Drama/Musical | UK | Directed by Gurinder Chadha
To be acquired by New Line for $15 million (deal pending)

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The latest from director Gurinder Chadha is her best film since Bend It Like Beckham, according to Owen Gleiberman of Variety, who calls Light a “delirious and romantic rock ‘n’ roll parable.” Based on the memoir Greetings from Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor, this coming-of-age tale set in 1987 follows Javed, a 16-year-old British Pakistani boy, who lives in the town of Luton, during the difficult times of Thatcher’s England. His life changes when he’s introduced to the songs of Bruce Springsteen. IndieWire's David Ehrlich believes the film is “the kind of guileless crowd-pleaser that will make some people cry a river of tears and others roll their eyes into the backs their heads; it will probably make a lot of people do both.”

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Drama | UK | Directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor

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Acquired by Netflix prior to the festival (it streams on March 1st), Chiwetel Ejiofor's directorial debut adapts William Kamkwamba's memoir about his teenage years in rural Malawi, where he built a windmill pump to irrigate his community’s land. Ejiofor plays William’s father, an uneducated farmer who struggles to provide for his family, and newcomer Maxwell Simba stars as the 13-year-old William. According to Screen Daily's Tim Grierson, it’s a “true-life drama which is sometimes underpowered but patiently builds to a moving finale.” Benjamin Lee of The Guardian also praises the film’s ending, if not its entirety: “It’s a conventional film in many ways but one that slowly and effectively builds to a remarkably rousing climax, displaying an act of overwhelming ingenuity that’s hard to deny."

Fighting With My Family
Comedy | USA | Directed by Stephen Merchant

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Not in competition but debuting at the festival as a "Surprise Screening," this family comedy is based on the true story of Saraya-Jade Bevis (aka Paige), a WWE Superstar who got her start wrestling with her family in the U.K. Produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who also appears as himself) and directed by Stephen Merchant (co-creator of the original British version of The Office), the film stars Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) as Raya Knight, Jack Lowden as her brother Zack, and Lena Headey and Nick Frost as her mother and father. TheWrap's Yolanda Machado believes the film works because the actors “make a believable, perfectly matched family unit,” and Kate Erbland of Indiewire writes, “Fighting With My Family benefits by sticking with well-trod sports movie tropes, enlivened by Pugh’s full-throttle performance and a genuine care for all of its motley players.”

Give Me Liberty
Comedy | USA | Directed by Kirill Mikhanovsky

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The latest from writer-director Kirill Mikhanovsky is drawn from his own experience as a handicapped transport driver. Written with Alice Austen, the film follows Vic (Chris Galust), a transport vehicle driver in Milwaukee on a particularly crazy day. THR's David Rooney believes it’s a “wonderfully anarchic dark comedy, which deftly welds its frenetically farcical structure to a humanistic portrait of marginalized communities thrown together — unassimilated elderly immigrants, low-income African Americans, the handicapped.” Manohla Dargis of The N.Y. Times also praises the film, writing, “Completely, delightfully unpredictable from scene to scene, Give Me Liberty draws you in with its moving performances and blasts of broad comedy.”

The Hole in the Ground
Horror | Ireland/Belgium/Finland | Directed by Lee Cronin

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An Irish horror film from a first-time director, The Hole in the Ground earned multiple Babadook comparisons after debuting at the festival. No, it's definitely not as good as that film—but critics still enjoyed it, for the most part. (Though the part they definitely didn't enjoy was the ending.) The film centers on a single mother (Seána Kerslake) who moves to a small town with her young son. The boy briefly disappears on an evening when a mysterious sinkhole appears in the forest, and when he returns, his mother grows increasingly worried that he is an imposter. Screen Daily's Demetrious Matheou thinks Cronin's film "bristles with confidence" (even if it is let down a bit by an overindulgence of "horror clichés"), and reserves extra praise for the depiction of the mother-son relationship. The latter aspect is also praised by Variety's Guy Lodge, who agrees that Hole is much more straightforward that A24's usual genre films (like previous Sundance hit Hereditary), but he still admires the director's "reference-packed bag of tricks" and notes that the film "abounds in bristly calling-card atmospherics."

The film opens in theaters on March 1st, though DirecTV subscribers can watch it at home right now.

Honey Boy
Drama | USA | Directed by Alma Har'el
Acquired by Amazon for $5 million

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Directed by Alma Har’el and written by Shia LaBeouf this “fairly conventional indie drama” is “fascinating” as a “glorified form of drama therapy,” according to A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club. Why therapy? Well, LaBeouf wrote it in rehab, based it on his own life, and plays a character based on his abusive father opposite Lucas Hedges as Otis (a stand-in for LaBeouf as a movie star) and Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) as the younger, rising TV star Otis. Jumping between these two timelines, the film divided critics. Screen Daily's Tim Grierson finds “little catharsis or insight” in the film, despite “all the regret, anger, acceptance and sorrow that flow freely through” it. However, IndieWire's Eric Kohn believes it’s a “fascinating cultural object and essential viewing for anyone obsessed with the actor’s bizarre ups and downs,” and Gregory Ellwood of The Playlist claims it’s a “spectacular narrative debut for noted documentary filmmaker Alma Har’el.”

The Lodge
Horror/Thriller | USA/UK | Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
Acquired by Neon for close to $2 million

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Goodnight Mommy's Austrian directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz make their English-language debut with another art-house scarefest. You won't want to know too much in advance about The Lodge, which stars Riley Keough as a doomsday cult survivor who is trapped by a snowstorm in a remote holiday cabin with her soon-to-be stepchildren, who are already resentful of her presence and their parents' divorce. Many critics are comparing The Lodge to 2018's Hereditary, and while it doesn't quite stand up to that film, it's still partly successful. Film Threat's Norman Gidney is left "cold" by the film's unrealistic plotting, and THR's David Rooney similarly complains of a "shaky" story sense that results in a film that "starts out strong but becomes meandering and repetitive." But Vulture's Emily Yoshida calls it "an effectively chilling tale," and Screen's Tim Grierson similarly finds The Lodge to be "smart indie horror" that is "electrified by Riley Keough’s tricky performance" and enhanced by nailing the tone and the technical aspects of the film.

TV (Documentary Miniseries) | USA | Directed by Joshua Rofé

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Jordan Peele produces this four-part Amazon true crime series focusing on Lorena Bobbitt, who became a media sensation in 1993 when she cut off her husband John's penis in response to years of abuse. Critics had a somewhat mixed response after seeing the entire series. Hollywood Reporter TV critic Dan Fienberg thinks Lorena is too long, and spends too much time on the events of 1993 (and the resulting trials) and too little time explaining why the story is relevant today. But Brian Tallerico disagrees, writing on RogerEbert.com, "The 4-hour structure allows the filmmaker to really define the abuse suffered by Lorena Bobbitt in ways that we haven’t seen before." Entertainment Weekly's Kristen Baldwin finds the show "intriguing" (if also "somewhat scattershot"), while Variety's Caroline Framke notes a painstaking "attention to detail" but dislikes some of the director's "superfluous directorial flourishes" and use of reenactments. The series debuts on Prime Video on February 15.

Native Son
Drama | USA | Directed by Rashid Johnson
Acquired by HBO for an unspecified amount

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Artist Rashid Johnson makes his feature directorial debut with this contemporary adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel. Written by Topdog/Underdog playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the film follows Bigger “Big” Thomas (Moonlight's Ashton Sanders) as he becomes the chauffeur to a wealthy businessman and his progressive daughter (Margaret Qually). A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club identifies an issue echoed by many critics: “Unfortunately, it’s when the plot starts clicking into motion that Johnson’s film loses its way, curiously condensing the novel’s desperate, paranoid backstretch.” However, The Guardian's Benjamin Lee finds Native Son to be a “darkly compelling contemporary update,” and a “hard-boiled conversation starter.” And, in his review for Vulture, Bilge Ebiri claims, “Ultimately, this is Sanders’s show. His performance breathes new life into one of American literature’s most heartbreaking and controversial characters."

HBO purchased the film from A24 (which was going to release it theatrically) at the festival, and it will now debut on television later this year instead of heading to theaters.

Official Secrets
Drama/Thriller | USA/UK | Directed by Gavin Hood

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Director Gavin Hood’s follow-up to Eye in the Sky is a different type of political thriller. Based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, the film stars Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun, the British secret-service officer who leaked a confidential NSA memo to expose an illegal U.S.–U.K. spying operation. Screen Daily's Tim Grierson claims it’s a “sturdy, entertaining political thriller that pushes all the right buttons and triggers all the right outraged reactions.” And, in his review for The Guardian, Benjamin Lee praises Knightley, whose “rousing lead performance adds a much-needed fire, igniting the pedestrian-level drama around her.”

Drama | India | Directed by Ritesh Batra

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The latest from writer-director Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox, Our Souls at Night) is another romance set in Mumbai. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a poor street photographer who asks the lonely Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) to pose as his companion to appease his ailing grandmother. It’s a “satisfying, unswoony romance,” in the opinion of THR's Caryn James. And The Film Stage's Jordan Raup calls Photograph a “lush, willfully low-key romantic drama that explores the age-old tale of how the class divide is a barrier for what the heart may desire.”

Drama | USA | Directed by Pippa Bianco
Acquired by HBO for approximately $1-2 million

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Pippa Bianco's feature debut (which she adapts from her own 2015 short) offers an all-too-plausible scenario: a high school girl (newcomer Rhianne Barreto, winner of a Special Jury Award for her performance) awakens after a night of partying she cannot remember to discover that her classmates are circulating a video of her being sexually assaulted while she was passed out. The result "blurs genre lines between coming-of-age drama and thriller" according to THR's Beandrea July in a mostly appreciative review that has lots of praise for the performances. The Film Stage's Jake Howell doesn't approve of Bianco's overpowering "blue, blue, blue visual motif," but otherwise admires that "you’d never guess this was a first feature at all." In his "A" review for The Playlist, Jason Bailey admires Bianco's "fiercely intelligent" story but saves a large portion of his praise for Barreto's "wonderfully understated performance." And the festival jury demonstrated their similar admiration of the story by handing Bianco the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.

As is the case with Native Son (above), Share was sold off by A24 to HBO during the festival, which means that it will now head to the small screen in lieu of a theatrical release.

The Sound of Silence
Drama | USA | Directed by Michael Tyburski

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Michael Tyburski's feature debut (an expansion of his Sundance-winning 2013 short Palimpsest) stars Peter Sarsgaard as a "house tuner"—an in-demand Manhattan professional who is hired to adjust the sounds within a home to improve the moods of homeowners (including, in this case, an especially troubled one played by Rashida Jones). Critics disagree about whether there is enough story in such a premise to sustain a full-length film, though they concur that Sarsgaard is perfect in the role (and that the film's sound design, appropriately enough, outshines its visuals). One of the film's biggest supporters is THR's David Rooney, who calls Silence "unexpectedly lovely" and admires how it "deftly balances the cerebral with the soulful in a story of transfixing originality." Then again, Uproxx critic Vince Mancini dismisses it as "peculiar" and "a dowdy tweed jacket of a film" despite "an intriguing premise." Similarly, RogerEbert.com's Brian Tallerico admits that Silence contains "some fascinating ideas" but laments that "the whole production is too numbingly flat, blending into one disappointing tone." (Interestingly, he also calls Silence a "tweed movie," so at least you'll know how to dress if you go to see the film.)

The Tomorrow Man
Drama | USA | Directed by Noble Jones

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Acquired by Bleecker Street just prior to the start of the festival, the debut feature from Noble Jones (who serves as director, writer, and cinematographer) can't quite capitalize on the strength of its leads, John Lithgow and Blythe Danner, according to reviewers. The former stars as a retiree/doomsday prepper whose life changes for the better after beginning a romance with a woman played by the latter—at least until their emotional baggage catches up to them. IndieWire's Eric Kohn finds the result "curious" and an unholy alliance of Take Shelter and It's Complicated that is only saved (in part) by the performances of the two stars. THR's Todd McCarthy is impressed by the clever ending but thinks it doesn't justify sitting through the rest of the film: "[Man] would have worked superbly as a half-hour Twilight Zone episode, but this December-December love story between two mild eccentrics in a small town is remarkably unremarkable." Curiously, Variety's Dennis Harvey is less impressed by the twist ending but likes the film slightly more, noting that it sustains "a low-key charm."

Where's My Roy Cohn?
Documentary | USA | Directed by Matt Tyrnauer
Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for an unspecified amount

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Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) directs this look at infamous lawyer Roy Cohn, who advised figures ranging from Communist-hunter Joseph McCarthy to mobster John Gotti to Donald Trump, and was eventually disbarred before dying from an AIDS-related illness in 1986. Critics agree that Cohn was a terrible person, but they aren't entirely in alignment on the effectiveness of Tyrnauer's film. IndieWire's David Ehrlich acknowledges the movie's relevance but finds it "an unilluminating chore to watch." Todd McCarthy disagrees in THR, calling the film "fascinating," though admitting that "you really feel the need of a cold shower afterwards." The Guardian's Jordan Hoffman seems to agree with the fascinating nature of Cohn's story but also complains of a "by-the-numbers approach" by the director.

Biggest disappointments

After the Wedding
Drama | USA | Directed by Bart Freundlich

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Bart Freundlich’s remake of Susanne Bier’s 2006 Oscar-nominated drama After the Wedding replaces the original’s stars, Mads Mikkelsen and Rolf Lassgård, with two of the best female performers working today, Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore. The story remains the same, with Williams’ social worker visiting Moore’s hard-charging executive to secure a grant for the orphanage she manages in Calcutta, but some critics wish Freundlich had made a few more changes. Despite “strong performances from Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams,” THR's David Rooney claims the film “grows increasingly preposterous as it crawls toward its weepy conclusion.” However, Peter Debruge of Variety believes Freundlich does “a terrific job of it, sticking close to the original structure as he sensitively navigates the subtler points of a melodrama that could have very easily veered into the operatic, while getting the most from his leading lady.”

The Brink
Documentary | USA | Directed by Alison Klayman

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Former Breitbart head and Donald Trump Svengali Steve Bannon is the subject of a documentary from Alison Klayman that focuses on Bannon's life following his departure from the White House (including a European tour). The filmmaker had unfettered access to Bannon, following him for months, and critics are—appropriately enough—divided about the result. THR's John DeFore finds Bannon too much of "a snooze" to make the film worth watching, while The Film Stage's Vikram Murthi thinks the film never goes beyond the already obvious despite the time spent with its subject. But TheWrap's Todd Gilchrist finds the documentary illuminating in the way it reveals Bannon's tactics. Magnolia acquired the film earlier this month prior to the start of Sundance.

Corporate Animals
Horror/Comedy | USA | Directed by Patrick Brice

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The latest Sundance entry from The Overnight director Patrick Brice stars Demi Moore as the self-absorbed CEO of an edible cutlery (!) company who leads her employees (including Jessica Williams, Nasim Pedrad, and Karan Soni) on a (literally) disastrous team-building retreat in a New Mexico cave with a guide played by Ed Helms. Think of it as an R-rated episode of The Office with a bit more blood and cannibalism—but don't think of it as a great film. THR's John DeFore finds the concept and script (by Peep Show's Sam Bain) stale—or, in his words, "About as fresh as the air in a cave nine people without toothbrushes have shared for a week." In his "C–" review at IndieWire, David Ehrlich also laments "sitcom-level gags," though he does appreciate a handful of jokes that "aim at the uncomfortable absurdities of the modern American workplace." For The Playlist's Jordan Ruimy, the problem isn't with the script but with a "misfired performance" from Moore, who "is totally miscast, and her ill-conceived performance is awkward and her comedic timing way off." But others, like Variety's Amy Nicholson, praise Moore's performance (Nicholson calls it "deliciously nasty"), though not the film itself.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Drama | USA | Directed by Joe Berlinger

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Zac Efron stars as serial killer Ted Bundy in this narrative feature from director Joe Berlinger (The Paradise Lost series, Whitey: United States of America v. James J Bulger), who also directed the new Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Told from the perspective of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend (critics couldn’t agree on how successfully), Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins), the film is “Efron’s show, with all elements gravitating towards him for better or worse,” according to Carlos Aguilar of TheWrap. The Playlist's Rodrigo Perez would say it’s for the worse, because the film “rings hollow and false and is really just as interested in the sensational and salacious as any other reductive thriller.” But in her review for IndieWire, Kate Erbland disagrees: "More sad than salacious, it’s the rare film about a criminal that offers human details without humanizing a man who so many agree was a monster.”

I Am Mother
Sci-fi/Thriller | Australia | Directed by Grant Sputore

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This post-apocalyptic but small-scale sci-fi thriller from a first-time director (working from a Black List-ed script by Michael Lloyd Green) is set on a future Earth in which all human life has seemingly been eradicated. In an underground bunker, a robot named Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne) uses her inventory of human embryos to repopulate the planet. But Mother's relationship with the first of those humans—now a teenager, played by newcomer Clara Rugaard—is threatened when a wounded woman (Hilary Swank) arrives at the bunker with a story that doesn't match up with what Mother has been telling the girl. Original? Not according to The Film Stage's Jake Howell, who dismisses the film as "a talky, over-stuffed mess of tropes" saved partially by its production design. THR's David Rooney is similarly split, warning of "familiar ideas" and "glacial pacing" but admiring the "impressive design work" and "sharp visual effects" courtesy of Weta Workshop. Awards Campaign's Gregory Ellwood (who doesn't even approve of the production design apart from Mother) sums up this overarching sentiment succinctly: "A somewhat cool robot does not make a movie." But a few critics offered more support, including Screen Daily's Anthony Kaufman, who calls Mother "another example of smart and slick indie sci-fi" along the lines of Annihilation or Ex Machina.

Imaginary Order
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Debra Eisenstadt

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The fifth feature from actress-turned-director Debra Eisenstadt stars Wendi McLendon-Covey (in a slightly more dramatic role than normal for the star of TV's The Goldbergs and Reno 911!) as a suburban housewife in the throes of a mid-life crisis (and possibly OCD) who leaves home to house-sit for her sister. While there, her interactions with the family living next door threaten to completely unravel her life. Order mixes elements of comedy, drama, and thriller genres, but perhaps not successfully. Film Threat's Bradley Gibson thinks the film has "an identity crisis" and that its "themes are so narratively ill-defined that it never gels." But THR's Sheri Linden disagrees, arguing that "there's little that's neat and tidy about Imaginary Order, and that's one of the movie's key strengths." Linden, who does note some flaws in the film's second half, also finds McLendon-Covey "a revelation," and The Playlist's Lena Wilson agrees, calling her performance "at once arresting and gutting" even as the story around her collapses into "absurdity."

Little Monsters
Horror/Comedy | Australia | Directed by Abe Forsythe
Acquired by Neon and Hulu for approximately $4-$6 million

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Both the best and worst zombie comedy screening at this year's festival, the latest film from Australian writer-director Abe Forsythe (Down Under) stars Lupita Nyong'o as a kindergarten teacher who must work with an obnoxious children's television host (Josh Gad) to save her students from a zombie invasion. After a bidding war, Neon and Hulu partnered to acquire the film, with the former handling theatrical distribution and the latter controlling the exclusive streaming rights. But several critics wonder whether there is an audience for Monsters. One of those is Screen Daily's Anthony Kaufman, who ponders whether the fun but uninventive film might be "too sweet for the horror crowd and too vulgar or gross for those looking for an innocuous laugh." That sentiment is echoed by Variety's Amy Nicholson, who finds the film "so guileless in its story and execution, it could have been made for kids, except for the disembowelings." Still, she and nearly every other reviewer have lots of praise for Nyong'o's performance and commitment to the role. But she can only do so much. THR's Todd McCarthy warns, "Even at just 94 minutes, Little Monsters begins running out of gas before Forsythe gets around to wrapping things up."

Now Apocalypse
TV (Comedy/Drama) | USA | Directed by Gregg Araki

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Debuting March 10 on Starz, this Steven Soderbergh-produced, sci-fi-ish, coming-of-age comedy series follows four people on their quest for "love, sex and fame" in a very surreal version of Los Angeles—and one that may be in the throes of a dark conspiracy. Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin) directs all 10 episodes, which he co-wrote with Vogue sex columnist Karley Sciortino (Slutever). Critics saw the first three episodes at Sundance, and were left mostly disappointed, though they agree that the show delivers on the promised strangeness. Variety's Daniel D'Addario dismisses the trying series as "a warmed-over rehash of sharper material, while IndieWire's Ben Travers warns that the show "is so focused on delaying whatever weird apocalyptic payoff it’s hiding that the early episodes never introduce an enticing, enlightening, or all that enjoyable story at all." Apocalypse's one supporter in the critic community so far is THR's Dan Fienberg, who seems happy to report that the show is "weird and funny and kinky and outlandish and utterly ridiculous," and likely to please Araki fans.

The Sunlit Night
Rom-com/Drama | Germany/Norway | Directed by David Wnendt

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A disappointment on multiple fronts, this adaptation of Rebecca Dinerstein’s novel by Wetlands director David Wnendt follows Frances (Jenny Slate) to an island in Norway, where she works for a Norwegian artist, helping him paint his barn. While she’s there, she meets a New York baker (Alex Sharp) who’s tending to family business. Dinerstein makes her screenwriting debut, but IndieWire's Kate Erbland feels this “whimsical, weird story certainly seems like it’s better suited to the page, where it can breathe a little more.” Critics agree that the one saving grace is Slate, who, Matthew Passantino of Film Threat admits, is “always a wonderful presence, exuding a rare energy and comedic timing that not many actors can offer.”

Them That Follow
Thriller | USA | Directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage
Acquired by The Orchard for an unspecified amount

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Set in the Pentecostal community in Appalachian Mountains, the debut feature for co-writer-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage focuses on Mara (Alice Englert), the daughter of the snake-handling Pastor Lemuel (Walter Goggins). Mara has a secret, and this slow-burn thriller, according to Variety's Amy Nicholson, “explodes,” proving Poulton and Savage have “made a hell of a picture.” But Benjamin Lee of The Guardian disagrees, claiming it’s a “frustratingly vacant attempt to provide insight into a specific community, rarely seen on screen.”

Drama/Thriller/Horror | USA/UK | Directed by Babak Anvari

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Babak Anvari’s follow-up to 2016’s Metacritic Must-See Under the Shadow proved to be a letdown for some critics. Based on Nathan Ballingrud’s novella The Visible Filth, the film stars Armie Hammer as a New Orleans bartender who slowly goes mad. Screen Daily's Tim Grierson claims it’s an “initially intriguing horror movie that quickly descends into silliness,” and Benjamin Lee of The Guardian calls it a “confused, haphazard jumble of ideas, gore and tone.” However, the film, which also stars Dakota Johnson, and Zazie Beetz, has a few defenders. THR's David Rooney believes Anvari “remains a skilled craftsman,” and in his review for Film Threat, Norman Gidney writes, “Wounds is a visceral, disturbing descent into the destruction of a man that hits all of the conventional horror notes with sadistic joy taking viewers on a ride straight to hell.” Look for it in theaters beginning March 29th.


All photos above courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Comments (3)

  • FPMelo  

    What About ABE??

  • wertleman  

    Just a quick correction - In Them That Follow, it's Walton Goggins, not Walter

  • PrettyGood  

    What about Honeyland?

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