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20 Films and VR Works to Anticipate at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival

Maynor Alvarado and Manuel Uriza in The Infiltrators (photo by Lisa Rinzler)

When I look back at last year’s version of this annual “Sundance films I’m looking forward to” list, I’m seeing that my selections were pretty dead on. Almost all of my favorite films of the year — Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy; Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life; Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace; Sam Green’s A Thousand Hours; Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline — I saw in Park City. Will I come anywhere near that high-water mark this year? I have no idea, but of course I’m hoping. Here are 20 films and VR pieces (the number limited by laptop battery life on my American flight) I’ll be trying to see from a mental list that is two or three times longer. (For more recommended ’19 films, see Dan Schoenbrun’s “50 Most Anticipated,” which includes a few Sundance titles I didn’t get to.)

The Infiltrators. In the current issue of Filmmaker, Joanne McNeil revisits Alex Rivera’s prescient low-fi sci-fi pic, Sleep Dealer, on the 10th anniversary of its release. And here at Filmmaker we’ve followed Cristina Ibarra’s documentary work for many years and have anticipated what once was set to be her first feature, Love and Monster Trucks. But now the two have partnered for The Infiltrators, which is Rivera’s sophomore dramatic pic and Ibarra’s first — although, from the description, it sounds like a hybrid work that will blur the lines between disciplines. About a for-profit detention center holding multinational immigrants without trial and a group of activist Dreamers, it couldn’t be more timely.

Give Me Liberty. Set to be one of the pure discoveries of the 2019 Sundance festival, Give Me Liberty is Milwaukee-based director Kirill Mikhanovsky and writer Alice Austen’s energetic ensemble drama dealing with marginalized characters sliding along the precipice of the Wisconsin city’s social safety net. The program notes cite the Czech New Wave as an influence, and Mikhanovsky’s short films have screened at Cannes Critic’s Week and IDFA.

Selah and the Spades. Ever since coming across Philadelphia-based Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and the Spades while reviewing material for our 25 New Faces in 2015, I’ve been waiting for this one. The earliest iteration of this tale of a charismatic and complex teenage anti-heroine, titled “an overture,” was an of-the-moment blast of low-tech transmedia: photos, video, literature and music housed within a striking web design. That version of the story has given birth to a feature set in a New England private school that draws inspiration from Rihanna and Brutalist architecture (!).

Apollo 11. Todd Douglas Miller is best known for his T-Rex doc Dinosaur 13. There’s very strong early word on this pic, which is said to be deeply immersive in its use of crystalline, never-before-seen 70mm footage of the fabled spacecraft mission.

Reach. In her previous work, new media superstar Nonny de la Peña has used VR to create guilt-inducing social and political criticism. From the description of her latest New Frontier piece, realized in collaboration with Chaitanya Shah, Hannah Eaves and Cedric Gamelinshe, she is pushing this time technological boundaries. Multiple participants can roam around in an interactive volumetrically depicted installation.

Wounds. In the Midnight section is the latest from London-based Babak Anvari, whose vampire pic Under the Shadow made both arthouse and genre waves a few years ago. His new film, set to be released by Annapurna this March, is a horror film of sorts centered around text messaging that reunites The Social Network‘s Dakoto Johnson and Armie Hammer.

The Seven Ages of Man. “Volumetric capture,” which will enable the next leap forward in VR, may be the buzzword at Sundance New Frontier this year. Here’s another work using it that will, I think, represent another New Frontier first: the debut of the much anticipated Magic Leap headset. An adaptation of a speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the piece is by Robert Gilbert and Jessica Curry and is produced by Magic Leap and the Royal Shakespeare company.

Traveling While Black. With Peter Farrelly’s Green Book stirring up controversy on the awards circuit, the timing couldn’t be better for this VR installation about “race and restricted movement,” also inspired by the 1936 Green Book survival guide.

The Mustang. Young French director and actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has made two strong New York-set shorts — Atlantic Avenue (starring Leopoldine Huyghues-Despointes and Brady Corbet) and Rabbit (starring Tiffani Barbour and Stella Schnabel). The latter is a prison-set drama, a location she expands upon in her first feature, The Mustang, which stars Rust and Bone‘s Matthias Schoenaerts along with Bruce Dern and Connie Britton. (Full disclosure: Laure is a friend.) I read the script for this one and, honestly, thought it was fantastic. There’s a classical feel to this tale of a convict emerging from solitary confinement who enters a rehabilitation program involving the training of wild horses. A Sundance Lab project, Robert Redford is executive producer and Focus Features releases this spring.

The Wolf Hour. Alistair Banks Griffin made a strong debut with the Cannes-premiering, Faulkner-esque Borderline Films production Two Gates of Sleep back in ’10. Now, just short of a decade later, the filmmaker — who gets immense cred for having been artist Tony Oursler’s studio manager — returns with what sounds like a Repulsion-esque thriller starring Naomi Watts and set in the smoldering New York summer of 1977, when Son of Sam stalked the streets. I’ve long been fascinated with this era, and I can’t wait to see how Griffin tackles it.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld. A regular smasher of the Overton Window of documentary discourse, investigative Danish provocateur Madds Brügger returns with a doc about the mysterious death of United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld in a plane crash. This film has the best kind of buzz — vague mutterings from those sworn to secrecy simply saying to go see it.

The Blair Witch Project. Oh, those were the days. I remember sitting in Filmmaker‘s offices at 42nd and 5th Avenue in New York, back before we moved in with the IFP. We used to do a special Sundance issue, and in the month of December we’d call all the filmmakers who got in and ask them to send us their films, and we’d make a special section that would land at the festival. Back then, things were easy — sales agents didn’t shut down filmmakers who wanted to show us their films early. So, this VHS came in the mail, a film made by these three guys — directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez and producer Greg Hale — we had never heard of. Our publisher, Steve Gallagher, took it home first and came back the next day. “It’s scary,” he said. “You should watch it.” I did, and he was right — it was. Steve interviewed the guys; we hoped that our little spread in Filmmaker would give this threadbare production a boost. At Sundance I went to the premiere even though I had already seen the film, wanting to introduce myself to the guys. Afterwards, they were mobbed. I fought my way through the crowd of agents and buyers. “Hey, thanks for the article,” one shouted, before I was shoved aside. And the rest, of course, was history — history recalled by Sundance for this year’s From the Archive” section.

Adam. I first came across artist and director Rhys Ernst’s work in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, where he and partner Zackary Drucker photographically chronicled their duel and opposite transitions. Since then, Ernst has produced and directed for Transparent and has now completed his first feature, Adam, produced by Howard Gertler and my friend and colleague James Schamus. Based on Ariel Schrag’s novel, it embeds a tale of youth activism and the trans community within the structure of a classic coming-of-age tale.

Light from Light. Paul Harrill made our 25 New Faces list way, way back — in 2001. Tennessee-based, he’s stuck to his model of sensitive, sometimes mysterious human dramas that draw on the rhythms and concerns of those living in the American South. This one has a great cast — Jim Gaffigan and Marin Ireland — and tells a story of grief and, perhaps, the paranormal.

Pahokee. Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan — 25 New Faces from back in 2016 — practice what Filmmaker‘s Brandon Harris called at the time “sophisticated verite.” Indeed, in award-winning shorts like Skip Day and The Rabbit Hunt they fall in with their subjects and distill a series of intimate moments into larger social and poetic statements. This first feature revisits the setting of their earlier The Send Off, and I couldn’t be more excited and curious to see how these filmmakers handle the feature format.

The Hours and Times. Pre-dating this magazine is Christopher Munch’s long-short/short-feature (at 57 minutes), The Hours and Times, which I can assure you was a seminal picture for anyone in the indie scene back then. As Damon Smith wrote for Filmmaker in an interview with Munch nearly a decade later, it’s “a talky, speculative film about an erotically charged weekend that John Lennon and his manager Brian Epstein supposedly spent in Barcelona in 1993.” (Marianne Faithful goes along for the ride too.) With astonishingly good performances, Munch’s film is both a dramatic miniature that holds up to 2019 viewing as well as a sturdy model for innovative low-budget independent filmmaking. If you haven’t seen this lovely film, check it out in the From the Archive section.

The Sound of Silence. An adaptation of their wonderful short film Palimpsest, which landed writer/director Michael Tyburski and writer/producer Ben Nabors on our 25 New Faces list, The Sound of Silence stars Peter Sarsgaard as a kind of sonic feng shui artist, helping anxious Manhattans find the perfect frequency.

Share. Here’s another feature that’s an adaptation of a short film that landed its maker — in this case writer/director Pippa Bianco — on our 25 New Faces list. Like the previous filmmakers, Tyburski and Nabors, Bianco works in both doc and fiction, and in this A24 release she tells a story of cyber bullying that is sadly drawn from too many newspaper accounts these days.

Knock Down the House. An AOC doc — too soon? Don’t listen to folks who say it is, because they are probably the same “grow up, stay in your lane, fix the potholes, wait your turn” pundits who have been fabulously wrong about the young Bronx/Queens congresswoman. Rachel Lears follows Ocasio-Cortez as well as three other congresswomen — Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin — in their insurgent, anti-incumbent 2018 campaigns.

Midnight Family. I had the opportunity to check out an early cut of Luke Lorentzen’s doc about a family-run, for-profit Mexico City ambulance service, an outfit that races to save lives — and collect a fee. Lorentzen went deep into the lives of his subjects, capturing a nocturnal Mexico City that crackles with danger as well as humanity.

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