The 35th Sundance Film Festival received a record-breaking 14,000-plus submissions, with 4,000-plus feature-length films among them.
Of the 112 features selected, 45 of their makers were first-timers. The fest’s slate of fresh, diverse voices (53 percent of directors in the U.S. Dramatic Competition are women, 41 percent are people of color, and 18 percent identify as LGBTQ) indicates a rising tide of programming that’s as inclusive as it is eclectic in its efforts to represent 2019’s standard-bearers of indie film. This sampling of 11 features will get you acquainted with the independents, both emerging and established, whose latest work will be bending genres, breaking ground, and blurring boundaries between fiction and non-fiction storytelling. These are the independent movies that will land on many moviegoers’ must-see maps in the months to come. —MM Editors
The Last Tree (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Who: Shola Amoo, director
Logline: A semi-autobiographical coming of age drama, exploring family, identity, and culture.
An audience watching my film probably won’t know that: we shot the Lincolnshire field scenes in the sea at low tide.
The greatest flash of inspiration or brilliance we had making this film was: doing a couple of scenes in single takes, including one particular five-minute sequence.
A darling I had to kill along the way was: an eight-minute uncut sequence that was eventually cut down to a five-minute uncut sequence.
When I heard we got into Sundance I: danced to my favorite rapper, Casisdead.
I would love to meet Jordan Peele in Park City.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (Premieres)
Who: Joe Berlinger, director
Logline: The story of Ted Bundy told through the perspective of his longtime girlfriend, Liz, who refused to believe the truth about him for years.
The first spark of an idea for this movie came when: my agent Michael Cooper sent me the script thinking it would grab my attention. He was right. I’ve spent decades advocating for the wrongfully convicted—people who are innocent, but whom nobody believes. I thought it would be interesting to make a film about the opposite phenomenon—a guilty person who everyone believes is innocent due to his charming personality and dapper appearance.
My favorite scene (or shot) in the film is: the final confrontation between Ted and Liz when Ted is on death row. It’s the whole reason I made the movie.
An audience watching my film probably won’t know that: I adopted the dog used in the courthouse jump scene and took him back to New York with me from Kentucky where we shot the movie.
The most interesting, weirdest or most difficult location we shot at was: an abandoned prison on the top five floors of a building in Covington, Kentucky. Cold, drafty, and possibly haunted. It was eerie.
A darling I had to kill along the way was: we had to dump an amazing opening title sequence featuring a song by Chicago that captured the mood of the period perfectly. We ultimately decided it would be more effective to save the title of the film until the very end, plus the song was too expensive to clear.
When I heard we got into Sundance I: immediately booked my housing, because I know how difficult that can be. And then my wife and I did a dance around the house.
Sister Aimee (NEXT)
Who: Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann, writer-directors
Logline: In 1926, America’s most famous evangelist is looking for a way out and finds herself on a wild road trip to Mexico.
Things that influenced this film were: Paper Moon, Something Wild, and maybe the 2016 election.
The most expensive thing in our budget was: Old Ginger, our period car.
The biggest lesson we learned making this movie was: hire great actors. They can teach you something new about your characters, they’ll allow you to make your days, and in a big ensemble, there are no unimportant parts. To paraphrase Jonathan Demme: Whoever’s on screen is the star of the movie.
When we heard we got into Sundance we: Conference-called our producers and Anna Margaret Hollyman and laughed and cried.
Who: Jacob Estes, director
Logline: There’s a connection so strong between an uncle and his niece that their relationship continues even after she’s murdered.
The greatest flash of inspiration or brilliance we had making this film was: When we were scouting locations for our “diner scene,” there was a jar of bubble gum by the cash register that happened to be there at one of the 10 diners we scouted that day. Had we not scouted that diner on that very day, and had I not happened to sit on the western side of the booth but rather on the eastern side, then a massive plot point we added to the movie might have never come to mind, strictly because the inspiration for it would have been outside of my happenstance geographic field of view. For those who have seen the movie, what I’m talking about is “the bubble gum scene.”
I would love to meet Stanley Kubrick in Park City. I know, that’s impossible… but I’d like to meet him.
Judy and Punch (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Who: Mirrah Foulkes, writer-director
Logline: Seaside (nowhere near the sea), puppeteers Judy and Punch are trying to resurrect their marionette show in an anarchic town on the brink of mob rule.
My favorite scene (or shot) in the film is: a shot of a rabbit in the forest miraculously doing exactly what I needed it to do.
An audience watching my film probably won’t know that: nine times out of 10, the animals didn’t do what I needed them to do.
The most expensive thing in our budget was: probably Valiant, our beautiful Friesian hero horse.
The biggest lesson I learned making this movie was: if something doesn’t feel good it’s probably not. Keep pushing until it does feel good, and fight if you have to. And don’t work with animals!
A darling I had to kill along the way was: a sequence in which kids charge through the forest on Shetland ponies. Every time the kids got even close to the ponies, they were surrounded by an army of safety officers.
When I heard we got into Sundance I: knew I could get through the last few weeks of post. I was so tired and had no idea if anyone was going to like the movie, but getting in to Sundance gave me the kick I needed to get to the finish line.
I’m most excited about seeing Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale this year.
Selah and the Spades (NEXT)
Who: Tayarisha Poe, writer-director
Logline: Five factions run the underground life of the prestigious Haldwell boarding school, and at the head of the most powerful faction of them all—The Spades—sits Selah Summers. By turns charming and callous, she chooses whom to keep close and whom to cut loose, walking the fine line between being feared and loved.
The first spark of an idea for this movie came when: I was working a job in the media center of my alma mater and I started to wonder what life would be like for a black girl who did exactly what she wanted at all times with no concerns for the consequences.
An audience watching my film probably won’t know that: our entire approach to the look of the film is heavily influenced by when Rihanna says, “Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?” in her song “Needed Me,” from her incomparable album ANTI.
The most interesting, weirdest, or most difficult location we shot at was: The Academy at Penguin Hall near Salem, MA, where we shot almost everything in the film. It was simultaneously odd, beautiful, eerie, and magical. It used to be a convent, then it was an ad agency, and now it’s a school for badass girls.
The biggest lesson I learned making this movie was: bug spray is fake. It doesn’t work.
When I heard we got into Sundance I: tried to call my parents but it was so cold out that my phone died.
Dirty God (World Cinema Competition)
Who: Sacha Polak, co-writer and director
Logline: A powerful film about motherhood, courage, and self-acceptance set in contemporary London.
The first spark of an idea for this movie came when: some years ago I attended a music festival, and among the partygoers there was a woman whose face was severely burnt. I looked at her and flinched; my first reaction was to look away. The burnt face twitched and just looking at it hurt. I thought of how terrible it must be to live with such scars, and the fact you can’t possibly hide them. Your face is your identity. It’s the first portal of communication. The idea to make a feature film about a young burnt woman who has to deal with her life planted itself in my head. She struggles with everything with which most young women struggle, only to her something horrible has happened.
The most interesting, weirdest or most difficult location we shot at was: the club in Marrakesh. We were kicked out of the first club we were supposed to shoot in because of its crazy owner. This cost us a day of shooting with 300 extras and we had to ask our crew to stay another day in Morocco and work a seventh day. The next day, our crane collapsed. Our camera assistant saved the camera, but hurt his foot in doing so. That day, our producer went to 20 mosques and gave money to 40 poor people in order to bring us some luck.
When I heard we got into Sundance: I was at my cabin in the woods. It was very early in the morning and I had just come back with my children from the washing area when I saw my producer Marleen Slot standing in front of the cabin holding a bottle of champagne with a huge smile on her face.
I Am Mother (Premieres)
Who: Grant Sputore, director
Logline: In the wake of humanity’s extinction, a teenage girl is raised by a robot designed to repopulate the earth—but their unique bond is threatened when a stranger arrives with alarming news.
An audience watching my film probably won’t know that: the robot was achieved 99 percent practically, as a suit built by the geniuses at Weta Workshop. Bonus factoid: The person wearing the suit was the same guy who actually built it, so he had no one else to blame when it turned out so heavy.
Something that was an influence or reference on this film was: the “practical magic” of films like The Terminator, Alien, Predator, and RoboCop. I grew up on that, so I always knew I wanted to make our Mother robot for real and capture her in-camera. In a world where VFX have become so ubiquitous, I felt a practical approach was the way to truly wow an audience.
The biggest lesson I learned making this movie was: endurance is crucial. Every knock back we had ended up being a win once we persevered, reframed the problem, and came up with a creative solution.
I would love to meet Robert Redford in Park City. It’s the quintessential Sundance experience.
I’m most excited about seeing MEMORY – The Origins of Alien this year. Fittingly.
Jawline (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Who: Liza Mandelup, director
Logline: Sixteen-year-old Austyn Tester, a rising star in the live-broadcast ecosystem who built his following on wide-eyed optimism and teen girl lust, tries to escape a dead-end life in rural Tennessee.
Something that was an influence on this film was: Charlie White’s American Minor photo book.
A darling I had to kill along the way was: characters. We filmed with more characters than made it into the film, and that was heartbreaking because I wanted them all to fit!
The biggest lesson I learned making this movie was: it’s great to make a documentary about a world you don’t mind hanging out in for a while. Documentaries are extremely personal, even when they seem to be about someone else. The connection between moviemaker and crew is what you see on camera—that bond is what makes the film.
The Sound of Silence (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Who: Michael Tyburski, director and co-writer
Logline: A successful “house tuner” in New York City, who calibrates the sounds in people’s homes in order to adjust their moods, meets a client with a problem he can’t solve.
My favorite scene (or shot) in the film is: everything we shot in Central Park. I officially feel like I made a proper New York movie now that I’ve staged scenes there. Everyone knows Central Park when it’s lush in the summer, but I really wanted to shoot our scenes pre-spring bloom. The branches on the tress all look like massive black veins against the sky. It’s quite beautiful that time of year.
An audience watching my film probably won’t know that: the main character’s soundproof home and workspace was actually one of our noisiest locations. The most expensive thing in our budget was: professionally having to remove (and then rebalance) a pool table from a location that shouldn’t have had a pool table.
The biggest lesson I learned making this movie was: moviemaking is a marathon and not a sprint. It really takes an entire year to make one of these things, and there will (eventually) be time to get it all right.
A darling I had to kill along the way was: shooting in the Metropolitan Opera House. Years ago, I fell in love with the score desks at The Met—a section of seats that afford no view of the stage, but have a small desk and reading light where music enthusiasts can follow along. It’s the perfect secret space in New York City that our main character would know about. Co-producer Kristie Lutz and I tried hard to pull some favors and find a backdoor in, but we kept on hitting red tape. I finally settled on building a mini version of our own at one of our other locations. Fortunately, our incredible art department was able to recreate it better than the original.
When I heard we got into Sundance I: briefly lost feeling in my legs. I was definitely standing on both feet at the beginning of the call, but was on the floor by the end of it.
I would love to meet a distributor in Park City.
Paradise Hills (NEXT)
Who: Alice Waddington, director
Logline: Paradise Hills is an eccentric institution where well-off families from all over the world send their daughters to be reformed.
The greatest flash of inspiration or brilliance we had making this film was: realizing that many of us were doing it for our younger selves. We want our audience to accept themselves as they are—to learn that together they can conquer monsters. For me, the film is dedicated to my teenage self, who would lock herself up in the school bathroom stalls during recess to read The Hobbit.
A darling I had to kill along the way was: a few sets that needed to be merged into each other in order to sharpen the focus of our complex third act. The sets were gorgeous, but had to go.
My favorite film festival moment in my life so far is: winning Best Director and Silver Feature Project of the Market at Fantastic Fest 2015, which opened the door for my producers and me to meet Guillermo del Toro that night. Watching Crimson Peak for the first time at Fantastic Fest, and the Belladonna of Sadness restoration the next morning, was unforgettable.
I’m most excited about seeing: any of the 26 glorious debut features directed by women in competition during this historic Sundance year. I’m always cheering for films directed by, and starring, female people of color, such as Hala by Minhal Baig, or Selah and The Spades by Tayarisha Poe. I would love to meet them in Park City.
When I heard we got into Sundance I: sobbed on the phone for about 15 minutes to Dilcia Barrera, the incredible festival programmer who called me. Then, I proceeded to call my mama and cry again for a slightly longer period of time.
The 35th Sundance Film Festival runs January 24-February 3, 2019 in Park City, Utah. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue. Photographs in featured image by Manolo Pavón, Ben King, Jomo Fray, Eric Lin, and Ian Routledge, courtesy of Sundance Institute.