14 Movies that Could be the Breakout Hits of Sundance

Babadook director Jennifer Kent returns. Jake Gyllenhaal gets artistic. Awkwafina tries drama. Shia LaBeouf exposes himself. It's going to be a wild Sundance Film Festival.

by | January 21, 2019 | Comments

Velvet Buzzsaw

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Claudette Barius.)

The 41st annual Sundance Film Festival is set to kick off next Thursday. Nestled right in the midst of 2018 awards season – the one that’s happening now, in 2019! – Sundance acts as the unofficial start of the indie season. The Park City, Utah festival, which comes several months ahead of the other major festivals, is still the place for high-dollar film acquisitions. Last year it was where first we spotted Hereditary star Toni Collette’s terrifying face contortions, where Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs’ socially conscious buddy dramedy Blindspotting gave us so much to ponder between the laughs, and where John Cho’s turn as a desperate father in Searching broke our collective hearts and minds. Other 2018 favorites Eighth Grade, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and Leave No Trace also got their starts at Sundance.

Though the corporate influence is strong in Park City and the festival is far removed from the fall festival schedule, Sundance at its core remains unchanged: a discovery festival for independent cinema and the filmmakers who craft it. Who will break out of the pack this year? These are our picks for the can’t-miss films of Sundance 2019 and why we are so excited to catch them.

The Nightingale (2018) 86%

The Nightingale

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kasia Ladczuk.)

Director and screenwriter: Jennifer Kent

Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie

It’s 1825. Colonial Australia. Irish convict Clare chases a British officer through the Tasmanian wilderness, bent on revenge for the violent act he committed against her family. On the way, she enlists the services of Indigenous tracker Billy, who is marked by his own trauma.

Why we want to see it: Kent burst onto the scene with her horror hit The Babadook at Sundance 2014 and has been in high demand ever since. In her follow-up to her meme-starting smash, she puts another twist on genre filmmaking with what looks to be a case of Logan meets Pride and Prejudice. Early reviews from the Venice Film Festival last year suggest the Aussie director has once again staked her claim as a force to reckoned with in auteur horror.

Share (2019) 86%


(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Josh Johnson.)

Director and screenwriter: Pippa Bianco

Cast: Rhianne Barreto, Charlie Plummer, Poorna Jagannathan, J.C. MacKenzie, Nick Galitzine, Lovie Simone

This latest social-media-as-nightmare tale, developed by A24, has us intrigued. After discovering a disturbing video from a night she doesn’t remember, teenager Mandy must try to figure out what happened and how to navigate the escalating fallout.

Why we want to see it: Charlie Plummer melted his way into our hearts last year with Lean on Pete, and with his work in that film as well as All the Money in the World and King Jack it’s hard to believe he’s just 19. Plummer’s joined by newcomer Barreto, who will play the lead. Writer-director Pippa Bianco’s film is a feature-length take on her award-winning short from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and has all the makings of a stellar debut.

Paddleton (2019) 89%

Director and screenwriter: Alex Lehmann

Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Ravi Patel, Christine Woods

An unlikely friendship between two misfit neighbors takes an emotional turn when the younger man is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Why we want to see it: The Duplass Brothers return to Sundance with this film they co-produced. A trailer released early this month shows Romano and Duplass’ easy chemistry. We fully expect to be laughing through the tears on this one, which will premiere on Netflix February 22.

Apollo 11 (2019) 99%

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Hot on the heels of First Man, Sundance will screen this fully archival reconstruction of humanity’s first successful trip to the moon, with never-before-seen 70mm footage and never-before-heard audio from the mission.

Why we want to see it: After Damien Chazelle’s First Man last year, it might be hard to get our engine going about another Apollo mission movie. But Miller’s archival doc boasts a completely new take with never-before-seen and fully restored footage of the voyage. And if Miller’s last documentary, Dinosaur 13 (72% on the Tomatometer), is anything to go by, this will be a gripping ride. NASA Nerds: prepare to get a little hot under the collar.

Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019) 88%

Brittany Runs a Marathon

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jon Pack.)

Director and screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Cast: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock, Alice Lee

In a story inspired by writer and director Colaizzo’s real-life friend, we follow a hard-partying New York City twentysomething as she decides to do the New York Marathon.

Why we want to see it: Actor and musician Utkarsh Ambudkar had just one scene in last year’s opening-night film Blindspotting, and he managed to almost run away with the film. We’re excited whenever we see his name in the cast list. He will have some competition on the scene-stealing front in this comedy, though, with Get Out breakout star Lil Rel Howery in a supporting role and the hilarious Jillian Bell (Workaholics) playing the title marathoner.

The Death of Dick Long (2019) 74%

The Death of Dick Long

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Director: Daniel Scheinert

Screenwriter: Billy Chew

Cast: Michael Abbott Jr., Virginia Newcomb, Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Jess Weixler

The “Dick” of the title is dead, and Zeke and Earl don’t want anybody finding out how. That’s going to be tough – in small-town Alabama, it’s hard to keep a secret.

Why we want to see it: Director Scheinert’s last film, Swiss Army Man (71% on the Tomatometer), showed he knew a thing or two about drawing outrageous laughs from dead bodies. That pedigree, plus the promise of a backwoods Alabama caper, has us more than interested.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) 54%

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Brian Douglas.)

Director: Joe Berlinger

Screenwriter: Michael Werwie

Cast: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Haley Joel Osment, Kaya Scodelario, John Malkovich, Jim Parsons

A new twist on the serial killer genre, Extremely Wicked takes a girlfriend’s-eye–view of the crimes of Ted Bundy, following the woman who stood by his side and refused to believe the truth for years.

Why we want to see it: Efron looks unnervingly like Bundy in a still photo from this biopic about the notorious murderer. Our nation’s most charming serial killer played by our internet boyfriend? A strange pairing perhaps, but it could be like popcorn and chocolate – you don’t know how good it is until you try them together. Director Berlinger has made a number of TV docuseries, many of which focus on famous murders, so he knows the territory.

The Farewell (2019) 97%


(Photo by Kristin Callahan/Everett Collection)

Director and screenwriter: Lulu Wang

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo

A Chinese-American woman returns to China when she learns he grandmother is dying. She struggles with her family’s choice to keep the terminal diagnosis a secret from her grandmother as the family prepares an impromptu wedding to bring everyone together for one last time.

Why we want to see it: Fresh off the success of Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina heads to Sundance with two titles: The Farewell and Paradise Hills. The Farewell will offer our first look at the comedienne’s dramatic chops; a strong showing could signal another blockbuster year for the actress who has just been cast in the sequel to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Honey Boy (2019) 95%

Honey Boy

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Natasha Braier.)

Director: Alma Har’el

Screenwriter: Shia LaBeouf

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, Maika Monroe

A child TV star and his heavy-drinking ex-rodeo clown father try to mend their strained relationship.

Why we want to see it: Every few years or so we seem to find LaBeouf at the center of something fascinating: The “I’m not famous” bag on his head, the art installations, the “Just Do it” meme, Sia’s “Elastic Heart” video, that time he invited fans to watch all his movies with him, and whatever he was saying about those seagulls. The semi-autobiographical Honey Boy, which he wrote and stars in, may give us insight into one of Hollywood’s more eccentric stars. Perennial indie favorite Lucas Hedges co-stars, along with Noah Jupe, who you might recall as the young boy in A Quiet Place.

Late Night (2019) 80%

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Emily Aragones.)

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Screenwriter: Mindy Kaling

Cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Paul Walter Hauser, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan

A big-name late-night host doesn’t know what she is getting into when she hires her only female writer (initially, for diversity reasons). The two women bond as they try to save the show.

Why we want to see it: Mindy Kaling and Dame Emma Thompson in a Larry Sanders-style buddy comedy!? That’s all we needed to know to get us pumped for this film, which will mark Kaling’s debut as a feature screenwriter.

Native Son (2019) 60%

Native Son

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Matthew Libatique.)

Director: Rashid Johnson

Screenwriter: Suzan-Lori Parks

Cast: Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, KiKi Layne, Bill Camp, Sanaa Lathan

This modernized adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel follows a young African-American man named Bigger Thomas who takes a job working for a powerful Chicago family.

Why we want to see it: Two Barry Jenkins alums – Moonlight‘s teenage Chiron, Ashton Sanders, and If Beale Street Could Talk star Kiki Layne – team up in this highly anticipated coming-of-age drama from playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. With Love, Simon‘s Nick Robinson and Sanaa Lathan on board, this opening-night film already has a ton of buzz.

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) 61%

Director and screenwriter: Dan Gilroy

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer

The supernatural wreaks havoc on members of the L.A. art scene in this bizarre tale of newly discovered old paintings that have a lot more going on than what you first see on the canvas.

Why we want to see it: The team behind Nightcrawler is back – do we really have to say anything else? (That film remains Certified Fresh at 95%). Maybe not, but we will. The trailer for Velvet Buzzsaw, released earlier this month, set the Internet abuzz with its rich and disturbing art-revenge imagery, raising hopes that this will be a return to form for Gilroy, whose 2017 film Roman J. Israel, Esq. is Rotten at 52%.

The Report (2019) 82%

The Report

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Atsushi Nishijima.)

Director and screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns

Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall

The Report takes us back to the anything-goes days of post-9/11, and follows the story of Daniel Jones, lead investigator for the U.S. Senate’s study into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.

Why we want to see it: Adam Driver makes incredibly bold choices: he’s played a bus-driving poet in Paterson, our favorite emo space villain in the Star Wars sequels, and a one-armed redneck in Logan Lucky. Driver got plenty of critical love for his turn last year in BlacKkKlansman, and we expect more for him as he takes the lead in this prestige drama from Contagion and Bourne Ultimatum writer Scott Z. Burns.

Official Secrets (2019) 82%

Official Secrets

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

Director: Gavin Hood

Screenwriters: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans

Another post-9/11 tale, this one set across the pond. Official Secrets is the true story of British Intelligence whistleblower Katharine Gun, who leaked a top-secret NSA memo exposing an illegal spying operation against members of the UN Security Council ahead of the Iraq War.

Why we want to see it: The Doctor, Voldemort, Ozymandias, and Elizabeth Bennett walk into a political thriller… Yes, this cast is stacked with Oscar-caliber British actors. Some have dubbed the real-life events the film is based on as the case of the ‘British Edward Snowden’ – we hope Hood’s film is more like the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour than Oliver Stone’s Razzie-nominated Snowden

The Sundance Film Festival runs January 24-February 3. 

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