Sundance shines on women

The Sundance Film Festival continues to be a frontrunner in paving a path for new voices and the 2019 festival is no exception to this observation. With nearly half of the director seats occupied by women (45 percent) and more than 70 percent of the awards presented to women, it’s obvious that women are finally breaking through the “celluloid ceiling.” The choices were many, but these are my highlights of films written and/or directed by women.

THE MUSTANG writer/director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. Photo credit: Pamela Powell

Clemency, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu was the big winner of the festival, receiving the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film. Chuckwu’s sophomore feature film delves deeply into the death penalty and its effects upon not only the subject, but all who are a part of the system. Alfre Woodard stars as Warden Williams and Anthony Woods portrays inmate Aldis Hodge. His death sentence looms ahead preceded by a botched previous execution and Woods’ appeals are rejected. It’s a devastatingly brilliant portrayal of humanity and hope with exceptionally powerful performances.

Riveting performances are the key element of writer and director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s film The Mustang starring Matthias Schoenaerts as an isolated prison inmate participating in a horse training program. The film, an offshoot of Clermont-Tonnerre’s short film Rabbit, creates a soulful and evocative story accentuating the need for connection juxtaposed with the harsh and unforgiving atmosphere of our penal system. Shoenaerts’ performance is exquisite as a hardened and hopeless criminal whose life finds meaning as it draws parallel lines with the Mustang he trains. Gorgeously shot, the film illuminates these lives and connects you with the characters while never shying away from reality.  

Miranda Tapsell, Co-writer of TOP END WEDDING

On a much lighter note, Lucy Alibar writes Troop Zero and Bert & Bertie co-direct this fun film about Christmas (Mckenna Grace), an odd little girl who lost her mother and wants to win a chance to be recorded on NASA’s Golden Record, perhaps reconnecting with her mother in the stars above.  To do so, she must recruit others to join her newly formed Birdie Scout Troop and win a talent contest. Viola Davis, Allison Janney, and Jim Gaffigan co-star in this sweet film about friendship and goals, finding ways to make us laugh and love as this group of misfits navigate bullies and band together.  

Laughing is a major part of Mindy Kaling’s new film Late Night in which she stars as Molly, a “diversity hire” in the position of a talk show writer.  Emma Thompson is Katherine, an out-of-touch, long-standing late-night talk show host who may soon be replaced by a younger, more hip male host (Ike Berinholtz).  Directed by Nisha Ganatra, this hilarious film juggles today’s feminist environment and perceptions with honesty as it also tackles racism, sexism, ageism, and equality. Kaling creates characters that are real and Ganatra allows all of them to shine, saying things we only dare to think. Thompson unexpectedly finds a deft comedic tone and this ensemble cast creates so much more than just a fun story; it depicts our world and its current challenges.

Humor abounds at Sundance this year with the romantic comedy Top End Wedding, co-written by Miranda Tapsell, taking us to the Northern Territory of Australia and the indigenous people of the Tiwi Islands. Tapsell also stars in the hilariously energetic story about two young lawyers Lauren (Tapsell) and Ned (Gwilym Lee) who must find her missing mother before their wedding date just days away. It’s a treasure hunt with an unexpected discovery of family, tradition, and love while always making you laugh…and cry because you find you love these people, too!

The biopic film Sonja: The White Swan depicts the story of Sonja Henie, a figure skating champion and Hollywood star. This tragic yet beautiful story takes you back in time to this young girl’s life and how she came to Hollywood and experiences successes and failures. She was decades ahead of her time, confidently accomplishing goals and ignoring gender expectations. Directed by Anne Sewitsky, the film starring Ine Marie Wilmann allows us to know this strong, intelligent, talented, and determined woman whose story might otherwise have been forgotten.

TROOP ZERO directors Bert and Bertie, Photo credit: Pamela Powell

Documentaries abound at Sundance and women stood out in this category beginning with Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, directed by Jennifer Baichwel and Edward Burtynsky. The film, narrated in layman’s terms by Alicia Vikander, gives us a stunning visual education of our world’s current environmental state. We have left behind an era in which nature sets its own course and have entered into a devastating one in which humans propel change. Baichwel and Burtynsky take us around the world to witness these effects, leaving lasting images imprinted upon not only our minds but our hearts.  This visually arresting film is a wake-up call that must be heard.

Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane premiered her film Hail Satan? which, given the name, has created quite a stir. The film is nothing that you would expect and gives you food for thought regarding religious freedom and separation of Church and State. With an ingenious narrative arc, Lane educates us and opens our eyes and minds to allow and accept a different viewpoint. Her signature style of filmmaking also elicits plenty of laughs as you learn, producing a wonderfully entertaining documentary.

Feature films from around the world and the United States, documentaries and comedies are all a part of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, but it’s also a place for female filmmakers to shine. Sundance has set a high bar for other festivals as well as studios. Sundance has opened the doors. Let’s see the studios walk through.

© Pamela Powell (2/5/19) FF2 Media

Featured photo: Miranda Tapsell, Co-writer of TOP END WEDDING

Bottom photo: Allison Janney and Viola Davis in Troop Zero (2019) (Photo credit: Sundance Film Festival)

Tags: Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, Clemency, Hail Satan?, Late Night, Sonja: The White Swan, Sundance Film Festival, The Mustang, Top End Wedding, Troop Zero

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New York native film critic and film critic Pamela Powell now resides near Chicago, interviewing screenwriters and directors of big blockbusters and independent gems as an Associate for FF2 Media. With a graduate degree from Northwestern in Speech-Language Pathology, she has tailored her writing, observational, and evaluative skills to encompass all aspects of film. With a focus on women in film, Pamela also gravitates toward films that are eye-opening, educational, and entertaining with the hopes of making this world a better place. 
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