Director’s cut: programming director Kim Yutani previews this year’s buzziest dramas and hottest documentaries
January 23, 2019
With 10 years of programming under her belt, Kim Yutani knows a thing or two about what clicks with a Sundance audience. In her new role as director of programming, she talks about this year's conversation-starting dramas, controversial documentaries, and Mountbatten, her aide-de-camp.
Q: Which films do you feel will produce the most buzz around the industry?
A: Documentaries should generate a lot of conversation, especially the ones that focus on controversial people — Harvey Weinstein in "Untouchable" is a prime example. "Where's My Roy Cohn" should be interesting — he's a fascinating character, and it couldn't be more timely. And then there's "Out for Blood in Silicon Valley," about Elizabeth Holmes — she'll be on people's minds.
Q: What are the most surprising performances?
A: One is Zac Efron as Ted Bundy. It's a different look at Bundy, told from the perspective of his girlfriend. He comes off as very charming and seductive, and people will see a different side of Zac Efron. We can't stop talking about Annette Bening playing Senator Diane Feinstein — yesterday a group was talking about her performance as Oscar material. And Emma Thompson is amazing as a talk show host in "Late Night" — the role is so funny and sophisticated.
Q: Can you point to any new talents with breakthrough performances?
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A: Discovering people is one of the things we love most about programming. Ashton Sanders isn't a brand-new discovery, but "Native Son" is a breakout film, and he is so good in it. Awkwafina isn't exactly a new name either, but you see a very different side of her in "The Farewell." And somebody incredible you've never heard of is Tiffany Chu, who is in "Ms. Purple." Sundance is going to be a big moment for her.
Q: What new directors should we be keeping an eye on?
A: Certainly Makoto Nagahisa, who directed "We Are Little Zombies." His short won the Grand Jury Prize in 2017. I've never seen anything quite like this film. It's masterfully crafted, funny, and a complete sensory overload—a lot like being in Tokyo. Also an incredible young woman, Pippa Bianco, who took part in our labs. Her first feature is "Share," and she's looking ahead at a long career.
Q: Which films most wowed you with their sheer inventiveness?
A: I'd look at the "Next" section of the festival, which is devoted to inventive and groundbreaking work. There are so many, but I'll mention Alistair Banks Griffin's "The Wolf Hour," which is set in a single room. Naomi Watts gives a very internal, very affecting performance. And "The Sound of Silence" is a love story set in a distinct world that is so inventive in its use of sound. It's low-key, subtle, beautifully crafted — I really want people to see this one.
Q: Did a theme emerge in the documentary programs?
A: We try not to program to themes, but this year we noticed a lot of films are looking at pursuing truth; probably a sign of the times. I think there's a strand of journalism in these films — searching for the truth and then contextualizing what's happening. We've got films about journalists — "Mike Wallace Is Here" — and whistleblowers who can no longer keep the truth within them. I'm thinking about "Official Secrets," "Untouchable;" "Out for Blood."
Q: What makes you most proud about this year's lineup?
A: I've always been attracted to international films, and have invested a lot of work in building relationships and making them as important [here] as U.S. films. This year I feel like we're seeing the fruits of our labor. It's a turning point for Sundance and international films. I can't take credit for it, because it's a group effort, but I'm also really proud of the fact that, when you look at the program, you see a lot of female filmmakers; the most women we've had directing films in a very long time. They are taking risks and producing some of the most interesting work out there.
Q: What's your strategy for getting through the festival with your health and sanity intact?
A: That is the question of the century! It's been a big shift for me, transitioning into director of programming. But at the same time I've been part of the team for almost 10 years. My familiarity with the process has prepared me well — also the fact that I share the work with a great group of programmers. Beyond that, my cat, Mountbatten, watches every movie with me, and helps me through
it all. He's a little more opinionated than I am. If he doesn't like something, he gets up and leaves.
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