We came, we saw, and even though this profession has a way of beating down the best of us, we were transported by movies — a curiosity that will never die. Here are the 10 best films we saw in Park City at an eventful, surprisingly robust Sundance.
'Between the Temples'
There's a wonderful throwback quality to “Between the Temples,” with its screwball sensibility and committed performances. Directed by Nathan Silver, who co-wrote the screenplay with C. Mason Wells, the story follows a cantor at a suburban synagogue (Jason Schwartzman) who, while still in emotional freefall following the death of his wife, impulsively takes on a grown woman (Carol Kane) as a bat mitzvah student. Their relationship isn’t exactly romantic, but it does see two people in deep need of emotional connection finding each other at just the right (or is it wrong?) moment. The story builds to a brilliant iteration on an old Sundance staple, the dysfunctional family dinner, weaving together its strands for a series of outrageous revelations. A comedy about learning to live with grief, “Between the Temples” has a lot going on in its head and heart. —Mark Olsen
‘Black Box Diaries’
As underreported and underprosecuted as sexual assault remains all over the world, this bold documentary from journalist Shiori Ito illuminates just how little justice there usually is for victims and survivors in Japan. That makes her own pursuit of justice all the more necessary and galvanizing as she tries to bring her own attacker to justice, speaking with police officers, tracking down witnesses and writing a book that she knows will make her a pariah, including within her own family. The result is a tough, harrowing work of self-portraiture in which it’s Ito’s own journalistic tenacity, as much as her personal determination and outrage, that leads her to go public with her story, despite enormous pressure to do the opposite. That she didn’t back down was a heroic act, one that will inspire many more. —Justin Chang
Executive produced by Kerry Washington, "Daughters" culminates with an emotional father-daughter dance inside a Washington, D.C., jail. But its real potency, as both a portrait of families riven by incarceration and a call to action on prisoners' rights, lies in what comes before and after. Inside the facility, inmates meet for a 10-week course on fatherhood to participate in the event, which for many will be their only in-person time with family in months or years. Outside, their daughters, ranging from kindergarten to high school, dote on their dads, or fear forgetting them, or lash out in frustration at their absence. Then, after the father-daughter duos' all-too-fleeting time together at the dance, the filmmakers stick around for a year, two years, three, witnessing relationships haltingly rebuilt and others tested by tough sentences, reminding viewers that the consequences of our penal system — including recidivism itself — reverberate outward into our communities and across time. As it arrives at Sundance, "Daughters'" six-year journey now embraces its young subjects aging from kindergartners to preteens, and in so doing underscores the fact that no coda, however distant, can close the circle completely on their stories. I want to follow these fathers and daughters deep into the future: an "Up" series of the wounds, and the healing, of America's carceral age. —Matt Brennan
A rambunctious and tender tale of awkwardness and postadolescence comes alive in the waning days of summer 2008 as 13-year old Chris (Izaac Wang) approaches the first major turning point of his young-adult life: high school. Navigating the suddenly shifting terrain of girls, friendships, his Taiwanese American identity and the silent fractures at home where he lives with his loving immigrant mother (Joan Chen), spunky grandma (Chang Li Hua, the filmmaker’s own grandmother) and older sister (Shirley Chen), the sensitive Chris hides his insecurities from the world as he tries to figure himself out, one stumble at a time. But he can’t hide from director Sean Wang’s watchful eye. The language of 2000s AOL Instant Messenger chats and MySpace Top 8s, angsty emo and skate videos make for a vivid time machine into Wang’s personal tale, set in Fremont, Calif., and drawn from his own childhood. (The first-time feature helmer is now an Oscar nominee, thanks to the recently nominated docu-short “Nai Nai and Wài Pó.”) Both the filmmaker and his cast are breakouts to watch in this Sundance standout, a heartfelt and hilarious entry in the coming-of-age canon that’s primed to find kindred souls in a wider audience. —Jen Yamato
‘In the Summers’
In the best festival fashion, I walked into Alessandra Lacorazza Samudio’s debut feature knowing next to nothing about it and found myself happily wiping away tears 95 minutes later. It charts several years in the lives of a single father (played by Puerto Rican musician René Pérez Joglar, better known as Residente) and the two young children who come to spend every summer with him in Las Cruces, N.M. (They’re played by different actors over the course of four different visits; among them is Lio Mehiel, the breakout star of last year’s Sundance-premiered “Mutt.”) As the years pass and the kids grow up, “In the Summers” touches on parental neglect, alcoholism, queer identity and forgiveness without ever remotely seeming like an “issue” movie. Coming-of-age dramas may be a dime a dozen at Sundance, but one this tender and truthful can make an entire subgenre feel shimmeringly new. —Justin Chang
'Love Lies Bleeding'
One of the most anticipated premieres going into this year’s festival, “Love Lies Bleeding” did not disappoint. The second feature and Sundance debut for English filmmaker Rose Glass ("Saint Maud"), the film stars Kristen Stewart as the lonely manager of a rundown bodybuilders’ gym who sees the quiet order she has strived for upended by a drifter (Katy O’Brian) who enters her life. The film is pleasantly reminiscent of ’90s neo-noirs in both style and storytelling, but with a narrative fearlessness and visual imagination that makes it totally fresh. Both Stewart and O’Brian bring an emotional intensity to their performances, sharing a volatile chemistry. The film has outsize ambitions in its storytelling and not every moment works, but it gets where it needs to go and features an outrageous final shot that successfully encapsulates everything Glass is trying for. Romantic, shocking, funny, sexy and, most of all, surprising from moment to moment, “Love Lies Bleeding” is likely going to spawn an intensely devoted fandom. —Mark Olsen
My friends know that I dream all year of being knocked out by a new crop of indie horror movies at Sundance, where discoveries such as “The Babadook,” “The Witch” and “Get Out” made their world premieres. (Try going back to a shivery Utah condo at 3 a.m. after watching “Hereditary.”) “Presence” fit the bill nicely. In a way, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has long had the qualities of an expert thriller maker: a flair for liberated camerawork and situational domestic tensions that fuel the best genre movies. His latest isn’t merely on the level of “sex, lies, and videotape” and “The Limey” — it plays like the glorious fulfillment of a fantasy John Carpenter must have had. Amazingly, we become the ghost for an entire film and, even better, the ghost isn’t even the scariest thing in the room. Neon will be bringing “Presence” to theaters, where it’s best experienced in a crowd biting its fingers off. —Joshua Rothkopf
“A Real Pain”
After the crucible of wonderfully tense acting that was “Succession,” we expect Kieran Culkin to rise to the occasion, and he does here, as a warmhearted but self-loathing stoner on a trip with his cousin to Poland. But color me even more impressed by writer, director and co-star Jesse Eisenberg, an actor whom I’ve long loved but one who has too often become enmeshed in the jittery rhythms of his Mark Zuckerberg from “The Social Network.” Not only has a real filmmaker emerged with “A Real Pain,” with both the sensitivity and boldness that could launch a career, but Eisenberg has never let himself be this exposed as a performer. Watch him modulate an uninterrupted take at a dinner table, aching over Culkin’s irresponsibility, hating his cousin for making him worry so much. Some time later, they confront the issue head on in a scene that’s almost unbearably difficult. Pray you never experience this with someone in your own family, but for those who have, the movie glows with embers of recognition and deepest compassion. —Joshua Rothkopf
Josh Margolin’s comic caper, about a 93-year-old widow (June Squibb) determined to retrieve the $10,000 she’s lost in a phone scam, has plenty of chances to wrong-foot itself: Too gritty and it could lose its sense of humor, too sweet and it could just seem twee. That it doesn’t do either is credit to Margolin’s supremely funny script, which peppers a recognizable family dynamic — willful grandmother, overbearing parents, helpless child — with highly specific jokes, all of which the actors, including Fred Hechinger, Clark Cregg and Parker Posey, deliver with brazen commitment. (“How can Zuckenborg let this happen?” will be entering my personal lexicon for the depredations of Silicon Valley.) Indeed, for all its riffs on action-movie convention, “Thelma” is most effective as a portrait of a “tough cookie” determined not to let the modern world, or what’s left of her life, pass her by, pesky pop-up ads be damned. "Thelma" also features Richard Roundtree in his final film role, as Thelma’s loyal and mercifully practical companion. —Matt Brennan
A company with seemingly little regard for the people that make it run. A multibillionaire owner with other things on his mind. The story of cold, corporate machines treating workers like cogs to be economically exploited, swept from the factory floor and discarded in swift, callous fashion. It's all achingly familiar — whether you’re a barista, a Hollywood creative or, yes, a journalist. Directors Brett Story and Stephen Maing’s vérité look inside the fight by Amazon workers in Staten Island to unionize isn’t just the tale of one workforce in one industry; it’s a rallying cry and a warning to all. Feel the chill of the late nights and predawn mornings as organizers forming the Amazon Labor Union protest for better working conditions, pay and protections. Cringe at the frustration and infighting as union leaders clash over how to take on the powers that be. If you needed one, “Union” is a powerful reminder of what’s at stake when companies reduce workers to numbers on a balance sheet, with an uneasy resolution that underscores how far from over the struggle for change really is. —Jen Yamato
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.