Another year, another edition of the Sundance Film Festival. This time around, while we celebrate its milestone 40th anniversary, we take a break from Oscar contenders, and a fresh bite of the year ahead in film.
Sundance was once again a hybrid festival this year, meaning that along with the in-person screenings, toward the end of the second week, the competition films and other festival premieres could also be watched online. As rich as the digital program was, though, nothing could measure up to the experience of being present in snowy Park City, Utah, where the annual, fiercely independent cinematic gathering has been held since its earliest days.
Out of the 56 features we saw from the lineup, here are 16 Sundance 2024 world premieres in the narrative and nonfiction space you should look forward to catching in the coming months.
Black Box Diaries
We’ve seen many #MeToo-themed documentaries at Sundance, but not one quite like Japanese journalist Shiori Ito’s fearless, deeply personal procedural. In her nonfiction debut (based on her own 2017 memoir), Ito bravely investigates a harrowing case of sexual violence—in which she was the victim—to bring her powerful assailant to justice. And as she pieces together inarguable evidence, crosses paths with the sympathetically helpful and the corrupt, and exposes the paralyzing roots of patriarchy in Japan, her revolutionary story is a reminder of how far the world still has to go when it comes to believing women, and of the trauma survivors of such criminal acts endure in their aftermath. Black Box Diaries is a generous, courageous, and ultimately hopeful film end to end, cementing Ito—named by Time as one of the world’s most influential people in 2020—as a significant new voice.
It’s hard to imagine a sharper critique of our dehumanizing prison system than this bighearted, deeply empathetic tearjerker by Angela Patton and Natalie Rae. Throughout their vérité-style documentary, the filmmakers follow four young girls as they disarmingly anticipate a D.C. jail’s father-daughter dance—a long-standing event that gives incarcerated dads and their girls the devastatingly rare chance to bond—while the dads go through their own three-month curriculum to prepare for their only chance to hold their daughters in years. Sure, Patton and Rae (an activist who has helped arrange several of these dances) will make you ugly-cry. But more importantly, their clear-eyed film, which follows its subjects over years, will unflinchingly demonstrate that the purpose of a healthy legal system should be to rehabilitate hearts, not to irreparably harden them by denying prisoners human needs like the embrace of a loved one. Dare to dream …
A Different Man
If you’re even remotely beguiled by the enigmatic rhythms and mystery-soaked visuals of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, then allow Aaron Schimberg’s surreal third feature to lure you into its gothic vision of New York City’s artistic underbelly. A provocative, fiendish psychological thriller about identity and loneliness—as well as a critique of the beauty-obsessed beats of performance arts—A Different Man follows Sebastian Stan’s Edward, an aspiring actor with a facial disfigurement who undergoes a sketchy medical procedure to alter his appearance. Adam Pearson and Renate Reinsve are brilliant contrasts to an exceptionally obsessive Stan, who soars with his piercing gaze and twisted grin like a young Willem Dafoe. Meanwhile, Umberto Smerilli’s sensually snaky score is simply skin-tingling, enhancing Schimberg’s neon-soaked, velvety visuals (reminiscent of Gregory Crewdson’s photographs). It’s major work all around.
You might already be familiar with Titus Kaphar, a renowned artist whose work is displayed everywhere from MoMA to the Met. But if you aren’t, get ready to become an instant fan of both his art and his filmmaking through Exhibiting Forgiveness, in which the first-time writer-director grapples with notions like familial reconciliation, spiritual perseverance, and freedom through the lens of his stunning art (abundantly featured in the film). These themes are channeled through Tarrell (a soulful André Holland), a successful and sought-after artist with a painful past of fatherly abuse, struggling to release himself from trauma’s enduring grip. But art comes to the rescue, as Exhibiting Forgiveness lends its healing hand on everyone, on and off the screen.
What could one say about Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s new documentary, other than that it is the most splendidly photographed movie of this year’s Sundance? Indeed, the latest from the directors of The Truffle Hunters is both breathtakingly beautiful and emotionally poignant, honoring a small community of gauchos—Argentine cowboys and cowgirls—who take pride in their customs, clothing, and the ways in which their rituals are intertwined with the nature and melancholic vistas of their surroundings. As evidenced through both the truffle-sniffing canines and humans they capture, and their deeply mournful 2018 doc The Last Race—a caring portrait of Long Island’s sole remaining stock car racetrack—these filmmakers have enormous reserves of love and empathy for traditions that miraculously survive in spite of the modern world. And their compassion has never looked more cinematic.
Ghostlight—one of the first films that screened on the festival’s day one—was that perfect Sundance kickoff, telling an effortless story about the restorative powers of art and community. They come to the rescue of construction worker Dan (Keith Kupferer), who joins a local theater company’s charmingly DIY production of Romeo and Juliet on the heels of an unspeakable family tragedy. It’s a beautifully woven tale on the constructive ways that life and art reflect, propel, and imitate each other, offering human beings curious enough to welcome artistic pursuits into their lives a path forward. The cast features a real-life family with inimitable onscreen chemistry and Triangle of Sadness’s Dolly de Leon in the kind of intricate role she deserves on the heels of her Oscar nomination.
Girls Will Be Girls
The instantly provocative title of this film is brilliant, quashing the cringey adage “Boys will be boys,” used to excuse any kind of bad male behavior. With it, first-time director Shuchi Talati lovingly announces that she will allow her women to also explore their feminine instincts unapologetically. And she does exactly that through the wonderful Preeti Panigrahi’s young Mira, the prim and proper prefect of her strict Himalayan school. When a charismatic boy arouses her sexual appetite, Mira rises to the occasion, and then her once-repressed mom boldly enters the picture in a cheekily scandalous way you won’t expect. A resonant and impeccably written film on generational female awakening, mother-daughter affection and rivalry, and bodily autonomy, Girls Will Be Girls is exactly the kind of feminine coming-of-age film (for any age) that we need more of.
Good One announces the arrival of a wonderful new voice in writer-director India Donaldson. With her feature debut, Donaldson both wears her feminism on her sleeve through the story of a teenage girl observantly navigating male microaggressions on a Catskills hike, and wisely avoids overexplaining how impossible it sometimes feels to walk the earth in a woman’s shoes. Instead, she simply shows it. Those shoes belong to Sundance breakout star Lily Collias, whose purposely quiet performance brings to mind discovering Jennifer Lawrence or Thomasin McKenzie in Debra Granik’s movies. Subtly dark, humorous, and wise, Good One leans into its wilderness backdrop in all of its liberating (and, sometimes, paradoxically claustrophobic) properties, which fellow hikers will recognize and hold close.
Look Into My Eyes
Perceptive documentarian Lana Wilson has an intellectually inquisitive touch regardless of whom she’s filming—courageous late-term abortion doctors (After Tiller) or Taylor Swift (Miss Americana). In her latest, she turns her reflective lens on an unexpected cluster: psychics across New York City, an artistic, sensitive group not especially concerned with making accurate prophetic claims, but motivated by a desire to provide a therapeutic service to their customers. With a cozy but respectful camera, a considerate tone that never compromises the film’s idiosyncratic subject, and a profound understanding of urban alienation, Wilson puts forth something that will make every New Yorker—or anyone who’s ever sat with unprocessed grief and suffering—feel a little less alone, a little more seen.
Love Lies Bleeding
It’s always rewarding when a sophomore filmmaker both validates and surpasses the promise of their debut. With her brawny, bloody, and fiercely entertaining follow-up to Saint Maud, writer-director Rose Glass does exactly that and then some, delivering an unruly and very hot thriller that follows Kristen Stewart’s lonesome gym manager as she blindly falls in love and lust with an uninhibited bodybuilder played by the sensational Katy O’Brian. A neo-noir plunge into the fringes of Americana, a gloriously bonkers ending, and an unapologetically burly style match Glass’s psychedelic substance on the page in an epic tale of love, crime, family, and passion. The infectious wildness of Love Lies Bleeding is simply a turn-on.
My Old Ass
Writing teen characters earnestly, without a patronizing grown-up lens, is tricky business. But as she did in her debut The Fallout, writer-director Megan Park makes it look easy. In her gentle hands, My Old Ass’s vivacious and confident Elliott (Maisy Stella, sensational) is as authentic as they come, as a spirited college-bound teen spending one last summer in her Canadian lakeside town. Park’s sophomore feature is sweet, locally specific, funny, and gradually heartbreaking in the most inventive fashion (bring tissues), one that maturely celebrates girlhood and young romance shame-free, with disarming sincerity. There is a tiny dash of genre flavor here too, winking at the time-travel/time-hop films of the recent past (think 13 Going on 30), when Elliott receives a trippy visit from her older self (Aubrey Plaza). What a miraculous journey.
When it comes to disappearing into emotionally and physically demanding roles, there are a few actors out there as gifted and committed as Saoirse Ronan. With Nora Fingscheidt’s purposely unconventional drama about alcoholism, based on Amy Liptrot’s memoir, Ronan flexes all her peerless acting muscles as her Rona hits rock bottom and slowly settles into her newfound peace, after her recovery brings her to the remote and windswept Scottish island of her youth. Like a documentarian, Fingscheidt brilliantly weaves together wildlife, sharp-edged landscapes, folkloric tales, and psychological healing across some of the most gorgeous nature shots you’ll see this year. She also expresses the disruptive nature of alcoholism with her deliberately chaotic editing, which quiets down in step with Rona’s rebirth. It’s a joy to see a filmmaker and an actor-for-the-ages so studiously at work.
Is there any other filmmaker who toggles between Hollywood fare and adventurous indies as sophisticatedly as Steven Soderbergh? His innovative thriller Presence draws from his agility and infinite experimental curiosity, as it unleashes a ghost story from the dizzyingly immersive point of view of a paranormal being, one that haunts an unsuspecting family in their new house. Chilling in its freewheeling camerawork and unexpectedly heartbreaking, Soderbergh’s latest (written by the unrivaled David Koepp) both takes us back to the timeless cinematic basics of sad ghosts with unfinished business and delivers something formally fresh that renews the supernatural genre. As its unfussy, loosely fragmented structure navigates complex familial dynamics, immense grief, and real-world threats several shades more frightening than anything ethereal, Lucy Liu emerges as an MVP, as does terrific newcomer Callina Liang.
A Real Pain
Understated, funny, and gradually heart-swelling, writer-director Jesse Eisenberg’s Chopin-kissed sophomore feature is as graceful as movies come, with the still-newbie filmmaker growing into his undeniable artistic voice behind the camera, one that is noticeably subtler than his iconic portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in front of it. The film follows Eisenberg’s David and festival highlight Kieran Culkin’s Benji, two dissimilarly tempered cousins on a Holocaust tour in Poland, to (eventually) honor their late grandmother. The most generous of several Sundance films this year on the echoes of intergenerational trauma, Eisenberg’s beautifully layered (thematically and visually) A Real Pain both excavates the ache and agony underneath shiny facades of human beings with personal and historical burdens, and processes those complex emotions in ways bighearted and intimate amid an ensemble cast for the ages. Expect to hear about this one next award season.
Soundtrack to a Coup D’état
A bravura cinematic essay that intertwines jazz, history, and the taste of a spy thriller, Belgian filmmaker Johan Grimonprez’s unclassifiable documentary zeroes in on the ’60s, when the United States sent jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, and Dizzy Gillespie to Congo in ambassadorial roles. This was, at least, what the unsuspecting musicians and the public were told—in reality, the artists were weaponized as a means to distract from America’s first African post-colonial coup at a time political machinations across the U.S. and Belgium were in place to assassinate Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba. What Grimonprez creates here is a mind-blowingly rich tapestry of research, music, and the jazziest history lesson imaginable, in part delivered through fact-based title cards designed like renowned covers of Blue Note albums, with their freewheeling beats and riffs echoing into today with urgent purpose.
Will & Harper
A longstanding friendship finds new meaning over the course of an unforgettable road trip across America. The passengers? Will Ferrell and Harper Steele, Ferrell’s pal of 30-plus years who has recently come out as a trans woman. Like the best of documentaries, the searching Will & Harper doesn’t start off with a clean-cut thesis—just two friends wondering if their bonds need revving up in light of Harper’s newfound identity. But gradually, the latest page in their story of unshakable camaraderie shows they already know each other in a deep sense. It also portrays what it means to be trans in America, as the duo sometimes face soul-crushing hostility in places from Harper’s past. There is grappling with the meaning of celebrity in there, too, with Ferrell self-reflectively aware of how his recognizable name and face both aid and saddle their journey. Emotional, funny, and charged with a sense of vulnerability, Will & Harper is a beautiful thing.
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