This year's U.S. dramatic jury prizes were selected by a jury consisting of Debra Granik, Adrian Tomine, and Lena Waithe. Other prizes were selected by additional juries.
Writer-director Alessandra Lacorazza took home the Directing Award as well as the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at this year's festival for her very personal debut feature, a coming of age drama told in four chapters over two decades as two sisters make summer visits to their addict father (René Pérez Joglar) in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It's a "a visual poem, an enveloping four-stanza ode to experiences shared by a man and his daughters," according to The Hollywood Reporter's Lovia Gyarkye, who also praises the "impressive cast" and the "subtleties of their performances." Gregory Elmwood of The Playlist believes it's a "splendid feature directorial debut" with a "layered but tight" script and a "nuance and authenticity to the entire endeavor that is genuinely refreshing." Writing for Variety, Carlos Aguilar sees an "unsentimental, and yet immensely affecting" film from a "director with a deft hand for crafting character development from lived-in behavior rather than dialogue."
Writer-director Sean Wang is having quite the moment. His documentary short, Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó, won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival and recently earned an Oscar nomination for Documentary Short Film. Now his feature debut has won the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic competition and a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Ensemble for the performance from its cast. In Didi, Chris Wang (Izaac Wang) is a Taiwanese American kid growing up in Fremont, California with his mother (Joan Chen), grandmother (played by Wang's grandmother Chang Li Hua) and older sister (Shirley Chen), who's about to leave for college. It's "easily one of the best, most seamless films I've seen on the experience of growing up online," writes Adrian Horton in her review for The Guardian. At IndieWire, Wilson Chapman finds it "charming, rough around the edges, and brimming with potential," and Variety critic Peter Debruge believes "Wang does a nice job of balancing his naturally comedic sensibility with serious insights." Writing for THR, Angie Han notes that "as painfully self-conscious as Chris can be, actor Izaac Wang's performance of that insecurity is an impressively confident one." And Mary Siroky of Consequence agrees, "The performance proves Izaak Wang is a total star — it's a testament to the young actor's abilities that we root for him through every misstep."
The competition's winning American documentary tells the story of Leontyev, who makes porcelain figures, his wife Anya Stasenko, who paints them, and their friend Andrey Stefanov, a painter who takes on the role of cinematographer once the Russians invade Ukraine. As the war rages, Slava and Anya try to remain connected to their art, but it becomes more difficult as they are pulled into training locals to fight. Despite the award, the film did not work for IndieWire's Marya E. Gates, who cautions, "The co-directors aim to tease their metaphor out by showcasing the artists' continuing to live and create their beautiful works of art despite the chaos around them. Yet, the directors never quite find the right symmetry between scenes of life and art with those that uncritically glorify violence." Brian Favour of The Playlist is slightly more positive but agrees that Porcelain War is "far from perfect; the juxtaposition of the lighter moments, training, and battle scenes doesn't always feel seamless." But Screen Daily critic Fionnuala Halligan believes, "Cinematic essays take many forms: few are as fragile and contemplative as Porcelain War." And Dan Mecca of The Film Stage adds, "That Porcelain War emerges as a taut, effective war documentary that also features compelling animated sequences within the beautiful artwork of its lead subjects makes it a stand-out piece of filmmaking."
Co-directors Angela Patton and Natalie Rae sensitively chronicle the struggles and joys of four young girls (ages 5-15) and their incarcerated fathers as they prepare for the first Daddy Daughter Dance held in a Washington, D.C. jail. Winner of the Festival Favorite Award (an audience-voted award in which feature films in all categories are eligible) as well as the U.S. Documentary Competition Audience Award, Daughters "conveys the destructive inhumanity of America's prison system by pointing our attention toward its collateral victims: in this case, the children denied a meaningful relationship with their dads," writes IndieWire critic David Ehrlich. Screen Daily's Nikki Baughan appreciates that the film is "honest about the fact that this programme is not a magic bullet, just one important step on the road to change," and John Fink of The Film Stage declares it a "striking film that evokes a wave of emotions." For Variety's Lisa Kennedy, Daughters is "rife with visually lyrical moments that connect viewers with the young ones' sorrows, fears, insights and hopes," resulting in a "quietly consequential film" that "makes clear the weight of mass incarceration on families."
After winning the Audience Award and Best Screenplay in the World Cinema Dramatic competition in 2020 for Identifying Features, filmmaking duo Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez returned to Sundance this month and won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic competition for this coming-of-age portrait of Sujo, the orphan son of a cartel gunman. For THR's David Rooney, their new film "doesn't match its predecessor's distinctive spell or cumulative power, but its undertow of menace is expertly sustained, and its dread buffered by hope." Wendy Ide of Screen Daily sees a "satisfying and impressively acted drama," and in his "A" review for IndieWire, Carlos Aguilar writes, "A work of tremendous lyrical potency, even more intricate in meaning and scope than the pair's earlier stunner, 'Sujo' thunderously demonstrates why Valdez and Rondero stand among those soon to be regarded as the new masters of Mexican cinema."
Below are additional titles generating the most positive buzz at this year's festival. That's followed by a list of the remaining notable festival debuts, and then by a recap of this year's Sundance duds. Note that any Sundance films which previously debuted at other festivals (including Richard Linklater's Hit Man) are excluded.
Writer-director Nathan Silver re-teams with his Thirst Street co-writer, C. Mason Wells, for this story of cantor Ben Gottlieb (Jason Schwartzman), who has lost his wife and his voice. While staying at home with his moms (Caroline Aaron and Dolly de Leon) he forms a special relationship with a new bat mitzvah student—his grade school music teacher (Carol Kane). The Playlist's Rodrigo Perez believes "Silver's pace and riotously abrupt comedic timing (big props to the purposefully hasty editing) don't let up, creating an eccentric picture that still jibes and feels wholly original." IndieWire critic David Ehrlich deems Temples a "spiky, hilarious, and thoroughly unorthodox screwball comedy," and Jordan Raup of The Film Stage agrees, concluding, "Between the Temples is in fact hilarious, packed with endless jokes and adoration for physical gag" and calling it a "thrillingly alive, nimble piece of filmmaking."
In 2015, when she was 26 years-old, journalist Shiori Ito was raped by reporter (and Prime Minster Shinzo Abe biographer) Noriyuki Yamaguchi. For five years after the incident, Ito chronicled her very personal and public fight for justice on her phone and in diaries. She released a book, Black Box, about her ordeal, and now she has directed a film that Variety's Guy Lodge describes as a "tightly wound, heart-on-sleeve procedural documentary" crafted with "a keen sense of temporal drift and distortion — we feel the days hazily lost to her lowest ebbs, as well as her surges in energy and motivation as the system turns in her favor." Writing for TheWrap, Lex Briscuso admits it's "not an easy story to stomach," but it is a "stunning, effective tale of reclaiming victimhood and the fight for justice." For Brian Farvour of The Playlist, Diaries is "as important a film as has ever existed, and as far as being a film all should watch, it feels essential."
Filmmaker Chris Smith (American Movie, Fyre) follows his recent Wham! documentary with a look at a very different musical phenomenon: Devo. Formed in response to the Kent State massacre, the band gained popularity with their 1980 hit "Whip It" but were misunderstood by many along the way. For Christopher Schobert of The Film Stage, this "stellar documentary" is a "genuinely thrilling mix of archival footage and interviews with Devo figureheads Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale." According to Siddhant Adlakha of IndieWire, Devo is "more than an explainer about the band, the film also functions as an embodiment of its work," with "energetic montages" and the "same twinkle in its eye, the same sense of mischief and Dadaist sensibility, that made Devo so alluring in the first place." THR's David Rooney finds this "propulsive documentary enlightening as well as vigorously entertaining" and "packaged in a dizzying barrage of imaginative visuals and infectious music that's almost overwhelming — in the best possible way."
Writer-director Aaron Schimberg's follow-up to Chained for Life pairs one of that film's stars, Adam Pearson, with Sebastian Stan and Renate Reinsve (The Worst Person in the World) for a "deliriously surreal psycho-thriller that complicates its own identity at every turn," according to IndieWire's David Ehrlich. Stan (in heavy prosthetics) plays Edward, as aspiring actor with neurofibromatosis. When he's given a chance to change his appearance, he takes it. Under his tumors, Edward is revealed to have the face of Sebastian Stan, but he discovers that a new face doesn't change who he is or result in him getting the lead role in a play written by his neighbor (Reinsve) and starring a charming actor (Pearson) with neurofibromatosis. For Screen Daily critic Tim Grierson, A24's A Different Man is a "gutsy satire that eviscerates 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' platitudes while sensitively exploring the stigma around facial disfigurement," and a "blistering portrait of identity, authenticity (both in the arts and in life), and chronic dissatisfaction." TheWrap's Kristen Lopez believes the film "acutely ... lays out the nuances of being disabled and the ethical questions of who gets to tell disabled stories," and "deconstructs ableism, misogyny and the question of whether being unattractive is, in itself, a disability of some form or not."
The debut feature for celebrated painter and MacArthur Fellowship winner Titus Kaphar stars André Holland as Tarrell, a rising artist struggling to manage success, family, and the childhood trauma caused by his father, a recovering addict who re-enters his life. Writing for IndieWire, Jourdain Searles notes that "Holland gives a soulful performance, radiating pain and anguish," while THR's Lovia Gyarkye calls the star's performance "arresting" in what amounts to a "tender story of fathers and sons." Variety critic Owen Gleiberman finds the film's power comes from being not a "feel-good movie" but a "feel-the-reality movie, a drama willing to scald." And for Rodrigo Perez of The Playlist, Forgiveness is an "unflinching, visceral, and intense struggle between two men" that can be "painful but rewardingly so; it's complex, unresolved ending all the more honest and true."
Filmmakers Kelly O'Sullivan and Alex Thompson (Saint Francis) have directed a true family affair with this story of Dan, a grieving construction worker who joins a local theater's production of Romeo and Juliet. Keith Kupferer plays Dan, and Kupferer's real-life wife and daughter, Tara Mallen and Katherine Mallen Kupferer, step into those roles in a film that also features a "a deliciously tart turn from Dolly De Leon (Triangle of Sadness)," according to THR's Jon Frosch, who feels the movie "works its way under your skin" thanks to its "warmth, jolts of off-kilter comedy and appealing performances." Writing for The Playlist, Gregory Ellwood calls Ghostlight a "little indie gem that comes together almost perfectly." And IndieWire critic Kate Erbland believes it's "something rare: a film that makes you marvel at the pleasure of storytelling as an actual practice, not an oft-repeated buzzword with little actual emotion behind it."
After winning the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize in 2020 for Boys State, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss returned to Sundance with this look at how teenage girls manage a week-long immersion in American democracy. While Boys State took place in Texas, Girls State unfolds in Missouri, where, for the first time, Girls State and Boys State are taking place on the same campus, revealing some inequalities in the programs, something noted by Ariana Martinez in her review for TheWrap: "It not only introduces another side of this democratic activity, but does so at the perfect time to highlight its inconsistencies and inequalities, giving these girls the extra opportunity for reflection and growth." It's "not just a gender-flipped run over the previous territory," according to Amber Wilkinson of Screen Daily, it's a "celebration of the young women attendees alongside a consideration of the everyday sexism many encounter." Variety's Lisa Kennedy finds the film's seven main protagonists "immensely watchable and touchingly articulate," and for Adrian Horton of The Guardian "part of the film's magnetic, if cliched, sweetness is in watching each grow their confidence over one intense, clarifying week."
Writer-director Shuchi Talati's Audience Award-winning debut feature captures how 16-year-old Mira's (Preeti Panigrahi) experience of first love changes her relationship with her youthful mother, Anila (Kani Kusruti). In his review for Slant, Ross McIndoe praises the film as "one that fully recognizes the power of a lingering gaze, a suppressed smile, the slightest movement of the littlest finger, and one which uses them all to maximum effect." More praise comes from Allan Hunter of Screen Daily, who writes, "Giving her characters shading and the story space to breathe, Talati has created a quietly captivating, sharply observed film." IndieWire's Promo Khosla praises Talati's ability to find "constant poignance in girlhood, beautifying even heartbreak and doubt in the process of reflecting." Writing for Variety, Siddhant Adlakha adds, "The way Girls Will Be Girls presents female teen sexuality — sensitively, sensuously, mischievously — is practically revolutionary in the broader context of Indian cinema," and its "depiction of young love is just as vulnerable and awkward."
The feature debut from writer-director India Donaldson follows 17-year-old Sam (Lily Collias) as she accompanies her father (James Le Gros) and his best friend (Danny McCarthy) on a weekend backpacking trip in the Catskills. The resulting film is "carefully observed, refreshingly patient, beautifully rendered," according to Jordan Raup of The Film Stage. And in the words of Collider's Chase Hutchinson, Good One "marks the arrival of two exciting new voices in Donaldson and Collias." THR critic David Rooney thinks "Donaldson shows remarkably keen observational skills that draw you in," and The Playlist's Rodrigo Perez believes "Donaldson has thoughtfully crafted a modest drama of multidimensional depth that will resonate loudly with any viewer."
Based on a novel by Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, Norwegian writer-director Thea Hvistendahl's debut feature follows three families as they grapple with their grief when their recently deceased loved ones awaken. The Worst Person in the World co-stars Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie reunite to play a single mother whose dead son reappears and a husband whose dead wife begins breathing again. The Guardian's Benjamin Lee thinks the "lugubrious pace can be a little too sluggish at times," but is impressed by Hvistendahl's focus on "character over chaos" and the film's "final, crushing endnotes." THR critic David Rooney believes the "movie's stillness and the sparseness of its dialogue make the sparingly used jolts of startling violence effective." And for Variety critic Guy Lodge, this "impressively restrained" film is a "living-dead nightmare with a brain and a heart and, most importantly and inedibly, a soul."
Jane Schoenbrun's follow-up to 2022's We're All Going to the World's Fair follows Owen (played first by Ian Foreman, then by Justice Smith), a teenager growing up in the 1990s, as he bonds with Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) over The Pink Opaque, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque TV show featuring heroines Isabel (Helena Howard) and Tara (Lindsey Jordan, a.k.a. Snail Mail). For IndieWire's David Ehrlich, "Schoenbrun's astonishing second feature manages to retain the seductive fear of their micro-budget debut and deepen its thrilling wounds of discovery even while examining them at a much larger scale." Tim Grierson of Screen Daily believes the spell Schoenbrun "slowly weaves is intoxicating," and in his A+ review for The Playlist, Carlos Aguilar declares it an "entrancing, richly stylized trans masterpiece." Collider's Ross Bonaime adds, "I Saw the TV Glow is bold, unhinged, extremely unusual, and also kind of magnificent—a daring step forward for Schoenbrun as a filmmaker, and a film that will certainly divide audiences not sure what the hell to make of it." A24 will release the film in theaters at some point this year.
Winner of the NEXT Audience Award, writer-director Rich Peppiatt's first narrative feature tells a fictionalized account of how Kneecap, a real-life rap group, formed. Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh (aka Mo Chara), Naoise Ó Cairealláin (aka Móglaí Bap), and JJ Ó Dochartaigh (aka DJ Provaí) play versions of themselves, while Michael Fassbender portrays Naoise's father Arlo, a member of the Irish Republican Army who passed down the Irish language to his son and friend after time in prison. The Belfast trio's use of Irish verses resulted in them becoming key figures in the movement to save their mother tongue. For Collider's Chase Hutchinson, the film "comes across as just a little too constructed and calculated when this story called for a more organic approach that just let these three Irish maniacs be themselves." But in his review for TheWrap, William Bibbiani declares Kneecap an "audacious film that completely obliterates the expectations of the musical biopic genre." And Fionnuala Halligan of Screen Daily believes it's "clearly destined for cult status." THR's Leslie Felperin adds, "The film's infectious energy, use of in-camera effects, animation and all manner of jiggery pokery is as mesmerizing and giddy as it was when Danny Boyle used many of the same tricks for Trainspotting."
Headed to theaters in March via A24, director Rose Glass' audacious follow-up to Saint Maud is a love story—at least until it turns into an unhinged thriller. Kristen Stewart plays Lou. She works at a gym where she meets and falls for Katy O'Brian's Jackie, who is training for a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. After an encounter with Lou's dirtbag brother-in-law JJ (Dave Franco), Lou and Jackie find themselves at odds with Lou's criminal father (Ed Harris). Screen Daily's Tim Grierson praises the film's "colourful environment and gutsy performances," but finds the couple's predicament "derivative rather than transgressive." For IndieWire critic Kate Erbland it's an "alternately alluring and excruciating crime thriller that also smacks of body horror and midnight movie thrills," but the "brutally blunt imagery that comes to dominate the film loses its power over time." RogerEbert.com critic Brian Tallerico admits that a "few of the daringly ambitious punches don't completely land" in this "sexy, brutal, violent, kinetic piece of filmmaking" but it's "a minor complaint for a film that confirms that Glass is a major talent with an uncompromising vision."
In 2021, writer-director Megan Park impressed critics at SXSW with her debut feature The Fallout. This year she brought her follow-up, another (but very different) look at teen life, to Sundance, and, once again, critics had plenty of praise for Park's work. My Old Ass stars Maisy Stella as Elliott, and Aubrey Plaza plays her older self, who visits her during a mushroom trip, but their encounters don't stop there as older Elliott tries to persuade younger Elliott to avoid anyone named Chad. Screen Rant's Patrice Witherspoon finds the film "endearingly sweet, smart, and funny," as well as "meaningful and emotionally piercing," and Ross Bonaime of Collider declares it "one of the most delightful surprises to come out of this year's Sundance Film Festival." For Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson, this "sprightly and wistful comedy" is "on the whole a winsome delight, a movie whose gimmick is used to surprisingly stirring effect." And Variety's Peter Debruge believes this "sweetly insightful coming-of-age comedy" is a "future classic" thanks to its honesty about "adolescent desire, self-questioning sexual identity issues and all kinds of other behavior that sends worried moms and dads into meltdown mode."
One of the biggest acquisitions at this year's festival, My Old Ass is expected to receive a wide theatrical release later this year prior to streaming on Prime Video.
Steven Soderbergh re-teams with his Kimi screenwriter, David Koepp, for this story of a troubled family who moves into a haunted house. Starring Lucy Liu, Chris Sullivan, Eddy Maday, and Calliana Liang and shot in a series of long takes by Soderbergh from the perspective of the ghost, Presence is "an art film that also works as a spellbinding horror film, and it might be the best thing Soderbergh has done in ages," according to Vulture's Bilge Ebiri. David Fear of Rolling Stone believes "Liang's extraordinary performance is what anchors everything" in this "family therapy session filtered through a horror movie." And for Screen Daily critic Tim Grierson, this "enjoyable experiment" proves to be a "sleek, efficient exercise, with Soderbergh riffing on the conventions of the haunted-house thriller while applying intelligence and technical mastery." Specialty distributor Neon outbid nine other studios at the festival to acquire Presence, part of an eventful week for Soderbergh that also saw his next film, the Koepp-scripted spy thriller Black Bag, picked up by Focus Features after another bidding war.
In one of the best-reviewed films at this year's Sundance, Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin play mismatched cousins who reunite for a tour through Poland in honor of their deceased grandmother. Written and directed by Eisenberg—who won a screenwriting award at the fest—A Real Pain is a "Holocaust film that's both hilarious and devastatingly real, anchored by Culkin's unforgettable performance," according to Devan Coggan of EW. Variety's Owen Gleiberman calls the film a "delight and a revelation — a deft, funny, heady, beautifully staged ramble of a road movie." For THR critic David Rooney, Pain is a "frequently laugh-out-loud funny odd couple road trip movie whose emotional wallop sneaks up and floors you." In his review for The Daily Beast, Nick Schager writes, "A Real Pain is a charming character study that doubles as a sharp, anguished portrait of the burdens of the past, and the arduousness of trying to shoulder them."
Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie won the Directing Award, U.S. Documentary for this investigation into unmarked graves discovered near St. Joseph's Mission, a Canadian Indian residential school near Sugarcane Reserve. Designed to separate kids from their families and strip the Williams Lake First Nation of its culture, the school was a place of torture and abuse for generations. Julian Brave NoiseCat's father, Ed, was born there, and his grandmother can't speak of it. "This is no superficial recounting of yet another injustice against native people," according to Fionnuala Halligan of Screen Daily, "The grief here is all the more potent for the fact that it is still so difficult to express." For IndieWire critic Esther Zuckerman the film is "something more meaningful than a mere history lesson. It's a portrait of what remains when injustice occurs." And in his "A" review for The Playlist, Brian Farvour agrees, declaring, "This is far more than just a film." THR's Lovia Gyarkye adds, "At the heart of Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie's powerful film is this question of action. How do you act when faced with violence from the past? What does accountability look like?"
Documentary filmmaking duo Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui (McQueen, Rising Phoenix) don't tell Christopher Reeve's life story chronologically. Instead, using never-before-seen home movies, Reeve's personal archives, and new interviews with family and friends, they explore how two pivotal events from the actor's life—his being cast in Superman in 1978 and his advocacy work after a horse-riding accident in 1995 left him paralyzed from the neck down—reflect on each other. For Ross Bonaime of Collider, the "editing in Super/Man is perfectly handled, taking what could've been a straightforward documentary and turning a life into a collection of what makes us who we are—both the good and the bad." Screen Daily's Amber Wilkinson describes the film as having "the engaging feel of a dialogue between the pre- and post-accident Reeve and his family as his views and his life shifted as a consequence," and Variety critic Owen Gleiberman declares it a "moving, wrenching, compellingly well-made documentary about Reeve's life."
Writer-director Josh Margolin's feature debut stars June Squibb as the title character, a 93-year-old grandmother who, after being scammed out of $10,000, sets out across Los Angeles to reclaim what was taken from her. Inspired by events that happened to his own grandmother, Margolin has created a "pleasurable low-key comedy with action and thriller elements," according to David Rooney of THR, Featuring Richard Roundtree in his final role as well as Fred Hechinger as Thelma's grandson Daniel and Parker Posey and Clark Gregg as her concerned daughter and son-in-law, Thelma "squeezes surprisingly funny freshness from the musty themes of aging, death, and lost autonomy," writes IndieWire's Alison Foreman. Screen Daily critic Fionnuala Halligan praises the film's star: "Holding out until the age of 94 for her first lead role, June Squibb proves what her legion of devoted fans has always known: she's a superstar." And TheWrap's Kristen Lopez adds, "Thelma is a totally pure delight that gives June Squibb a much-deserved leading role. Her and Roundtree are fabulously paired and Margolin's script is breezy and sharp in equal measure."
Taking home a Special Jury Award for the Art of Change in the U.S. Documentary section of the festival, Brett Story (The Hottest August, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes) and Stephen Maing (Crime + Punishment) co-direct this chronicle of how the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) fought to organize workers at Amazon's JFK8 Fulfillment Center in Staten Island, NY. Screen Daily's Wendy Ide believes it's a "stirring account, but, like the movement itself, [the film] unravels slightly towards the end." And for THR critic Daniel Fienberg, "Union does an exceptional job of showing how people who want the same thing can disagree and fight and still move forward." IndieWire's David Ehrlich finds this "tough and gripping" film "all the more effective because it doesn't see the need to argue its case," and Edward Frumkin of The Film Stage declares it a "key addition to the canon of workers' cinema."
A standard biographical documentary would never interest a visionary recording artist, producer, and visual artist like Brian Eno, so Rams filmmaker Gary Hustwit pitched a "generative" film in which an AI program selects and shuffles the segments of the film at every screening so no two showings are alike. This approach did not work for Siddhant Adlakha, who admits in his IndieWire review that "individual scenes and segments work in isolation," but cautions, "With a human artist at the center of the film — one with wit and alluring charm, and whose reflections on death and creativity are intriguing, and even harrowing — to eschew meaning in the name of a nominal experiment is artistic malpractice." For Screen Daily's Anthony Kaufman, "The one constant—and what makes the movie worth seeing—is the man himself." And Steve Pond of TheWrap believes "it's fun to spend 90 minutes rummaging around in Eno's brain," even though the "deliberate randomness of Eno doesn't always help the pacing of what is "partly a piece of art, partly an experiment in technology."
Editor Carla Gutierrez (RBG, Julia) makes her directorial debut with this intimate documentary about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. "If you want to immerse yourself in Frida Kahlo, here is the real thing," writes Sheri Linden in her review for THR, where she also praises the "sensitivity and elegance" of Sofía Inés Cázares and Renata Galindo's animation, Gutiérrez's use of Kahlo's illustrated diaries and letters, and "the exquisite work" of narrator Fernanda Echevarría del Rivero" in bringing "the great artist's joys, sorrows, fierce intelligence and mouthy humor to life with an intense person-to-person intimacy." IndieWire's Christian Zilko believes that Frida "sometimes falls short of capturing what made her special," but still "brings the painter back to life in a manner sure to initiate further study from fans and novices alike." Writing for TheWrap, Lex Briscuso describes the film as a "beautifully visceral account of the life and soul" of Kahlo and proof that "the right proximity to the subject can yield magical and exciting results when exploring someone's real-life story."
After premiering their first two feature documentaries (2018's The Last Race and 2020's The Truffle Hunters) at Sundance, filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw returned this year with a black-and-white exploration of a community of Argentine cowboys and cowgirls. Despite the critical praise for their first two features, this documentary didn't work for Brain Favour of The Playlist, who sees a film that "serves as little more than an exercise in striking photography mixed with a series of vignettes that's as slice of life as one's likely to find." In her review for IndieWire, Lauren Wissot admits it's "exquisitely crafted," but wishes "to know more about these resilient gauchos." But Screen Daily's Tim Grierson believes the film to be "an affecting tone poem which ruminates on the passage of time and the passing of traditions from one generation to the next."
The night in question? That would be January 28, 1985, when over 40 of music's biggest stars—already in Los Angeles for that night's American Music Awards ceremony—headed to a studio for an all-night session to record a top-secret project: the charity single "We Are the World." Directed by Bao Nguyen (whose Bruce Lee doc Be Water also played Sundance), the Netflix documentary examines how that night came together via never-before-seen footage and new interviews with some of the participants. It's a "conventionally straightforward" film that nevertheless offers "an engaging blitz of nostalgia guaranteed to leave core viewers misty-eyed," according to THR critic David Rooney. At RogerEbert.com, Brian Tallerico feels the doc is saved from mediocrity through its "specificity" in reporting granular details about the recording process, while The Daily Beast's Nick Schager similarly thinks Pop's "best moments are its glimpses at these 46 greats figuring out ways to blend their singular skills." But IndieWire critic David Ehrlich complains of a "light and fluffy" and "sanitized and somewhat masturbatory look back," though even he admits that "it's a lot of fun to watch it all go down."
Benjamin Ree's follow-up to his award-winning 2020 Sundance film The Painter and the Thief is a creatively told documentary about Mats Steen, a Norwegian gamer who died of from Duchenne muscular dystrophy at the age of 25. After his death, his parents discovered his vast and vibrant online life that focused around his World of Warcraft persona Ibelin Redwood. The film divided critics at Sundance, with some lukewarm responses mixing with a few raves, though Ree did pick up a directing award at the fest. Screen Daily critic Wendy Ide finds the film "affecting" but also a "little disingenuous," and THR's Daniel Fienberg wishes there was more insight into "the prickly and non-heroic parts of Mats — the actual human stuff," as well as his relationship with his parents. Writing for TheWrap, Lex Briscuso declares Ibelin a "stunning work of art," and Siddhant Adlakha of Variety believes it's "a moving, multifaceted masterwork that doubles as a cinematic epitaph to a vibrant (if secretive) young man." Vulture's Bilge Ebiri adds, "The peculiar genius of Ree's picture is that it effectively tells Mats's story three different times from three different emotional perspectives. Each movement of the film opens up a new world, and each is affecting in its own way."
Silje Evensmo Jacobsen took home the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary competition for her sensitive look at a Norwegian family dealing with grief. Maria Vatne and Nick Payne planned to raise their family in the wilds of Norway, but when Maria passes, Nick must decide how best to provide for his children while honoring Maria's wishes. Warren Cantrell of The Playlist commends Jacobsen "for adhering to the verité sensibilities of the project, as Wilderness never comes across as curated or guided" but admits "this does keep the doc from probing into the more interesting questions and considerations that sit just under the surface." Screen Daily's Time Grierson appreciates that Jacobsen "never tries to force drama onto the proceedings ... There are no villains here, only sympathetic individuals navigating their sorrow." And for THR critic Daniel Fienberg, the film is "a reminder that you don't need sensationalism to deliver something that's honest and emotionally resonant."
System Crasher and The Unforgivable director Nora Fingscheidt's latest feature is based on Amy Liptrot's best-selling memoir. Saoirse Ronan stars as Rona, an alcoholic who flees London for Scotland's Orkney Islands to go through rehab. Taking a nonlinear approach to the story and using Liptrot's words for narration, Fingscheidt finds "an original and remarkably beautiful way to approach this extremely difficult subject matter," according to Ross Bonaime of Collider. For IndieWire's David Ehrlich it's "Ronan who becomes the film's most dizzying and mesmeric effect," and Vulture critic Bilge Ebiri similarly believes "Ronan gives one of her most transcendent performances." The Guardian's Adrian Horton also praises the actress, who is "at once titanic and quiet, and utterly convincing even in the very difficult art of acting drunk," while Tim Grierson of Screen Daily thinks her "delicacy gives this true story more than enough grace and steel."
The latest daringly original movie from filmmaking duo David and Nathan Zellner (Damsel, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter) chronicles a year in the life of a Sasquatch tribe. Riley Keough, Jesse Eisenberg, Christopher Zajac-Denek and Nathen Zellner are unrecognizable under their makeup and speak no words, but still convey a surprising amount of emotion through their eyes and various grunts and gesticulations. THR's Lovia Gyarkye believes "your ability to laugh, appreciate or endure Sasquatch Sunset will depend on your tolerance for slapstick humor," and Jordan Raup of The Film Stage thinks it's a "filmmaking oddity that doesn't fully pay off." But for Marshall Shaffer of The Playlist, the film "feels like a great boundary-pushing work should: dangerous. It's as if the bottom could fall out at any moment." Screen Daily critic Tim Grierson declares Sunset "easily" the Zellners' "finest, a portrait of a Bigfoot community that starts out as an absurdist comedy before slowly transforming into a moving study of survival and loss." Variety's Peter Debruge adds, "The vast majority of moviegoers will have no interest in — much less patience for — what the Zellner brothers are doing with Sasquatch Sunset, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't riveted. The movie is an out-there oddity."
Jeff Zimbalist (Nossa Chape) directs this documentary about Russian rooftoppers Vanya Beerkus and Angela Nikolau, who once admired each other's work from afar before teaming-up and eventually becoming a couple known for scaling tall structures and posting evidence of their feats on social media. For Screen Daily's Fionnuala Halligan, Skywalkers is "problematic" in that there is "not much of a sense of editorial distance or inquiry," it's "all about the highs: at no point will it dig deep. There is zero sense of perspective past the obvious." IndieWire's Esther Zuckerman agrees, writing, "Audiences will only be left with trite lessons about how couples need to balance each other out and support one another. For a movie about two people who do such an unusual thing, it's an awfully basic note to end on." But Variety critic Owen Gleiberman believes the film is "brilliantly edited" and works as a love story: "Skywalkers is a movie about balancing on the tips of man-made mountains of steel and glass, but it's also about trust, desire, dread, and transcendence." And at The Daily Beast, Nick Schager writes, "It's a thriller, a heist caper, and a surprisingly moving romance all in one, and it seems destined to be one of the breakout hits of this year's Sundance Film Festival."
In this social satire, Austrian filmmakers Daniel Hoesl and Julia Niemann take Donald Trump's quote: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?" as a reality, depicting the fictional Maynard family as callous billionaires free to do as they please, including hunting people for sport. Variety critic Peter Debruge believes this "deeply cynical capitalist takedown" is "designed to be divisive," and "indignation, not empathy, is how Hoesl and Niemann hope to stir folks to action." Collider's Taylor Gates thinks "just because Veni Vidi Vici doesn't break any new ground doesn't mean it's not a good time. It's a deliciously, wickedly fun ride." In her review for The Wrap, Lex Briscuso writes, "Veni Vidi Vici is like a piercing scream into the void, daring you to truly process what it's telling you for fear you might fall victim to its apathy next."
Writer-director Caroline Lindy's debut feature takes the romantic-comedy genre, adds a fantastical creature, some musical theater, and even some horror to produce a "charming little film with plenty of bite" that is "unabashedly silly, yet effectively sincere," according to Chase Hutchinson of TheWrap. Melissa Barrera stars as actress Laura Franco, who, after being dumped via text by her boyfriend while recovering from cancer, finds her voice again when her childhood monster (Casual's Tommy Dewey) emerges from her closet. For IndieWire critic Kate Erbland, this "genre-spanner goes from, well, spanning to something else: not being able to hold onto any of its many spinning plates," but THR's Caryn James declares it a "sharp, witty confection." And in her review for Screen Rant, Patrice Witherspoon writes, "It's a fantastical experience that reminds us of the magic of movies."
Writer/director Kobi Libii's debut feature follows Aren (Justice Smith), who, after being recruited by David Alan Grier's Roger, joins a secret society of Black people who dedicate their lives to making white people feel at ease. Aren's first assignment is complicated when he ends up in a romantic triangle with his "client" Jason (Drew Tarver) and a co-worker played by An-Li Bogan. For EW's Devan Coggan, "The mystical, satirical elements of the society don't exactly mesh with the bland rom-com storyline, and American Society never really commits to either genre." In his review for RogerEbert.com, Robert Daniels is much harsher, declaring, "I wish I could erase The American Society of Magical Negros from my mind, but the universe doesn't possess enough fairy dust to make such miracles possible ... It lacks form, edge, politics, coherency, and the grand vision necessary for vast world building." On the positive side, Screen Daily's Amber Wilkinson believes "there is a lot of subtlety at work in this funny and surprisingly romantic satire." And Variety critic Owen Gleiberman praises Libby's ability to "make us laugh and twist our heads at the same time," calling the film "a deftly observant fantasy comedy that stays true to its own irreverence."
After directing Captain Marvel, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck return to their indie roots (Half Nelson, Sugar, Mississippi Grind) with this anthology film featuring four interconnected stories set in 1987 Oakland, CA and starring Pedro Pascal, Jay Ellis, Ben Mendelsohn, Angus Cloud and Dominique Thorne. Writing for The Playlist, Marshall Shaffer wishes the directors left some conventions of comic book movies behind, including "an overemphasis on in-jokes, a sprawling web of larger-than-life yet flimsy characters, and a belief that a kick-ass fight scene at the end can overwrite many of the wrongs that came before." Variety's Peter Debruge agrees that Boden and Fleck "would do well to dial it back to human-level stories," and Benjamin Lee of The Guardian is even less impressed, lamenting, "For a film so clearly designed to be fun above all else, it ends up being a bizarre slog." But the film does have its defenders, with Screen Daily critic Amber Wilkinson declaring it "a lot of fun," and THR's David Rooney claiming "Every aspect of this movie works in deliriously loopy sync."
Netflix paid $17 million for writer-director-editor Greg Jardin's genre mash-up about a pre-wedding party that gets out of control when a mysterious suitcase shows up. Critics remained uniformly quiet about what's in the suitcase and the twists that follow, but their opinions of the film varied widely. According to The Guardian's Benjamin Lee, Jardin's "artless swagger" and "all-consuming maximalism" could result in Netflix viewers not making it past the "opening, grating 20 minutes." THR critic David Rooney isn't much kinder, concluding, "The director is without question a bold visual stylist with a ton of talent. What he's not, yet, is much of a storyteller." And Chase Hutchinson of Collider laments, "This supposed breakout strains to be edgy while remaining painfully inert." On the positive side, SlashfIlm's Bill Bria declares it "one of the funniest, most clever, and narratively ambitious movies I've seen in a long while," while Screen Rant critic Patrice Witherspoon claims it's "the ultimate crowd-pleaser, entertaining the idea of horror tropes but structuring the story with clever twists and thrills that defy the genre." Dan Mecca of The Film Stage adds, "There are few things better than when a good idea blossoms into a great movie. It's What's Inside, written and directed by Greg Jardin, achieves this rare feat."
Music video director Jack Begert's debut feature took home the Next Innovator Award at this year's festival despite a lackluster response from critics. Begert and co-screenwriter Dani Goffstein take some daring leaps in their storytelling, and Begert puts his facility with visual effects to good use, but the bifurcated structure of the film didn't work for most reviewers. The first part of the film follows a screenwriter (David Schwimmer) having an identity crisis (Gaby Hoffmann factors into this section of the film), while the second tells the story of a crazy night in the life of AJ (Dominic Fike) and Karla (Talia Ryder), who get caught up in a robbery that threatens their dreams of starting a food truck. Screen Daily's Anthony Kaufman believes "Begert has created a peculiar two-headed beast that is destined to fall short with audiences by its very own design." In her review for IndieWire, Esther Zuckerman acknowledges that "you can see the thematic throughlines between them, both stories about addiction told through different prisms, but while one is grating, the other is deftly told. You just have to make it through the first to get to the one that is more elegantly executed." However, NY Post critic Johnny Oleksinski believes this "intriguing feature debut" confirms Begert as a "talent to watch" because he "sacrifices neither looks nor humanity and guides his cast impeccably well for someone so new."
Winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize (given annually to a Sundance film focusing on science or technology), Sam and Andy Zuchero's debut feature is an ambitious post-apocalyptic sci-fi love story starring Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun first as the voices and then the physical manifestations of a buoy and a satellite, respectively. With humanity extinct, the two devices rely on the vast amount of digital information left behind to connect. For The Guardian's Benjamin Lee, it's an "alluring but ultimately failed experiment," and THR critic David Rooney claims it's an "increasingly stultifying sci-fi odyssey." Screen Daily's Tim Grierson is a little more positive when he writes, "Look past the picture's clear limitations and what emerges is the palpable chemistry between Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun." And Peter Debruge of Variety sees an "audacious and original" that "leans a little too heavily on comedy" but trusts "adult (or at least young adult) imaginations to do most of the work." In her positive review for TheWrap, Alejandra Martinez finds the film "cerebral, existential, and sweeping" but also "deeply romantic" and successful thanks to Stewart and Yeun, who "bring true vulnerability to their characters through their performances."
Writer-director-star Theda Hammel's debut feature is a pandemic-set queer comedy about Terry Goon (John Early), who's keeping strict quarantine in his ex-husband's brownstone. Joining him is his nephew, Bahlul, a Moroccan model, along with other colorful characters. THR's David Rooney finds the film "threadbare, sloppy and under-developed," but in his review for Variety, Murtada Elfadi declares it the "first genuinely enjoyable film made about the pandemic," with Hammel proving to be "a sharp humorist fixated on showcasing and satirizing annoying, ignorant people." For Ryan Lattanzio of IndieWire, "Hammel and Early make for a wickedly funny pair" in a film that "actively and relentlessly lampoons the very language and gesturing we all affect in trying to broach the political maelstrom of identity politics."
Writer-director Laura Chinn's semi-autobiographical coming of age story follows Doris (Nico Parker) as she struggles with her brother's failing health, the neglect of an overwhelmed mother (Laura Linney), and the general difficulties of high school. She strikes up a friendship with Woody Harrelson, who plays someone protesting the Terry Schiavo "Right to Die" case outside the Suncoast care facility where Doris' brother is being cared for. Screen Daily's Amber Wilkinson admits that "tears may well be shed but it is the actors who are delivering the goods rather than the script." Writing for TheWrap, Katie Rife believes the film "stumbles is when it sacrifices specificity for generic sentiment," and The Playlist's Rodrigo Perez acknowledges "it's hard not to have great sympathy for the characters in this tender little tale, even when it's a little formulaic and thin." For THR critic David Rooney, "There's a core of authentically devastating family experience and personal investment that saves Suncoast from its unskilled handling, giving this grief drama, coming-of-age combo a heart to counter its predictability."
Additional content by Jason Dietz
All photos above courtesy of Sundance Institute.