For those who are at last making their way back to Park City, Utah, or if you’re like us, avoiding the snow and lounging on the couch, Sundance is back.
After switching to a hybrid in-person/online style for a few pandemic-affected editions, the Sundance Film Festival (currently through January 29) has embraced both the old and the new. But the roster of independent films includes, as is customary for the festival, a rather eclectic mix, with documentaries starring Judy Blume, Little Richard, Michael J. Fox, and Brooke Shields, as well as the bodybuilding drama “Magazine Dreams” by Jonathan Majors and Daisy Ridley.
Here are the top films we’ve watched at Sundance so far, ranked:
- The star of a fantastic bodybuilding tale is Jonathan Majors.
- A breakout star of “Scrapper,” which earned a grand jury prize at this year’s festival, is newcomer Lola Campbell.
- Little Richard, Michael J. Fox, and Judy Blume’s lives are the subject of a documentary.
This comedy follows Ben (Justin H. Min), a Bay Area arthouse theater manager who has stalled development and marks Randall Park’s directorial debut (Young Rock, Jimmy Woo from the Marvel films). After his lover (Ally Maki) departs for New York, his lesbian best friend Alice (Sherry Cola) is left to console him as he organizes his life. While Ben is a truly abhorrent jerk, Min and Cola’s interactions together make the movie better. The movie expertly addresses identity and Asian American representation.
19. Run Rabbit Run
Sarah Snook (“Succession”) plays a divorced Australian mother who is forced to confront dark secrets and repressed trauma from her family’s past in a frightening family horror movie that borrows a few ideas from “The Babadook.” She is not pleased when her 7-year-old daughter (Lily LaTorre) adopts a stray bunny as a pet for her birthday, but this is just the beginning of a peculiar turn of events and a revelation of secrets as the kid starts to act in an increasingly dangerous way.
18. Sometimes I Think About Dying
When an outgoing newcomer (Dave Merheje) pushes shy Fran (Daisy Ridley) out of her lonely shell, she begins to live a more open life. She occasionally daydreams about her death and works carefully and silently while her coworker’s banter. With an outstandingly droll performance from Ridley, what initially appears to be a deadpan, socially inept spin on “The Office” develops into a humorous and moving examination of loneliness and the value of interpersonal interaction.
17. In My Mother’s Skin
Advice: Don’t let your mother consume a flesh-eating fairy. The gritty drama, which is set in World War II-era the Philippines, finds young Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) in need of assistance after her father is accused of stealing Japanese gold and departs the country estate and her mother (Beauty Gonzales) develops a very nasty cough. A weird forest goddess (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) then appears with an offer that Tala ought to have rejected and a story that sees the girl and her younger brother running for their lives from a possessive parent.
This unnerving horror movie turns a parental nightmare into Frankenstein. After her 6-year-old daughter dies suddenly of a bacterial infection and vanishes from the morgue, nurse Celie (Judy Reyes) discovers she has been used as an experiment by Rose (Marin Ireland), a clinically frigid pathologist obsessed with reanimation. The two discover quickly that raising the dead is simpler than it seems, and Celie goes to horrifying lengths for her young daughter in a disturbing tale filled with moral dilemmas.
15. Infinity Pool
The sci-fi horror movie by Brandon Cronenberg is strange, horrifying, and yet also oddly insightful about humanity. A struggling novelist (Alexander Skarsgard) meets a fan (Mia Goth) at a luxurious all-inclusive island resort. Their day excursion together turns tragic when the writer runs a man over, but according to the laws of this hypothetical nation, a clone of himself is executed in his place as a punishment. With a clever idea that doesn’t quite work but has plenty of grisly bravadoes, the bad behavior only gets worse from there.
In the 1960s-set thriller based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, Thomasin McKenzie plays the title role. McKenzie portrays a drab secretary at a Boston boys’ prison who lives with an abusive father (Shea Wigham) who is drinking himself to death. The entrance of clever psychotherapist Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) gives Eileen a boost at work, but the younger woman’s flimsy mental state goes off the tracks when Rebecca drags her into disastrous circumstances.
13. Polite Society
This upbeat action comedy written and directed by Nida Manzoor has the feel of a Quentin Tarantino, Jane Austen, and Edgar Wright kung fu combination (creator of the amazing “We Are Lady Parts”). Priya Kansara, a Pakistani London teen with dreams of becoming a famous stuntwoman, is an ambitious martial artist who must first utilize her slick spin kicks, which are still a work in progress, and her young moxie to thwart her older sister’s unexpectedly arranged marriage (Ritu Arya).
12. Fair Play
Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich play Wall Street analysts and coworkers who conceal their relationship in filmmaker Chloe Dumont’s feature debut. The film has a psychosexual thriller feel to it. Their personal and professional ties take a turn for the worse after they become engaged and she receives a promotion he was hoping for. In this gripping examination of female interactions in and out of the office, your allegiance will change frequently. Eddie Marsan gives a scene-stealing performance as their demanding boss.
11. You Hurt My Feelings
Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a novelist who overhears her normally supportive therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) telling his brother-in-law that he doesn’t like her latest book in the comedy written and directed by Nicole Holofcener (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”). In a familiar story that candidly examines the white lies we speak and the truths we don’t tell to help one another, insecurities and silent treatments abound as the couple and their loved ones struggle with their professional futures.
Twelve-year-old Georgie (newcomer Lola Campbell) lives alone in an apartment outside of London after her mother’s passing in the British coming-of-age movie (which earned a Sundance grand jury prize). She steals bikes and avoids social workers daily, but when her father (Harris Dickinson) shows up, they clash despite having more in common than either would like to admit. In this case, Campbell (“Triangle of Sadness”) is a great find as a feisty tween who can only keep her feelings and grief hidden for so long. Dickinson’s “Triangle of Sadness” is good.
9. Judy Blume Forever
This fascinating documentary follows the life of renowned children’s author Judy Blume from youth to motherhood to her rise to fame in the 1970s. Judy Blume is refreshingly cool and incessantly hip. In interviews with fans, celebrities, and Blume herself, the significance of Blume’s books introducing children to sex and puberty – as well as the conservative feathers she ruffled – is discussed. She surprises everyone with her sauciness at 84, as shown in the perceptive deep drive: “I was a decent girl, but I secretly harbored a terrible girl.”
8. Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie
Fox’s wise comments and excerpts from the adored actor’s cinematic work are skillfully combined by director Davis Guggenheim to create a hilarious and touching biography of his life, from his meteoric rise to prominence as a tiny Canadian to coping with his crippling Parkinson’s condition. With the same sly humor and charm that made the world fall in love with him in the 1980s, Fox shares tales of filming “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future,” his descent into alcoholism, and the hardships of everyday life.
7. Talk to Me
The best spooky program on the 2023 schedule is this Australian ghost story. Sundance is recognized for its excellent horror flicks (“Get Out,” “Hereditary”) and this ghost story from Australia. Sophie Wilde’s character, Mia, a teenager, joins a group of people who use an odd embalmed hand to reanimate the dead. She tapes the encounters for web videos that go viral. However, when Sophie deviates from the “rules” of the game and begins to experience visions of a familiar face, her life—and the lives of her friends—take a horrifying turn in a thriller that deftly combines classic frights with anxieties specific to the TikTok age.
6. Little Richard: I Am Everything
In this straightforward and crucial documentary, a celebration of the career of the rock icon is paired with an examination of how the music business hid Richard Penniman’s significant effect. The documentary follows the flamboyant performer’s life as he struggled with his queerness and his religion while also tracing his rise to popularity through archive footage and interviews. Additionally, if you think Elvis Presley should hold the title of King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, this will cause you to reconsider.
While Penelope Cruz offers a soft touch and some song-and-dance moves to this Italian family drama, Luana Giuliani, a novice, truly shines. Adriana (Giuliani), age 13, in 1970s Rome, begins to identify as a boy and tells her mother Clara (Cruz) that she feels like an alien from another galaxy. In this heartwarming, inclusive coming-of-age story, Adri seeks to discover herself through encounters with a crush and musical fantasies, even as the dynamics with her mother, abusive father, and siblings become more unstable.
4. Theater Camp
The entertaining mockumentary is focused on the diva youngsters in an upstate New York theater summer camp, much like “Waiting for Guffman” during an “Abbott Elementary” binge. The owner (Amy Sedaris) is injured in a “Bye Bye Birdie” accident, her influencer-brother (the hilarious Jimmy Tatro) is clueless about how to run the business, and two veteran professors (Ben Platt and Molly Gordon, who also co-direct) can’t get over their egos to finish an original musical. These demanding theatrical nerds may take some getting used to, but they won’t be unlikable.
3. Rye Lane
When the carefree Yas (Vivian Oparah) walks into the unisex bathroom where Dom (David Jonsson) is sobbing over his ex, it’s an awkward encounter that leads to a memorable journey through vibrant London for the two of them that includes a karaoke bar, a lunchtime comeuppance, some breaking, spicy snacks, and frank conversations (plus one amazing cameo). With wonderful leads we need to see more of on these shores, Raine Allen-Fantastically Miller’s engaging rom-com revitalizes the genre while paying homage to its heritage.
A never-better Gael Garcia Bernal plays Sal, a gay wrestler in the Mexican luchador circuit who takes off his mask and adopts a new feminine “exótico” character in the inspiring true-life underdog tale. Sal, who is dressed in his mother’s clothes, must first endure homophobic taunts, but his fervor and flamboyance eventually greatly impress spectators. Along with Ral Castillo, who plays his secret love interest, and Bad Bunny, who plays a supporting role as a promoter and confidant, Bernal gives a moving performance that stands out.
1. Magazine Dreams
Is it too soon to start discussing the best actor of 2024? In writer/director Elijah Bynum’s captivating cautionary tale, Jonathan Majors is amazing and terrifying as a troubled amateur bodybuilder whose life falls apart as he feverishly works to create the ideal physique. The movie follows Majors’ awkward gym rat as he travels down a spectacularly terrible path of protein shakes, drugs, rage issues, misdirected idolatry, and macho posedowns, doing for a musclebound world what “The Wrestler” did for the squared circle.