Every year a whole slab of the movie industry hauls itself off to a small ski town in Utah for the Sundance Film Festival — a celebration of indie film that, for years now, has been more star-studded than scrappy. Still, the possibility for out-of-the-blue discoveries keeps Sundance exciting and worth the trek. The features we’re most excited about this year run the gamut from dive-bar documentary elegies to hotly anticipated adaptations of viral Twitter threads, and star the likes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Meek Mill, and Steven Yeun, as well as a slew of sure-to-be-famous-soon faces.
What a delight to learn that actress Romola Garai (of Atonement, The Hour, and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights) has not only made her directorial debut, but has opted to do so with a horror movie starring two notably hip European leads. In Amulet, God’s Own Country heartthrob Alec Secareanu plays a former soldier who’s rescued from homelessness by Magda (Wetlands’ Carla Juri), who lives alone with — and is looking for help caring for — her dying mother. The fact that the mysterious, ominous older woman is played by the great Imelda Staunton is an added bonus.
Kitty Green’s feature debut follows a single day in the life of recent college grad Jane (Julia Garner), who works for a nameless, faceless entertainment mogul. At first, the job seems monotonous: making coffee, booking travel, shoveling down Lean Cuisines. But it soon becomes clear that Jane works for a fictionalized stand-in for Harvey Weinstein, a man who’s created and sustained a trickle-down culture of fear, shame, and emotional and sexual abuse. The film follows Jane as she tries desperately to navigate the web she slowly realizes she’s tangled in. The Assistant is a heartbreaking, revealing look at the way Weinstein and his ilk are excused and enabled by a powerful system, and how, once a machine like this gets going, it’s nearly impossible to stop it alone.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Brothers Bill and Turner Ross have a sense of place that’s unrivaled. Their captivating first film, 45365, was a portrait of their hometown of Sidney, Ohio, that seemed to be shot from everywhere at once, their camera moving with impossible ease from barbershop chats to family squabbles to a ride at the state fair. They’ve gone on to make documentaries about New Orleans (Tchoupitoulas) and the border towns of Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras (Western). Their latest, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, appears poised to take on Las Vegas by way of the closing of a dive bar called the Roaring 20s. If their previous work is any indication, they’ll do justice to the place by capturing its spirit on film forever.
Charm City Kings
The spectacularly cool-looking Baltimore dirt-bike culture doc 12 O’Clock Boys is the basis for this coming-of-age drama with a striking cast. Jahi Di’Allo Winston, late of Queen & Slim, stars as Mouse, a 14-year-old with dreams of joining the Midnight Clique, a local crew fond of taking to the streets en masse and showing off their skills with stunts. Teyonah Parris plays his wary mom and William Catlett his mentor, but the most attention-getting billing is sure to be that of Meek Mill. As Blax, the leader of the Midnight Clique, the rapper and activist will be making his acting debut. Director Angel Manuel Soto has some prominent collaborators on this one — Jada Pinkett Smith and her brother Caleeb Pinkett serve as producers, while Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins has a story by credit on the screenplay.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
With her mind-blowingly beautiful 2016 collage-memoir Cameraperson, cinematographer-director Kirsten Johnson proved herself to be a personal filmmaker of the highest order. She does so again with this shattering yet surprisingly playful documentary about dealing with her aging father’s gathering dementia and the knowledge that he will, at some point in the not-too-distant future, shuffle off this mortal coil. By staging a series of “death scenes” — some violent, some absurd — about, and starring, her dad, Johnson creates a complex portrait of grief and an ever-changing exploration of the different ways we all handle it.
Can a Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus–starring American remake of the deliciously tense Swedish marital comedy-drama Force Majeure work? The key will be not just whether directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon can find a way to translate the uniquely Scandinavian awkwardness of Ruben Östlund’s original — about a family thrown into disarray when dad privileges his own safety during a near-avalanche — but also whether audiences will buy Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus in roles that skirt the edges of comedic possibility while digging somewhere deeper.
Alison Brie stars in and co-wrote this strange little Netflix film, one of the more classically Sundance-y entries in this year’s festival. Brie plays Sarah, the titular “horse girl” who’s nursing several obsessions at once: equines, supernatural network-TV shows, aliens, and clones, among other things. Jeff Baena (Joshy, The Little Hours) directs Brie in one of her more vulnerable performances as a woman who can’t quite discern the difference between reality and what’s happening inside her own head. Molly Shannon shows up, delightfully, as Sarah’s sympathetic co-worker at a local crafts store, and Debby Ryan plays her confused roommate, whose patience grows thinner and thinner.
It’s been nearly a decade since the great Miranda July last directed a feature (2011’s bizarre, lovable The Future), so any new work by her is cause for excitement, but the premise for this one sounds truly special: Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Evan Rachel Wood as a family of con artists who get tangled up with “kind stranger” Gina Rodriguez. July’s work has always tackled the fine line between reality and delusion, and she tells stories about people who express their emotions in unlikely ways. She’s also an underrated director of actors. Here’s hoping that her return to Sundance will be a triumphant one.
This horror movie from Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante intertwines the atrocities of the Mayan genocide with the folktale of the weeping woman. A retired general (Julio Diaz) keeps hearing the sound of someone unseen crying at night — maybe something supernatural, or maybe a symptom of his escalating Alzheimer’s. But far more disturbing than the possibility of a spectral presence in the house are the details that emerge from his ongoing trial for his brutality against indigenous communities. More than any ghost, the general and his family are haunted by buried history, and by their own attempts to deny and pave over the terrible truth they have all, in different ways, become complicit in. La Llorona will be headed to Shudder after making its U.S. premiere at Sundance — it’s well worth keeping an eye out for on streaming.
Lee Isaac Chung made his lauded directorial debut in 2007 with Munyurangabo, filmed entirely in Rwanda. His fifth feature, Minari, clearly draws inspiration from closer to home. The film is about a Korean-American family that, in a reflection of Chung’s childhood, moves to rural Arkansas in the 1980s — a place where, he’s said in interviews, he felt “very foreign”: “We were the only minority family in my town for the longest time.” Steven Yeun, continuing his post–Walking Dead journey of collaborating with interesting filmmakers, plays the patriarch, who’s consumed with the idea of starting a farm on untapped land. Meanwhile, newcomer Alan S. Kim and Korean actresses Han Yeri and Yuh Jung Youn make up the rest of a family who are bemused to find themselves far away from everything familiar.
The director of After Tiller (Lana Wilson) filmed a Taylor Swift documentary. That’s enough of a reason to see it right there. But both Swift and Wilson told Variety that the documentary will be no-holds-barred, with Swift leaving all editorial decisions up to Wilson — a rare move for a star who refused to speak to the press for three years. Netflix bills the film as a “raw and emotionally revealing look at one of the most iconic artists of our time during a transformational period in her life,” and it apparently covers everything from her political evolution (she regrets not speaking out before Trump’s election, and clashes with her father on whether or not to speak out about local Nashville politics) to her sexual-assault trial to her ongoing feud with Kanye West.
It’s been nine years since filmmaker Sean Durkin’s splashy debut Martha Marcy May Marlene, which gave Elizabeth Olsen her breakout role as a young woman on the run from a cult. In the time since, Durkin’s kept relatively quiet, save for his work on the Channel 4 miniseries Southcliffe. All of which makes the stakes high for The Nest, a drama and critique about 1980s materialism that follows a transatlantic family as they relocate from the U.S. to the U.K. for a life of aspiration and isolation. Jude Law and Carrie Coon play the husband and wife, while Mátyás Erdély, the cinematographer on László Nemes’s Sunset and Son of Saul, ensures that things are going to look terrific.
Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always
Writer-director Eliza Hittman specializes in the sort of coming-of-age films that make you feel very concerned for the teens. Her last feature, Beach Rats, was a spare, impressionistic look at a young gay man straining to hide his sexuality during a bleak Coney Island summer. Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always is similarly short on dialogue and deeply evocative. The film follows a pregnant rural Pennsylvania teen named Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who pack a single bag and head into New York City to help Autumn get the medical care she needs. The cousins barely speak to one another, conveying emotion in wordless glances and body language; they spend much of the film dodging men who want something from them, be it physical or otherwise. Their journey — and their relationship — feels real and urgent, and as timely as ever.
Close friends and ex-girlfriends Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Carrie Brownstein wrote and star in this surreal pseudo-documentary, which ostensibly tracks a few months of St. Vincent’s tour but turns into a metafictional meditation on friendship, fame, and persona. The “doc” kicks off as Brownstein cheerfully joins Clark on the road, but soon becomes concerned that Clark is too dull — she prefers to play Scrabble and eat radishes in her downtime — to build an entire film around. Self-conscious, Clark begins to act out, bringing her provocative stage persona into her real life, alienating and confusing Brownstein. Lines are crossed; lines blur. And it’s not as serious as it all sounds: director Bill Benz shoots the whole thing with a wink that lets you know they’re all in on the joke.
On the Record
This one is already making news. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary tells the story of three women who were sexually assaulted by rap pioneer Russell Simmons, focusing primarily on Drew Dixon, who was a bright, promising young record executive in the early days of Def Jam. Oprah Winfrey was one of the movie’s executive producers, but recently withdrew her name from the film — reportedly under pressure from Simmons himself, though Winfrey denies that had anything to do with it — taking its now-former-distributor Apple TV+ with her. Dick and Ziering have tackled sexual assault before, most notably in The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War, but this one may prove to be their most incendiary effort yet. Expect plenty of fireworks when it finally premieres.
The Painter and the Thief
Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree’s documentary about an artist who forges a special friendship with the thief who stole one of her paintings might sound, at first, like one of those twisty-turny true-life tales about art thieves and forgers and whatnot, but this is something far subtler and more haunting: the story of two humans whose unlikely initial bond develops into something complex, troubling, and beautiful. It’s also the rare film that honestly explores the connection between compassion, desire, and the sublime.
One of the most anticipated titles of the festival, Zola unites Lemon director Janicza Bravo, Slave Play writer Jeremy O. Harris, and a legendary 2015 Twitter thread from former Hooters waitress Aziah King. If you don’t remember #TheStory, just know that it involves two women who don’t know it each very well deciding to go on a road trip to Florida to strip, and goes on from there to encompass sex work, a suicide attempt, an act of violence, and trafficking. King’s viral tweets had as much drama and humor as the average sought-after best seller — so the real question is not whether the thread is really the stuff of movies, but what kind of tone Bravo and Harris will settle on when bringing it to life. The onscreen adaptation will star Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, and Colman Domingo.