One of the most world renowned film festivals is right around the corner, and it’s based right here in Utah. Since its inception, Sundance has sought to discover the very best up-and-coming indie films and filmmakers. As a proud resident of the Beehive State since the early 80s, festival founder Robert Redford named it after his renowned Sundance ski resort.
Such acclaimed films as (500) Days of Summer (2009), Hereditary (2018), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Manchester by the Sea (2016), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Saw (2004), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Reservoir Dogs (1992), and Get Out (2017) all made their debut at Sundance and went on to make millions at the box office. Even one of the more recent Academy Award Best Picture winners, CODA (2021) premiered at the festival, starting from relative anonymity to find itself front and center at the Oscars.
As the first major American film festival every year, Sundance is always ripe for the pickings from studios seeking to acquire their next projects. Although film festivals don’t have as much gravitas as they once held, studios still are intrigued by indie filmmakers who show promise. Many of the studios, and particularly the streaming services, are producing their own films and content, which is why they have less of a need to acquire new projects. That still didn’t stop Apple and Netflix from acquiring Flora and Son and Fair Play at last year’s festival for $20 million each.
What Sundance is really known for are the documentaries. Of the five leading contenders for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars (NextBestPicture), four of the five premiered at Sundance in 2023.
In a 2019 study, it was revealed that the Sundance Institute pours more than $182 million annually to Utah’s economy. While this is an incredible piece of our community’s prosperity for now, the festival is only contracted to remain in Park City until 2026. Talks remain ongoing to keep the festival in Utah, but nothing is certain.
Since I will be attending the festival this year on behalf of Utah Stories, I wanted to give my preview for broad selection of films and what you can expect:
Freaky Tales directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
From the writers/directors that brought you Captain Marvel, and Sundance favorite from 2006, Half Nelson, comes a stylish tribute to the 1980s. The dramatic feature sets its environment in Oakland, California, to put the audience in the world of counterculture and community solidarity. Pedro Pascal and the late Angus Cloud star.
Josh Margolin, making his directorial debut, has made his rounds in the industry as an actor, editor, writer, and now director. Thelma centers around 93-year old Thelma Post (June Squibb), the victim of a phone scammer posing as her grandson. A revenge tale of sorts, Thelma follows the titular character on her mission to reclaim what was stolen. This action-comedy is sure to delight audiences.
How to Have Sex director Molly Manning Walker
In Sundance’s Spotlight section, meaning it’s premiered elsewhere, How to Have Sex seems like it will live up to its suggestive title. A sexual awakening/coming-of-age tale follows three British girls on their journey to explore themselves while moving into adulthood. Director Molly Manning Walker seems to take an authentic approach to the complexities of growing up, while navigating societal pressures and expectations.
Love Me directors Sam and Andy Zuchero
This post-apocalyptic love story centers on two protagonists played by Kristin Stewart and Steven Yeun, who meet online and must search their feelings to discover if they’re genuine. This film seems to reflect certain themes of today: Lack of companionship, online dating culture, and modern ideas of love and identity. This story seems like it could be a big winner out of the festival from the first-time feature directors.
In the Land of Brothers directors Raha Amirfazli and Alireza Ghasemi
Sundance never lacks an abundance of international cinema. This story from Iranian filmmakers illuminates the Afghan refugee crisis and the struggle to assimilate in Iran. Faced with the threat of deportation, family separation, and even death, refugees give audiences perspective on the suffering ethnic groups from across the world and particularly in this community.
Between the Temples director Nathan Silver
Jason Schwartzman stars as a music teacher who must recalibrate his life as an adult bat mitzvah student. This offbeat comedy feels perfect for Sundance audiences. Between the Temples offers the potential to have the type of reception that last year’s You Hurt My Feelings received in the room.
The American Society of Magical Negroes director Kobi Libii
Perhaps the most satirical and intriguing premise of any Sundance selection, The American Society of Magical Negroes presents Aren, a young man recruited into a secret society of Black members who serve the lives of White people. Evoking the themes of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, this film is sure to serve audiences with messages of the importance of Black culture along with how the history of cinema skews in a certain cultural direction.
The Outrun director Nora Fingscheidt
Saoirse Ronan plays Rona, a woman who must confront her troubled past in Scotland. Drug and alcohol addiction haunt Rona, but confronting these demons allows her to become more in touch with nature and herself. Just from the still image, the cinematography is sure to wow critics and audiences alike.
Handling the Undead director Thea Hvistendahl
A story from a Norwegian director and actors, Handling the Undead is a horror-zombie flick that sees the dead awaken to terrorize the city of Oslo. Years after the height of zombie culture, this film seems to take an even more sentimental approach and poses the question, ‘What would you do if your loved ones returned as the undead?’ This film also reunites 2022 Sundance favorites Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie.
A Real Pain director Jesse Eisenberg
Jesse Eisenberg returns with a new Sundance premiere two years apart. A Real Pain features Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin as cousins discovering their ancestors’ pasts as holocaust survivors in Poland. Sure to feature dark humor, the protagonists attempt to bond over their family history even in the face of such a dark past.
Exhibiting Forgiveness director Titus Kaphar
As the title suggests, Exhibiting Forgiveness challenges the protagonist to make peace with his addict father, while also pursuing an artistry career. The artist (Andre Holland) must reckon with his childhood to find a way forward.
Agent of Happiness directors Arun Bhattari and Dorottya Zurbo
On the docs side, there is no shortage of quality. This documentary takes a look at the Bhutanese people deep in the Himalayan mountains and how they measure their own happiness. This is another example of documentary providing perspective about people who have so little, and yet seem content without material possessions.
And So It Begins director Ramona S. Diaz
Following the Filipino elections, the mood seems contentious as people fight to protect democracy from autocracy. This documentary exemplifies what’s at stake on a global scale.
Black Box Diaries director Shiori Ito
A sexual assault case seeks to completely upend the Japanese judicial system. A true investigative journalistic approach to film, bravery is showcased in the most grave sense to show how not only cinema, but also fearlessness can cause true change.
Girls State directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss
A follow-up to 2020 Boys State, this documentary offers what a world might look like if only women made up the entire government body. Girls from across Missouri gather as questions are raised about the debate on Roe vs. Wade and gender equality.
Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat director Johan Grimonprez
With the Soviet Union denouncing the dissolution of the color barrier in 1960’s America, and the US deploying Louis Armstrong to the Congo to deflect attention from an African coup, race relations are in tumult around the world.
Sugarcane directors Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie
Abuse and missing children hit a nearby Reservation hard. Brave Noisecat provides an authentic telling of the Native American Indian experience, while Kassie dives into investigative journalism to shed light on atrocities.
Sundance is also attempting to bring in more star power this year, as Christopher Nolan will become the first ever recipient of the Trailblazer Award during its Opening Night Gala. This night will feature a discussion from 2023 Sundance filmmakers Celine Song and Maite Alberdi along with Nolan as the honoree. (For more info visit: Trailblazer Award). For the full program, film and talks schedule, visit: the website.
The 2024 Sundance Film Festival will take place from January 18th through the 28th in-person in Park City, Salt Lake City, and virtually for its 40th year. Ticket packages for locals and youth aged 18-25 are now available.