The 2017 edition of the Sundance Film Festival has a lot to live up to: We called the 2016 edition “arguably its strongest program in years.” From tiny, unexpected life-changers like First Girl I Loved to big blockbusters-to-be which never quite got there (Birth of a Nation, looking your way), from the most heartbreaking film in years (Manchester by the Sea) to one of the most uplifting (Sing Street), that program really did have it all.
But if anyone can top it, Sundance directors Trevor Groth and John Cooper can. So we’ve got faith, and we’ve found plenty in the 2017 catalogue that piques our interest. Here are our picks for the 21 can’t-miss films at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
What Sundance Says: Sam is one lucky teenager. She’s beautiful, rich, and popular, with the hottest boyfriend and the most loyal friends. But she and her posse can be cruel and heartless; since elementary school they’ve relentlessly bullied one of their classmates. On Friday, February 12th, driving home from a party, Sam is in a dramatic car crash. She should be dead, but wakes the next morning to find the date hasn’t changed. In a Groundhog Day-like time loop, Sam must unravel the mystery of why the last day of her life keeps repeating again and again. Along the way she realizes that every little deed has a consequence, and every action can change another person’s future.
Based on the bestselling young adult novel, Before I Fall features a fluid, riveting performance by Zoey Deutsch as Sam—a girl learning to disentangle her values from high school’s rigid social strictures to discover her true self. Director Ry Russo-Young smartly and lushly layers high school drama with chilly noir and suspense genres to deliver a thrilling, profoundly moving ride.
Key Players: Ry Russo-Young (director), Maria Maggenti (screenwriter), Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Kian Lawley, Elena Kampouris, Diego Boneta
The Draw: Ry Russo-Young is one of the most promising of what has been labeled the “post-mumblecore” crowd of directors. Her progression, from her debut film Orphans, to her indie breakout You Won’t Miss Me, to her first star-driven film Nobody Walks (all of which were excellent), has been a joy to watch. Now, with this YA novel adaptation, expect to see that upward trajectory continue. She’s got the chops for it. —Michael Dunaway
Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
What Sundance Says: After 25 years of secluded existence with his protective parents in their isolated, off-the-grid home, James (Kyle Mooney) is tossed out into a new life in relatively daunting Cedar Hills, Utah. As his world upends, the most shocking revelation to James is that he’s the only person who has ever watched his favorite television program, Brigsby Bear Adventures. Struggling to adjust to the show’s abrupt end, he begins to see Brigsby’s lessons as his only way to make sense of a big, scary new world, so James decides to make a movie to end Brigsby’s story—and re-begin his own.
Key Players: Dave McCary (director), Kevin Costello (co-writer), Kyle Mooney (co-writer), Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins
The Draw: One of the co-founders of LA-based sketch comedy troupe Good Neighbor, Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live) makes his feature directorial debut with Brigsby Bear—a film co-written by and starring his childhood friend, Kyle Mooney. Assuming things don’t get too twee, this promises to be a wonder of offbeat comedy and film-within-a-film hijinks. —Chris White
What Sundance Says: While his father is in a coma, Jin finds himself stuck in an unusual Midwestern city renowned for its modernist buildings. Though not fond of architecture, Jin strikes up a friendship with Casey, a bright girl who works at the city library (avoiding college and her future), and she shows him the local marvels. With a curious intimacy reserved for strangers, Jin and Casey explore both the town and their conflicted emotions: Jin’s estranged relationship with his father and Casey’s reluctance to leave her mother, a recovering drug addict.
Paced to the naturalistic rhythms of its late-summer setting, Kogonada’s debut feature unfolds as a gently drifting, deeply absorbing conversation that constantly reinvents itself. His atmospheric style is strewn with gorgeous tableaus that elegantly incorporate the city’s architecture. Kogonada is intrigued by how we experience space and absence, and although we typically see modernism as intrinsically alienating, here it’s also a spiritual salve. A harmonious blend of cerebral and emotional storytelling, Columbus is a lyrical meditation on spiritual spaciousness—and on being in the modern world.
Key Players: Kogonada (director/screenwriter), John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes
The Draw: The rest of the world is about to be let in on a secret that a few cinephiles have shared for a while now: the incredible work of the mysterious filmmaker known as Kogonada. His gorgeous, brilliant montages, many of which have been commissioned by the Criterion Collection and Sight & Sound, have thrilled and inspired many of us for a long time. His Linklater tribute alone would shoot his feature film debut to the top of my Sundance list. —M.D.
What Sundance Says: In the wake of his big brother’s violent death, 13-year-old Dayveon (Devin Blackmon) struggles to find his way in an economically depressed Arkansas town. With no parents and few role models around, Dayveon is soon torn between the lure of a local gang and the friendship of his sister’s boyfriend, who reluctantly acts as a father figure.
Key Players: Amman Abbasi (director/co-writer), Steven Reneau (co-writer), Devin Blackmon, Kordell “KD” Johnson, Dontrell Bright, Chasity Moore, Lachion Buckingham, Marquell Manning
The Draw: Fitting that this drama arrives at Sundance on the shoulders of Executive Producer David Gordon Green, whose debut feature George Washington (2000) was also a sensitive portrait of small town African-American youth in trouble. Stunning that Abbasi not only co-wrote and directed the film—he also edited, produced and composed the score. —C.W.
What Sundance Says: What would you do if there was proof of an afterlife? The answer to this question is rivetingly explored in The Discovery, where world-renowned physicist Doctor Thomas Harber (Robert Redford) is able to scientifically prove the existence of an afterlife—but with dire consequences. His estranged son, Will (Jason Segel), tries to confront the situation by returning to the New England-esque island where he grew up. He crosses paths with Isla (Rooney Mara), who’s returning to the island for mysterious reasons of her own. The tale unfolds over the ensuing days as the regret of past choices forces these lost characters to reflect on how they’ve gotten to where they are.
Key Players: Charlie McDowell (director/ co-writer), Justin Lader (co-writer), Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough, Ron Canada
The Draw: McDowell and Lader also co-wrote the 2014 Sundance premiere, The One I Love. Here, the pair reunites for another high-concept metaphysical thriller that’s definitely got our attention. The Discovery is also one of two Rooney Mara films screening at this year’s festival (the other: A Ghost Story). —C.W.
Category: World Drama Competition
What Sundance Says: On the turbulent border of modern-day Brazil and Paraguay, a war is brewing between rival gangs on either side. Caught in the middle of it all, Brazilian 13-year-old Joca has fallen in love with Basano, a spirited indigenous Paraguayan girl, and is determined to win her over regardless of the consequences. Even as Joca’s brother Fernando becomes heavily embroiled in the hostilities, and Basano is threatened by the unwanted affections of an older boy in her village, Joca is forced to confront where his own loyalties lie.
Felipe Bragança’s first solo-directed feature is a magnificently layered, surreal fairy tale addressing the very real colonial oppression and strife that defined the region’s history and still lingers today. Mixing professional and nonprofessional actors in three languages, Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl! tackles its ambitions head-on, shaping Bragança’s alluring vision of a dreamscape haunted by violence where young love struggles to take root.
Key Players: Felipe Bragança (director/screenwriter), Cauã Reymond, Eduardo Macedo, Adeli Gonzales, Zahy Guajajara, Claudia Assunção, Ney Matogrosso
The Draw: Several aspects sound intriguing—but honestly? That title, man. How can you resist a movie with that title? —M.D.
Category: U.S. Documentary Competition
What Sundance Says: Sprawling, immediate, and complex, Peter Nicks’s vérité documentary moves like a pulsing, timely thriller. In 2014, after over a decade of federal monitoring for misconduct and civil rights abuses, the Oakland Police Department hires Chief Sean Whent—a young, clear-eyed idealist—in hopes of bridging an historically tense divide between its officers and the community they serve.
Whent’s intentions and calls for transparency are immediately met with enthusiasm, but as his tenure begins, the realities of his department’s scandal-plagued past coincide with fresh accusations of brutality and harassment.
The Force captures everything; it hovers over Oakland’s evening skies and rides inside speeding police vehicles, granting viewers breathless firsthand access to some of law enforcement’s most dangerous jobs. With fly-on-the-wall intimacy, we see a department trapped in transition, desperate to shed its corrupt image but also challenged by an increasingly organized and urgent Black Lives Matter movement erupting right outside its doorstep.
Key Players: Peter Nicks
The Draw: If we’re going to have any honest discussion about race, we need as great a diversity of voices as we can get. Preaching from one side or the other isn’t going to do anybody any good. It certainly sounds as if Emmy winner Nicks has produced a nuanced, textured study of some of the challenges faced by both sides in the Black Lives Matter/police department clashes. —M.D.
What Sundance Says: David Lowery’s meticulously sparse narrative contemplates a spectral figure who was once a man (Casey Affleck). Prematurely taken from this Earth, he makes his way toward his former home, where he is fated to remain forevermore. Shrouded in a white sheet, he observes the lament of his grief-stricken lover (Rooney Mara). Bearing unseen witness to her pain, the wisp stands sentry for years to come, interacting only with time as it hurtles further and further forward, the remnants of his humanity quietly evaporating.
Key Players: David Lowery (director/screenwriter), Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham, Sonia Acevedo, Rob Zabrecky, Liz Franke
The Draw: The indie hero and recent director of multiplex hit Pete’s Dragon (2016) gets back to his roots by scaling things way down for A Ghost Story—a macabre micro-cinema experiment that promises to be as deeply creepy as it is cinematically fascinating. This one is at the top of my must-see list. —C.W.
Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
What Sundance Says: Nick has settled into a safe existence in a small pocket of Brooklyn, where he currently toils on an archival project for his father-in-law. Soon, 20-something Naomi arrives from Australia to assist Nick for the semester. She has no acquaintances in the city beyond a loose family connection to Buddy, a music producer who lives in the same neighborhood. For the few months she spends around Nick, Buddy, and their families, Naomi’s presence upsets the unpleasant balance holding these two households together.
Key Players: Alex Ross Perry (director/screenwriter), Emily Browning, Adam Horovitz, Mary-Louise Parker, Lily Rabe, Jason Schwartzman, Chloë Sevigny
The Draw: If deep personal torment and domestic despair is your jam, Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Phillip) is back with another acerbic ensemble comedy. Honestly, it’s the cast that has my attention here—actors who will, no doubt, deliver the abiding humanity Perry’s films have sometimes lacked. —C.W.
Category: World Documentary Competition
What Sundance Says: On the eastern edge of Bulgaria, bordering Turkey, amid wizened orchards and an ancient patchwork of farmlands, sits a poor and sleepy hamlet that time seems to have forgotten. Despite the sparse population of silver-haired citizens wistful for the brighter days of communism, democracy is in full force as the village prepares in earnest for its mayoral election. Meanwhile, an endless train of Syrian refugees bound for Europe silently traipses through the rural terrain, visible through the binoculars of one gentle and taciturn candidate, the postman.
Told through indelible, lush images, this quietly cinematic film exposes seismic divisions regarding immigration and what it means to be European in an age of global displacement and shifting political systems. With dry humor and remarkable sensitivity toward its beguiling ensemble of characters, Tonislav Hristov’s documentary plays like a scripted narrative, with the postman as the film’s grounding hero—a man who sees encroaching darkness not in the desperate exiles filing across his land, but in his own increasingly closed-off and distrustful town.
Key Players: Tonislav Hristov (director)
The Draw: Another need for mutually respectful dialogue, another film that looks to be a sensitive, artistic treatment of the issues at play. —M.D.
Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
What Sundance Says: Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is an aging Western icon with a golden voice, but his best performances are decades behind him. He spends his days reliving old glories and smoking too much weed with his former-co-star-turned-dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), until a surprise cancer diagnosis brings his priorities into sharp focus. He soon strikes up an exciting, contentious relationship with stand-up comic Charlotte (Laura Prepon), and he attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter), all while searching for one final role to cement his legacy.
Writer/director Brett Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams) returns to the Sundance Film Festival with another sharply observed exploration of aging. Aided by a never-better Elliott, Haley has imbued this character study with personal details and characterization that make the film resonate. The Hero is a sometimes difficult, yet warm and ultimately touching portrait of an artist who realizes he isn’t quite ready to hang up his spurs.
Key Players: Brett Haley (director/co-writer), Marc Basch (co-writer), Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman, Katharine Ross
The Draw: Haley’s debut feature I’ll See You in My Dreams was a true delight of the 2015 festival; it managed to be sweet without being cloying, and contained extraordinary performances from Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott. I can’t wait to see Elliott and Haley back in the sandbox together again. —M.D.
Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
What Sundance Says: Ruth, a depressed nursing assistant, returns from work to find dog shit on her lawn and her house burglarized, the thief having made off with her silverware and laptop. Losing faith in the police (and possibly humanity as a whole), Ruth starts her own investigation, joining forces with her erratic neighbor—and dog shit culprit—Tony. Upon locating the laptop, they trace it back to a consignment store, leading them to a gang of degenerate criminals and a dangerous, bizarre underworld where they’re way out of their depth.
Macon Blair’s outstanding debut feature has an exuberant storytelling style that’s full of personality, visual inventiveness, idiosyncratic characters, and wildly unpredictable turns. Its dark tone, deadpan humor, and increasingly blood-soaked foray into a twisted moral universe evoke the Coen brothers, but most captivating is the deeply unsettling journey it takes Ruth on, through human vulnerability and escalating violence. Once brought to tears by the notion of an infinite universe, her quest isn’t for her laptop, but for a way of processing a world that no longer makes sense to her.
Key Players: Macon Blair (director/screenwriter), Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, David Yow, Jane Levy, Devon Graye
The Draw: Even before she won an acting award at last year’s fest, I knew this rule: When Melanie Lynskey is in a Sundance movie, you go see it. Plain and simple. —M.D.
Ingrid Goes West
Category:: U.S. Dramatic Competition
What Sundance Says: Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is an unstable young woman with a checkered past of obsessive behavior. She secretly moves to Los Angeles to get close to Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen)—an Instagram “lifestyle guru” with a fabulous artist boyfriend, a camera-ready terrier, and an array of new products and brands to promote to her followers. After Ingrid adopts a Taylor-made identity for herself, her machinations to prove she’s BFF material for her Insta-idol are underway—that is, until she meets Taylor’s obnoxious brother Nicky, who threatens to tear down her facade.
Key Players: Matt Spicer (director/co-writer), David Branson Smith (co-writer), Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, Billy Magnussen
The Draw: Word on the street is, in Ingrid Goes West, Aubrey Plaza does not disappoint. The subject matter—humanity versus social media performance—is starting to feel a little threadbare, but in Matt Spicer’s hands, there is hope for something fresh. —C.W.
What Sundance Says: Isaac Lachmann (Brett Gelman) has seen better days. His acting career is tanking, while his colleagues succeed; his blind girlfriend of ten years plans to leave him; and his own family singles him out as a constant disappointment at their latest reunion. Even as he takes a chance on new romance, Isaac struggles to define his place in a world that has seemingly turned against him.
Key Players: Janicza Bravo (director/co-writer), Brett Gelman (co-writer), Judy Greer, Michael Cera, Nia Long, Shiri Appleby, Fred Melamed
The Draw: Co-writer Gelman stars in this twisted, romantic anti-comedy which promises to be semi-sweet and full of the kind of lovable self-loathing that might turn into something of a festival favorite. Keep your eyes on Lemon. —C.W.
What Sundance Says: Eighty-six-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith) spends her final, ailing days with a computerized version of her deceased husband. With the intent to recount their life together, Marjorie’s “prime” relies on the information from her and her kin to develop a more complex understanding of his history. As their interactions deepen, the family begins to develop ever-diverging recounts of their lives, drawn into the chance to reconstruct the often painful past.
Key Players: Michael Almereyda (director/screenwriter), Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Tim Robbins
The Draw: I’m worried this film may play like an episode of Black Mirror—and yet, what a cast! Almereyda is a filmmaker known for handling history and literature-based material, so the turn to sci-fi is interesting, to say the least. Count this film as one of Sundance’s most intriguing selections for 2017. —C.W.
What Sundance Says: Set in the post-WWII South, this epic pioneer story pits two families against a barbaric social hierarchy and an unrelenting landscape as they simultaneously fight the battle at home and the battle abroad. Newly transplanted from the quiet civility of Memphis, the McAllans are underprepared and overly hopeful for Henry’s grandiose farming dreams while Laura strives to keep the faith in her husband’s losing venture. For Hap and Florence Jackson, whose families have worked the land for generations, every day is a losing venture as they struggle bravely to build some small dream of their own. The war upends both families, as their returning loved ones, Jamie and Ronsel, forge a fast, uneasy friendship that challenges them all.
Key Players: Dee Rees (director/co-writer), Virgil Williams (co-writer), Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund
The Draw: Adapted from the acclaimed novel by Hillary Jordan and boasting one of the most powerful ensemble casts at Sundance this year, there is already Oscar buzz about this historical and tragic American melodrama. —C.W.
What Sundance Says: This exuberant tragicomedy recounts the remarkable but true story of the rise and fall of Polish émigré Jan Lewan (Jack Black), from striving tchotchke shop owner in the ’70s to the undisputed “King of Pennsylvania Polka” in the early ’90s. Lewan pursued the American Dream by any means necessary, fleecing investors and bribing officials to build a personal musical empire in what became the world’s only known Polka Ponzi scheme. Swept up by Lewan’s charismatic charm are his devoted wife, Marla (Jenny Slate), and his neurotic sidekick, Mickey (Jason Schwartzman).
Co-writers and directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, who previously teamed up for Infinitely Polar Bear (2014 Sundance Film Festival), infuse The Polka King with an infectious energy and fill the frame with kitschy period detail, taking us through two accordion-fueled decades of grift and glory. Throughout, producer/star Black breathes life into the eccentric Lewan, finding pathos beneath his cockeyed optimism and showbiz hustle.
Key Players: Maya Forbes (director/co-writer), Wally Wolodarsky (co-writer), Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, Jacki Weaver, J.B. Smoove
The Draw: Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear was one of the most criminally underseen Sundance Films of recent memory. But this one—well, if you don’t want to see Jack Black as the Polka King, I don’t even know what to tell you. —M.D.
Category: U.S. Documentary Competition
What Sundance Says: Filmed with vérité intimacy over the course of a decade, the documentary feature debut of director Jonathan Olshefski is a portrait of a family living in North Philadelphia. Set against the backdrop of a country engulfed in turmoil, and a neighborhood assaulted by inequality and neglect, it follows Christopher “Quest” Rainey, and his wife Christine’a, “Ma Quest,” as they raise their children and nurture the creative sanctuary offered by their home music studio. The family evolves before our eyes, and what began as a tender depiction of an American family develops into a stunning illumination of race, class, and community.
Quest begs viewers to take notice. The Rainey clan will have audiences clutching their hearts in a visceral display of admiration. Ultimately, Quest reflects the profound beauty of one family whose journey is a testament to love and healing and whose resilience provides hope for a nation torn apart.
Key Players: Jonathan Olshefski (director)
The Draw: Any sign of high-quality vérité filmmaking making a comeback is a welcome development in my book. Subtle stories like this can affect more hearts than a thousand shouted bromides. —M.D.
Category: Documentary Premieres
What Sundance Says: In 2008, Gregory Lazzarato, a young, nationally ranked Canadian diver, walked away from the pool and began a YouTube channel focused on makeup tutorials. Unwilling to be intimidated by bullies either online or in high school, Lazzarato became the fierce, outspoken Gregory Gorgeous, amassing a loyal following who found strength and inspiration from his public coming out as a gay male. Despite this success, the Internet personality harbored a secret—one that was revealed in a December 2013 video titled “I Am Transgender.” Motivated by the death of her mother, the YouTube star took on the new name Gigi Gorgeous. Gigi, supported by her loving father and brothers, offers a candid look at her transition, sharing its hallmarks online with her legion of fans as she embraces a new world of possibilities.
Key Players: Barbara Kopple (director)
The Draw: Barbara Kopple produced and directed Oscar-winning documentaries Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) and American Dream (1991). That she’s back (at age 70) with another timely and humane story of identity and hope is both proof for and testament to her status as the dean of American documentarians. —C.W.
Category: Documentary Premieres
What Sundance Says: In 1996, Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, British producer Nick Gold, and American guitarist Ry Cooder convened in Havana to produce a Cuban-Malian collaboration. When the Malians couldn’t get visas, the team turned their attention to reviving a forgotten generation of legendary son cubano musicians—among them Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa, and Compay Segundo—and they formed a serendipitous, on-the-fly ensemble: the Buena Vista Social Club. The group’s hypnotic, irresistible music and effusive spirit unexpectedly took the world by storm, resulting in a Grammy Award-winning album and an Academy Award-nominated documentary by Wim Wenders.
Two decades since that fateful first session, we catch up to these master musicians, as they reflect on the magical unfolding of their lives—from humble origins to the evolution and surprising revival of their careers, all against the backdrop of Cuba’s dramatic history. Brimming with unseen concert, rehearsal, and archival footage, this film is an emotional, shimmering celebration of music’s power to transcend age, ideologies, and class, and to connect us to each other through our souls.
Key Players: Luc Walker (director)
The Draw: It takes a lot of confidence to take on a subject Wim Wenders has already treated. But Walker has no lack of confidence. And she has the talent to back it up, too. If there’s one complete-no-brainer-can’t-miss doc at this year’s festival, this has got to be it. —M.D.
What Sundance Says: Woody Harrelson stars as Wilson, a lonely, neurotic, and hilariously honest middle-aged, misanthropic dog lover who reunites with his estranged wife (Laura Dern) and gets a shot at happiness when he learns he has a teenage daughter he’s never met. In his uniquely outrageous and slightly twisted way, Wilson sets out to connect with her in what could be his last chance at having a family.In Skeleton Twins, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, director Craig Johnson displayed a knack for finding humor and warmth in the darkest of places, which is why he was the perfect choice to bring to life this Daniel Clowes graphic novel of the same name. The writer of the Ghost World and Art School Confidential graphic novels, Clowes is a master of making the unlikable lovable. His Wilson is a bit of jerk, but a jerk who refreshes our empathy for people—in all of their imperfections.
Key Players: Craig Johnson (director), Daniel Clowes (screenwriter), Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer
The Draw: Craig Johnson’s Skeleton Twins was funny, sad, and truly moving. Teaming him up with Daniel Clowes makes for just a potentially devastating combination. And Harrelson’s post-True Detective career has been mixed so far; I’m anxious to see him shine. I’m rooting for this one, bigly. —M.D.