The 10 Best Movies on Sundance Now (December 2021)

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The 10 Best Movies on Sundance Now (December 2021)

The best movies on Sundance Now are typically those you could’ve found streaming before on platforms like Netflix or Hulu, outcasts and peripheral classics that Sundance has mixed with undeniable modern masterpieces. No other streaming service will have the early Florence Pugh film Lady Macbeth smattered alongside a weird Nick Broomfield joint like Biggie & Tupac. Like Fandor or MUBI, Sundance Now finds its value in curatorial gems, not the glut of its library (which is only, at last count, around 150 films). We’ve got through its catalog and found the best indies, docs and more.

Here are the 10 best movies streaming on Sundance Now:

1. Biggie & Tupac

biggie-and-tupac-poster-low.jpg Year: 2002
Director: Nick Broomfield

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From its very first moments, Biggie & Tupac—a sort of truther’s glimpse into the murders of rappers Notorious BIG and 2Pac—is an exceptionally strange film. Director and narrator Nick Broomfield speaks in a clipped cadence, as if English isn’t his first language, and Earth isn’t his home planet. That he is somehow able to waddle his way into the most exclusive (and sometimes terrifying) situations is nearly incomprehensible, until one realizes that, to some extent, all his weirdness probably makes him seem so non-threatening that the folks who spill deeply incriminating confessions probably never figure his footage will ever see the light of day. And yet, Biggie & Tupac is endlessly compelling, far from an actually competent procedural but still ringing with enough sincerity that, buried beneath Broomfield’s weirdness and his very dubious journalistic intentions, there must be something true he’s tapping into. I’ve heard Broomfield referred to, among other epithets, as a “bottom-feeding creep,” and it’s not a stretch to see how his methods and results could be construed as the work of such. Yet, the access the man gets … when it comes to documentary film, do the ends justify the means? Because: the last 10 minutes of the film alone are worth the journey, in which an interview with Suge Knight (whom the film pretty clearly portrays as the orchestrator of both murders) reveals unnerving opinions on socioeconomic and racial realities. —Dom Sinacola


2. Cosmopolis

cosmopolis-poster.jpg Year: 2012
Director: David Cronenberg

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In David Cronenberg’s thematically murky and pretentious-to-the-point-of-parody apocalyptic takedown of unrepentant American capitalism, an almost word-by-word adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, Pattinson is aggressively deadpan as a young billionaire asset manager whose sanity relies on a world ruled by cosmic order and predictability. That’s why, as his predictions for his new investments fail and his stock takes a nose dive during the course of a day spent trying to drive across New York so he can get a haircut, the cracks in his Patrick Bateman-on-downers shtick begins to unravel, revealing a pathetically insecure child desperate to crawl back to some form of humanity. Even during points of great existential confusion, Pattinson rarely directly exposes the character’s true nature, since at least an appearance of self-control against any conflict is his modus operandi. So the entire emotional arc of the piece rests on the shoulders of Pattinson’s impressive ability to communicate an ocean of repressed neuroses through subtle changes in body language, an asset that other auteurs clearly picked up on for his later projects. For those—including myself—who predicted that Pattinson’s involvement in a Cronenberg joint would ruin the film, it’s a tasty bit of arthouse irony that his performance turned out to be the saving grace instead.—Oktay Ege Kozak


3. Boy

boy-poster.jpg Year: 2010
Director: Taika Waititi
Stars: Taika Waititi, James Rolleston, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu
Rating: R
Runtime: 88 minutes

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At one point the highest-grossing New Zealand film at the country’s box office, Taika Waititi’s sophomore feature (after making his wobbly indie debut with Eagle vs Shark) gives us the writer/director’s skills at sweet oddball comedy and wrenching pathos at their peak. Boy’s search for identity and meaning gives star James Rolleston every available weapon to win us over, and the filmmaking’s blend of tight comedy, realism in depicting a Maori community, and charmingly janky animation dress up its somber heart in flashy colors. A coming-of-age movie about papering over the hardships of life, only to find solace in those using the same techniques and styles, you’ll probably love Boy as much as Boy loves Michael Jackson. —Jacob Oller


4. Meek’s Cutoff

meeks-cutoff.jpg Year: 2011
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Stars: Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kazan
Rating: PG
Runtime: 104 minutes

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Leave it to Kelly Reichardt to reclaim the Western for women. Western movies tend to be seen as “guy” affairs, less so now in 2017 than in years past; they are manly products about manly men doing manly things and pondering manly ideas, though that’s an oversimplified critique that erases the impact women have had on Westerns in front of and behind the camera. What Reichardt does in Meek’s Cutoff is shunt the men to the side and confront the bullshit macho posturing that is such an integral component of the Western’s grammar (the only man here worth his salt is Stephen Meek [Bruce Greenwood], and even he is kind of an incompetent, entitled scumbag). So it’s up to Emily Tetherow, played by the great and luminous Michelle Williams, to challenge his self-appointed authority and take responsibility for the people in the caravan he has led so far astray from their path. Meek’s Cutoff is a stark, minimalist film, which is to say it’s a Kelly Reichardt film. The stripped-down, simmering austerity of her aesthetic pairs perfectly with the sensibilities of Western cinema. —Andy Crump


5. Marjorie Prime

marjorie-prime-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Michael Almereyda
Stars: Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Tim Robbins

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Marjorie Prime is an elusive movie. You could call it dense, but calling it agile, or maybe just tricky, better describes the film’s character. Another director might have felt compelled to present Marjorie Prime as a mystery box, a riddle to be solved instead of a film to be savored, and peppered its plot with clues to vie for our attention, encouraging us to figure out the box’s secrets before its creator tips their hand. Michawl Almereyda gives not a single damn about outsmarting his viewers or his viewers outsmarting him. Like him or not, there’s no point denying how well he’s aged as a filmmaker throughout his extensive career. Appropriate, then, that this is a movie about precisely that—age—and all of the melancholic baggage and ennui that comes along with it. Working from Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play of the same name, Almereyda presents a tale of generational grief, in which elderly Marjorie (Lois Smith, reprising her role from the original play) is kept company in her modern seaside abode by a hologram modeled after her late husband, Walter (Jon Hamm). Walter, referred to coolly as “Walter Prime” by Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and her son in law, Jon (Tim Robbins), looks and sounds like the real thing, perfectly captured as a man in his 40s by the miracle of technology. Tess thinks the whole thing is weird. Jon less so, though he has his own problems with the Walter dynamic despite being the one who purchased him for Marjorie in the first place. From there, Almereyda mounts an exquisitely challenging production, one that calls for repeat viewings over years, all the better to persuade the film to surrender its meaning. How does the old saying go? That a lie told often enough becomes the truth? Such is the stuff that Marjorie Prime is made of: The lies we all tell ourselves to work through mourning and the passage of life. —Andy Crump


6. Short Term 12

short-term-12-poster.jpg Year: 2014
Director: Destin Cretton
Stars: Brie Larson, Rami Malek, Lakeith Stanfield, Melora Walters, Stephanie Beatriz, Alex Calloway, Kaitlyn Dever, John Gallagher Jr.
Rating: R
Runtime: 97 minutes

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As it progresses, Short Term 12 remains rigorously structured in terms of plot; yet it never feels calculated. In fact, the film serves as a fine example of how invisible screenwriting can be. By allowing his characters’ irrational emotions to influence events and instigate key turning points, Cretton capably masks the film’s finely calibrated story mechanics. And while everything seemingly comes to a head during a key crisis, it’s only fitting that the story ends with a denouement that bookends its opening. Cretton’s clear-eyed film is far too honest to try and convince us that there’s been any sort of profound change for Grace or anyone else. Instead, it’s content to serve as a potent reminder that tentative first steps can be every bit as narratively compelling as great leaps of faith. —Curtis Woloschuk


7. James White

james-white.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Josh Mond

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Eventually while watching James White, you’ll decide you simply cannot get a bead on its main character. The sooner you do, the better: Like no movie in recent memory, the feature debut of writer-director Josh Mond is a small marvel of even-handed empathy. Played by Christopher Abbott, James White has a restless energy, a self-destructive streak, a bratty sense of entitlement, and a fierce devotion to those he loves. So, what does that make him, exactly? A cautionary tale? Utterly insufferable? A misunderstood romantic? James White never quite decides, which isn’t the same as not having strong opinions about its central figure. Mond has nothing but feelings for White, and they’re compellingly complicated. Loosely based on Mond’s own life, James White spans about five months, but the jaggedness of the telling makes the movie feel like the scenes are simply ripped-out patches in a much larger quilt of a life. There’s a looseness to the film that’s attuned to White’s own twitchy psyche, but Mond constructs his story with care, keeping an eye on its emotional through line. White’s life is in tumult when we first meet him, but we soon get the impression that his life is always fraying—it’s just that, this time, his distant father has died and now that’s become the central focus of his personal whirlwind. White isn’t so much grieving the loss—he hardly knew the man—but, rather, is concerned about his divorced mother Gail (a terrific Cynthia Nixon), who has stage 4 cancer and doesn’t need the additional emotional blow. The second half of James White is given over to Gail’s unalterable condition, and Abbott and Nixon hunker down as their characters travel down a road that only has one final destination. Even then, though, Mond refuses to give in to sentimentality or easy takeaways. To call James White a coming-of-age tale is simplistic—plus, it creates an expectation that its protagonist actually grows in some sort of quantifiable, conventional way. Maybe White will turn over a new leaf later after the credits roll, but it will take more than an 85-minute film for such a change to occur. —Tim Grierson


8. Ida

ida-poster.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

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A compelling examination of how the past can shape us even when we don’t know anything about it, Pawel Pawlikowski’s quiet Polish film takes place in the 1960s, when World War II has ended but still grips people’s lives. In the title role, Agata Trzebuchowska—with a well-tuned balance between naivete and curiosity despite being a non-professional actor—plays a nun-in-training who learns that her family was Jewish and killed during Nazi occupation. She embarks on an odyssey to find their graves with her cynical, alcoholic aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), former prosecutor for the communist government. The relationship between the two characters grows more and more complex as they go deeper down the rabbit hole of their family’s past. Shot in black-and-white and academy ratio (1.37:1) by cinematographers ?ukasz ?al and Ryszard Lenczewski, Ida uses its frame to distinct effect, often resigning characters to the lower third of the screen. The effect can be unsettling, but intriguing; that space could contain the watchful power of Ida’s lord, but it could also be nothing more than an empty void. After a life of certitude, Ida has to decide for herself. —Jeremy Mathews


9. Love & Mercy

love-mercy.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Bill Pohlad
Stars: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks
Genre: Drama, Music Biopic
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 121 minutes

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There is a curious, oft times transcendent harmony to the dissonance at the heart of Love & Mercy. In taking a page from his subject’s life and music, director Bill Pohlad (best known for producing credits like 12 Years a Slave and Into the Wild) largely rejects sentimentality in chronicling a reluctant pop star who wants to craft something more than shiny, happy hooks. (In one scene, Wilson argues the Beach Boys’ true “surfer” cred with his bandmates, knowing better.) Sure, that’s kind of the story—at least on the surface—but his approach unearths the layers of Wilson’s genius and torment. Seemingly straightforward classics like “In My Room” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” take on new meaning as the extent of his struggles come into devastating focus. (Read the full review here.) —Amanda Schurr


10. The Squid and the Whale

squid-whale.jpg Year: 2005
Director: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin
Rating: R

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Borrowing themes from his previous films—children of failed marriages; characters whose bookish smarts seem to work against them; a floating sense of fatalism—The Squid and the Whale creeps ever closer to Noah Baumbach’s own tempestuous past. His parents’ faltering union isn’t just a detail used to add depth to a certain character. It’s the whole story—a gorgeous, candid portrait of the messy car crash of divorce, from all angles. “It’s hard to even put myself in the mindset of those movies anymore,” he told Paste in 2005. “With Squid, these are reinventions of people that are close to me, and this is the movie I identify with the most. It is a natural extension of what I have intended and what I feel. I trusted myself more on this one.” —Keenan Mayo