Once again, it was a thrilling, fascinating, and ultimately transforming week and a half on the mountain. In a world still reeling from the most baffling presidential election season of our lifetimes, the films that played best at the 2017 edition of the Sundance Film Festival seemed to be either incredibly serious or incredibly fun; there wasn’t much space in between. And for the first time ever, our favorite film was a genre film. Kind of. Here are our 20 favorite films from Sundance 2017.
It’s about time this story was told. That’s the feeling that Roxanne Roxanne leaves you with. From director Michael Larnell, whose Cronies premiered at Sundance in 2015, it’s a raw look at the life of Roxanne Shante. She was the most renowned MC in Queens, New York, in the 1980s, balancing stardom with the battles of the Queensbridge Projects. It’s incredible to see such a strong female character on screen, carrying a film, and one played by a spanking-new actress. Chante Adams plays Shante and took home the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance at Sundance. Adams takes us on an intimate ride, the audience experiencing her navigating her relationship with her alcoholic mother, risky men and dangerous situations. Roxanne Shante is incredibly talented, and the further she gets toward fame, the further away she travels from her childhood. It’s heartbreaking, and there’s not a moment we don’t root for her. The scene where she first raps “Roxanne’s Revenge” is electric, giving goosebumps to anyone who knows what struggle means and what success can mean to those who struggle. Larnell makes this wide-ranging exploration of Shante’s life lapse seamlessly, allowing us to grow up and away with her. Larnell also met with the actual Roxanne Shante in preparation for the film, and we’re impressed with her vulnerability in sharing such difficult moments with us. It makes the film feel rooted in reality, a reality that’s palpable for so many young women out there trying to accomplish their dream and escape their cages. It’s a story we should all know. -Meredith Alloway
Thoroughbred finds its intrigue in its characters, score and unique visual language. The plot is nothing too radical—two young girls planning a murder—but Cory Finley’s keen eye into their motivations and complexities is what makes this thriller both enjoyable and uncomfortable. Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) stars as Amanda, a high school girl who has “no feelings.” After a mysterious incident with her family’s horse, one that has her awaiting trial, she’s left without any friends and with a number of psychiatric evaluations. When she starts hanging out with childhood pal, rich-girl Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), they form an odd-couple companionship. We soon meet Lily’s type A stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks, House of Cards), and the girls decide they should kill him. Adapted from a stage play by NYC-based playwright Finley, the film—his debut—has sharp edges and witty dialogue that keeps the film feeling much more like an intelligent drama than a B-movie high school horror. We also loved seeing Anton Yelchin play a druggie with a heart more gold than those of the other two girls—a reminder that his talent was undeniable and making his passing all the more tragic. Besides the great script and performances, it’s the score by Erik Friedlander and cinematography from Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) that’s most memorable. The music is animalistic and the visual language intimate and still captivating, eerie. —M.A.
Imagine an American-indie remake of an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film, and you’ll get part of the way to picturing what filmmaker Kogonada has accomplished with his feature debut. In Columbus, Ind., a distracted Jin (John Cho) has returned home to visit his comatose father, unsure why he should care what happens to a man with whom he’d never been close. Waiting for news, Jin befriends Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who works at the library and gives him tours of the city’s modernist architecture. A film about people in limbo, Columbus derives a lot of its power from its environment, Kogonada utilizing buildings and landscape to suggest lives dwarfed by circumstance and destiny. That description might make Columbus sound ponderous, but this light drama has a soft center as Jin and Casey try to figure out themselves. (He’s not sure if he wants to be present for his dad’s death. She’s putting off her promising future because she’s convinced she needs to take care of her flailing mother.) Not quite a love story—more like a film about an accidental friendship—Columbus speaks softly but resonates loudly. —Tim Grierson
Few men’s lives are more heroic or harrowing than those of The White Helmets in Aleppo, Syria. They remain in the bombed, broken shell of a city, traveling to newly attacked sites and attempting to rescue men, women and children from the rubble that used to be home. Directors Steen Johannessen and Firas Fayyad and their brave cameramen capture the terror first-hand with visceral footage of rescue operations and a keen eye for images that seem fantastical but are sadly all too real. —Jeremy Mathews
Novitiate delves into a sensitive topic so fearlessly and assuredly that you’d never guess it was Maggie Betts’s debut dramatic feature. Margaret Qualley stars as a young nun-in-training in the mid-’60s, when the Catholic Church was instituting Vatican II reforms that completely changed the meaning of what it means to be part of the sisterhood. Melissa Leo holds it all together with an astounding performance as the Mother Superior. Her character’s cruelness masks a sympathetic sadness as she ponders how Vatican II affects her life’s devotions. Debuting not long after Martin Scorsese’s Silence, this is a worthy companion piece about the challenges and doubts that come with faith. —J.M.
At one of his Q&As for The Hero, director Brett Haley described the film as simply a vehicle for Sam Elliott’s lead performance. And indeed, it is difficult to write about the film without spending most of the time raving about Elliott’s portrayal of aging cowboy actor Lee Hayden, which is the best of Elliott’s storied career. But there are other rewarding aspects of the film, as well. Nick Offerman, in a more toned-down role than his norm, is subtle and wonderful. Krysten Ritter continues her run of interesting work. And who doesn’t love to see more Katharine Ross? Cinematographer Rob Givens bathes the whole proceedings in a beautiful autumnal light befitting the theme of aging, and Haley’s editing gives our growing understanding of Hayden room to breathe. The piece de resistance is Elliott himself, of course, but there’s a lot more to this film than that one stunning performance. —Michael Dunaway
No, The Incredible Jessica James isn’t one of those Sundance films that will leave you frozen in your seat contemplating your existence. You won’t be delving into its contradictions over a vodka soda at the after party. You step into its world as easily as you step out. (Not every Sundance film has to be painful or extremely high-brow.) It was refreshing to enjoy myself in a film and fall madly in love with its leading lady: Jessica Williams. Director James Strouse (People Places Thing) was open in our chat with him about his desire to write a film around Williams, and we’re very glad he took the leap. Williams plays Jessica James, a twenty-something theatre fanatic who’s trying to get one of her plays produced while simultaneously dealing with a breakup. The ex? Damon, played by the equally wonderful Keith Stanfield (Atlanta, Short Term 12), who can’t manage to stay out of Jessica’s dreams. When she meets a new fling, played by the comically refreshing Chris O’Dowd, she begins to re-evaluate her love life while clinging to her life goals. When do you know you’ve made it? As lighthearted as the film can be, it’s rooted in an exploration of the deeper questions that any artist, or person for that matter, grapples with. Williams is hilarious, which we all know from her time on The Daily Show. She’s also incredibly powerful, showcasing a feminine strength that’s so crucial to this generation and a passion for her craft that’s the opposite of the indifference often associated with millennials. The film was acquired by Netflix and is perfect for a popcorn and beer night with the gals and guys. —M.A.
What is life like for someone who longs to interact with others, but does so in ways that are repellant? We get the heartwarming and heartbreaking answer in Wilson. Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern shine as Wilson and Pippi, two lovers estranged after an aborted pregnancy, or so Wilson thought as he soon discovers the family he always wanted, but never knew he had. Harrelson, long a master of comedy and the deft delivery it requires, brings all of those skills to bear here, but his tenderness and sincerity are just as enjoyable. And Dern so deeply gets into the skin of Pippi that she created a critical scene in the film not found in screenwriter Daniel Clowes’ original work. Judy Greer and Cheryl Hines also make impactful contributions that help shape this tale of undaunted love from the seemingly unlovable. —Gordon Hight
Writer Macon Blair excels in his directorial debut and gives audiences a stern examination of modern society notable for its sharp dialogue, compelling characters, and an unconventional plot full of surprises. Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood star as Ruth and Tony who are brought together in the aftermath of a burglary at Ruth’s home. What begins as a vigilante-style reclamation of stolen property widens into a story that confronts rampant egoism. In the expanding vacuum of social apathy, we see what failed parenting can unleash on the world and how disturbing the justification of self-deluded actions has become. Most importantly, we see two resilient characters who refuse to allow those evils to persist in their world. Filmed in scenic Portland, Ore., I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore was named winner of the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. —G.H.
At a glance, Band Aid sounds way too adorable to be good: splintering married couple turns fighting words into alt-pop gems and in doing so, resuscitates the marriage. (My internal twee alert sounded the alarm when I first read that mawkish title…) Indeed, Band Aid is terribly charming, but it manages to finds a way to be true, too—a tribute to writer-producer-director-star Zoe Lister-Jones, who deftly steers the film into a caustically optimistic tone that befits the marriage of these flawed and heartbroken people … a most imperfect union that discovers, if not a raison d’être, a way to stay together anyway. —Chris White
In choosing Sundance films to see, you could do worse each year than just choosing the Alfred P. Sloan Award winner, which is given each year to a film dealing with science or technology. The last few years have seen fascinating films like Embrace of the Serpent, Computer Chess, and Another Earth win the award. This year’s winner is just as thought-provoking. In Michael Almereyda’s film, which is set in the near future, people can summon up holographic recreations of their loved ones, at whatever point in their lives desired. Lois Smith has decided to recreate her husband at his most vital and handsome, so of course he’s played by Jon Hamm. What begins as a stiff intellectual exercise, though, quickly develops quite a lot of heart and soul. Great performances by Smith and Hamm, as well as Geena Davis and Tim Robbins, don’t hurt either. But the most fascinating questions the film asks are about the reliability of our own memories. And we don’t even need futuristic talking holograms to be a little disquieted by that notion. —M.D.
Director Dee Rees uses the uneasy partnership between a white family and a black family in postwar Mississippi as a bruising metaphor for modern-day America. In Mudbound, Jason Clarke is the patriarch of a recently relocated Tennessee clan that must work together with the Jacksons (led by Mary J. Blige) to cultivate farmland, but the poisonous economic, racial and social atmosphere surrounding them constantly threatens the crops they’re trying to sow. This somber, despairing film sees the world plainly: War veterans aren’t given the care they need when they return, bigotry runs rampant, and good people are outnumbered by the small-minded. And the performances are stellar—especially Garrett Hedlund, as a bomber pilot who’s a shell of himself now that he’s home, and Jason Mitchell as a black soldier who finds that America still won’t accept him, even though he fought valiantly for his country. —T.G.
Dina Buno has been categorized as “different” from birth. She is challenged by an unspecified neurological disorder, and has faced an inordinate share of external adversity. Brutally stabbed by one boyfriend, she also lost a husband to cancer. It’s not her mental affliction that sets her apart, though; it’s her exceptional optimistic buoyancy. Dina wants what we all want: love, security, and a realistic expectation that tomorrow can be better than today. Winner of the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize, this endearing film depicts the inspirational navigation of life by Dina and her fiancé Scott and serves as a gentle reminder that we as humans, gloriously diverse though we may be, have much more in common than we may think. —G.H.
Filmed near Little Rock, Ark., Dayveon takes audiences inside a world of limited viable options for the teenaged, title character. Having lost his hero, his older brother, to a violent, gang-related shooting, Dayveon lives with his sister and her boyfriend, who do their best to provide a stable home. But, is that enough or will Dayveon follow in his brother’s footsteps? The brilliance of the film is that it’s depictive not prescriptive. It reflects the tragic nature of gang life without wallowing in judgement. It shines a balanced light onto Dayveon’s choice—the allure of security that the brotherhood provides and the inextricable compromises and life-threatening costs that torment his soul. —G.H.
Kyra is the main character of director Andrew Dosunmu’s latest feature, but it’s not quite right to say that she’s at the center of the story. A gorgeously shot, powerfully atmospheric drama, Where Is Kyra? looks at a middle-aged woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) threatening to unravel, and her anxiety is captured most acutely by the way that Dosunmu (Mother of George) keeps the woman at the side of the frame or out of focus—she seems to be vanishing in front of our eyes. Mourning her recently deceased mother and facing enormous debts, Kyra has no safety net and could be out on the street in days, but Pfeiffer doesn’t play the character melodramatically. Instead, it’s a portrayal that’s astoundingly flinty—there’s no time for pity when homelessness and oblivion are real possibilities. Aided by a tremendous turn from Kiefer Sutherland as a neighbor with his own problems, Where Is Kyra? wrecks you bit by bit until it arrives at an ending that articulates the impending tragedy in all its muted horror. —T.G.
This documentary’s conceit could have just been a gimmick: Director Kitty Green went to Boulder, where JonBenet Ramsey lived her brief life, to “audition” locals to play her family members for a made-up movie. Instead, Casting JonBenet is an insightful and moving look at a cross-section of humanity as it talks openly about Ramsey’s murder and its lingering horror. There’s nothing lewd or gossipy about Green’s interviews: The pain of a girl’s killing resonates with the on-camera subjects, who share so much of themselves that the openness brings an incredible intimacy. Like a cross between Kate Plays Christine and Room 237, Casting JonBenet questions our fascination with the lurid while acknowledging the messy humanness that informs that fascination. In its own way, the documentary mourns Ramsey without indulging in the tabloid trashiness that’s dominated her story for the last 20 years. —T.G.
In 2015’s stunning Cartel Land, which I considered the best film of the year, narrative or documentary, Heineman dazzled us by, among other things, becoming so deeply embedded in such dangerous situations at the U.S.-Mexico border that he was able to give us glimpses into worlds we’d never have access to ourselves—or want to. In his very different but also stunning City of Ghosts, he pays homage to, and puts us right into the lives of, a brave group of men who are doing the same thing in another war-ravaged part of the world. The heroes—I do not use the world lightly—of this film are the group of clandestine journalists who have created the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently to bring to light the atrocities committed in their home city by ISIS, who have taken it over as their headquarters. The footage is very hard to watch in parts, but equally hard is watching the toll that it takes on these brave men and their families. No one knows what the answer is to the current global crisis, but surely people like these men putting their lives on the line to report is part of the solution. The cockroaches can’t stand the light, after all. —M.D.
A young man has been living, for as long as he can remember, in an underground bunker with his parents, protected from the world outside, with only a sci-fi series starring an animatronic bear to entertain him. But when he’s “rescued” and taken back to “real life,” he’s determined to hold on to the things most dear to him. It all sounds a bit high-concept and precious, but it turns out to be one of the most inspiring Sundance films in years. I always tell people that in each of my eight years going to Sundance, at least one film has changed me deeply in some way, a rather incredible record. This year it was Brigsby, not so much by changing my course but by affirming and exhorting me to keep going. Mark Hamill told us that when he opened up a script by the Lonely Island guys, he never expected to see something like this. Neither did we. —M.D.
Will there be a better love story in 2017 than the one dramatized in director Luca Guadagnino’s ravishing new film? If there is, what a year it’ll be. Set over an impossibly sultry summer in Northern Italy in 1983, the film stars a never-better Armie Hammer as Oliver, an American scholar assisting a local professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). But amidst discussions of language derivation and rare antiquities, Oliver begins developing feelings for the professor’s 17-year-old son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who suddenly finds himself questioning his own sexuality. I Am Love and A Bigger Splash established Guadagnino as a first-rate chronicler of sensual overload, but Call Me by Your Name takes the filmmaker’s skill to the next level: Here is a movie that blooms slowly and lovingly in front of our eyes, capturing a nervous romance in all its incremental detail. Like a lot of great summer getaways, you don’t want the movie to ever end—but end it must, with Guadagnino finding the perfect bittersweet note to conclude on. —T.G.
The title A Ghost Story could set forth any number of possible expectations, and David Lowery’s film defies them all. There is a special kind of narrative boldness at play as it gradually reveals its intentions, bending minds and folding time in the process. It begins with a married couple, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, planning to move out of their house. Then tragedy strikes. The ghost story we get isn’t your typical collection of spooks, or even a more sophisticated drama about haunting. It’s a quiet but revelatory journey through non-existence that pulls more emotions from a sheet with two holes in it than most films manage with a cast of hundreds. —J.M.