Sundance 2024: All the best movies we saw at the indie film festival – USA TODAY

It’s that time of the year when we break out the snow shovels, overthink Oscar nominations and go Sundancing.
The 40th edition of Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 28 as a hybrid in-person/online event, a holdover from the pandemic that makes it accessible to everyone. (For those wanting Sundance from their sofas, tickets are on sale for screenings beginning Jan. 25.) The fest features a number of noteworthy new movies, from the Kristen Stewart/Steven Yeun team-up “Love Me” to Jesse Eisenberg’s second directing effort “A Real Pain” (co-starring Emmy winner Kieran Culkin), as well as a slew of documentaries tackling Lollapalooza, “We Are the World” and more.
But now, it’s time to watch some flicks. Here are the best movies we’ve seen so far at Sundance, ranked:
Sundance:10 greatest movies from 40 years of the film festival, from ‘Clerks’ to ‘Napoleon Dynamite’
There’s creepy and cool aspects to this documentary that’s both a love story and history lesson on robotics. The movie follows transgender entrepreneur and Sirius XM inventor Martine Rothblatt and wife Bina as they commission and continually update a humanoid Al named Bina48, which houses Bina’s consciousness and memories in an effort to make their romance immortal. While “Machina” is a timely enough movie, given how much AI has been talked about in the news – though it doesn’t really go deep on some of the downsides – it’s more intriguing as a human tussle with mortality than a high-tech fairy tale.
When it comes to music documentaries, this year’s Sundance embraces a definite nostalgia factor, and “Lolla” goes all in on the good, the bad and the naked dudes that mark the early 1990s history of the alt-rock festival. Perry Farrell, one of the founders who originally envisioned the event as a farewell tour for his band Jane’s Addiction, is the main voice of the three-episode doc, which streams later this year on Paramount+. The film details how Lollapalooza helped break bands like Nine Inch Nails (Trent Reznor shares a great story about their first set), Pearl Jam and Green Day but also became a symbol for selling out.
June Squibb, action hero? Yep, the 94-year-old Oscar nominee is a lovable force for righteous vengeance in this breezy comedy. Her title character is a sewing, “Mission: Impossible”-loving elderly woman who gets scammed out of $10,000 by someone on the phone pretending to be her grandson (Fred Hechinger) and goes on an epic adventure – via electric scooter, no less – to get her money back. Squibb is a hoot, as is Richard Roundtree, the late “Shaft” star whose final film role is playing Thelma’s reluctant partner Danny, while Parker Posey plays Thelma’s overprotective daughter.
The overview of iconic soul singer Luther Vandross’s legacy begins in his early days growing up in Brooklyn listening to The Supremes, becoming an A-list background singer for David Bowie and Bette Midler and a master jingle writer before taking over the R&B landscape. Interviews with Vandross and notable names (including Jamie Foxx and Mariah Carey) chronicle his musical life, though “Luther” is best when it veers personal, discussing the constant battle with his weight and how an artist who crafted iconic love songs never found romance himself. While not a dishy deep dive into the man, it’s a solid testament to his music.
Director Jazmin Jones’ documentary is both a detective story and a high-tech exploration of cultural identity. “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing” was popular typing software in the 1980s and ‘90s, with a Black woman on the cover who became an icon – Jones even calls her “the Aunt Jemima of technology.” But the name’s not Mavis, it’s Haitian-born model Renée L’Espérance. Jones and associate producer Olivia McKayla Ross seek to track the reclusive mystery woman down and give her “her flowers” but the investigation proves tricky as the pair go on a thought-provoking quest that involves gender, representation, morality and “cyber doulas.”
The animated comedy stars English comedian Mo Gilligan as the voice of Beckett, a sort of British Garfield and the spoiled cat of research student Rose (Simone Ashley). He fritters away his nine lives and ends up in a DMV-type afterlife where angel Grace (Sophie Okenedo) makes him a deal for a new round of lives. But there’s a catch, and he endures a series of crazy animal shenanigans to help Rose deal with an antagonistic professor (Bill Nighy), plus learns a valuable lesson: One life is all you need if you don’t waste it. There’s a big bee-conservation angle to the movie, which features songs by Zayn Malik (who also voices a pair of dimwitted twin henchmen).
“Femininity is powerful,” says one of the participants from the Missouri Girls State program, the subject of Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ compelling follow-up to 2020’s “Boys State.” That film followed Texas teen boys in competing political parties who create three branches of a mock state government, and “Girls State” (streaming on Apple TV+ April 5) centers on Missouri girls doing the same in 2022, amid a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade. Abortion becomes one of the hot-button issues discussed in the film, which follows a hotly contested gubernatorial race and one teen’s investigation into Girls State itself.
Talented newcomer Phoebe-Rae Taylor is a joy to watch in the coming-of-age film (streaming on Disney+ later this year) based on the 2010 Sharon M. Draper novel. Melody (Taylor) is a nonverbal 12-year-old with cerebral palsy as well as a bright and intelligent trivia whiz, with Jennifer Aniston giving life to her inner voice. When she’s not being challenged academically in her special-needs program, Melody attends a general sixth-grade class and it’s a tough go until her parents get her assistive voice technology. Even when she can express her thoughts and desires, though, Melody struggles to be heard and understood in a touching, inclusive and inspirational tale.
You’ve heard this one before: An undead killer is on the loose in a forest and murdering youngsters who’ve disrupted his supernatural peace. The clever caveat in Chris Nash’s inventive ode to the old-school slasher is that the narrative, with extremely gnarly kills and rampant gore, unfolds from the villain’s perspective. Gigantic monster Johnny (Ry Barrett), clad in an old firefighter’s mask and down for doing bad things with hooks, calmly trudges through the woods and hunts his prey, and you get a front-row seat in a chiller that intriguingly humanizes its antagonist and even puts a twist on the final girl trope.
Laura Chinn’s directorial feature debut (streaming on Hulu Feb. 9) is a lively, semi-autobiographical 2000s throwback. Doris (Nico Parker) is a quiet Florida teen whose dying brother is moved into hospice care by embattled mother Kristine (Laura Linney) – in the same place housing Terri Schiavo. With her mom preoccupied, Doris befriends right-to-life activist Paul (Woody Harrelson) and also starts to party with school chums, though she’s forced to weigh this newfound freedom with her family responsibilities. There’s not enough Harrelson, and it leans into the teen-movie tropes, though Parker – a spitting image of her mom Thandiwe Newton – and Linney ride great chemistry to needed catharsis.
Children of the ’80s will get a kick out of this fascinating look (streaming on Netflix Jan. 29) at the creation of the 1985 all-star hit “We Are the World” and play-by-play of its all-night recording session. Lionel Richie, one of the main men behind the song alongside producer Quincy Jones and co-writer Michael Jackson, is the primary storyteller running down the A-listers (including Stevie Wonder, Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen) who signed on and then checked their egos at the door as Jones and Co. had to herd cats to get the tune done. A good amount of tea is spilled, too, including Waylon Jennings walking out and why Madonna and Prince didn’t end up on the iconic track.
‘We are the World’:Inside the dramatic, star-filled 1-night recording
The Irish-speaking political hip-hop group Kneecap star as themselves in the anarchic but thoughtful quasi-comedy biopic. Naoise Ó Cairealláin and Liam Óg Ó Hannaidh are two childhood friends in Belfast who meet and start making sick beats with music teacher JJ Ó Dochartaigh. Their wild journey features drugs, anti-British rap tunes and feuding with extremist groups and the cops, though the trio’s use of the country’s mother tongue fuels a youth movement against the establishment trying to tamp down this indigenous language. It’s a different sort of civil-rights tale with stirring songs and an appearance by Michael Fassbender as a complicated father figure.
This year’s “CODA” is a tear-jerking dramedy starring Keith Kupferer as Dan, an unhappy middle-aged construction worker still grieving the recent death of his teen son when he’s recruited by an acting troupe putting on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” He keeps this new hobby a secret from loved ones but discovers a hidden talent as well as a way to work through tragedy. Kupferer, a veteran of many supporting TV roles, is a revelation, as are Tara Mallen and the excellent Katherine Mallen Kupferer – his real-life family who play his onscreen wife and daughter – while “Triangle of Sadness” breakout Dolly De Leon plays Dan’s feisty stage partner.







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