Best of the fest...
So, that's it for another Sundance Film Festival. After 12 days of traipsing through the snow in Park City to attend first-look screenings of the next batch of cult indies heading your way, here’s our round-up of the best movies we saw. From the best oddball sci-fi show you’ve never seen, to an Instagram-filtered dramedy, and from an ice-cold thriller to a sun-soaked gay romance, no two films have been the same. Read on for our top 14 films of this year's Sundance.
14. Before I Fall
The YA adap craze may be waning, but it was far from dead at Sundance – a bit like Before I Fall's high school heroine who, after a car accident, keeps reliving the same day she and her friends seemingly died. Yeah, Groundhog Day comparisons are there for the taking, but director Ry Russo-Young squeezes the time-loop hook for all it's worth.
As Samantha (the excellent Zoey Deutch) runs the gamut of frustration, smoky-eyed rebellion and beyond, there are surprises at every turn in an atmospheric exploration of fate and redemption. Russo-Young plumbs honest emotion without any sugar-dipping, while shouting out to everything from Carrie and Mean Girls to Pretty Little Liars. And, yes, Groundhog Day.
13. An Inconvenient Sequel
It's not quite Gore vs Trump, but the newly-inaugurated US President casts a long shadow over this follow-up to 2006's Oscar-winning doc An Inconvenient Truth. In a year when Trump was on everybody's lips at Sundance, the current White House resident punctuates this engaging if not entirely revelatory sequel by appearing in news footage and sound bites, threatening more dark times ahead.
Elsewhere, An Inconvenient Sequel catches up with Al Gore's anti-global warming campaign a decade after he first unveiled his Powerpoint presentation, revealing the devastating toll it has already taken on the polar ice-caps and cities like New York. It's a brisk, engaging watch.
12. Beach Rats
Notable for its remarkable central performance by Brit newcomer Harris Dickinson, this gritty, Brooklyn-set drama caused a flurry of controversy over its exploration of sexual identity, but the ambiguity director Eliza Hittman paddles in perfectly mirrors her film's roving teen protagonist.
In a mesmerising and, uh, revealing turn, Dickinson plays teen Frankie, who kills time smoking, doping, and chasing girls by day – then surfing the internet for older men by night. Shooting on grainy 16mm, Hittman follows Frankie from beaches and bedrooms to the dark woods he uses as cover for gay hook-ups. Her camera lingers lovingly on Dickinson, whose troubled eyes at once hint at Frankie's seeming denial over his sexuality, then at his lack of awareness at how his actions impact others.
At once brutal and empathetic toward a floundering young man, Hittman's film will inevitably be spoken about in the same breaths as Mysterious Skin and Moonlight. Beach Rats won the Directing Award: US Dramatic at Sundance 2017.
11. Ingrid Goes West
Elizabeth Olsen is Instagram lifestyle queen Taylor Sloane, and Aubrey Plaza is Ingrid Thorburn, her biggest fan. Following a period of personal problems, Ingrid heads to LA to engineer an encounter with her idol, and the pair soon become best friends. While Ingrid Goes West does a great job of mocking the smugger side of the Instagram experience, it also takes a sharp and affecting look at the filters we put on own lives.
If it meanders a little in the second act, director Matt Spicer, pulls it back together for a dark climax that’ll linger in your head much longer than a photo stays in you Insta feed. Many of the biggest laughs come from O’Shea Jackson Jr. (AKA, Ice Cube Jr.) as Ingrid’s Batman-obsessed boyfriend. A zeitgeisty dramedy that's well worth checking out, Ingrid Goes West won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: US Dramatic at Sundance 2017.
You want weird? How about Cate Blanchett playing 13 different characters in one film? Want MORE weird? How about Cate Blanchett playing 13 different characters then reciting the art manifestos of scholars like Jim Jarmusch, Andre Breton, and Claes Oldenburg?
That's the hook in German artist/director Julian Rosefeldt's second feature, inspired by his own art installation (currently touring the globe) and a bold, beautiful, surprisingly funny sermon on the current state of the creative landscape. Naturally, it's all about Blanchett – whether playing a homeless man, a newsreader, a punk, or a puppeteer, she's utterly riveting, ensuring that while Manifesto may challenge more mainstream audiences, it'll captivate those with an appetite for audacious cinematic experimentation.
"The only thing worse than being incompetent, unkind, or evil,” says Amanda (Olivia Cooke) midway through this savage teen drama; "is being indecisive." Deadly observations are Amanda's thing, especially when – as in this case – she accompanies them with vase-smashing violence.
A borderline sociopath with a murky past, Amanda's cold-hard-truth approach to life first repulses, then beguiles study buddy Lilly (Anya Taylor-Joy), who's got a few secrets of her own – and an irritating step-father she daydreams about killing. Expertly playing with light and dark, director Cory Finley's stark debut is a moody semi-chamber piece that delights in Heathers-esque wit and dreamy visuals – and a firecracker final turn from Anton Yelchin. It'll haunt you for days.
8. The Big Sick
Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani co-wrote this comedy drama, basing it on his real-life relationship, which goes part way to explaining why its warmth and wit earned him rave reviews at this year's Sundance.
Kumail plays a version of himself, a soft-spoken Pakistani-American and wannabe stand-up comic whose mother is so desperate for him to marry that she spends most of her time setting him up with suitable Pakistani women. But when Kumail falls for non-Muslim Emily (Zoe Kazan), he risks losing his family in the name of love.
The Big Sick was produced by Judd Apatow, and the comedy mogul's influence manifests in the film's winsomely awkward comedy – particularly the hour-long segment in which Kumail attempts to win over Emily's parents (a brilliantly cast Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). Though it's long at two hours, this should rightly make an even bigger star of Kumail, who has a gift for incendiary one-liners and bumbling charisma.
7. Brigsby Bear
Brigsby Bear introduces you to the greatest cult sci-fi you’ve never heard of, and will reaffirm your fandom for all things geeky. James (Kyle Mooney, who also co-writes) is raised in a bunker by who he thinks are his parents. His only connection with the outside world is with a cheap looking sci-fi show called Brigsby Bear. When he’s rescued from the bunker and returned to his real parents, James realises Brigsby Bear isn't a real show, but, unable to let go, he sets about completing Brigsby’s adventures with a feature-length movie.
It’s co-produced by The Lonely Island, which should give you some idea of what to expect from the oddball humour. Mooney makes for a winningly adorkable lead, and he’s joined by an impressive supporting cast, including Mark Hamill playing against type as James’ kidnapper-dad. A sweet comedy that’s not afraid to hit you in the feels as frequently as it makes you laugh.
The very best documentaries tend to start by focusing on one thing, before the trail leads to the opening of a totally unexpected can of worms. That’s very much the case with Icarus. To begin with, filmmaker and amateur cycling enthusiast Bryan Fogel decides to try to improve his performance at a Tour de France-type event by doping, Lance Armstrong-style, and seeing if he can get away with it and cheat the system. He enlists the help of a qualified expert, Grigory Rodchenkov, to guide him through his enhanced performance.
This sparks of a chain of discoveries that goes higher than you could possibly predict; Icarus is gut-churningly tense and boasts astonishing implications. It couldn’t have arrived at a more vital time, and is essential viewing, even if you have no interest in sports. Icarus won the US Documentary Special Jury Award: The Orwell Award at Sundance 2017.
5. Beatriz at Dinner
Salma Hayek delivers a career-best performance as the titular holistic practitioner in this radiant comic drama from director Miguel Arteta. Mousy and watchful, Beatriz offers Buddhist hugs to everybody she meets, but butts heads with ruthless businessman Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) when she's inadvertently invited to a client's ritzy dinner party.
At first playing as a fish-out-of-water comedy, Mike White's script incrementally pulls focus on Beatriz, revealing a woman whose admirable if steely beliefs make her unexpectedly formidable. Hayek has never been better, glowing with a quiet magnetism, while Lithgow is terrifyingly plausible as the Trump-like Strutt. There are echoes of White's TV series Enlightened here, and Beatriz at Dinner boasts the same lingering power – and, in light of the presidential election, it couldn't be more timely.
A Ghost Story
David Lowery might not yet be a household name, but he’s a pretty big deal at Sundance. His breakout film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 festival, and it proved to be the launchpad for bigger things – he wrote and directed Disney’s underrated Pete’s Dragon remake, and he’s set to repeat the trick for the House of Mouse with an upcoming Peter Pan redo.
But he obviously hasn’t forgotten his roots, and here he reteams with Saints stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for this secretly-shot soulful spooker, which was one of the best reviewed films of Sundance 2017. It’s a poetically conceived slow-burner, and will haunt you for days afterwards (not in that way). A quiet film that packs a considerably punch, it’s going to be a cult favourite in years to come (not least for Mara's unusual method of pie consumption).
3. Wind River
Sicario and Hell or High Water screenwriter Taylor Sheridan makes his directing debut here, working from a script he also wrote. A young woman is found dead on a Native American reservation, after apparently having run for her life across the snowy plains. Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen again, she’s a Sundance regular) is called in to investigate, and she seeks the help of hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a crackshot who knows the area like the back of his hand, and is pretty nifty on a snowmobile.
What unfolds is a tense, pacy thriller of the type that some folks would have you believe they don’t make anymore. Sheridan showcases a knack for directing, with a film that’s every bit as compelling as his previous scripted efforts, and Renner gets his best role in years, playing another eagle-eyed marksman who’s miles away from the Avengers’ Hawkeye.
One of the most powerful films of Sundance 2017, Mudbound features a slew of across-the-board great performances – from the likes of Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, and Jonathan Banks – in a story of racism in Mississippi at the time of World War 2.
The action is largely concentrated on a single farm, and the racial divide is captured through two contrasting families: the McAllans, who own the farm, and the Jacksons, who work the land. Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) return to home after WW2 as changed men, struggling to readjust to a world they left behind in light of their wartime experiences.
The comparison would’ve run the risk of being too neat if it wasn’t for the complexities writer/director Dee Rees incorporates at every turn. Mudbound is a heart-rending drama that’s set to linger in the mind all the way to next awards season.
1. Call Me by Your Name
Forget The Lone Ranger and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Armie Hammer finally lands a role that reveals the full breadth of his talent in Luca Guadagnino's third feature (after I Am Love and A Bigger Splash). As an academic who spends the summer of '83 in northern Italy with a professor and his family, Hammer is breezily charismatic, his enigmatic brainbox soon catching the eye of 17-year-old professor's son Elio (Timothée Chalamet, fantastic), with whom he shares an adjoining bedroom.
Their friendship gradually deepens into something more profound, and amid the apricot trees and watchful ruins of the Italian Riviera, Guadagnino unspools a transcendent love story brimming with warmth, passion and feeling. Unmissable.