Sundance Celebrates Forty Years

David and Nathan Zellner’s Sasquatch Sunset (2024)

Turning forty, Sundance glances back and forges ahead. As noted last month, from today through January 28, the festival will present revival screenings of eight films celebrating their own round-number anniversaries, including Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), Rose Troche’s Go Fish (1994), Jared and Jerusha Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite (2004), and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), all of them launched in Park City.

Nearly four thousand features have premiered at the festival over the years, and organizers recently polled more than five hundred frequent attendees to come up with an ultimate Sundance top ten. All-time Sundance favorites include Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut feature, Blood Simple (1985), Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), and two films by Richard Linklater, Before Sunrise (1995) and Boyhood (2014).

Topping the list is Damien Chazelle’s first feature, Whiplash (2014), which Variety’s Owen Gleiberman compares to “a music-appreciation class made with the charged volatility of a thriller, and with a great villain at its center. That would be Terence Fletcher, the New York specialty-school jazz instructor played with whiplash timing by J. K. Simmons, who torments Miles Teller’s young drumming student like a drill sergeant crossed with a bebop Mephistopheles.”

Whiplash is on Gleiberman’s list of Sundance movies “that I think were made memorable by their quality of danger,” and he worries that the past few years of programming have shown a waning of that daring bravado. “The independent film movement didn’t just reinvigorate American movies,” writes Gleiberman. “It saved them . . . For years, I wrote about Sundance with a missionary zeal that I knew, on occasion, might come off as corny, but I didn’t mind. I knew that the power of Sundance hadn’t been overstated; each year, it was giving us films and filmmakers who were changing the lifeblood of movies.”

Going by the many lists of most-anticipated films in this year’s lineup, Sundance 2024, the first edition overseen by new festival director Eugene Hernandez, could prove that the programmers still know how to pose an invigorating threat. In I Saw the TV Glow, Jane Schoenbrun’s follow-up to We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021), two high-schoolers bond over their shared obsessions with a late-night show. “Evoking ’90s pop nostalgia with a hallucinatory touch, a dash of Twin Peaks and a pinch of Are You Afraid of the Dark?,” writes Jen Yamato in the Los Angeles Times, “Schoenbrun’s immersive, existential fever dream is poised to be among the conversation starters of this year’s festival, and a promising Gen-Z breakout for its distributor.”

Which is, of course, A24. Another film from the distributor with a uniquely devoted fanbase is Aaron Schimberg’s A Different Man, starring Sebastian Stan as an actor who undergoes radical face-changing surgery, gets dumped by his girlfriend (Renate Reinsve, who broke through in The Worst Person in the World), and then watches the play she’s written based on their relationship. “Think Being John Malkovich starring the guy known for playing Bucky Barnes,” suggests the LAT’s Glenn Whipp, “and you’ll understand why this will break social media platforms when it premieres.”

Pedro Pascal and Ben Mendelsohn star in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Freaky Tales, an interweaving of four stories set in Oakland, California, in 1987. “Fleck, who grew up in Oakland,” notes IndieWire’s Anne Thompson, “celebrates the city’s egalitarian pulp, pop, kung fu, hip-hop culture, from underdog teen punks fighting off Nazi skinheads, to an emerging rap duo and an NBA all-star.”

IW’s David Ehrlich recommends David and Nathan Zellner’s Sasquatch Sunset. “A gross, hilarious, and dementedly poignant ethnographic drama that follows a family of Sasquatches (played to perfection by Jesse Eisenberg, Riley Keough, Nathan Zellner, and Christophe Zacaj-Denek, all unrecognizable under their incredible costumes and makeup) as they roam the Pacific Northwest over the course of a very eventful year,” writes Ehrlich, “Sasquatch Sunset may be entirely conveyed through errant grunts, failed sexual overtures, and prolific amounts of pissing and shitting, but it somehow manages to cohere into a heartbreaking—and all too human—story about a species oblivious to its own demise.”

Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan, “whose last film was the poignant, delicate drama Saint Frances (which you really should see if you haven’t),” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, “join the ranks of Stephen Cone as similarly wise and empathetic chroniclers of closely observed humanity. Ghostlight concerns a middle-aged man working through grief while acting in a community theater production of Romeo and Juliet. Theater people are hard to get right on film, but enough folks involved in Ghostlight (including star Keith Kupferer) are also involved with Steppenwolf that we have high hopes they’ll do justice to a weird and wonderful world.”

Yance Ford, whose 2017 documentary Strong Island won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance before scoring an Oscar nomination, returns with Power, “a lively, detailed essay film that takes a deep look at the history of policing in the United States and unceasing expansion of its scope and scale, much to the detriment of marginalized communities,” writes Jordan Raup at the Film Stage. Raup also recommends a film of an entirely different sort, Chris Nash’s “resoundingly brutal and formally fascinating” directorial debut. “Primarily following a murderer’s steps and slashes through his travels terrorizing those near a remote cabin, In a Violent Nature sticks to its meticulous conceit and delivers one of the most chilling horror movies I’ve seen in years.”

For notes on more films critics are looking forward to, including two films starring Kristen Stewart and further appearances from Jesse Eisenberg and Renate Reinsve, see the lists from the Guardian’s Benjamin Lee and contributors to the Playlist and ScreenAnarchy.

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