Awards from five juries and an untold number of attendees were announced on Friday before Sundance wrapped over the weekend. There isn’t much overlap between the two sets of winners, unlike previous years in which films such as Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) or Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2020) won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. In 2021, Sian Heder’s CODA won both awards, plus two more, and then went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture, the following spring.
The first film to win over both the U.S. Dramatic Competition jury and the audience was Tony Bui’s Three Seasons back in 1999, and a new restoration screened this year as part of a special program marking the festival’s fortieth anniversary. Surveying their Sundance 2024 favorites at Vulture, Bilge Ebiri and Rebecca Alter suggest that “the best way to celebrate that history was to put together a lineup of films that actually felt like Sundance, like the festival it used to be before it became just another stop on Hollywood’s eternal red carpet.” And for Ebiri and Alter, the programmers pulled it off, presenting “one of the best Sundance lineups in years.”
Variety critics agree that this year’s festival “was peppered with films that popped, that mattered, and that looked like they could have a vibrant life beyond Sundance—which, let’s not forget, is really the whole point.” That enthusiastic approval is echoed in best-of-fest lists from contributors to IndieWire, the Hollywood Reporter, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post.
Jurors Debra Granik, Adrian Tomine, and Lena Waithe presented the Grand Jury Prize to In the Summers and the Directing Award to Alessandra Lacorazza. For THR’s Lovia Gyarkye, this “quiet debut film” is “a visual poem, an enveloping four-stanza ode to experiences shared by a man and his daughters.” Two sisters (Dreya Renae Castillo and Luciana Quinonez) spend their summers with their father (René Pérez Joglar), who struggles to overcome his alcoholism. “Coming-of-age dramas may be a dime a dozen at Sundance, but one this tender and truthful can make an entire subgenre feel shimmeringly new,” writes the LAT’s Justin Chang.
Another coming-of-age drama won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Award for its ensemble cast. Set in Fremont, California, in 2008, Dìdi is the semi-autobiographical debut feature from Sean Wang, who learned while he was in Park City that his Nai Nai & Wài Pó has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film. Chris (Izaac Wang) is a thirteen-year-old who bickers with his mom, Chungsing (Joan Chen), while nurturing crushes or hanging out on MySpace. The Guardian’s Adrian Horton calls Dìdi “easily one of the best, most seamless films I’ve seen on the experience of growing up online.”
Jesse Eisenberg won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for A Real Pain, starring himself as David, a worrier, and Kieran Culkin as Benji, a slacker. They’re cousins, and the recent death of their grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, has prompted a tour of Poland. “It’s a well-worn dynamic,” writes Chris Barsanti at Slant, “the tightly wound rule-follower exasperated by and envious of the attention attracted by their chaotically magnetic opposite. But even with Eisenberg and Culkin’s characters seeming on the surface to be so close to type that their performances could have been delivered by email, the actors still make the conflict feel vital, wrenching, funny, and volatile.” A Real Pain is “a big step up” for Eisenberg after the first feature he directed, When You Finish Saving the World (2022).
A Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance was presented to Nico Parker for her portrayal of Doris, a teen whose younger brother is dying of cancer in Laura Chinn’s directorial debut, Suncoast, another semi-autobiographical story. Costarring with Laura Linney and Woody Harrelson, Parker plays Doris “with tenderness and a whirl of internal conflict,” writes THR’s David Rooney, and she’s “lovely, dignifying even the rote moments like Doris flipping through a family photo album or watching a childhood home video, her melancholy edging into guilt.”
In Porcelain War, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize, Ukrainian weapons instructor Slava Leontyev and his partner, Anya Stasenko, are artists who “draw connections between destruction and creation—between their fragile yet lasting ceramics and their brutalized yet tenacious country—that erase any doubt between the essential link between them,” writes Jacob Oller for Paste. “This poignant, inescapable philosophizing permeates Leontyev and Brendan Bellomo’s nonfiction, giving it a new, entrancing approach to the empathetic intensity of last year’s Ukrainian war docs In the Rearview and 20 Days in Mariupol.”
Daughters won both the Audience and Festival Favorite Awards. “An enormously moving documentary made all the more effective by codirectors Angela Patton and Natalie Rae’s steadfast refusal to settle for easy sentiment in the face of difficult outcomes,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “Daughters has as much ugly-cry potential as any film in recent memory. But the most lasting power of this film about a unique father-daughter dance for D.C.-area Black girls whose fathers are in jail comes in a final act that wipes those tears away to examine the hurt they leave behind.”
Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie won the Directing Award for Sugarcane, which Esther Zuckerman, writing for IndieWire, calls “a stunning and brutal look at the lasting trauma of the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School,” a Catholic-run institution where Native American children were abused or went missing for decades. For Zuckerman, the film’s “silences speak louder than its revelations.”
Accomplished editor Carla Gutierrez, who worked on RBG (2018), won the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award for her directorial debut, Frida. “If you want to immerse yourself in Frida Kahlo, here is the real thing,” writes THR’s Sheri Linden.Frida draws on the artist’s diaries and letters and archival photos and footage and features animation by Sofía Inés Cázares and Renata Galindo. For Bilge Ebiri and Rebecca Alter, “more than any previous cinematic depiction of her life and career (of which there have been quite a few), this film makes us feel like we really know her.”
Shot in Argentina in “crisp black-and-white,” Gaucho Gaucho finds directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (The Truffle Hunters) once again “fascinated by a subculture that operates under its own rules, their cameras capturing the cowboys’ rugged, tranquil lifestyle,” writes Screen’s Tim Grierson. “What results is an affecting tone poem which ruminates on the passage of time and the passing of traditions from one generation to the next.” Stephen Urata’s “layered sound design is filled with the noises of nature, which can be either soothing or vaguely alarming,” and Gaucho Gaucho won a Special Jury Award for Sound.
A Special Jury Award for the Art of Change was presented to Union. “Directors Brett Story and Stephen Maing’s vérité look inside the fight by Amazon workers in Staten Island to unionize isn’t just the tale of one workforce in one industry; it’s a rallying cry and a warning to all,” wrote Jen Yamato on her phone after access to her email was cut off when the LAT let her go while she was still filing from Park City. “If you needed one, Union is a powerful reminder of what’s at stake when companies reduce workers to numbers on a balance sheet, with an uneasy resolution that underscores how far from over the struggle for change really is.”
World Cinema Dramatic
In 2020, Identifying Features, directed by Fernanda Valadez and cowritten with Astrid Rondero, won the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award, and a Special Jury Award for Best Screenplay. Now collaborating as cowriters and codirectors, Valadez and Rondero have won a second Grand Jury Prize for Sujo, the story of a young man whose life is shaped by cartel violence in Mexico. At IndieWire, Carlos Aguilar writes that Valadez and Rondero “extend their cinematic empathy even to those society has collectively deemed underserving of any compassion: pariahs from birth who never truly had a chance.”
Preeti Panigrahi won a Special Jury Award for Acting for her performance as a straight-A student infatuated with the new boy in class in Shuchi Talati’s Girls Will Be Girls, the winner of the Audience Award. “In this engrossing feature debut about angst and desire,” writes Siddhant Adlakha for Variety, “the draconian Indian boarding school setting robs its teen protagonist of the language to express (or fully understand) her burgeoning sexuality. Talati, however, fills in those wordless blanks with images both graceful and precise, yielding breathtaking tension when the boundaries between her mother and her boyfriend begin to blur.”
Raha Amirfazli and Alireza Ghasemi won the Directing Award for their debut feature, In the Land of Brothers, which Jacob Oller describes as an “expansive, three-act observation of Afghan refugees struggling to make their lives under the oppressive discrimination in Iran.” Three “tragic yet steely vignettes” connect “across themes and families, building to a cathartic climax,” and “the resoundingly tragic and consuming humanism is woven with enough subtlety to avoid melodrama.”
In Handling the Undead, Thea Hvistendahl’s debut feature based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In), lost loved ones tremble back to life one muggy summer day in Oslo. The cast features Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie, though they never appear together, and overall, the film “treats its performances as merely another contributing element to its tensely poised climate of kitchen-sink surrealism,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. “Equally active in its maintenance are the watchful, stalking presence of [Pål Ulvik] Rokseth’s camera, the dusty carpeting and lived-in decay of Linda Janson’s production design and, most gnawingly of all, the shrilly anguished strings and discordant piano of Peter Raeburn’s excellent score.” Raeburn won a Special Jury Award for Original Music.
World Cinema Documentary
This Grand Jury Prize went to A New Kind of Wilderness, Silje Evensmo Jacobsen’s portrait of a family—photographer Maria Vatne, her British husband, and their four children—living off the grid in a Norwegian forest. “The film begins with the idyllic feeling amped up, indulging all the hippie clichés of the family’s chosen lifestyle (one minute in, one of the kids is encouraged to literally hug a tree),” writes Max Borg at the Film Verdict. “Then the euphoria gradually subsides until very soon Maria is out of the picture.” Vatne died of cancer in 2019, and A New Kind of Wilderness becomes “a very honest look at a broken family putting itself back together.”
Death also haunts Ibelin, but the winner of the Audience Award and the Directing Award for Benjamin Ree is a very different sort of portrait of a very different Norwegian family. Mats Steen was just twenty-five when he died following a bout with a rare degenerative disease. He seems to have spent his final years playing video games in his wheelchair, but when his parents used his password to log on and pass along the news of his death, “they discovered something amazing,” writes Alissa Wilkinson in the New York Times. “He had a rich community and life in his World of Warcraft guild, where he played as a character named Ibelin.” Ree’s follow-up to The Painter and the Thief (2020) is “a poignant counterexample to the technodoomerism that often accompanies relationships formed in virtual spaces.” Wilkinson has notes on nine Sundance documentaries, and this is the one “that feels most destined to live in my memory.”
Last Tuesday, Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov sent in a dispatch with notes on Johan Grimonprez’s Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat, the winner of a Special Jury Award for Cinematic Innovation, and Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan’s Nocturnes, which won a Special Jury Award for Craft. Grimonprez’s film investigates the CIA’s use of American jazz musicians to cover up its role in the 1960 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Soundtrack “compresses a great deal into its 150 minutes, which fairly fly by,” writes Rizov. “While the film’s primary agenda is bluntly didactic, and hence not entirely my thing, its politics are scrupulously detailed, righteous, and surely on-schedule: American involvement in foreign affairs despite worldwide protest is obviously even more relevant this week than most.”
Nocturnes follows ecologist Mansi Mungee and her Bugun assistant Bicki into the forests of the eastern Himalayas, where they take measure of the population and overall well-being of hawk moths. Rizov notes that “the press kit leans repeatedly on the word ‘immersive,’ probably in an attempt to preemptively ward off any complaints that it’s low on story.” Toward the end, Mansi “lectures a room about her findings and their predictably potentially catastrophic implications for climate change. As a global warming apocalypticist, I support the animating impulse at work for both filmmakers and scientists, but . . . I can’t say this concluding call-to-action made Nocturnes any more retroactively artful or effective.”
Zal Batmanglij, the lone juror for the NEXT competition, gave the Innovator Award to Little Death, a film Charlie Kaufman had nothing to do with, though his name comes up in a handful of reviews. In his debut feature, music video director Jack Begert (Olivia Rodrigo’s “get him back!”) tells two stories. The first one centers on a frustrated screenwriter played for a while by David Schwimmer and then by Gaby Hoffman, and in the second, two Angelenos (Talia Ryder and musician Dominic Fike) botch a heist. “Created to stylistically contrast with each other in every possible way (digital vs. celluloid; sardonic vs. sensitive; white and middle-aged vs. diverse and on the cusp of adulthood),” writes Anthony Kaufman in Screen, “Begert has created a peculiar two-headed beast that is destined to fall short with audiences by its very own design.”
Desire Lines won a Special Jury Award, and Jacob Oller finds that Jules Rosskam’s “hybrid film hides a trove of charming interviews with trans men, about their experiences making contact in a queer world still stacked against them, inside a grating drama.” At In Review Online, Alex Fields points out that “the intention, clearly, is to connect the experiences of trans people across generations, and to highlight how the ways we talk about their experiences have perhaps changed more than the actual experiences. This point, at least, is quite well taken, even if the film stumbles in its formal choices.”
Rich Peppiatt’s Kneecap, the winner of the NEXT Audience Award, “follows cheeky youths from North Ireland whose passion for rapping nearly matches their unabashed hatred of the Brits and their powerful lackeys for oppressing the Irish people and suppressing the use of Irish Gaelic,” writes Derek Smith at Slant. “Despite the verisimilitude the film garners from its risky and ultimately brilliant decision to have Naoise, Liam, and their initially square beatmaster, DJ Provaí, play themselves, Peppiatt’s highly fictionalized origin story of the raucous, transgressive trio thumbs its nose at the conventions of the music biopic. And through its highly kinetic style and relentlessly brash sense of humor, Kneecap brims with a vitality and cheekiness that’s very much in lockstep with the bellicose group’s work and ethos.”
Slamdance and More
Alex Lora Cercos won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize for The Masterpiece, in which a wealthy couple invites a pair of scrap dealers to their mansion. “From its writing, to its direction and performances, this film felt as if it was crafted by a team that’s been making stories together for a lifetime,” note jurors Christina Oh, Danny Pudi, and Charlotte Regan in their citation.
Slamdance, launched in Park City in 1995 as a sort of counter-program to the main event, has over the years launched early work by such filmmakers as Christopher Nolan, Bong Joon Ho, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Rian Johnson, and Lynn Shelton. The festival hands out awards, too, and this year’s Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize went to Giuseppe Garau’s sixty-five-minute The Accident. Giulia Mazzarino plays a single mother who loses her job and custody of her daughter when she smashes her car after being late to pick her up from school. “By using a clever formal gimmick that limits events to a single perspective,” writes C. J. Prince at the Film Stage, “The Accident makes for a kinetic, creative, surprisingly funny experience as we watch Marcella not so much climb her way back to the top as drag herself through the mud, one humiliation to another, just to come out the other side.”
As for Sundance, this year’s noncompetitive programs, such as Premieres and Midnight, featured several films we’ll be hearing plenty about in the weeks and months ahead. Netflix spent seventeen million dollars on Greg Jardin’s It’s What’s Inside, which David Rooney calls a “frantically paced, visually flashy psychological thriller with elements of sci-fi and horror.” Love Lies Bleeding, Rose Glass’s follow-up to Saint Maud (2019) starring Kristen Stewart, Katy O’Brian, and Ed Harris, riveted audiences with what Nicolas Rapold, writing for Sight and Sound, calls “its pastiche of amour fou, roid-rage vengeance, and small-town-gangster melodrama.”
For the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis, the standout among the Premieres was Josh Greenbaum’s Will & Harper, in which Will Ferrell and his longtime friend and SNL colleague Harper Steele, “a trans woman, set off on a momentous cross-country journey of discovery.” All in all, 2024 looks to be off to a promising start.
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