The 2024 Sundance Film Festival concludes this weekend with in-person screenings in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah, and with online screenings available across the U.S., ending Sunday, January 28.
Highlights of the festival, from among the 81 documentaries and narrative films that are making their bows, are presented below. [, some of which are also available to stream online though Sunday.]
“A Real Pain” (World Premiere)
Jesse Eisenberg wrote and directed this disarming and poignant comedy of cousins reconnecting on a tour to Poland, to visit the home that their recently-departed grandmother had left behind decades before. Despite their brotherly bond, David (Eisenberg) and Benji (a charming Kieran Culkin) use their reunion to dissect their personal traumas – and the greater societal traumas that the tour group explores during its visit to the sites of Jewish ghettoes and concentration camps.
Smartly shot and edited, it’s a funny and touching discourse on the notion of guilt – as family members, as Jewish survivors of the Holocaust – and how it plays into finding one’s place in the 21st century. With Jennifer Grey, Will Sharpe and Kurt Egyiawan. Winner, Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Screens January 28. Streams online through Jan. 28. To be released by Searchlight Pictures later in 2024.
“Kneecap” (World Premiere)
Winner of the Audience Award in the festival’s NEXT sidebar, “Kneecap” is the buoyant, quirky, quasi-fictional origin story of Kneecap, a hip-hop trio from Belfast that proudly performs in the Irish language – a stick in the eye to the British in Northern Ireland. Featuring the group’s members playing versions of themselves, the film is a rambunctious tale of anti-establishment musical rebellion, in which a pair of drug dealers, after a chance encounter with a music teacher in a police station, become the unlikeliest advocates for rescuing the mother tongue, by using it to sing about sex and drugs.
In addition to Kneecap members Naoise Ó Cairealláin, JJ Ó Dochartaigh and Liam Óg Ó Hannaidh, the film costars Michael Fassbender as an absent father – hiding from the police as part of an “operation” serving the Republican cause – whose void is filled by a son armed not with bullets but with rap lyrics (which the police may think are even more dangerous). Filmmaker Rich Peppiatt captures some of the same spirit of Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” and even if this legend of Kneecap doesn’t match the reality, it’s still pretty damn entertaining. Screens January 28. Streams online through Jan. 28. To be released by Sony Pictures Classics.
“And So It Begins” (World Premiere)
“And So It Begins” captures the 2022 presidential campaign in the Philippines to succeed the autocratic Rodrigo Duterte, pitting a progressive woman running against the son of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who had been deposed decades earlier by the People Power Revolution. We follow vice president Leni Robredo, the progressive candidate and Duterte critic, who is subjected to sexism and smears about her personal life; and we see the disinformation being promulgated online, to convince voters that the Marcos dictatorship was actually a good thing. We also follow Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner who was prosecuted by the Duterte government, of which she had been highly critical.
While it’s easy to be jaded about political campaigns, there is something both familiar and distressing when watching Filipinos sing Beatles song with lyrics rewritten to accommodate a candidate. But when we see journalists train for how to respond to government forces raiding their offices and threatening arrest, it’s a reminder that democracy is extremely fragile and, in some societies, on life support. Screens January 28. Streams online through Jan. 28.
“Love Me” (World Premiere)
The most whimsical storyline at the festival, this science fiction romance stars Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun in a post-apocalyptic tale of two artificial intelligences – a buoy and a satellite – who “meet cute” as they pursue their programmed functions long after humanity has disappeared. Using the online traces left behind by a pair of social media influencers, “Me” and “Iam” try to recreate themselves as humans engaged in typical human activities, while seeking an answer to the question: What is life?
Though mostly animated, the film depicts the buoy and satellite as beings yearning – over the course of their existence spanning a billion years – to experience the pleasure and pain of consciousness, whether it’s touching water or tasting ice cream, or understanding what it means to hear someone say, “I love you.”
Writer-directors Sam and Andy Zuchero take a surreal premise and create a wry chamber piece involving lovers navigating boundaries, distance, attention, and their sense of purpose. Even with its nods to “Wall-E,” “Love Me” is an original expression of finding one’s identity in the gaze of a lover’s eyes (or, as the case may be here, a lens). Winner, Alfred P. Sloan Science-In-Film Initiative Feature Film Award. Screens in-person Jan. 28. Streams online through Jan. 28.
“In the Land of Brothers” (World Premiere)
With their first feature, Iranian filmmakers Raha Amirfazli and Alireza Ghasemi tell three interconnected stories of an extended Afghan family living as refugees in Iran, where they are viewed with suspicion and face deportation, separation, or violence at the hands of police. In the first tale, a student without papers, routinely detained by police to be used as forced labor, catches the eyes of an officer whose attention suggests an erotic attraction. In the second, a woman hired by a wealthy Iranian family as a live-in maid tries to hide the death of her husband, fearing she would be deported if the authorities become involved. In the third, a father learns of the death of his son, and tries to compassionately hide it from the young man’s mother.
While the moral choices made by the characters – colored by their fears of living a life in the shadows – are made to protect their loved ones, the cost of those choices is immense and life-changing. Amirfazli and Ghasemi, who won the festival’s directing award in the World Cinema Dramatic category, gift us with an emotional glimpse into the lives of refugees, steeped in irony and grief. The performances are stellar all around, with a script that consistently avoids predictability. Streams online through Jan. 28.
“Handling the Undead” (World Premiere)
Renata Reinsve, whose breakout role was playing “The Worst Person in the World” in the 2021 hit from Norway, stars in this unsettling film about the resurrection of the dead – one of the more quietly unnerving entries in the zombie genre.
She plays Anna, still mourning the loss of her young son, who is suddenly, mysteriously reanimated and returned to her. And the child isn’t alone. While the cause of the strange revivals of the dead is suggested by electrical phenomena, the emergence of a walking corpse, or a fatal accident victim suddenly alive again, are seen as a new beginning for loved ones who had accepted the permanence of death, rewriting their relationships with the undead.
Director Thea Hvistendahl, who cowrote the script with John Ajvide Lindqvist (based on his novel), avoids the more common movie tropes about zombies, and apart from one shock, imbues his film with a weighty sadness. Digging out a coffin to free the tapping person within may seem a heroic act, but it’s one that condemns that soul, and their loved ones, to a perpetual grief; and in the case of one elderly character, their return – and the caring attention paid her by her partner – suggests an allegory for the cruel burden of Alzheimer’s.
Winner, World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Original Music. Streams online through Jan. 28. To be released by Neon.
To watch a trailer for “Handling the Undead” click on the video player below:
“Lolla: The Story of Lollapalooza” (World Premiere)
For Gen X, Woodstock may have been a festival for Boomers, but it was also an inspiration for punk rockers in the late ’80s fighting barriers from major labels and mainstream radio. In this three-part documentary series, director Michael John Warren and Lollapalooza co-founder Perry Farrell explore how the collapse of Farrell’s alternative rock band Jane’s Addiction led to the synthesis of a farewell tour that invited several other bands from the microcosm of punk, industrial, metal and rap (including Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Butthole Surfers, Henry Rollins Band, and Ice-T) to tour 20 cities – with activists for progressive causes tagging along.
With terrific archive footage interlaced with new interviews, “Lolla” captures the anti-corporate ethos of its founders (the aim being to present “live music from a dark place”), the mini-disasters of their fledgling multi-city touring operation (the heat in Phoenix melted NIN’s electronics), the introduction of young artists to new audiences, and the joyful exuberance of the crowds, who found in Lollapalooza a Woodstock all their own.
Parts one and two of this three-part series are available to stream online through Jan. 28. To be released later this year by Paramount+.
“War Game” (World Premiere)
The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 – in which supporters of the losing presidential candidate sought to block the certification of Joe Biden’s win – failed to prevent the counting of Electoral College votes. But might insurrectionists succeed next time? In “War Game,” a bipartisan group of lawmakers, defense officials and policymakers participate in a role-playing exercise in which elements of the U.S. military join with a losing presidential candidate to usurp Congress’ certification of the election in January 2025. Seated in a mock White House situation room, they contend with mutinous National Guard troops, white nationalists, fiery propaganda videos on social media, and the fine strictures of the law. They have six hours to avoid a civil war.
A stress test on American institutions and on democracy itself, “War Game” plays out its chilling scenario like a thriller, in which the mock president, cabinet and Defense Department must decide how to protect and defend the Constitution without subverting it. Not available to stream online. Theatrical release not yet announced.