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Our favorite films from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

What to look out for in the year ahead

Sundance this year was filled with virtual reality, protest marches, and days and days (and days) of snow. But when you go to a film festival you also watch a lot of films, and this year we saw an eclectic collection of titles across all types and genres. Dramas set in the Deep South, stories of a Brooklyn invasion, and one of the strangest supernatural movies ever made… there was a lot to take in. Here are our favorite movies from this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Andrew Droz Palermo / Sundance Institute

A Ghost Story

When I walked into David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, I had no idea what to expect. I knew it had been shot in secret; I knew it featured Rooney Mara; and I knew Casey Affleck played a character who dies and shows up as a ghost dressed in a white sheet. When the film started, I discovered it was beautifully shot and fascinating. Then I found it to be utterly self-obsessed with a wordless pie-eating scene that stretched on for at least 10 minutes. Then I found it to be a pretty ingenious origin story about a poltergeist haunting. And then, after the movie had gotten weirder, stranger, and more evocative than I could have ever anticipated, I realized it was a beautiful ode to loneliness, loss, and the fierce courage it takes for us flawed human beings to accept fate and move on when tragedy strikes.

Walking out of the theater afterward, I wouldn’t have said I liked it. But in the days since, I’ve talked about it with colleagues, continuously returned to its patient beauty in my thoughts, and even woke from a dream that I’m pretty sure was inspired by the film. A Ghost Story has stuck with me in the most rare and uncommon of ways, and the most impressive thing about the film is that each time I think back to it, I discover some new element to love. —Bryan Bishop

Christian Sprenger / Sundance Institute

Brigsby Bear

I’ve written about this one already, so I won’t go into much detail here, except to say that this winning comedy, starring Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney, completely surprised me. I’d read a description and I thought I knew what it was about — doofus loves kids’ TV show and is obsessed with re-creating it — until the film actually started. And then I wondered if I had the wrong movie, but I didn’t care, because I was enjoying the discovery process so much. This is one of those directorial debuts that makes people think “I have to keep an eye on this team long-term and find out where they go from here.” Director Dave McCary and co-writer Kevin Costello (who scripted with Mooney) have been friends since childhood, and this feels like the kind of project the creators have been working on a long time — long enough to tweak every aspect of the story until it hums. —Tasha Robinson

Bushwick Sundance Film Festival

Bushwick

I literally saw one movie — as in one flat-screen, feature-length, non-VR film — at Sundance. It was called Bushwick, and it was like the final iteration of the recent “Should you punch Nazis?” debate, except instead it was “Should you get into a guerrilla war with neo-Confederates who have invaded Brooklyn, if you are a grad student played by Brittany Snow and an ex-Marine played by Dave Bautista?” (The answer: “Maybe?”) Long story short: my search results are now full of “brooklyn militia” and “rifle permit laws nyc” and I think maybe I took the wrong message from this movie.

Fortunately, I also saw nearly every single virtual reality experience at Sundance, and wrote up a guide to the best of the festival earlier this week. It includes Dear Angelica, a film about death and fiction composed as a dreamy three-dimensional painting; Life of Us, a playful two-person journey through the evolution of life on Earth; and Mindshow, a theater where you act out the role of every character, then loop them all together to tell a story. VR still hasn’t come into its own quite yet, but there was a lot to love about 2017’s slate, and hopefully it will be more accessible to everyone by the end of the year. —Adi Robertson

Sundance Institute

Call Me By Your Name

I hadn’t read Call Me By Your Name before I saw the film adaptation by director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, I Am Love). I was surprised to hear the book, written by André Aciman, was published in 2007. The story of a 17-year-old American-Italian boy falling for the 24-year-old man visiting his parents’ Italian summer home has the richness, sincerity, and maturity of a classic. I suppose the 1980s setting — the slang, the band tees, the ample chest hair — should have given it away.

This is a pure romance film, which is to say, unlike much of mainstream dramas about gay relationships, Call Me By Your Name doesn’t rapidly morph into a tragic drama in which the pair battles a bigoted external force, or conceal their affair from a homophobic public. It’s a direct and profoundly affecting tale of summer love, performed by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer with a chemistry that’s breathtaking. The movie is sexy, emotionally mature, and features new songs from Sufjan Stevens. Decades from now, I believe film critics will describe this film for what it is: a classic. —Chris Plante

Elisha Christian / Sundance Institute

Columbus

Back in 2014 we praised Kogonada’s video essays that analyze the visual structure and style of iconic films. Columbus marks the director’s transition from critic to feature filmmaker. Its title refers to Columbus, Indiana, a Midwest city that’s home to an abundance of modern architecture, a handful of factories, and a defeated young woman named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson). Putting off college to take care of her in-recovery mother, Casey spends her days shelving books at a library and practicing her local tour guide routine.

This is a coming-of-age film, so when Casey meets Jin, a 24-year-old translator visiting his architect father — who is hospitalized and on the cusp of death — the audience has a general idea of where all of this is going. But how the characters bond, learn from one another, and set a path into the future is sincere and modest, refreshingly so. There isn’t a treacly soundtrack of indie pop or a revelatory plot twist, just two wounded people gradually revealing themselves while strolling through beautiful photography of buildings that cut clean, sharp lines against the blue summer sky. The film makes a case for the healing properties of architecture, but could just as well be referring to film. Columbus is a feel-good movie, in that it takes our common anxieties and, scene by scene, soothes them. —Chris Plante

Jojo Whilden / Sundance Institute

Landline

Landline is Gillian Robespierre’s follow-up to the fantastic 2014 dramedy Obvious Child. Like its predecessor, it stars Jenny Slate, this time as Dana, a 20-something having a quarter-life crisis in mid-‘90s New York City. Robespierre has an eye for the forgettable-but-significant moments that construct a life, so the film’s drama about infidelity plays out in tiny, familiar moments, like a vague memory of something from your own childhood.

The title refers to the phones of the era, which at the time were hung onto kitchen walls. This tipping point for technology in our everyday life is a character unto itself. Slate’s suspicions regarding her father stem from a collection of sexy poems found on a floppy disk. Characters aren’t reachable from omnipresent cell-phone connections, and have to check in by feeding change into a phone booth. As happens with most strong period pieces, these details highlight how things change, but people stay the same. —Chris Plante

Steve Dietl / Sundance Institute

Mudbound

Sometimes a movie strikes a festival crowd just right, and the moment the credits roll and the standing ovation starts, you know that you’ve seen something special. That was the experience I had watching Dee Rees’ Mudbound, a challenging and moving story of two families in racially divided Mississippi. Set during World War II, the film stars Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan as Henry and Laura McAllan, who have recently relocated to a farm they’ve purchased with their last bit of savings. Sharecropping on the same land are Hap and Florence Jackson (a fantastic Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), who are struggling to carve out their own bit of independence — while also dealing with constant harassment and racism, often from Henry’s father (Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks).

What sets the film apart is how it explores the wartime experiences of Henry’s brother, a swaggering Garrett Hedlund, and Hap’s son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). Both characters end up serving in World War II, which gives them the opportunity to step outside the pervasive and systemic class and race issues that define America. When they return, they end up forming a bond — not just because they’re both suffering from the trauma of war, but because they now feel trapped in a country and system of beliefs that have become utterly untenable. The fact that Rees is able to end her story on such a hopeful note, despite some of the horrors the characters endure, make it essential viewing. —Bryan Bishop

Andrei Bowden Schwartz / Sundance Institute

The Polka King

The Polka King is one of those based-on-a-true-story films that close with footage and news clips from the real-world events, not for the usual sentimental or manipulative reasons, but because it’s likely that few people would believe the story was true without onscreen evidence. Jack Black stars as Jan Lewan, an upbeat Polish immigrant who assembles a polka band, starts a tchotchke store, marries former small-time beauty queen Marla (Obvious Child’s Jenny Slate), and works odd jobs, trying to amass the money to build himself a small empire. He has big American dreams that his small American income can’t match, so he starts soliciting investments from his fans, promising high returns — and in the process, unwittingly creating a doomed Ponzi scheme.

Many of the more unlikely details are true, but Black’s big, brassy performance, complete with broken English, outrageous accent, and multiple polka numbers, puts this squarely in the realm of comedy. The Polka King has a lot in common with Bernie, Richard Linklater’s true-life story about a beloved Texas mortician (also played by Black) who murders his possessive benefactor and shoves her in the freezer. Both films are dark success stories about cheery local fixtures who betray their friends, but still come across as lovable scamps. But Polka King is broader, more manic, and more ridiculous, and it’s consistently good fun. —Tasha Robinson

Gilles Mingasson / Sundance Institute

78/52

The first time I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, it was on a VHS tape I’d rented from the local public library (oh, the good old days). It was outdated by modern standards even then, but the didn’t stop the movie from leaving an impression. The image of Anthony Perkins looking directly into the camera lens in the movie’s final moments was what stuck with me, but the scene that set up that horror in the first place was the movie’s infamous shower sequence.

This documentary from Alexandre Philippe (The People vs. George Lucas) takes its name from the 78 camera setups and 52 cuts used to create the scene, and brings together directors, editors, critics, and Hitchcock scholars to break it all down. They discuss the cultural climate at the time, what taboos were being broken, and how this one sequence utterly changed the way movies were constructed. This isn’t a perfect film. It sputters out without a definitive ending, and the larger issue of Hitchcock’s representation of women in his films is largely left untouched — something that feels like an oversight given the hyper-sexualized nature of the sequence in question. But 78/52 nevertheless pushed all of my film school buttons, and reminded me why a movie made nearly 60 years ago is still so important. —Bryan Bishop

Gilles Mingasson / Sundance Institute

To The Bone

Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Marti Noxon heavily based her directorial debut on her own teenage experiences with anorexia, and it shows in the details. It isn’t just the knowledgeable, intimate information about “rexy” calorie-dodging tricks like chewing food and spitting it out again. It isn’t just the realism of the pride anorexics feel at maintaining control, or the interpersonal bonds they form around supporting each other through the disease. It’s in the frank, unsentimental, yet sympathetically created characters. It’d be easy for a movie on this subject to feel like an afterschool special, but Noxon makes it feel significant by making it tough and uncompromising, and evoking what anorexia feels like from the inside just as much as what it looks like from the outside.

Lily Collins gives a thoroughly amazing performance as 20-year-old anorexic Ellen, who’s reaching a key point of collapse as she builds a cynical wall around herself, refusing to cooperate with treatment, no matter how her half-sister Kelly (Liana Liberato, also terrific) cajoles her, or her brittle stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston) pushes her. So many standard things happen in this movie — Susan gets Ellen into a program with an unconventional, rules-challenging doctor (Keanu Reeves, the film’s only flat note); Ellen meets a wryly funny recovering-anorexic boy (Alex Sharp) and starts a tentative romance; Ellen has a disastrous family-therapy session where the roots of her anxiety and rage are revealed. But Noxon takes none of these threads in the pat, expected directions. Instead, she makes it clear that Ellen can’t expect a savior to come along and rescue her. She has to do it herself. Netflix nabbed To The Bone at Sundance, so viewers should be able to find out how well she manages that goal soon enough. —Tasha Robinson

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