By LOS ANGELES TIMES STAFF
PARK CITY, Utah — Each year the Sundance Film Festival plays host to the latest works from independent cinema’s boldest and brightest voices. This year a new class of fresh talent and returning storytellers made their marks in the snowy mountain climes of Park City, Utah, where record distribution deals were inked for “Palm Springs” and “Boys State,” new voices such as Radha Blank of “The 40-Year-Old Version” and Emerald Fennell with “Promising Young Woman” made dazzling debuts and the wonderful “Minari” scored a rare double victory in the awards.
Beyond the exciting slate of narrative offerings, Sundance remains one of the premieres spots to discover new documentaries. And special mention must be made of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s powerful “On the Record,” an involving and infuriating look at several women who accused music mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault, and the challenges and fallout they faced in coming forward. It deserves to be seen, no matter who will or won’t release it.
The Times staff parsed this year’s wide-ranging offerings to bring you 15 of our favorite film selections from new and emerging storytellers across narrative and nonfiction categories. Put these best-of-the-fest selections on your radar.
Put a thousand 17-year-old dudes together for a week and what do you get? A fascinating documentary, for one. As you might expect, the Texas high schoolers who gather together at a politics camp to create their own government in “Boys State” are teeming with testosterone. Yes, there’s chanting, penis jokes and aggressive competition. But as directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine track four boys seeking titles within the faux government, humanity emerges: The young men shed tears, share hugs and overcome their differences to unite in a shared goal. It is both a terrifying study of how far politicians will go to win and a moving portrait of what America can be at its best. — Amy Kaufman
‘The 40-Year-Old Version’
Writer, director and star Radha Blank is a one-woman force in her feature debut “The 40-Year-Old Version.” She plays Radha, a playwright struggling with an existential dilemma: Reignite her onetime rap aspirations or sell out for the chance to launch her stagnant career? Comic and cringe-inducing, charming and clear-eyed, this irresistible New York tale and its eclectic cast of characters announce Blank as one of cinema’s freshest new voices. — Jen Yamato
This documentary centered on the August Wilson Monologue Competition for high schoolers will raise your spirits and bring a tear to your eye. Observing teenagers as they begin to experience the power of art to change lives is close to thrilling. — Kenneth Turan
‘Into the Deep’
In one of the most disturbing possible examples of a documentary’s subject suddenly morphing into something entirely different, Emma Sullivan was already filming the Danish inventor Peter Madsen in 2017 when he brutally murdered the Swedish journalist Kim Wall aboard his private submarine. The confusion, shock and horror that followed is captured with great resourcefulness and insidious creepiness in Sullivan’s film, which will be available for streaming later this year on Netflix. — Justin Chang
Miranda July’s quirky confections are admittedly not to everyone’s taste. But she may well find her largest audience yet with this deeply idiosyncratic yet undeniably sweet coming of age story. Of course, sheltered twentysomething Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood in a performance of astonishing physicality and emotional nuance) should’ve come of age years ago, if she weren’t so controlled by her grifter parents (the terrific team of Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger). To say her world turns upside down after she meets an open-hearted stranger (Gina Rodriguez, pitch perfect) is an understatement. July conjures immense beauty out of oddball affectations, and the result is nothing short of magical. — Geoff Berkshire
‘The Killing of Two Lovers’
Mysteriously relegated to Sundance’s Next sidebar when it would have been one of the stronger titles in the U.S. dramatic competition, Robert Machoian’s perfectly chiseled debut feature stars an outstanding Clayne Crawford as a husband and father trying to hold onto his rapidly disintegrating marriage. The tightly framed long takes are immaculate, but it’s the story’s deeply human unpredictability — the tenderness, warmth and humor that well up at even the darkest moments — that make it far more than a grimly deterministic exercise. — Justin Chang
Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” unfolds like a John Steinbeck novel, as the Korean American family at its center struggles to plant new roots on a rural Arkansas farm. Drawn from Chung’s own childhood, the 1980s-set drama weaves a sensitive spell as it chronicles the ups and downs that immigrant parents Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Yeri) endure as they risk everything to give their children a new life. Korean actress Youn Yuh Jung lends a captivating spark as the grandmother who moves in, and actress Noel Cho brings impressive maturity as Jacob and Monica’s observant young daughter, Anne. But it’s discovery Alan Kim, as charismatic 7-year-old David, who will make you laugh and run away with your heart long after the credits roll. — Jen Yamato
No one needs to be told how strong an actress Nicole Beharie (“Shame,” “42”) is, so it’s especially gratifying to see her in a commanding leading role as a former beauty queen who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. Like this year’s “Minari,” “Juneteenth” is the kind of film (written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples) Sundance was created to showcase. — Kenneth Turan
‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’
Eliza Hittman’s spare and shattering third feature (after “It Felt Like Love” and “Beach Rats”) is the rare movie, so to speak, to earn competition slots at both the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. To watch it is to understand why: This story of two small-town teenagers (the outstanding Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder) on a mission feels like a distillation of techniques from both American and European art-house realism, which is a fancy way of saying that every moment feels wrenchingly true. — Justin Chang
Sundance rarely offers up movies with this level of straight-up commercial appeal, but Hollywood studios almost never deliver romantic comedies this smart, surprising and unabashedly joyful. The premise — Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti play a pair of malcontents who bond at a Palm Springs wedding — doesn’t do it justice. But to reveal even the first of the film’s multiple rug-pulling, genre-blending twists would spoil the fun. Remember the title, try to ignore everything else, and give “Palm Springs” a watch when Neon and Hulu release it later this year. You’ve probably seen a movie (or a TV series) like it. But not quite in this way. — Geoff Berkshire
Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott star in director Brandon Cronenberg’s stylish and ultraviolent sci-fi thriller, about a biohacking assassin wrestling for control of the mind and body of her next mark. Both actors give revelatory performances as their characters clash in an escalating pas de deux, a dark and hallucinogenic interrogation of agency, morality and self that leaves its unflinching images and ideas seared into your mind. — Jen Yamato
More psychodrama of identity and relationships that straight bio pic, Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” is nevertheless based on both the real life and fictional writings of author Shirley Jackson. The supporting performances by Michael Stuhlbarg as her husband and Logan Lerman and Odessa Young as a young couple drawn into their orbit are all outstanding, but it is Elisabeth Moss as Jackson who gives the movie its beguiling, volatile power. — Mark Olsen
Garrett Bradley’s emotionally overwhelming black-and-white documentary — about a mother of six boys advocating for her incarcerated husband — compresses more than 20 years in the life of a family into a fleet 85 minutes. Time may pass slowly, but it also goes so quickly; you feel a great and powerful absence in this movie, in which every captured moment stands in for all the others that have been lost. — Justin Chang
‘The Truffle Hunters’
If you’ve ever wondered why truffles are so exorbitantly expensive, this documentary will make you think twice about whining about how pricey the gourmet delicacy is. Set in the woods of northern Italy, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s film follows a group of elderly men who, along with their beloved dogs, battle the elements to find the elusive white Alba truffle. Beyond making you appreciate the effort that went into tracking down your pasta topping, you’ll get the warm and fuzzies seeing how much the hunters truly treasure their canine companions. — Amy Kaufman
Just when you might think you’ve seen it all, along comes “Zola,” adapted from A’Ziah “Zola” King’s viral tweet thread by filmmaker Janicza Bravo and playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Everything about the movie is a surprise, from its inventive free-flowing style, the contrasting performances by Taylour Paige and Riley Keough and its unexpected emotional gravity, all in service of an outlandish tale about strippers, escalating crimes and being drawn deeper into a story that is not your own. — Mark Olsen