Sundance 2024 preview - Titles to look out for at this year's festival

By Amber Wilkinson

The aftershocks from Covid were long for film festivals, many of which, including Sundance, which embraced a hybrid model in the wake of the pandemic. But after three years of blended programming, things are tightening up as the indie festival renews its focus on in-person events in Park City, Utah.

There will still be an online element of the festival but this year it won’t kick in until the festival’s midway point, on January 25, although it does include all the competition and Next films once it starts.

The festival also marks the first full edition for incoming director Eugene Hernandez. The Indiewire co-founder, who was previously a director at New York Film Festival, was on the ground in Utah last year to introduce some films - even popping up at one I attended in Salt Lake City, which hasn’t always been the case for previous directors and shows he’s serious about being hand’s on - but this year he is fully in the hot seat, so it will be interested to see him fully make his stamp on proceedings.

Although Sundance remains a festival where new voices and talent can be discovered, as always there’a a fair smattering of established names on display. Among them is Kristen Stewart, who has two films on the roster, including a two-hander with Sundance hit Minari’s Steven Yuen, Love Me, which surely has the most intriguing one-liner of the festival - “Long after humanity’s extinction, a buoy and a satellite meet online and fall in love.”

She also features in Love Lies Bleeding, the second feature from British Saint Maud director Rose Glass, about a gym manager (Stewart) who falls for an ambitious bodybuilder (Katy O'Brien) but whose criminal clan mean the course of love does not run smooth. The film will be taking its European bow at Berlin next month and the trailer makes it look as though it has style and tension to burn - plus Ed Harris with an outrageous amount of hair.

Other star vehicles include The Outrun, a Skye-set drama that stars Saorise Ronan as a woman trying to escape her troubled past. Captain Marvel directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden are also likely to attract plenty of attention with Eighties period piece Freaky Tales. The ensemble cast includes Ben Mendelsohn and Pedro Pascal.

There’s plenty to look out for from outside the US as well, especially in terms of family drama. Reinas dives into the life of a mother, her two daughters and their estranged father as the women plan to leave Peru during the political turbulent Nineties, and strikes a bittersweet note between reconnection and separation. The film is rooted in some of Swiss-Peruvian director Klaudia Reynicke’s own experience, especially, she told us, the “feelings and the complexity of the intensity of the moment”. We’ll be bringing you the full interview next week.

Family tensions and the director’s experience are also to the fore in the Brazil-set Malu, which sees three generations of women dealing with traumas that have complicated their relationship. It rests on a trio of blazing performances from Yara de Novaes, Juliana Carneiro da Cunha and Carol Duarte. Read our interview with Freire.

An even more extended family is the focus of In The Land Of Brothers, which sees Raha Amirfazli, Alireza Ghasemi offer a three-part study of migration from Afghanistan to Iran across 30 years. Each story is poignant in its own right and builds to a powerful consideration of the situation for migrants hoping for settled status.

Alireza Ghasemi told us: “The first thing that motivated us to tell the story is the current situation in Iran because it's a long story of refugees coming to Iran. And there are a lot of sad, or sometimes sweet stories about their situation.” Read the full interview.

Coming-of-agers are always an evergreen subject at Sundance and among the best this year is Shuchi Talati’s nuanced drama Girls Will Be Girls which explores the life of perfect student Mira as she navigates first love (Preeti Panigrahi) while being thwarted by her mother (Kani Kusruti). A sweet film that is generous to its characters while still recognising their faults.

Elsewhere, Handling The Undead re-pairs The Worst Person In The World’s Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie in a tale adapted from (and co-scripted by) a book by Let the Right One In’s John Ajvide Lindqvist exploring what happens when the deceased return to their grieving families.

Sundance wouldn’t be Sundance, of course, without the usual slate of strong documentaries. From the US, there’s Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s follow up to their successful Boys State, this time focusing on a mock government camp for girls, which promises to be just as fascinating. From the field of international poltics comes Ramona S Diaz's And So It Begins, her follow up to A Thousand Cuts, which offers an immersive look at electoral campaigning in the Phillippines and considers the shadows cast by Rodrigo Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos. The world of information technology and computer advancement is always rich pickings for documentarians and Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck’s absorbing and disturbing Eternal You considers the burgeoning business in creating a sort of AI afterlife for your loved ones - chatbots, for example, that imagine life from beyond the grave. Read our interview with the directors.

Other docs with strong emotional heft, include Black Box Diaries, which sees the courageous Shiori Ito document her own experience of fighting for justice after a sex attack. Also offering a fiercely personal perspective is Asmae El Moudir’s Mother Of All Lies, which is on the shortlist for the Best International Feature Oscar. She and her father recreate their Moroccan home and district in miniature, using the family’s experience of secrets as a stepping stone to consider hidden truths about what happened in the Casablanca Bread Riots.

Those looking for something more quirky, should look out for Scott Cummings' Realm Of Satan, in the Next competition, which offers a series of quotidian, often absurdist, snapshots of members of the Church of Satan as they go about their lives. Perhaps the documentary I’m most looking forward to is Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s consideration of Argentina’s cowgirls and cowboys Gaucho Gaucho - hopefully it will be every bit as immersive and heartfelt as their previous gem The Truffle Hunters.

We'll be bringing you daily coverage of the festival, including reviews and interviews.

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