I Watched 28 Movies from Sundance. Here Are My 5 Favorites.
A look at the best of the fest.
Sundance at 40
This year’s Sundance Film Festival was the first one I’ve been to in over 10 years and a lot has changed since I was last in Park City, Utah. For one thing, the cell phone reception is a lot better these days — it’s now possible to reliably make social posts from most locations at the festival (with the exception of the Eccles Theater). But more importantly, the movie industry and the media industry have both undergone seismic shifts in the past decade.
Theatrical filmgoing, which was already in decline prior to 2020, is now reeling from two separate major disruptions (COVID and the strikes), creating an existential threat to the entire business model. And the media industry seems to be in a state of protracted collapse right now, with layoffs happening at legacy publications left and right.
The last time I was at Sundance, I was part of the blogging crew at slashfilm.com and that was considered pretty scrappy and new at the time. I admired those who worked at publications like Entertainment Weekly and The Los Angeles Times, hoping I’d one day be able to contend for a job at one of these places.
Today, pretty much all those jobs I aspired to are gone. Even the digital media jobs are hard to come by these days. The vast majority of what remains are the indie creators — Tiktokkers, YouTubers, and people like me writing Decoding Everything. To me, Sundance felt pretty forward-looking in letting in a bunch of young upstarts attend the fest as press this year and I think it was the right move for them. After all, it’s the young folks who will carry on the legacy and enthusiasm for movies long after many of us are irrelevant.
One thing I observed is that the festival has gotten a bit more commercial in the intervening years. There are corporate sponsorships galore (with Acura and Adobe helping to “present” many of the award winners). On Main Street, Chase Sapphire had a lounge where cardholders could take shelter and recharge. Another thing I noticed was that many of the films premiering at Sundance already had distribution (e.g. an A24 or HBO logo in front of them), which was a different dynamic than what I previously remembered. All of these things are totally understandable; it’s hard to be a film festival these days and even harder to be an indie filmmaker.
All that said, if you’re just attending Sundance as a film enthusiast, very little of anything I’ve said above is obvious or bothersome! The vast majority of people who attend are there to watch and celebrate great, interesting films, and it’s fair to say that that’s still very much possible. Over on my Letterboxd page, I documented all 28 movies I watched at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Below, I’ve listed my five favorite films. I think these will be among the movies you hear about for the rest of the year. I’ve also made a video version of this list, which you can watch on YouTube.
One last thing: I want to say a big thanks to all my Patrons for helping to make my trip possible. If you appreciate the work I do here at Decoding Everything, consider becoming a Patron and supporting my work. Thanks!
Thelma tells the story of Thelma Post (June Squibb), a 93-year old grandmother who’s taken in by an online scan and vows revenge on those who’ve wronged her. Shot and edited like an action film with nonagenarian protagonist (who apparently did all her own stunts), Thelma is a fun crowd-pleaser that is sure to delight people of all audiences.
I appreciated that Thelma has a lot to say about what it means to age. We rarely get films that prominently feature a character and an actor who’s this old, and Thelma uses the opportunity to fully explore the concept. What does it mean to continue to have dignity as you get older and grow more dependent on the people around you? How can you have a meaningful life when everyone you know is vanishing? Thelma dives into these topics with aplomb and humor, and with an ensemble cast that’s irresistible. It’s a fun one.
Thelma was acquired by Magnolia Pictures.
When I saw Didi at its world premiere, I wrote the following:
[Didi’s] plot is fairly standard coming-of-age fare but there are a couple things that Wang does that really elevate this into something special. First of all, he’s able to capture how challenging it is to be an Asian-American immigrant. Immigrants are frequently torn between multiple worlds with different priorities and it’s really easy to feel like you are hopelessly fucking everything up in permanent and irrevocable ways. Didi puts you in the mindset of a protagonist who’s struggling to figure out how to make friends and be “normal” and it’s not always as easy as it seems, especially as an Asian-American teen.
But the other thing that I really appreciate about Didi is how it’s able to capture the unique texture of the modern Asian-American household. There’s a certain way Asian kids (and particularly Taiwanese or Chinese kids) speak to their parents and vice versa and I’ve rarely seen it depicted accurately before. It frequently involves scorching honesty, a lot of intense screaming, and the occasional bouts of tenderness. Somehow, Didi is able to put that onto film in a way that feels both real and entertaining. I should also note that the cast is tremendous — Joan Chen’s performance in this movie made me cry.
Didi is a great debut and Sean Wang is a talent to watch.
I don’t have too much to add to that, except to say that upon reflection, another thing I liked about Didi is how lovingly it captures the early aughts. The kids in this movie use Windows XP, AIM, and flip phones. There’s a whole etiquette around things like away messages and early Facebook that the movie made me simultaneously nostalgic for and yet thankful that I’d never need to endure again.
During the writing of this article, it was announced that Didi has been acquired by Focus Features. Hooray!
Ghostlight was the very first film I saw at the festival, and it would end up being one of my favorites. It tells a simple story of a construction worker who gets involved in a local stage production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a means of processing an unspoken trauma in his life.
Two things distinguish this movie from the rest of the pack. The first is the cast. Keith Kupferer is big on the theater scene but he’s not an actor that was on my radar before. He’s incredible in this film as a tortured father who’s trying to get in touch with his feelings. Dolly De Leon, who was last seen delighting audiences in Triangle of Sadness, is also wonderful as Kupferer’s scene partner.
But what I love the most about this movie is the way it tackles Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s language is recontextualized again and again as the film goes on, and when some of Romeo and Juliet’s most consequential lines are delivered, it packs an emotional punch that I’ve rarely experienced before.
Ghostlight was acquired by IFC Films.
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2. Skywalkers: A Love Story
Skywalkers: A Love Story begins by warning the audience that what they’re about to see is extremely illegal and dangerous, and should never be attempted. This does a good job of setting the tone for the documentary, which will be a thrilling and dizzying journey through the world of “rooftopping,” in which daredevils climb to the top of extraordinarily high structures and photograph themselves to create art.
Skywalkers focuses on Angela Nikolau and Ivan Beerkus, two rooftoppers who’ve become social media stars and end up falling in love. Together, they attempt to pull off some of the most daring stunts imaginable, all while trying to prevent their relationship from falling apart. Think Free Solo but with way more skyscrapers and romance.
Director Jeff Zimbalist assembled this film over the course of seven years and using 200 hours of captured footage. The resulting film is a propulsive romp through the rooftopping subculture with a final act that has all the trappings of an exquisite heist movie. Some of shots in this movie need to be seen to be believed and will make you rethink what humans are capable of. This movie was a blast.
Skywalkers was acquired by Netflix.
1. It’s What’s Inside
It’s hard to talk about this movie without giving away some of the biggest plot details (which the directors/publicists of this film have explicitly asked audiences not to do). But suffice it to say, It’s What’s Inside begins with an estranged friend showing up to a pre-wedding party with a mysterious suitcase. Hijinks ensure.
Greg Jardin’s debut feature is one of the most inventive and entertaining films I’ve seen in awhile. Aside from its wacky premise, Jardin’s film uses a whole bag of cinematic tricks (e.g. split-screen, creative lighting, etc.) to create a film that feels like it has the visual language of digital natives. If I had to describe the film, I’d say it’s maybe a cross between Talk To Me and Ready or Not, in the style of Everything Everywhere All At Once? Those who love Bodies Bodies Bodies will probably also enjoy the chaotic madness that unfolds.
It’s rare to feel like you’re watching a cinematic talent being born on the world stage but that’s what it felt like to watch It’s What’s Inside at the world premiere. My guess is It’s What’s Inside will follow in the footsteps of movies like Memento, Whiplash, and Brick — films that premiered big at Sundance and demonstrated that their directors would be creative forces to be reckoned with.
It’s What’s Inside was acquired by Netflix.
Other Movies I’d Also Recommend
It’s gonna be worth keeping an eye on these:
Every Little Thing
A Real Pain