Over the course of ten days, the 2017 Sundance Film Festival played 225 movies. Between the five members of the Film School Rejects team that attended the festival – from editors to freelancers to interns – we saw… well, we lost count somewhere along the way. Just know that we saw a bunch of movies. So many, in fact, that cutting our list of favorites down to the following 26 films was fairly difficult. That said, when it came to the top few in our ranked list, there was plenty of consensus.
From first time and veteran directors, narratives and documentaries, filmmakers of many genders and backgrounds, we found a lot to love in Sundance’s 2017 film program. These are the best of them.
26. Marjorie Prime
Matt Hoffman: After his mind-bending 2015 film Experimenter, director Michael Almereyda returns with the equally intelligent Marjorie Prime. The film is set almost entirely in the home of eighty-five-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith) as she strives to communicate with a hologram version of her deceased husband Walter. When Marjorie sleeps, her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins) argue the ethics of their recent installation. True to its roots as a play, Marjorie Prime is slow moving and meditative. The film proves that smart sci-fi lies in the screenplay, not the visuals. Yet, confines aside, Almereyda’s mise-en-scene is focused, innovative, and filled with vitality. Marjorie Prime is a film that is going to put certain audience members to sleep, but those with a keen ear for thought-provoking rhetoric will be enthralled.
25. Before I Fall
Neil Miller: In what could have easily been swept aside as “that YA movie that played Sundance,” director Ry Russo-Young delivered a moody, well-crafted thriller with the hook of Groundhog Day, but the spirit of Sofia Coppola. It’s anchored by a dynamic performance from rising star Zoey Deutch and supplemented by a youthful, diverse cast. Imagine Groundhog Day, but instead of Bill Murray, it’s the girls from Mean Girls stuck in a loop that forces one of them to ruminate on the essential goodness that exists within every human. Deep.
24. L.A. Times
Tomris Laffly: Last year’s Sundance was graced by the great Whit Stillman (Love & Friendship). This year’s welcomes and introduces the similar wit of Michelle Morgan. In her directorial debut (which she also wrote and stars in), Morgan dismantles her love-hate relationship with Los Angeles with a contemporary satire, built around a number of its (sometimes unbearable) dwellers navigating the dating scene. Morgan plays Annette, who separates from her long-term boyfriend with the belief that neither of them is happy enough in their relationship. As she embarks on a journey of self-discovery, her critical viewpoint becomes our eyes through the streets of La La Land, where shallowness is both a currency and a deficiency. Morgan’s script is packed with quotable, comedic gold and her visual handle is as assured as Annette’s wisdom-filled, indisputable monologues. It’s not often you see a debut with such an unwavering voice and fully realized aesthetics. But the best part of Morgan’s feature is its ability to grow in the viewers’ mind for days, with further appreciation of its many exquisite details.
23. Golden Exits
Matt Hoffman: With Golden Exits, director Alex Ross Perry continues his series of New Yorkers in emotional distress. Emily Browning stars as Naomi, an Australian who temporarily moves to Brooklyn to work as archivist Nick’s (Adam Horovitz of Beastie Boys) assistant. Through the Summer heat, Naomi becomes an object of desire for the men and women who surround her. Perry brilliantly keeps the tensions heavy, but quiet. These characters long to touch, move, or hurt one another, yet they mostly keep their actions subdued. This tribute to the works of director Eric Rohmer is deliciously punchy, and sure to please his avidly growing legion of ARP devotees.
Siân Melton: If you tried to imagine the world’s busiest maternity hospital, what you visualized wouldn’t even come close to what director Ramona S. Diaz captures at the Jose Fabella Hospital in Manila, Philippines. Motherland is cinema vérité at its finest. With as many as 100 births a day, we see women everywhere: rows and rows waiting to be admitted, women sharing beds in the early stages of labor, and even more rows of shared beds of women with their newborns. The camera focuses on a handful of women as they navigate premature births, lack of money and food, and resistance to birth control. But Motherland isn’t horrifying or sad – it’s engaging, intimate, and full of life. It’s a punch in the face to adversity: doctors and nurses who are patient and knowledgable despite not having the fanciest medical equipment and women who are doing the best they can given their circumstances.
21. Wind River
Matt Hoffman: Third time’s the charm for writer/director Taylor Sheridan. In the past three years, Sheridan wrote the acclaimed screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water (which he is currently Academy Award nominated for). Following the massive success of his screenplays, Sheridan makes his directorial debut with Wind River. This film essentially reuses the plot structure of Sheridan’s two previous screenplays, but damn it is effective here. I’ll argue that Wind River is by far the best thing Sheridan’s name has ever been attached to. The film follows a game tracker (Jeremy Renner) who teams with an inexperienced FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to solve a murder on a snowy Wyoming Native American reservation. Olsen gives off serious Clarice Starling vibes as the quick-witted Jane Banner, while Renner’s Cory Lambert silently leads the way. Of all the films at this year’s festival, Wind River is certainly the most thrilling and provides an unforgettable experience.
20. Sidney Hall
Rob Hunter: It’s an odd feeling liking a film that every other person despises, but that appears to be my lot with Sidney Hall. Shawn Christensen’s debut is every bit a “first film” complete with a clumsy script, a dollop of pretension, and no lack of manipulation, but Logan Lerman grounds every frame with his portrayal of a writer haunted beyond hope by his past choices. The film shifts between three different time periods with Lerman at the center of each, and what unfolds isn’t a story of success but one of intense regret.
Matt Hoffman: I was expecting to enjoy Lemon when it was first announced to play this year’s festival due to my undying love for all things Brett Gelman. Gelman of course delivers, but it is Janicza Bravo making her feature directorial debut that floored me. Bravo’s vision is disturbingly bleak, yet her sense of humor is delicious. The confidently assembled film showcases an incredible ensemble featuring standout performances from Gelman, Fred Melamed, Michael Cera, Judy Greer, and many more. It also features an extended sequence of protagonist Isaac’s family singing an incredible holiday song about matzo balls. Lemon is a film that will sneak up on you with its perverse humor, yet will have you both equally charmed and repulsed by the time the credits roll. Expect this one to build one hell of a cult following.
Tomris Laffly: From Call Me by Your Name, to Walking Out and The Big Sick, this year’s Sundance was marked by several touching parental stories. Perhaps the most honest of them all is Joshua Z. Weinstein’s Menashe, which screened as part of the festival’s NEXT section, reserved for bold works of up-and-coming filmmakers. Following Menashe, a widower from the Hasidic Jewish community of New York with an idiosyncratic personality, Weinstein’s film lovingly portrays his subject as he tries to prove his worth to his community while raising his son Rieven with noble values. As Weinstein patiently traces the day-to-day of Menashe, his film reveals its greater ambitions with dignity. This is not only a charming character study of a man going against tradition, but is also an empathetic depiction of a subculture that doesn’t often receive its due from cinema; at least not with this level of insight and compassion.
17. I Love Dick
Matt Hoffman: I’m cheating a bit here. I Love Dick is not a movie, but instead is the latest series from Transparent creator Jill Soloway. I was treated to the first, second, and fifth episode of the Amazon-produced series, and can confidently say that it was one of the strongest pieces of creative material at this year’s festival. Simply put, I Love Dick is the story of a married filmmaker (Kathryn Hann) who sets her sites on her husband’s new mentor Dick (Kevin Bacon). Soloway continues to express her profound understanding of the human condition, whilst opening up a larger dialogue about female desire. The series commands the discussion of the female gaze, showcasing a group of women who accept that they are being looked at and dare to look back. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait until May for more, but with the episodes provided, Soloway has hinted that she is providing a piece of thrillingly relevant television.
Matt Hoffman: Winner of the US Documentary Grand Jury Prize, Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles portrait of love in the autism spectrum is one of the most life affirming documentaries to grace the screen in some time. This entirely observational film follows Dina as she prepares to remarry to Scott. Dina describes herself as having a little bit of Asperger’s, depression, and OCD. The moments spent alone between Dina and Scott are damned charming and often hilarious. One particular moment finds the two watching Sex and the City, while Dina attempts to subtly persuade her fiancé to give her a foot massage. Santini and Sickles have abandoned the tropes of cinema-vérité and instead choose to compose Dina like a fiction film. The formal innovation allows for visual beauty to mirror the charming simplicity of the relationship on screen.
Siân Melton: At first glance, STEP is a dance documentary chronicling a step team’s journey to a state step competition. And it has all the makings of such a story: the underdog team whose seniors are vying for their last chance to win big, the heart-pounding choreography, the coach that doesn’t give up. But more than that – and what makes it so special – STEP is about is the overwhelming power of community and education and the strength of relationships between women. As director Amanda Lipitz said during her Sundance Special Jury Prize acceptance speech: “Nothing is impossible when you surround yourself with a group of powerful women.”
Rob Hunter: The setup for Nacho Vigalondo’s latest seems silly on its surface, but the damn thing works beautifully anyway. It takes something we’ve seen a hundred times before – people whose selfish actions and addictions hurt those around them – and presents it in a wholly original light to show us the real collateral damage left behind. Anne Hathaway is good here, but the film’s something of a breakout for Jason Sudeikis. It’s a funny, thrilling, cathartic ride about owning your bad decisions, and it’s Vigalondo’s best film yet.
13. Bad Day for the Cut
Rob Hunter: While most middle-aged men buy a convertible or sleep with someone half their age our hero here is content working his farm and living with his mother, but when she’s killed he sets off on a trail of revenge. This is exactly the kind of revenge tale I love where someone unaccustomed to violence is forced into it by circumstance. It’s revenge, Irish style, with a dash of Blue Ruin for good measure meaning that while it’s fun it’s also a reminder that violence begets violence and the bloody cycle never stops spinning.
12. Get Out
Neil Miller: In his directorial debut, Jordan Peele creates a tension soufflé. You know, that delicious pastry that could collapse at any moment during the baking process. As we follow a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) on his first trip to meet the parents of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams), there’s an overwhelming sense that something (or many things) isn’t right. As it unfolds, Get Out turns from a racial paranoia thriller into a full-speed, purposefully stylized, often wickedly funny horror flick. In his debut, it’s Peele’s steady hand as a director that shines through – we knew he’s write a funny, weird script, but we were pleasantly surprised to see him to deliver such a slick, moody cinematic experience.
11. My Happy Family
Tomris Laffly: “Topple the Patriarchy” from Jilly Soloway’s Emmys speech has been ringing in my ears since last fall and I have been subconsciously waiting for a film that does exactly that. This is where In Bloom co-directors Nana and Simon’s My Happy Family comes in. The filmmakers have delved into the deeply-rooted patriarchy of the Georgian society before, but with My Happy Family, they take it to the next level. The film follows Manana, a Georgian woman that decides to move out of her extended family home after her 50th birthday and rent an apartment in a different part of Tbilisi on her own. The film charts her earnest, exasperating and often times very funny clashes with her family. Through long takes (reminiscent of Farhadi films), sharp dialogues that unfold as organically as they would in any close-knit family and precisely managed indoor traffic, My Happy Family reveals specific challenges faced by generations of Georgian women with universal relevancy at every turn.
10. Ingrid Goes West
Neil Miller: Imagine The Talented Mr. Ripley or The Cable Guy, but with Aubrey Plaza as our weirdo in the age of social media. That’s really all you need, but I’m going to tell you more anyway. Plaza plays a disturbed young woman looking to forge a bond with a popular Instagrammer (Elizabeth Olsen). And then things go way too far. Actually, that really is all you need to know. Don’t worry, this one got picked up by Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League’s new distributor, Neon, so you’ll get a chance to see it sooner than later.
9. Chasing Coral
Siân Melton: In 2012, director Jeff Orlowski stunned us all with the sobering and breathtaking visuals of the world’s melting glaciers. With Chasing Coral, he helps to visualize another disappearing part of our world: coral reefs. Combing absolutely stunning underwater cinematography with informative talking-heads, the doc is educational and breathtaking. Despite documenting the literal death of corals, Chasing Coral also manages to be charming and humorous, mostly thanks to the incredibly passionate team working on the project, including self-proclaimed “coral nerd” Zackery Rago. And with so much passion involved, it’s hard not to fall in love with Zack – I mean, the documentary.
Rob Hunter: My second favorite film out of the fest (behind Call Me By Your Name) is an absolute blast of dark comedy and even darker behavior. Like a funnier Heavenly Creatures or a far more serious Heathers the film pairs Anya Taylor-Joy and the deliriously wonderful Olivia Cooke as old friends whose reunion leads to murder, and it is absolutely mesmerizing. It’s constantly surprising and packs a more affecting punch than you’re expecting, and it immediately leaves you wanting to see it again.
7. Band Aid
Neil Miller: Credit Zoey Lister-Jones and Adam Pally with the best on-screen chemistry of the festival. At least so far as I’m concerned. Making her directorial debut, Lister-Jones delivers the tale of a couple struggling to hold their marriage together after a stretch of tragedy and strife. Their solution? Form a band with their very strange neighbor (Fred Armisen) and sing their fights instead of yelling. The premise is fun and the two leads are proven commodities in the world of comedy. What is unexpected is the soulfulness of the film’s final act. Lister-Jones’ script evolves from its silly premise to become a thoughtful look at grief and how men and women communicate differently. It’s the classic one-two-punch of any great romantic comedy.
Matt Hoffman: A lengthy film (at least in Sundance terms), Mudbound takes its time before grounding itself as a great film. Emotional stakes are high throughout, but it is when the film thrusts its characters in life-altering situations that Rees’ storytelling fully thrives. The last twenty minutes or so of Mudbound are incredible. It is when Dee Rees forces her characters against one another that the film achieves a true sense of profundity. It is this final act that is going to stick with viewers hours after watching the film. Yet, the powerful ending will likely cloud over the muddled first act. Once it finds its footing, Mudbound becomes a great film. The journey to this greatness is a messy one, but it is greatness nonetheless.
Matt Hoffman: Maggie Betts’ tale of nuns in distress was one of my early festival favorites. Margaret Qualley stars as Cathleen a young woman who enters the convent in the 1960s. Cathleen, as well as her follow sisters in training, must pass the trials of the Mother Superior (Melissa Leo) before they can fully enter the nunnery. If you didn’t think nun hazing was a thing, think again. Leo is downright devilish as the Reverend Mother struggling with new changes coming to the Catholic Church. Aside from its assured performances the film finds its beauty in the delicate direction of Betts. Novitiate refuses to pass judgment on its characters, nor does it take a simplified stance on the matters at hand. Under the proper care of its newfound distributor Sony Pictures Classics, Novitiate is sure to reemerge next awards season.
4. Casting JonBenet
Siân Melton: It’s important to know that Casting JonBenet isn’t actually about JonBenet Ramsey. This isn’t another true-crime documentary, nor is is it the making of one of those Lifetime movies. Rather, it’s a fascinating study of the concept of truth and storytelling and how our personal perceptions affect both. Director Kitty Green interviews Boulder, Colorado natives (where the Ramsey family were from) about what they remember from the case and what they think actually happened to JonBenet Ramsey. As the interviews progress, we learn more about the subjects and in turn what shaped their own beliefs about what happened. In the end, Casting JonBenet doesn’t attempt to answer any questions or lay out one definitive theory and that just might make it the most essential documentary on the subject.
3. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Rob Hunter: It’s all about Melanie Lynskey. She’s amazing in anything she touches, but part of the beauty here is seeing her jump into a character unlike any she’s played before. She’s an angry, accidental ass-kicker and an absolute joy to behold. Macon Blair’s debut gives her a fun, crazy world to play in too with a story that finds laughs and heart in its war against the assholes of the world. It’s entertaining as hell, and it’s the kind of escape that’ll leave you cringing and smiling in equal measure.
2. The Big Sick
Neil Miller: You should know going into The Big Sick that it’s based on the true origin story of Kumail Nanjiani’s relationship with his wife Emily Gordon. They wrote it together, got Judd Apatow to produce, picked up Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer) as a director, and put Zoe Kazan in the role of Emily opposite Kumail, and the entire thing works beautifully. Relying heavily on strong performances from Nanjiani and Kazan – with huge assists from Ray Romano and Holly Hunter – The Big Sick tells a story about cultural clashes, unexpected love, even more unexpected sadness, and perseverance when you know deep down that something is right. Theirs is an inspiring modern love story and we’re lucky that they are talented enough and willing enough to share it with the rest of us in the form of this film.
1. Call Me By Your Name
Tomris Laffly: Every year, the exuberant waves out of at least one Sundance premiere outspread beyond the confines of the festival and reaches the real world. This year, it was Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name that generated that kind of enthusiasm. And for good reason. Set in the 1980s coastal Italy and following the romance between the son of an academic (Timothée Chalamet) and his parents’ live-in summer guest/academic assistant (Armie Hammer), Guadagnino’s latest is boundlessly romantic and infused with the steam of a dreamy summer breeze from start to finish. The juicy sensuality of Call Me by Your Name is surely no surprise from the director of I am Love or A Bigger Splash, but its visual mastery is still a showstopper that surpasses the filmmaker’s previous work and necessitates a pause and a deep breath every now and then. What can I say? This incessantly sexy coming-of-age tale for grownups dialed up the heat of an especially chilly Sundance.
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