This year’s 40th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival returned to in-person screenings, premiering 92 feature films, compared to 128 in 2020. Even with the pared-down lineup, the whole shebang proved to be a return to form, overflowing with films from a slew of singularly unique visionaries. Here is a part one of my spoiler-free FiCKS PiCKS, gleaned from the 37 feature films that I was able to access. You can hang this list on your refrigerator so that when one of them gets released this year, you can use it as a reference. See part two here, and part three here.
Hands down, the most exciting film of the festival was A24’s psychological thriller A Different Man (US, 2024). This truly transgressive follow-up to director Aaron Schimberg’s 2019 unpredictable second feature Chained for Life reteams him with Adam Pearson (Under the Skin) as well as Sebastian Stan (Avengers: Endgame) and Renate Reinsve, star of Joachim Trier’s 2021 The Worst Person in the World. This astonishing, atmospheric, uncompromised achievement brilliantly questions how we perceive ourselves, in every sense of the word. Channeling the existential humor of David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, and Woody Allen, Schimberg and company have constructed a deliciously disarming film that is sure to be one of the year’s most memorable movies. A24 will be distributing the film later on in 2024.
Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex (UK, 2023), which won the Un Certain Regard award at this year’s 75th Cannes Film Festival, is a devastating look at the side effects of partying. Mia McKenna-Bruce is a revelation as she drinks herself into a stupor, night after night, hoping to find the perfect person with which to share her virginity. With the fluorescent flare of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012) and the direct neo-realism of The Dardenne Brothers, this stunning directorial debut by cinematographer Molly Manning Walker (2023’s Scrapper) just snagged three BAFTA nominations for Outstanding British Film, Best Casting and Outstanding British Debut by a British writer, director. NOTE: It seems like perfect timing that the very relevant, yet forgotten gem Little Darlings (1980) starring Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol was finally released on 4K this month by a new physical media label entitled Cinématographe. MUBi will distribute How to Have Sex later on in 2024, and it shows this week in San Francisco at the Mostly British Film Fest.
Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw The TV Glow (US, 2022) was so insanely relatable that I had to watch it twice! Drenched in 1990s mythology, this addictive follow-up to Schoenbrun’s mesmerizing We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021) speaks to an entire generation of folks who relate to TV series characters (Twin Peaks, X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) more than their own families. This genuine masterpiece is the stuff that neon nightmares are made of. In the post Q&A, Schoenbrun shared that they wanted to make a movie like Donnie Darko (2001) combined with the 1990s TV series “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” They also gloated about being able to assemble the year’s most exciting soundtracks, including a brand new Alex G score, as well 16 original songs from Snail Mail, Yeule, Bartees Strange, Sloppy Jane featuring Phoebe Bridgers, and Caroline Polachek. Produced by A24 and Emma Stone’s Fruit Tree production banner, the film will be distributing by A24 later on in 2024.
Rose Glass’s Love Lies Bleeding (US/UK, 2023) is an outrageous follow-up to her A24 debut Saint Maude (2019). Kristen Stewart earnestly inhabits a reclusive gym manager who falls hard for Jackie, an eager weightlifter, embodied with gusto by real life body-builder Katy O’Brian. As the two fall in love, and with Vegas in their sights for a gold medal dream, writer-director Rose Glass pushes the maniacal muscle mania to the absolute max, culminating in a jaw-dropping climax that one has to see on the big screen. Easily the most romantic and erotic film at this year’s Sundance, fans of Thelma & Louise (1991) and David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) will not be disappointed. This film will be distributed by A24 later on in 2024.
Greg Jardin’s It’s What’s Inside (US, 2024) is definitely one of the cleverest horror films of the year and had audiences buzzing about for days after its world premiere at Sundance. Borrowing the chaotic quirkiness of Jonathan Lynn’s 1985 adaptation of Hasbro’s board game Clue, while injecting a heavy dose of A24’s Talk to Me and Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, this “pre-wedding party descends into an existential nightmare when an estranged friend shows up with a mysterious suitcase.” Don’t read a single spoiler review because the whole film hinges on its reveals. Executive produced by multifaceted actor Colman Domingo, the film acquired distribution rights for a record-breaking $17 million and will be distributed by Netflix later on in 2024.
Richard Linklater’s Hit Man (US, 2023) stars Glen Powell as a college professor who finds himself with a curious side job. Upon first glance, one might be baffled by the goofy tone and network TV aesthetic of this sneaky little gem of a film. Yet if one sticks with it, remembering that Linklater is holding the reins here, this eccentric neo-noir shifts its gears right under one’s nose and just may knock the wind right out of you, as it did me. Produced by Jason Bateman, the film will be distributed by Netflix later on in 2024.
David & Nathan Zellner’s Sasquatch Sunset (US, 2023) has a vibe that deserves to be experienced from beginning to end. Fans of the Daniels’ Swiss Army Man take note, there is a method behind the madness of this verité journey with a family of Bigfoots (Bigfeet?). And while the film is not for everyone (the film saw more walkouts than any other film at the festival), those that settle into the Zellner Brother’s singular vision will not be able to deny the purity of the project. I would argue that they procured phenomenal performances by Riley Keough, Jesse Eisenberg, and Christophe Zajec-Denek, and it features some truly well-earned sequences. Executive produced by Ari Aster, the film will be distributed by Bleeker Street later on in 2024.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Freaky Tales (US, 2023) has made an epic anthology of four stories taking place in Oakland based on real historical events circa 1987. The intricate, interconnected design builds to such a crescendo by the jaw-dropping finale that it was almost impossible not to cheer in the theater! Filmmakers Boden and Fleck, whose previous films Half Nelson (2006) which earned Ryan Gosling an Oscar nomination, and Captain Marvel (2019), take some enormously exciting gambles. Some hit, some are near-misses. Here, one cannot deny the immense joy with which the film pulsates. (Fans of the 1985 cult classic The Last Dragon, prepare yourself!) Showcasing an all-star cast of Pedro Pascal, Ben Mendelsohn, Jay Ellis, Dominique Thorne, singer Normani in her feature film debut, Jack Champion (Spider in Avatar: The Way of Water), and Angus Cloud from “Euphoria” in one of his final roles, the film begs you to do your best to steer clear of spoiler reviews. It’s rare that a movie has so many surprises waiting for its audience. The film is currently seeking distribution.
Chris Nash’s lovingly clunky slasher In A Violent Nature (Canada, 2023) is initially intriguing as the camera just follows the killer, emulating Harris Savides’ calculated cinematography from Gus Van Sant’s “Walking Trilogy” — Elephant, Gerry, and Last Days — along with a tongue-in-cheek humor by way of incomprehensible homemade SOV Horror films and the latter sequels of the Friday the 13th franchise. While it delivers quite a few outrageously fun and gory kills along the way, I look forward to seeing what the filmmaker will do with a more focused script. Shudder will be distributing the film later on in 2024.
Steven Soderbergh’s lo-fi thriller Presence (US, 2024) was the hottest ticket of the festival, perhaps due to its down-and-dirty screenplay by the always-amazing David Koepp, who is known for Hollywood blockbusters Jurassic Park (1993), Spider-Man (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005), as well as for having directed some wonderfully underrated thrillers: The Trigger Effect (1996), Stir of Echoes (1999), and Secret Window (2004). Added to that is Soderbergh’s masterful precision with this Paranormal Activity-type scenario of a family discovering they are not alone when they move into a new house. The results are absolutely top-notch. Rather than relying on jump scares, the film leans into the uncomfortable, and at times the unexpected, which even motivated a few audience members to run out of the theater! Noteworthy performances by Lucy Liu, Chris Sullivan, Callina Liang, and Julia Fox. This film will be distributed by NEON later on in 2024.
Slamdance delivered on the most inspired films in all of Park City by including Sarah Lasley’s wondrously wicked Welcome to the Enclave (US, 2023) to their Experimental Shorts Program. This 12-minute manifesto is a terrifyingly eerie exploration of two Texas sisters as they fight to rescue their digital utopia from obscurity. The film showcaes a deliciously diabolical dual performance by longtime collaborator Brenna Palughi. Seek out this existential, experimental extravaganza at all costs. In fact, the story of these two demonic sorcerers supposedly has a 30-minute variant that I hope will grace a Bay Area screen later this year.