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Arts + CultureMoviesWhat we saw at Sundance 2024, part 3: Bring...

What we saw at Sundance 2024, part 3: Bring on the docs

Satanists verité, AI Brian Eno, Will Ferrell road trip, dueling rock bands, a Navajo Nation 'Oppenheimer' counterpoint, more

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 paired down lineup, the whole shebang proved to be a return to form, overflowing with countless films from a slew of singularly unique visionaries. Here is a PART THREE of my final 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 this as a reference. See part one (genre films) here, and part two (feature dramas) here.

Josh Greenbaum’s emotionally hilarious Will & Harper (US, 2023) was not only the absolute crowned-champion crowd-pleaser of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s a deeply moving look at what real friendship can be. This laugh-out-loud documentary catapults Will Ferrell and Saturday Night Live writer Harper Steele on a road trip across the United States into a series of profoundly moving situations. This movie has the power to even shift some folks’ perspectives while also being a very sweet, casually nostalgic celebration of the whole Saturday Night Live crew. Netflix acquired the rights and will distribute the film later on in 2024.

Scott Cummings’ debut feature Realm of Satan (US, 2024) is a gawd-damned transcendental masterpiece. Exploring the Church of Satan as it exists around the world, this is cinema verité at its finest, deliciously designed and ingeniously edited, quietly portraying everyday lives along with engagement in outrageously fetishistic and magical rituals. Warning: There is no narration in this film, so audiences who are expecting a riotous overview ala Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? (2019)may be left a bit baffled. While not for everyone, this was easily one of the best films of this year’s Sundance and I cannot wait for the next project by Scott Cummings. Thankfully the film will be distributed by Visit Films later on in 2024.

Daughters (US, 2024) was awarded both the “Festival Favorite Award” and the Audience Award for Best US Documentary. This eight-year journey is devastatingly captured by filmmaker Natalie Rae and Angela Patton, who is an activist advocating for “at-promise” girls. Following four young girls who prepare for a special Daddy Daughter Dance with their incarcerated fathers, this unique fatherhood program in a Washington, DC, jail will bring tears to the eyes of even the most “cry shy” movie watchers. The depth of emotion captured in these detained daddies and their daughters is so dense that one forgets they are even watching a movie. Showcasing a haunting musical score by Kelsey Lu, who helmed last year’s soundtrack for Savanah Leaf’s astounding Earth Mama (2023), this is an absolute must see on all accounts. Netflix acquired the rights and will distribute the film later on in 2024.

One of the most sought-after experiences at this year’s Sundance was Gary Hustwit’s career-spanning documentary about visionary musician and artist Brian Eno, called simply Eno (US, 2024). Over the past 50-years, Eno has created some of the most unique and unconventional pop albums of all time as well as creating dozens of haunting ambient works. He’s performed with glam pop band Roxy Music and produced albums with David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, among many others.

The most exciting part of this revolutionary film is that Hustwit and creative technologist Brenden Dawes practice what Eno has artistically preached for these many decades by uniquely designing a “generative software” (a homemade program that works like AI) that sequences an infinite amount of different versions of the movie every single time it is screened. Different footage, new transitions, and alternative music unearthed from hundreds of hours of never-before-seen footage and unreleased music. The result is truly a breath-of-fresh-air for fans and newcomers alike—while the filmmaker’s goals are even higher, as they hope to make a unique cinematic experience available to every single person who watches the film in the comfort of their home. The film is currently seeking distribution.

Ondi Timoner’s jaw-dropping 2004 Grand Prize Winner DiG! was restored, remixed, and re-edited—adding 40 extra minutes! This 20th Anniversary edition entitled DiG! XX (US, 2024) fleshes out each of the band members from rival groups the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, as well as providing countless more wild and crazy sequences, and adding some hilarious new narration by tambourine extraordinaire Joel Gion of BJM. They don’t make documentaries like this anymore, where you truly don’t know if the band members will end up killing one another on and off the stage. The special introduction by Dave Grohl, who enthusiastically declared it as his #1 pick for “the greatest rock n roll documentary of all time,” helped make this one of the most outrageous screenings of this year’s festival. The film is currently seeking distribution.

Brendan Bellomo and Slava Leontyev’s Porcelain War (US/Ukraine/Australia, 2024), which won the US Grand Jury Prize: Documentary, is the perfect counterpoint to last year’s Audience Award winning 20 Days in Mariupol (2023). Focused on a family of Ukrainian artists who have chosen to stay behind and fight the current war with Russia, the doc draws the audience into the protagonist’s personal lives, as they try to find a balance between crafting porcelain figurines and contending with the soldiers they have become. The directors have painstakingly crafted their very own delicate piece by bringing Anya and Slava’s porcelain artwork into some truly striking animated sequences, which help balance the catastrophic destruction that they and their subjects continue to experience on a daily basis. The film is currently seeking distribution.

Demon Mineral (US, 2023) Winner of this year’s Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Slamdance Film Festival was Hadley Austin’s breathtaking account of the Navajo Nation’s struggle in the radioactive desert of the American Southwest. Cinematically shot in a sparse landscape punctuated by forsaken uranium mines, this mostly verité account of grappling with the desecration of a sacred homeland will leave you haunted for days after watching it. Essential viewing and is perfect for audiences who want to dive deeper into the issues that Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023) set the stage for. The film premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2023; make sure to monitor Bay Area independent theaters this year for a theatrical run.

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Jesse Hawthorne Ficks
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the film history coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and is part of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He curates and hosts “MOViES FOR MANiACS,” a film series celebrating underrated and overlooked cinema, in a neo-sincere manner.

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