The 2017 Sundance Film Festival comes at a strange time in American history. For one, the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States — a phrase almost nobody expected to be writing during last year’s Sundance — will take place in Washington, DC, just as the festival is kicking off in Park City, Utah. A documentary called Trumped, about the campaign and its results, will premiere a few days later, for those steel-nerved audiences brave enough to relive the spectacle.
While the inauguration is sure to be a huge topic of conversation in ticket lines and at cocktail parties, though, it’s not the only thing that’s remarkable about Sundance in 2017. New technologies are continuing to change the way films are made and experienced, and the festival is exploring this, with programs centered on innovations in virtual reality and shifts in marketing based on data science. The festival is spotlighting films from indigenous filmmakers and from Cuba. And with the advent of the term “post-truth,” filmmakers (and especially documentarians) are thinking about what it means to make “truthful” films.
But while the focus changes from year to year, Sundance is first and foremost about the most interesting new work in independent movies in the US and around the world. And in this, 2017 is no different from previous years. So here is a highly subjective list of 11 films we’re excited about seeing at this year’s fest.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk)
It’s been more than a decade since the 2006 premiere of An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary (helmed by Davis Guggenheim) about former Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to raise public awareness around climate change. The film went on to win two Academy Awards and stir up conversation about the issue.
This follow-up film premieres at Sundance (with Gore and others present), and is described as “an inspirational journey across the globe that delivers the tools to heal our planet.” A feel-good movie about climate change? We’ll see, but the movie is sure to generate lots of buzz, especially with renewed conversations in the face of the Trump administration’s developing stance on the issue.
Fun Mom Dinner (Alethea Jones)
Fun Mom Dinner seems like it could be a gamble — movies about moms cutting loose exist already — but the fact that this one is premiering at Sundance bodes well for both its originality and its humor quotient. It’s Julie Rudd’s first screenplay (yes, she’s Paul’s wife) and Alethea Jones’s first feature film, and sometimes that freshness can really work for a film. Plus, the cast includes Katie Aselton, Toni Collette, Molly Shannon, and Bridget Everett, all of whom are hysterical, multifaceted performers.
Golden Exits (Alex Ross Perry)
Director Alex Ross Perry’s last two films, Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, are satirical, stylistically striking explorations of people at their worst. Golden Exits looks like it treads similar ground, telling a tale of woe and despair among young Brooklynites. It sounds like typical Sundance fare, but Perry’s fine-tuned eye for human absurdity could make it stand out.
Landline (Gillian Robespierre)
Gillian Robespierre burst onto the scene in 2014 with the critically acclaimed comedy Obvious Child. Her new feature once again stars Jenny Slate — alongside John Turturro, Edie Falco, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, and Finn Wittrock — in a subversive comedy about a Manhattan family, set in 1995. According to the film’s description, Landline “explores how family bonds grow sturdier through lying, cheating, and strife” and “bask[s] in ’90s nostalgia,” which sounds enormously entertaining.
Manifesto (Julian Rosefeldt)
Cate Blanchett is a chameleon of an actress, and Manifesto takes her ability to shape-shift to a new level: She plays 13 different roles in the film, which draws on famous artist manifestos from the 20th century. The film premiered as an installation at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory in December and early January to rave reviews, and now it’s getting a theatrical premiere.
Mudbound (Dee Rees)
Mudbound is a period piece, set in the American South after World War II. Two families struggle against social hierarchy and try to keep their families alive as their dreams of farming fade before their eyes. Dee Rees is an acclaimed writer and director (her film Pariah rocked Sundance in 2011, and her HBO film Bessie won four Emmys), and with a screenplay based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound is likely to be the talk of the town.
Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and Trials of a Free Press (Brian Knappenberger)
The lawsuit against Gawker in summer 2016 — launched after the popular website posted a sex tape featuring pro wrestler Hulk Hogan — eventually led to its bankruptcy, and felt like a warning sign for press freedom. Nobody Speak is an investigative documentary about the trial and case, and it seems especially timely.
Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa)
Dustin Guy Defa is best known as a short filmmaker, though his first feature, 2011’s Bad Fever, garnered attention and praise. Person to Person is based on a short film of the same name and follows a number of people through a single day in New York City. The film boasts a cast of luminaries — Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Tavi Gevinson, Philip Baker Hall, George Sample III, and Bene Coopersmith among them — and is shot entirely on 16mm film, which is increasingly rare, especially in independent filmmaking, where cost is always an issue.
Strong Island (Yance Ford)
Yance Ford’s brother William was shot and killed in 1992, but an all-white grand jury set the shooter free. Strong Island is Ford’s exploration of his grief, anger, and fear in the face of this injustice. Word on the street is it’s one of the most innovative and aesthetically interesting documentaries playing at the festival, and its topic is very timely as well.
To the Bone (Marti Noxon)
Marti Noxon wrote and directed this feature film, but she’s best known as a TV creator and executive producer, both for Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce and UnReal. In To the Bone, rising star Lily Collins plays a girl with anorexia, living in a group home and battling her own demons. Noxon’s skill for portraying complex female characters and issues will likely translate to something great.
Wilson (Craig Johnson)
Johnson’s last film was The Skeleton Twins (2014), which starred Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as a pair of twins who are reunited after they both get dumped on the same day. But the biggest draw of Wilson is its source material: the graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes, who also wrote the acclaimed graphic novels Ghost World and Art School Confidential. Woody Harrelson stars as the title character, and Laura Dern stars as his wife. The movie has already been acquired for distribution by Fox Searchlight Pictures.