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15 Best Movies and Performances of 2017 Sundance Film Festival

From fringe-movement docs to a baker’s dozen of Cate Blanchetts – these were the films and unforgettable turns that made our festival

15 Best Movies and Performances of Sundance 2017

From fringe-movement docs to a baker's dozen of Cate Blanchetts – our picks for the 15 best movies & performances at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance (3)

We went in to the 2017 Sundance Film Festival with 25 titles we were dying to catch – and some 40 movies, numerous long shuttle rides, dozens of snow flurries and several bottles of eye-drops later, we returned from Park City, Utah, wowed by movies that ran the gamut from high-fiber documentaries to high-caliber dramas to a mood piece featuring Casey Affleck under a sheet that made us feel high. Per usual, the 2017 edition coughed up a handful of expected treasures, some real out-of-nowhere stunners and occasional disappointments … and even some of those latter ones came blessed with some acting turns that stayed with us long after we trudged into the slush outside the theater. Here are our choices for the best movies and performances from this year's Sundance.  

‘Wind River’

An experienced hunter, an inexperienced Fed, a cantankerous lawman, an unforgiving landscape, a dead body – actor-turned-screenwriter-turned-filmmaker Taylor Sheridan may stack his directorial debut with some familiar elements. (And any trace similarities to his socially informed scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water are not necessarily coincidental.) It's what he does with this procedural material, however, that makes all the difference, turning the story of an FBI agent (Elisabeth Olsen) and her sharpshooting-guide (Jeremy Renner) tracking down a killer in the wintry Wyoming mountains into a taut, tightly paced thriller – as well as a crack modern Western, complete with stoic heroes and bullet-ridden showdowns. Few working screen scribes have such a knack for this kind of jagged-edged dialogue; no one has used Renner's rugged, disaffected persona this well since The Hurt Locker.

‘A Ghost Story’

Reuniting the leads of his outlaw-on-the-run tale Ain't Them Bodies Saints, director David Lowery's shot-on-the-sly project introduces us to Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara's young couple in love – then kills off the former's character, films the latter eating a whole pie in real time and makes Affleck wander around their old house while wearing a sheet with two eyeholes. (Seriously.) And for his next trick, the filmmaker proceeds to murder the inner cynic in you and turn your laughter into tears as the whole thing becomes a moving, meditative look at the passage of time, memory, geography and our collective existential funk. Pretentious? Possibly. Profound? Most definitely. We've been thinking nonstop about this movie since we saw it a week ago. We'll probably still be thinking about by the time the next Sundance rolls around.

Cate Blanchett, ‘Manifesto’

What's better than a great Cate Blanchett performance? Answer: 13 of them. If you've caught Julian Rosefeldt's multimedia art installation of the same name, you've already seen the Australian actress recite famous statements of artistic intent in the round while embodying the show's various housewives, homeless men, Eastern European divas and punk rock debutantes. But presented in feature-film form, in which one dogma-dictating archetype blends in to another, the work suddenly becomes a tribute to the art of Blanchett's extraordinary screen chameleonism. Every single gesture and glance feels perfect here; performance-wise, we'd single out her Dada declaration at a funeral and the sequence in which a newscaster and a live-remote reporter (both played by, yes, our woman of the hour) arguing over the role of art in society. Pure genius.

‘Call Me By Your Name’

The great equalizer of Sundance 2017 – the one movie everyone seemed to rightfully go gaga over – was, hands down, Italian director Luca Guadagnino's coming-of-age story of a teenage boy (the wonderful Timothée Chalamet), a visiting scholar (Armie Hammer) staying with the lad's family on the Mediterranean coast and the sexed-up summer that changes both their lives. Folks familiar with the filmmaker's past work (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) know that this is man who likes to take his time, and the movie is characterized by a sense of luxuriating in hot August nights, even hotter sex scenes and an overall Euro-sensuality. And just when you think the movie can't get any better, along comes Michael Stuhlbarg with a climactic speech about life and love that absolutely floors you. It's so good that even mind Hammer's off-brand Jon Hamm act seems to work beautifully. You also won't ever look at a peach the same way again.

Jason Mitchell, ‘Mudbound’

Say what you will about Dee Rees' ambitious, if severely overwrought movie about two Mississippi families in the mid-1940s and its attempt to shove a TV season's worth of Southern Gothic soap opera into two hours: There's a dynamite performance at the very center of it, courtesy of Jason Mitchell. His WWII veteran, who comes home from fighting fascists to face down prejudice, both grounds the saga and gives it a sense of forward dramatic momentum; the more you watch him and fellow ex-soldier Garrett Hedlund bond over their experiences, the more you wished the whole movie was simply about them. Folks who were paying attention to his work as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton walked away thinking this young actor had star potential. This is where he confirms it. (A quick shout-out as well to Mary J. Blige, virtually unrecognizable as Mitchell's hard-suffering mom.)

‘Casting JonBenet’

Rather than making a standard Dateline NBC-style documentary on the infamous JonBenet Ramsey murder case, filmmaker Kitty Green decided to go a different route: She recruited 72 actors from the Boulder, Colorado, area and "cast" them as various roles in a drama about the homicide. Green also shot their auditions, in which the performers were encouraged to offer theories on who did it and open up about their own pasts. The result is like an unclassifiable meta-plunge down a rabbit hole that rejiggers the entire notion of why people turn true crime tragedies into entertainment and why we the audience keep watching. Bonus points: You will also learn the proper procedure for BDSM Florentine flogging, a handy-dandy PSA if there ever was one.

Kumail Nanjiani, ‘The Big Sick’

You know those screenings where the audience is laughing so hard at jokes that you end up missing the four or five lines that follow them? That happened dozens of times during the premiere of this semi-autobiographical comedy-drama about a Pakistani stand-up dealing with his new girlfriend's near-fatal medical condition – and it's all thanks to Kumail Nanjiani. The Silicon Valley star's deadpan comic timing is the not-so-secret weapon here, whether he's trading barbs with fellow club comedians, bantering Ray Romano and Holly Hunter's out-of-towners or defusing his own family's culture clashes. The fact that he and Zoe Kazan also have incredible onscreen chemistry as well only sweetens the deal. Meet your new rom-com leading man.

‘Long Strange Trip’

It's easy to make a documentary on the Sixties psychedelic warriors/grandfathers of the jam-band scene that would appeal to Deadheads. But constructing a portrait that places the cult group as the logical logical expression of a musical endgame and fellow travelers looking for a bohemian connection in the brokedown palace of modern America, one that also appeals to the unconverted? That's an achievement. Amir Bar-Lev's four-hour look into the rock legends has plenty of greatest-hits moments to keep the tie-dyed twirl-dancing, but fan service takes a backseat to charting the Dead's ups, downs and way, way downs – especially Garcia's evolution from beatnik to reluctant countercultural messiah to a prisoner of fame.

‘My Happy Family’

A left-field gem, this story of a fiftysomething Georgian woman (Ia Shugliashvili, incredible) who decides to leave her husband and live on her own was the stand-out of an unusually strong World Dramatic lineup at Sundance this year. Filmmaking duo Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross favor long takes full of messy, chaotic life and slowly detonating showdowns, as parents, spouses and kids try to convince our heroine to return to the nest; if you wanted an uncut dose of the sound and fury that is family, this was your fix. And then there's Shugliashvili, who hoists the entire film on her stooped shoulders and makes you feel the exhalation that accompanies the character's long-pined-for liberation. A must-see.

Sam Elliott, ‘The Hero’

We're not the kind of folks to use Sundance as a crystal ball for hyperventilating awards prognostication. (OMG, Oscars 2018 – it's only 12 months away, people!!!) But let's just say we'd be very surprised if Sam Elliott's name isn't being bandied about this time next year in regards to his performance in Brett Haley's character study about an aging movie star. The film has more than its share of flaws; Elliott's take on a pot-smoking, regret-filled Western icon dealing with second chances and autumn-years ennui, however, is virtually perfect. The recent run he's had with Haley's debut I'll See You in My Dreams, the Lily Tomlin vehicle Grandma and a villainous arc on TV's Justified all seem to be leading up to this part; the moment we stop treating him as just the craggy sum of his baritone voice and peerless mustache, and begin referring to him as a canon-worthy dramatic actor, has officially arrived.

‘Machines’

First-timer Rahul Jain takes his cameras in a textile factory right outside of Calcutta and glides them through hallways, past weary workers and into the bowels of global capitalism in search of answers. What he emerges with is a poetic, humanistic look at a sweatshop that leaves its didacticism at the front door; even the interviews with laborers who've traveled hundreds of miles in search of work and one caricature of a boss don't feel like easy-target practice. The ending, in which his subjects begin to ask the man behind the camera how he will actually help them make their lives better – and are met with silence – feels like a damning indictment of first-world complicity, third-world exploitation and the whole notion of social-justice docmaking all at once.

Woody Harrelson, ‘Wilson’

Yes, this movie of Daniel Clowes' 2010 graphic novel (adapted by the indie comics' legend himself) feels a bit like Clowes lite. But that doesn't subtract from Woody Harrelson's go-for-broke take on the titular misanthrope, a chatty cynic who has the ability to ruin any social situation in seconds flat. It's hard to think of anyone who could have pulled off the part's balancing act of oddball sunniness and self-loathing, or make you believe Wilson could charm an entire cellblock without playing down the character's irritiable edges. Kudos also go to Laura Dern, who proves that nobody can end a sentence with the word "man" and imbue it with so much bone-deep bitterness.

‘Oklahoma City’

The bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 was not just the biggest act of domestic terrorism in the U.S. to date – it was also the culmination of fringe anti-government sentiments that had moved from actively threatening the Feds to acting out. Like O.J.: Made in America, Barak Goodman's look at the tragedy goes to great lengths to contextualize what happened and why; by the time Timothy McVeigh finally comes on the scene right before the halfway point, you completely understand how and why he felt compelled to such grand-scale violence. And given the doc's emphasis on the growing American militia/alt-right movement, this could not be timelier.

Zoe Lister-Jones, ‘Band Aid’

As a writer-director, Zoe Lister-Jones does a good job of setting up this comedy-drama's premise: Rather than try couples' therapy to save their failing marriage, a couple decides to start a band and sing their frustrations out to each other. It's as a performer, however, that the triple-threat really sells the concept, adding layers to what might have been a one-note-joke protagonist. Everyone focused on the movie's clever college-rock ditties, but it's the way she sings them with such cathartic glee – and communicates the way her half of the hipster Angeleno duo navigates regret, frustration, lust and confusion with more nuance than you'd think necessary – that lifts this out of the usual indie über-quirk ghetto. She's a keeper.

’78/52′

Never mind the celebrity talking heads (a moratorium on in-film Eli Roth interviews, please); this fascinating close-read of one of the most famous movie sequences of all time – Psycho's shower scene – not only explains how Hitchcock set up the shots but reminds you why it's still such a masterclass in miniature re: horror moviemaking. Academics, art historians and Janet Leigh's body double all weigh in about the particulars of background painting choices and the art of covering up on-set nudity, while famous fans admire the technique. But the real takeaway is in seeing Hitch push the envelope both creatively and sociologically with his master plan – then incinerate the envelope altogether.

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