Home Movies Movie Lists

25 Movies We Can’t Wait to See at Sundance 2017

From Grateful Dead and Gawker docs to Cate Blanchett’s 13-role history lesson, the must-see titles at this year’s prestigious Park City film fest

While most folks are looking back at the past year's highlights and what's likely to nab Oscar nods, the Sundance Film Festival is looking ahead – not just to what may end up on folks' best-of lists or awards' voters ballots 12 months from now (remember, this is where Boyhood premiered in 2014, and where Manchester by the Sea had its very first screening last year), but toward the future. For almost four decades, before it even adopted the name of a famous screen outlaw, Robert Redford's Utah-based fest has been searching for the big "what's next."

Sometimes it's done this by offering a forum for filmmakers working outside of the studio system, or those representing cultures that have traditionally been ignored by the mainstream. Other times, in conjunction with the Sundance Institute's labs, it's helped nurture several generations' worth of directors, screenwriters and actors that have shaped the movies – and how we think about the movies – in indelible ways. Yes, it's a much more commercial endeavor than it was 30 years ago, or 20, or even five. But you can still find documentaries that will start and/or set the pace for many social-issue discussions, discover cutting-edge works that push the medium to mind-blowing new places, and see tomorrow's major players as they find their voices now. It remains the place where you go every year to get a glimpse at where things are headed.

And looking over the 2017 Sundance lineup, we've found a number of films that have piqued our curiosity and frankly, have us chomping at the bit. Before the festival kicks off on January 19th, we're shining a light on 25 films that we're dying to check out once the Park City event gets underway – everything from docs on the Grateful Dead and Gawker's demise, biopics about hip-hop's "Roxanne Wars" and Ponzi-scheming Polka kings, quirky comedies, heartbreaking dramas and one truly unclassifiable work in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 different characters reciting famous art manifestos. We'll be reporting back on the festival in depth after the opening night premiere kicks off 10 days of nonstop viewing, but for now, these are the must-see movies to keep an eye out for.

‘Casting JonBenet’

So you want to make a documentary on the JonBenet Ramsey case, but you don't want to be tied down with standard investigative-journalistic techniques? In that case, you follow filmmaker Kitty Green's example and mount an "exploration" of the infamous true-crime story via recreations, reactions from the Ramsey family's neighbors and various "performance" elements that examine things from every angle. "Her unique approach allows for all the fact and fiction of JonBenet's case to be shared," say the program notes. Ok, we'll bite.

‘The Discovery’

He made what's arguably the best doppelganger sci-fi indie-romcom of the 21st century with The One I Love (2014); now, writer-director Charlie McDowell returns to Sundance with a thriller about a scientist (none other than fest head honcho himself, Robert Redford) who discovers that yes, Virginia, there is indeed an afterlife. Jason Segel plays his son, who's a little unsure about Pop's breakthrough; Rooney Mara plays a mystery woman who has her own reasons for wanting to talk to the good doctor about the Great Beyond. We're dying to see this. Did you notice what we just did right there?

‘The Force’

Like many law-enforcement organizations around the country, the Oakland Police Department has had its share of public-relations problems and questionable incidents. Unlike many other metropolitan forces, however, they've had a chief who has tried to improve relations between the force and the community – and a documentarian following them around with a camera. Filmmaker Peter Nicks captures everything from press conferences about transparency to officers on the beat to a burgeoning movement – Black Lives Matter – demanding accountability in what sounds one timely, seriously intense year-in-the-life portrait.

‘A Ghost Story’

Somehow, in between directing the vastly underrated Pete's Dragon remake, helping a half dozen other indie filmmakers on their films and prepping several other big-name projects, writer/director/cinematographer/editor David Lowery managed to reunite his Ain't Them Bodies Saints leads and make a low-budget horror movie in secret. (When does this man sleep?) Casey Affleck plays a dead man haunting (or perhaps merely watching over) his old lover; Rooney Mara is the lady mourning her loss. The program notes describe this as being "fueled by the spirit of pure, creative expression" – which is a fancy way of saying "uncommercial" and thus makes this atmospheric supernatural tale sound a lot more interesting than your typical things-that-go-bump-in-the-night shocker.

‘Give Me Future’

The Rolling Stones weren't the only band to stage a history-making concert in Cuba in the last few years; in 2015, EDM superstars Major Lazer threw a massive show in downtown Havana and had half a million people literally dancing in the streets. Music-video director Austin Peters documented the whole thing, and in the process captured a thriving youth scene in the formerly heavily sanctioned country – one apparently hungry for reggaeton-inflected futurism and kick-ass Diplo tunes.

‘The Hero’

Brett Haley – the man behind one of the fest's best sleeper surprises, I'll See You in My Dreams – puts rough-and-rugged Sam Elliott back in the saddle for this character study of an aging movie star. Once a popular screen cowpoke, the movie's geriatric hero spends his time getting high and reminiscing about the glory days. Then fate deals him a bum hand, and well, what's a man to do but get reacquainted with his long-estranged kin? Normally, these kinds of dramas have us reaching for insulin shots; given the grace notes that Haley gave his previous look at the autumn years, however, we're genuinely psyched for this. Also, someone please give Sam Elliott's mustache an honorary Oscar, please.

‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’

Really, we could not have asked for a better time for Al Gore to do a follow-up on his 2006 Oscar-winning doc about climate change, what with the incoming administration being filled with head-in-the-sand denialists and DOE staffers who attended conferences on the subject being singled out. The former veep continues his quest to shed light on the damage done to our big blue marble, and how we can keep environmental catastrophe at bay by changing habits, adapting alternative energy sources and acting right freakin' now. Help us, Al-bi-Won. You're our only hope.

‘Killing Ground’

Tasmanian director Damien Power has clearly been studying up on his vintage American grindhouse classics; his brutal Ozploitation flick, involving some campers and two locals with a penchant for hunting (and other less-than-reputable pastimes), owes a debt to The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave and other such nasty drive-in nuggets. It's also an impressive, not-for-the-fainthearted feature debut that cleverly plays both with narrative chronology and your central nervous system. You've been warned.

‘Kuso’

Urban paranoia, natural disasters, cameos by George Clinton and Tim Heidecker, what we're told are "stomach-churning" special effects – would you expect anything less from the directorial debut of Steven Ellison, a.k.a. the truly warped musician known as Flying Lotus? Set in an earthquake ravaged Hell-Ay where random TVs blast various visual flotsam and jetsam, this hodge-podge of nightmare fodder sounds like the dictionary definition of a midnight movie. Lotus himself tweeted out that this was "the movie that scared Dave Chappelle's manager"; he also solicited a craftsman who specialized in "mutant bukkake" for the movie on social media. Brace yourself.

Roberto Rabanne

‘Long Strange Trip’

From the Warlocks to Winterland '73, hippie house band for acid-fuelled "happenings" to arena-filling juggernaut – this nearly four-hour documentary (!) from Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) covers the complete story of the Grateful Dead and their evolution into one of the most influential rock bands ever. We've heard there's tons of never-before-seen footage and interviews with all of the living major players; if we're lucky, this marathon portrait of an era-defining band will shamble along into unknown territory before gelling into something mind-blowing or transcendental. Of course, that may be the drugs talking.

‘Machines’

A true find in the fest's World Documentary section, this you-are-there look at a sweatshop in India drops the Dateline-style docmaking format and simply lets viewers step into the employees' tattered shoes. Gliding his cameras through filthy factory floors and past asleep-on-their-feet kids in the middle of 16-hour shifts, filmmaker Rahul Jain primarily lets the images do the talking; occasional testimonies from migrant workers, many of whom traveled hundreds of miles to secure jobs, break up mesmerizing long shots of men manning machinery. It's both hypnotic and horrifying, in addition to speaking volumes about industrial-labor world while barely saying a world. 

‘Manifesto’

Behold, what may be the most beautifully WTF movie of the festival: German multimedia-experimentalist Julian Rosefeldt's collection of short films (taken from his show at the Park Avenue Armory last year) features characters ranging from a homeless vagabond to a puppeteer to a network news broadcaster reciting famous artistic statements of intent from decades and centuries past. Did we mention that this baker's dozen of screen mouthpieces are all played by Cate Blanchett? Oh. My. Goddess.

‘Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press’

We all know about the Hulk Hogan sex tape that took down Gawker; Brian Knappenberger's doc looks at the story behind the story, in which upper-upper-tax-bracket types have begun having an effect on how our nation's free press operates in the digital era. (Timely much?) We're sure that anti-Nick Denton contingent will have plenty of opportunities for schadenfreude here, but the film's real message regarding money, the media and manipulating information suggests that the game is much bigger than one Silicon Valley power player taking down one snarky gossiping-truth-to-power website.

‘The Polka King’

Even if this biopic of Jan Lewan – a Polish immigrant living who became a Polka-music legend and later, a prison convict serving time for fraud – didn't star Jack Black as the disgraced bandleader, even if Jenny Slate and Jason Schwartzman didn't costar, and even if this stranger-than-fiction tale didn't double as a metaphor for the pitfalls of chasing the American Dream, we would still be first in line for this film. Why? Because the program notes use the phrase "Polka Ponzi scheme," which, frankly, is tuba music to our ears. Maya Forbes (Infinitely Polar Bear) directs.

Chante Adams

‘Roxanne Roxanne’

It's one of the most famous diss tracks in hip-hop history: "Roxanne's Revenge," a response to a UTFO song about ornery females that turned 14-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden (Chanté Adams) into an overnight sensation and kicked off what became known as the "Roxanne Wars." Michael Larnell's biopic on the young Queensbridge native revisits a key moment in 1980s rap history and deep-dives into the story of the woman who, with one underground answer record, became a battle M.C. known for rockin' on the beat-a that you can see.

Bruce Steinberg

‘Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World’

It's rarely something that comes up in your Rock 101 books and from-Elvis-to-Sex-Pistols history lessons: the major influence of Native Americans on popular music. Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana's documentary helps to fill in the gaps by highlighting how various indigenous musicians from Charlie Patton to Buffy Saint-Marie, Link Wray to Robbie Robertson, played a huge part in the development of jazz, blues, folk, hip-hop and every strain of rock imaginable. Everyone from Martin Scorsese to Rolling Stone's own David Fricke weigh in; you'll even hear Hendrix's version of 'The Star-Spangled Banner" (he had Cherokee blood in his veins) in a new light.

Robert Muratore

’78/52′

As in 78 individual shot set-ups and 52 edits – that's the raw data for Alfred Hitchcock's infamous shower scene in Psycho. What the portly old master did with that combination of celluloid snippets and some splicing tape, of course, is now the stuff of legend, and director Alexandre O. Philippe (The People vs. George Lucas) scrupulously breaks down the entire sequence shot by shot, as well as examining the sociological context surrounding Hitch's most notorious three minutes of filmmaking. We can practically hear film nerds moaning in ecstasy already.

‘Time: The Kalief Browder Story’

Executive-produced by Jay Z, this six-part docuseries follows the tragic story of Kalief Browder, the young Bronx resident who was arrested on false robbery charges and spent years as a Rikers Island convict, waiting for his day in court. By the time his innocence was finally proven and he was released from prison, Browder had become the face of an activist movement for reform – and eventually, a victim of a system that broke him. May we remind you that Sundance was where a similarly expansive, marathon-length multi-part series – O.J.: Made in America – premiered last year, and if any subject suggests the single-case-microcosm–to–social-issue-macrocosm treatment, it's this.

‘Wilson’

Indie-comics godhead Daniel Clowes adapts his 2010 graphic novel for the big screen, and gets Woody Harrelson to play the titular foul-mouthed son of a bitch tracking down the teen daughter he never knew he had. Whether this ends up being closer to the movie version of Art School Confidential than, say, Ghost World remains to be seen, but considering that director Craig Johnson is calling the shots on this satirical character study – his last work, The Skeleton Twins, is a great blend of humor and pathos – our expectations are high. (Check out a redband trailer here.) Laura Dern costars.

‘Wind River’

One of the most exciting American screenwriters of the past few years (see Sicario, Hell or High Water), Taylor Sheridan makes his directorial debut with this tense story of a dead body on a reservation; the law officer (Jeremy Renner) who finds it; the Fed (Elizabeth Olsen) who's investigating the case; and their journey into a world of darkness deep in the wintery Wyoming plains. If this sounds like a rugged, neo-Western hybrid of his last two films, then a) yes and b) yes once again. Jon Bernthal, always a welcome presence with his pugilist mug, costars.

‘XX’

A horror anthology from an all-star, all-female lineup, this quartet of femcentric scary stories boasts major genre talent (Southbound's Roxanne Benjamin, The Invitation's Karyn Kusama, filmmaker and Rolling Stone contributor Jovanka Vuckovic), some ominous titles for the segments ("Don't Fall," "Her Only Living Son") and the directorial debut of one Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. Honestly, you had us at "horror anthology."

Show Comments