It was one the snowiest events on record, but that didn’t stop some 40,000 people from descending on Park City, Utah, for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Audiences were rewarded with powerful dramas (Mudbound, The Yellow Birds), crowd-pleasing comedies (The Big Sick, Brigsby Bear), inspiring documentaries (An Inconvenient Sequel, Step), and the riveting A Ghost Story. Here are Yahoo Movies’s 16 favorite discoveries from Sundance 2017, plus one bonus from the nearby Slamdance Film Festival. (Note: We weren’t able to screen critical darlings like Call Me by Your Name and Mud, River, Stone.)
— Ethan Alter and Kevin Polowy
The title of Alexandre Philippe’s reverent Alfred Hitchcock documentary refers to the 78 setups and 52 cuts that were required to make Psycho’s notorious shower scene — arguably the single most famous sequence in the Master of Suspense’s canon. Serious Hitchcock buffs may find the first act of 78/52 a rehash of biographical details they already know, but the movie slays when Philippe allows his gallery of experts — including directors such as Peter Bogdanovich and editors like Jeffrey Ford — to do a frame-by-frame analysis of Marion Crane’s bloody demise. It’ll make you appreciate the art and science behind Hitch’s work all over again. – E.A.
Zoe Lister-Jones and Adam Pally are that married couple we all know who constantly bicker … until the two realize that rocking out together and channeling their anger through music is the perfect therapy. It’s a premise that could’ve gone wrong, but it works wonders in this sharp-witted and surprising comedy written and directed by Lister-Jones, who conjures the perfect chemistry with the always-funny Pally. They’re aided by a hilarious supporting cast — most notably Fred Armisen as their sublimely weird neighbor, a recovering sexaholic who gets all Whiplash on the drums. – K.P.
Beatriz at Dinner
What begins as a “guess who’s coming to dinner” comedy of manners becomes more complex as the evening wears on. Screenwriter Mike White and director Miguel Arteta, who previously collaborated on the 2000 Sundance favorite Chuck & Buck, chronicle the ideological clash between a Mexican healer (Salma Hayek) and an American tycoon (John Lithgow) who’d rather profit from the world than help it. Anchored by terrific performances and White’s deftly-written script, Beatriz at Dinner is — accidentally or on purpose — the first great film of the Trump era. – E.A.
The Big Sick
Amazon Studios paid a whopping $12 million for Michael Showalter’s hilarious and heartfelt rom-com, written by Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and his wife Emily V. Gordon, based on their real-life courtship. Kumail is a standup comedian who fears telling his Muslim-Pakistani family he’s dating a white therapist named Emily (Zoe Kazan). But that’s before a life-threatening medical condition lands her in a coma. Nanjiani proves he’s got the mettle for movie stardom, while Holly Hunter and Ray Romano deliver poignant turns as Emily’s concerned parents in a crowd-pleasing comedy that could have Juno-esque appeal both at the box office and in the awards derby. – K.P.
Straight outta Saturday Night Live comes this instant cult comedy, which unites two generations of SNL-affiliated comedy troupes: Good Neighbor and The Lonely Island. Current “Not Ready For Prime-Time Player” Kyle Mooney stars as James, a kidnapped manchild who has been raised by two cultists (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) in an underground bunker with only the videotaped adventures of a talking bear for company. Rescued and released into the outside world at last, James finds he can’t leave Brigsby behind that easily. Brigsby Bear is Dogtooth for Laser Cats fans, and — as James is fond of saying — it’s dope as s***. — E.A.
The One I Love director Charlie McDowell (who cowrote it with Justin Lader) brought one of the more enticing conceits to Sundance: a near future where the existence of the afterlife has been scientifically proven, leading to a global epidemic of suicides by those eager to get to the other side. Jason Segel and Rooney Mara are the couple on the front lines of the breakthrough. The brooding sci-fi drama has the gloom of the ill-fated romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind without the whimsy. Still, it’s a deeply emotional journey well worth taking. – K.P.
A Ghost Story
Being a ghost is sad, not scary, business in David Lowery’s brooding, beautiful meditation on the people and places we leave behind. As the movie’s resident phantom, Casey Affleck spends much of the film beneath a white sheet, peering through two eyeholes at his living lover (Rooney Mara) while she processes her grief by binging on an entire pie. In moments like this, A Ghost Story dances on the edge of goofiness, but that’s part of its hypnotic power: Perhaps only a ghost can fully perceive life in all of its tragic and ridiculous glory. – E.A.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Former veep Al Gore moves far beyond the PowerPoint presentation that rocked the globe’s perception of global warming in the influential Oscar-winning 2006 An Inconvenient Truth. He’s all action, some talk as he surveys melting glaciers in Greenland, wades down flooding streets in Miami Beach, visits the storm-ravaged Philippines, and helps negotiate a pivotal energy policy with India at the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Paris. Like the original, Truth to Power should galvanize its viewers to take action against climate change, especially as the scientifically backed threat faces its powerful and daunting opposition yet in the form of the incoming Trump administration. – K.P.
The Incredible Jessica James
People Places Things writer-director Jim Strouse penned this comedy specifically for Jessica Williams, and the Daily Show alum is nothing short of a revelation. She crackles with energy and exudes irresistible charm as the title character, a New York 20-something struggling to make it as a playwright and get over her ex (Atlanta‘s Lakeith Stanfield) as she cautiously enters into a relationship with a recent divorcée (Chris O’Dowd) who has his own issues. Jessica James is so riotously funny and cutting you’ll wish it was the pilot episode of a TV series.
Ingrid Goes West
Aubrey Plaza gets her To Die For moment in director Matt Spicer’s biting Internet-age satire (which received the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award from the Sundance jury). As the titular Instagram addict who becomes obsessed with a social media superstar (Elizabeth Olsen), the Parks and Recreation actress ventures to some dark — and darkly funny — places. And Straight Outta Compton scene-stealer O’Shea Jackson Jr. goes along for the ride, playing the lovestruck, Batman-obsessed Joaquin Phoenix to Plaza’s psychotic Nicole Kidman. Their reenactment of the Batman-Catwoman make-out scene from Batman Returns is better Dark Knight action than anything in Batman v. Superman. — E.A.
Like Birth of a Nation and Manchester by the Sea from last year’s Sundance, this stunning and beautiful period drama from Pariah director Dee Rees reached peak-praise levels at this year’s fest. Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund, and Jason Mitchell all deliver stellar performances as members of two families on opposite ends of the social hierarchy who live on a Mississippi farm during World War II and the wretched years of Jim Crow laws. It’s a powerful, heartrending — yet ultimately hopeful — triumph of storytelling. – K.P.
The Polka King
Jack Black shimmers and shines in this oddball comedy based on the bizarre, real-life story of Jan Lewan, a Polish immigrant who capitalized on his status as a Hazelton, Pa., polka celebrity to lure countless locals into a Ponzi scheme. Like Black’s memorable 2011 indie Bernie, half the fun of Polka King — which boasts hilarious supporting performances from Jenny Slate, Jacki Weaver, and Jason Schwartzman — is that you’re never quite sure whether you should love or hate the charming crook at the center of it. — K.P.
Come for the foot-stomping step-dance action; stay for the emotional stories of a trio of African-American high school seniors trying to find a way into college by any means necessary. Embedding herself at Baltimore’s Leadership School for Young Women over the course of one school year, theater producer-turned-documentary filmmaker Amanda Lipitz captures the triumphs and heartbreaks her subjects experience in class and at home, and how they funnel their energy into their dancing. Fox Searchlight nabbed the rights, so look for it at a theater near you in the not-too-distant future. –E.A.
Cory Finley’s debut feature is a darkly funny combination of Heavenly Creatures and Mean Girls. Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke play childhood friends who reconnect as teenagers over a nebulous plan to kill Taylor-Joy’s cruel stepdad (Paul Sparks). Although they’re collaborators in this bloody scheme, they’re also natural competitors, each seeking to gain the upper hand. No matter who loses, the audience wins. – E.A.
America has Comic Cons and Japan has “Idol” festivals — places where fanboys congregate to discuss their latest obsessions. Only with the “Idol” crowd, those obsessions are teenage girls with dreams of becoming the next big J-pop sensation. Kyoko Miyake’s fascinating documentary depicts the often squirm-producing ways that these young women depend on the patronage of middle-aged men to achieve full “Idol” status, and the ramifications that “Idol” culture has had on the nation at large — from declining marriage rates to the fetishization of younger and younger girls. – E.A.
The Yellow Birds
Director Alexandre Moors had one of the most talked-about projects of Sundance 2013 with Blue Caprice, about the 2002 Beltway sniper. Now, Moors goes to war with Birds, which follows the friendship of two young Army soldiers (Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan) dispatched to Iraq before the latter goes missing. The story, which alternates between battle flashbacks and the stateside PTSD aftermath, leaves something to be desired, but the film is gorgeously shot and powerfully acted, most notably by future Han Solo Ehrenreich, Sheridan, and Jennifer Aniston, who plays a grieving mother. – K.P.
Bonus! A Favorite from the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival:
Travel back to the future with writer/director Jamie Greenberg’s inventive sci-fi pastiche, which premiered at Sundance’s sister festival Slamdance. Made in the retro style of a ’30s-era B movie, Future ’38 sends a time-traveler (Nick Westrate) into the far-off year of 2018 to find a way to prevent World War II. Once in the 21st century, he discovers that the future is a glorious, Technicolor dream world filled with towering skyscrapers and staunchly independent women — like the self-possessed Banky (Betty Gilpin) — who still talk like Rosalind Russell. – E.A.