The Sundance Film Festival is turning 40 — and Pedro Pascal and Kristen Stewart are in the lineup
The festival has revealed its 2024 lineup — and the celebrity list will likely generate a lot of excitement
Solidifying the lineup for the Sundance Film Festival, which is now in its 40th year, is practically a yearlong endeavor.
A team of more than a dozen festival programmers begin actively tracking films as early as February or March, reaching out to film festivals, producers and sales companies to get a sense of what’s on the horizon. With the aid of consultants, they watch movies — a lot of movies — and spend several hours a week talking about what they watched.
Eventually, gradually, the lineup falls into place.
“We arrive at this place where we feel like there’s a balanced program and it’s saying a lot of different things about the world we live in and who’s making films and the stories that they’re telling,” John Nein, who has been a Sundance Film Festival programmer for 20 years, told the Deseret News on a Zoom call. “And it just feels right.”
The Sundance Film Festival received a record number of submissions this year: 17,435. Of those entries, 4,400 were feature-length films, and over half of those submissions were international — a statistic that illustrates the wide reach of the festival headquartered in Park City, Utah.
On Wednesday, the festival revealed its 2024 lineup, which includes 82 feature films and eight episodic programs. The celebrity list will likely generate a lot of excitement for festivalgoers — Pedro Pascal, Kristen Stewart, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Jesse Eisenberg, Will Ferrell, Oprah and Woody Harrelson, to name a few.
The festival — which runs in Park City and Salt Lake City from Jan. 18-28 (there will be an online presence during the latter half) — will also see the return of several established writers and directors, including “School of Rock” director Richard Linklater; Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the filmmaking duo behind “Captain Marvel”; and Steven Soderbergh, director of “Erin Brockovich” and the “Ocean’s” trilogy.
But what really excites Nein about the upcoming program is the fact that 40 of the 101 feature film directors who made the cut are first-time feature filmmakers — a fitting statistic for the festival’s 40th edition.
“It’s the discovery part, the people who are going to be making movies for (the next) 40 years,” he said. “Go and try something that you don’t know.”
Here’s a brief overview of the festival lineup — including the rise of biographies and AI films, and Nein’s top five picks.
Popular themes at Sundance: Biographies, AI and more
Festival programmers don’t go after specific themes when they set out to create a lineup. But trends do naturally emerge. Lately, Nein has noticed a rise in the number of biographical films, including documentary and narrative fiction.
And that’s apparent in the festival’s lineup.
There’s “Frida,” which explores the life of renowned artist Frida Kahlo, and is told in her own words through her diary entries, letters, essays and interviews. And there’s “Luther: Never Too Much,” which features interviews from Foxx and Oprah and covers the ups and downs of Luther Vandross’ career. “Sue Bird: In the Clutch” dives into the WNBA legend’s career and recent retirement. “Devo” chronicles how the new wave band emerged out of the Kent State massacre and achieved stardom with the 1980 hit “Whip It.”
Perhaps one of the biggest draws of this season’s festival is “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story,” which will premiere on opening night in Salt Lake City Jan. 19 and brings viewers into the late actor’s life through “never-before-seen home movies and extraordinary personal archive,” according to the film’s description.
“It’s a really beautiful portrait of this man who taught the world that a person could fly and then has this tragedy befall him but becomes a ... pioneer in disability rights,” Nein said. “It’s an incredibly inspiring film.”
Nein said he’s also noticed a continuing shift in the way directors are using genre and finding different ways to tell stories. He pointed to the Australian horror film “The Moogai,” which uses a “mythical creature from indigenous lore” as a vehicle “to talk about the Stolen Generations in Australia, and the Aboriginal children who were taken from their families as part of the government’s assimilation policies.”
Festival programmers also saw a lot of entries about technology and AI. The documentary “Love Machina” shows futurists Martine and Bina Rothblatt transferring Bina’s consciousness to robot form as a way to immortalize their love. The nonfiction feature film “Eternal You” shows how “startups are using AI to create avatars that allow relatives to talk with their loved ones after they have died,” per the film’s description.
And “Love Me,” starring Kristen Stewart and Steve Yeun of “The Walking Dead” and “Minari” fame, shows a love story in a post-human world. And it’s one of many films that Nein is particularly excited about.
Sundance Festival 40th edition: The top 5 picks
With such a robust lineup, it’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite. But Nein did share five of his top picks.
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Steve Yeun.
From first-time feature film directors Sam and Andy Zuchero, the film shows a love story in a world long after humanity’s extinction. The film tells the story of a buoy and a satellite that meet online and fall in love. Nein called it “one of the bigger films in the festival.” It also earned the 2024 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize for its “outstanding depiction of science and technology in a feature film,” according to a news release.
‘The American Society of Magical Negroes’
Starring: Justice Smith, David Alan Grier, An-Li Bogan, Drew Tarver, Rupert Friend, Nicole Byer.
From comedian and first-time filmmaker Kobi Libii, “The American Society of Magical Negroes” is about a young Black artist who “is recruited into a secret society of magical Black people who dedicate their lives to a cause of utmost importance: making white people’s lives easier,” per the film’s description. “It is a brilliant social satire, and I think that’s very rare these days,” Nein said, adding that Libii is a “fantastic, young filmmaker.”
Starring: Pedro Pascal, Jay Ellis, Normani Kordei Hamilton, Dominique Thorne, Ben Mendelsohn, Ji-Young Yoo.
From “Captain Marvel” duo Fleck and Boden, “Freaky Tales” is a “brilliant mashup of genres,” Nein said. Set in 1987 Oakland, the film shows “a mysterious force” guiding the town’s underdogs in four interconnected stories: “Teen punks defend their turf against Nazi skinheads, a rap duo battles for hip-hop immortality, a weary henchman gets a shot at redemption, and an NBA All-Star settles the score,” per the film’s description.
Nein called the four-chapter story “mindblowingly creative” and said it has a “great cast.” He also noted that Fleck and Boden had their career start at Sundance 20 years ago with the 2004 short film “Gowanus, Brooklyn.”
Starring: Juan Jesús Varela, Yadira Pérez, Alexis Varela, Sandra Lorenzano, Jairo Hernández, Kevin Aguilar.
From directors/screenwriters/producers Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez, “Sujo” tells the coming of age story of Sujo, a boy whose father has been killed in cartel violence. “It completely reframes the notion of what a story about cartel violence is,” Nein said. “It’s about a child kind of growing up and this question about to what degree is his fate determined by this past or by self-determination by who he is, by this moral character that he forges?”
‘Handling the Undead’
Starring: Renate Reinsve, Bjørn Sundquist, Bente Børsum, Anders Danielsen Lie, Bahar Pars.
“Handling the Undead” comes from director/screenwriter Thea Hvistendahl and screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist, who is the author of the acclaimed horror story “Let the Right One In.” But “Handling the Undead” is a “very, very different film” from ‘Let the Right One In,’” Nein said.
“It is about the undead, but in a way that you have never seen in a film before,” he said. It’s almost as if it is a drama, and a very moving human portrait of what it would mean if somebody close to you, a loved one, was reanimated. It’s creepy, but it’s actually incredibly moving. ... It’s hard to come out of a pandemic and watch this movie and not reflect on the notion of how we’ve all had to come to terms with loss and grief.”
Expect more updates from the festival
Nein said people can expect more announcements — including films and screenings — in the coming days and weeks. He also hinted at a special celebration for the festival’s 40th edition, which will include showing “a film that has a very strong connection to Utah that became a cult classic.” He didn’t reveal the title, but next month does happen to mark the 20th anniversary of “Napoleon Dynamite,” which had its premiere at the Sundance Festival in 2004. But there’s also “SLC Punk,” which premiered at the festival in 1999.
For more information about the lineup and festival schedule, visit festival.sundance.org.