It’s a big year for the Sundance Film Festival. Now in its 40th year, the festival received a record number of submissions for this year’s lineup — a staggering 17,435, the Deseret News previously reported.
Among 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.
Roughly 90 films will screen at Sundance from Jan. 18 through Jan. 28 — plus, there will be special screenings of eight festival throwbacks to celebrate the 40th season.
Here’s a look at 12 films we’re excited to check out, including big-name documentaries, potential awards contenders and movies with premises we just couldn’t resist.
‘A Real Pain’
The comedy-drama “A Real Pain” boasts a promising cast, including Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network,” “Adventureland”), “Dirty Dancing” star Jennifer Grey and Kieran Culkin, who is fresh off an Emmy win for his lead role in the drama “Succession.”
Eisenberg wrote and directed “A Real Pain” — his second film as director — which tells the story of cousins David and Benji, who go on a heritage tour throughout Poland to honor their late grandmother.
Eisenberg has said that much of the movie is based on his family’s personal history, noting that they “even filmed a scene at the little apartment that my family fled from in 1938.”
“What makes the movie resonant for me is that (the cousins’) complicated relationship is set against the backdrop of the history and trauma of Eastern Europe and the Second World War,” Eisenberg said in a video shared on the Sundance Institute’s YouTube channel. “So it kind of frames their personal troubles in a global perspective and allows me to explore the question of pain. Specifically, how do we reconcile our contemporary struggles against the backdrop of historical trauma?”
‘Between the Temples’
In her 60s, Nathan Silver’s mother wanted to have a bat mitzvah, a rite of passage typically reserved for teenagers. A friend encouraged Silver to turn that premise into a movie, leading to the Sundance premiere of “Between the Temples,” a comedy that explores an unlikely bond between a cantor in a crisis of faith and his grade-school music teacher who reenters his life as his new adult bat mitzvah student, Variety reported.
The film stars Carol Kane (“The Princess Bride,” “Annie Hall”) and Wes Anderson favorite Jason Schwartzman (“Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”). And while Silver’s mother never did end up having her bat mitzvah, in the director’s eyes, her part in “Between the Temples” is the most important of all: “She’s seen it and gave it a good review,” he told Variety. “She’s the only critic that counts.”
Inspired by coming-of-age classics like “Stand By Me,” “Didi” explores the genre through a Taiwanese American teenager who spends the summer before high school learning how to skate, flirt and love his mom.
Although the film is not autobiographical, it is loosely inspired by director Sean Wang’s upbringing in Fremont, California, and pieces of his childhood are peppered throughout — including the use of his actual childhood bedroom and his real grandmother playing the role of the grandmother in the film.
“Wang’s determination to make a film he wished he had seen as a child and making sure his culture was represented on the big screen is evident in Dìdi (弟弟),” according to a news release shared with the Deseret News. “He noticed the lack of people who looked like him and his friends in the types of coming of age stories that he loved, and used his visions of seeing a boy who looked like him on a movie poster one day as a key source of motivation.”
“Didi” marks Wang’s debut feature film, but his documentary short, “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó” (Grandma & Grandma), was recently acquired by Disney+ and was one of 15 films included in the Oscars shortlist for the documentary short film category.
“Freaky Tales,” featuring the “The Last of Us” and “Mandalorian” star Pedro Pascal, is an opening night film at Sundance — and it’s a top pick from John Nein, a longtime festival programmer who helped solidify this year’s lineup.
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 it a “brilliant mashup of genres” and said the four-chapter story was “mindblowingly creative.” “Freaky Tales” comes from “Captain Marvel” directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who had their career start at Sundance 20 years ago with the 2004 short film “Gowanus, Brooklyn.”
“Frida,” an exploration of artist Frida Kahlo, comes to Sundance 70 years after her death — but the story is told entirely through her words. With access to Kahlo’s diary, letters, essays and interviews, the documentary brings viewers into the artist’s life.
“Ultimately this film is about someone who couldn’t hold back her voice,” director Carla Gutierrez said in a Sundance Institute video. “Her emotions really bled into her canvases, and I hope that this film brings her closer to you and that you can connect to her amazing art in a different way.”
Gutierrez is Emmy-nominated for her work on Oscar-nominated documentaries like 2018’s “RBG” and “La corona” in 2008. “Frida,” an Amazon Studios documentary, will hit Prime Video globally on March 15, according to a news release shared with the Deseret News.
‘Handling the Undead’
“Handling the Undead,” directed by Thea Hvistendahl, is based on the 2005 book from Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who is well known for the acclaimed horror story “Let the Right One In.” It’s also another top pick from Nein, who called it a “very, very different film” from “Let the Right One In.”
“It is about the undead, but in a way that you have never seen in a film before,” he previously told the Deseret News. “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.”
“Love Me” has already generated a ton of buzz before its official premiere at Sundance. Starring Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun — who just won his first Emmy for his lead role in the Netflix series “Beef” — “Love Me” takes place long after humanity’s extinction, exploring the story of a buoy and a satellite that meet online and fall in love.
The movie, from first-time feature film directors Sam and Andy Zuchero, 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.
“That first screening, it felt like people had put nitrous oxide in the vents. I’d never seen a reaction to a film like that,” John Sloss, a producer’s representative for “Napoleon Dynamite,” previously told the Deseret News. “The movie was so odd, but genuinely, organically odd, like nothing any of the buyers had ever seen before. Jared and Jerusha (the writers) are such normal, down-to-earth people, and yet they created something that seemed to almost come from another planet.”
Although it had its critics, “Napoleon Dynamite” became a cult classic, and the Sundance Festival is bringing it back this year. A showing of the film is one of several special screenings taking place to celebrate the festival’s 40th season.
‘Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story’
In “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story,” filmmakers Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui move back and forth between the impact of two pivotal moments in the late actor’s career: Being cast as Superman in 1978, and becoming paralyzed in 1995.
“It’s about the ultimate screen superhero, Christopher Reeve,” Ettedgui said in a Sundance Institute video. “The other part of the story is he suffers this tragic accident at age 42 and I think he then becomes a true hero in life. So for us, counterpointing those two stories was always going to be the center of the film.”
The directors worked closely with Reeve’s family as they put this film together, accessing a treasure trove of home movies and personal archives to show how Reeve went from a fledgling actor to a movie star to a face of disability activism. Reeve’s family — who will be in attendance at the festival — also appear in the documentary to share their reflections on life before and after the accident.
“It’s been a very wonderful and moving film to make,” Ettedgui said.
‘The Greatest Night in Pop’
“The Greatest Night in Pop” explores the epic 1985 recording session of “We are the World” — a charity single that brought together 46 music legends, including Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder.
The documentary, which premieres at Sundance before it hits Netflix on Jan. 29, dives into the creation of “We Are the World.” In a Netflix trailer, Richie recalls writing the song with Jackson and how penning the lyrics came down to the wire. Springsteen says he signed up for the project without even knowing who would be there — and it became the ultimate who’s who of 1980s music.
With Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn,” “Lady Bird,” “Little Women”) at its center, “The Outrun” tells the story of a woman named Rona, who leaves a rough life in London for her Scotland home in an attempt to come to terms with her troubled past and find healing. The film is adapted from journalist Amy Liptrot’s award-winning memoir.
A few years ago, Josh Margolin’s grandmother got tricked by someone pretending to be him, and it nearly cost her thousands of dollars. As the scam unfolded, Margolin began to imagine what it would’ve been like if his grandmother had taken things into her own hands.
And that was the inspiration for “Thelma,” an action movie that shows 93-year-old Thelma embarking “on a treacherous quest across the city to claim what was taken from her” after getting swindled by phone scammers, Margolin said in a Sundance Institute video. The director said the film is inspired by his grandmother’s story and movies like “Mission: Impossible.”
“I wanted to tell her story with the tools of a genre that could capture her spirit and her tenacity, and for me, that was action,” Margolin said, noting that the film uses the tropes of the genre to explore themes of aging and anxiety.
“Thelma” stars 94-year-old actress June Squibb — and marks her first leading role in her career of 70-plus years.
“She carries the thing on her shoulders,” Margolin said. “She also terrifyingly did most of her own stunts, so I think Tom Cruise would be proud.”