UPDATED throughout with new buys. Despite some initial trepidation, big sales were not in short supply at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with Netflix spending big on everything from “It’s What’s Inside” to “Skywalkers: A Love Story,” Searchlight Pictures going for “A Real Pain,” Amazon MGM getting in on the “My Old Ass” action, Neon wisely snapping up “Presence,” and Sony Pictures Classics getting down with “Kneecap” (in addition to a number of other pick-ups, both pre-festival and on the ground in Park City), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of superior films still looking for homes.
Of the still-for-sale titles that premiered at this year’s festival, there’s plenty to intrigue all sorts of buyers, from those looking for films with excellent performances that could inspire major awards pushes (like Saoirse Ronan in “The Outrun”), those in search of the next big director (like India Donaldson, Sean Wang, and Haley Elizabeth Anderson), or documentary lovers looking for films with incredible real world impact (“Daughters,” “Union”) and fascinating true stories (“Nocturnes,” “Every Little Thing”).
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And while it’s still early days (the festival did, after all, just officially wrap yesterday), given the incredible assortment of films still looking for homes, we can’t help but tout their allure to all interested buyers. These aren’t just the best available films from Sundance, they’re some of the very best of the fest, full stop, and wider audiences deserve to see them, too.
If you’re looking for more of our Sundance coverage, you can find it all right here. In need of our recs for the best films of the festival? Head here. Want to check out our video interviews from our studio? They live here. Interested in which films have already been picked up for distribution? We’ve got that. And, if you’re really wanting to bone up on your Sundance 2024 knowledge, head on over to our list of the festival’s biggest breakout talents.
Wilson Chapman also contributed to this article.
“Between the Temples”
“Stinking Heaven” and “Thirst Street” director Nathan Silver was rejected by the Sundance Film Festival more than a dozen times before finally landing his first competition slot with “Between the Temples,” a scabrously funny, very Jewish comedy co-written by Silver and C. Mason Wells. A schlubby Jason Schwartzman plays a widowed cantor whose crisis of faith is interrupted by a new bat mitzvah student: his former grade school music teacher, played by a charmingly batty and brash Carol Kane.
The rest of the ensemble is filled with scene-stealers, from Dolly De Leon as Schwartzman’s snappy converted-to-Judaism lesbian mother (along with Caroline Aaron) to Madeline Weinstein as the rabbi’s sexually precocious, desperate actress daughter they try to set him up with. Silver’s screwball comedy is his most warm-hearted work, and the cast alone (and strong reviews out of Sundance) should help this alternately wince-inducing and touching film find an audience, Jewish or not, though the former will certainly resonate. —RL
An enormously moving documentary made all the more effective by co-directors Angela Patton and Natalie Rae’s steadfast refusal to settle for easy sentiment in the face of difficult outcomes, “Daughters” has as much ugly-cry potential as anything in recent memory. But the most lasting power of this film — about a unique father-daughter dance for D.C.-area Black girls whose fathers are in jail — comes in a final act that wipes those tears away to examine the hurt they leave behind.
A damning portrait of America’s prison-industrial complex that doubles as a heart-wrenching plea on behalf of the families that it tears apart, “Daughters” is the sort of Sundance documentary that feels like it could become a legitimate sensation in the right hands, and the fact that it’s a surefire awards contender should only sweeten the deal for any distributor willing to dive headfirst into the shaky market for non-fiction fare. —DE (UPDATE: Netflix purchased the film on January 30.)
Anybody who’s suffered through the experience of being a 13-year-old probably knew a boy who acted like Chris Wang (Izaac Wang). A braces-faced edgelord fresh out of middle school, Chris spends the summer of 2008 before freshman year tossing around casually sexist and homophobic jokes with his friends, surfing the web on his bulky PC, and generally acting like a self-destructive brat towards everyone around him. He’s horrifically unappreciative of his mother Chungsing (a wonderful Joan Chen) who’s left to look after her kids while her husband works in Taiwan, an outright demon to his college-bound older sister Vivian (Shirley Chen), and quick to push away and ignore his friends. But his bark doesn’t translate to any real bite; like many kids his age, all that bluster belies a sweet, extremely insecure heart.
Chris Wang is the main character of “Dìdi,” the debut feature of Fremont, California-born filmmaker Sean Wang. As the shared last name between director and subject suggests, the film is absolutely drenched in signifiers of a semi-autobiographical story. Like Sean Wang, Chris (nicknamed Wang-Wang by friends) is a Fremont-raised son of Taiwanese immigrants, and has a budding interest in film that manifests in making incoherent YouTube prank videos. At once a deeply personal story and a wonderfully universal exploration of all the pains and pleasures of coming of age, Wang’s film plays a bit like, as at least one IndieWire staffer termed it, “‘Eighth Grade’ for boys,” and a smart distributor could really make something special out of that. Bonus: Wang got nominated for an Oscar while at Sundance, thanks to his short film “Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó.” What a story, right? —WC and KE (UPDATE: Focus Features purchased the film on January 31.)
“Every Little Thing”
Terry calls them “the finders.” They call her at all hours. They text. They come by, and sometimes they come by again. They arrive bearing tiny boxes filled with precious, delicate cargo. They ask advice. They don’t always take it. And they so, so badly want their discoveries to live.
In Sally Aitken’s delicate, immensely touching documentary “Every Little Thing,” those finders are regular, everyday people who a) somehow find injured hummingbirds in the Los Angeles area, and b) have the luck of discovering Terry Masear’s nearby hummingbird rescue, where she attends to hundreds of birds each year, hopefully nursing them back to health and releasing them into the world.
Aitken doesn’t skimp on incredible, immersive hummingbird footage, all bright colors and fast-flapping wings, quick little tails, shining pinprick eyes. Hummingbirds are so delicate, so feather-light, so special, it’s easy to see why Terry has dedicated her later life to saving them. Any nature-centric distributor should already be looking at “Every Little Thing” for its next big hit, the rare film that can work as both education tool and emotional experience. —KE
A slight but sensitive and fantastically assured debut that unfolds with the pointillistic detail of a great short story, India Donaldson’s “Good One” is a coming-of-age story that jettisons all of the genre’s most familiar trappings in favor of a long walk in the woods. It’s a camping trip, really, as a queer 17-year-old girl named Sam (extraordinary newcomer Lily Collias) tags along with her dad Chris (character actor James Le Gros, feasting on a nuanced leading role) and his equally divorced friend Matt (Danny McCarthy) for a weekend hike through the wilds of upstate New York. Things in nature turn out to be pretty similar to how they are at home, as the grown-ups are too busy relying on Sam to keep the peace and take care of them that they fail to appreciate that her sense of self is evolving right before their very eyes. That failure will have enormous consequences, as Donaldson’s immaculate debut collects its various micro-aggressions into a shattering portrait about the ways that kids lose touch with their parents, and how the lines of communications between them tend to petrify whenever keeping them open becomes too painful.
“Good One” is a small movie that will have to rely on rave reviews and Indie Spirit noms for the sort of attention that might be afforded to starrier Sundance breakouts, but Donaldson’s film seemed to resonate with just about everyone at the festival who saw it, and there’s enormous upside to a low-cost acquisition with this much potential to become a word-of-mouth hit. Here’s hoping a smart, focused distributor seizes on the opportunity and gives this one the love it deserves. —DE
“Look Into My Eyes”
Produced by A24 but still in search of distribution, Lana Wilson’s kooky and surprisingly poignant doc about New York City psychics furthers the “Miss Americana” director’s obsession with the various ways that people connect to each other through their most intimate pain. Here, Wilson’s interest in the power of stagecraft leads her to seven certified seers, most of whom share an outsized interest in the performing arts (“failed actors” would be the ungenerous way of describing them), and none of whom are convincing in their ability to communicate with the spirit world.
Skeptical as this film might be, however, “Look Into My Eyes” isn’t the least bit interested in laughing at its subjects or diminishing their value. On the contrary, the longer it spends observing their sessions, and the deeper it digs into the psychics’ personal wounds, the more compellingly it argues that the suspended disbelief these people offer to their clients is a gift unto itself — one as potentially real and transformative as the movies themselves. Funny, mesmeric, and infinitely memeable, “Look Into My Eyes” has as much breakout potential as any of the docs that played at Sundance this year, and a boutique distributor would be smart to grab it off the market before A24 realizes the full value of what it paid for. —DE
At first, you will likely think you’re hearing steady raindrops falling on the large, lit-up tarp that ecologist Mansi Mungee and her Bugun assistant Bicki carefully spread out each night in the far reaches of the Eastern Himalayan forest. It’s a gentle, constant patter, soothing and a little strange. But as filmmakers Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan pull out from the tarp, into the clear and dark evening air, you’ll realize: it’s not rain, it’s moths.
In “Nocturnes,” Dutta and Srinivasan’s alluring, immersive documentary, such discoveries are commonplace, an unfolding stream of curious observations that build to a deeply satisfying conclusion. But that doesn’t mean that the film‘s end in any way signifies, well, an end, as it seems more likely to inspire a desire for continued engagement and education on the winged creatures that populate it. Put it this way: If audiences don’t walk out of “Nocturnes” immediately googling “hawk moths,” they’ve simply been too temporarily dazzled to re-enter a world of fast-paced technology. That’s a good thing.
While “Nocturnes” seems like an obvious pick for a NatGeo or some such, this writer was lucky enough to experience it in a Dolby Atmos-outfitted theater, which made every sound (every wing flap! every plop onto the tarp!) sound absolutely gorgeous. A distributor looking to play up the beauty and joy of this film, and how it must be seen in a theater, a true experience, could make some magic here. —KE
A towering piece of landscape art when compared to the 85-minute doodles that tend to premiere at Sundance these days, Nora Fingscheidt’s “The Outrun” will be snapped up by a deep-pocketed distributor in the very near future — Saoirse Ronan’s commanding lead performance in her first modern-set movie since 2015 is enough to make sure of that. But whichever outfit is lucky enough to buy the American rights to this windswept adaptation of Amy Liptrot’s memoir will have more than a Best Actress contender on its hands, as Ronan’s turn as a recovering alcoholic who retreats to her family’s home on the Orkney Islands is the beating heart of a visceral character study about a woman who learns how to find the strength in the extremes of her own nature.
While recovery dramas are a dime a dozen at Sundance, this elemental story about the human capacity for transformation is both raw enough to seem personal, and vast enough to feel epic. It’s easy to picture a smart distributor grabbing this off the market now in advance of a grand re-introduction at Telluride and Toronto in the fall. —DE
Finnish filmmaker Mikko Mäkelä takes us into the shadow worlds of niche sexuality and queer sex work in London’s most sterile apartments and grayly desolate hotels in his new film “Sebastian.” This provocative, explicit, and ultimately tender drama stars newcomer Ruaridh Mollica as Max, a 25-year-old literary journalist writing a novel about a sex worker named Sebastian — and to get to the root of the thing, Max decides that he, too, must submerge himself in that very underworld.
As a psychological portrait of an aspiring writer who gets too immersed in his own project, “Sebastian” is never as piercing as star Mollica’s eyes and chiseled face. But the performance is affecting, and Mäkelä brandishes an ambient, lulling sense of style that evokes the loneliness at Max’s core. Internationally savvy gay film fans with a taste for the kinky and sad will want to check out this understated but occasionally quite graphic and sexy new work that could find audiences at LGBTQ festivals and with the help of a niche queer distributor or streamer. —RL
Like “American Honey” directed by Larry Clark in the 1990s, “Tendaberry” takes a tough, ever-expanding look at a young Dominican woman’s life as she struggles to make it in New York for the first time. Living in Coney Island, which is here stripped of color and lacquered with grittiness by cinematographer Matthew Ballard, Dakota (bright newcomer Kota Jonah) lives with her Ukrainian boyfriend Yuri in a tenement-style apartment where she’s happy nonetheless. But when Yuri must return to Ukraine to care for his ailing father, just on the eve of Russia’s invasion, Dakota is left adrift, alone, and in freefall in the city, eking out a wobbly living across debasing jobs that take her from a scrubby convenience store to a strip club.
Writer/director Haley Elizabeth Anderson’s ambitiously scaled movie features archival footage of Coney Island spanning the 20th century, as well as a plaintive voiceover and Malickian montages that occasionally stretch the film to the edges of, “Is this about to become an Apple commercial?” But that’s only because such montages have trained viewers to become so cynical. Nevertheless, “Tendaberry” is a fiercely compelling watch, with an emotional climax that seems to directly nod to “Honey” filmmaker’s “Fish Tank.” There’s even danger here in the urban underworld, recalling the Safdies’ “Heaven Knows What.” A niche distributor should be able to connect this movie to Gen Z cinephiles, at least, but there’s something for even more adventurous audiences here despite the two-hour running time. —RL
Well, we know a couple of distributors who are definitely not going to buy Stephen Maing and Brett Story’s tough and gripping documentary about the fight to unionize the workers of an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, as it’s safe to say that neither Prime Video nor Amazon MGM Studios will be much interested in platforming a film that opens with a massive middle finger to Jeff Bezos, and then spends the rest of its runtime exposing the greed and inhumanity of the mega-corporation he created.
That’s good news for just about every other distributor in the game, as this ground-level portrait of grassroots labor organizing is an immediate and necessary rallying cry for audiences everywhere; “Union” is a gripping David vs. Goliath story that honestly reckons with both the ghoulish exploitation of American workers in the 21st century, and also the challenges of achieving the solidarity required to overcome it. An unconventional (read: non-corporate), direct-to-consumer release strategy might be the most appropriate play here, but that makes this a great opportunity for a smaller distributor to snatch an essential film away from the streaming giants that might otherwise steal it away. —DE
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