Advertisement

Sundance 2024: Sebastian Stan as a New Man, Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Schwartzman in Pain, Kristen Stewart in Trouble, and More Best-of-Fest Films

Photo courtesy A24

The Sundance Film Festival! Where careers are made, irrational post-screening exuberance rules, and celebrities pose glamorously in snowstorms! This year marked the festival’s 40th anniversary, and while I wasn’t able to attend, I was able to catch more than 20 of the movies on this year’s lineup through the magic of press screening links, previews in New York, and the festival's online component. I saw classics in the making, standout performances from stars I always knew had it in them, and new talent bursting off the screen. Here are some of the 2024 Sundance films to keep an eye out for.

The standout for Stan

Is Sebastian Stan crafting one of the most exciting post-Marvel careers? I'd venture to say yes, especially now that I've seen A Different Man. Director Aaron Schimberg’s film stars Stan as Edward, an actor who has a facial deformity. Insecure about his appearance, he’s drawn out of his shell a bit when vivacious playwright Ingrid (Renate Reinsve) moves in next door. Still frustrated by his outsider status, Edward undergoes an experimental treatment that turns him into someone who looks like Sebastian Stan. He uses this as an opportunity to start a new life, only to eventually learn that Ingrid has written a play very clearly (though not explicitly) based on her interactions with him. Only she doesn't recognize this new handsome person who comes in to audition. A Different Man is a cunning goof on the inner vanity of actors as well as a clever and sometimes troubling dissection of the difference between good looks and personal charisma. And while Reinsve and British actor Adam Pearson—who has neurofibromatosis, meaning he possesses facial features Edward once had—are great, it all hinges on Stan's savvy performance as a man who will never be truly comfortable in his own skin.

The tiny dramas that will get into your head

The classic idea of a quote-unquote "Sundance film” is the little indie with a big heart. That's a description that can imply a certain amount of corniness. That is not the case with these two films that are both movies that can be described as intimate, but are two of the best of the festival. Good One, by director India Donaldson, is the story of a teenage girl Sam (Lily Collias) who goes on a hiking trip with her dad (James Le Gros) and his longtime friend (Danny McCarthy). Sam is forced to listen as the adults unpack the grievances of their middle-aged lives, and it's mostly an observational piece about the distance that grows between a child and a parent as they both age. But it hinges on a moment that's as distressing as it is heartbreaking, perfectly played by breakout Collias. Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s Ghostlight, meanwhile, is also a film about children and parents, starring a real-life family—Keith Kupferer, Tara Mallen, and their daughter Katherine Mallen Kupferer. Kupferer plays a construction worker who is in the midst of a legal case revolving around the death of his son when he is recruited to join a local theater company's production of Romeo and Juliet. Though uneasy with acting, Kupferer's Dan finds comfort in the theater as the themes of the play help him connect to both his aspiring-actress daughter and the son he’s lost.

The great new moments in American Jewish cinema

As someone who has obsessed over the canon of American Jewish films, I was thrilled to see two new entries grace the Sundance lineup this year. Jesse Eisenberg's A Real Pain has turned out to be one of the biggest hits from the festival, selling to Searchlight for $10 million, and deservedly so. It's an elegant and elegiac offering from Eisenberg; he and Kieran Culkin star as cousins who go on a Holocaust tour of Poland in honor of their deceased grandmother, a survivor. As these two relatives unpack their own emotional history they are faced with the legacy of trauma they inherited and how it reverberates in their lives. What that results in is a wrenching film that digs into how people perceive the past in relation to themselves. While tonally ways away from A Real Pain, director Nate Silver’s Between the Temples also dissects how Jews suffer. It focuses on a cantor (Jason Schwartzman) whose wife’s death has left him emotionally blocked and unable to sing. One drunken night out he runs into his old music teacher, portrayed by the always wonderful Carol Kane. Soon, she's in his office asking to get Bat Mitzvahed. It's an odd couple story with shades of Harold and Maude that takes some psychedelic detours and is as funny as it is moving.

The horror movie that will slay on Netflix

One of the biggest deals at the festival so far went to It's What's Inside, which Netflix ended up buying for a whopping $17 million. And it makes sense that the streamer shelled out for it. It's a stylish—sometimes arguably too stylized—thriller about a group of college pals who reunite the night before the wedding of one member of their clique at his mother's mansion, which doubles as an art installation. There are a number of contrivances that get everyone into the same space, but those contrivances don't really matter when the creepy plot kicks into gear. The one friend who was expelled comes bearing grudges and a suitcase which contains a party game of sorts. This so-called game also has magical properties that force the crew to unearth old grudges and attractions. At the risk of spoiling too much, it leads the actors to switch personas and the audience to question who is doing what and who is making out with who and who is risking death. It's a fun ride that will be pleasing on the couch.

The queer soon-to-be-obsessions

The hot studio A24 launched two new films during the midnight section of Sundance that are destined to become sensations. The first is Jane Schoenbrun's I Saw the TV Glow, an exquisitely surreal piece that defies easy genre categorization. Set in the 1990s, it follows two loner teens (Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine) who are obsessed with a Buffy-esque television show called The Pink Opaque. Their intense fandom becomes something deeper as they grow up. Deeply rooted in Schoenbrun's personal experience with gender transition as well as pop culture lore, I Saw the TV Glow is both alluring and terrifying, with images that will lodge in your brain and a soundtrack that absolutely rocks, featuring the likes of Phoebe Bridgers and Sloppy Jane. And then there's Love Lies Bleeding from Rose Glass, who made the excellent 2020 religious horror Saint Maud. Glass's latest stars Kristen Stewart as a gym employee who starts dating a new-in-town body builder (Katy O'Brian). But this is no rom-com. It's a lurid affair with tons of gore that plays like an homage to pulpy thrillers of yore—a touch of Bound and a dash of She-Hulk. Frankly, it rules.

The movie that will make you remember 2020, whether you want to or not

I can't imagine anyone is hankering to be transported back to the summer of 2020, but if you have to, it might as well be with Stress Positions, a deft comedy from director Theda Hammel. The reliably hilarious John Early plays Terry, recently split from his husband, who is playing host to his nephew, Bahlul (Qaher Harhash), a Moroccan model, while he recovers from an injury. Terry is intensely neurotic about COVID exposure—he even sprays the air after someone not in his "bubble" passes—which becomes a problem when the beautiful Bahlul becomes a source of fascination among his friends. Hammel, who also stars, has crafted a film that's part farce and part brutal satire of the queer Brooklyn bourgeoisie.

The doc that will break your heart

There were plenty of wonderful docs at Sundance this year. I was fascinated and devastated by Sugarcane, about an abusive indigenous boarding school, and I even had a lot of fun with The Greatest Night in Pop, about the making of "We Are The World." (Have you ever wanted to see Bob Dylan look deeply uncomfortable for an extended period of time? Watch this. It's out on Netflix January 29.) But no doc I watched worked my tear ducts like Ibelin, from director Benjamin Ree. The film tells the story of Mats Steen, a Norwegian man who died at the age of 25 from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. His parents believed he lived a lonely existence, sequestering himself to play video games. But when he died, he left behind his password, and they discovered he had a vibrant life in the universe of World of Warcraft, playing as a character called Ibelin. Ibelin was a leader, a wise friend, and he even carried out romances. Ree documents Steen's virtual adventure not just through interviews with his friends, but also by having animators recreate his interactions inside the game, showing us scenes as Steen experienced them. Both artfully done and emotionally expansive, it will have you sobbing when it hits Netflix sometime in the future.

The beautiful Indian drama

The great thing about a festival like Sundance is sometimes word of mouth can lead you to a must-see film that wasn't on your radar. That was the case with Girls Will Be Girls, which ended up being one of my favorites of the fest. Shuchi Talati's film centers on Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) a studious girl who finds herself falling for the new boy at her school, Sri (Kesav Binoy Kiron). As she upholds the rules for her other classmates, she is tempted to break them herself, all while under the watchful eye of her mother Anila (Kani Kusruti). But Mira and Anila's relationship is not as simple as "strict mother" vs. "willful daughter." Anila both encourages Mira, inviting Sri over, and stifles the romance, engaging in a flirtation with Sri herself. It all makes for an evocative portrait of a teen girl's awakening—both sexually and emotionally.

Originally Appeared on GQ