Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Promising Young Woman
Photo: Focus Features

I’ve left Sundance but it hasn’t left me. Two days removed from the mad hustle of the festival—the late nights, the early mornings, the packed shuttles, the crowded screenings, the mediocre meals, the winter-camp fun of talking with fellow critics—it’s the movies that have stuck with me. As usual, I’m a little hung up on the ones I didn’t see (though, of course, in Park City, everybody seems to like everything, which makes it impossible to stay current on the “hits”). And I wish I could have found the time to write about all the ones I did, including two 1980s-set stories of fathers uprooting their families to chase their professional dreams: the slight, charming Minari and Sean Durkin’s much frostier The Nest. But it was a good year for the fest—good enough, in fact, that I’m highlighting more than the usual five favorites below. Because Sundance doesn’t really end when it ends. It lives on through the movies it unleashes into the world, extending this annual event’s reach through the months to come; by the time they’ve all opened, Park City will beckon with more.

1. The Assistant

Photo: Bleecker Street

Not entirely a Sundance movie, as Kitty Green’s methodical portrait of a day in the life of an assistant (Julia Garner) to an abusive movie executive premiered at Telluride last autumn. (It came to Park City as part of the Spotlight program.) But the film always belonged at Sundance, and not just because it exemplifies challenging independent American filmmaking. In keeping her Harvey Weinstein proxy completely offscreen, Green stresses how his pattern of exploitation was a true group effort, sustained through the silence and implied condoning of an entire industry. The real Weinstein was, of course, a major player at the festival for years, to the point where one could call his relationship with it symbiotic, the two boosting each other’s profiles and clout. Or to put it another way: Harvey made Sundance, and Sundance made Harvey. Does showing The Assistant at the fest count as an act of atonement, or at least an acknowledgement of guilt through association? Either way, there was something uncomfortable and surreal about watching it at an industry screening, among people who might have recognized a little more of themselves—and their own willingness to look the other way—in its stark depiction of institutional failure.

2. The Climb

Photo: Sundance Film Festival

What does it say that the best movies at Sundance are often the ones that show first at other festivals? The Climb, like The Assistant, is a Spotlight highlight, having first appeared at last year’s Cannes. It’s an unpredictable comedy about an unusual friendship, told in vignettes that span maybe a decade in the characters’ lives; the first one, which unfolds in a winding single take, tracks groom-to-be Kyle (Kyle Marvin) and his best man Mike (Michael Angelo Covino, who also wrote and directed) on an uphill bike ride, until a shocking revelation tears their bond asunder. Speaking again of atonement, what follows is a complicated attempt to make amends by a guilt-ridden perennial fuck-up. It’s one of the more complicated relationships put on screen at this year’s festival, and Covino, making his remarkably accomplished feature debut, builds the movie around cringe-comic set-pieces that use elaborate long takes to actually enhance the tension or emotional duress of the material. As my buddy and annual Sundance condo-mate Nick Allen put it, if this was a real Sundance premiere, it would win the U.S. Dramatic Jury Prize in a walk.

3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Photo: Focus Features

As for what may actually win the award, I’ve got a hunch it could go to Eliza Hittman’s sensitive, involving drama about a pregnant teenage girl from Pennsylvania traveling to New York City with her cousin to procure an abortion. I’ve been a skeptic of Hittman’s past work (It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats), in part because it felt like those films dragged their sullen teenage characters toward a foregone conclusion of misery and disappointment. But though Never Rarely Sometimes Always has no shortage of hardship, it has also possesses the sturdy narrative backbone of a mission, and the procedural interest in the lengths a young woman has to go to terminate an unwanted pregnancy lends the film a deeply urgent relevance. Hard to imagine Sundance ignoring that.

4. Black Bear

More pregnancy, questionably unwanted! Aubrey Plaza, in the most thrilling performance of her career, plays a young filmmaker who decamps for a week of writing at a lake house, only to get embroiled in the conflicts simmering between its owners, a failed musician (Christopher Abbott) and his expecting girlfriend (Sarah Gadon). I’ll need a second look to decide if Black Bear’s daringly bifurcated structure yields actual insights into the balancing act between romantic and creative passion. But this psychodrama—a major leap forward for Wild Canaries writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine—is witty and exhilaratingly tense throughout; I suspect it too might have a shot at the big jury prize if it wasn’t playing in Next, the program where Sundance tends to stick its most radical and adventurous selections.

5. Promising Young Woman

Photo: Focus Features

Not all of them, though. Nothing I saw at Sundance this year felt more provocative than this uneasy blend of drama, thriller, and midnight-black comedy, starring a scary (and scary-good) Carey Mulligan as an enraged thirtysomething barista waging after-hours war on a culture of would-be date rapists and those who sanction their abuse. (It would make a wild companion piece to The Assistant, both in subject matter and willingness to complicate our relationship to its heroine.) The film, which opens in April, is polished (and probably high-budgeted) enough to earn a spot on Sundance’s non-competitive Premieres slate, but its mainstream look, feel, and conventions—some borrowed from rom-com tradition—are every bit the booby trap Mulligan’s anguished avenger lays for her prey. Reviews from the festival were divisive, with some deeply offended by the twists and turns. But I can’t deny the power of a movie this simultaneously righteous and antagonistic.

6. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Photo: Sundance Film Festival

Controversy has also swirled around the latest from form-bending documentarians Bill and Turner Ross. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets presents itself as a chronicle of the very last night of a Las Vegas dive bar, following its patrons as they get hammered from open to close, celebrating the final hours of their favorite watering hole. Except the film was actually shot at a bar in New Orleans, and all the “regulars” are locals that the Ross brothers cast—decisions that have irked some purists, who insist the film shouldn’t be showing alongside less explicitly orchestrated nonfiction. Thing is, almost all documentarians bend the truth they purport to capture, in ways both big and small. Set aside the manufactured circumstances of the shoot, and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets achieves a vérité verisimilitude that’s very much in the Frederick Wiseman tradition; the drunker these genuine barflies get, the more they reveal themselves, even within an “artificial” setup. It’s funny and sad and also much more “real” than plenty of documentaries that play by the rules—a perfect encapsulation of Werner Herzog’s principle of “ecstatic truth,” the kind that can only be unearthed when you’re willing to look past the raw facts.

7. Palm Springs

I’m still mad that Popstar flopped. Andy Samberg’s new starring vehicle doesn’t quite approach the nonstop hilarity of that go-for-broke mockumentary. But it’s a very charming spin on a certain classic comedy premise, with the Lonely Island headliner as a slacker who meets his potential soul mate (a game Cristin Milioti) at a wedding, but can’t see a future for them, in both a figurative or a very literal sense. Try to avoid learning the plot device beforehand—its revelation is one of the movie’s numerous pleasures. The rare Sundance crowd-pleaser that might really please crowds outside of Sundance.

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