Back to IndieWire

Sundance 2017: 20 Must-See Films At This Year’s Festival

From returning favorites to breakout offerings to watch for, we're serving up 20 films from this year's festival that we've got our eyes on.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is mere days from unspooling in snowy Park City, Utah and, with it comes a brand new year of indie filmmaking to get excited about. As ever, the annual festival is playing home to dozens of feature films, short offerings and technologically-influenced experiences, and while there’s plenty to anticipate seeing, we’ve waded through the lineup to pick out the ones we’re most looking forward to checking out.

From returning filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry and Gillian Robesepierre to a handful of long-gestating passion projects and at least one film about a ghost, we’ve got a little something for every stripe of film fan.

READ MORE: Sundance 2017: Check Out the Full Lineup, Including Competition Titles, Premieres and Shorts

Ahead, check out 20 titles we’re excited to finally check out at this year’s festival.

“Landline”

“Landline”

OddLot Entertainment

The trifecta behind previous Sundance sensation “Obvious Child” — including star Jenny Slate, screenwriter Elisabeth Holm and co-screenwriter and director Gillian Robespierre — return to Park City with their latest feature, another fresh and funny look at growing up (perhaps a touch too late) in New York City. This one focuses on a family in pre-cell phone (you know, the 90s, the heyday of landlines) Manhattan who are rocked to discover that their patriarch has been having an affair, sending the fam’s women (including Slate, newbie Abby Quinn as her younger sister and Edie Falco as the pair’s mom) into a tailspin that helps them explore just what their family means to them — and what the hell kind of people it’s made up of. -KE

“XX”

Sick of horror anthologies made up short after short by the same filmmakers? We’ve got the cure for what ails you. This long-gestating horror anthology is made entirely by women — from known quantities like Karyn Kusama to rising stars like Roxanne Benjamin, and yes, that Annie Clark — and promises to deliver the kind of shocks and jolts and plain old screams that Sundance’s storied Midnight section is built on. Per the festival’s own synopsis, each of the four shorts is “framed around innovative animator Sofia Carrillo’s haunting tableaus,” which sounds like one heck of a scary good time to us. -KE

“To the Bone”

“To the Bone”

Courtesy of Sundance

Best known for her prodigious contributions to the modern television show — think “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Mad Men” and “unREAL,” to name just a few — famed writer and showrunner Marti Noxon goes behind the camera for her feature directorial debut, a long-in-the-works passion project about a subject close to her heart. The film stars Lily Collins as Ellen, a young anorexic who undergoes some out of the box healing in an attempt to final get a hold on the disease that’s killing her. Noxon knows more than a thing or two about how the women operate — and how they feel — so “To the Bone” should allow her the chance to show off those talents in a brand new setting. (Bonus: Keanu Reeves.). -KE

“Golden Exits”

A lot can change in just three years. In 2014, writer-director Alex Ross Perry was a bit lost in the shuffle at Sundance — his acerbically excellent “Listen Up Philip” would eventually find a variety of vocal champions (and earn a coveted spot at the New York Film Festival), but its Utah debut was overshadowed by instant sensations like “Whiplash” and buzzy junk like “Life After Beth.” But life comes at you fast, and now Perry will be coming to Park City as one of the indie world’s biggest names, as well as one of its most consistent and uncompromising. The story of a young Australian girl (Emily Browning) who sends two men into a tailspin when she comes to Brooklyn for the summer, the curiously titled “Golden Exits” is set to be Perry’s Competition debut. And with a cast that includes Adam Horovitz, Chloë Sevigny, and “Listen Up Philip” star Jason Schwartzman, it’s guaranteed to be one of the most assured films at the fest. -DE

“Call Me By Your Name”

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in Call Me By Your Name

“Call Me By Your Name”

Sundance

More than a half a decade elapsed between the 2010 release of “I Am Love” and that of last year’s “A Bigger Splash,” but suddenly prolific Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino is already back in the mix with a new film (with his “Suspiria” remake still on the way). Bringing his hyper-stylized brand of European elegance to a festival that’s more frequently associated with scrappy American heart, Guadagnino returns to Sundance with “Call Me By Your Name,” an André Aciman adaptation that he co-wrote with James Ivory (yes, that James Ivory). Set during the summer of 1983 in the sun-dappled frescos of norther Italy, the film explores the unexpected sparks that develop between a 17-year-old kid (“Miss Stevens” star Timothée Chalamet) and a hunky visiting scholar (Armie Hammer). This will be a major standout if it packs even half the coiled emotion and cool elegance of “A Bigger Splash.” -DE

“Novitiate”

America’s postwar relationship with religion has long been a subject that’s formed the basis for contemporary work and period pieces alike. But Maggie Betts’ narrative debut is poised to tackle the tumult of the 50s and 60s from actually inside a convent. This particular perspective on the era through the eyes of a young nun has the potential to engage with faith in a way that previous Sundance titles might not have been able to. Toss in a cast made up of some of the most exciting young actresses working today (Margaret Qualley, Morgan Saylor, Dianna Agron) and established vets (Melissa Leo and Julianne Nicholson) and this is one we’ll have our eyes on. -SG

“The Yellow Birds”

Alexandre Moors’ previous Sundance entry, 2013’s “Blue Caprice,” filtered the terror of the DC Sniper saga through a chilling, controlled lens. This time around, Moors will bring that patient style to the Iraq War, working from Kevin Powers’ 2012 novel about a pair of soldiers trying to stay alive in the early years of the conflict. With Alden Ehrenreich, Tye Sheridan and Jack Huston starring and “Under the Skin” DP Daniel Landin on board as well, this could be an all-around showcase for some of the most exciting emerging talent in the industry. -SG

“The Big Sick”

“The Big Sick”

Director Michael Showalter’s follow-up to his 2015 hit “Hello, My Name Is Doris” stars Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan and is based on the real-life courtship between Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon, who wrote the script together. When the aspiring comedian Kumail and grad student Emily (Kazan) fall in love, their relationship leads to a rift with Kumail’s traditional Muslim parents. Then, Emily discovers she has a mysterious illness, leaving Kumail to navigate the medical crisis with her parents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). Produced by Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel, “The Big Sick” is one of the most anticipated films playing at Sundance and is sure to be a crowdpleaser. A dramatic comedy with a romance at its center, the film co-stars Bollywood legend Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, Kurt Braunohler and Vella Lovell. -GW

“Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press”

Most people are familiar with the well-publicized legal battle between Hulk Hogan and Gawker Media, but “Nobody Speak” is more than just an inside take on that fascinating story. The documentary raises important questions about freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and how big money can silence a media organization. The trial between Hogan (real name: Terry Gene Bollea) and Gawker centered on founder Nick Denton’s decision to publish part of a secretly videotaped sexual encounter between Hogan and the wife of his former best friend. The case, which saw Hogan settle with Gawker for $31 million after being awarded a much larger sum, was the subject of a nearly 6,000-word story in the New Yorker last month. “Nobody Speak” is directed by filmmaker Brian Knappenberger, who previously directed 2014’s “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” about the programming prodigy and information activist who took his own life at the age of 26. -GW

“Beatriz at Dinner”

Director Miguel Arteta (“Youth in Revolt,” “Chuck & Buck”) and screenwriter Mike White (“School of Rock,” HBO’s “Enlightened”) have joined forces once again for what promises to be yet another offbeat, subtle gem. Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a holistic healer who, after some car trouble, gets welcomed to a client’s dinner party celebrating a lucrative business deal. Beatriz starts to sense something is not quite right and starts to question how these people have made their money. The result is what is being described as “half chamber drama, half dark dramedy of errors,” which in the hands of Arteta and White means there will be plenty of awkward laughs with an non-ironic heart. -CO

“Strong Island”

“Strong Island”

24 years ago, filmmaker Yance Ford’s brother William was shot and killed by a 19 year old white mechanic over a dispute involving a car repair. Claiming self-defense against Ford’s unarmed brother, the man was set free. The film is not only an investigation into the shooting, along with the racism and injustice of how William became a prime suspect in his own death, but a journey into the pain the filmmaker and his family have lived with for decades. Ford has spent years figuring out how best to tell this story and create a cinematic language that brings the audience inside his family’s grief, anger and confusion. Along the way, the project has been intensely nurtured and supported by doc community, including Danny Glover, Laura Poitras, the Danish team behind Josh Oppenheimer’s masterpieces (“Act of Killing” and “Look of Silence”), the Sundance Institute, Chicken & Egg and many others in the doc community. -CO

“Beach Rats”

Brooklyn-born filmmaker Eliza Hittman established herself as one to watch on her first trip to Sundance in 2013 with “It Felt Like Love,” a delicate exploration of a young girl’s grappling with her burgeoning sexuality, or lack thereof. In her sophomore feature, she applies the same nuanced intimacy to a teenage boy’s bodily yearnings. Frankie, played by dynamic newcomer Harris Dickinson, distracts himself from a miserable summer by causing trouble with his friends and flirting with older men online. Just when he begins meeting up with guys at a nearby cruising beach, he develops feelings for a young woman as well. His conflicting desires propel the film toward a dark and dangerous conclusion. With a screenplay developed at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2015, and cinematography by “Pina” DP Hélène Louvart, “Beach Rats” will certainly deliver — and likely build — on the promise Hittman showed in 2013. –JD

“Mudbound”

From what we’ve heard, Dee Rees’ epic period drama set in the post-WWII South is shaping up to be one of the hottest films at the festival, and the year. Starring the likes of Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, and a career re-defining turn from none other than Mary J. Blige, Rees’ newest feature will surely make her a household name along the lines of Ava DuVernay or Barry Jenkins. As first features tend to do, “Pariah,” which played Sundance in 2011, mirrored Rees’ personal experiences coming of age as a black queer woman, and the raw but not overwrought portrayal earned the film multiple awards. Rees also directed the Queen Latifah vehicle, “Bessie,” which took home four Emmy Awards in 2015. The screenplay, written by Rees and Virgil Williams, is based on a novel by Hillary Jordan about two families in the rural South in the years immediately following WWII. One family owns the land, and the others work it. When their prodigal sons return from the war, they strike up an unlikely friendship that explodes both families’ worldviews. “Mudbound” finds Rees applying her restrained sensitivity to the kind of grand, sweeping tales that garner the highest of Hollywood’s honors. -JD

“A Ghost Story”

“A Ghost Story”

At the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, David Lowery emerged as one of the major new indie directors to watch with his lyrical “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Now the threesome makes their big return to Park City with “A Ghost Story,” a small-scalle, intimate drama that is perhaps the farthest thing from Lowery’s last directorial effort, the Disney family blockbuster “Pete’s Dragon.” The story finds the ghost of Affleck’s character returning home to watch over his grief-stricken lover (Mara). A24 has already picked up distribution rights to the film, which is the first sign that “A Ghost Story” is probably like nothing you’re expecting. With these three leading the charge, we can’t wait to find out what it is. -ZS

“I Don’t Feel at Home In This World Anymore”

Macon Blair stormed onto the indie scene at Cannes in 2013 as the producer and star of Jeremy Saulnier’s taut revenge thriller “Blue Ruin,” and now he arrives at Sundance this year with his directorial debut, “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.” The crime drama has one of those dream Sundance casts (including Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, David Yow, Jane Levy and Devon Graye) and a plot ripe with a whole lot potential. Lynskey plays a depressed nursing assistant who returns home and finds her laptop stolen. She teams up with an erratic neighbor to get it back, but her investigation leads to a deranged criminal underworld where there’s no way out. -ZS

“Wilson”

With “Ghost World” and “Art School Confidential,” graphic novelist Dan Clowes proved that his dryly funny comics translate quite well into dryly funny movies. Fans of his acerbic 2010 effort “Wilson” will be hoping he keeps up that track record. Directed by Craig Johnson (who won Sundance’s screenwriting prize for his dark comedy “Skeleton Twins”), the adaptation features Woody Harrelson as the bawdy title character, an obnoxious loudmouth who tracks down his estranged wife on a quest to find the teenage daughter he’s never met. Clowes’ comic excelled at creating a totally unlikable character and turning him into an object of unexpected sympathy, which was one of the way key attributes of Johnson’s “Skeleton Twins,” so this may be the ideal match of director and subject. Harrelson, meanwhile, hasn’t tackled such extreme comedic territory since “Kingpin.” Fingers crossed that “Wilson” — which Fox Searchlight will release later this year — brings this perennially funny actor back to familiar terrain. -EK

“Patti Cake$”

“Patti Cake$”

Writer-director Geremy Jasper’s debut is the story of a young Jersey woman who aspires to become a rapper in a competitive field. With a premise that calls to mind everything from “8 Mile” to “Hustle and Flow,” there’s no question this tale of a tough young outsider with big dreams aims to be a crowdpleaser. Jasper, who has previously directed music videos for Florence + the Machine, has been building to his feature-length debut for a number of years — and he’s arrived there with the support of the filmmaking collective Court 13, best known for producing the Sundance breakout “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” With that kind of support, it’s reasonable to assume “Patti Cake$” is readymade for upgrading Jasper’s career to a whole new level, in addition to garnering breakout status for rising star Danielle Macdonald. -EK

“Person to Person”

Dustin Guy Defa has steadily found his footing in the American film scene with a number of idiosyncratic comedic shorts, including “Lydia Hoffman, Lydia Hoffman” and “Person to Person,” which now provides the template for his feature-length debut. (The lanky Defa also frequently surfaces as an actor in films ranging from “Summer of Blood” to “Swim Little Fish Swim.”) Defa’s films are always surprising for the way they shift tones with ease. All of that makes “Person to Person,” which co-stars Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson, worth checking out. The film focuses on an obsessive record collector, his love-stricken roommate, and a bizarre murder mystery — exactly the kind of unpredictable hodgepodge that makes Defa such an alluring storyteller. -EK

“ICARUS”

“Icarus”

One early viewer of Bryan Fogel’s documentary “ICARUS” described it as starting like a Morgan Spurlock movie and ending like a Laura Poitras movie. In other words, expect an exposé that’s both funny and shocking at once. The movie opens with Fogel’s attempt to explore infamous stories of doping in sports, at which he point he ventures down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and unexpected developments that leads straight to the Olympic Gold. Fogel’s discoveries — and the compelling narrative style he uses to reveal them — has already been generating early buzz for this intriguing non-fiction title, which is just the kind of documentary that tends to generate headlines at the Park City gathering. -EK

“Menashe”

Produced by Sundance regular Alex Lipschultz (“Computer Chess”), this narrative debut from documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein takes place within the confines of an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn, and unfolds exclusively in Yiddish with a cast of real Hasidic Jews. The story focuses on a widower battling arcane Jewish laws prohibiting him from retaining custody of his son, the sort of emotional premise that this insular setting has the potential to imbue with fresh meaning. By representing a world widely misunderstood by secular society, Weinstein may be able to universalize its struggles. -EK

“The Discovery”

Writer-director Charlie McDowell’s 2014 Sundance debut “The One I Love” was a clever romantic two-hander masquerading as a science fiction thriller. The high concept movie was also an instant breakout, finding strong business in theaters and VOD after its positive festival reception. Now the filmmaker (and son of iconic actor Malcolm) returns with another intriguing sci-fi effort, with a cast that includes his girlfriend Rooney Mara alongside Jason Segel, Riley Keough and Mr. Sundance himself, Robert Redford. “The Discovery” takes place in a world in which the existence of afterlife has been scientifically proven, a premise that could lead to all kinds of scenarios — but McDowell’s involves a love story. Judging by the way the filmmaker managed to merge two genres into a satisfying whole with his first film, “The Discovery” is one of those ambitious titles rich with all kinds of narrative potential. -EK

READ MORE: Sundance 2017: 10 Must-See Shorts At This Year’s Festival

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19 – 29, 2017 in Park City, Utah.

Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , ,


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *