The Sundance Film Festival has always been one of the premiere places for discovery, providing a launching pad for breakout films en route to mainstream acclaim and awards. But oftentimes, the best of Sundance — films that are truly original, fresh, and worthy — go on to smaller victory laps. These are the festival’s hidden gems, and though they might not be getting Oscar nods, they’re just as deserving of our attention. In advance of this year’s virtual fest, we’ve partnered with AMC+ to assemble a varied list of past Sundance stunners. Featuring early films from the likes of Miranda July and the Safdie’s to Spike Lee’s adaptation of a hit Broadway musical, all of these gems are available via AMC+ streaming platform.
The brothers Safdie are, by now, an indie household name — but a decade ago, they burst onto the map with this captivating dramedy. The movie revolves around the reckless Lenny (Ronald Bronstein), an irresponsible dad to two young boys in New York City. The story is clearly based on Benny and Josh Safdie’s experience growing up with their own father, and the film serves as both an authentic depiction of appalling parenting and as a complicated reckoning with a troubled past.
Spike Lee’s adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Passing Strange” is a unique exercise: In reproducing the play for the screen, Lee’s film becomes an investigation into both how to document live performance, and what it means to document it, too. Through his film, Lee illuminates the machinery of a theater piece, while highlighting the raw emotion that’s created onstage. The result is an immersive and insightful work that’s necessary viewing for anyone interested in pulling the curtain back on stagecraft.
Miranda July’s entertaining, insightful spin on the romantic comedy won acclaim at Sundance and Cannes, making July a name to watch in indie spaces. Set in Los Angeles, July’s dreamy first feature follows the artist Christine (July) as she pursues a tentative relationship with Richard (John Hawkes), a shoe salesman. But what makes July’s film stand out is not the “me and you” at its center, but the “everyone we know” surrounding them — the odd, disjointed ring of characters who, by the film’s end, come to feel like a kind of community.
The documentarian Goran Hugo Olsson sifted through countless hours of archival tape to create this collage-like portrait of a turbulent chapter in US history. The film, which draws from footage and interviews collected by Swedish TV journalists in the sixties and seventies, begins with Black activist Stokely Carmichael circulating the notion of Black power among his contemporaries. It goes on to present a mosaic of deeply emotional scenes and images that, together, offer an impressionistic record of a vital American movement.
The winner of Sundance’s grand jury prize in 2007, this dark drama turns its lens on a community of Mexican immigrants in Brooklyn. Opening as the teenage Juan (Armando Hernandez) ducks onto a truck transporting Mexicans into the United States, the story picks up in New York, where the undocumented young man steals a friend’s identity to forge a new life in the city. Grim and gritty, the film is an impressive debut for the writer and director Christopher Zalla, who offers an appealingly unadorned portrait of a betrayal gone awry.
Anna Rose Holmer’s electrifying feature debut centers on the 11-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower), a quiet, observant girl who spends most of her time at a city recreational center, boxing and working out with her older brother. It’s there that she spots the Lionesses — a dance team that mesmerizes her. But it isn’t until the girls on the dance troupe start having inexplicable seizures that this lovely, textured coming of age drama takes on another expressionistic dimension, setting it apart as one of the finest films of 2016.
A spiritual sequel to the seminal 1990 portrait of ball culture “Paris Is Burning,” this vivid documentary celebrates the contemporary Harlem queer scene, offering a window into the lives of gay and trans teens who use dance and voguing as a means of expression, bonding, and emotional release. Over the course of several years, the director Sara Jordeno documents one close-knit friend group, chronicling their challenges and triumphs with insight and sensitivity.
This clever portrait of a chic Middle Eastern artist navigating the New York gallery scene recalls Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” — the difference being that the bourgeois malaise on display in Zeina Durra’s feature debut occurs among a diverse group of emigres. The film opens on Asya (Elodie Bouchez), who was born in Paris to a Jordanian father and a Bosnian-Palestinian mother, posing naked for one of her conceptual art pieces. The film goes on to follow Asya on a number of arty excursions across New York, setting her bohemian life against a subtle backdrop of post-9/11 xenophobia and contemporary issues in Beirut.
A group of teenage skateboarders navigates crime and coming of age in the director Steven Caple Jr.’s feature debut, a powerful look at what it’s like to grow up on the streets of Cleveland. Prior to writing the film, Caple mentored teenage skateboarders, and the film bears the mark of his deep understanding of the boys’ difficult lives.
This witty tale of two brothers pivots between comedy and psychological thriller as it examines a disturbing sibling rivalry. Written and directed by Bryan Poyser, the film follows brothers Rudy (Chris Doubek) and Paul (Alex Karpovsky). Rudy is a frustrated, failed writer; Paul is a smug, successful one. Together with Paul’s exasperated wife, Diana (Heather Kafka), the pair meet at a ski lodge in Park City where long-simmering jealousies and resentments threaten to come to a head.