Critics' Picks: The 15 Best Films at Sundance 2017

6:30 AM 1/27/2017

by THR Staff

A stunning gay romance ('Call Me by Your Name'), an epic Southern saga ('Mudbound') and an unusual take on the JonBenet Ramsey case ('Casting JonBenet') are among the fest's standouts (listed below in alphabetical order).

  • Beach Rats

    Courtesy of Sundance

    The visual influence of Claire Denis' hypnotic Beau Travail is all over Eliza Hittman's second feature, which combines moody poetry with textural sensuality to evoke the dangerous recklessness that often accompanies sexual discovery. Shifting from the portrait of adolescent female experience in her striking debut, It Felt Like Love, Hittman here turns her penetrating gaze on a Brooklyn teenage boy navigating an even more pivotal transition, played with understated intensity by promising newcomer Harris Dickinson. It's a raw observational portrait that leaves a haunting impression in its wake. — David Rooney

  • The Big Sick

    Courtesy of Sundance

    Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani comes into his own as writer and leading man in this touching, funny, fictionalized account of how his girlfriend's sudden grave illness jolted him into making a commitment. Real-world wife Emily Gordon co-wrote the script, handing her role off to Zoe Kazan, while producer Judd Apatow continues his streak of helping young comic talents develop the screen personae that will carry them forth. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano almost steal the film as the parents of Kazan's character, but Nanjiani holds his own, running a gauntlet of emotions with charm and conviction. Commercial, though sharp and wholly heartfelt, the film also should mark a big step up business-wise for director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris). — John DeFore

  • Call Me by Your Name

    Courtesy of Sundance

    Luca Guadagnino's intimate, piercingly honest, smashingly successful adaptation of the Andre Aciman novel stars a sensual Armie Hammer and an absolutely extraordinary Timothee Chalamet (Homeland) as, respectively, an up-and-coming academic and his mentor's teenage son, who fall in love during the course of a summer in Italy in the 1980s. With its unexpectedly deep wells of emotion and surges of insight into human nature and relationships, this tender, minutely observed queer romance could — with the right marketing — become a major breakout title and awards contender for distributor Sony Pictures Classics. — Boyd Van Hoeij

  • Casting JonBenet

    Courtesy of Sundance

    Kitty Green creates something powerful, provocative and dazzlingly original with her second feature doc, a sui generis work offering a kaleidoscopic array of personal reactions to the 1996 murder of 6-year-old beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey. The bracing and brilliant twist is that the interviewees aren't people who were involved in the case; they're actors from Colorado (where JonBenet lived and died), auditioning to play the child's mother, father, brother and JonBenet herself in a docudrama. The result is a playful, richly moving meditation on crime, guilt, the exploitation of children and the nature of performance itself. — Leslie Felperin

  • Chasing Coral

    Courtesy of Sundance

    Documentarian Jeff Orlowski turns his attention to imperiled reef ecosystems in this powerful wake-up call. If you've ever snorkeled or dived among the major underwater wonderworlds, don't be surprised to find yourself misty-eyed while watching. But even for those limited to swimming virtually over vast marine ecosystems of astonishing color and complexity, this superbly crafted doc will wield an unexpected emotional charge. The visual evidence presented here would be hard for even the most stubborn climate change skeptic to ignore, detailing devastating losses to one of nature's most stunning creations. — David Rooney

  • God's Own Country

    Courtesy of Sundance

    The hardscrabble lives of rural families and the harsh splendor of the West Yorkshire landscape provide the evocative backdrop to a poignant story of self-discovery in Brit writer-director Francis Lee's first feature, which examines the relationship between a young sheep farmer and a Romanian itinerant worker. Graced by its refreshingly frank treatment of gay sexuality and casually expressive use of nudity, this is a deeply stirring, rigorously naturalistic drama anchored by a terrific pair of lead turns from Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu. — David Rooney

  • Golden Exits

    Courtesy of Sundance

    Alex Ross Perry writes films with a great many words in them, and this one, starring Emily Browning, Jason Schwartzman, Mary-Louise Parker and Chloe Sevigny as unhappy Brooklyn dwellers, is no exception. However, the words have very little to do with what’s really going on between the emotionally fraught characters. Instead, the unstated angst, desire, suspicion, frustration and emotional turmoil is almost entirely expressed by Keegan DeWitt’s extraordinary musical score, which runs like an underground river through this elegant and supremely expressive gem of a film. — Todd McCarthy

  • Lemon

    Courtesy of Sundance

    A comedy of embarrassment that just keeps getting funnier as it goes along, this film centered around a drama teacher (Brett Gelman) coming undone is a one-of-a-kind treat that, by ending almost too soon, follows the old showbiz principle of leaving ‘em wanting more. A stylized and very stylish piece, Janicza Bravo’s debut feature occasionally recalls the work of the great Jacques Tati in its precision physicality. But the film forges a distinctive personality of its own through its characters’ perverse behavior, exacting framing and editing and its unusual ethnic blending, from Jamaican L.A. culture to strife-ridden Jewish family ritual. Michael Cera, Judy Greer and Nia Long co-star. — Todd McCarthy

  • Marjorie Prime

    Courtesy of Sundance

    Jon Hamm plays a digitally simulated version of Lois Smith's husband in Michael Almereyda's futuristic meditation on death and the mysteries of memory, also starring Geena Davis and Tim Robbins. Anchored by Smith's magnificent turn, this exquisitely acted chamber drama has a visionary quality, with its depiction of a near-future in which pixel-generated avatars can provide human comfort. Based on Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer-shortlisted 2014 play, it's the rare recent stage-to-screen adaptation that actually improves on the source; Almereyda's smart script has rendered the material more dramatically satisfying, locating a poignant emotional undercurrent that remained muted onstage. — David Rooney

  • Mudbound

    Courtesy of Sundance

    Director Dee Rees (Pariah, HBO's Bessie) stretches her canvas with this sprawling treatment of Hillary Jordan's novel about two families — one black, one white — whose lives intersect in World War II-era Mississippi. It's a densely textured narrative, given novelistic room to breathe and a slow-burn intensity that builds to a shattering conclusion. The ensemble shines, with Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige doing especially lovely work. — D.R.

  • Novitiate

    Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

    Who ever could imagine that a film about nuns struggling to come to terms with life in a convent in the 1960s might be sexy? But that's exactly what writer-director Maggie Betts' terrific feature debut is, as well as stylish and intellectually ambitious as it captures a specific historical moment when the church underwent an irrevocable theological shift. A celestial choir of young actresses, including Margaret Qualley, Dianna Agron and Morgan Saylor, give first-rate performances as the nuns, while Melissa Leo is enjoyably over the top as the stern Reverend Mother. — L.F.

  • Patti Cake$

    Courtesy of Sundance

    A story about an overweight white Jersey girl's long-shot struggle to make it in the rap scene, Geremy Jasper's debut crackles with energy and authenticity. But it wouldn't have worked without the right lead, which it has in Aussie Danielle Macdonald, whose rapping seems convincingly born of her character's rough life experience. Jasper shoots in a loose, vibrant style that gives expression to the pent-up energy of the characters. — Todd McCarthy 

  • STEP

    Courtesy of Sundance

    The members of the step dance team from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women display fierce moves and determination in Amanda Lipitz's joyous, thoroughly involving documentary about a high-stakes graduation year. If it sounds like The Fits meets Bring It On, you're not far off, and someone very likely will snap up the rights to this story and refashion it as a narrative teen pic. In the meantime, it should find a receptive audience eager to share the tears and triumphs of its spirited protagonists and their mentors. — D.R.

  • To the Bone

    Courtesy of Sundance

    A young anorexic woman (Lily Collins in a fine, measured performance) checks into a group home overseen by an unconventional medical professional (an avuncular Keanu Reeves) in the harrowing but surprisingly warm and witty autobiographical feature debut from showrunner Marti Noxon (UnREAL). It's an impressively accessible, though also gratifyingly complex and visually elegant, take on some very difficult issues, and it deserves to be a real conversation starter. — B.V.H.

  • Wind River

    Courtesy of Sundance

    After stirring excitement with his scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan makes his directorial debut with this imperfect but solid and satisfying mysterywhich similarly delivers shrewd insights into troubling American social issues in a punchy, action-filled package. Centered on the rape and murder of a teenage girl on an impoverished Indian reservation in Wyoming, the film yanks the viewer to attention with its keen sensitivity to the rough winter conditions and limited prospects faced by the locals. It also features one of Jeremy Renner’s best recent performances as a man helping the FBI on the case. — Todd McCarthy

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