AI is the buzzword of the moment, and nowhere seems to be safe — even film festivals. This year’s edition of Sundance was a prime example. Multiple documentaries about the past and present of artificial intelligence made an appearance, and at least one film — the dark comedy Little Death — utilized generative AI as an artistic choice. There was even Love Me, a post-apocalyptic romantic comedy about two AIs in love.
Outside of AI, there was the usual crop of inventive horror movies, a coming-of-age story set during the good ol’ days of AIM, and a heartbreaking documentary that was set partially inside of World of Warcraft. In short: Sundance had range this year. And while we couldn’t catch everything, we did watch a lot, and came away with this list of our favorites.
Directed by Jules Rosskam; no premiere date yet
As comfortable as many of us have become talking about and celebrating the sexual lives of cisgender queer people (and to a lesser extent those of trans / genderqueer women), that hasn’t really been the case when it comes to transgender men.
For all of the progress society has made toward its acceptance of The LGBTQ Community™, the very existence of trans men and their sexualities have historically been minimized in our conversations about the spectrum we understand human gender expression to be. That minimization — which is rooted in both sexism and homophobia — has tended to erase trans men from the larger queer historical record in ways that often feel like they can’t be undone.
But with Full Spectrum Features’ new hybrid documentary / narrative feature Desire Lines, filmmaker Jules Rosskam sets out to help right some of that wrong by centering trans men in a fascinating story about trans male sexuality and cultural memory. Rather than simply interviewing trans men about their identities, Desire Lines tells the fictional tale of Ahmad (Aden Hakimi), a soft spoken 50-something whose complicated feelings about being attracted to other men lead him to a metaphysical archive of queer lived experiences.
As both a trans man, and an immigrant originally from Iran, Ahmad arrives at the archive assuming that he won’t be able to see much of himself reflected in immersive, dreamlike memories preserved in the archive’s library for patrons to experience. But with each trip to the archive, Ahmad finds himself spending more and more time with researcher Kieran (Theo Germaine) while diving into snapshots from people’s lives depicted through dramatizations of actual events and Rosskam’s conversations with his interviewees. And as Ahmad becomes increasingly comfortable navigating the archive, and letting the stories of other queer men wash over him, the more he begins to understand that his desires are an essential part of who he is. —CPM
Image: Sundance Institute
Directed by Sean Wang; no premiere date yet
Sean Wang has likened his coming-of-age story to Stand By Me, only transposed onto his own upbringing. That means all of the awkwardness of adolescence, but set in the Bay Area in 2008, within a largely Asian American community. Instead of a group of friends, though, the story is centered mostly on Chris (Izaac Wang) as he struggles to deal with all of the usual troubles: friends, family, and romance.
There’s a specificity to Dìdi that really makes it work. Because it’s set in 2008, many of Chris’ problems revolve around the internet in some way. He chats with his crush on AIM, posts skate and prank videos on YouTube, and learns the extent of the rift with his best friend on MySpace. If you lived through that period of time as an extremely online person, the nostalgia will hit you hard. (For me it was the AIM chime, which brought me right back to childhood.)
All of those hyperspecific details make Dìdi feel remarkably true to life. That’s true of the cringy moments — Chris getting caught in a lie about watching A Walk to Remember, or blocking his friends on IM because he doesn’t know what to say — but also the heartwarming ones as well, like his difficult relationship with his mother. It’s a movie that captures all of those conflicting and angsty adolescent feelings and turns them into a story that will somehow make you root for a kid who pees in his sister’s lotion bottle. —AW
Image: Sundance Institute
Directed by Benjamin Ree; will stream on Netflix, but no premiere date yet
Ibelin is a heartbreaking story told in a particularly novel way. It’s a documentary about Mats Steen, who died of a degenerative muscular disease at 25 and, for much of the time before that, used video games as an escape. Toward the end of his life, that mostly involved losing himself in World of Warcraft for hours on end. The two sides of his life remained largely separate; while his parents obviously knew Mats played a lot of video games, it wasn’t until after his death they discovered the breadth and depth of the relationships he formed online.
In order to effectively explore both sides of Mats’ life, the film uses eight years’ worth of in-game dialogue alongside animations created inside of WoW to recreate important moments from his life. There’s playful flirting and guild in-fighting, but the most arresting scenes involve the real-world impact Mats had on his fellow roleplayers, including helping a mother better connect to her son. But while he became a source of strength and joy for his WoW companions, Mats largely kept his own struggles a secret.
Ibelin is a film that uses every tool at its disposal in an attempt to capture the totality of someone’s life, both IRL and online, and manages to do so beautifully. The doc was also one of several Netflix acquisitions at Sundance, so it’ll hopefully be streaming soon. —AW
In A Violent Nature
Directed by Chris Nash; releasing in theaters this year, followed by streaming on Shudder
Do you ever wonder what the likes of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers do all day in between slashings? In A Violent Nature is just for you. It’s a classic-style slasher with a premise — troubled kid turns into an unstoppable killing machine, proceeds to haunt campground — that feels ripped right out of any number of Friday the 13th knockoffs. It’s the kind of movie where it’s hard to tell if the goofy dialogue is intentionally campy or not.
But what makes In A Violent Nature stand out in such a crowded genre is its viewpoint: you see the entire movie unfold from the villain’s perspective. And it turns out that they don’t do much at all; the film is a lot of walking around through the forest, occasionally scoping out prospective teens to kill, with brief punctuations of extreme violence.
This has a transformative effect on an otherwise derivative film. In A Violent Nature has no score, so for the most part you’re listening to the soothing sounds of nature as the killer lumbers through the woods, almost like Norwegian slow TV but horror. And the camera stays close behind the villain for most of the movie, reminiscent of third-person action games like Resident Evil. This lets the movie lull you into a false sense of security before dropping a particularly gruesome kill — which ends up hitting even harder given how intimate the view is. —AW
Directed by Peter Sillen; no premiere date yet
Were it not for lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt, SiriusXM Radio would not exist as we know it, and there would not be nearly as many people living full lives while successfully managing their pulmonary hypertension as there are today. Though many of the companies Rothblatt founded have already changed the world in demonstrably significant ways, director Peter Sillen’s documentary Love Machina tells the story of how Rothblatt and her wife Bina have committed their lives to researching experimental technology meant to immortalize people by digitizing their consciousnesses.
Simply looking at the first iteration of Bina48, the robotic bust modeled after the real Bina and outfitted with limited chatbot-level speech capabilities, it’s hard to imagine her becoming the kind of android one would think of as a true facsimile of a human being.
But through its chronicle of how the robot’s potential has evolved in step with the development of technologies like ChatGPT, Love Machina provides a fascinating look into the Rothblatts’ minds, and tries to make their vision of the future seem like something worth really mulling over. —CPM
Co-directed by Sam and Andy Zuchero; no release date
While the general premise of co-writer / director duo Sam and Andy Zuchero’s Love Me shares a number of similarities with Pixar’s Wall-E, the new film’s story is far more interested in unpacking what it would actually mean for a self-actualized robot to experience human feelings. Set thousands of years in the future when seemingly all organic life on Earth has long since gone extinct, Love Me tells the tale of how a solar-powered buoy (Kristen Stewart) makes contact with a satellite (Steven Yeun) in a way that puts them both on a path to transcending their original intended functions.
It’s because of the buoy’s first encounter with the satellite (a Voyager-like repository of human history left orbiting the planet) that the buoy (a machine meant to collect information about the ocean) starts to turn its camera upward in hopes of striking up a conversation. And it’s because of the satellite’s broadcasts about how it was built to assist any living beings that it might one day encounter that the buoy teaches itself to speak. And when the satellite opens up its massive archive of the internet to the buoy in order to confirm that it’s actually a person the way it says it is, the buoy’s ability to think its way through a CAPTCHA test is its first step toward discovering what it means to exist.
Like its two main characters, Love Me transforms in fascinating ways as it moves from a beautiful but desolate CGI physical world rendered in gorgeous detail to the more nebulous, initially low-resolution reality of a metaverse game that only exists for the buoy and the satellite. It’s in that reality that Love Me reveals itself to be both a clever comedy and an imaginative drama about the messiness of defining one’s self in relation to social media. —CPM
Image: Sundance Institute
Directed by Jon Bell; no premiere date yet
Sundance is typically a great place to find the next cult horror movie; last year’s edition of the festival, for instance, featured Talk To Me, Birth/Rebirth, and In My Mother’s Skin. In 2024, we have The Moogai — from the producers of both Talk To Me and The Babadook — which puts a terrifying folklore spin on the tragedy of Australia’s “stolen generations.”
The titular Moogai is a kind of boogeyman, but one that steals children. For Sarah (Shari Sebbens) — an aboriginal woman who was adopted by white parents and has a conflicted relationship with her birth mother — the creature’s appearance becomes a nightmare as she’s expecting her second child. At first, she shrugs off the visions and bad feelings, and thwarts her mother’s attempts at protection, thinking them superstition. But as the Moogai becomes harder to ignore, she finds herself fighting against everyone around her, none of whom believe her.
It’s a film that touches on serious and important issues — in addition to the impact of colonialism in Australia, it also explores the challenges of postpartum depression — and that only heightens the pure horror. The Moogai does an amazing job of being patient, keeping its monster largely hidden for most of the movie, building up the suspense before a brutal (and cathartic) finale. —AW
Directed by Mikko Mäkelä; no premiere date yet, but LevelK recently acquired the international distribution rights.
Even though powerfully graphic, honest portrayals of gay sex are an important part of Finnish-British writer / director Mikko Mäkelä’s sophomore feature Sebastian, the most provocative thing about the film is the way it contrasts the beauty of creating art shaped by personal experience and the business of commodifying one’s identity in pursuit of fame.
With every new piece of short, erotic fiction that 25-year-old writer Max (Ruaridh Mollica) shares with his peers for feedback, they become increasingly resolute that he has an unmatched talent for turning interviews with actual sex workers into the kinds of gripping, subtle dramas that the publishing world needs more of. But as much as it pleases Max to be respected for the authenticity of the voice he writes in, he works hard to keep secret the truth of how his work is inspired by his own experiences as a sex worker.
As it pulls you back and forth between Max’s two lives, Sebastian’s story challenges you to understand how both sex and sex work can be empowering modes of self-discovery when decoupled from shame. Max’s secret work is both cathartic for him and helps him create worlds on the page that feel real, because they partially are. But Sebastian also highlights how important it is to understand the intentionality behind creating art like Max’s — art that’s only honest to a point and also gunning for acclaim for its rawness. —CPM
Seeking Mavis Beacon
Directed by Jazmin Renée Jones; no premiere date yet
When developer The Software Toolworks first published Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing in 1987, it created an iconic video game character whose name would go on to evoke powerful memories of afternoons spent in high school computer rooms for millions of people across the globe. Though countless people have come to love Mavis for her confident smile and passion for touch typing, the story of Renée L’Espérance, the Haitian-born store clerk who became the face of the Mavis Beacon franchise, is far less known.
But with Seeking Mavis Beacon, filmmakers Jazmin Renée Jones and Olivia McKayla Ross seek to shine a bright light on L’Espérance’s life by unpacking the complicated story of how she was forced to fight to protect her image from the software company that had no idea it had created a Black pop cultural icon.
Through a series of interviews with Mavis Beacon’s developers, tech historians, and members of L’Espérance’s family, the investigative documentary digs into how — more than merely being Mavis Beacon — L’Espérance has always been a person with her own story to tell. And the documentary illustrates how some of that story is a textbook example of the many ways in which tech and entertainment can reinforce societal biases that people don’t always realize they’re absorbing. —CPM
Image: Sundance Institute
Veni Vidi Vici
Directed by Daniel Hoesl and Julia Niemann; no premiere date yet
The idea of the rich getting away with murder is taken to its extreme in this satire. Yes, making fun of the excesses of the ultra wealthy has become a genre of its own of late — from Saltburn to Glass Onion — but Veni Vidi Vici manages to carve out its own space with its particularly dark sense of humor.
It takes place as a serial killer, known simply as the “sniper,” is running rampant, taking out innocent bystanders from afar. Only it’s not really hard to tell who it is. A journalist has figured it out, as has a local gamekeeper. Everyone else keeps quiet lest they upset Amon (Laurence Rupp), head of the rich and powerful Maynard family. He’s a man who goes off on long hunting excursions, yet freely admits he would never hurt an animal. Who else could it be?
As Amon continues his killing spree, he gets increasingly brazen, daring somebody, anybody to successfully bring him to justice. At the same time, his teenage daughter Paula (Olivia Goschler) is soaking up all the worst lessons from her father; namely, the idea that if you can get away with something, you should definitely do it. The movie isn’t subtle here: early on Paula says, “Sticking to the rules? I’m too creative for that.”
Veni Vidi Dici makes the contrast between the family’s bloodthirsty desires and its picture-perfect image as stark as possible, and while it doesn’t necessarily have much new to say, it gets its message across clearly — and with lots of style and humor. Plus, it has the most disturbing ending of any movie I saw at Sundance this year. —AW