The Stolen Children

Emily Kassie/Sundance Institute

Sugarcane (2024)

One of the worst things about adulthood is realizing there’s no worst story out there. Someone will tell you about a story about rape, torture, child abuse, exploitation, or being sold by their drunk mother for beer money; and you never get to think “this is the worst story I will ever hear.” But the greatest thing about adulthood is that you have power and agency which children are denied; and the greatest thing about great adults is that they use their agency and power to improve things, if not only for themselves, then for other former children. Canada has some dark, shaming history in its treatment of its children, most notably the “scoop” – its practice of forcing indigenous children into residential schools where their connection to their language and culture was tortured out of them. It bears repeating that one residential school had its own electric chair. But the best thing about Canada is that it is finally beginning to face up to those horrible, horrifying wrongs. “Sugarcane” is about one family and several communities’ attempts to address the awful things that happened at one residential school: St. Joseph’s Mission in British Columbia. This is an important documentary about courage and the different ways people seek justice, but be warned, it also contains some of the worst stories you could ever hear.

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Sunshine and Rainbows

Arun Bhattarai/Sundance Institute

Agent of Happiness (2024)

Bhutan has made itself famous for its happiness index, for which 75 people criss-cross the nation asking the people they encounter around 150 questions about their personal happiness out of a scale from zero to 10. The survey is mainly in English, which is a surprise, and the king uses it as a base for developmental decisions around the nation. “Agent of Happiness” follows several of the surveyors as they complete their work before focusing in on Amber Kumar Gurung, who is a charming man in his early 40s who cares for his mother and is in a tricky personal position. He is ethnically Nepali; and his family was stripped of their citizenship when he was a toddler, meaning his entire life has been shaped by his statelessness. No full-time work, no wife and family, and only limited hope for the future. Directors Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó undertake in-depth filming with the most interesting interviewees Mr. Gurung comes across, but also had the sense to follow Mr. Gurung as he searches for happiness for himself.

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Harry Pot/Sundance Institute

Soundtrack to a Coup d'Etat (2024)

Johan Grimonprez, the documentarian behind "Soundtrack to a Coup d'Etat," anticipates that his video essay will cause some controversy when it gets shown on the Belgian television networks that cofunded it. You might think it would cause some in the States and the corridors of the United Nations also, except that international involvement in the death of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961 has been accepted and historicized since roughly the day after it happened, relitigated by radical activist art and mentioned in Oliver Stone films as an example of exactly the kind of things Oliver Stone films are about. Mr. Grimonprez analyzes the affair through a huge quantity of rigorously cited archive footage, interviews, academic literature and testimony. And jazz, since the film wraps the Congo Crisis inside the global anticolonial currents surging at the time, reflected in Black music and U.S. civil rights struggles as much as anywhere else. But it's the Belgian colonial powers that look worst in the harsh light that Mr. Grimonprez shines on them.

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L.A. Stories

Sundance Institute

Little Death (2024)

Weird California strikes again in "Little Death," Los Angeles being the natural home of stories about scriptwriters strung out on drugs while cracking up, or of young adults on a night-time quest to find both stolen property and in a very real sense themselves. Director-cowriter Jack Begert finds house room for both those stories in one film, through the direct method of telling the first of them up to the halfway point and then following a dangling thread straight into the other. A TV series might do something similar for an episode; and Quentin Tarantino knits his characters together all the time with the kind of crime connection that happens here. But Mr. Begert does it bluntly, a suture. And he does it after a particular swerve in story number one that feels like he's improvising, riffing on themes that might cohere into something or might not.

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Devil's Advocates

Sundance Institute

Realm of Satan (2024)

Cheerful locals and neighbors, if not yours then somebody's, go about their normal domestic lives in Scott Cummings's nonnarrative Sundance-premiering documentary "Realm of Satan." They clean their nice black Maseratis; they hang the laundry on the line; they empty the dishwasher. They engage in mildly fetishistic sex and cavort a little in the woods around Poughkeepsie, N.Y., although some of these good folk are comfortably middle-aged and the level of cavort might be limited by wear to the knees. They live in well appointed houses full of terrific heavy drapes and esoteric knick-knacks and the odd goat or raven allowed indoors, plus several portraits of Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan to which they all belong. They are living their best lives, as should we all.

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Writer's Tricks

Sundance Institute

Sebastian (2024)

The young writer at the heart of “Sebastian,” Max Williamson (an astounding Ruaridh Mollica), doesn’t seem to know how lucky he is. As many queer authors in London can tell you (ahem), it’s not usual to find a literary agent based on short stories written in university, nor for your first book to get such rave prerelease reviews that you’re personally profiled in the newspapers, complete with a professional photoshoot. If you have a job freelancing for a serious monthly magazine there’s no way you’d dismiss even the most boring advertorial as beneath your talent, when that writing work affords a London rent. And even if you were the most gilded literary talent in your city, your peers in your creative writing workshop will never, ever applaud your work. They’d nitpick out of jealousy. But having said all that, the device of the ongoing deconstruction of Max’s writing is clever meta-critique of the plot of “Sebastian,” in which this young man with such obvious talent decides to risk it all by delving into sex work. Gay sex work, no less. It’s a tremendous high wire act; and it’s a testament to the bravery and skill of everyone involved that the movie succeeds completely.

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All Is Full of Love

Sundance Institute

Love Me (2024)

In 2008 the robots left behind after life on earth becomes extinct had a VHS tape of “Hello, Dolly!” to teach them about love in “Wall-E.” In 2024 the robots left behind after the Earth becomes extinct in “Love Me” have the entire internet, or at least a version of the internet in which pornography does not exist. That means the whole movie is actually aimed at 13-year-old girls, and leaves the adults wishing for better use of the incognito button.

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Work in Progress

Martin DiCicco/Sundance Institute

Union (2024)

Organizing a shop floor union from scratch, the grunt work involved in persuading your colleagues of its value when they may or may not be interested, is the topic of "Union" as it follows the birth pains of the Amazon Labor Union in 2021 and 2022, under the long shadow of Covid. Stephen Maing and Brett Story's film is observational and one-sided; apart from some covert first-person filming on the shop floor, usually catching some strong-arm tactic from the company, the film mainly puts you on the street outside with the workers trying to round up the support needed to get the A.L.U. off the ground. Workers and management play out the old struggle, updated only slightly by the sour modernity of fluorescent jackets and security guards with cameras pinned onto them. When management respond with antiunion posters and leaflets, one of the A.L.U. organizers says "They're hitting us with hundred-year-old-tactics"; the cajoling and oral presentations of a worker proselytizing for organized labor are older tactics than that, even when they take place over Zoom.

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Air Show

Courtesy photo

Fighter (2024)

“Fighter” is much, much more interesting than its topline, a.k.a. the Indian answer to “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Born to Fly.” The influence of American war movies and all their cheery flyboys is strong, but “Fighter” is much more pointed than either of the American and Chinese celebration of their armed forces in that it has a clear conflict and enemy: Kashmir, and terrorists who commit crimes against Indian citizens while finding shelter in Pakistan. This specificity is very unusual in recent worldwide blockbusters and means that the relentless patriotism, such as a poem about how no coffin is more beautiful than one draped with an Indian flag, is way more meaningful.

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The Long Goodbye

Eric Zachanowich/Searchlight Pictures

Suncoast (2024)

End-of-life care becomes an issue on almost everyone's plate one way or another. The dilemma faced by the family in "Suncoast" as they place Max (Cree Kawa), a young man dying of brain cancer, into a hospice will resonate a little or a lot with most people; for this is the art and craft of the medical drama, to which few are fully immune. In this one premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Laura Chinn gives the mother of the patient, Kristine (Laura Linney), and her other child, Doris (Nico Parker, daughter of Thandiwe Newton and with some of her mother's wary watchfulness), equal focus in their shared but different grief. So the film is about one parent's agonies and one young woman's coming-of-age at the same time, two films for the price of one. And there's a political dimension, since Ms. Chinn sets her story in 2005 at the same hospice where Terri Schiavo is receiving care, the real-life right-to-die case playing out in the background on all news channels. The tact and delicacy of the film will have much to do with all this being based on experience: the film maker has fictionalized things for narrative purposes, but Ms. Chinn's brother did die in that hospice; it was at that time; and she was that sister.

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