Bite Club

Shanna Besson/Apollo Films

Dogman (2024)

Many an underdog ultimately has their day – often it's her day – in Luc Besson films, and in "Dogman" some actual canines ride the roller-coaster of abuse and transcendence that the director likes to think about. So too does their male human ally, Douglas (Caleb Landry Jones), whose childhood of relentless suffering culminates when his own Neanderthal father blasts him with a shotgun for the crime of caring about some helpless and photogenic puppies. Now largely confined to a wheelchair, an adult Douglas lives in a dilapidated old school with a pack of equally world-weary dogs, liberated from a pound. After what must have been some formidable training, which the film declines to show, he and the dogs happily cohabit in mutual respect and support. They fetch Douglas the correct ingredients from the kitchen for his cooking, and listen raptly while he reads Shakespeare to them. Retreating from society but still helping those who come to him with problems, Douglas sends his canine colleagues out on coordinated missions of justice, like Nick Fury dispatching the Avengers. The dogs evade capture and squeeze past obstacles and scamper between legs and through closing doors in order to locate exactly the right Latino gangster, and then clamp their jaws on his nuts.

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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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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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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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Art Attacks

Leo Matiz/Sundance Institute

Frida (2024)

Carla Gutiérrez's documentary about Frida Kahlo wants to focus on the artist as a person and a woman, rather than get dragged into the higher showbiz orbit of the cultural presence, Madonna-influencer and biopic subject also called Frida Kahlo, famous enough that her unibrow is enough to spark recognition. The result could be termed back-to-basics. In the absence of any third-party commentary, "Frida" uses Kahlo's own letters and diaries, alongside other contemporary texts written by lovers and friends, all read in voiceover by actors. Meanwhile the screen shows still photos, clippings and newsreel footage, plus views of Kahlo paintings. The film, premiering at Sundance on its way to audiences via Amazon, is after authenticity, fact rather than legend, although Ms. Gutiérrez is an editor by trade and knows that assembling a montage is as much of an active manipulation as a dramatized narrative can be.

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The Home Front

Quiver Distribution

Fear the Night (2023)

Plenty of people watching Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men" 26 years ago, and then "Your Friends & Neighbors" and "The Shape of Things" not long afterward, thought that the movie business had kept up its end of the deal. The first two had male characters showing no empathy for anyone but themselves and who liked hurting other people, and if the third film swapped the genders around it still put a male under the microscope until a viewer in the same category asked a few sobering queries of himself. Neither Mr. LaBute nor these films are in the cultural conversation much now, even though how males are internally wired is discussed everywhere, urgently, all the time. The feeling that art should speak in answers rather than questions seems to have left Mr. LaBute and his inquiries stuck on the bench.

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The Music Lovers

Oléo Films

Maestra (2023)

The first thing that happens in "Maestra," a documentary by Maggie Contreras following an international group of female orchestral conductors, is the sound of someone screaming in rage or agony or anguish over a black screen. A viewer primed by the film "Tár" for the psychodramas of the profession will suspect the person shrieking might be about to stab someone with a baton; but when the lights come up it turns out to be Mélisse Brunet, a modest and experienced French-born conductor guiding a young student through a spot of primal scream therapy. Ms. Brunet advises her pupil to "Wear what you want and do what you want" at the podium, the film's first approach to the expectations that can restrict female conductors, and the likelihood that they will be told to do neither of those things. The individuals followed by "Maestra" are diverse, talented and committed; but by the end you appreciate why Ms. Brunet's screams might be coming from the heart.

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From Jersey With Love

Brad Garrison

Chasing Chasing Amy (2023)

Art does unpredictable work at a distance, one reason among several to leave it where it is no matter what you might personally think or what its makers get up to. In the case of Sav Rodgers, suffering through an unhappy late-2000s high school education in Kansas and the casual homophobia of fellow students, Kevin Smith's then-decade-old 1997 film, "Chasing Amy," became comfort food, lifeline and object of fascination. "Chasing Chasing Amy" is the very personal story of how Mr. Smith's film - the one in which New Jersey comic-book writer Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) is smitten with Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams) and loses his bearings when he hears that she is a lesbian - worked the spell that art can work, closing the gap between a viewer and everything outside despite the movie's own flaws or nature. Having waited for its moment to spring into someone's life disguised as a VHS tape, Mr. Smith's work proceeded to change that life, the right tool in the right place.

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