Culture / Entertainment

Sundance Makes a Hollywood Star Power Stand — Superman, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Kieran Culkin and a Texas Trilogy Beckon

Taking a Closer Look at the 40th Anniversary Edition of the Famed Film Festival

BY // 01.18.24

PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival, the pioneer of promoting independent films celebrating its 40th anniversary, kicked off its 10-day run Thursday in this sub-zero, snowy mountain enclave. This years Sundance takes place in various venues in Salt Lake City and Park City during its first six days. Then all the award-winning films will be available to watch through the Sundance App for four days beginning January 25th.

Sundance received a record 17,435 submissions this year from which it selected 83 movies and 35 documentaries to be screened. The filmmakers hail from 32 countries and include 53 who are exhibiting at Sundance for the first time.

This is a pivotal year for Sundance and the larger movie industry as a whole. The festival was forced to shift to a virtual format in 2021 and 2022 due to COVID and film aficionados have not returned to the festival in the same numbers as in pre-COVID days. Combine that with the ease of streaming and the writers and actors strikes of last year and you have a festival both celebrating a glorious  past and facing an uncertain future.

“My priority is to ensure that Sundance remains a place of finding, nurturing and supporting a diverse roster of art and artists in an historically volatile landscape for films, Sundance Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez says.

This year’s Sundance is showcasing projects from actors Mary J. Blige, Kieran Culkin and Kristen Stewart. Expect lots of discussions and movies pondering artificial intelligence  

Music — both in the movies and live performances — has always been a key draw for Sundance. One of the most sought-after tickets is a late entry, The Greatest Night in Pop, a documentary about the recording of the 1985 charity single, We Are the World. That screening will be followed by an extended conversation with song writer Lionel Richie and director Bao Nguyen. Other musical documentaries focus on the Lollapalooza music festival, Luther Vandross, jazz legend Louis Armstrong, new wave band Devo and rap artist Kemba.

Opening day movies usually signal Sundances projection of which films will emerge as audience and judge favorites, and this years opening film is Eno, which chronicles the creative process of Brian Eno, who produced artists David Bowie, U2, Coldplay and many others. This innovative documentary is meant to be experienced live and, using groundbreaking generative technology,” will present a different viewing experience each time the movie is shown.

A still from Eno by Gary Hustwit, which gets the coveted opening night spot at Sundance.
A still from Eno by Gary Hustwit, which gets the coveted opening night spot at Sundance.

Musical artists performing at public and private events up and down Park Citys Main Street include Brittany Howard, Leon Bridges, Black Keys, Odesza and Devo.

In addition to movies and music, Sundance offers numerous chances to hear from artists and filmmakers across the fields of art and science. This years speakers include Steven Soderbergh, basketball legend Sue Bird, Texas director Richard Linklater and Mark Duplass. Other panels feature discussions on forgiveness, artificial intelligence, the business side of movie making and the melding of science and technology into storytelling.

Where Documentaries Shine

Sundance documentaries are almost always a sure bet. In my 18 years of attending this movie festival, I have always found documentaries that educate and inspire. A number of them (Icarus, 20 Feet From Stardom, Searching for Sugarman and Summer of Soul) have gone on to win Oscars. It was thrilling to witness their public launches.

Sundance 2024 offers many intriguing documentary choices. One film on my list is Girls State, which is a counterpart to the Emmy-winner Boys State that premiered at Sundance 2020. This opening day documentary follows 500 Missouri teenagers as they gather for a weeklong immersion experience building a government from the ground up, campaigning for office and discussing the most divisive issues of the day. Other celebrity docs individually showcase Christopher Reeve, Tammy Faye Baker and Sue Bird.

SUPERMAN, Christopher Reeve, 1978. ©Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
A still from Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, one of the intriguing documentaries at Sundance.

Drama at Sundance

Dramas are usually a mixed bag at Sundance. My strategy is to select ones with known actors because although the plot may suffer, at least there’s a chance to enjoy some star power and a good performance. If there is a breakout hit I havent seen — yep it happens (think CODA or Beast of the Southern Wild) — I can catch it in the final weekend awards show.

2024 Sundance movies with big names include Real Pain (Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin), Love Me (Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun) and Sasquatch Sunset (Riley Keough and Jesse Eisenberg). Veteran director Stephen Soderbergh, who helped put Sundance on the map with his 1989 film Sex Lies & Videotape, is also premiering Presence, This movie stars Julia Fox and Lucy Liu and centers around a family which moves into a suburban house and suspects they are not alone.

Kieran Culkin and Jesse Eisenberg appear in A Real Pain by Jesse Eisenberg, one of the more intriguing movies at Sundance.
Kieran Culkin and Jesse Eisenberg appear in A Real Pain by Jesse Eisenberg, one of the more intriguing movies at Sundance.

Finally, no Sundance is complete without movies about Texas or from a Texas filmmaker. Sundance 2024 strikes gold in both cases because veteran Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater returns to Sundance with both a drama called Hit Man and a threepart trilogy dubbed God Save Texas, based on the book by Lawrence Wright. The first episode, directed by Linklater, follows him as he examines the prison industry in his hometown of Huntsville, Texas. The second and third episode, directed by Texas filmmakers Alex Stapleton and Iliana Sosa respectively, focus on environmental and social issues that have arisen from Houstons oil industry and El Pasos immigration challenges from both community and national perspectives.

Author’s note: Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm headquartered in Houston. She has reported on the Sundance Film Festival for 15 years and is covering the 40th edition of the movie extravaganza for PaperCity this month.

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