Sundance slate features big names with cinema newcomers in Utah festival’s 40th edition

Dec 6, 2023, 8:21 PM | Updated: Dec 7, 2023, 12:45 pm

A still from Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, an offici...

A still from Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Herb Ritts / AUGUST.)

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Herb Ritts / AUGUST.)

SALT LAKE CITY — The titles and summaries of the films that will place Utah and the Sundance Film Festival into the center of the movie world in January were announced Wednesday.

The extensive slate of films includes some household names right alongside first-time directors and actors who hope to break into cinema in a big way. The lineup includes 91 projects (82 feature films representing 24 countries) with 40% of the feature film directors’ work as their first features.

It also features festival veterans, like Steven Soderbergh, who had his directing debut film at Sundance in 1989 and returns in 2024 with a ghost story, “Presence.” In between his start in the Utah festival and this year’s entry, Soderbergh has won a Best Director Academy Award for “Traffic.” He was nominated for the same award with “Erin Brockovich,” which landed Julia Roberts a Best Actress win. “Traffic” also won Best Picture.

John Nein, senior programmer for the festival, said Soderbergh’s film has at least one common element with much of the schedule that will screen in the festival Jan. 18 — Jan. 28 in Park City and Salt Lake City.

“Year in and year out, whether veteran filmmakers or first timers — regardless of who that is — they are conscious of how stories were told and interested in pushing that forward. You see that across genres,” Nein said. He described Soderbergh’s film as a ghost story told from the perspective of the ghost.

Nein said filmmakers that innovate ways to tell stories especially catch the eye of the group in charge of programming the festival.

Pedro Pascal appears in Freaky Tales by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck,an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“You can [watch a] movie at midnight and be jolted awake with a fresh sensibility,” Nein, who has been with the fest since 2001, said. “They (filmmakers) are really trying to bend the way they tell stories.”

Other widely recognized names and faces include Kieran Culkin, Jesse Eisenberg, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jennifer Grey, Woody Harrelson, Lucy Lawless, Laura Linney, Pedro Pascal, Jason Schwartzman, Alicia Silverstone, Justice Smith, Sebastian Stan, Kristen Stewart, Emma Stone and Steven Yeun — just to name a few.

Festival vet Stewart and Yeun co-star in “Love Me,” — a love story involving a buoy and a satellite. Stewart is also in “Love Lies Bleeding,” which puts her in a cast with Katy O’Brian, Ed Harris, Dave Franco, and Jena Malone.

Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun appear in Love Me by Sam Zuchero and Andy Zuchero, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Justine Yeung)

“Love Me,” can already claim its status as an award-winning film, announced Wednesday as Sundance’s winner of the Alfred P. Sloan award, given to an artist with the most outstanding depiction of science and technology in a feature. Tech is one of the themes that seems to bubble up from the film summaries released Wednesday.

“It is really smart,” Nein said of “Love Me.” “It is a very interesting reflection; what it means to be human, putting technology in the context of humans who interact with it.”

The technology slate also includes “Out of My Mind,” about a sixth-grade nonverbal wheelchair user aided by assistive technology that is part of the festival’s family matinee programming. It also extends into the U.S. Documentary competition with “Love Machina,” chronicling the attempt of two futurists to transfer consciousness from a human to a robot.

Phoebe-Rae Taylor appears in Out of My Mind by Amber Sealey, an official selection of the Family Matinee program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. (Noah Greenberg)

Another doc — this in the world competition — takes a look at startups using AI to create avatars that allow relatives to talk with their loved ones after they have died. “Eternal You” is described as “An exploration of a profound human desire and the consequences of turning the dream of immortality into a product.”

“Unsurprisingly AI is a theme,” Nein said. “You have pretty fascinating, revealing ways of trying to understand the complexity of AI, through feature films in a way that maybe you wouldn’t through articles or other things.”

The fest is celebrating its 40th installment with Hein and his collaborators starting the work of winnowing over 4,000 feature submissions and 13,000 shorts  just weeks after the last festival for Wednesday’s announcement. The 17,000 submissions is the most ever.

Nein teased that for the festival celebrating its 40th installment, there would be legacy films and filmmakers brought back. That includes Christopher Nolan who won the fest’s screenwriting prize with 2001’s “Memento.”

Nein teased one, that he couldn’t name but did mention had a strong cultural connection to Utah and became a cult classic. While it didn’t come up in the conversation with KSL TV, that sounds a lot like “SLC Punk,” starring Matthew Lillard.

After the festival opens in Park City at noon on Jan. 18, it also has a Salt Lake opening night film on Jan. 19, the documentary “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story,” at the Rose Wager theater. Nein praised the film as a “really moving portrait of a remarkable person who became a pioneer advocate for disability.”

Salt Lake venues also include the Broadway Centre Cinemas and Megaplex Theaters at The Gateway.

Nein praised a number of films, including “Better Angels: The Gospel According To Tammy Faye” in the documentary section where experienced Utah audiences already know they can reliably find festival gems.

He also highlighted:

  • “The Moogai,” an Australian horror film that is about much more than scares, and involves the nation’s indigenous people.
  • “Skywalkers: A Love Story” — A documentary that Nein said is bending storytelling. “People are going to talk about it … it’s a dizzying love story.”
  • “Freaky Tales,” — Nein called it “A four-chapter mix tape of genres and styles that is absolutely brilliant,” featuring Pascal and Ben Mendelsohn.

In-Person ticket packages and passes and online ticket packages and passes are currently on sale including some for Salt Lake viewing. Single film tickets go on sale Jan. 11 at 10 a.m., Utah time. The full slate of films can be viewed at festival.sundance.org/program/films/.

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Sundance slate features big names with cinema newcomers in Utah festival’s 40th edition