All the best movies we saw at Sundance Film Festival, ranked … – USA TODAY

Sundance is back, for those finally returning to Park City, Utah, or – if you’re like us – avoiding the snow while hanging on the couch.
After going virtual for a couple of pandemic-affected editions, Sundance Film Festival (now through Jan. 29) has embraced both normalcy and the new with a hybrid in-person/online format. But the indie films on tap are, as usual with the fest, a pretty interesting mix, from the Jonathan Majors bodybuilding drama “Magazine Dreams” to Daisy Ridley’s “Sometimes I Think About Dying” to a slate of documentaries featuring Judy Blume, Little Richard, Michael J. Fox and Brooke Shields.
Here are the best movies we’ve seen so far at Sundance, ranked:
In a creepy-kid horror film that takes a couple of pages from “The Babadook,” Sarah Snook (“Succession”) stars as a divorced Australian mother forced to confront dark secrets and repressed trauma from her family’s past. She’s not real happy when her 7-year-old daughter (Lily LaTorre) takes in a stray bunny as a pet for her birthday, but it’s just the inciting incident for a series of bizarre turns and revealed truths as the girl begins to exhibit increasingly dangerous bad behavior.
In a quiet coastal Oregon town, the shy Fran (Daisy Ridley) lives an isolated life, occasionally daydreams of her demise, and works diligently and silently as her officemates chatter on, until an extroverted newcomer (Dave Merheje) forces Fran out of her lonely shell. What superficially seems like a deadpan, socially awkward take on “The Office” becomes an amusing and affecting look at loneliness and the importance of human interaction, with an outstandingly droll turn from Ridley.
A parental nightmare gets Frankenstein’d in this unsettling horror film. When her 6-year-old daughter dies of a sudden bacterial infection and goes missing from the morgue, nurse Celie (Judy Reyes) finds the child has become an experiment for Rose (Marin Ireland), an emotionally cold pathologist obsessed with reanimation. The pair quickly learn bringing the dead back is easier than it sounds, and Celie goes to terrifying extremes for her little girl in a sinister story full of moral quandaries.
Brandon Cronenberg’s NC-17 sci-fi horror film is trippy, bizarre, appalling and somehow also insightful about humanity. A struggling novelist (Alexander Skarsgård) at a posh all-inclusive island getaway runs into a fan (Mia Goth), a day trip with her veers tragic when the writer runs a guy over, but thanks to the laws of this fictional country, a clone of himself is executed in his place as punishment. The bad behavior gets wilder from there with a cool premise that doesn’t totally fly but has plenty of gory chutzpah.
Imagine a kung fu collaboration between Quentin Tarantino, Jane Austen and Edgar Wright, and that’s the vibe of this energetic action comedy written and directed by Nida Manzoor (creator of the amazing “We Are Lady Parts”). A Pakistani London teen (Priya Kansara) is an aspiring martial artist with dreams of being a famous stuntwoman, but she first has to use her cool spin kicks – a work in progress – and youthful moxie to stop the sudden arranged marriage of her older sister (Ritu Arya).
In the British coming-of-age film, 12-year-old Georgie (newcomer Lola Campbell) lives alone in a flat outside London following her mother’s death. Her daily existence includes stealing bikes and avoiding social workers until the father (Harris Dickinson) she never met shows up and they clash, though they’re more alike than either would care to admit. Dickinson (“Triangle of Sadness”) is good but Campbell is the excellent find here as a feisty tween who can only hide her emotions and grief for so long. 
Iconic children’s author Judy Blume is refreshingly cool and endlessly hip in this entertaining documentary, which tracks her life from adolescence to motherhood to finding success in the 1970s. Interviews with fans and celebrities, plus Blume herself, dig into the importance of her stories introducing children to sex and puberty – and the conservative feathers she ruffled. The insightful deep-drive also showcases her surprising sauciness at 84: “I was a good girl with a bad girl lurking just inside.”
A celebration of the rock legend’s career goes hand in hand with how the music industry whitewashed Richard Penniman’s considerable influence in this honest and essential documentary. Through archival footage and interviews, the film chronicles the flamboyant performer’s early days as a drag act, his superstardom but also a complex life struggling with his queerness and his religion. And if you believe Elvis Presley is the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, this will make you rethink who should be on that throne.
While Penelope Cruz brings a gentle touch and song-and-dance moves to this Italian family drama, it’s newcomer Luana Giuliani who really dazzles. In 1970s Rome, 13-year-old Adriana (Giuliani) starts to identify as a boy, telling mother Clara (Cruz) she feels like an alien from another galaxy. From meetings with a crush to musical fantasies, Adri tries to find herself even as the dynamic with her mom, abusive dad and siblings becomes more unstable in the touching, inclusive coming-of-age tale.
The rousing true-life underdog story casts a never-better Gael García Bernal as Saúl, a gay wrestler in the Mexican luchador circuit who takes off his mask and embraces a new feminine “exótico” character. Wearing his mom’s clothing, Saúl first weathers homophobic insults but his passion and flamboyance ultimately win crowds over in a big way. Bernal shines in a heartfelt performance alongside Raúl Castillo as his secret lover and Bad Bunny in a supporting role as a promoter and confidant.
Is it too early to start talking 2024 best actor? Jonathan Majors is phenomenal and frightening as a troubled amateur bodybuilder whose life falls apart as he obsessively tries to craft the perfect physique in writer/director Elijah Bynum’s intoxicating cautionary tale. Doing for a musclebound world what “The Wrestler” did for the squared circle, the film follows Majors’ painfully awkward gym rat as he goes down a spectacularly bad path of protein shakes, steroids, rage issues, misplaced idolatry and macho posedowns.
‘There’s no way out’: Michael J. Fox says he became an alcoholic, hid Parkinson’s diagnosis
‘Stay alive and get out’: Brooke Shields reveals she was raped in ‘Pretty Baby’ documentary
‘Judy Blume Forever’: New documentary explores sexuality, banned books and controversy
Daisy Ridley on playing dead in ‘I Think I’m Dying,’ being an introvert: ‘I’m like a grandma’
Sundance classics: The 10 greatest movies the film festival gave us, from ‘Clerks’ to ‘CODA’


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