The 10 Best Movies on Sundance Now (May 2021)

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The 10 Best Movies on Sundance Now (May 2021)

The best movies on Sundance Now are typically those you could’ve found streaming before on platforms like Netflix or Hulu, outcasts and peripheral classics that Sundance has mixed with undeniable modern masterpieces. No other streaming service will have the early Florence Pugh film Lady Macbeth smattered alongside a weird Nick Broomfield joint like Biggie & Tupac. Like Fandor or MUBI, Sundance Now finds its value in curatorial gems, not the glut of its library (which is only, at last count, around 150 films). We’ve got through its catalog and found the best indies, docs and more as of May 2021.

Here are the 10 best movies streaming on Sundance Now:

Biggie & Tupac

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Year: 2002
Director: Nick Broomfield

From its very first moments, Biggie & Tupac—a sort of truther’s glimpse into the murders of rappers Notorious BIG and 2Pac—is an exceptionally strange film. Director and narrator Nick Broomfield speaks in a clipped cadence, as if English isn’t his first language, and Earth isn’t his home planet. That he is somehow able to waddle his way into the most exclusive (and sometimes terrifying) situations is nearly incomprehensible, until one realizes that, to some extent, all his weirdness probably makes him seem so non-threatening that the folks who spill deeply incriminating confessions probably never figure his footage will ever see the light of day. And yet, Biggie & Tupac is endlessly compelling, far from an actually competent procedural but still ringing with enough sincerity that, buried beneath Broomfield’s weirdness and his very dubious journalistic intentions, there must be something true he’s tapping into. I’ve heard Broomfield referred to, among other epithets, as a “bottom-feeding creep,” and it’s not a stretch to see how his methods and results could be construed as the work of such. Yet, the access the man gets … when it comes to documentary film, do the ends justify the means? Because: the last 10 minutes of the film alone are worth the journey, in which an interview with Suge Knight (whom the film pretty clearly portrays as the orchestrator of both murders) reveals unnerving opinions on socioeconomic and racial realities. —Dom Sinacola


Cosmopolis

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Year: 2012
Director: David Cronenberg

In David Cronenberg’s thematically murky and pretentious-to-the-point-of-parody apocalyptic takedown of unrepentant American capitalism, an almost word-by-word adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, Pattinson is aggressively deadpan as a young billionaire asset manager whose sanity relies on a world ruled by cosmic order and predictability. That’s why, as his predictions for his new investments fail and his stock takes a nose dive during the course of a day spent trying to drive across New York so he can get a haircut, the cracks in his Patrick Bateman-on-downers shtick begins to unravel, revealing a pathetically insecure child desperate to crawl back to some form of humanity. Even during points of great existential confusion, Pattinson rarely directly exposes the character’s true nature, since at least an appearance of self-control against any conflict is his modus operandi. So the entire emotional arc of the piece rests on the shoulders of Pattinson’s impressive ability to communicate an ocean of repressed neuroses through subtle changes in body language, an asset that other auteurs clearly picked up on for his later projects. For those—including myself—who predicted that Pattinson’s involvement in a Cronenberg joint would ruin the film, it’s a tasty bit of arthouse irony that his performance turned out to be the saving grace instead.—Oktay Ege Kozak


We Need to Talk About Kevin

we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-australian-poster.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Lynne Ramsay

We Need To Talk About Kevin concerns the experience of a mother (Tilda Swinton) struggling with the aftermath of a school massacre carried out by her son (Ezra Miller). In its narrative construction, it draws upon two key tropes: that of the “whydunnit” thriller, in which the mystery of the perpetrator’s motivations are a driving factor, and that of the family horror, in which some dark element tears a traditional household apart. Indeed, the real horror is not that a teenager chose total negation over the banality of normative family life—it’s that these appeared to be the only two choices available. Tilda Swinton is brilliant in the starring role as a mother who grapples with guilt about what her son has done and reflects on his childhood, wondering what, if anything, could possibly have been done differently when one gives birth to a “bad seed.” The heartbreaking nature of the film is perfectly encapsulated by the scene wherein Kevin as a child briefly drops his sociopathic tendencies while ill, giving Swinton’s character a brief chance to feel like a cherished mother, only to emotionally shut her out again as soon as his physical health returns, dashing her hopes that some kind of breakthrough had been made. —Donal Foreman


The Fits

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Year: 2016
Director: Anna Rose Holmer

It’s not difficult to imagine a different cut of Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits that hews closer to the arc of a traditional sports story. Hers has the makings of a familiar one, of a misfit who wants more than anything to compete—but unlike most stories of inspirational audacity, The Fits is as much about discomfort as the catharsis that comes with achievement. In it, Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11-year-old who has more experience with stereotypically male pursuits like lifting weights and punching speed bags than the usual interests of a pre-teen girl. She spends nearly all of her time at the Lincoln Recreation Center alongside her boxer brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), pushing her body to the limit. While she shows a remarkable aptitude for the ascetical devotion required for boxing, she still dreams about competing on the dance team, “The Lincoln Lionesses.” Framed with a rigid sense of space by cinematographer Paul Yee, and backed by the groaning score from veteran composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, The Fits is infused with such dread that one can’t help but imagine that characters’ muscles and bones could break or shatter at any moment. The film’s most explicit example of which may be Toni pulling off a temporary tattoo, but The Fits is firmly a story of metaphysical body horror, an allegory about our greatest fears of physical fragility shot brilliantly through a feminist lens. With that, the film manages to reinvent the sports story as something both brainy and physically pure. —Michael Snydel


Marjorie Prime

marjorie-prime-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Michael Almereyda
Stars: Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Tim Robbins

Marjorie Prime is an elusive movie. You could call it dense, but calling it agile, or maybe just tricky, better describes the film’s character. Another director might have felt compelled to present Marjorie Prime as a mystery box, a riddle to be solved instead of a film to be savored, and peppered its plot with clues to vie for our attention, encouraging us to figure out the box’s secrets before its creator tips their hand. Michawl Almereyda gives not a single damn about outsmarting his viewers or his viewers outsmarting him. Like him or not, there’s no point denying how well he’s aged as a filmmaker throughout his extensive career. Appropriate, then, that this is a movie about precisely that—age—and all of the melancholic baggage and ennui that comes along with it. Working from Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play of the same name, Almereyda presents a tale of generational grief, in which elderly Marjorie (Lois Smith, reprising her role from the original play) is kept company in her modern seaside abode by a hologram modeled after her late husband, Walter (Jon Hamm). Walter, referred to coolly as “Walter Prime” by Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and her son in law, Jon (Tim Robbins), looks and sounds like the real thing, perfectly captured as a man in his 40s by the miracle of technology. Tess thinks the whole thing is weird. Jon less so, though he has his own problems with the Walter dynamic despite being the one who purchased him for Marjorie in the first place. From there, Almereyda mounts an exquisitely challenging production, one that calls for repeat viewings over years, all the better to persuade the film to surrender its meaning. How does the old saying go? That a lie told often enough becomes the truth? Such is the stuff that Marjorie Prime is made of: The lies we all tell ourselves to work through mourning and the passage of life. —Andy Crump


Lady Macbeth

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Year: 2017
Director: William Oldroyd

Director William Oldroyd can’t be faulted for not keeping his tone straight throughout Lady Macbeth, a bleak thriller that only gets bleaker and more suffocating the more freedom it affords its main character. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a young woman sold into marriage in 19th century rural England, and though her much older husband has no interest in spending time with her, let alone acknowledging her, she’s kept practically in amber, her time spent falling asleep on the couch while staring at the wall or holding long, pregnant silences while her servant (Naomi Ackie) sees to the various exigencies of keeping Katherine alive: dressing, cleaning, feeding, waking. Not until her husband goes away on business—of some short, because it’s beyond her lot as a woman to know any details—does she begin to enjoy her days, eventually starting up a clandestine relationship with a thick-necked stable boy (Cosmo Jarvis) her age. Unwilling to give up her new way of life and newer love, she pretty much puts aside all else to keep what she wants. Less an obvious horror movie than something more subtly unnerving, Lady Macbeth offers little clarity as to whether the vile actions Katherine inevitably takes are really her fault, or if that’s what was bound to happen with such a stifled life. Oldroyd is skilled at keeping clean answers just out of reach the further Katherine devolves into desperation, but at some point near the end of this gorgeous black heart of a film (props to cinematographer Ari Wegner for drawing endless shades of gray out of Britain’s landscape), Alice Birch’s screenplay pulls back from Katherine’s perspective to provide little sign of what’s going on behind her glazed-over stare. Pugh is captivating, allowing just enough madness to shine through a few cracks in her bemused exterior, never quite giving us enough to really chart the degree of her character’s moral decline. —Dom Sinacola


James White

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Year: 2015
Director: Josh Mond

Eventually while watching James White, you’ll decide you simply cannot get a bead on its main character. The sooner you do, the better: Like no movie in recent memory, the feature debut of writer-director Josh Mond is a small marvel of even-handed empathy. Played by Christopher Abbott, James White has a restless energy, a self-destructive streak, a bratty sense of entitlement, and a fierce devotion to those he loves. So, what does that make him, exactly? A cautionary tale? Utterly insufferable? A misunderstood romantic? James White never quite decides, which isn’t the same as not having strong opinions about its central figure. Mond has nothing but feelings for White, and they’re compellingly complicated. Loosely based on Mond’s own life, James White spans about five months, but the jaggedness of the telling makes the movie feel like the scenes are simply ripped-out patches in a much larger quilt of a life. There’s a looseness to the film that’s attuned to White’s own twitchy psyche, but Mond constructs his story with care, keeping an eye on its emotional through line. White’s life is in tumult when we first meet him, but we soon get the impression that his life is always fraying—it’s just that, this time, his distant father has died and now that’s become the central focus of his personal whirlwind. White isn’t so much grieving the loss—he hardly knew the man—but, rather, is concerned about his divorced mother Gail (a terrific Cynthia Nixon), who has stage 4 cancer and doesn’t need the additional emotional blow. The second half of James White is given over to Gail’s unalterable condition, and Abbott and Nixon hunker down as their characters travel down a road that only has one final destination. Even then, though, Mond refuses to give in to sentimentality or easy takeaways. To call James White a coming-of-age tale is simplistic—plus, it creates an expectation that its protagonist actually grows in some sort of quantifiable, conventional way. Maybe White will turn over a new leaf later after the credits roll, but it will take more than an 85-minute film for such a change to occur. —Tim Grierson


Ida

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Year: 2013
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

A compelling examination of how the past can shape us even when we don’t know anything about it, Pawel Pawlikowski’s quiet Polish film takes place in the 1960s, when World War II has ended but still grips people’s lives. In the title role, Agata Trzebuchowska—with a well-tuned balance between naivete and curiosity despite being a non-professional actor—plays a nun-in-training who learns that her family was Jewish and killed during Nazi occupation. She embarks on an odyssey to find their graves with her cynical, alcoholic aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), former prosecutor for the communist government. The relationship between the two characters grows more and more complex as they go deeper down the rabbit hole of their family’s past. Shot in black-and-white and academy ratio (1.37:1) by cinematographers ?ukasz ?al and Ryszard Lenczewski, Ida uses its frame to distinct effect, often resigning characters to the lower third of the screen. The effect can be unsettling, but intriguing; that space could contain the watchful power of Ida’s lord, but it could also be nothing more than an empty void. After a life of certitude, Ida has to decide for herself. —Jeremy Mathews


Fargo

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Year: 1996
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

In exploring the unsavory implications of “Minnesota nice,” the Coen Brothers created one of the most beloved, acclaimed and quotable films of all time. “Fargo” explores the tension that accompanies polite social norms and the quiet desperations they often mask, and many scenes are awkward enough to make your skin crawl. The emotional restraint displayed by Jerry Lundegaard and Mike is a thin and disingenuous veil over yearnings for money or companionship. The foil to this, obviously, is Marge Gunderson, who just really is that nice and hardworking and downright normal. Because of her and her husband’s gentleness, the movie makes you appreciate the art behind postage stamps as much as it makes you cringe at the sound of a wood chipper.—Allie Conti


Exit through the Gift Shop

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Director: Banksy
Year: 2010

When renowned graffiti artist Banksy took the camera away from Thierry Guetta, the man shooting his biopic, and decided that the subject would become the documentarian (and the documentarian, the subject), an incomparably zany (and very, very funny) documentary was born. Against all odds, Mr. Brainwash, as Guetta christens himself, puts on the largest and most profitable street art exhibition in history. The film never quite takes a side on the Warholian question of whether Guetta/Mr. Brainwash is actually a legitimate artist or has merely convinced enough people that he is—or whether those are one and the same, or whether it even matters. But the most compelling theme of the film is its cinematic exploration of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: That a phenomenon cannot be observed or measured without simultaneously changing it. Guetta never puts spray can to wood until he’s being documented by Banksy. Does that mean Banksy made him what he is? Destroyed, in some sense, what he was? And is that good or bad, or neither? Banksy’s not saying. —MD

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