5 Best Sundance award-winning movies Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

Whether graffiti is art or not is the question guiding this fascinating documentary about the spray can-wielding artists of ‘80s New York. Wherever you come down in the debate — though this presents compelling arguments that graffiti is a medium worthy of critical attention — you’ll undoubtedly come away with a reverence for the kids who went hard with the paint on NYC’s walls and subway cars. Candid interviews with these young pioneers (whose cultural contributions are now less in contention) reveal that they’re not simply rebelling for rebellion’s sake: they’re largely motivated by a desire to make their mark on their beloved city — to stand out and have their work seen by the millions riding the subway every day.

The doc largely embeds itself with the artists, but it also interviews the “other side”: then-mayor Ed Koch and police officers, who were ramping up their aggressive “war on graffiti” campaign during filming. It’s clear that these interviewees have little interest in understanding what drives the kids to create their murals — a lack of curiosity that Style Wars blessedly counters. Not just a thoughtful contribution to its period and a fascinating time capsule, but also a thought-provoking reminder that art is art, whether it's made outside of the system or not.

Genre: Documentary, Music, TV Movie

Actor: Cap, Daze, Dondi, Ed Koch, Eric Haze, Gene Anthony Ray, Irene Cara, Kase 2, Rammellzee

Director: Tony Silver

Be prepared to have the expectations you form after reading Scrapper’s synopsis shattered: though it is about a 12-year-old dealing with grief following her mother's death, it’s remarkably upbeat. It gets that quality by positioning itself in the buoyant headspace of young Georgie, a resilient, cheeky youngster who retains much of her whimsical childlike spirit in spite of her profound bereavement. Director Charlotte Regan’s debut feature is bursting with imagination: there are surreal stylized touches all over the movie, from talking video-game-style spiders to magical realist metaphors of Georgie's grief. 

That’s not to say that Scrapper is flippant about the inherent tragedy of its story, though. As in The Florida Project, you can feel the escapist motivations of Georgie's colorful imagination, which only deepens the poignancy of her situation and the precarious relationship she forms with her father, a barely-old-enough manchild who only makes an effort to meet Georgie after her mother’s death. Amidst all the intentional artificiality of the filmmaking, their largely improvised interactions never ring false — a dynamic that’s also crucial to making the movie feel genuinely touching and real rather than saccharine and shallow. A very impressive debut, and a much-deserved recipient of Sundance’s World Cinema Grand Jury prize and a whopping 14 nominations at the BIFAs.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alin Uzun, Ambreen Razia, Asheq Akhtar, Aylin Tezel, Harris Dickinson, Laura Aikman, Lola Campbell, Matt Brewer, Olivia Brady, Sam Buchanan

Director: Charlotte Regan

Rating: NR

To Hollywood's shame, it wasn’t until 1998 that a major feature made by Native American filmmakers was released. It was this charming indie gem that belatedly broke that new ground: based on author Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Smoke Signals retains the irreverent humor hinted at in its source material’s title while also being a genuinely heartfelt drama. Set across two cleverly interweaving timelines, it follows the fraught relationship between Victor and Thomas, two young men living on Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Reservation who are forever linked by tragedy: as a baby, Thomas was saved from the house fire that killed his parents by Victor’s father Arnold (a great Gary Farmer), who soon spiraled into alcoholism and abandoned his young son. When Arnold dies suddenly, then, the duo embark on a perspective-changing road trip to collect his ashes.

Thomas’ nerdy earnestness and happy-go-lucky personality have always gotten on the nerves of the stoic Victor — who’s eaten up by resentment at his father for leaving — but the trip brings the disparate duo together. Though the movie honors their meaningful journey with a serious dramatic focus, it’s also shot through with sharp humor satirizing clichés about Native American people — a tonal complexity that makes it uncommonly accomplished, even without the added value of its all-too-rare perspective.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Adam Beach, Cody Lightning, Cynthia Geary, Elaine Miles, Evan Adams, Gary Farmer, Irene Bedard, John Trudell, Michael Greyeyes, Molly Cheek, Perrey Reeves, Robert Miano, Simon Baker, Tantoo Cardinal, Tom Skerritt

Director: Chris Eyre

Rating: PG-13

, 2021

In Luzzu, tradition and modernity — plus principles and necessity — come crashing up against each other like waves in a raging storm. Trying to navigate his way through the tempest is Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna), a Maltese fisherman proudly descended from a long family line of the profession. But Jesmark’s work — and his identity, which is tightly bound up with it — is reaching a crisis point, as fishing's dwindling returns can no longer provide his family with a living. His baby son needs expensive medical care, and his wife (Michela Farrugia) sees little choice but to abandon their independence and lean on her family (who have been hostile to her choice of spouse) to get by.

And so Jesmark finds himself pricing his principles: does he struggle on in vain, or give in to the pull of the lucrative black market, which respects neither EU fishing laws nor the sanctity of the seabed? With the weight of his family legacy on his back, Jesmark’s crisis feels like a crushing existential one. As visually stunning as the titular brightly painted wooden boat passed down by Jesmark's great-grandfather, Luzzu also feels as preciously crafted, with its raw look at the realities of economic survival recalling the acutely painful dilemmas of classic neorealist cinema.

Genre: Drama

Actor: David Scicluna, Frida Cauchi, Jesmark Scicluna, Michela Farrugia, Uday McLean

Director: Alex Camilleri

Science Fair is simultaneously a feel-good documentary and a feel-bad one: while inspiring and reassuring for all the brilliant young minds it spotlights, it also has the potential to make your own life accomplishments look paltry in comparison. The former effect is the strongest, though — because you can’t watch high schoolers as young as 14 present pioneering, disease-curing research and inventions and not feel like the future is in good hands.

Science Fair is light on the actual science, which makes it an accessible watch and prevents the film’s focus from mimicking the cutthroat nature of ISEF, the international competition it follows. With a grand prize of $75k and lots of college application-boosting medals up for grabs, the competition amongst the kids is fierce, but Science Fair instead takes an empathetic, celebratory approach so that all of the kids feel like deserved winners. That’s especially true of the more disadvantaged teens: though the competition itself might not take into account all the hurdles they’ve had to overcome even just to get in the room, this compassionate doc definitely does. Even if the science is all Greek to you, it’s impossible not to appreciate and be moved by the determination and resilience of these kids.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster

Rating: PG