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The movies to see in 2024

a close-up of four women smiling during a step and repeat
Chris Pizzello
Laura Chinn, second from left, writer/director of "Suncoast," poses with, from left, executive producer Anna Schwartz and cast members Daniella Taylor and Baby Ariel at the premiere of the film at the Library Theatre during the Sundance Film Festival, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024, in Park City, Utah.

Hear more from tt stern enzi on his film festival picks on this episode of Cincinnati Edition.

With over 20 years of experience covering film and festivals (along with now serving as artistic director of the Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival), I found myself preparing for a bucket list adventure at the beginning of 2024.

A few years ago, due to COVID, I had been able to attend the Sundance Film Festival virtually — whereas a matter of fact, I was able to screen CODA and immediately started negotiating to bring it in as the 2021 closing night here in OTR — but nothing could compare to the idea of one day attending in person.

Thanks to earning a Black and Brown Artist Grant from ArtsWave, I jumped at the chance to head off to the major festival that kicks off the calendar with the hope of scouting films that would match up with my exploration into fatherhood. My aim would be to link and ground my long-form essays with new, unseen visions and visionaries that only the Sundance programming team could find.

Of course, I never embark on a festival journey wearing just one hat (or even one hat at a time), so for one fantastic week, I sampled a dozen films aiming for a degree of intersectionality between fatherhood, disability within a diversity framework, and a general search for the most intriguing titles that might catch fire either at the box office or as part of awards season at the end of the year.

Here's what I found:

Stepping (in)to fatherhood

Ghostlight (directed by Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan)

On day two, I took the advice of a fellow critic who knew a bit about the subject matter of my grant and recommended this powerful indie drama that spotlights Dan (Keith Kupferer), a middle-aged construction worker sinking deeper into grief without recognizing it, stranding his wife Sharon (Tara Mallen) and daughter (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) on the outside. (Dolly de Leon, the breakout scene stealer from Triangle of Sadness, has a presence here as well.) A chance explosive event connects him with a local theater preparing a production of Romeo and Juliet, leading to a revelatory awakening for Dan and his family. Thompson and O’Sullivan find, in Dan’s Everyman life, a modern take on Shakespeare that resonates like never before.

RELATED: Film critic tt stern enzi's top films of 2023

Eternal You (directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck)

Themes — beyond those one might anticipate when preparing a festival screening schedule — emerge unexpectedly, and for this year at Sundance, AI tickled and teased my sensibilities. Festival panels, like the New Frontier Conversation: Let’s Rebrand Artificial Intelligence, presaged a varied film program featuring titles like Eternal You, which tells the story of several startups devoted to using AI to develop avatars based on our digital data that our loved ones can use to speak with the dead. Is this immortality or something out of a Blumhouse horror film? Having only had a couple of abbreviated conversations with my birth father, would I want to attempt to explore a virtual connection with a man who wasn’t all that interested in speaking with me in person?

Over-the-Rhine Film Festival

Ibelin (directed by Benjamin Ree)

Documentary filmmaking has seemingly been the easiest means of crafting stories featuring the disability community, but it has left us with a number of tropes — overcoming the odds; families and people struggling with adversity; infantilizing anecdotes that deny both agency and different life experiences. Ibelin starts off from a traditional framework presenting Mats Steen, a Norwegian gamer with a degenerative muscular disease. We see him from the perspective of his parents’ videos and largely in their voice up to the point where he dies at the age of 25. Then, miraculously, Ree rewinds the story, taking us inside Steen’s online alter ego "Ibelin" as he navigates the World of Warcraft (complete with animation based on the Ibelin character in the game) and interacts with a community of people who didn’t know him based on his disability, but as a person who impacted and enriched their lives. He lived and loved in a way his parents never realized until after his death. This film is the greatest celebration of life anyone could ever have in this world or any other.

RELATED: 10 acclaimed actors and filmmakers who haven't won an Oscar — yet

Out of My Mind (directed by Amber Sealey)

It is always a surprise to see a film narrative focusing on someone with a disability that is not a documentary that actually features a performer with a disability, especially at a festival like Sundance. Out of My Mind is a Disney film and was part of the Sundance Family Matinee slate. Phoebe-Rae Taylor embodies the role of Melody Brooks, a nonverbal, wheelchair-using sixth grader with cerebral palsy who has so much to say, if only people open themselves up to truly hearing her. Melody navigates through a world with caring parents (Rosemarie DeWitt and Luke Kirby), a doctor (Courtney Taylor) advising her school system about integrating students with disabilities in the classroom, and a typical self-obsessed cohort of preteen classmates, but we get her story thanks to voiceover narration from Jennifer Aniston, since Melody is a huge fan of Friends. Despite being Disney-fied to a certain degree, the movie does a solid job of presenting all of these characters as grounded and relatable in each and every situation, which makes it more magical and human.

Suncoast (written and directed by Laura Chinn)

And speaking of humanity in narratives, writer-director Chinn delves deeply into the life of Doris (Nico Parker), a teenager forced by circumstances to help take care of her terminally ill brother. This coming-of-age story includes Doris’s challenging relationship with her mother (Laura Linney) and an activist (Woody Harrelson) that Doris meets at the hospice care facility where her brother is living out his final days. At every turn, this movie could have leaned into stereotypical tropes — the ostracism of an awkward teen by the pretty clique, race and class divisions, and uncomfortable mentor dynamics — but without fail, Chinn imbues each scene and character with the kind of genuine warmth and sensibilities we all crave from the world around us. Everyone, not just Doris, grows up right before our eyes in this Sundance gem.

General releases

How to Have Sex (directed by Molly Manning Walker)

This BAFTA-nominated feature includes the audience in the holiday adventure of three British teen girls, complete with drinking, all-night partying, and explosive hook-ups, especially for Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), the focal point of the narrative and the most sexually inexperienced member of the trio. A tough film to watch — as a father of a daughter just past this phase of life — Manning Walker reveals the complex bonds of female friendship with both raw honesty and careful authentic consideration. I’m surprised to have a sense of longing for another installment in this story; one that might return to Tara five to 10 years later to see the impact of this holiday on her adult life and relationships (a la Before Midnight).

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Freaky Tales (directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden)

Michelle Farrah Huang, right, and Keir Gilchrist pose together at the premiere of the film "Freaky Tales" at Eccles Theatre during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Park City, Utah.
Chris Pizzello
Invision, AP
Michelle Farrah Huang, right, and Keir Gilchrist pose together at the premiere of the film "Freaky Tales" at Eccles Theatre during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Park City, Utah.

This buzzy festival ticket from Fleck and Boden is a pseudo-grindhouse anthology of four stories centered in 1987 Oakland, Calif. Full of underdogs, the tales feature teen punks protecting their turf from Neo-Nazi skinheads, a female rap duo battle-rapping against an Oakland legend, an underworld enforcer seeking to escape the hustle, and an NBA player fighting the odds after a miraculous game in the playoffs. The stories weave into one another with real aplomb and the overall film is a giddy joy that festivals desperately need alongside their more high-minded fare. Rather than succumbing to tears, Freaky Tales gives audiences permission to laugh out loud quite often throughout its runtime, and probably inspire them to return for a second (or third) viewing.

I Saw the TV Glow (written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun)

Schoenbrun’s 2021 film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair introduced Sundance audiences to emo horror as a new genre. I Saw the TV Glow follows up and expands on this genre, as Owen (Justice Smith) struggles to connect with anyone in his suburban world before landing on an older awkward yet confident teen (Brigette Lundy-Paine) who shepherds him into the surreal reality of a late-night TV show with supernatural underpinnings that start to seep into the real world. There is an experimental vibe to the storytelling here that, combined with its exploration of queer identity, left me grasping for a narrative thread to hold onto, but Lundy-Paine commits to both her character and the film with a conviction that is palpable.

Handling the Undead (directed by Thea Hvistendahl)

I need more horror like this in my life. Hvistendahl, adapting a novel from John Ajvide Lindqvist, tells the zombie story most movie and serialized shows fail to explore. How would we handle a loved one coming back from the dead? This slow-burn of a film captures the haunted feelings and pain of the living as they fight with their own internal longings, despite coming to the realization that what has emerged from the grave or the morgue is not the person they lost. It is heartbreaking and horrific.

The American Society of Magical Negroes (directed by Kobi Libii)

Kobi Libii, center, writer/director/producer of "The American Society of Magical Negroes," poses with cast members David Alan Grier, left, and Justice Smith at the premiere of the film at Eccles Theatre during the Sundance Film Festival, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Park City, Utah.
Chris Pizzello
Invision, AP
Kobi Libii, center, writer/director/producer of "The American Society of Magical Negroes," poses with cast members David Alan Grier, left, and Justice Smith at the premiere of the film at Eccles Theatre during the Sundance Film Festival, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Park City, Utah.

The world needs more David Alan Grier, who in The American Society of Magical Negroes, plays the mentor of a young man named Aren (Justice Smith) being inducted into the Society, which seeks to uses its powers to keep white people happy in order to prevent the early deaths of Black folks. Obviously, we’re operating in a fantastic and quite satirical realm, but I found myself believing in Grier. He walks the tightrope of humor and drama, fully aware that each step verges on tragedy. As much as I enjoyed the film, I wish it had the audacity to walk away from the rom-com elements and focus more on the troubling idea of protecting white sensibilities.

Thelma (written and directed by Josh Margolin)

Writer-director Margolin was inspired by his relationship with his own grandmother, so he decided to make an action film about an elderly woman (June Squibb) who, after getting duped by a phone scam for $10,000, goes on a quest to reclaim her money and a sense of dignity. Everyone who saw this film before I did mentioned the action — and while it is rooted in elements from a host of classic action films, it is remixed with slap-happy humor and real frailty, as it features one of the last performances from Richard Roundtree. You’ll never watch a chase scene the same way again.

RELATED: Movies that expand the evolution of LGBTQ+ representation in film

The Moogai (directed by Jon Bell)

Rife with Aboriginal mythology and a healthy sense of contemporary social commentary, Bell exposes the issues a couple faces when they bring their second child home from the hospital. Is the mother suffering from post-partum hallucinations or is there a child-stealing spirit eager to snatch the baby away? Indigenous communities all over the world (like in Australia, which is the setting here) understand the reality that governments took children from families by the thousands, which will likely touch upon real trauma for certain audiences. Produced by members of the teams that brought us The Babadook and Talk to Me, I wish The Moogai had given its horrific creature a more unsettling (and human) face.

tt stern enzi has spent 20 years as a freelance writer and film critic in the Greater Cincinnati region covering the film industry and film festivals while also earning distinction as an accredited critic on Rotten Tomatoes and membership in the Critics Choice Association.