This year, in celebration of its fortieth anniversary, the Sundance Film Festival asked more than five hundred industry professionals and film buffs to pick their favorite films that premiered at Sundance over the years. The resulting top-ten list is a road map of the past four decades of independent film—and it runs straight through Texas.
Austin-based director Richard Linklater is the only filmmaker to make the list twice, first for his Vienna-set Gen X backpacker romance Before Sunrise and again for his 2014 Oscar contender Boyhood, which was shot in Houston, San Marcos, and Big Bend National Park, among other Texas locations. Another spot on the list goes to Blood Simple, the 1984 debut film by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, set in Texas and shot in Austin and Hutto. Altogether, Texas has a stronger presence on the top ten list than independent film mecca New York City or any other country, state, or region besides Southern California.
In the four decades since Robert Redford, who spent childhood summers in Texas and learned to swim at Barton Springs, founded Sundance, the festival has provided a crucial entry point for Texas voices, talent, and stories into a film and TV industry often myopically focused on the coasts. This year is no exception—more than half a dozen entries boast significant local interest. Below is a Texan’s guide to the 2024 program, rated from one to six stars on a scale of Texanness.
★★★★★★ Maximally Texan
This three-part documentary series from HBO Films could not possibly be more Texan. It’s an unusual TV product: three different films by different Texan directors, each about the creator’s own hometown, presented as a trilogy. All are inspired by the 2018 book God Save Texas: A Journey into the Heart of the Lone Star State, by Austin-based, Pulitzer Prize–winning author (and former Texas Monthly staffer) Lawrence Wright. This version of God Save Texas, which boasts Wright, Linklater, and Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg as executive producers, is utterly different, but it looks fascinating in its own right. The headliner episode for many will be the documentary helmed by Linklater, titled God Save Texas: Hometown Prison, exploring how correctional institutions shape the culture of Huntsville, where he was raised. The other two episodes, God Save Texas: La Frontera, by Iliana Sosa, and God Save Texas: The Price of Oil, by Alex Stapleton, take viewers to opposite ends of the state—El Paso–Ciudad Juárez and Houston, respectively—to take on key issues affecting the hometowns of those two nonfiction filmmakers.
★★★★★ Extremely Texan
The next-most Texan film on view at Sundance is another Linklater-directed project, a crowd-pleasing narrative feature about an undercover cop who falls in love with the woman who hires him to kill her abusive husband. Vox calls it “an absolute delight.” (Hit Man is loosely based on an article Skip Hollandsworth wrote for Texas Monthly, which is an executive producer for the film.) It earned a six-minute standing ovation when it premiered in Venice, and it sold to Netflix for a healthy $20 million.
Hit Man was cowritten by Linklater and lead actor Glen Powell, a native Austinite and UT alum. You might recognize him from Top Gun: Maverick. A key supporting role is played by yet another Texan rising star, Austin Amelio. So why only five out of six Texas flags? The film is set and shot in New Orleans, despite Hollandsworth’s true story being reported from Houston.
★★★★ Abundantly Texan
David and Nathan Zellner, who grew up in College Station and now call Austin home, are our homegrown answer to the Coen Brothers, a two-man writer-director laboratory for offbeat, sometimes outrageous high-concept comedies. Just don’t call them “quirky.”
The Zellners had their first breakthrough with 2014’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a Sundance pick conceived as a tribute and sequel of sorts to the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. This year’s film again takes viewers to the northern latitudes of the continental U.S., this time to track a family of Sasquatches in the wild. A hot-off-the-press review in Variety says the film “seems poised to become the most popular live-action Bigfoot movie since ‘Harry and the Hendersons.’ ” Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough star in full ape-man and -woman prosthetics. Austin band the Octopus Project provides the score. Count on this one to keep it weird.
★★★★ Abundantly Texan
Reality Winner of Kingsville is one of the most compelling outlaws to come out of Texas in our lifetimes. Certainly, she’s among the most controversial. In 2017, then-25-year-old Winner, a former U.S. Air Force linguist credited with aiding in 650 enemy captures and six hundred enemy kills in Afghanistan, leaked classified National Security Agency documents to the press. These documents revealed previously unknown efforts to hack the 2016 national election by Russian intelligence services, including a cyberattack on a voting software firm. Winner was eventually sentenced to five years and three months in prison. She was released in 2021, after serving just under three years.
This new film is a darkly comic dramatization of Winner’s story, helmed by sharp-witted director Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me) with a cast led by Emilia Jones (CODA) and everyone’s favorite Texas mom, Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights). According to Variety, it’s Britton’s performance that holds the film together, inviting the audience into a mother’s loving perspective on a daughter who makes a complicated decision somewhere between brave and foolhardy.
★★★ Texan enough
This film, about a young woman in Brooklyn whose immigrant boyfriend leaves her alone to return to Ukraine to address family matters, makes the list not because of the story it tells but because of its director: Haley Elizabeth Anderson. Anderson, here helming her first feature-length movie, is a rising star with Houston roots and two other, more Gulf Coast–oriented, films in development. Expect to hear her name more in future years.
While a student at UT-Austin, Anderson worked briefly for legendary local director Terrence Malick. She has spoken to Filmmaker magazine of seeing Black characters depicted in Malick’s Tree of Life and wanting to expand on their stories. Tendaberry may be a first step in that direction.
★★ Slightly Texan
This indie drama, which features a debut performance by Puerto Rican music star René Pérez Joglar, a.k.a. Residente, is set in Las Cruces, New Mexico, arguably a suburb of El Paso. It’s the intimate story of a fragmented Latino family and the challenges that arise between a part-time father and his two daughters as they come of age. It’s included on this list in part for its proximity to Texas and in part because it’s the fruit of a broader effort to bring more Latino representation and stories, including stories from the Rio Grande borderland, to Hollywood. Producer Sergio Lira, a Houstonian working in Los Angeles, recently made headlines for launching a new production company, Luz Films, with that goal in mind.
★ Slightly but unfortunately Texan
This documentary tracks comedy legend Will Ferrell and Harper Steele, his longtime friend, on a road trip across America after Steele comes out as a trans woman. The leads are not Texan, nor is the director. It makes the list, however, because we suspect that it may include at least one scene in our state. Last March, TikToker @sarahmarie1979 captured Ferrell and Steele visiting Amarillo’s famous Big Texan Steak Ranch, home of the 72-ounce steak-eating challenge, and receiving an extraordinarily tepid audience response to a plea for trans rights.
Various Short Films
★★ Slightly Texan
Those unable to travel to Park City, Utah, and acquire invitations to red-carpet premieres will be pleased to learn that, since the COVID-19 pandemic, Sundance has opened to online viewers in the latter half of the festival. This year’s online version of the festival runs January 25–28 and features on-demand access to many films.