Dick Johnson is Dead” (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson dies many times in Dick Johnson is Dead, a hilarious and moving documentary portrait helmed by critics’ favorite Kirsten Johnson. Dick is Kirsten’s dad, and he’s suffering from dementia. The documentary charts her relationship with him over his final years, during which he moves out of his rural home and into Kirsten’s one bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Over the documentary, Kirsten stages various ways in which her father could die — such as falling down a staircase, or getting crushed by a falling AC unit while doddering down the street. Each of these “deaths” feels grisly to a ridiculous degree, and as we watch Dick stand back up, alive, after each encounter, the movie evolves into a kind of absurdist cinematic therapy. Droll and divine in equal measure, Dick Johnson is Dead was a highlight of this year’s festival, proving Johnson a master of her craft.

Radha Blank in “The 40-Year-Old Version” (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The 40-Year-Old Version

The black-and-white version of New York City on display in Radha Blank’s semi-autobiographical comedy is an expressionistic nod to earlier indies by filmmakers like Spike Lee — and the film is as earnest, funny, and affirming as those predecessors. In addition to writing and directing, Blank stars as Radha, a former Broadway ingenue who’s now teaching high school drama. Feeling stuck, Radha begins to rap, using the medium as a freestyle artistic outlet for her frustration. The movie, which is Blank’s impressive first feature, evolves into an exploration of the difficulties of black storytelling in a white creative realm, elevated and complicated by a cast of diverse New York characters who serve as an intermittent Greek chorus of sorts.

Sidney Flanigan appears in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Following up her 2017 favorite Beach Rats, Eliza Hittman was the talk of this year’s festival with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a vivid portrait of a young woman seeking an abortion. When the movie opens, our protagonist Autumn, brilliantly played by first-time actor Sidney Flanigan, is a teenage outsider mocked by her high school peers in small town Pennsylvania. Her only ally seems to be her cousin Skylar, who offers to accompany Autumn on a journey to New York City to secure an abortion. It’s an authentic and beautifully wrought film, as much about reproductive rights as it is about female bonding.

Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha in “Sylvie’s Love” (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Sylvie’s Love

In this conventional romance set in 1950s New York City, Tessa Thompson stars as Sylvie, an alluringly resolute daughter of a kindhearted music store owner. Obsessed with television, Sylvie yearns to be a producer, and she’s in love with a saxophonist despite being engaged to another man. The film is an homage to another era, an old-fashioned love story that harks back to Golden Age dramas. The difference, of course, is that the lovers here are black — a representational detail that lends the film a refreshing and meaningful new perspective.

“Lost Girls” (Courtesy of Netflix)

Lost Girls

Liz Garbus made a name for herself as a documentarian with films like What Happened, Miss Simone and Searching for Bobby Fischer, and so it was thrilling to see that this year, Garbus would be trying her hand at a narrative feature — though the story she’s telling is still based on real life. Lost Girls is adapted from a 2013 nonfiction bestseller, telling the story of Mari, a single mother of three on Long Island who is searching for her missing oldest daughter, Shannan, who Mari learns was earning money as a sex worker. The result is a grave and sincere drama set under an oppressive, middle-class Long Island gloom.