15 Best Documentaries We Saw at Sundance 2024

Keep your eye out for these standouts that cover everything from music and politics to social issues, tragedies, love stories, and outright terror.

by | February 7, 2024 | Comments


Between multi-part television series and features, this year’s Sundance Film Festival debuted over 40 documentaries. They ran the gamut of music, biographies, social issues, politics, love stories, tragedies, and outright terror. Choosing between them in just a week’s time is more than enough for any individual, but here are 15 standouts to put on your radar.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Before the words “Me Too” became a rallying cry for female voices in this country, journalist Shiori Ito was investigating her own sexual assault at the hands of a colleague in her own field. Ito chronicles the story as director, tracing the incident from 2015 surveillance footage to going public with a press conference and ultimately a book fighting the archaic rape laws of Japan, where lack of consent means nothing if physical harm is not proven. This is a stirring, personal work of journalism that further exposes the hierarchy of power protecting power and how courage can become contagious.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Angela Patton and Natalie Rae’s debut feature charts the preparation for a Daddy Daughter Dance, only this one is part of a prison program designed to reconnect incarcerated men with their children as well as their paternal instincts. The film may focus on a single dance, but it is one that feels like it will reverberate through these lives for years; some of them on the inside, others just as painful, if not more, on the outside. This is a powerful film that earns its emotions on both sides of the screen.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Chris Smith, director of The Yes Men, American Movie, and Wham!, now tells the story of the ultimate 1980s alternative band. The “de-evolution” of Mark Mothersbaugh and his fellow bandmates was everything so many radicals and punks preached. Seeing first-hand the tragedy of the Kent State massacre, they rebelled against any establishment (especially the early hypocrisy of MTV), even if their message was frequently lost amongst the consuming masses. Smith gets first-hand accounts from the members themselves and moves through the years with the kind of vibrant style that new generations will appreciate and their greatest fans will lap up with glee.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Psychics may try to convince you you’re talking to your deceased loved ones, but what if artificial intelligence could help you talk to their likeness after they are gone? That is the provocative query raised in Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck’s alternately heartbreaking, creepy, and infuriating film, in which the digital dead may tell you they love you or that they are in hell. The limbo ride we experience with the users of Project December, as well as its creators, allows us to craft the questions within ourselves as to how we choose to move on with our loss and whether or not we even want to be remembered ourselves through this morally questionable technology.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Terry Masear has dedicated the last 20 years of her life to rescuing and healing wounded and young hummingbirds. Sally Aitken’s film observes Masear’s gentle approach with the birds we get to know by name, but it is as much about observing Masear herself. There is an empathetic approach to the widower, who tries to save these creatures after helplessly having to watch the love of her life pass away. The spiritual nature of the film is itself soothing to our own understanding of how the little gestures in this world can matter, and maybe through them we can find our own peace in a world of chaos and heartbreak.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

In 2020 directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss took us inside Boys State, where teenage boys participated in building a government from scratch. This year they take us to the alternative, where young women are asked to do the same, forming their own Supreme Court and arguing the issues of the day. Belief systems are tested both politically and religiously. Meanwhile, as the boys run theirs concurrently, equality between the programs rises to the forefront, showing that even a made-up world is not immune to the everyday problems of the real one. It will debut on Apple TV+.

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Everyone who lived through the 1980s knew “We Are The World.” What they may not have known is how they got all those musicians together in one room and how quickly they had to record it. And while you may not learn precisely why Dan Aykroyd was there, Bao Nguyen’s incredibly entertaining film will give you a greater appreciation for not just the effort but both the teamwork and individuality of each artist. Who did they lose throughout the night? Who may have been drunk? All just Easter eggs in a film that recognizes the craft of creation and camaraderie in achieving a common goal for the greater good. It is available on Netflix now.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

A primary theme that swirled around the films at Sundance this year related to the artificial worlds that horrifically manipulate our grieving process. Benjamin Ree’s film was the rare exception to that. Mats Steen was born with an incurable degenerative muscular disease, and when he passed away, his parents were left with a password. With it we discover along with them the connections he formed with others in the gaming community that he was unable to express in the real world. Through animation and documented chats from World of Warcraft, we get to experience a love story, forgiveness, and healing where fantasy and reality collide with our hearts and all those who knew this young man. Watch for it on Netflix.

95% Luther: Never Too Much (2024) Luther Vandross in an image from Luther: Never Too Much (2024)

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Named after his 1981 album, Dawn Porter’s film moves through Luther Vandross’ career from his early days as a backup singer (and appearances on Sesame Street) through the heyday of the 1980s and ‘90s as one of the preeminent R&B soloists. As a journey through the music, it is a loving remembrance. As for something more intimate, the closest it allows itself is his public struggle with weight. The film is respectful enough not to go digging too deep into his personal life, though it does miss finding the sad truth in the “doctor of love” never truly finding love for himself. However, with a body of music this soulful, perhaps he left enough of a legacy to help us find it for ourselves.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

If Man On Wire or Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk did not fill you with the dual anxiety of illegal trespassing and extreme heights, then the antics of Ivan Beerkus and Angela Nikolau will test your limits on both. The real life “rooftoppers” (daredevils who climb to great heights for the ultimate selfies) aim to climb the construction site of the Malaysian Merdeka 118, only to attempt a finale that would give Baby Houseman and Ethan Hunt pause. Documenting their paths through a love affair filled with danger, this is a nail-biting travelogue paced like a caper film that would make for one helluva theatrical experience. That said, look for it on Netflix.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

History lessons don’t often present themselves with this kind of swing to them. But Johan Grimonprez’s film is a finger-snappin’, foot-tappin’ tale of global politics that crams more into two and a half hours than most school semesters on the subject. Specifically, it highlights the formation of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which you could do a little light reading on in the trio of books used to craft this narrative. Or you can marvel at how the filmmakers piece together the manipulation by the superpowers set to the music of Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and others representing a western mindset that itself was only just grappling with civil rights. It’s a buoyant, dense piece of work with an incredible playlist.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie shine a light on a specific but unfortunately all too familiar tale, namely physical and sexual abuse under the guise of Catholicism, this time at a residential Native American school on the titular reserve populated by children snatched away from their parents. The dehumanization of the survivors continued not only in the denials of the power structure around them, but even within their own families. Yet this is a story about family and the struggle to heal from a past that will always be a part of their present, which the filmmakers capture with anger and grace.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Let the tears fall through the applause for this film about the man behind the most iconic of all the Man of Steel portrayals. Call that statement opinion or truth, but directors Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui bring us through the tragedy of the actor’s horse-riding accident and the justice he fought for in bringing awareness to stem cell research to help those who were suffering as he was. It is the story of a career, family, friendship, and the reminder that heroes do not only exist on the page and the silver screen.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Many workers in this country began to realize just what their value was during the pandemic. This certainly was the case for those who worked at Amazon whose efforts to organize made national news. Stephen Maing and Brett Story’s film chronicles the period before it became a headline. The grassroots effort from former and current employees shows a company unwilling to take claims of unsafe practices seriously and quick to turnaround its workers who speak out. It’s a frustrating watch to be sure, given even the internal strife to find common ground against the Goliath impervious to their rocks, but it’s a vital one in a society that too often treats human beings as replaceable cogs.

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(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

There may not be a scarier film this year than this real-life, real-time government exercise brought to us again by Jesse Moss and fellow director, Tony Gerber. Bipartisan former politicians and intelligence experts were gathered to simulate a potential Insurrection 2.0 for Jan. 6, 2025, only this time, what if the crazies were joined by members of the military in fighting for the false propaganda of a stolen election? This film puts us in the middle of the fight against disinformation on social media and the chaos that could ensue if more than a single shot was fired in the defense of our democracy. It’s a what-if this country already saw more than a trial run of, and this is a dire warning to quash the lies and the temperature before a certain Alex Garland film comes to theaters.

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