Long-Awaited Sequel: Cinetopia Film Festival returns to Ann Arbor


Cinetopia Ann Arbor 2024 logo

Five years after its final pre-COVID edition, the long-awaited return of the Cinetopia Film Festival is finally upon us courtesy of Marquee Arts, the new name for the Michigan Theater Foundation.

Gathering films from many of the world’s best festivals—including Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, Telluride, Toronto, and Venice—this new version of Cinetopia is a pared-down program of 30 films (plus a few special screenings and events), and the entire festival will be taking place solely in Ann Arbor. A fairly even mix of narrative and documentary features have been selected, with 16 films from the U.S. and the other 14 from all over the world.

You should check out the whole program, but here are nine films you really shouldn’t miss. 

Films are listed chronologically according to when they play during the festival, which runs from Thursday, June 13–Sunday, June 23. Click on the film titles for showtimes, tickets, and more info.


For When You Get Lost
Cinetopia’s opening-night film is a family road trip dramedy about estranged sisters traveling to see their abusive father on his deathbed. That may sound heavy, and parts of the film certainly are, but it’s mixed with wonderful humor as director Michelle Steffes perfectly straddles the line between affecting family trauma and crowd-pleasing comedy. Steffes will be in attendance during the June 13 and 14 screenings for a Q&A with star and screenwriter Jennifer Sorenson, who based the film on a real road trip from her own life. 


Master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or and received an Oscar nomination for 2018’s heartbreaking Shoplifters, and Monster continues his career hot streak. Once again focusing on children in difficult situations, Kore-eda weaves a complex tale of school bullying told in a Rashomon-esque fashion of conflicting flashbacks and viewpoints, and the film’s narrative ambition was awarded with Cannes’s Best Screenplay award. 


Janet Planet
Indie distributor A24 is one of the ultimate signifiers of curatorial cool, but it doesn’t get enough credit for empowering first-time filmmakers. In this case it’s Puitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker making her directorial debut with a tender mother/daughter story that won raves at the Telluride Film Festival. Julianne Nicholson (who won a supporting actress Emmy for the hit HBO miniseries Mare of Easttown) plays the titular Janet, a rural Massachusetts hippie trying to open her clingy daughter up to new influences and adult role models in that bygone era of the early '90s. 


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 
No, this isn’t a new 2024 film, it’s from a mere 104 years earlier. One of the true joys of attending great film festivals is seeing classic cinema with live musical accompaniment. In this case it’s the 1920 silent horror film often considered the highwater mark of German Expressionism (not to mention Nicholas Cage’s all-time favorite film), and it’ll have musical accompaniment by Frank Pahl and Michael Gould. Pahl is known for founding the group Little Bang Theory, which uses toys and kids instruments to create its unique soundscapes. Combining that aesthetic with the oppressive nightmare realms of Dr. Caligari will surely provide one of Cinetopia’s most unique experiences. 


One of the most inspiring David-versus-Goliath stories happening in the world right now is the effort of Amazon workers to unionize. Union—which won a Special Jury Award at Sundance—takes us inside the homes and meeting spaces of workers at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse to capture their struggle at a granular level, and we see how fighting for fair wages and workplace policies becomes almost a second full-time job. Co-director Stephen Maing is familiar with underdog stories, having also made 2018’s excellent Crime + Punishment documentary, about a small group of whistleblowers in the NYPD.


The Cats of Gokogu Shrine
Ann Arbor audiences may remember Kazuhiro Sôda as one of the directors of 2018’s acclaimed documentary The Big House, about the University of Michigan football stadium. Now Sôda is back with a very different kind of documentary, which premiered to rave reviews at the Berlin International Film Festival. The Cats of Gokogu Shrine is a meditative portrait of how an ancient shrine in Japan has become home to dozens of stray cats, and how the local populace is divided on whether they see the cats as a nuisance or an extension of the shrine’s tranquil beauty. Sôda refers to his film as “observational,” and that relaxing style is evident from the opening shot of a cat chewing on a boom mic. 


Every once in a while a documentary gets such a rapturous response at the Sundance Film Festival that it becomes an immediate Oscar frontrunner, and that’s what happened as Daughters won not just the Audience Award for the U.S. Documentary program, but also the overall Festival Favorite Award. The emotional resonance of the story is obvious—four incarcerated men prepare to see their young girls for the special Daddy Daughter Dance the Washington, D.C., jail puts on as part of a fatherhood program. But even if that starting point seems like a sure thing, it can’t be overstated how beautifully Daughters sticks the landing. 


Filmmaker Alison Tavel’s father died in a car accident when she was just 10 weeks old, and she knew very little about him except that he had allegedly invented an early synthesizer. But when an attic clean-up unearths the actual instrument (which he had dubbed the Resynator), it sends Alison on a journey of discovery—about the father she never knew, about his musical genius and ingenuity, and about a dark family history that had never been spoken about. The winner of the SXSW Documentary Audience Award, Resynator is a touching family story and an exciting musical history wrapped into one, with several guest stars in the music industry who help Alison understand her father through his work (including Peter Gabriel, who had purchased three Resynators decades earlier). Tavel will be in Ann Arbor for Q&As at the film’s Saturday and Sunday screenings. 


Love & Vodka
Cinetopia has a special world premiere in store for its closing night film, and it’s one with real local significance. University of Michigan grad and Huron High School teacher R.J. Fox wrote the screenplay for Love & Vodka (and his memoir of the same name, which he actually wrote after the screenplay) based on his romance with a Ukrainian-American woman and his trip to Ukraine as part of their courtship. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water romcom story, with the added resonance of capturing the celebratory beauty of a culture that's now suffering a tragic invasion. Fox, director/co-writer Heidi Philipsen, and other members of the cast and crew will be on hand for a Q&A following the premiere. 

Daniel Joyaux is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Roger Ebert, Rotten Tomatoes, The Verge, and Cosmopolitan, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @Thirdmanmovies and on Letterboxd at Djoyaux.

Cinetopia Film Festival runs Thursday, June 13–Sunday, June 23 at the Michigan and State theatres. For tickets and more information, visit marquee-arts.org/cinetopia.