For the second year running, the Sundance Film Festival was forced to cancel in-person screenings and take the action online. That’s bad news for many, of course, including filmmakers eager to show their work to audiences and everyone else who loves the big-screen experience and the buzz of excitement that comes from breathing an atmosphere thick with movies and the conversation around them.
But, as in 2021, that didn’t stop Sundance from moving forward — with a slight change of venue. The fest went on, playing globally rather than locally thanks to Sundance’s virtual screening options. As usual, Sundance 2022 provided an assortment of highs, lows, and conversation-starters. Here are the movies to look out for throughout the year.
Sharp Stick confirms that Lena Dunham can still push viewers’ buttons. With its frank, awkward depiction of young women stumbling their way into adulthood in New York, Girls made Lena Dunham famous and turned her into a lightning rod for controversy. Sharp Stick, Dunham’s second feature film as a director, almost seems designed to make sure that continues via the story of an awkward sexual awakening that features everything from an alphabetically ordered checklist of sexual activities (“E” is for “Eiffel Tower,” etc.) to Scott Speedman as the world’s most sensitive porn star. Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is a 26-year-old virgin who decides to change that via an affair with her employer Josh (Jon Bernthal), the stay-at-home dad to a son with special needs. (Dunham plays his extremely pregnant wife.) Froseth’s earnest performance can’t make Sarah Jo feel like a human being instead of a screenwriterly invention, but Bernthal and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Sarah Jo’s seen-it-all, jaded Hollywood veteran mom) deliver striking performances and the film is filled with too much awkward sex to be boring. (After all, nobody talks about boring movies.)
We Need to Talk About Cosby revisits the life and crimes of America’s one-time dad. Even after watching four hours of conversations with Bill Cosby’s former co-workers, a few of his many victims, and various experts on comedy, crime, and American culture, it’s hard to square the image of the Bill Cosby we thought we knew with the man accused by over 60 women of raping and drugging them. Directed and narrated by W. Kamau Bell, this forthcoming Showtime series leans into that disconnect, presenting clips and stories of Cosby’s life that do nothing to downplay his talent and cultural importance alongside disturbing accounts of sexual assaults. What emerges is the way a predator can hide behind power and goodwill, particularly a predator whose power and influence inspires others to look away. It’s a disturbing, thorough and even-handed investigation that asks viewers to reckon with both what Cosby meant and how he was able to get away with so much for so long.
Fresh depicts 21st century dating at its most perilous. The less you know going into Fresh the better. Written by Lauryn Kahn and directed by Mimi Cave, the film opens with a bleakly funny depiction of online dating, joining Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) on a dud outing with a condescending jerk. It’s the latest in a string of dead ends, though a chance IRL meeting at a grocery store with a handsome stranger named Steve (Sebastian Stan) looks like it might turn that losing streak around. And it does. Sort of. They instantly hit it off and even though it’s moving fast, it feels right. Until, that is, it feels terribly wrong. Cave’s film doesn’t really have anywhere to go after revealing its big twist, but the build-up to that moment is perfectly timed and Edgar-Jones and Stan continue to have remarkable chemistry together, even when that chemistry turns toxic. Fresh is ultimately more provocative than effective but also too creepy to dismiss.
jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy offers an up-close look at a music icon’s struggle to make it.The filmmaking team of Coodie & Chike knew Kanye West when he was just a hot producer from Chicago trying to get signed as a rapper. After witnessing his rise to multiple Grammys for The College Dropout, they dropped out of his orbit before reconnecting in the last few years.. All three parts air on Netflix next month, but only the first played at Sundance–the young West we meet here is a confident, frustrated blaze of talent demanding the spotlight while striving to please his beloved mother Donda. Their scenes together are almost unbearably heartbreaking in light of her subsequent death.
Resurrection confirms that any film with Rebecca Hall will likely be a Sundance event. Rebecca Hall was all over last year’s Sundance, both as the star of the creepy horror film The Night House and with Passing, her remarkable directorial debut. This year finds her at the center of the disturbing psychological horror film Resurrection, in which Hall plays Maggie, a put-together biotech executive. She’s a caring mother, the sort of boss interns can open up to about their private lives, and capable of carrying on an affair with a married co-worker with a businesslike efficiency. She’s almost instantly shattered, however, by the unexpected arrival of David (Tim Roth), a man from deep in her past. There’s an element at the center of the film that might be laughable if not for writer/director Andrew Semans’ skilled handling and strong performances from Roth and Hall (who holds the camera in her thrall during a long monologue recounting her past). This intense study of gaslighting and power dynamics builds to a bizarre, nasty but weirdly moving climax that, like most of the plot, is best left unspoiled.
After Yang uses a robot’s death to ponder questions of memory and meaning. Yang (Justin H. Min) is an android purchased secondhand to by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) to serve as an older sibling to Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), the daughter they adopted from China, but after fatally malfunctioning in the middle of a family dance contest, he(Justin H. Min) doesn’t make it far into the second film from Kogonada after Columbus. Jake’s quest to “cure” Yang forces him to contemplate mortality, the possibility that Yang possessed an inner life of a complexity the family never imagined, and the question of what his life meant. The film offers glimpses of a near-future world in which artificial intelligence has become commonplace, but it’s far less interested in world building than telling a more intimate story of loss. Sure, the future might give us robots and clones, but some questions of human existence remain eternal–only the ways of asking them change. After Yang is strange and haunting and though it makes no effort to be a “Sundance movie” it’s the sort of film you hope to find at the festival, whether bundling up for winter in Utah or in the comfort of your living room.
Cha Cha Real Smooth proves that “Sundance movies” can still succeed. For a good stretch of the ’90s and ’00s the term “Sundance movie” took on a specific meaning. Though a wide assortment of films made their bows at the fest, the Sundance name became synonymous with sometimes quirky, often bittersweet stories of everyday life. Broadly speaking, the term could be applied to everything from You Can Count on Me to Little Miss Sunshine and wasn’t always used as a compliment, particularly when applied to movies that seemed like they were trying too hard to fit the molds of past Sundance triumphs.
Last year, CODA proved a “Sundance movie” could still thrive at Sundance and this year that honor belongs to Cha Cha Real Smooth, the second feature from writer, director, and star Corbin Raiff (Shithouse). Raiff stars as Andrew, a directionless recent college graduate who moves back home to figure out what to do next, then drifts into a job as a bar mitzvah MC and an ill-defined, vaguely romantic relationship with Domino (Dakota Johnson), the single mom of an autistic teen. That sounds like, and in many ways is, a jumble of familiar indie elements. But Raiff’s openhearted, confident direction confirms him as an exciting young filmmaker and on-screen, his remarkable charm as a well-meaning, enthusiastic fuck-up contrasts beautifully with Johnson’s elusive, melancholy performance.
Descendant is a documentary in the spirit of the 1619 Project. Though slavery didn’t end until the Civil War, the United States banned the slave trade in 1808, making it a crime punishable by death. This didn’t deter the wealthy owner of a Mobile, Alabama shipyard from using his ship the Clotilda to import imprisoned Africans in 1860. Burned to cover up the crime, the Clotilda lay lost somewhere in the waters outside Mobile for years, making it an object of tremendous interest for those wanting to recover a piece of history.
Margaret Brown’s documentary Descendant covers that search but also looks beyond it. In Africatown, the neighborhood settled after the Civil War by Clotilda survivors, she finds a community surrounded by property and industries owned by many of the same white families that dominated the region at the time of the Clotilda’s arrival — including the Meahers. In the story of Africatown, she finds a struggle to redefine how we look at the past akin to the 1619 Project, and an attempt to get beyond the region’s myths and offer a fuller account of its history, however upsetting that might be to those in love with a romantic view of the way things used to be. This is a wide-ranging look at the way the past never really disappears, no matter how much effort goes into covering it up, and a vital consideration of the impossibility of moving forward without looking back.
Speak No Evil is the latest European friendship horror story. While vacationing in Italy with their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg), Danes Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) meet a seemingly charming Dutch couple named Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) and, after hitting it off, agree to visit their new friends at their country home. Once there, they find themselves too polite to object to some off-putting requests and odd arrangements that become increasingly disturbing. Directed by Christian Tafdrup, the film begins as a chilly comedy of manners reminiscent of Force Majeure only to reveal it’s really more akin to Funny Games and that the Danes’ reserve and unwillingness to offend might have sealed their fate. It’s expertly done but not for the faint of heart–the last act goes places most horror movies don’t dare.
Fire of Love has spectacular volcano footage, a poignant love story–and Miranda July. For over two decades, Katia and Maurice Krafft shared an intense professional and romantic partnership rooted in their love for one another and their shared obsession with volcanos. To fund their studies, and the travels needed to perform them, the Kraffts documented their adventures in a popular series of books and movies, until their 1991 death in the eruption of Japan’s Mount Unzen. Drawing from the Kraffts’ archive, Sara Dosa’s documentary mixes mesmerizing footage of volcanoes in action with candid snippets that capture the Kraffts’ relationship, all set to lyrical narration by Miranda July. Already picked up by National Geographic, with luck this will get the big-screen release the Kraffts’ otherworldly images demand.