The usual prep for Sundance involves a good deal of packing (warm coats, snow-ready boots, a dozen thermals and a lot of Theraflu) and several weeks of intense physical training (wind sprints to better catch fast-moving shuttles, long stairmaster sessions for those screenings at the fourth floor Library theater, extreme-cold endurance tests for long waits to enter the Eccles). This year, the suitcases sat gathering dust in the corner and the regimen was simpler: Practice opening your laptop. Now, close it. Repeat several times a day. Press remote button on, press remote button off. Complete reps of standing up quickly from couch, then sitting back down again. Do six sets of lunges designed to help you quickly close the door when family or roommates start talking loudly during a quiet moment in a documentary about genocide.
You could decorate your living room with fake Park City shuttle stops, cardboard cut-outs of fellow fest-going comrades and a mock set-up of the Yarrow Hotel bar, and it still wouldn’t feel like the film festival that many longtime attendees know and love. But desperate times, desperate measures etc., and after experimenting last year with a virtual version of its annual event, the fest now has this Sundance-at-home thing down to a science. Thanks to the cancelling of in-person screenings in the Utah resort town courtesy of the Omicron surge, the usual post-premiere discussions and the sense of community so vital to film festivals — and this one in particular — may have been shunted to text pokes and DM nudges. The sense of discovery, however? That was very much present and accounted for.
Meet the Cyber-Sundance 2.0, same as the old Sundance: It was still possible to check out scrappy character-study dramas (A Love Song, which gives the amazing Dale Dickey and Wes Studi the showcase they so richly deserve) and quirky comedies that might sell for a song (like Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, which Apple picked up for $15 million and reminded folks that every generation gets the Garden State it deserves). Edgy, provocative conversation starters like Lena Dunham’s sex-positive Sharp Stick and the similar, more book-club-friendly Good Luck to You, Leo Grande got folks hot and bothered, though not always in that order. It was a strong year for docs, whether you liked them served straight, no chaser or in a more anything-goes experimental vein. You had your choice of dipping into the story of the radical feminist activists who ran an underground abortion network in either the original nonfiction recipe (The Janes) or an extra-crispy celebrity dramatization (Call Jane). If viewers timed it right, they could go straight from a Rebecca Hall thriller (Resurrection) into not one but two Regina Hall joints (Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. and Master).
And, just like the previous in-person editions of Sundance, there were a handful of films we saw that thrilled us, moved us, shook us, inspired joy and anger and sorrow, and gave us hope for a medium that’s suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune over the past few years. The temptation has been to make “Movies: Well, We Had a Good Run!” the de facto tagline for cinema in 2022. Virtual or not, the festival demonstrated that there’s still a boundless sense of urgency, vibrancy and creativity left in the art form, as well as a strong reminder that not all movies wear superhero capes. Here are the 10 best movies we saw at Sundance 2022, from a fuck-you-patriarchy revenge tale to a doc on volcanologists in love.
A widow (Carla Juri) is trying to put her life back together while on a business trip in Japan; a musician (Takashi Ueno), who met her and husband years before, acts as a sort of unofficial tour guide. A bond begins to develop between the two, though she’s unsure whether she’s ready to let go of the past. The Ozu vibes are strong in this one, but Bradley Rust Gray is a Sundance veteran — along with his longtime collaborator and life partner Soo Yong Kim, the writer-producer-director helped bring In Between Days (2006), For Ellen (2012) and Lovesong (2016) to the festival — and his look at love and grief feels like a throwback in the best possible way. It’s exactly the sort of unassuming, quietly observant film that you would have caught at the fest 10 or 20 years ago. And in a moment when human connection feels like a rare currency, this tender slice-of-life practically doubles as a salve.
Fire of Love
There are couples who share a common interest. And then there’s Katia and Maurice Krafft, two French scientists who met, fell in head over heels for each other and traveled the world together, all of it spurred on by their mutual obsession: volcanoes. Filmmaker Sara Dosa gives you the Greatest Lava-Fueled Love Story Ever Told, utilizing the Kraftts’ own films of active eruptions and spewing magma geysers to complement their passion — for both their work and each other. It’s ethereal, elliptical in its construction and eerily beautiful; not even Miranda July’s oft-kilter narration can break the spell. And even if you know the ending of this story going in, the movie is still an extraordinary testament to one white hot amour fou.
Julian Higgins’ neo-Western pits a college professor (Thandiwe Newton) living in the harsh, snowy Montana countryside against two hunters who feel its ok to continually trespass on her private property. Things escalate from passive-aggressive politeness to thinly veiled threats to an inevitable boiling point, though what initially seems like a pulpy woman-in-peril thriller eventually reveals that it has a few other things on its mind. It’s not a coincidence that our hero is a Black female; it’s not a coincidence that the villains are entitled white males who feel like they can take whatever they want; and it’s not a coincidence that all of them are living in a national culture built on theft, prejudice, sexism and violence. It’s not perfect — the symbolism cup overfloweth here, and don’t get us started on the main character’s backstory — but Newton’s performance and a palpable fuck-you-patriarchy righteousness pack a serious punch. Plus it has a great final shot, should you like your fade-outs to be laced with retribution and a well-earned sense of rage.
You’d see it on fliers and bulletin boards all around Chicago circa 1969: “Pregnant? Need help? Call Jane.” If you dialed the number, you’d could leave your information on a message machine. Someone would get back to you and, if you so desired, help facilitate the termination of a pregnancy. Documentarians Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes delve into a relatively unknown corner of the era’s radical political activism, which involved an underground network of women who risked life, limb, family and their freedom to help their fellow females have a say over their own bodies. Featuring interviews with former Janes — and the “doctor” who performed many of the procedures — it’s a history lesson that somehow avoids falling into a talking-heads-old-clips-rinse-repeat rut. These women were outlaws. They were also heroes, and it’s high time more people recognized them as such. The Janes is a great start.
Let us now praise Bill Nighy! The Love, Actually star gives a beautifully calibrated, tamped-down performance in this remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikuru set in 1950’s London, and adds his own touches to the Takashi Shimura role of a civil servant who finds out he’s terminally ill. His work alone would be enough to single out director Oliver Hermanus’ pitch-perfect period piece. But everything from the opening credits (which replicate the opening of a vintage film from the era) to an immaculate script by The Remains of the Day‘s Kazuo Ishiguro to impeccable supporting turns from Tom Burke and Aimee Lou Wood make this feel like one of the rare occasions where everything aligns just right. An absolutely gorgeous, heartbreaking piece of work. If this were a ranked list, Living would top it.
My Old School
Given the surfeit of documentaries touching on important social issues at Sundance this year — a partial list would include the right to a safe and legal abortion, the legacy of slavery, and the rehabilitation of jihadists — it’s tempting to dismiss Jono McCleod’s portrait of a hoax as a trifle. Yet this exceedingly creative and endlessly clever look back at a mysterious new student at a Scottish high school who, despite being a bit of braniac misfit, wins over the affections of his classmates, works its true-crime storyline in a way that sticks with you as much as the more “serious” nonfiction entries. When it main subject refused to appear on camera, McCleod got Alan Cumming to lip-sync to an audio interview; animation and new testimonials from the gent’s peers (it helps that the director himself was part of that very class) fill in the rest of the story. We won’t reveal what the mystery at the center of this WTF tale is. We will say that how it unfolds onscreen is, in its own way, low-key brilliant.
Using nothing but archival footage (a format that proved especially popular among the docs at Sundance this year), Ed Perkins revisits the reign of Princess Diana as seen the lenses of news reports, press conferences, public appearances and the occasional peripheral found footage. It’s a compelling glance into the life of one of the most famous women in the world, but it’s also a look back in anger at how she was treated — by the media, by the monarchy, by her envious and aloof husband, by the predatory packs of paparazzi that acted as her judge, jury and, yes, executioner. A major addition to the ongoing reassessment of the way celebrity culture viewed the royals, Diana, and women in general before consuming and condemning them.
In 1967, the U.S. military built a model town in Fort Belvoir, a base in Virginia, designed to train police officers and the National Guard on methods to deal with urban rioters. Uprisings were happening with more and more frequency in cities across the country, so the mock-chaos scenarios held in “Riotsville” would teach troops how to control crowds. It was viewed as such a success that a second fake town in Georgia was built. The mere existence of these places would be enough fodder for a documentary, but filmmaker Sierra Pettengill (The Reagan Show) uses the footage of the exercises as a jumping off point to examine how the media covered these uprisings, the report on the phenomenon issued by the Johnson administration, and the way the ’68 political conventions provided a real-life chance to test the military’s theories on actual citizens. Plus ça change.
Speak No Evil
Two families meet while on vacation in Italy. One of them invites the other to come spend a long weekend at their house in the countryside. They accept, and everything seems perfectly idyllic until the vibe begins to feel a little…off. Then it gets weirder, and a little more uncomfortable as the hosts cross some boundaries of “socially acceptable” behavior. And then things take a turn towards the sinister. The clear standout of this year’s Midnight section, Danish director Christian Tafdrup’s horror movie is one sadistic, slow-burn nightmare of Euro–middle-class mores curdling around the edges, especially once the penny drops; the comparisons to the works of Michael Haneke flew fast and furious during the festival, though even he might find the final 20 minutes a little too unnerving. We are billing you for the next year of PTSD therapy, Sundance.
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W. Kamau Bell’s four-part docuseries on the good, the bad, the ugly and the very ugly regarding Bill Cosby’s six decades in the spotlight digs deep into how the groundbreaking comedian constructed his persona of the lovable, family-friendly philanthropist — and then used that same persona to hide the fact that was serially drugging women and allegedly raping them throughout the bulk of his career. It’s not interested in dropping bombshells or staging “gotcha” moments so much as sifting through the rubble of this once-beloved figure’s reign as “America’s dad” and asking why we refused to believe that he was capable of such things for so long. The voices of survivors are given a platform to speak about their trauma, while Bell himself tries to reconcile his (and by extension, our) feelings how someone who inspired him to go into stand-up comedy turned out to be a monster. A tough watch, but a rewarding one.