Best of Sundance 2022

Traveling from bar mitzvahs and hotel rooms to volcanoes and haunted colleges, the Letterboxd crew highlights the Sundance premieres that made the biggest impact out of the year’s first major festival.

A nuisance named Omicron shut the doors on a hybrid Sundance Film Festival a mere three weeks before opening night. As they’ve proven before, however, those masters of creative ingenuity up in Park City did a sharp pivot and pulled off a wonderful ten virtual days with nary a hitch.

Our team of Festiville correspondents surveyed dozens of narrative features, documentaries and shorts, and while this year may not have had record-breaking acquisitions like Palm Springs and CODA achieved in the previous two, there was certainly more than enough to keep the buzz going.

Having surveyed your reviews and reactions, we present our favorite feature premieres of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival (plus some treasured shorts). Needless to say, we also loved After Yang and Happening, both of which premiered elsewhere in 2021.

Words by Ella Kemp, Dominic Corry, Leo Koziol, Gemma Gracewood, Isaac Feldberg, Aaron Yap, Jack Moulton and Mitchell Beaupre.


NARRATIVE FEATURES

Cha Cha Real Smooth

Written and directed by Cooper Raiff

Cooper Raiff returns after his thoroughly lovely debut feature Shithouse with an even lovelier follow-up in the shape of Cha Cha Real Smooth. He stars once more, this time opposite Dakota Johnson, as a college graduate and a young mother respectively, who connect over a string of bar mitzvahs. Raiff’s first film showed signs of promise, but Cha Cha is more mature and sophisticated in terms of production—it’s just funnier too, which surely helped it snag the Audience Award for US Dramatic Competition.

“Cooper Raiff, the smart filmmaker who has written, directed and acted in his own Four Weddings and a Funeral so that audiences can discover and fall in love with him just as they did with Hugh Grant,” says Winserve, while Cortney falls for the filmmaker’s charms too: “At this point I have to believe that Cooper Raiff is probably the sweetest person alive on this planet.”

For Dakota Johnson, while she certainly isn’t a revelation anymore—in the sense that she will always turn up—there’s a tenderness and a sadness here that feels like an offshoot of her mercurial turn in The Lost Daughter, with more room to yearn. The whole thing is a joy, and feels safe and hopeful even with all the heartbreak and fear. It’s a straightforward reminder of what Luta knows, though: “Dakota Johnson you will always be famous!!!!” EK

Emily the Criminal

Written and directed by John Patton Ford

Aubrey Plaza further redefines her potential with a stunning lead performance in John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal, a riveting street-level LA noir with a fatalistic undercurrent that threatens mortal peril at every turn.

Encumbered with massive student debt and a criminal record that seriously inhibits her employment opportunities, Emily works out of a ‘ghost kitchen’, packing and delivering catering to corporates. But the realities of the gig economy mean she isn’t able to get on top of her loan repayments, so she tentatively accepts an opportunity to become a ‘dummy shopper’ (someone who purchases expensive items with stolen credit card info and then sells them on for well below retail). Under the guidance of her criminal mentor/potential love interest Youcef (Theo Rossi), Emily dives deeper and deeper into the venture and the risks begin to pile up.

Plaza, who also produced the film, has never rested on her laurels as an actor, but she seems to be bringing something totally new here. There are several moments where Emily, against all apparent sense, storms headlong into an extremely dangerous situation with a steely resolve that is a thrill to witness. Ford beneficially evokes Stephen Frears’ The Grifters in how he illustrates the scam’s mundane details and the self-destructive desperation motivating the participants, and also brings the Safdies’ work to mind with the swirling, escalating tension.

Letterboxd member Jacob correctly identifies the film’s primary selling point when he observes that: “Plaza’s bold, furious performance in the titular role sells just how real the situation is.” Connor Carey echoes Jacob’s sentiments: “Can't think of anyone who could’ve played this lead role any better than Aubrey Plaza… she perfectly sells her character’s desperation and dark descent into the criminal underworld.” DC

Every Day In Kaimukī

Directed by Alika Maikau Tengan, written by Tengan and Naz Kawakami

Co-written by director Alika Maikau Tengan and the film’s lead, Naz Kawakami, Every Day in Kaimukī is set in the titular Honolulu neighborhood, a stone’s throw away from beaches we never see. Instead, the settings are the streets and parks that Naz and his friends skate down, the studio at Honolulu’s college radio station KTUH 90.1 FM, indie art galleries, and Naz and Sloane’s small apartment. There’s a fresh, authentic feel to the cast and soundtrack, which are populated with the filmmakers’ friends. There’s even a Spotify playlist!

Proudly developed from connections made on the Indigenous film festival circuit (the producer and director met at New Zealand’s Māoriland festival), Damon perfectly captures Kaimukī’s appeal: “It’s a chill, vibey, hangout film that’s really about nothing. The soundtrack is perfect and hella laid back.” Sometimes films about nothing are the best films. (We spoke with the Every Day in Kaimukī team about ’90s movies, leaving Hawai’i, and human-cat rivalry.) LK, GG

Good Luck To You, Leo Grande

Directed by Sophie Hyde, written by Katy Brand

There was never much doubt that a sex comedy starring Emma Thompson as a woman chasing an orgasm would be impossibly charming, but director Sophie Hyde and screenwriter Katy Brand have found deeper wisdom in this modest two-hander as well. Thompson thrives opposite rising star Daryl McCormack, as the pair feel their way through conversations of loneliness, shame, intimacy and pleasure. The film is visually daring, framing bodies and, let’s be blunt, Emma Thompson’s body, with peerless care and unprecedented rawness.

Sammy calls the film “a truly lovely movie about Emma Thompson coming to terms with the fact that she’s hot”, which balances both the wholesomeness of the script and the crucial pin-drop moment that Thompson’s character finally accepts the praise we’ve been giving the actress for decades. Make no mistake, McCormack is incandescent as well. “Very much feeling the sex-positivity in this and also very much feeling positive about sex with Leo Grande,” writes Celestine. Positivity is exactly right—Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is a film about believing in yourself and finally being brave enough to let other people in. It’s also, at its heart, very honest about carnal pleasures and just how vital they can be. EK

Leonor Will Never Die

Written and directed by Martika Ramirez Escobar

We all must die, which is why so much art is the product of an artist’s reckoning with their own inevitable expiry, or the loss of another. The festival had plenty of meditations on grief this year, in beautiful films such as Utama and After Yang. But the most fun you can have dying at this Sundance was definitely Martika Ramirez Escobar’s campy, ultra-saturated Leonor Will Never Die.

The Manila-based writer and director loves to play with the meanings and images of cinema (spot the poster for her earlier meta-short, Stone Heart, on the wall of Leonor’s bedroom), making Leonor “a thrilling ride, filled to the brim with heart, joy, but most of all, with an overwhelming amount of love for film and the art of film”, as Jing writes.

Aging screenwriter Leonor (Sheila Francisco) takes a blow to the head, sending her from her 1.78 reality to the 4:3 aspect ratio of her own schlocky action film, where she reckons with some comical bad guys while her sweet son and egotistical ex rally help in the real world. If a single Sundance 2022 film encapsulated why we all keep waking up and going straight to our nearest screen for more, it’s this one. As Jason Tan Liwag writes, “In many places around the world, entertainment is dismissed only as a form of escapism. But Leonor Will Never Die shows that in the Philippines, film is a source of community, of joy, and of closure.” GG

Living

Directed by Oliver Hermanus, written by Kazuo Ishiguro, based on Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa

It’s difficult to imagine a more daunting challenge for the modern dramatist than mounting a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, a profound and piercing film widely considered to be one of the master filmmaker’s greatest achievements. Smartly, Living’s screenplay—by British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro—doesn’t seek to rival Kurosawa’s tale so much as to sensitively translate it.

The original is powerfully illustrative of the film’s post-war-Japan setting, but Ikiru’s themes of mortality, individual will and bureaucratic lassitude prove no less potent when shifted to post-war Britain, where unfaltering resolve was a matter of national pride as much as daily decorum. This shift in setting places Living in conversation with Ikiru, drawing thoughtful parallels between the deep stoicism of two stifled societies while reaffirming the universality of the story’s existential query.

Moffie director Oliver Hermanus stages Living as a tribute to mahogany-toned British dramas of the 1950s, all the way through to its classy ‘The End’ closing card. Bill Nighy gives perhaps the performance of his estimable career as Mr. Williams, a lifelong civil servant facing a fatal illness, who resolves to live his final days with the sense of purpose he believes he lost some time ago.

“That Ikiru ever even stood a chance of successfully translating into the James Ivory-esque period piece on display here is a testament to the universality of Kurosawa’s worldview,” writes Robert Quiroz. “That it pulls it off so meaningfully is a testament to Ishiguro’s well-established talent, and Hermanus’s deep potential.” Equally lauded were the film’s supporting performances. “Aimee Lou Wood stands out by far,” asserts Festiville correspondent Ella Kemp in her review, advising audiences to “let the elegance and warmth of this really wash over you”. Rafa Sales Ross agrees that Wood is “endlessly charming” and praises the “always-stellar Tom Burke,” calling both “a treat” to watch. IF

A Love Song

Written and directed by Max Walker-Silverman

Take an Indigenous eye to this autumn-autumn melancholy love story with shades of Nomadland (minus the survivalist lessons) and you find Wes Studi (Cherokee) in one of his best-ever roles alongside an equally stand-out performance from Dale Dickey. A Love Songs synopsis describes the film as “two childhood sweethearts, now both widowed, share a night by a lake in the mountains”, but the film is much more than that with quirky humor that sparks against the love story (and love songs). “Loneliness, regret and longing are all felt under the vast, beautiful mountain landscapes. At its best when Dale Dickey and Wes Studi are on screen together,” writes Matt Neglia.

This feature debut by Max Walker-Silverman makes him a talent to watch, with a film that is a workable mix of humor and pathos. “I was surprised that the picture was so deadpan—it felt a bit like an indie film from the late ’80s or early ’90s—but as we spend more time with these two characters, and get closer to them, we see so much pain in those faces,” notes Bilge Ebiri. Dale Dickey is best known for character supporting roles in films such as Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace. This is her opportunity to shine in a leading role at last—grumpy, distrust-the-world character actor fully intact. The story and its imagery stay with you, as does the earworm of an aching love song the two sweethearts play together. LK

Master

Written and directed by Mariama Diallo

At prestigious Ancaster College, Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) becomes the school’s first Black ‘house master’. Her entrance into the hallowed administration’s inner sanctum has been long-awaited, but stirs in her deep feelings of unease. As college freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) is targeted by unseen tormentors, she and Gail are forced to reckon with a sinister force rooted in the school’s racist past and present. As events on campus build to a terrifying fever pitch, Master finds nightmare bleeding into reality and the very construct of racial identity fracturing in strange, surprising ways.

Master has an unnerving atmosphere that Black people know all too well, especially being the only Black person in a room,” writes Britt W on Letterboxd. “This social critique on microaggressions centers on a legendary tale of a witch that comes to take the life of a Black freshman every year—the perfect allegory for how these experiences are soul-wrenching.”

Calling it “heartbreaking but very real”, Rabia assesses Master as “such a mirror of reality for me: the microaggressions, subtle racism, being constantly invalidated by white people regardless of being over-qualified” and responded to the film’s view of performative wokeness. “Predominantly white colleges will kill their Black students to keep the peace,” adds Danielle. “This is a specific story, and I’m glad it’s being told.” (We spoke to Diallo about her feature debut, the raw realities of campus racism, and the draw of dream logic.) IF

Nanny

Written and directed by Nikyatu Jusu

Nikyatu Jusu’s eerily atmospheric debut was a big winner at the festival, earning the prestigious Grand Jury Prize for US Dramatic Competition. In a virtual festival uncommonly dominated by horror titles from creators of color, Nanny stood out for its ambitious interweaving of domestic drama and folkloric horror.

Focusing on Aisha (a stunning Anna Diop), an undocumented Senegalese immigrant caring for the child of an affluent white family in New York, Nanny gathers in intensity as supernatural forces begin to pry loose Aisha’s grip on her reality. Exploring the many forms of labor often outsourced across racial, ethnic and economic lines in domestic work, and the psychological toll of this exploitation, Nanny dives with insight and searing purpose into the complex and often agonized historical textures of African diasporic folklore and spirituality.

“It’s definitely gonna have to sink in over time but holy shit… what a debut,” writes Paul. “The story was told beautifully, the movie looks stunning, and Anna Diop is incredibly captivating. I was genuinely creeped out many times.” Aliyah adds: “The amount of emotion put into this script is palpable. You feel it from the start, and it doesn’t ever lose it.” Olwethu praised “the mixing and playing with different genres”, saying further: “From drama to romance to horror, it all molded together to create this beautiful-yet-haunting story of an immigrant woman in America.” IF

Resurrection

Written and directed by Andrew Semans

The last few years have given us countless thrillers about gaslit women and ‘unhinged femininity’ in every possible configuration, and with Resurrection it feels like writer-director Andrew Semans had been paying close attention. Brat writes that this film is “better, weirder, gorier, creepier than expected”, and watching Rebecca Hall’s seven-minute monologue and Tim Roth’s performance that can only be described as pure evil really does make you search for as many superlatives as possible. Brandon Streussnig calls Resurrection “the movie Cronenberg would make if an anvil fell out of the sky and crushed his skull”. It’s a masterclass in genre filmmaking and a strange little beast.

The story of a mother hellbent on protecting her children while a strange man calmly does his very best to mess with that could sound familiar, but the twists here will take your breath away. Handsome_pal praises the movie for the way it pushes its stars in new directions: “Confident director doing real sicko-type stuff and roping in two thespians to give deeply committed performances in support of that vision is cause for celebration around these parts.” It keeps you guessing while messing with the characters, with the audience and with everything we know about this kind of story. There might be others in this genre, but there’s only one film like Resurrection. EK

Speak No Evil

Directed by Christian Tafdrup, written by Christian and Mads Tafdrup

Danish filmmaker Christian Tafdrup’s third feature might be the first great horror film of 2022. Co-written with brother Mads, this perfectly feel-bad way to start off an already discombobulating year is a lean, mean, cringe-making machine, an absolute doozy of a shocker that experientially assumes the insidious form of being held hostage at gunpoint by your own socially conditioned niceness. As breefiero writes, Speak No Evil is ultimately a movie “about the true horror of making friends as an adult”, excruciating in its relatability, and uncompromising in its journey into dark, deeply distressing truths about human frailty.

Tafdrup exercises masterful control over the family-vacation-with-strangers premise, and coolly weaponizes seemingly mundane and otherwise innocuous set-ups with squirmy effectiveness. For viewers who can find it in themselves to chuckle in the midst of its wholly discomforting scenarios, the film is not without an icy streak of humor—“savage social satire with teeth”, as Kristy writes. But as the dread escalates into an inevitable third act, Tafdrup’s diabolical narrative machinations may even rattle the more jaded horror buffs who think they’ve seen it all. “It almost feels wrong to recommend this film to others,” Susannah writes. Consider this both an absolutely fair warning, and the most glowing thing you can say about it. AY

Utama 

Written and directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi

The wells are running dry in the Bolivian highlands, but an elderly llama-farming couple are not prepared to leave the only home they have known, even when their grandson comes from the city to gently suggest that it might be time to let go. Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s stunning, kind-hearted debut is a worthy winner of the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Utama is elevated by the expansive cinematography of Uruguayan-Argentine legend Bárbara Álvarez (who lensed The Second Mother) and the naturalistic performances of newcomers José Calcina, Santos Choque and Luisa Quispe (as Bueno Mikey writes, “You can’t fake ten percent of the truth that oozes from the three leads in every single scene”).

The small tale covers an enormous amount of ground both physical and metaphorical, and is so generous with the way it lets us into the spiritual and cultural practices of the Quechuas. A note to the film industry: Utama is the strongest affirmation there is of any financier’s decision to back such a hyper-local story. Never worry about whether it will connect—Letterboxd Sundancers are absolutely spotting the bigger message. If these drought-stricken villagers can sacrifice one of their precious pink-eared llama flock as an offering to the rainclouds, imagine what mere drop-in-the-well token the capitalistic monoliths that profit the most from the climate crisis could forfeit?

As Lauren asks: “Leaving to better pastures might seem like the obvious knee-jerk solution one might pose to those living in areas most affected by climate change, but that also means abandoning the life you’ve known and love and is sacred to you. And is it truly better to add a few more years to your life, even if that life is one that’s not recognizable to you?” GG


DOCUMENTARY FEATURES

Descendant

Directed by Margaret Brown

The last US slave ship Clotilda arrived at the shores of Mobile Bay in 1860. Up to 160 slaves were abandoned in the woods as the ship was burned and buried to destroy the evidence. This heinous act occurred over 50 years after a ban of the importation of new slaves was put into law and was due to a wager by businessman Timothy Meaher, which of course, he got away with. 32 of those slaves went on to form Africatown nearby in Alabama, and generations of their descendants have kept history alive through stories and myths, along with the hope that the wreckage of Clotilda will be recovered in order to validate and provide social justice to their past and ancestry.

Director Margaret Brown’s approach can often feel rough around the edges during a series of town halls, but it’s that connection to the community that maintains Descendant’s vitality. Brown treats every opinion from any member of Africatown with equal weight, compassion and insight. “I feel like in the hands of most other filmmakers they would have focused on the discovery of the Clotilda and the residents would have been an afterthought,” notes Bri’anna. “I appreciate Margaret Brown giving them the agency to tell their story.” It’s a stark reminder of the impermanence of Black history. JM

Fire of Love

Directed by Sara Dosa

Katia and Maurice Krafft don’t just love volcanos, they live them. Had it been humanly possible, they would have pitched their tent forever next to erupting molten lava. The footage in Fire of Love, assembled by director Sara Dosa, was shot by the Krafft couple and only exists so they could take their passion home with them. Their world-class careers as top-tier volcanologists were a mere formality so that they could afford to climb rocks. Dosa’s film isn’t just a love story between two destined-to-be soulmates, it’s a love story between the Kraffts and the volcanos of the world.

Geology-enthused member Emma breaks down the selling points in her review: “the inherent romance in every step. the hopeful comfort even in danger. The genuinely breathtaking archival footage. It felt like another world.” The result is an endearing and visually striking film about humankind’s connection to nature, accompanied by matter-of-fact narration by artist and filmmaker Miranda July, coming at a time when we see the daily consequences of governments blanking the scientists. And honestly, that combo of the powder-blue outfits and red caps with the reckless disregard for one’s own safety has us dying for a volcanic version of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Follow-up when, Wes? JM

Navalny

Directed by Daniel Roher

Russian freedom fighter and political prisoner Alexei Navalny has given director Daniel Roher permission to make the ‘boring obituary film’ when he’s passed on. For now, he wants the thriller account of his life, which Roher delivers in kind. With unparalleled access to the revolutionary headline-topping opponent of the Kremlin regime, Navalny is an often-breathtaking look at the anti-corruption movement with the potential to shape modern history. It’s an unforgettable scene when Navalny surreptitiously interrogates his own would-be assassin (had the infamous poisoning attempt ordered by Putin been effective).

However, the portrayal of Putin here is not just one of terror, violence and propaganda. Instead, in his characteristically unorthodox manner, Navalny has the confidence to shrug off the brazen arrogance as a demonstration of the utter stupidity of Putin’s brand of authoritarianism. The story isn’t over, and Navalny may indeed have to settle for sleeping when he’s dead, but Roher’s documentary—winner of Sundance’s US Documentary and Audience Awards—is sure to make a big splash in conversations Stateside upon its upcoming release on CNN and HBO Max.

“It’s as if a spy novel is unfolding before your eyes, but everything is a direct reflection of the world we are inhabiting,” writes Tom Ogden, adding that “this is social-impact filmmaking at its most important.” JM


SPOTLIGHT ON SHORTS

The shorts section of Sundance this year was, as ever, host to some of the oddest and most inventive work at the festival. Animation, nowhere to be found in the feature selections (other than as a documentary flashback tool), was often on display in the shorts.

Joe Hseih’s Night Bus, the Jury Award winner in the Short Film Animation category, was the wildest ride imaginable—a chaotic mix of Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino and Takashi Miike. If you’re looking for bloodthirsty primates out for revenge, look no further.

Early David Lynch fans should watchlist The Fourth Wall, an unclassifiable Iranian short from writer-director Mahboobeh Kalaee. That having been said, Deerwoods Deathtrap likely had the best logline of the entire festival: “Fifty years ago, Betty and Jack were hit by a train and survived. This is their story.” A fascinating starting point, James P. Gannon’s documentary short is an incredibly charming tale of split narratives told by his incredibly endearing parents.

One person who doesn’t do a lot of talking is the lead character in Warsha, Dania Bdeir’s Jury Award winner for International Fiction Short. As he takes on the treacherous task of working on a massive, frightening crane, Bdeir captures the jaw-dropping scale of his journey while the film achieves an achingly beautiful embrace of finding and expressing your inner voice, wherever and however you’re able to do it.

If you were looking for star power in the shorts selections, Appendage has you covered. Led by our favorite Shiva Baby Rachel Sennott, this horror-comedy from Anna Zlokovic sees her working as a fashion designer for a delightfully fay Eric Roberts. Forced to come up with a great idea at the risk of her career being in jeopardy, a monstrous appendage grows on her side to literalize all of the self-doubt that’s curbing her creative juices. Anyone, especially those in creative fields, can relate to her feelings of nagging insecurity and imposter syndrome, and yet Zlokovic shows us that sometimes it’s exactly that pain which can push you to your most enlightened inspirations. MB

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