Much like last year, the Sundance Film Festival was an all-virtual affair in 2022. Instead of a crowd of film critics descending on Park City, Utah, attendees watches films on their own screens at home, and in-person Q&A’s became Zoom meetings. But despite this ‘new normal’, the films have been just as good. This year saw a mix of movies that ranged from creepy to crowd-pleasing, so here are 12 that stood out to me…
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Adding to the pantheon of films about discovering yourself, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is a gentle, sex-positive dramedy with a star turn from Emma Thompson as Nancy Stoke, a retired and widowed R.E teacher who’s never orgasmed. So decides to hire a young sex worker, Leo (Peaky Blinders’ Daryl McCormack), to help with her problem, and they predictably bond despite a twenty-year age difference.
Written by British comedian Katy Brand and directed by Sophie Hyde (Animals), Good Luck To You Leo Grande bypasses innuendo or sleaziness and refreshingly addresses the sexuality of a woman in her mid-fifties. This touching two-hander delivers a refreshingly sex-positive portrait of a client-escort relationship, but with a female customer for once. Whilst its main audience is clearly intended to be women over-50, this will be a modest crowd-pleaser for any demographic.
Emily the Criminal
John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal is a smart thriller about a woman pushed into behaviour she never imagined. Although it’s a rather standard crime drama, Aubrey Plaza (Black Bear) delivers a career-best performance.
Emily the Criminal explores student debt and the gig economy as Emily (Plaza) struggles to work through a series of mediocre jobs, but when a colleague tells her she could earn $200 an hour by texting a random phone number, she seizes the opportunity and becomes involved with Youcef (Sons of Anarchy’s Theo Rossi), a middleman for a credit card fraud operation. And it’s scarily easy to make money in fraud, especially in comparison to minimum wage employment. Gritty and blunt in its conviction, Plaza’s in her element in this gripping Michael Mann-flavoured crime drama.
Resurrection may look like a standard thriller, but its strange and ridiculous twist has helped it stand out from this year’s selection at Sundance. Here, a single mom (The Town’s Rebecca Hall) is confronted with a mysterious man from her past (Tin Star’s Tim Roth) and becomes incredibly paranoid, eventually putting her child under constant surveillance. Hall has been universally praised for her tour de force performance, even as the material gets wilder and more disturbing.
Director Andrew Seman’s (Nancy Please) horror-thriller is best viewed with little to no knowledge of the plot. The fun is in experiencing the outrageous twist that audiences aren’t likely to see coming. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
Directed by Kogonada (Columbus), After Yang asks what’s so great about being human. Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Queen & Slim’s Jodie Turner-Smith) purchase a conscious robot (or ‘techno-sapien’), named Yang, to be a sibling for their young daughter. But when it malfunctions it becomes set more on killing instead of being a companion.
After Yang boldly deals with big human quandaries. It wants to know why some people assign a higher value to some identities than others. This intimate science-fiction drama, adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang”, deals with grief and connection in a way that’s wowed festival critics.
Compared to Her (2013) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), After Yang also grapples with the ethics of cloning, the adoption of a child of a different race and data privacy. Expect this to become a cult sci-fi classic.
Am I OK?
Dakota Johnson (The Lost Daughter) proves herself to be one the most endearing actresses working at the moment in this anxious comedy, directed by real-life couple Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne, from a screenplay by Lauren Pomerantz.
Lucy (Johnson) is an artist making a living working in a spa, struggling to accept the fact her best friend (Ex Machina’s Sonoya Mizuno) is moving to London at the same time she’s come out as gay. Lucy wants to explore her sexuality but is instead grieving her friend. Am I OK? is refreshingly not a rom-com and instead explores female friendship, following the recent trend of coming-of-age films set during people’s late-twenties and thirties. Am I OK? has been praised for balancing full-on comedy and a touching story about friendship and coming to terms with yourself at a later age.
Cha Cha Real Smooth
23-year-old director Cooper Raiff has announced himself as one of the most promising rom-com writer-director, followings college dorm meet-cute Shithouse (2020) with sophisticated drama Cha Cha Real Smooth (a line taken the DJ Casper song).
Raiff himself stars as an aimless and awkward post-grad working as a “party starter” for bar mitzvahs, who meets a perceptive mother (Dakota Johnson) with a likeable yet bullied autistic daughter (newcomer Vanessa Burghardt). They strike up a friendship that starts him on the path to adulthood.
This endearing rom-com has been crowned the crowd-pleaser of Sundance 2022, taking the ‘Audience Award’ for ‘Best US Dramatic Film’. Whether you consider Cha Cha Real Smooth a run-of-the-mill romantic drama or an endearing meet-cute, there is no doubting Cooper Raiff is a director to watch.
The idea of remaking Akira Kurosawa’s classic existential drama Ikiru (1952) might seem like sacrilege, but Living has been met with a generally positive reaction. Produced with the blessing of the Kurosawa estate, Living was written by the iconic Kazuo Ishiguro and directed by upcoming South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus (Moffie)—who moves the setting from Tokyo to London, but keeps the drama set in the post-war 1950s.
Mr Williams (Bill Nighy) is a long-serving civil servant holding a middling position in London’s County Hall. His is a listless and emotionless existence, which is turned on its head after he receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. He suddenly has six to nine months to tie up his affairs and finally leave an impression on the world.
Nighy delivers a moving performance and Ishiguro revamps the script just enough, without insulting fans of the original. Alex Sharp (The Hustle) and Aimee Lou Wood (Sex Education) deliver strong supporting performances in this drama about the mask the British feel the need to wear, and how our society is built on insincere decorum.
You Won’t Be Alone
Fans of Icelandic horror Lamb (2021) will love You Won’t Be Alone, another Noomi Rapace-starring folk tale. The debut of Aussie filmmaker Goran Stolevski, this film’s been described as a violent and gory visual poem. Although a chilling folk horror, it also sensitively handles tradition and gender.
Set in 19th-century Macedonia, the film follows young witch Nevena (Sara Klimoska), who stumbles upon an isolated village. Curious about the inhabitants, she wants to live among them, but not as a witch with claws and an ageless body. In this mystical world, witches can shapeshift, so when Nevena accidentally kills a villager, she takes the opportunity to start living as a human. Rapace and Alice Elgort are amongst some of the bodies she inhabits.
With only short films under his belt, Stolevski has made a big statement with You Won’t Be Alone. Praised for operating at a higher level than many with his minimal experience, this film understands human interaction and writes with a remarkable empathy.
Palm Trees and Power Lines
In the crowded Sunday lineup there’s no shortage of films tackling #MeToo. Jamie Dack’s unflinching portrayal of a teenager in quiet pain won this year’s ‘Directing Award’ in the ‘US Dramatic’ category. Palm Trees and Power Lines follows 17-year-old Lea (newcomer Lily McInerny) as she falls into the hands of the older and predatory man (Kingdom’s Jonathan Tucker).
Drawing comparisons to Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009), Palm Trees and Power Lines bravely deals with consent and how easily adrift teenagers fall into predatory hands when not supported by family and friends. It’s not an easy watch but Dack doesn’t want it to be.
As the credits rolled, critics audibly announced it as the most disturbing film of the year. Brutally realistic and unnerving, Palm Trees and Power Lines has been praised for balancing a delicate coming of age story and a horrifyingly detailed depiction of sexual grooming.
John Boyega wowed Sundance audiences with his performance in this true story. He plays Brian Brown Easley, an ex-marine who holds up a bank in Georgia in an attempt to bring attention to the negligence of the Department of Veteran Affairs.
892 has been praised for outstanding performance by Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth) as the bank manager, and Connie Britton as a sympathetic reporter. It also features a notably performance from the late, great actor Michael K. Williams (The Wire) as the police negotiator.
Co-written by Kwame Kwei-Armah, 892 has been described as a turning point in Boyega’s career. Disappearing into this troubled veteran, Boyega proves himself to have the capacity to play troubled, interesting characters. It may seem like a by-the-book hostage drama, but these performances deliver empathy and heart could hopefully lead Boyega to a successful career of unshowy but powerful performances.
Director Riley Stearns follows up The Art of Self-Defense (2019) with dystopian dark comedy Dual. Taking place in a future where the dying can order a clone to take their place, Stearns will change the way you think about tech. When Sarah (Gunpowder Milkshake’s Karen Gillan) learns she has a rare disease, she orders a clone of herself, despite the wishes of her family.
Her new clone is a far better version of Sarah, who turns out to not actually be dying. And because the clone doesn’t want to be decommissioned as a result, the two versions of Sarah must battle to the death in a televised dual.
This dark comedy has been compared to a Yorgos Lanthimos film, mixing sci-fi thriller with astute laughs. Gillan, who stars alongside Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) as her trainer, has been lauded for being able to handle intense action and this stilted brand of comedy.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
Regina Hall (Support the Girls) and Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us) are on fine form in this satirical take on megachurch culture. Part drama, part mockumentary, this dark comedy portrays the comeback of a disgraced minister and his first lady.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul is the perfect outlet to showcase Hall’s natural comedic talent, alongside her ability to navigate the heartbreak and rage of a woman standing by her man. Brown, an actor more known for his dramatic turns, flexes his comedic talents in a hilariously melancholic performance.
Adamma Ebo’s debut will tickle those sceptical about profit-orientated religion. Hall and Brown add nuance and layers to what could easily be a one-trick pony. This part documentary and glossy satire also feature Nicole Beharie and Conphidan as their younger, more progressive rivals. It’s clear Ebo understands the moving landscape of this world.